“[W]RITING IN A ROOM by myself is practically my whole life.” That’s Philip Roth speaking in a 1974 conversation with Joyce Carol Oates that first appeared in The Ontario Review. It’s reprinted in Roth’s recently published Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013 (Library of America, 2017).
I think Roth is speaking for a great many writers, especially novelists. Writing is a lonely and isolated desk job, and although I have no hard psychological or statistical data on the subject, my intuition is that many of us like it that way, we want our whole life to be about writing in a room by ourselves. That’s why we became writers in the first place.
Yet even the most reclusive of us, either at our own or other people’s insistence, do feel the need to leave that room every once in a while; and stepping outside for a walk, a drift, a meander, a perambulation, is the easiest and perhaps the most obvious way of doing it.
I never had the sense from reading Roth’s fiction that he was much of a walker, but I may have been wrong about that. I recently reread a startling paragraph in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), a paragraph I had no memory of whatsoever, in which Portnoy is questioning whether his childhood was really as terrible as he now remembers it:
What else? Walks, walks with my father in Weequahic Park on Sundays that I still haven’t forgotten. You know, I can’t go off to the country and find an acorn on the ground without thinking of him and those walks. And that’s not nothing, nearly thirty years later.
Indeed, it is not. Any of us who have walked with our father, not necessarily all that happily, surely recognize the sentiment.
And later in that Joyce Carol Oates piece Roth tells her, “I write during the day, walk four or five miles at the end of the afternoon, and read at night.” Four or five miles a day is enough to make him a serious and enthusiastic walker, in my opinion, and no doubt enough to make him seem like an obsessive in the opinion of some others.
There’s also an essay he published in The New York Review of Books, April 12, 1990, titled “A Conversation in Prague,” in which he describes being on a morning walk in that city soon after the Velvet Revolution, and seeing a crowd of people laughing at television screens showing footage of a Communist Party meeting. Roth writes, “I thought that this must be the highest purpose of laughter, to bury wickedness in ridicule.”
That’s great, and isn’t it what all we walking writers and writing walkers want? We want to step outside our front door, walk for a while, and be presented with something remarkable, something worth writing about, something we don’t have to make up. You see the thing, grasp its meaning, and go running back to your room to write about it.
This is not precisely the same as William Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but it’s close. And certainly it’s hard to imagine just what Wordsworth’s oeuvre would have been like if he hadn’t been such a serious and enthusiastic walker. Without the walking there’d certainly be no “Daffodils” or “Tintern Abbey,” and The Prelude would be barely recognizable.
There’s a passage in Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) in which she describes sitting down to write about walking, and then getting up again “because a desk is no place to think on the large scale.” She heads out across a headland north of the Golden Gate Bridge and walks through linked paths and roads that form a circuit of about six miles, “that I began hiking ten years ago to walk off my angst during a difficult year.” She goes on, “thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing […] It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”
It’s possible to disagree with most of that. You might not consider thinking or walking to be in any sense doing nothing, although it’s possible to understand why others might. Speaking personally, however, there’s certainly no denying that walking is a treatment (if by no means a cure) for angst.
That section from Solnit’s book appears in a recent exhibition catalog titled Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys 1967–2017. Titles are never easy, but that’s going to make life really tricky for future bibliographers.
The catalog accompanied an exhibition originated by University at Buffalo Art Galleries and also seen at the Des Moines Art Center. It’s not all about walking, though it’s definitely about artists getting out and about, leaving their desk or room or studio. Walking features in many of the works — in the best of them, I’d say. The usual suspects are there, including Richard Long, Sophie Calle, Vito Acconci, Gabriel Orozco, Francis Alÿs, Allan Kaprow, and Nancy Holt, but they are not represented by their most famous works, and there are lesser known artists too.
One work that seems especially novel, while also extremely relevant and moving, is a piece titled Blind Field Shuttle by Carmen Papalia, a new name to me, who lost his sight while still a college student, and who calls himself a “Social Practice artist.” He leads walking tours for up to 50 people who follow behind him in single file, each person with a hand on the shoulder of the walker in front. They’re supposed to keep their eyes closed, to experience at least some of what Papalia is experiencing, but they’re not blindfolded, and I can’t help thinking some must surely open their eyes and take a peep from time to time. The Wanderlust catalog says the work “dismantle[s] the hierarchy of sensory perception,” which doesn’t strike me as a very helpful or humane description; in other accounts of the work, not in the catalog, it seems the effect on the walkers can be very intense indeed, and a lot of weeping and hugging goes on at the end.
One section in the catalog is titled “Keep on Walking.” Written by Lori Waxman, it contains a reference to a walking expedition undertaken in early May 1924 by André Breton, Louis Aragon, Max Morise, and Roger Vitrac. The walk is regularly alluded to in histories of walking and art, though the details remain vague, at least to me. It’s sometimes described (as in the catalog) as a walk from Blois, France, to Romorantin, a perfectly feasible route of about 28 miles, but that doesn’t seem to be what the four men actually did.
They certainly took a train to Blois — a town somewhat over a 100 miles southwest of Paris. They had chosen this destination “at random,” although its easy accessibility from Paris was surely a factor in the choice. Once there, they started walking, again supposedly at random, or at least without specific geographical goals, but in broad terms, the project was to investigate whether automatism might apply to walking as it did to the human psyche. Breton discussed it in a radio interview, decades after the event: “But what highways could we take? Physical highways? Not likely. Spiritual ones? Hard to imagine. Nonetheless, it occurred to us that we might combine these two types of road.”
The best source I’ve found about the expedition is Mark Polizzotti’s Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton (1995), but even he doesn’t tell us when they set off; he simply says they took the train to Blois “in the first days of May.” Then he gets more specific. He tells us they were in Romorantin on May 5, so that obviously wasn’t the end of the walk since he says they were in Argent on the May 7 and in Moret on the May 9.
Now if my mapping is correct, these places are nothing like walking distance from each other. Romorantin is about 40 miles from Argent; Argent is over 70 miles from Moret. They obviously weren’t walking between these places. I’m guessing, and it is only a guess, that they took the train to each of these locations and then walked about once they got there. According to Polizzotti, they were certainly present in the train station in Moret, because that’s where Morise vandalized a crucifix.
There were other, more or less surrealist activities, including attempts at automatic writing, but, says Polizzotti, “for the most part, they wandered aimlessly throughout the French countryside, conversing all the while, resolutely following their lack of itinerary.” This corresponds with Breton’s radio description. However, after some days of this, things had understandably become strained. Aragon and Vitrac came to blows, Polizzotti reports, “the former disgusted by the other’s insistence on seeing every minor coincidence as a major revelation.” At this point, Breton called off the expedition and they all caught the train back to Paris, though it’s not clear to me where from.
Still, Breton had certainly derived some inspiration from the experience. Back in Paris, in his room — in fact his studio in the rue Fontaine — he started writing; and by October of that year, he’d published the first manifesto of surrealism.
Incidentally, in the second manifesto, published 1929, Breton says (translations vary wildly), “The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly” — a remark that may not sit very well in today’s cultural environment; though it’s hard to imagine that it would have sat much better in France, 11 years after the end of the Great War.
A new book comes across the transom, Éric Hazan’s A Walk Through Paris (Verso Books, 2018; translated by David Fernbach). It’s blurbed by Matthew Beaumont, author of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (2015), who says, “As André Breton might have observed, there really are no lost steps here.” Indeed, Hazan claims Breton as one of his heroes: “Breton, Benjamin, Baudelaire, Nerval, Balzac, Chateaubriand — perhaps my references lack variety. But there is nothing I can do about it, this is my paper family, as good as any other.”
The book’s title in French is Une Traversée de Paris (considerably zestier than the English version, it seems to me). That’s a nod to the 1956 movie La Traversée de Paris, a blackish and, at this distance, one might even say Beckettian comedy about two black marketeers who walk across occupied Paris during World War II, carrying suitcases full of pork. It was released in the United States as Four Bags Full, and in the United Kingdom as Pig Across Paris. Yes, titles are never easy.
Hazan’s walk is from Ivry to Saint-Denis, a south-to-north transit, more or less following an imaginary meridian that divides east and west Paris. The route is about 10 miles and could easily be done in one day, possibly in an afternoon, and at times the book reads as though that’s what Hazan’s doing — but he fesses up: the walk is a literary construct. He quotes Marcel Proust to justify himself.
Hazan’s previous works include A History of the Barricade (La Barricade: Histoire d’un objet révolutionnaire, 2013) and A People’s History of the French Revolution (Une histoire de la Révolution française, 2012), and the new book’s jacket, though not the book itself, bears the subtitle “a radical exploration,” so it’s no surprise that Hazan is much concerned with riot, insurrection, protest, and revolution. He is, naturally, on the side of the proletariat — a word he uses more comfortably and more approvingly than I think most Anglophone authors would. He discusses Baron Haussmann’s Mémoires (1890), in which Paris’s great renovator
expresses his disgust for the vile crowd he was forced to pass though in walking from the Chausée-d’Antin where he lived to the law faculty where he was a student. The brigands, prostitutes and immigrant workers crowded into the sordid street around the Hôtel de Ville and Notre-Dame had to be got rid of, being the source of both cholera and unpredictable riots.
Hazan is having none of that, and concludes, “I understand and am even sorry for those who live in the ghettos of the rich and are scared when they emerge and see so many people who do not look like them.”
A Walk Through Paris is sometimes a work of urbanism, sometimes a subversive history book, sometimes a kind of tourist guide. It isn’t a memoir, but there are some very enjoyable personal details about Hazan’s life as a doctor, about the places where he ate and drank, the boxing gym where he trained. My favorite moment in the book comes when he arrives at the basilica Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc and encounters a Belgian tourist who apparently travels the world photographing statues of Saint Joan of Arc. He asks Hazan if he knows of any others, and, of course, Hazan knows plenty. It’s a lovely moment of quiet obsession and human interaction, the kind of encounter that can really only happen when you’re walking — one that certainly won’t happen if you spend your whole life writing in a room by yourself.