Friday 18 May 2012

Botanising on the Asphalt

Talking of flaneurs, I've just finished reading the chapter titled Paris, or Botanising on the Asphalt in Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking. She's good on Paris, and this chapter takes us through the transformations of the city - 'now a landscape, now a room' - and its immense walking possibilities (now curtailed by car domination) by way of the obscure Restif de la Bretonne, the more familiar Buadelaire and pals, the Surrealists, Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, and on to such faintly absurd figures as Christophe Bailly with his talk of  'une grammaire generative des jambes' (please!). And through it all strolls the archetypal but elusive flaneur...
It's one of the better chapters in a patchy book that tends to veer into academic waffle, journalese and right-on political attitudes. I bought it because it practically threw itself at me. Spotting it in Foyles at St Pancras, I turned it over in my hands and thought Hmm this looks interesting... but I didn't buy it. Then, a week or two later, there it was again, in dubious company on a shelf in my local Oxfam. Clearly, this time, I had to buy it... When Solnit settles down and gets immersed in her subject (as with Paris, as with Wordsworth and the romantics), she can be very good, but there are whole areas of walking that she barely touches, e.g. the strange history of pedestrianism, the epic walks of medieval travellers, walking 'fugues'. Iain Sinclair's reflections on walking in London Orbital and elsewhere are more rewarding (and better written). However, Wanderlust  is full enough of nuggets of information and choice quotations to keep me reading. For example, there's Hazlitt on Wordsworth: 'He sees nothing but himself and the Universe.' And Dickens on his compulsive walking: 'If I couldn't walk fast and far, I should explode and perish.' I know the feeling, though I have seldom walked as fast or as far as Dickens, who had the happy knack of falling into a kind of waking slumber while his legs carried him along through the night at a steady four miles an hour - which, for a man of his height, is fast indeed.
The picture, by the way, is R.B. Kitaj's The Autumn of Central Paris (After Walter Benjamin). The phrase 'now a landscape, now a room' is Benjamin's.


  1. Strangely enough, this is the second time Rebecca Solnit has come up in my reading today! Just this morning I read a feature around her book on how disasters like earthquakes and 9/11 tend to bring out the best in human nature... probably not a great book either, but there were some interesting bits in the piece.

  2. Fancy that! Nice bit of synchronicity. I'd never heard of her until Wanderlust hurled itself at me...
    Remember you're reading for two now!

  3. thanks for the review Nige as you've saved me the bother of reading it!

    London orbital for me is a very strange book being one that I found very interesting as well as very annoying in equal measure

  4. I know what you mean Worm, but I found London Orbital addictive above all - was actually reading more slowly as I neared the end, which doesn't often happen.

  5. You may have mentioned it, but Willard Spiegelman also has a very pleasant book about flaneurhood.

  6. No I didn't know that Shelley - is that Seven Pleasures? Looks like a very inviting read...