Path at Wakehurst Place Garden, England, 2004.
Photo by Paul Friel
The narrator in this novel runs with two gangs: a group of petty criminals who spend their days playing cards and hanging out at the racetrack, and a cultlike band of revolutionaries who aim to “bring about the liberation of the Mind and of the proletariat” by strolling the Paris streets, arguing about the unconscious, and attending the occasional sťance. Queneau’s writing is lighter (and funnier) than the Surrealists’, whom he spoofs here, and while Odile has less of the Oulipian wordplay and formal strictures of his later novels, its hapless protagonist, wandering the boulevards and back alleys of Paris, is classic Queneau. It is through walking that Odile’s shapeless hero gradually forms an identity and a past: “Through the streets of Paris, I was reclaiming my memory.”
In 1979, Calle started trailing strangers in Paris “for the pleasure of following, not because they interested me.” One day in 1981, she shadowed an unknown man and later ran into him at a friend’s art opening. This coincidence persuaded her to stalk him during his trip to Venice. Suite Venitienne consists of Calle’s journal entries and surreptitious photographs of the man (her camera was equipped with the beautifully named Squintar lens). Contingency plays a large role in this book, in terms of both Calle’s choice of prey and the improvised routes she walks, based on his movements (some actual, others imagined). In his concluding essay, Baudrillard describes how, through “shadowing” someone, a “commonplace existence can be transfigured” and an exceptional one “made commonplace.”
When Herzog learned that filmmaker Lotte Eisner was dying in Paris, he decided to walk there from his home in Munich. This book is the journal he kept along the way. Leaving Germany in late November, Herzog is beset with ice, “Total Rain,” and the suspicions of strangers wherever he goes. The writing occasionally drifts into dream and fantasy, but the book’s charm lies in the simple and terse oddness of Herzog’s everyday observations (a tattooed nun; a boy carrying a tropical fish in a bag; a woman seen in the distance, crawling on all fours). His isolation becomes a burden, but it is also what enables his perspicacity: “Is the Loneliness good? Yes, it is. There are only dramatic vistas ahead.”
The narrator in this novel treks through Suffolk County, England, in an effort to combat the emptiness he feels whenever he finishes working. The book’s structure (as in most of Sebald) is shaped by the cadences of walking. The seamlessness of the prose, its pace, and its spatial and temporal vagaries somehow manage to form a cohesive and forward-moving narrative. While the physical boundaries of the walk are local, Sebald’s scope is global and historical. Nature is never a purely natural phenomenon; he sees signs of dissipation and the destruction wrought by culture everywhere. Near the end of the book, he writes, “I knew then as little as I know now whether walking in this solitary way was more of a pleasure or a pain.” For me, reading Sebald poses a similar quandary, but the fact that I so often return to him suggests the answer: The pleasure of his company makes his relentless fatalism bearable.
While Sebald’s nature walks are ultimately encounters with human culture, Baker’s immersion in the life of the peregrines of East Anglia documents his attempt to efface the human. Near the beginning of The Peregrine, he writes that he has “always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence.” This is one of the few sentences in which a subjective author appears—the book is a work of tireless outward observation, with an astonishingly inventive and precise prose style. Queneau and Calle walk through city streets, Herzog and Sebald through the countryside, and each is grounded, moving horizontally through a literal or figurative landscape. Baker’s feet may be on the ground, but his gaze is skyward, toward the birds he envies: “We have no element,” he despairs near the end of the book, “nothing sustains us when we fall.”
Lisa Darms is senior archivist at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University.