Review: The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Thingstenthousand

by John Spurling

Duckworth Publishers

My interest was piqued when, on a two week internship at Duckworth and Overlook Press, I heard the Managing Director call this book ‘exquisite’. He went on to say that whilst in hospital recovering from injury, this was the only book (the ONLY book!) that he read from cover to cover.

With that sort of testimonial from one of the Publishing Greats, how could I not begin to fixate on it? ‘Exquisite’? I’ve read a lot of classics, of course, books so well known in general that reading them is less discovering a new story than it is learning the lines that connect the dots, but I’ve never really thought of them as exquisite; language differences and the way the pacing pulls you along rarely allows you to savour the way Authors really craft their novels. In my normal reading I’m a fan of fast-moving, pacy books that I can lose myself in and (usually) suddenly find that I’ve finished them within a matter of hours.

I am, perhaps, a product of my times. Without getting too political or philosophical about it the fact is that I’ve grown up alongside ever faster technologies. The idea of waiting for a chicken breast to cook in the oven is difficult for me, and internet clothes shopping is for me, a lazy pastime in which I can zone out and flick through dresses on asos.co.uk. (This is a habit that I am trying to break, as I am now not in quite so secure a financial situation as I once was!)

My point is, that although this is the book I was most excited about reading in my collection, I was also a bit hesitant. My expectations were high, and I’d enjoyed Tan Twang Eng’s THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS, which can be compared to this book if only based on their both being set in East Asia during times of hardship and turmoil, so I should enjoy this one too, right?

Except that I can’t recall much of that book, shortlisted for the Man Booker as it was, I’m not even sure if I finished it. I can’t find any indication of a bookmark, but I don’t remember the end, and while I enjoyed it, I couldn’t tell you where I finished reading, or indeed much beyond some vague beginnings of the story.

I suppose I needn’t have worried, as these two books are indeed very different. THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is set (mostly) shortly after World War 2, whereas THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS is set mostly during the last generation of the Yuan Dynasty, which started in 1260 and ended in 1368.

I know nothing of Chinese history, beyond what little can be gleaned from Disney’s MULAN and, later, the MULAN film that has Jackie Chan’s son in it. Luckily it is all perfectly illustrated and described for me through the eyes of Wang Meng, the man who would later be renowned as one of the ‘Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty’, but at the time of the novel was little more than a low level bureaucrat with little interest in much beyond painting.
We are first introduced to Wang Meng in prison, at seventy eight years old, seething at the ridiculous nature of his imprisonment. ‘for going to see a private art collection’ he writes, addressing the reader directly. Given time to dwell on little but his life, he resolves to document his life in the third person, ‘to experience it as a whole, as space, and perhaps perceive its pattern for the first time.’

I’m not a fan of quoting to much in reviews, but with the meandering, luxurious way that Spurling has created this life for us to experience it seems crude not to give such a novel a regard almost reverent when discussing it.

Because that’s what this book is. A luxurious, elegant, exquisite novel that feels as though you’re reading Wang Meng’s paintings as they’re created, as though its been written by hand on silk with a calligraphy brush, and I’ve never read anything quite like it.
Part of the appeal is undeniably down to the character Spurling has created in Wang Meng, a low level bureaucrat from an impressive family with no ambition, who in the first chapter loses a ring given to him by his grandfather, a famous artist and politician who worked under the Mongolian led Yuan Dynasty in its early years.

Wang’s such a wonderfully intricate person, that it almost seems disrespectful to call him a character. He’s so delightfully ordinary in that he dithers between sides in war, between the countryside and the city, and between his life as a husband and as a solitary man who prefers the company of his faithful servant, Deng.

There are no harsh descriptions of Wang, he is not introduced to us. There is no summing up of his temperament, or his desires, as he doesn’t seem to know them himself. We get to know him slowly, through his actions, his contemplations, his kindness, determination and his nervousness. He has no problem asserting himself at times, and then in seemingly similar situations dithers and meanders around the conversation to avoid disagreement.

Everything about him is a contradiction, and we truly feel led by his hand through the novel as no other characters are treated quite the same way. We get first impressions of his friend and peer Ni Zan, also historically one of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty, and of the rebel leader the White Tigress. We see all the other characters through Wang’s eyes, through his first meetings with them and how he considers their virtues and their faults.
This is one of those books that is so wholly immersive that you can’t read it in one sitting.

Each chapter tells a different story from Wang’s life, and the threads that tie them together are subtle, then stronger and more obvious towards the end. The way Wang describes a simple painting can take up a whole page of text, but while that sounds daunting it is really a rare pleasure to read a passage so devoted to describing one thing, but in a way that feels so natural. Before I ever googled the work of either Wang Meng, Ni Zan or even the old master whose painting is viewed at a party, Huang Gongwang, I had such a clear image in my head, such intimacy with their paintings that it felt almost spiritual seeing them on my computer screen. Artists so long dead, revived for fiction in Spurling’s novel.

Again, the only word I can think of is exquisite.

You get a little thrill every time the writer refers to ‘the so-called “ten thousand things” that make up the world’ in his writing, either when he first mentions it writing about his contemplations in a prison cell, or any time his muses over his place in them whilst going through his own past.

The tumultuous times between Dynasties, plagued by civil war and unrest, is all told to us through Wang Meng. He is involved in but deliberately distant from the high stakes game of choosing who to support, and indeed has ties to almost all of the different factions fighting each other. The best description is perhaps from Wang himself, when talking to a monk novice who has ascended to extraordinary heights:

‘“We should be like water.” said Wang, “finding our own level, accepting our own nature and our part in nature, as we observe and contemplate the ten thousand things and move amongst them, gaining knowledge of ourselves as we gain more knowledge of them, penetrating the mystery of the ordinary. This is what the philosopher Zhang Zhou called ‘riding on the normality of the universe’.”’

Although maybe this isn’t quite true, Wang is trying so hard to be a passive non-force in this passage, trying to avoid confrontation or choosing a side that I’m not sure this is the best way to describe him at all.

At the risk of over-indulging myself with quotes, I’ll resolve that this be the last.

‘“I am by nature detached,” said Ni. “Always have been, cannot be otherwise. You are the opposite, by nature attached. Your mountains [in your paintings] are right in your face, your trees are tangible, your pictures are full of houses and people. I like your pictures so much because I can have all that attachment without having to scramble up the cliffs or bump into the trees or get involved with the people. You like mine because you think you’d really prefer to be detached. And yes, in a way you are detached and I am attached- … So, how real are these distinctions we make?”’

Truth be told, I finished this book a couple of hours ago. I have so much to say but it feels like I’d be doing any readers of this a disservice by delving any deeper into it, as all I’d be doing is sorting it out for myself, writing down my thoughts and feelings as I let it sink in.
I even still have trouble calling it Spurling’s book. It feels so much Wang Meng’s that I’m having difficulty associating this novel with the hand of a London playwright, penned only recently.

The end of this book is remarkably well done too, and I finished it with a hollow feeling in my stomach that you only get when you finish a story that is going to stay with you for a very long time. Because it will, I can promise you that.

This book will stay with you for such a very long time.

It’s simply exquisite.

THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS is released in January 2014 by Duckworth Publishers.

Ravenous Wednesday with Special Guest Kit Marlowe!

So today we have another special guest … one I’ve not yet met. She is a friend of our own Kate Laity and C. Margery Kempe, which means she’s bound to be trouble on the hoof. In the best possible way, of course!

Ahem… :-)

I don’t know what Kit’s post will be about as this is a case of me begging for someone to write something for today’s RR Wednesday. Yes, someone lost track of the time, day of the week, home address, you name it… So luckily for me Kate and Margery said they’d do the equivalent of a literary press gang and get Kit to be our guest.

I do know Kit is a writer of historical fiction with humor. How do I know? It says so on her website here. Being Kate and Margery’s friend, I’m betting she enjoys a tasty alcoholic libation now and again. I will be very disappointed if all she wants is a pot of tea. I won’t know this until a bit later – I’ve been told Kit will be sending me a post later this evening, which means this intro might serve as a placeholder to let everyone know we are indeed having Ravenous Wednesday today, but SOMEone (BAD Inara/Dana) didn’t get her act together this week…

Ooh, and the placeholder can now give way to the actual post, so please welcome Kit Marlowe to Un:Bound!!


Cant, Argot and Jargon

Kit Marlowe



I love language!



I know, I know: all writers do, but I love the superfluity of language that supplies slang. I think in part it’s like knowing a secret handshake or being part of an exclusive club. I specialize in rather obscure languages: for my graduate work I studied Old English, Middle English, Old Norse, Old Irish, Old High German, Middle High German, Modern German, Modern Swedish, Modern Icelandic and Latin (whew!).



But what I really love most are informal vocabularies that define a time or place. In my forthcoming novel, The Mangrove Legacy (coming in November from Tease Publications) I used a lot of Regency era cant even though I often stretched the narrative to a later time period. But the cant from that period was so much fun! I first learned it from the pen of Georgette Heyer, whom I first learned about from the fabulous Stephen Fry, who listed Heyer among his guilty pleasures on his 50th celebration.



The slang from that time is so rich: “foxed” means you’re drunk, as does “disguised” and “tap-hackled”—how quickly slang dates! But some terms can be easily understood even much later, like “swimming in lard” which refers to someone with considerable wealth, and “making a cake of yourself” which describes someone making a fool of themselves.



Often Cant and slang belong to a different—and often lower—class, marking out their standing verbally in any social situation, like rhyming Cockney slang—if you like your Tilburys pulled up as you head up the apple and pears or have done for yonks [I love the word "yonks"]. Like the thieves cant in the 18th and 19th centuries, the secrecy was a necessary part of things to keep from being caught.



Of course you can go to far and I always think of the Monty Python RAF sketch that shows what happens when people try too hard to develop a special patois for a given group and end up being completely incomprehensible. Sometimes, too, it comes back: a lot of the jazz age hipster terms I used in the novella I have coming out next month from Noble Romance, “The Big Splash” have not gone out of fashion.





Here’s an excerpt:





It would have been quite impossible for Constance to account for such a thing, but about forty-five minutes later she slipped into the table next to Mr. Wood at the Lorne Acorn. “Darling, what a day I’ve had!”





“How late you are, Constance,” Mr. Wood drawled, exerting as always as little effort as possible to make conversation, though his dark eyes caressed her form.





“I would have been much later had salvation not appeared this afternoon,” Constance said, perusing the menu with an eager gaze. “You’ll never guess what happened! How many martinis have you had?”





“Only two,” Mr. Wood said, leaning toward Constance to rest his rather large hand upon her thigh.





Constance hid a smile. “Do be a dear and order me one immediately. I think I ought to have some kind of beef for lunch. Meat will bring me back down to earth after my extraordinary good luck. I am quite giddy!”





Mr. Wood nodded to the waiter who whisked himself off to accomplish this task. Her companion’s fingers slipped across the ruffled length of her skirt to hook under its edge and begin drawing the fabric back to expose her stocking.





“Need I remind you that we are under the bright glare of luncheon lights, Mr. Wood?” Constance said severely even as the familiar tingle of desire warmed her thighs.





“I don’t know what you mean, Constance,” Mr. Wood said with a nearly believable tone of innocence.



“Why don’t you order the brisket? I have enjoyed it many times.” Why did nearly every thing he said seemed aimed to raise a blush? Or could it be merely his hand on her leg?





Constance closed her eyes to enjoy the sly touch of his fingertips along the top of her stocking and sighed happily. To think only this morning her life had been in disarray. Now everything had gone back to normal—well, as normal as her days ever got.





“Your drink, miss,” the waiter murmured, setting the delicate stemmed glass before her.





“Very good,” Constance said with a sunny smile, picking up the beverage with her slim fingers. “I shall have the brisket.” With practiced ease, she threw back the martini, which struck her throat with a cool thrill then warmed the path to her stomach. “And another martini,” she added. The waiter smiled, took her glass and backed away in silence.





“You’re lucky they have long tablecloths here,” Constance scolded quietly. Mr. Wood said nothing but leaned in to kiss her cheek sweetly even as his hand slipped deeply between her thighs, his pinkie just tickling the silk of her knickers as he did so. With an effort, Constance maintained her composure.





“Care for a cigarette?” Mr. Wood asked, a wicked smile curling his lips.





“Not at present,” Constance said. “I feel a trifle warm. Ah, here comes my second martini.” She put the cold glass to her lips and tried to ignore the insistent touch of Mr. Wood. “Don’t you even want to hear my news?”





“No, not especially at present,” Mr. Wood said, wiggling his defiant finger in such a delicious manner that Constance no longer wanted to discuss the changes in her household staff, important though they might be.





“Can we have the brisket to take away?” Constance asked the waiter with a sweet air when he arrived with the steaming plate. Within a few moments, the two were headed out onto the busy street where a cab arrived at once as if aware of their urgency. They made it all the way to her parlour before Mr. Wood dropped the neatly boxed lunch, grabbed Constance and pulled her into a kiss that was anything but polite.





“My mother does not approve of you,” Constance whispered fiercely when Mr. Wood extricated his tongue long enough for her to do so.





“Your mother can go hang,” Mr. Wood said unfeelingly as he reached under her skirt to run his hand down the front of her knickers, slipping two fingers under the elastic band and putting an end to any further commentary from Constance apart from a very quick “oh” that sprang from her lips…