Photograph: Rhys Tranter
Photograph: Rhys Tranter

I went walking in the hills where I grew up
and thought about that John Muir phrase:

“Between every two pines there is a door leading to a new way of life.”

In an engaging piece for The Guardian, writer Kristina Olsson discusses her decision to walk across England on foot. I enjoyed her observations about the connections between writing and walking, and was struck by the simplicity of her morning routine:

“Each morning on the walk I got up, pulled on boots, devoured porridge, consulted the map. Swung on my rucksack, not thinking of cold and stiffness, a sore toe, the long hours of hard work ahead. I didn’t question it. My job was to walk. I began. I kept going.”

— Kristina Olsson, ‘Radical freedom: writing, walking – and exploring the wilderness within’, The Guardian

Strayed’s memoir is a testament to the restorative power of art
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Cheryl Strayed, Wild

In recent months I have become increasingly interested in writers who discuss nature and the wilderness in their work. I have been keeping a mental note of several writers to consider, and was trying to decide between J.A. Baker‘s landmark work The Peregrine, Robert MacFarlane‘s The Old Ways, or a selection of John Muir‘s writing about his time in the Sierra Nevada. Then I was reminded of a book that my wife had read the previous year, and decided to read the opening couple of pages to get a sense of the prose. The book was Cheryl Strayed‘s memoir, Wild, and I was hooked. (more…)

I spent some time this morning reading Elizabeth Karp-Evans’ (Guernica) refreshing conversation with contemporary artist Sarah Crowner. When asked about the abstract curved and geometrical patterns that recur in her painting, Crowner cites her long walks in the Californian countryside as a key inspiration. The artist also discusses how she came to pursue her vocation as an artist, and how she perceives art as an active method of thinking and reflection. (more…)

I speak to author and academic Lauren Elkin about women walking in the city, and the pioneering writers who influenced her
Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse (Penguin Books, 2016)
Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse (Penguin Books, 2016)

I wonder if you could say a little bit about your title. What exactly is a “Flâneuse”? And what motivated you to write the book?

A flâneuse is quite basically the female conjugation of a “flâneur,” or a kind of idly curious stroller in the city, a man-about-town. As Baudelaire wrote: “The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd.”

The flâneur is this really resonant archetype in our culture; you come across it really frequently when magazines or other brands (most recently Hermès) want to lend a kind of worldly, nonchalant, urban intellectualism to their enterprise, or to whatever it is they’re selling. However – and this is going to answer your second question as well – this figure is usually male, or male-identified; only men have historically (and this is arguably still true today) had that kind of access to the city, where they could walk around observing and “merge with the crowd”; women have been, or are, generally too conspicuous in the city, we’re viewed either as a threat or as someone who needs protection; we’re told to smile, our appearances are commented on. Or, for women who don’t conform to some idea of youth or beauty, made to feel functionally invisible. In neither case do we have the kind of neutrality the flâneur needs to have. So the “flâneuse” is a figure who’s kind of impossible to conjugate. (more…)

john-le-carre.jpg
John le Carré

I am always fascinating to hear about the daily rituals of writers and creative people. Readers of this site might be familiar with previous posts on walking and improvisation, thinking, or Kierkegaard’s fondness for daily walks. And so, whenever I hear about writers who are also keen walkers, I’m always curious to know more.

This morning I read that the British spy novelist John le Carré, author of The Night Manager (1993) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) is one such writer. He talks of the pleasure he takes in perambulations around London, of finding inspiration in trains and cafés, and his preference for ‘drawing the words’ over using typewriters and word processors: (more…)

samuelbeckett-walking“As a literary structure, the recounted walk encourages digression and association, in contrast to the stricter form of a discourse or the chronological progression of a biographical or historical narrative. A century and a half later, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf would, in trying to descrive the workings of the mind, develop the style called stream of consciousness. In their novels Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, the jumble of thoughts and recollections of their protagonists unfolds best during walks. This kind of unstructured, associative thinking is the kind most often connected to walking, and it suggests walking as not an analytical but an improvisational act. Rousseau’s Reveries [of the Solitary Walker] are one of the first portraits of this relationship between thinking and walking.”

— From Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within… By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.

From Paul Auster’s City of Glass, part of the The New York Trilogy.

An extract from James Wood’s 2011 review of Open City for the New Yorker
Teju Cole, Open City
Teju Cole, Open City
Publishers now pitch their books like Hollywood concepts, so Teju Cole’s first novel, “Open City” (Random House; $25), is being offered as especially appealing to “readers of Joseph O’Neill and Zadie Smith,” and written in a prose that “will remind you” of W. G. Sebald and J. M. Coetzee. This is shorthand for “post-colonialism in New York” (O’Neill), “lively multiracial themes” (Smith), “free-flowing form with no plot, narrated by a scholarly solitary walker” (Sebald), “obviously serious” (Coetzee), and “finely written” (all of the above). There is the additional comedy that Cole’s publishers, determined to retain the baby with the bathwater, boldly conjoin Smith and O’Neill, despite Smith’s hostility, advertised in an essay entitled “Two Paths for the Novel,” to O’Neill’s expensive and upholstered “lyrical realism.”

(more…)

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.

— Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers

In a 2000 article for the New York Review of Books, J. M. Coetzee reviews Robert Walser’s The Robber (translated by Susan Bernofsky) and Jakob von Gunten (translated by Christopher Middleton)
Robert Walser
Robert Walser
On Christmas Day, 1956, the police of the town of Herisau in eastern Switzerland were called out: children had stumbled upon the body of a man, frozen to death, in a snowy field. Arriving at the scene, the police took photographs and had the body removed.

The dead man was easily identified: Robert Walser, aged seventy-eight, missing from a local mental hospital. In his earlier years Walser had won something of a reputation, in Switzerland and even in Germany, as a writer. Some of his books were still in print; there had even been a biography of him published. During a quarter of a century in mental institutions, however, his own writing had dried up. Long country walks—like the one on which he had died—had been his main recreation.

(more…)

I have always been fascinated by the daily rituals and routines that govern people’s everyday lives. Daily Routines has compiled a wide and varied selection of such rituals, taken from interviews and biographies of some of the world’s most distinguished writers and thinkers. It makes for fascinating reading – even if browsing the daily routines of others leaves little time for our own.

(more…)

Ferris Jabr (New Yorker) discusses Nabokov, Joyce, Woolf, and the science of walking (thanks to Emily Blewitt for the link)

In Vogue’s 1969 Christmas issue, Vladimir Nabokov offered some advice for teaching James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: “Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.” He drew a charming one himself. Several decades later, a Boston College English professor named Joseph Nugent and his colleagues put together an annotated Google map that shadows Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom step by step. The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, as well as students at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have similarly reconstructed the paths of the London amblers in “Mrs. Dalloway.” (more…)