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.

In hoc signo vinces

There are many ways to tell a story, as many as there are stories, I would say. There are many ways to describe a city, and many ways to describe the story of a city. And there are many stories of many cities. Each one is unique, and each means something. All stories are true, but not all are based in fact. But I have only read one book where the story of this Queen of Cities is told through its architecture. There are others that weave history in with the buildings, and certainly there are several virtuso books on Venice that do this, but none so blatant as ‘City of Constantine’ by John Hearsey.

εἰκώνThis, in hindsight, is a somewhat obvious ploy. From the beginnings of a city, though its trials and tempations, its joys and sadnesses, all these are reflected not only in the people, but the utility of the people who are the city. But Κωνσταντινούπολις was always different, always one step away from the East, and at least two away from the West. And as New Rome was founded to be the hub of a new Christian empire, the main slant of this book are its churches and monasteries. As those are what drove the city, and its people.

Set out in chronological order, from the foundation, to the fall, of the city, the buildings are used to tell not only the stories of the poeple and their enemies, but an underlying thread, connecting them. From hiding out-of-favour empresses in their own sections of the city, flourishing convents with their own rules and theological influences, to huge public displays, nowhere in the world is there such a continuous record of history through building. As the Byzantines, the last Empire of the old world, recorded a lot in their bricks, mortar, wood and bronze. And this was the end of the old world, as even though the Turks took her at last in 1453, the real end of them came forty years later, coincidently, or not, the founding of the New World.

Puncturated throughout with photographs, taken mostly by the author (and decently, do you hear me, Tom Holland and Alain de Botton?) and floor diagrams to help imagine what the ramshackle ruins that are left (and haven’t been altered by many generations of Turks), there is a sense of ‘how did they do that?’, with all the arrogance of our late 20th century viewpoint. Where is the modern hymn that is Ἁγία Σοφία?

Part travel, part history, all buildings, threaded together with the dry wit of an almost Victorian schoolmaster, this is another story of the centre of Byzantium. The recent ‘through the eyes of the common man’ trend for history somewhat misses the point, as interesting as they are. The common ‘through the eyes of the victor’ histories always slant our view, but also expand it. Looking at the city of Constantine from the bricks, listening to their journey as time ebbs along the Bosporus, the cosmopolitan stones from all parts of their empire and beyond, is fascinating. Never dull, this is what could quite easily be called a romp, a new story to add to all the others.

Photo source: Hello Ikon

Sack the commons

When I was still in school, our cruel and sadistic master would, if in a cruel and sadistic mood, make us translate something from Θουκυδίδης. I would like to say I appreciate it now, but that wouldn’t be true. However, the thing about schoolboys and classics is that you tend to only get to see paragraphs, stanzas and nothing near the whole. Most people, if asked to list the books they hate, will trot out whatever they were forced to examine in school.

This is different. I have always loved ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’, but have never read it in its entirety, nor indeed in English. Now I have, and here is me, in the second paragraph, giving away what I am reviewing here. If you are ever wandering around stately homes, Wimpole Hall, in the flatness of Cambridgeshire, has a rather great secondhand bookshop, which carries very obscure, bizarre and awesome books. Not that Θουκυδίδης is any of those, at least not in the circles I move in. Far be it for me, once again, to rail against the arrogance of modernity, and their blinkered unknowingness. And ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’ lays that out for me. Again.

This book has its problems, but those are easily ignored. The details of the battles are scanty, and the intervening periods glossed over. He does have a lot of ground to cover, so I guess that is fine. But there is one major reason to read this, and read it in context. The politics. The arching, sweeping, genius of politics.

It raised my hopes, my interest, my love of declaration every time I got to the end of a paragraph and saw ‘…and thus did the Athenians speak:’ Not that I am downgrading the Lacedaemonians, I just use the Athenians as an example, so I don’t have to write ‘…and thus did the (INSERT PEOPLE WHO ARE ADDRESSING THE ASSEMBLY HERE):’. As that would be clumsy, so now, I amn’t writing that. Of course, when Θουκυδίδης writes ‘and thus spoke Brasidas, who spoke well, even though he was a Spartan’ you have to laugh. The only humour in a book of great losses, whole city-states being wiped out, islands conquered and much slaying of all the males, along with slavery for the women and children. Yes, yes, it raises a smutty smirk when you also read that the Lesbians put out to sea to hassle and agitate. Damned Lesbians, never making up their minds.

But what of these set-piece speeches? Nothing changes, as then as today. Lying politicians, out for all they can get, for their own cause. Machinations, intrigues and plots. You are swept along by the speeches, believe in their rhetoric, and persuaded by the arguments. And then again in the envoy’s responses. The back-and-forth, posturing and positioning, not any different from diplomacy today. Except, the speeches then were better, and you can get the impression of the different styles of governing used, the various takes on fledgling democracy, the oligrachies of Laconia, the self-interest of different regions, the ancient animosities, all laid out in the eloquence of practised speakers. All men, of course, and all older men, too. The promises made to the Helots, the slaves and the underclasses. The women aren’t forgotten, but are represented mostly as whirling dervishes who throw roof tiles in defence of their cities.

An exercise in looking at the abuse of power, filtered through a fine literary twist. Is this real history? Sure, in the way that any historical record is. Bias, superiority, denegration. All there. But the language, the beautiful verbose language, used for the advantage of gain, seductive and demeaning, overbearing and above all, read as it would be spoken to an assembly. We have nothing on them for speeches, the intensity of their feelings.

An exercise in looking at revolution, filtered through alliances and treaties, forever broken. States aligning themselves for their own gain, ignoring obligations, and trying their best to undermine everyone else. Where by everyone, they mean Hellenes. Everyone outside are just barbarians. The elitism, the confidence, the sheer audacity of their strength in knowledge and surety.

There is still an audience for, I truly believe that. If not, there should be. This all happened two and a half thousand years ago. The echoes of which we still feel today. The echoes of which we should still feel today. The echoes of which resound in every dealing of every country. But they had better speakers.

Links to the pictures used, taken by me in Cyprus in the summer of 2010. Alas not the Peloponnese:
Mosaic
Thistle things

Something Different (but fascinating)

Some of you are aware that my university course is a joint Animation/Screenwriting BA Hons.

Last year, both of my Paternal grandparents passed away. They were incredible people who both accomplished a lot in their respective lifetimes and it’s this, combined with my interest in History that led me to start writing a screenplay (for uni) for a film based loosely on their experiences after WWII.

Anyone interested in knowing more about how my script is going, and more about my Grandparents can read my post on important things on my Blog.

My Granny worked as an interpreter for Bletchley Park during the war, and on a visit there to gather historically accurate research for my project (I will be going to Nuremberg in the Summer to do research on the War Trials where they met) I picked up this book.

Most literature on Bletchley park covers the code cracking machines such as Enigma, Colossus and Others. This book has several testaments from the people who worked there under the official secrets act. You read about how some people arrived under instructions from a letter that gave no information other than “At Bletchley Train station hand this letter to a porter and he will give you an envelope with your instructions.” (The letter would then only take them to the Park’s front gates and tell them to hand that letter to the guard who would give them another etc etc until they were inside.)

You read how the people lived and worked in the Park, how you didn’t ever know the end result of your work, as secrecy was so extreme that no one knew what their friends did as their jobs, and never told anybody back home how you helped the war effort.

Nowadays I don’t think anybody of my age (recruits were often young adults in their late teens to early twenties) would be able to work so hard (some shifts were 18-30 hours) without knowing what the purpose was. I can’t help but feel awed at how Bletchley Park operated, and how normal social customs didn’t apply. Social rank and sexuality were overlooked to the point where attitudes were somewhat even more lax than now, and the pride with which people worked, only on the assumption that it was important, baffles me.

Some personal accounts of workers completely destroy built-up preconceived ideas on the more famous members. Alan Turing, now credited as the father of modern computing, and one of the most famous people to come out of Bletchley, is described as beyond eccentric.

“Turing kept his coffee mug chained to a radiator to prevent theft…”

Turing was well known to be gay as well, and nobody thought anything of it inside Bletchley (He committed suicide after being arrested for ‘gross indecency’ and was put on oestrogen which caused growth of breasts)

(At this point I think I’ll add that my Granny said he would throw that day’s coffee mug into the lake every night…)

This book contains so many personal accounts and photos unable to be found on the internet that it’s impossible not to become completely absorbed in the history of Bletchley Park and the everyday life of its workers (who were mostly women). I have a personal interest in the matter, but I do think that anybody who likes to be nosy into somebody’s life, or merely thinks that the fact that 10,000 people kept Bletchley’s secret for more than 30 years (until Bletchley was revealed to the public in the 70s) would find this book interesting.

Bletchley Park had it’s own extensive range of social activities as well as it’s secretive work on German and Japanese code-breaking. There was a tennis complex, and a drama society run by the workers.

The simple bizarreness of the place stuns me. I never realised before reading this book how incredible the story of Bletchley and it’s workers is. Churchill called the workers his ‘Geese who laid the golden eggs and never cackled’ as a testament to their value to winning the war and their ability at keeping quiet.

Nobody in either Britain or abroad that wasn’t directly involved knew about the Park’s existence until the 70s, when Churchill revealed the place.

Sorry!!! This has been a bit of a history lesson. But as someone who normally isn’t interested in war history, this book really captures my attention.

But… I’m afraid I will have to review a book about the Nuremberg Trials at some point… simply because of my Heubeck Pride. (Heubeck is my family name… so that probably didn’t make sense to a lot of you haha…)

Anyway, pride aside, I hope you don’t mind me taking up Un:Bound space with my non-fiction blathering. (Although, as people say, Bletchley Park is more unbelievable than most fiction)

MC out!!!

Thomas P. Lowry – The Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell

To the naysayers who said it couldn’t be done…to the fearful who said it shouldn’t be done…to the ones who know me and my legendary procrastination who proclaimed it wouldn’t be done…

To all of you, I say “Fie!”  For I have not only read Jack C. Young’s pick for the “Little Bit of Fun” contest, Dr. Thomas P. Lowry’s The Stories Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War, I am also about to review it!

Uh, right now!

The content of Stories Soliders Wouldn’t Tell… would seem to be a no-brainer based on the title, but in fact it’s a lot less salacious and controversial than the name implies.  It’s simply a record of the sexual conduct during the Civil War.  Which in and of itself is fascinating: one of the key points Lowry makes in his (very roundabout and more than a little old fashioned way) is that it’s indeed how conspicuous the absence of sex of any kind is missing from all the historical, biographical, and military accounts of one of if not the most impactful event in the modern history of the United States.  Unfortunately, Lowry doesn’t go into too much detail as to the reasons for the omissions, choosing to chalk it up to the venerated and noble status imparted to the major players.  Which may I suspect play a part, although personally I was always of the impression that sex and debauchery during wartime didn’t spring fully formed from the head that was Vietnam (a war where sexual habits seemingly dance hand in hand with everything else) – where you have stress, where you have fear, you’ll gonna have the need for release, and let’s face it, boys and girls, there ain’t much else that better for release than a good old-fashioned run around the corner, if you get my drift (you may not, since I just made that expression up and even I don’t know what the hell it means).

Just ask anyone here during our Ravenous Romance Wednesdays.

Anyway, I’m getting off the point.   Lowry’s book is chopped up into short chapters, each covering one aspect of sex during the era.  The basic concept (pornography, prostitution, homosexuality, rape, etc.) is introduced in a short paragraph, and is then followed up with numerous anecdotes and missives collected from the period, with an even briefer summary at the end, which usually is nothing more than a “yup, there was pornography/prostitution/homosexuality/rape/etc.).  As far as astute observations go, you’re not going to get much out of Lowry, but that’s not to say there not some good stuff here.  There is.  Read enough and you can find some provoking trends, such as the punishments doled out to white versus black soldiers, to officers versus enlisted men, and when the victim was white versus black.  There are surprises to be had on both sides of the war, and my biggest regret is that Lowry chooses to list out example after example of things I don’t think anyone ever really doubted occurred instead of diving deeper into the nature of why.

All in all I actually enjoyed The Stories Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell… quite a bit despite it’s lack of ambition.  For those interested I’ll point out two things:

  1. There is a crazy chapter about the possibility of Abraham Lincoln being gay.  Not crazy as in, “Whaddya mean he’s GAY?!” but rather, “I was just reading about the Clap and crudely drawn pictures of naked ladies.  Where the $#@! did THIS come from?”
  2. Sex in olden days seems like a hot topic for Dr. Lowry.  He also has a book out called “Venereal Disease and Lewis and Clark.  I kid you not.

There you go.  I’m working on my quick interview with Jack now (Jack – if you’re reading this get back to me, brother) and should have it up shortly.  I had a great time doing this thing and if you all enjoyed the chance to make us sweat with your selections I think Hagelrat should offer herself to be the next guinea pig!