Street Walking

The flâneuse does exist, whenever we have deviated from the paths laid out for us, lighting out for our own territories.

Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

I confess a weakness for a particular type of book. Uncertain what to read next, and wandering around the public library as a teenager, I came across Camus and Sartre. Reading The Outsider, Nausea, and books like Crime and Punishment, and Hunger by Knut Hamson. Later on, books by Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot. The encounter with these books is the beginning of a search for a particular kind of aesthetic, the loose cannon wandering the streets, singular. The unmoored figure wresting across the literature of Europe’s cities; and my long-held interest in the stranger, the estranged. The discovery of Jean Rhys and especially Good Morning, Midnight, absolutely changed my life.

Walking is everywhere in Rhys’s city novels, and is something I will be returning to through the course of my writing. Here, I just want to say a few words about walking as lending a structure to my work. I want to take the motion of walking and use it to frame my writing, the walk as a literary construct. It is a form which seems appropriate to Rhys’s urban novels with their fragmented, non-linear and often circular structures.

Rhys uses place and location to map the journeys of her heroines across the city, their inner topography. These walks repeat or enact the past, they explore connections between certain locations and memory, and record encounters with others. Sometimes they are walking to leave something behind, to escape feeling, and to enter a state of indifference. Often they are aimless and without direction; they are journeys that don’t advance the plot and don’t get anywhere. Static kinds of movement leading to dead ends.

As Helen Carr writes, these books wander across and between London and Paris, through memories and journeys that ‘are fragmented, weave backwards and forwards, follow associations, circle back again and again, certain events and certain phrases.’

What is there to be found in retracing one’s steps, over and over?

Perhaps the idea of one continuous journey is misleading and life is really just a series of repetitive movements.

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. […]
This kind of structured, associative thinking is the kind most often connected to walking, and it suggests walking as not an analytical but an impressionistic act.

Rebecca Solnitt, Wanderlust.

I want to retain an open and impressionistic approach, and a structure that is open to digression. Enacting a passage through the books, I want to leave their magic intact. As Anna in Voyage in the Dark thinks, ‘Something in the darkness of the streets has a meaning.’

This is also something to do with motion; movement and inspiration are very much connected for me and I find that all my best ideas, all my writing happens on the move. In seeking to capture what is passing, what is fleeting, I want to write in a way that doesn’t close down the books. By walking, I am attempting to lift the books off the page in some sense.

It is also partly a quest to discover why I keep returning to Jean Rhys and these books, what it is about them that leads me to constantly retrace my steps through certain images and words. It is about how these books have become a part of my own narrative, of how I relate to the world: how the books we read can set us on our walking paths.

On the day I left Paris I took one more walk along the Boulevard Montparnasse as snow was falling. Walking along and looking upwards it is possible to get a sense of some of these places as they were when Rhys was writing. I knew then that the streets had already started to seep under my skin. It is something to do with motion, and the repeated retracing of steps. In the same way I keep returning to Rhys, and to the way she has infiltrated into my own experience.

This is what I want to encounter as I write about place in her work, crossing between cities, walking a path through the novels.

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. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete – for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.

Rebecca Solnitt, Wanderlust.

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