Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A history of walking. Granta, 2014. First published 2001

This is a scholarly, well-researched and readable account of walking – its history, and how and why humans go for walks, often with no particular goal in mind.

Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust cover She explores the archaeology and anthropology of bipedalism, and the consequences of our ancient ancestors’ rising from all fours to an upright position that enabled perambulation, and the evolutionary and cultural developments that followed.

Then she has a section on that particularly focused kind of walking: pilgrimages, from those in the Americas, to Compostela and the medieval and later European pilgrim destinations (but I don’t recall a mention of Chaucer and Canterbury, and there’s no such entry in the index; maybe I missed it). She’s astute in summing up the essence of why people feel the impulse to set off on such gruelling trips: often, unlike sturdy hikers, these are walkers who are infirm or frail. Many go on pilgrimage in quest of healing or solace.

Labyrinths are the subject of the next section. She sees these as a means of undertaking pilgrimage in a confined space, a sort of symbolic pilgrimage. I don’t recall any mention of Borges here.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the one that deals with the rise of landscape gardening. In medieval and early modern times, nature was seen by civilised people (ie wealthy urbanites) as chaotic, savage and hostile. Solnit doesn’t mention that our word ‘savage’ derives from the Latin ‘silva’, meaning wood, forest, or by extension any wild, uncultivated (and therefore potentially dangerous) place. It’s the opposite of civilised (a word derived from the Latin for ‘relating to a citizen’, ie a dweller in a city).

Gardens, and then country estates of the gentry, were developed as oases of ordered tranquillity; ‘nature needs to be dressed and adorned, at least in the garden.’ By the 18C this had become a pre-Romantic fashion for more natural-looking (less geometrically sculpted) gardens, and the era of the famous landscape gardeners like Capability Brown arrived.

I’d have liked a bit more on Jane Austen’s contribution to the literature of this period. When her heroines ‘take a turn’ round the park of their own estate, or more often that of the wealthier young man on whom they’d set their sights, they set out on what was to be an opportunity to flirt and escape the watchful eyes of chaperones. The gentlemen could show off the ostentation of their wealth; the ladies could legitimately display how well they looked when flushed by exertion and the country air. Solnit astutely quotes Mr Darcy saying (playfully but also meanly) to the young ladies vying for his attention and suggesting a walk: ‘Your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking’.

Although she writes interestingly about the importance and frequency of walks in Austen’s fiction, especially in Pride and Prejudice, she could have made far more of the symbolic, literary and cultural significance of her characters’ ventures out into the natural (and cultivated to look natural) world of gardens, country estates and beauty spots like Lyme Regis.

Behind all this was a concept of nature as being in need of human intervention to remove its imperfections, to enhance and improve it. The garden should look like a landscape painting, something to be aesthetically appreciated by the tourist or visitor.

Then we come to Wordsworth and the rest of the serious walkers of the Romantic era. They went beyond the cosy confines of the country estate: all of nature was their garden, and they thought nothing of walking hundreds of miles on a tour. WW clocked up thousands of miles of pedestrianism in his lifetime.

He broadened the educated person’s appreciation of walking to include pleasure as well as suffering, ‘politics and scenery’:

He had taken the walk out of the garden, with its refined and restricted possibilities, but most of his successors wanted the world in which they walked to nothing but a larger garden.

The concept of urban walking forms another of the most interesting sections of this book. I’d read studies by Solnit and others of the rise of the Parisian (and other cities’) flâneur (and flâneuses – women walking alone in the city were sadly usually associated with street walkers, aka prostitutes, lorettes, and so on). I’ve posted on this topic before, on Walter Benjamin, psychogeography, Breton, and so on; links HERE). I must read Lauren Elkin’s full-length study of this subject.

Unlike Rousseau, who avoided crowds, Baudelaire and other gentlemanly urban strollers were ‘men of the crowd’; they sought out crowded places, even while indulging in their dérives, or drifting, aimless wanderings through the thronged city. Dickens is another famous literary figure who was a prodigious walker, and Solnit perceptively assesses his motives for and accounts of walking.

There is a brief section on the literature of walking, but Solnit sees this as mostly in essay and other non-fiction forms. The likes of Hazlitt and RL Stevenson see walking as a sort of circumscribed activity: ‘the walking essay and the kind of walking described in it have much in common: however much they meander, they must come home at the end essentially unchanged.’ Walking offers an uplifting opportunity to reflect, collect one’s thoughts. ‘And then moralizing sneaks in…Few of the canonical essayists can resist telling us that we should walk because it is good for us, nor from providing directions on how to walk.’

(She’s less stringent and dismissive of Rousseau, in an earlier part of the book. His take on (usually solitary) walking represents what she calls the philosophical kind. Her assessment sums it up as a cross between meditation and escape from the rigours and stresses of urban life, a flight into simplicity, away from crowds.)

Then this intriguing history started, for me, to fizzle out, apart from the section on mountaineering. I found most of the final sections a drag. There was too much digression into Solnit’s experience of demos and street events. Here she veered dangerously close to a kind of right-on Californian pretentiousness. She touches on other modes of transport in the modern age – but not, strangely, sailing; I read most of this book while on a sailing holiday with family on the Croatian-Dalmatian coast. Sailing seems to go beyond the confines of her area of study. There’s also far too much for my taste on the lurid phenomenon of Las Vegas.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Solnit’s writing is mostly elegantly and intelligently done (apart from an annoying habit of starting sentences with ‘Too’). I may have been a bit unfair for wanting to see more of the aspects of this subject that interest me than she was prepared to provide.

A picaresque Basque: Pío Baroja, The Restlessness of Shanti Andía

Back from my summer break in Portugal – that’s why there have been no posts for a few weeks.

The books I took with me turned out not to be a judicious choice. I’ll post about them anyway; although they weren’t to my taste, they have merits worth sharing.

Last spring when I visited Portugal for the first time – a short break in beautiful, shabby Lisbon – I read fiction with a Lusitanian connection: Pereira Maintains , by Antonio Tabucchi, and the pseudonymous Fernando Pessoa’s (the word in Portuguese just means ‘person’), The Book of Disquiet (I posted about both HERE; again, my response wasn’t entirely positive).

 

The Restlessness of Shanti Andía cover

The cover of my 1962 Signet Classics paperback, bought years ago

First: The Restlessness of Shanti Andía by Pío Baroja. I struggled through the first hundred pages, skimmed some more, then, I’m sorry to say, gave up on it.

Baroja had first interested me because he was born in San Sebastián (aka Donostia) in the Basque province of Guipuzkoa – I taught English there for a year some decades ago, and was interested to see what one of its most famous literary figures had written (one of the others is the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, 1864-1936, born in Bilbao, just along the coast from Donostia).

Between 1900 and his death aged 83 in 1956 Baroja published nearly 100 novels, and numerous volumes of autobiography, essays and other writings. This prolific output perhaps accounts for the looseness in structure and general aimlessness of Shanti Andía. Balzac was also sometimes prolix (but also capable of great characterisation, a quality I found missing in this novel).

First published in 1911, it’s a sort of picaresque fictional memoir of a dashing Basque seafarer – it formed part of a loose trilogy called ‘El Mar’, the Sea. Its title in Spanish, Las inquietudes de SA is difficult to translate; ‘restlessness’ suggests a sort of pique; ‘inquietud’ connotes unease, worry; restless as in desire to be on the move, a rejection of tranquillity. That’s Shanti: he can’t bear mundane life ashore, and longs for action, to see the world.

There’s no plot to speak of, then, just a sequence of episodes reflecting those ‘inquietudes’. The first section of the novel recounts the developmental experiences Shanti had as a boy and young man growing up in the Basque fishing village of Lúzaro, such as ‘borrowing’ a boat to explore caves said to be haunted, or trying to board a wrecked ship (an exploit that ends in near disaster). In this sense the novel reminded me of Stevenson’s yarns like Treasure Island (published 1883; indeed, RLS died in 1894, when Baroja was only 23, so he could have read him, though I have no idea if he did; RLS is a much more accomplished writer).

There’s a unifying principle, however, to the narrative: Shanti hero-worships his uncle Juan de Aquirre, who, like his father, was a sailor. The family is told the uncle has died, but Shanti in adult life discovers this is untrue; gradually the old mariner’s exploits are revealed (partly via a ‘found MS’ device beloved of gothic romance) – many of them unedifying, such as his stint serving on a slave ship. I admit I’d stopped reading attentively by then, so can’t say for sure if Baroja shows any sense of immorality in such activities.

Porto tram

My picture from inside the tram to Foz from Porto

Maybe reading this salty yarn in the urban environment of Porto was a mistake. The Atlantic is only a short ride away by charming antique tram from the picturesque city centre, but the riparian environment of the city didn’t harmonise with this book.

Porto, of course, is noted for its port wine, and I loved visiting producers’ vaults and seeing the replica rabelos – the flat-bottomed boats (with curved prows like an Arabian slipper) that plied the dangerous waters of the Douro, bringing the produce of the vineyards far upstream down to the city to be vatted and bottled by the likes of Taylor, Sandeman and Cálem.

Regua

Old photo of rabelos displayed on the wall of a port producer in the upstream Douro town of Regua

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But — back to Baroja.

During Shanti’s apprenticeship to a Cádiz sea captain and his first voyages on the Philippines run, he becomes romantically (and disastrously) involved with their employer’s imperious daughter. Even more clichéd adventures and entanglements follow, with similarly implausible coincidences and complications that could have come straight out of medieval romance.

Shanti Andia title page

Title page of the Signet edition

I don’t think it was the fault of the translators, whose prose reads fairly lucidly, for the most part. It’s the boy’s-own content that I couldn’t get on with.

Maybe I should go back to Bernardo Atxaga.

 

 

 

Taylor's port caves

Inside the Taylor’s port wine caves