THE WAY OF THE WORLD | Nicolas Bouvier

Image © Thierry Vernet

Suffused with a painterly quality, and a deft, deeply observant touch, The Way of the World is a remarkable account of a meandering, eighteen-month journey from Geneva to the Khyber Pass, undertaken by the writer Nicolas Bouvier and the artist Thierry Vernet in 1953.

Setting out in an old, restored Fiat, these two young men – both in their early twenties at the time – chalked out an itinerary as loose as it was unhurried, but underlined with an inner urgency nonetheless: 
“We had two years in front of us, and money for four months. The programme was vague; the main thing was just to get going … When desire resists commonsense’s first objections, we look for reasons – and find that they’re no use. We really don’t know what to call this inner compulsion. Something grows, and loses its moorings, so that the day comes when, none too sure of ourselves, we nevertheless leave for good.”

First published as L’Usage du monde in 1963, it took until 1992 for the book to first appear in English. [The current NYRB edition is based on the eminently readable translation by Robyn Marsack, and accompanied by sumptuously inky drawings from Thierry Vernet.] Puzzlingly enough, it remained relatively obscure at the time of its first publishing in English (not so to French readers, who hold Bouvier in high regard). This is made all the more curious after being led into one of the book’s innumerable, lushly evocative passages: 
“Imagine a room with bulging walls, torn curtains, cool as a cave, where flies buzzed around in a strong smell of onions. The day would find its centre there: elbows on the table, we’d make an inventory, telling the story of the morning as though we’d each seen it separately. The mood of the day, which had been dissipated by the acres of countryside, was focused by those first mouthfuls of wine, by the paper cloth to draw on, by the words formulated then.” 

And upon conjuring up such a palpably rich sense of place, he proceeds – with rather astonishing frequency, throughout the book – to make it glow: 
“The end of the day would be silent. We had spoken our fill while eating. Carried along on the hum of the motor and the countryside passing by, the journey itself flows through you and clears your head. Ideas one had held on to without any reason depart; others, however, are readjusted and settle like pebbles at the bottom of a stream. There’s no need to interfere: the road does the work for you. One would like to think that it stretches out like this, dispensing its good offices, not just to the ends of India but even further, until death.”

A traveller born – in his youth, Bouvier made his way to various extremities of Europe, from Nordic climes to the Egyptian desert – this journey led him from Switzerland through Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, with a brief sojourn in western Pakistan, and on into Afghanistan. Employing an approach to travel that was easy-going to the point of absurdity, Bouvier and Vernet made it a habit to stop whenever the wish to tarry took a-hold of them; at times this stretched on for months on end. In this, they were well served by their reinterpretation of travel by car as a kind of extended automotive amble: 
“We denied ourselves every luxury except one, that of being slow.  With the top down, the accelerator only just pulled out, perching on the backs of our seats and guiding the steering wheel with our feet, we pottered along at twelve miles an hour. The countryside never changed without warning; there was a full moon, rich and prodigious … Then day broke, and time slowed down.”

The slow joy Bouvier takes in describing every instance of his environment – be it his introduction to the vastness of Asia, or the bustling view from his courtyard – never slides into a mere cataloguing of grandeur or difference. With a superb eye for observation and human character, the pictures he writes unfurl into heady bloom. Bouvier’s prose is most closely matched by the notion of painting: with simple, honest strokes, he fashions the world as it appeared – and more importantly, felt – to him at the time. The result is always a pleasure, and at times sublime:
“After the furnace of the road from Salonica to Alexandroúpolis, what a pleasure to sit in front of a white tablecloth, on a little quay with smooth, round cobblestones. For an instant the fried fish gleamed like gold ingots on our plates, then the sun sank below a purple sea and drained the colour away.

I thought of those loud lamentations with which primitive civilisations accompanied the death of light each evening, and suddenly they seemed so appropriate that I was prepared to hear behind me a whole village in tears.
But no, not a one. Apparently they had got used to it.”

This fluid pairing of little turns of phrase and thought with vividly poetic descriptions of geography and character help give the book its singular character: that of a painterly travel-log overflowing with luminous musings, that begin as delicate observational pieces, and then segue effortlessly into a realm of story and metaphor:
“Time passed in brewing tea, the odd remark, cigarettes, then dawn came up. The widening light caught the plumage of quails and partridges… and quickly I dropped this wonderful moment to the bottom of my memory, like a sheet-anchor that one day I could draw up again. You stretch, pace to and fro feeling weightless, and the word ‘happiness’ seems too thin and limited to describe what has happened.

 In the end, the bedrock of existence is not made up of the family, or work, or what others say or think of you, but of moments like this when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love. Life dispenses them parsimoniously; our feeble hearts could not stand more.”

 In stark contrast to these distilled, meditative moments is the nature of the journey itself: by necessity, improvised – and delightfully so – all the way through. Bouvier and Vernet begin with just enough funds to ensure a good start, and what with the former being a writer and the latter an artist, the plan thereafter is to earn their way, selling their work and services when possible, and scheming harmlessly when they must. Predictably, things are somewhat shaky at times. But as the author happily notes, “… If we didn’t have customers, friends sprouted from under our feet. There was an immense store of personal generosity … and though lacking so much, people were warm-hearted.” To sustain such a life for so long requires no small measure of boldness, a leap of faith, even. However – as demonstrated by their travels – things do work themselves out: friends, stories, sights, and yes, even food and shelter present themselves in times of actual need. And the rewards are odd and unforeseen: hurtling around on trucks “pitching over the bare earth like monstrous bouquets;” holidaying with an amiable warden as ‘prison-guests’; becoming the impromptu centre of an improbable salon congregating at a garage; landing a gig at an oddly sophisticated bar in the mountains of Baluchistan; or receiving safe passage through much of Iran, thanks entirely to a couplet by Hafiz painted on the car-door:

Even if your night’s shelter is uncertain
and your goal is still far away
know that there doesn’t exist
a road without an end –
don’t be sad

Or perhaps, to simply stay on in Tehran, solely in order to sit under “plane trees such as one had only dreamed of, enormous trees, each broad enough to shade a few little cafés where you could happily spend a lifetime;” to then learn first-hand, that “Above all, there was the blue. You have to go that far to discover blue … in shop doorways, on horses’ halters, in cheap jewellery – everywhere there is this inimitable Persian blue which lifts the heart, which keeps Iran afloat…”

 A particularly pertinent aspect of The Way of the World that bears emphasis in these times is Bouvier’s willingness to explore and engage, to see each place and its people afresh; a capacity that enables the book – now nearly half a century distant – to give due honour to the refinement and warmth of Iran and Afghanistan. And this is in turn allows us to forget, for a brief time, the strange, painful – and seemingly irrevocable – distortions that continue to hold sway in both these proud nations. Instead, Bouvier pens a quiet celebration of a graceful world that one can only hope might someday re-emerge, where poetry, charm and light-heartedness endure, where “noble old men fall off their Raleigh bikes, doubled up with laughter, because a joke tossed from a shop had tickled their fancy;” and “respected men would willingly undertake a week’s journey to taste the famous white melons of Bokhara.” Being a deeply compassionate glimpse of an already fading time is, at the very least, reason enough to peruse this book. 

Put simply, The Way of the World is an ode to the voyager that echoes in us all; an encouragement to stroll down a path where wonders may “just as well spring from an oversight, or a sin, or a catastrophe which, breaking the normal run of events, offers life unexpected scope for unfolding its splendours before eyes that are always ready to rejoice in them.” And somewhere along this way, the dream of a life lived with an elegance bordering on magical begins to reveal itself:
“Night had almost fallen, the sky was covered over. As I got up to see whether rain was coming on, old M––, who had taken the art of living calmly to its utmost degree, pulled me back gently by the sleeve.
‘If it’s raining, the cat will come back inside.’”

Biblio: A Review of Books, 08/2010