With the virus restrictions preventing more than a brief daily stroll, CHARLIE CONNELLY goes in search of books that provide a bit more of a sense of journey.
I miss walking. I mean, I get out once a day for a mooch about but it’s the same short route every time, nodding at the same people from two metres away, seeing the same cracks in the same paving stones and the same crisp packet jammed into the same bench.
It’s a small price to pay, and one I’m very happy to keep forking out until things can return to as close to normal as they’ll ever be. I’m healthy, people close to me are healthy and my local supermarket shows no sign of running out of scotch eggs or Frazzles any time soon. Things could be, by some distance, a great deal worse, but that doesn’t change the fact that some distance is what I miss.
Walking is good for the mind and good for the body. My mental health has never been better than the time I walked the length of England, north to south. Setting out at dawn every morning not knowing where I’d be sleeping that night, walking beneath big skies that brought with them all the elements meteorology had to offer and the delights of serendipity in meeting people and seeing things I never would have otherwise: I struggle to think of a happier time. And by the end my calves could have deflected artillery shells.
My current two-mile daily circuit is certainly better than nothing and I’m grateful for it but I can’t wait to be able to pull on my boots and set off for a Sunday yomp, or a Saturday morning on which I can catch a train to somewhere two days’ walk away and be home in time for the Antiques Roadshow.
Instead I find myself turning to my bookshelves for some ambulatory solace that can transport me further than my government-approved constitutionals. Now that anything farther than the Post Office is marked ‘here be dragons’, it’s literature’s itinerants that have to do the walking for me.
There are plenty of non-fiction options. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy of books charting his teenage walk across 1930s Europe from London to Istanbul remains the yardstick for bipedal travel narratives. The first volume A Time of Gifts, in which he gets as far as the Danube, is a masterpiece, the sequel Between the Woods to the Water takes him across Hungary and Romania, and the posthumously assembled final book The Broken Road completes an incredible journey beautifully recorded. Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning provides similar balm, starting out almost at the same time as Leigh Fermor with a walk from Gloucestershire to London and then travelling to Spain on the brink of civil war.
‘I felt it was for this I had come: to wake at dawn on a hillside and look out on a world for which I had no words, to start at the beginning, speechless and without plan, in a place that still had no memories for me,’ he wrote.
Fiction writers and poets have long extolled the benefits of walking. Wordsworth was an unstoppable perambulator: Thomas de Quincey estimated that during his lifetime the poet walked 180,000 miles (which works out at a shade under nine miles a day, every day, for his entire adult life, and that in the days before Gore-tex) while Dickens’ walking through London, especially at night, inspired some of his finest work.
‘If I couldn’t walk fast and far I should just explode and perish,’ he said, which would have caused a terrible mess had he ever found himself in lockdown.
Vladimir Nabokov used to cite Stephen Dedalus’ and Leopold Bloom’s meanderings through a Dublin day in James Joyce’s Ulysses as the key to understanding the work, not Joyce’s philosophical underpinnings.
‘Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings,’ he grumbled, ‘instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.’
He was a man of his word, too, drawing his own map of the pair’s peregrinations through the city on June 16, 1904.
Mrs Dalloway’s wanderings through London on her mission to buy flowers for a party have been similarly plotted, with Virginia Woolf another enthusiast for the wonders of walking. In 1905, aged 23, she travelled with her siblings to St Ives where they had enjoyed a number of childhood summers in Talland House, rented by their father on the edge of the town every year of Virginia’s life until she was 12 years old.
‘It has become the habit for me to spend my afternoons in solitary trampling,’ she wrote in her journal of that return trip. ‘A great distance of the surrounding country have I now traversed thus, and the map of the land becomes solid in my brain.’
It might have been set on the Isle of Skye but her extraordinary novel To the Lighthouse, published in 1927, was all about those childhood holidays, conceived first on those Cornish walks and formed during the frantic perambulations around Bloomsbury Square during which the book formed
in her mind ‘in a great involuntary rush’.
Yet for all I was pulling these books off the shelf, reading the back covers, pursing my lips and raising my eyebrows the tome I eventually settled down with in an attempt to replace the thrum of miles in my soles and thighs was a walking odyssey in which the protagonist didn’t even go outside.
Xavier de Maistre was born into a French noble family in 1763. He became a soldier in the army of Piedmont-Sardinia, service that in 1790 took him to Turin. We don’t know the details but while in Turin de Maistre fought an illegal duel – presumably successfully – for which he was tried and sentenced to 42 days under house arrest.
Did he use his time in domestic solitary confinement to reflect upon his misdeed? No, he did not. Instead he set about writing Voyage autour de ma chambre (‘Journey Around My Room’).
It’s one of those books that’s been on my shelf for years but I’d never got around to. I’d been wary of it because I rather feared it was a work of windy, beard-stroking philosophy, but that was more his brother’s bag. Joseph de Maistre was a counter-revolutionary during the French Revolution and its aftermath, firmly believing – with spectacularly bad timing – that monarchy was a divinely bestowed right and the most effective form of government, while the French Revolution had come about purely because people were not religious enough anymore.
Journey Around My Room is an absolute riot. Written in 42 short chapters, one for each day of de Maistre’s confinement, it’s a grand, sweeping travelogue of a sort becoming popular at the time as explorers traversed the globe discovering new and distant lands. Except de Maistre isn’t going anywhere, treating his incarceration as an epic voyage around his room, visiting the furniture and furnishings within it.
‘What more glorious than to open for oneself a new career,’ he begins with characteristic understatement, ‘to appear suddenly before the learned world with a book of discoveries in one’s hand like an un-looked for comet blazing through the empyrean!’
Describing the parameters of his itinerary he informs the reader that, if he stays close to the wall, the longest walk around his room takes 36 steps.
‘My journey will, however, be longer than this,’ he assures us, ‘for I shall traverse my room up and down and across, without rule or plan. I shall even zig-zag about, following, if needs be, every possible geometrical line.’
He walks some of it, but also travels, ‘when not pressed for time’, in his armchair, rocking it back and forth and side to side, setting out for and contemplating such exotic vistas as his bed.
‘A bed sees us born and sees us die,’ he muses. ‘It is the ever-changing scene upon which the human race plays by turns interesting dramas, laughable farces and fearful tragedies. It is a cradle decked with flowers. A throne of love. A sepulchre.’
The tone is consistently ironic verging on self-mockery. When he does ruminate upon how enforced solitude enables his mind to separate from his body, he doesn’t labour the point and never spends long in deep introspection. Indeed, he follows a rare maudlin chapter revisiting the death of a friend with a note to say he didn’t really want to include it in the first place and ‘if anyone thinks I should have omitted this chapter he can tear it from his copy or even throw the whole book on the fire’.
So used does de Maistre become to his enforced solitude that a knock on the door startles him to the extent he falls out of his armchair. He was just about to reach his bureau on the far side of the room too, a major landmark on his epic journey, an incident he likens to a post-chaise turning over on the highway.
Finally, when his six weeks are up and he’s released from domestic captivity and back into the routines of life as it was before, his feelings are more complicated than he’d envisaged.
‘I am now free then, or rather, I must enter again into bondage,’ he sighs. When lockdown restrictions finally ease and everyday life begins to find its rhythm and routine again, will we come to regard our liberty in similar terms?
Voyage Around My Room is a short book, a very funny book and, at a time when everyone seems to be devouring Camus’ The Plague, the perfect book for the Covid-19 lockdown. Xavier de Maistre could never have thought that 300 years after he wrote it his book would become topical, even useful.
In fact he hadn’t even wanted to publish it at all, it was his brother demonstrating a prescience lacking from his political philosophy who ensured it was turned into a book.
Call it satire, call it the first work of psychogeography, call it a self-help guide for the pandemic generation, Xavier de Maistre’s perambulations around his 36-pace room provide a sobering reminder that you don’t necessarily have to wander far to walk your mind to a happier, healthier place. I’m heading out now with a spring in my step. I hope no-one’s moved that crisp packet.
Voyage Round My Room by Xavier de Maistre is published by W.W. Norton, price £10.99