Monday Quote: Olivia Laing

This week’s quote is about how we perceive time when on long walks, and relates to a few books I’ve been reading.

“Sometimes the lone walker feels that he is moving backwards in time, and sometimes that he stands at the threshold of a different world, though whether it is heaven or hell is anybody’s guess. The landscape hasn’t changed, not in any way that can be articulated, but a sense of strangeness seeps up from all around.”

This quote is from Olivia Laing’s 2011 book, To The River, in which Laing travels the length of the Ouse River in Sussex, UK, from it’s source to the sea. This is Virgina Woolf’s river, the one into which she walked with a pocket full of stones and never returned.
Laing writes lyrically and particularly about her walking adventure, stripping the landscape through which she passes down to it’s nuts and bolts – it’s history, and how that history is overlain with various versions of the present. She dives deep into several Woolf books along the way, noting how water and rivers feature in those books.
Having read Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, I was familiar with her writing style and knew I would like it. I wasn’t as big a fan of the content of The Lonely City, mostly because Laing referred regularly to artworks that weren’t reprinted in her book, so I had to keep Googling to see what she was talking about. I felt like she was having a conversation with people who had far more arts knowledge than I did, and I felt like I was an “outsider” to her club.
Laing’s river book is quite similar to Katharine Norbury’s 2015 book, The Fish Ladder. In this book, Norbury follows a Scottish river from it’s source to the sea, using the trip as a way of dealing with personal loss. Unfortunately, Norbury’s version of the “follow the river” theme tries to knit together too many topics, and is not nearly as well-written as Laing’s.
But then, who does write as well as Laing? I certainly can’t claim to!
Laing’s book also came at a fortuitous time, for two reasons.
First, I had just downloaded a Kindle version of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which follows Virginia Woolf in the UK in the 1920, and a 1940s American woman reading Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I heard via The Millions that Amazon had it on sale, so I couldn’t resist.
Also, I’ve been reading the last two books in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and this Laing quote feels highly applicable to the landscape that the characters of Grace, Ghost Bird, and Control travel through in the third book of the trilogy: Acceptance. Area X is cut off from the “real world,” but no one is sure quite how or why. Strange things happen there, pretty much as the Laing quote states,

“…the landscape hasn’t changed, not in any way that can be articulated, but a sense of strangeness seeps up from all around.”

I highly recommend this trilogy – not just for VanderMeer’s excellent writing, but for the ways in which you have to contort your mind to follow the thread of the story and try to make sense of it, at the same time that the characters are undergoing their own mental contortions to figure out what’s happening to them.
I’m on the waiting list at the library for Laing’s 2018 novel, Crudo, but am number 21 of 25, so it might take a while before I can read it.

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2 thoughts on “Monday Quote: Olivia Laing”

  1. How does one perceive a river? How does watching it flow trigger emotions? What meaning does it have? How does the meaning I give it link to my experiences? Rivers must be a theme of many novels and philosophers have thought about rivers. Did your background as a geographer in some way influence your “link” to rivers?


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