I seem to have been reading a lot about walking recently, but everything I read takes me back to a single text called In Praise of Walking. It was written by Thomas A Clark some years ago and, even though I once knew Tom, have eaten borscht made with beetroot from their garden at his and Laurie’s table and own precious copies of many of his earlier works, we’d fallen out of touch when In Praise of Walking was published and I only came across the poem in a Paladin anthology published in 1993 and entitled, in the then fashionable lower case, the tempers of hazard, where Tom was one of the three featured poets, alongside Barry MacSweeney and Chris Torrance. The poem was a revelation to me, although it shouldn’t have been. It seems to me a great work, to which all his other work leads, not in a linear way, but in the way – appropriately – of a walk during which to get lost can be ‘a good thing’. The accomplishment of the poem lies in its unwavering modesty and attention, both qualities that endear themselves naturally to walkers, and in the classical elegance of its expression. It has the quality of aphorism, but of aphorism that eschews the easy glitter of paradox, and of a larger, more ascetic renunciation that runs through all Tom’s work: that of remaining ‘responsive, adequate, to the consequences of the choice we have made.’ It’s a work that stays.
So Tom’s poem – alongside the idea of walking as both practice and occasion for metaphor – was on my mind as I read two recent novels. The first, published by Salt and shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, was Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse. It’s a short novel and, on the surface at least, is concerned with a man, Futh, who takes, or attempts to repeat, a walking holiday in Germany. The first time he was with his father; the second time he’s using the walk to escape from, or understand, his marriage coming to an end. It’s a circular walk, which is surely significant, and it’s also one of those walks in which you’re rendered free of your usual trappings simply because each morning they’re left in one hotel to be recovered in another hotel at the end of the day. Someone else, in other words, becomes responsible for moving the walker’s life on, the walk itself becoming an evasion, but a cosseted one, while the practicalities of that other life, to which the walker remains inextricably bound, are dealt with by others. There’s a passivity about walking like this, and a constriction that works against what might be considered the natural purpose of a walk, ‘the dislocation of a persistent self interest’, as Tom Clark puts it, particularly as Futh is tormented by the unpleasant physical side effects of the business, from blisters to sunburn to an almost constant hunger. But Moore’s novel is less about the walk itself – which finally seems no more than a chore or marking of time – than about the relentless self interest and self interrogation of its hero. Its an interrogation conducted through memory and anecdote and the light cast upon the past by a probing, anxious, ultimately thwarted present, as though the lighthouse of the title, and the various lighthouses within the novel, were as concerned with making sense of their own workings as with preserving others from hazard. Because what’s odd about the novel is that the actual purpose of a lighthouse – that of illuminating and protecting – is less important than the rocky emotional shoals from which it so signally fails to protect the two protagonists – Futh and his stationary counterpart Ester, the landlady at the start and end of Futh’s journey. The world of the novel, from its low-key, intriguing outset to its shocking yet utterly fitting climax, is imbued with hazard. The hotel run by Ester and her husband is in a place called Hellhaus, which, as others have noted, doesn’t just mean what it appears to mean but also has the sense of lighthouse (hell = light), and the light cast in the novel is unrelievedly harsh, just as the moments of humour – and there are some – are uneasily bleak and fleeting. If I have any doubts about the novel, which I greatly enjoyed, it’s the neatness of it and the sense that nothing is wasted. There’s a kind of surprise and exuberance, of apparent superfluousness if you like, about walking, and maybe about writing, that this novel seems to forego. It’s a novel in which, superbly, everything ties in with everything else, that resurrects symbolism as its essential practice and then takes this as far as it can, through multiplication and deflection. But maybe it reveals its procedures a little too openly. There are times when a walker becomes too absorbed by the map in his hand to be alert to surprises the landscape may be offering.
Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon, published by And Other Stories, is perhaps even more concerned with walking than The Lighthouse, but takes a very different approach, already implicit in the title. While the movement of the latter novel is cyclic, inescapably so, Zbinden’s Progress is precisely that, a slow, and inexorable movement, from one place to another, both journey and recapitulation. As in Moore’s novel, the journey is fuelled by memory, but it’s also, and more powerfully, moved by affection and purpose. In fact, for all their apparent similarities – length, independent press, literariness – the two novels couldn’t be less alike. EM Forster, talking about the novels of a friend of his, Forrest Reid, said that they ‘have a tendency to make people feel better,’ and this is also true of Simon’s novel. Zbinden, its hero in a way that Futh is not nor is intended to be, not merely at the heart of the book but its actual heart, is an old man in a care home. He is being taken on his daily walk by a new carer, Kâzim. Because of his age, Zbinden moves slowly down through the building from floor to floor, in a progress that’s both halting, interrupted by encounters and the anecdotes and memories (once again, as though no walk would be complete without them) that they trigger, but also stately, as any progress should be. Descending the stairs, Zbinden talks about his life, his love for his dead wife Emilie, his difficulties with his son Markus, his job, his childhood, but what holds all these together, other than the inimitable voice of the narrator (masterfully translated by Donal McLaughlin), is the theme of walking. Walkers, for Zbinden, are those who ‘think about themselves and their environment’; they are less concerned with being followed by others than with following the path before them, not as a task (‘I don’t think the purpose of being here is to fulfil a task’) but as an exploration, an opening to the world. As he says, in the passage that perhaps most explicitly reveals the heart of the book:
I knew many people who said, rightly, ‘I’m a grafter. And I’m exhausted.’With great fervour, they sought honorary posts, activities to be involved in; demonstrated their endurance levels without so much as a blink; rushed with import and export figures to meetings and conferences in the remotest of settlements, gasping like some creature in labour. And then death came along and they discovered: they’d spent the voyage across the sea in the ship’s hold. [...] They didn’t know what they were so angry about, and didn’t know how to calm themselves. Nightmarish. Buried alive. But you don’t have to live like that. Going for a walk takes you up on deck.
As I said above, the two novels couldn’t be more different. The Lighthouse is Alison Moore’s first published novel and part of its considerable accomplishment may come from its narrow emotional register, as though certain areas of experience are too slippery, or ungraspable, to be dealt with, or too close to sentimentality to be risked. Zbinden’s Progress is Christoph Simon’s fourth novel (I haven’t read the other three) and it shows, for me, in the risk he takes, the risk of becoming twee, of trivial, of losing the sense of the walk for the details that punctuate it, a risk he triumphantly brushes to one side. Thomas A Clark says that ‘Walking is the human way of getting about’ and the keynote to the novel, underpinning the breeziness, and the poignancy, is its compassion. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end when Markus, as a child, is struggling to lift a heavy stone and his mother asks him if he’s doing all he can. When he tells her that he is, she says ‘I don’t believe you…because, so far, you haven’t asked me to help you.’
What the two novels share, of course, apart from their quality, is the fact that both have been published by independent presses. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream publisher risking either of these books – although it shouldn’t be, and wouldn’t have been a couple of decades ago – and it’s our good fortune that Salt and And Other Stories have taken the job on with such exceptional results.