Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Monday, August 29, 2011


I think, though I’m by no means sure, that there’s a novel, the entire “action” of which describes a walk across a room.  The notion is that you can see the universe in a grain of sand, and so a few simple steps may be as revelatory as a journey to the end of the earth.  At least I imagine that’s what the book may be about.  I’ve never read it.  In fact I've never been able to discover the title of the book, and I don’t remember where I heard about it, and for all I know it may not even exist.  At one time I thought it might be Tibor Fischer’s “Voyage To The End Of The Room” but I’ve read that, and it’s not.  In any case I thought it was a much older book than that.  Maybe I just imagined it.  Or maybe some well-informed blog-reader will now tell me the title.

When I was working on “The Lost Art of Walking” I mentioned this unknown book to my American editor, who is by no means the most crassly commercial of men, but even so he curled his lip and said, “And you thought that was a great idea for a book didya?”  Well yes, I did actually. And now I’ve been reading “My Two Worlds” (written in Spanish, as “Mis Dos Mundos”) by Sergio Chefjec, which is essentially a novel about a walk in the park.

I know very little about Mr. Chefjec – online sources tell me he’s a Jewish Argentinean, now teaching creative writing in Spanish at NYU.  He and I are supposedly going to be on a panel together at the Brooklyn Book Festival next month so I thought it could do no harm to read his book.

I certainly don’t know how autobiographical the novel is, but it does contain this remarkable passage, “… one of these ideas, among the first I assimilated so thoroughly as to make it my own, was the idealization, initially during the Romantic Era, then the Modern, of the long walk.  There must have been something wrong with me, because at the point at which I should have chosen a way of life for my future, I found nothing persuasive ... incapable of believing in almost anything ... disappointed beforehand by politics; skeptical of youth culture, despite being, at the time, young; an idle spectator at the collective race for money and so-called material success, suspicious of the benevolence of charity or of self-improvement, oblivious of the benefits of procreation … oblivious as well of the idea of following sports or any variety of spectacle … inept at … physical labor; with no belief in any religious alternative while longing to be initiated into that realm … in short, given such failings, I had no other choice but to walk, which most resembled the vacant and available mind.”

This is not exactly the story of my life (I’m rather more pro-youth culture than our narrator, and I don’t really long to be initiated into the religious realm) but it’s not a million miles away. That passage, and indeed, the rest of the book, reminded me of a whole procession of fellow travelers, fellow writers and fellow walkers: Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, W.G. Sebald (of course),  Werner Herzog in “Of Walking In Ice.” 

These writers all have a deep strain of melancholy, and I wondered at first if that’s something that many walkers (or at least many walking writers) have in common.   But perhaps it’s more about being Germanic: Sebald and Herzog - German; Walser - German-speaking Swiss; Bernhard and Handke - Austrian.  In fact they’ve all had peripatetic lives and didn’t end up where they started, so perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of it, but in any case it seems a curious set of writers to be reminded of while reading an Argentinean writer.

“My Two Worlds” uses the word “lacustrine,” which I confess I had to look up.  It means “of or relating to lakes”: the park where the narrator walks is lacustrine.  I’m not sure it’s a word I’m going to be dropping into my conversation very often, but it so happens that last week I took a lacustrine walk of my own.  I was in Minneapolis, actually tagging along on my wife’s business trip, and so while she went off and did business things, I did some walking.

The plan was simple enough, to walk from the hotel, through downtown to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (described satisfyingly as “a project of the Walker Art Center”), a walk that I could see from the map would take me through Loring Park, a place with a couple of expanses of water, and indeed a spectacular (if not strictly sculptural) fountain.

The big attraction at the sculpture garden is the lakeside fountain-sculpture “Spoonbridge and Cherry” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen; a 52 foot long spoon, and a cherry weighing 1200 pounds, with water shooting out of the top of the stem.  I’m not absolutely certain that this is the world’s biggest spoon, but if it’s not I’d certainly like to know where a bigger one is located.

There are also plenty of other sculptures by big name, art stars: Henry Moore, Richard Serra, Tony Cragg, Barry Flanagan, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, among them.

I was there on a weekday and the garden wasn’t crowded, a lot of mothers and children, a few tourists.  We were all “walking” in some sense, but it was the kind of walking that people do when in the presence of art, halting, respectful, attentive, arrhythmic.  Many photographs were being taken, and well-intentioned parents were doing their damnedest to make their kids understand they were in a sculpture garden rather than a playground.  Mixed results there, obviously.

I left the garden and went into the Walker Art Center itself.  It was full of great stuff: an exhibition curated by John Waters, Warhol's "Blow Job" in continuous display, a slideshow of Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” an exhibition titled "Midnight Party" that had a whole room as a cabinet of curiosities.  It was all my kind of thing, and it was terrific.  And yet there was still something melancholic about being by myself in an art gallery.  Again it’s a specialized form of walking, and much harder work than walking purposefully on the street.

And I realized I’d done rather a lot of this kind of thing in my life.  When I was a young man I could never find people to travel with.  It wasn’t that I had no friends, but the friends I had were a stay at home bunch.  I always ended up traveling alone because if I didn’t travel alone I wouldn’t have traveled at all.  And of course this resulted in a lot of walking alone in strange cities, and I’ve always been one of those people who heads straight for a city’s museum of art gallery.  I always found the art consoling even if the experience was a lonely one. And I still sometimes find myself doing much the same today, when I travel alone to do research for a book I’m working on, for instance.

Of course I wasn’t really alone in Minneapolis.  I knew I’d be meeting up with my wife at the end of the day, but the elements of melancholy were still with me.  I left the art gallery and decided to do another circuit of the garden before heading back into town.  

This time I saw a quiet, unflashy piece of sculpture that I hadn’t noticed before.  It was in deep shadow and easy to miss. It was a life-size bronze of a middle-aged man in a raincoat: he looked a little like Nabokov.  The raincoat would have made him overdressed for the day I was there - the temperature was in the eighties - although perhaps he’d have been a bit underdressed for a real Minneapolis winter.  A mother and her little boy were standing beside the sculpture, not really paying it much attention, but the child said, referring to the sculpture, not to me, “Do we know that man?”  The implication being, I suppose, that if we didn’t know him then why had somebody bothered to make a sculpture of him?  His mother assured him that no, “we” didn’t know this man, and that seemed to be explanation enough for the kid.

I read on a nearby plaque that the work was “Walking Man” by George Segal, from 1988.   The Walker Art Center website tells me, “This solitary figure captures an overwhelming sense of the isolation one can encounter in contemporary society,” which strikes me as a bit over deterministic, but I’d agree that there’s something melancholic about the piece, partly caused by the patina and the stains on the surface of the bronze: this is a man who’s been out in the elements for a good long time.  And I think the melancholy is further emphasized by the fact that this is a walking man who isn’t ever going anywhere.  He’s frozen, staying exactly where he is, while the rest of the world walks past, in some cases barely noticing him.

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