Through my last lengthy writing project, it did not take long to I realise I had become obsessed with paths. The proof of it was there in my notebooks, and, most prominently, in the backlog of photographs cluttering the inner workings of my mobile phone. Most of the photographs I took had a couple of things in common: first, the astonishing greenness of the world they were describing; second, the way a road or path or corridor or pavement or trail led off into distance. The greenness was because I was in England, in summer, and mostly in a part of the country where green seems at times the only colour. I am not sure what it was about tailing perspective that caught me.
Image 1: a) Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford; b) Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford
c) Leeds Road, Otley; d) Shibden Park, Halifax
Image 2: a) Runswick Bay; b) St. Mary's Churchyard, Habberley
c) The Habberley Road, to Pontesbury; d) Todmorden, path to Stoodley Pike
I was working on a kind of family memoir, tied up in my grandmother’s last days, which were also days I spent marching through towns and countryside I once knew, looking for clues about a place and its past. I had left the north-west of England a decade or so before, and I was grappling with what James Wood calls “homelooseness”, a sensation of exile that even economic migrants like myself encounter. It is a particular kind of “secular homelessness” in which “the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened” (105-106). Loosened irrevocably, I might add. The kind of wandering which I embarked on is not unique. Wood describes it in himself, and in the work of W.G. Sebald—a writer who, he says, “had an exquisite sense of the varieties of not-belonging” (106).
I walked a lot, mostly on paths I used to know. And when, later, I counted up the photographs I had taken of that similar-but-different scene, there were almost 500 of them, none of which I can bring myself to delete. Some were repeated, or nearly so—I had often tried to make sure the path in the frame was centred in the middle of the screen. Most of the pictures were almost entirely miscellaneous, and if it were not for a feature on my phone I could not work out how to turn off (that feature which tracks where each photograph was taken) I would not have much idea of what each picture represented. What’s clear is that there was some lingering significance, some almost-tangible metaphor, in the way I was recording the walking I was doing. This same significance is there, too (in an almost quantifiable way), in the thesis I was working on while I was taking the photographs: I used the word “path” 63 times in the version I handed to examiners, not counting all the times I could have, but chose not to—all the “pavements”, “trails”, “roads”, and “holloways” of it would add up to a number even more substantial. For instance, the word “walk”, or derivatives of it, comes up 115 times. This article is designed to ask why. I aim to focus on that metaphor, on that significance, and unpack the way life writing can intersect with both the journey of a life being lived, and the process of writing down that life (by process of writing I sometimes mean anything but: I mean the process of working towards the writing. Of going, of doing, of talking, of spending, of working, of thinking, of walking). I came, in the thesis, to view certain kinds of prose as a way of imitating the rhythms of the mind, but I think there’s something about that rhythm which associates it with the feet as well. Rebecca Solnit thinks so too, or, at least, that the processes of thinking and walking can wrap around each other, helixed or concatenated. In Wanderlust she says that:
the rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. (5-6)
The “odd consonance” Solnit speaks of is a kind of seamlessness between the internal and external; it is something which can be aped on the page. And, in this way, prose can imitate the mind thinking. This way of writing is evident in the digression-filled, wandering, sinuous sentences of W.G. Sebald, and of Marcel Proust as well. I don’t want to entangle myself in the question of whether Proust and Sebald count as life writers here. I used them as models, and, at the very least, I think their prose manipulates the conceits of the autobiographical pact. In fact, Sebald often refused to label his own work; once he called his writing “prose [...] of indefinite form” (Franklin 123). My definition of life writing is, thus, indefinite, and merely indicates the field in which I work and know best.
Edmund White, when writing on Proust, suggested that every page of Remembrance of Things Past—while only occasionally being a literal page of Proust’s mind thinking—is, nevertheless, “a transcript of a mind thinking [...] the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice” (138). Ceaselessness, seamlessness ... there’s also a viscosity to this kind of prose—Virginia Woolf called it “impassioned”, and spoke of the way some prose
can lick up with its long glutinous tongue the most minute fragments of fact and mass them into the most subtle labyrinths, and listen silently at doors behind which only a murmur, only a whisper, is to be heard. With all the suppleness of a tool which is in constant use it can follow the windings and record the changes which are typical of the modern mind. To this, with Proust and Dostoevsky behind us, we must agree. (20)
When I read White and Woolf it seemed they could have been talking about Sebald, too: everything in Sebald’s oeuvre is funnelled through what White described in Remembrance as the cyclopean “I” at the centre of the Proustian consciousness (138). The same could be said about Sebald: as Lynne Schwartz says, “All Sebald’s characters sound like the narrator” (15). And that narrator has very particular qualities, encouraged by the sense of homelooseness Wood describes:
the Sebald narrator is a wanderer, by train through Italian cities and New York Suburbs, on foot through the empty reaches of the English countryside, exploring the history of each settlement he passes through [...] Wherever he travels, he finds strangely vacant streets and roads, not a soul around [...] Sebald’s books are famously strewn with evocative, gloomy black-and-white photographs that call up the presence of the dead, of vanished places, and also serve as proofs of his passage. (Schwartz 14)
I tried to resist the urge to take photographs, for the simple reason that I knew I could not include them all in the finished thesis—even including some would seem (perhaps) derivative. But this method of wandering—whether on the page or in the world—was formative for me. And the linkage between thinking and walking, and walking and writing, and writing and thinking is worth exploring, if only to identify some reason for that need to show proof of passage.
Walking in Proust and Sebald either forms the shape of narrative, or one its cruxes. Both found ways to let walking affect the rhythm, movement, motivation, and even the aesthetic of their prose. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, for example, is plotless because of the way it follows its narrator on a walking tour of Suffolk. The effect is similar to something Murray Baumgarten noticed in one of Sebald’s other books, The Emigrants: “The [Sebaldian] narrator discovers in the course of his travels (and with him the reader) that he is constructing the text he is reading, a text at once being imagined and destroyed, a fragment of the past, and a ruin that haunts the present” (268). Proust’s opus is a meditation on the different ways we can walk. Remembrance is a book about momentum—a book about movement. It is a book which always forges forward, but which always faces backward, where time and place can still and footsteps be paused in motion, or tiptoed upstairs and across tables or be caught in flight over the body of an octogenarian lying on a beach. And it is the walks of the narrator’s past—his encounters with landscape—that give his present (and future) thoughts impetus: the rhythms of his long-past progress still affect the way he moves and acts and thinks, and will always do so:
the “Méséglise way” and the “Guermantes way” remain for me linked with many of the little incidents of that one of all the divers lives along whose parallel lines we are moved, which is the most abundant in sudden reverses of fortune, the richest in episodes; I mean the life of the mind [...] [T]he two “ways” give to those [impressions of the mind] a foundation, depth, a dimension lacking from the rest. They invest them, too, with a charm, a significance which is for me alone. (Swann’s Way 252-255)
The two “ways”—walks in and around the town of Combray—are, for the narrator, frames through which he thinks about his childhood, and all the things which happened to him because of that childhood. I felt something similar through the process of writing my thesis: a need to allow the 3-mile-per-hour-connection between mind and body and place that Solnit speaks about seep into my work. I felt the stirrings of old ways; the places I once walked, which I photographed and paced, pulsed and pushed me forwards in the present and towards the future. I felt strangely attached to, and disconnected from, those pathways: lanes where I had rummaged for conkers; streets my grandparents had once lived and worked on; railways demolished because of roads which now existed, leaving only long, straight pathways through overgrown countryside suffused with time and memory. The oddness I felt might be an effect of what Wood describes as a “certain doubleness”, “where homesickness is a kind of longing for Britain and an irritation with Britain: sickness for and sickness of” (93-94). The model of seamless prose offered some way to articulate, at least, the particularities of this condition, and of the problem of connection—whether with place or the past. But it is in this shift away from conclusiveness, which occurs when the writer constructs-as-they-write, that Baumgarten sees seamlessness:
rather than the defined edges, boundaries, and conventional perceptions promised by realism, and the efficient account of intention, action, causation, and conclusion implied by the stance of realistic prose, reader and narrator have to assimilate the past and present in a dream state in which they blend imperceptibly into each other. (277)
It’s difficult to articulate the way in which the connection between walking, writing, and thinking works. Solnit draws one comparison, talking to the ways in which digression and association mix:
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 [...] James Joyce and Virginia Woolf would, in trying to describe the workings of the mind, develop of 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. (21)
I think the key, here, is the notion of association—in the making of connections, and, in my case, in the making of connections between present and past. When we walk we exist in a roving state, and with a dual purpose: Sophie Cunningham says that we walk to get from one place to the next, but also to insist that “what lies between our point of departure and our destination is important. We create connection. We pay attention to detail, and these details plant us firmly in the day, in the present” (Cunningham). The slipperiness of homelooseness can be emphasised in the slipperiness of seamless prose, and walking—situating self in the present—is a rebuttal of slipperiness (if, as I will argue, a rebuttal which has at its heart a contradiction: it is both effective and ineffective. It feels as close as is possible to something impossible to attain). Solnit argues that walking and what she calls “personal, descriptive, and specific” writing are suited to each other:
walking is itself a way of grounding one’s thoughts in a personal and embodied experience of the world that it lends itself to this kind of writing. This is why the meaning of walking is mostly discussed elsewhere than in philosophy: in poetry, novels, letters, diaries, travellers’ accounts, and first-person essays. (26)
If a person is searching for some kind of possible-impossible grounding in the past, then walking pace is the pace at which to achieve that sensation (both in the world and on the page). It is at walking pace that connections can be made, even if they can be sensed slipping away: this is the Janus-faced problem of attempting to uncover anything which has been. The search, in fact, becomes facsimile for the past itself, or for the inconclusiveness of the past. In my own work—in preparing for that work—I walked and wrote about walking up the flank of the hill which hovered above the house in which I lived before I left England. To get to the top, and the great stone monument which sits there, I had to pass that house. The door was open, and that was enough to unsettle. Baumgarten, again on The Emigrants, articulates the effect: “unresolved, fragmented, incomplete, relying on shards for evidence, the narrator insists on the inconclusiveness of his experience: rather than arriving at a conclusion, narrator and reader are left disturbed” (269).
Sebald writes in his usual intense way about a Swiss writer, Robert Walser, who he calls le promeneur solitaire (“The Solitary Walker”). Walser was a prolific writer, but through the last years of his life wrote less and less until he ended up incapable of doing so: in the end, Sebald says, “the traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have almost been effaced altogether” (119).
Sebald draws parallels between Walser and his own grandfather. Both have worked their way into Sebald’s prose, along with the author himself. Because of this cocktail, I’ve come to read Sebald’s thoughts on Walser as sideways thoughts on his own prose (perhaps due to that cyclopean quality described by White). The works of the two writers share, at the very least, a certain incandescent ephemerality—a quality which exists in Sebald’s work, crystallised in the form and formlessness of a wasps’ nest. The wasps’ nest is a symbol Sebald uses in his book Vertigo, and which he talks to in an interview with Sarah Kafatou:
do you know what a wasp’s nest is like? It’s made of something much much thinner than airmail paper: grey and as thin as possible. This gets wrapped around and around like pastry, like a millefeuille, and can get as big as two feet across. It weighs nothing. For me the wasp’s nest is a kind of ideal vision: an object that is extremely complicated and intricate, made out of something that hardly exists. (32)
It is in this ephemerality that the walker’s way of moving—if not their journey—can be felt. The ephemerality is necessary because of the way the world is: the way it always passes. A work which is made to seem to encompass everything, like Remembrance of Things Past, is made to do so because that is the nature of what walking offers: an ability to comprehend the world solidly, both minutely and vastly, but with a kind of forgetting attached to it. When a person walks through the world they are firmly embedded in it, yes, but they are also always enacting a process of forgetting where they have been. This continual interplay between presence and absence is evidenced in the way in which Sebald and Proust build the consciousnesses they shape on the page—consciousnessess accustomed to connectedness. According to Sebald, it was through the prose of Walser that he learned this—or, at least, through an engagement with Walser’s world, Sebald, “slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time” (149). Perhaps it can be seen in the way that the Méséglise and Guermantes ways resonate for the Proustian narrator even when they are gone. Proust’s narrator receives a letter from an old love, in the last volume of Remembrance, which describes the fate of the Méséglise way (Swann’s way, that is—the title of the first volume in the sequence). Gilberte tells him that the battlefields of World War I have overtaken the paths they used to walk:
the little road you so loved, the one we called the stiff Hawthorn climb, where you professed to be in love with me when you were a child, when all the time I was in love with you, I cannot tell you how important that position is. The great wheatfield in which it ended is the famous “slope 307,” the name you have so often seen recorded in the communiqués. The French blew up the little bridge over the Vivonne which, you remember, did not bring back your childhood to you as much as you would have liked. The Germans threw others across; during a year and a half they held one half of Combray and the French the other. (Time Regained 69-70)
Lia Purpura describes, and senses, a similar kind of connectedness. The way in which each moment builds into something—into the ephemeral, shifting self of a person walking through the world—is emphasised because that is the way the world works:
I could walk for miles right now, fielding all that passes through, rubs off, lends a sense of being—that rush of moments, objects, sensations so much like a cloud of gnats, a cold patch in the ocean, dust motes in a ray of sun that roil, gather, settle around my head and make up the daily weather of a self. (x)
This is what seamless prose can emulate: the rush of moments and the folds and shapes which dust turns and makes. And, well, I am aware that this may seem a grand kind of conclusion, and even a peculiarly nonspecific one. But nonspecificity is built by a culmination of details, of sentences—it is built deliberately, to evoke a sense of looseness in the world. And in the associations which result, through the mind of the writer, their narrator, and the reader, much more than is evident on the page—Sebald’s “everything”—is flung to the surface. Of course, this “everything” is split through with the melancholy evident in the destruction of the Méséglise way. Nonspecificity becomes the result of any attempt to capture the past—or, at least, the past becomes less tangible the longer, closer, and slower your attempt to grasp it. In both Sebald and Proust the task of representation is made to feel seamless in echo of the impossibility of resolution.
In the unbroken track of a sentence lies a metaphor for the way in which life is spent: under threat, forever assaulted by the world and the senses, and forever separated from what came before. The walk-as-method is entangled with the mind thinking and the pen writing; each apes the other, and all work towards the same kind of end: an articulation of how the world is. At least, in the hands of Sebald and Proust and through their long and complex prosodies, it does. For both there is a kind of melancholy attached to this articulation—perhaps because the threads that bind sever as well. The Rings of Saturn offers a look at this. The book closes with a chapter on the weaving of silk, inflected, perhaps, with a knowledge of the ways in which Robert Walser—through attempts to ensnare some of life’s ephemerality—became a victim of it:
That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread. (283)
Vladimir Nabokov, writing on Swann’s Way, gives a competing metaphor for thinking through the seamlessness afforded by walking and writing. It is, altogether, more optimistic: more in keeping with Purpura’s interpretation of connectedness: “Proust’s conversations and his descriptions merge into one another, creating a new unity where flower and leaf and insect belong to one and the same blossoming tree” (214). This is the purpose of long and complex books like The Rings of Saturn and Remembrance of Things Past: to draw the lines which link each and all together. To describe the shape of consciousness, to mimic the actions of a body experiencing its progress through the world. I think that is what the photographs I took when wandering attempt, in a failing way, to do. They all show a kind of relentlessness, but in that relentlessness is also, I think, the promise of connectedness—even if not connectedness itself. Each path aims forward, and articulates something of what came before and what might come next, whether trodden in the world or walked on the page.
I’d like to express my thanks to the anonymous reviewers who took time to improve this article. I’m grateful for their insights and engagement, and for the nuance they added to the final copy.
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———. Time Regained. 1927. Trans. Stephen Hudson. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.
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