Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Destinaton: Walden Pond

Last week, after closing up Booksmith one night, I discovered that the 66 bus, whose reliable service I often depend upon to take me home to my apartment in JP, would not be at Coolidge Corner for another 33 minutes. Tired after a day of work, I sighed, left the bookstore, and began walking.

Knowing I had a 40 minute trek in front of me, I took out my cell phone. I considered it too late to call anyone in Boston, but none of my friends on the West Coast were answering. So I was stuck with myself for company on my late night walk home, with nothing but my thoughts and the abandoned streets of Brookline to keep me company.

As I crossed Beacon and headed down Harvard, I began thinking about the books waiting at my bedside for me, if ever I made it home: W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, Teju Cole's new novel Open City, and the recently re-published Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch.

By the time I reached South Huntington, I had realized something. All three of these books were connected in a way I had never before recognized. Each of their deeply meditative narratives draw inspiration from the same activity: walking.

W.G. Sebald's narrator takes a walking tour of East Anglia, but his reflections travel far from England's shores, deep into the dark heart of imperialism in Africa, to the silk trade in China, and back to England's landscape, seamlessly weaving together fact and fiction as he excavates deep into England's history and culture.

Open City has a similiarly ponderous pace. "And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city," begins Cole's narrator, an Ethopian med student in New York City. "These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened...in this way...New York City worked itself into my life at a walking pace."

And in Conversations with Kafka, Janouch's narrator--himself as a seventeen-year-old budding poet who has just been introduced to Franz Kafka by his father, a co-worker of Kafka's at Workmen's Accident Insurance Institution--demonstrates that walks are not only fuel for the reflective mind, but can also pave the way into deep discussions with a companion. When not conversing over Kafka's desk at the insurance company, the two escape into the streets of Prague.

Janouch's book was republished by New Directions
with cover illustration by Maira Kalman
and introduction by Francine Prose.
"I often marvelled at Kafka's wide knowledge of all the varied architectual features of the city," Janouch reports, "He was familiar not only with its palaces and churches but also with the most obscure alleys of the Old Town."

As the two roam the streets, what unfolds is not unlike a kind of Socratic dialogue, only more plausible and less didactic. The conversation of the young poet and his mentor, the darkly introspective novelist Kafka, flourishes on the city streets, fed off of the youth of one, the experience of the other, and the exhilaration of a good walk down the familiar yet ever-revealing streets of one's own city.

Inspired, a few days later I found myself pacing out the circumference of Walden Pond with a companion. When our conversation flagged, our thoughts were consumed with the fresh pine-scented fragrance of the air around us or with the minute gradations of gray on the thinly frozen pond. On the train ride back to Boston, we read passages of Henry David Thoreau's essay, "Walking," aloud to one another. "I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking," Thoreau writes, "who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering." 

While I am not sure I have mastered the art of walking yet myself, in the meandering prose of these books I have found mentors and companions, fellow saunterers whose perengrenatious musings inspire me to skip the bus more often, to know the streets of my city through the soles of my feet.

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