Quebec City, 15km’s
“Habit is a great deadener” wrote Samuel Beckett, but there’s nothing like good landscape seen from a ship’s deck to shake a sailor out of the often-humdrum routine of shipboard life. Navigating down the St. Lawrence River in Autumn one is deluged by a torrent of earthbound colours. Reds, oranges, burgundies, umbers and magentas mingle on the shoreline and in the hills, which roll outwards from the river’s banks like ripples from a thrown stone. Long grasses, of yellow and purple hues grace the marshy tidelands and the archipelagos of tiny igneous islands. Villages resembling the pastoral idyll of some 19th century impressionist painting dot the coast, all church steepled and red barned with cattle grazing languorously on their outskirts. The sun’s rays seem to strike these towns at a 45degree angle whatever time of day, when shafts of honied light plunge through the breaking clouds. The further east you travel the greater the hills, eventually becoming the Laurentian Mountain range. Slabs of rock appear on the treelined shore and its ever-steepening banks. At dusk the sky glows a molten orange as though the door of a blast furnace has been left open and a threadbare blanket pulled across it.
Samuel Beckett’s face was a landscape unto itself. It was like an alpine massif, all jagged edge and glacial feature. A nose like a serac and his forehead a craggy and creased rock-face, topped by a severe line of white hair. I have just finished a novel, Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry, which could be described as distinctly Beckettian, from its dialogue to its set-up. I first read Beckett in my teens. He was like nothing I’d encountered before. Although the absurdist tone of his works was familiar to me having already discovered some of the post-war European writers who trod similar territory, it was his rich use of language, his verbal acrobatics and his peculiar way around a sentence that drew me to him. His (what I didn’t know then but would soon discover to be) uniquely Irish voice.
Quebec City is old as Canadian cities go. It is built on a plateau beside the St. Lawrence River. Steep cliffs bearded with trees bolster two of its sides and fortified walls make up the rest. I’m doing laps around Champlain Park. All about is the smell of fall. That earthy musk of decay that reminds me of long-ago afternoons playing with the other neighborhood kids in roadside piles of raked leaves like we were always told not to do. Families with young children amble on the green. Dogs fetch frisbees. An old man snores on a bench.
I overtake runners and runners overtake me.
There was a battle here 260years ago, fought with musket, cannon and sabre. One that would change the course of a burgeoning nation. Samuel Beckett, though Irish, fought in another war, with the French Resistance in World War 2. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de Resistance by the French government, but he seldom spoke or wrote of his experiences. Such reticence would be unheard of today when even the smallest acts of largesse are selfied or videoed for posterity and a scraped knee in childhood is grounds for a memoir.
According to whatever entropic design that motivates my ‘ultimate workout’s’ shuffle function, ‘To Love Somebody’ by the BeeGees comes on. It is hard to imagine gunfire and death around here as I run recreationally and listen to Barry Gibb belt out his heart.
I come to the southern edge of the park and run along the battlements. A busload of Asian tourists is jockeying for position, pushing and shoving each other and waving their cameras at the view of the river and the stunning autumnal palette spread out before them, as though this scene were fleeting and might suddenly be snatched from their hungry, snapping lenses. It is hard not to admire though, the St. Lawrence snaking east towards the gulf and on out to the wide Atlantic with the Laurentians loping gracefully at its side. Soon the long winter months will set in and all of this will be choked with ice and snow.
I have been wanting to run in Quebec City all season and finally I am. I take in the loamy air of falls first flush and consider the peculiar vagaries of a life that has led me to this point here,
with Beckett on the brain
and the BeeGees in my ears.