Book of the Week: Walking

1 Apr|Erling Kagge

Walkers on Paris on a Rainy Day. Detail from a painting by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877.

In his new book, Norwegian explorer and writer Erling Kagge, the first man to trek to both poles and climb Mt Everest, meditates on the pleasures of walking and slowing down. We reproduce a short extract below.

As one walks, unimportant thoughts and experiences mingle with deeply important ones. Something funny and something serious can be equally meaningful. A walk ‘refreshes and comforts and delights’, claims the nameless author and main character in Robert Walser’s The Walk, in response to the taxman: ‘Shut in at home, I would miserably decay and dry up.’ The taxman, meanwhile, thinks that the narrator should walk less and pay more taxes. The nameless character tries to convince him otherwise, claiming that his walks are critical for gathering material to write about. As a writer, I know that he is telling the truth when he says: ‘With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters.’ The taxman listens and thanks him for his reasoning. We never find out if the nameless author has managed to persuade him, but today it seems as though new generations have adapted to the accountant’s ideal of sitting more, working harder, and building careers.

Walser’s character experiences ‘living poems’ when he is walking. I myself am not as observant. Sometimes I talk on the phone or send text messages because I feel that my time is so valuable. In such cases, the walk is merely a mode of transportation. I am often fooling myself while doing this, overestimating my own value. Most of these tasks could easily wait for half an hour. Even 2,500 years ago, the slave Aesop, the fable-teller, was already making fun of humankind’s need to do several things at once – to multitask. According to the essayist Michel de Montaigne, Aesop – upon observing his master peeing as he walked along – is said to have asked: ‘What, do we have to shit as we run?’

***

I have walked on the same Dublin and Oslo streets as the characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. A story like Hunger is viewed differently after you yourself have walked through the same surroundings as the nameless, hungry narrator, even if you have just eaten. ‘The entire street is a swamp, with hot vapours rising from it,’ was Hamsun’s description of Karl Johan, Oslo’s main street. The description still fits. Five minutes’ walk away: ‘Outside a basement café in Storgaten I stopped, debating coldly and soberly whether I should risk a small lunch immediately.’ Storgaten today resembles Storgaten in 1890, the year Hamsun’s book was first published. Homeless people are still walking hungrily along the pavement. Observations such as these are small signposts that can help me enter a larger reality – or fiction.

The author Vladimir Nabokov taught Joyce’s novel Ulysses at Cornell University from 1948 until 1959. Over the course of its 736 pages, the main characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, set out walking on one ‘ordinary’ day, 16 June 1904, through the streets of Dublin, in and out of houses and up and down sets of stairs. Events that appear to be more crucial than their walk – such as the death of Bloom’s son, Rudy, as an infant, and the fact that his wife has refused to have sex with him ever since the tragedy, as well as his father’s suicide – are nothing but subtle undertones throughout their day.

In order to understand the novel and to be able to appreciate Joyce’s authorship, Nabokov maintained that it wasn’t enough simply to know that the characters were walking the streets of Dublin and what they were thinking about and doing. He required his students to imagine the way in which the characters walked, and the time of day during which they walked: ‘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.’

I like this advice. Bloom names every street obsessively, as if extending an invitation to the reader to escape the narrative and walk the city. Nabokov followed his own advice and made a map of the pair’s itineraries with arrows, numbers and names.

I have studied his map, and have since walked the streets where the story plays out. He is right. Davy Byrne’s, a pub that is mentioned in the novel, becomes something else once you have walked the same streets as Bloom to the pub and taken a swig of Joyce’s preferred glass of burgundy for lunch.

Extract from Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge (Viking, £9.99), published on 4 April. Pre-order a copy here

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