As opposed to travelling, aimless, whimsical wandering has been the source of some literary masterpieces…
I step out without purpose, without destination. I step out merely because there is a sudden break in the seemingly incessant rain. The clouds have rolled back over the dark green mountains, like the curtains of some celestial stage, leaving only a w ispy veil as a ghostly reminder of their presence. The late afternoon sun has roared victoriously into the valley, turning every puddle, every tin roof into an incandescent fire.
The narrow path rises steeply under my feet, slippery with tufts of pine needles softened with the rain. Past a bubbling spring, harnessed by a villager’s rough and ready pipe, and then it flattens outs. The ranges, their silhouettes softened and rounded into an unreal gentleness, come into view. One curve follows another under the gaze of the deodhars, their majesty broken every now and then by the impetuous sharpness of some maverick pine. It crosses my mind that I could walk on like this forever, one curve after another, a different view at each turn, a shifting of the light. I could drink from the garrulous springs; I could sleep under a sky overcrowded with stars. And perhaps it could all go into the notebook that I have always carried in my bag. And perhaps it could all form a book…
As I retrace my bourgeois steps towards a warm dinner, I know where the thought comes from. From reading Laurie Lee and Knut Hamsen, not professional travel writers as one knows Paul Theroux or Eric Newby to be, but wanderer-poets — aimless, whimsical, charming.
Though he gained recognition as a poet, Laurie Lee is better remembered for his autobiographical trilogy, the second part of which is bewitchingly titled As I Stepped Out One Midsummer Morning. Here he describes how he left behind his Cotswold childhood (recalled earlier in Cider with Rosie), his mother’s crowded cottage “with rooks in the chimney, frogs in the cellar, mushrooms on the ceiling..” and a deadening position as a junior in an accountant’s firm. Bidding farewell to his mother on “a bright Sunday morning in early June, the right time to be leaving home,” he stepped out in search of “mystery, promise, chance and fortune” on the road to London, carrying on his back “a small rolled up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits and some cheese.” His hat gathered pennies as he played the street fiddler in towns and villages until he began to work in a builder’s team in London. All along he fed his aspirations — writing poetry and hanging around Soho cafes, trying to look darkly international in his crumpled raincoat while he held the “Heraldo de Madrid, which I couldn’t read, and order Turkish coffee, which I couldn’t drink.”
Following the legs
Lee’s wanderings took him to Spain simply because he knew how to ask for a glass of water in Spanish. This Galician journey, across a country of “arid and mystical distances, where the sun rose up like a butcher each morning and left curtains of blood each night”, is recorded in exquisitely lyrical prose, the prose that can be written only with a poet’s eye. It began at the coastal town of Vigo, that “rose from the sea like a rust-corroded wreck” and carried on through Valladolid, “a dark square city, as hard as its syllables.” Drinking wine, playing music, scribbling poetry and conjuring romantic liaisons seemingly at will (Lee held an ineluctable sway over women all his life), he reached Madrid, the city “with the lion’s breath….something fetid and spicy, mixed with straw and the decayed juices of meat.” As he walked on through Andalusia — with the places of the magical names — Cordova, Seville, Gibralter, Castillo — he was already coming up against the beginnings of the Spanish civil war, brought home to the poet in him by “just a whispering in the street and the sound of a woman weeping.” He was to come back later seeking an active role in the war, driven by his sense of adventure and partly by his passionate and doomed entanglement with a married woman — beautiful, demanding, jealous — who had become both his muse and his destroyer.
Knut Hamsen, Norwegian Nobel Laureate for 1920, was another one for wandering. Having spent his childhood a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle — perhaps that had something to do with his spare, almost cold writing style — he tramped away his youth first in Norway and then as a street car attendant and farmhand in America, seeking literary success all the while. It was finally his with the publication of his novel Hunger, an intense tale of a starving writer.
Hamsen was no armchair writer; he lived his philosophies. He worked on his farm, turning agrarian work into an act of individualism and seeing himself as an artist-farmer. His belief in the Nietzschean superman led ultimately to his open and unrepentant support for the Nazi regime, to the extent that he even handed over his Nobel medal to Goebbels. A huge financial fine and a censorship of his books followed the end of the War and literary revival has been understandably slow in coming, though Isaac Bashevis Singer cites him as the founder of the modern school of 20th century fiction, much as Gogol was of 19th century Russian literature.
Politics aside, Hamsun’s two closely inter-related novels — Under the Autumn Sun and On Muted Strings — brought together in a volume entitled, appropriately, The Wanderer, make for intriguing reading. The middle aged protagonist, perhaps “a gentleman’s son whom love had led astray” tries to escape from the city “with its noise and bustle and newspapers and people” and seeks peace in rural solitude, humming to himself, “caring for every stone and every straw.” The simple life that he seeks by drowning himself in whatever manual labour he can find on the farms continues to elude him, perhaps because his mind is not simple. And perhaps because of his tendency to fall in love with the wives or daughters of those who employ him. The protagonist’s dramatic role model is a Mexican ranch hand who once talked in a dead pan voice, looking straight ahead, of a murder he committed. Similarly, Hamsen’s hero talks of complex love situations, “and love is every bit as violent and dangerous as murder”, in a detached manner, even when he is deeply enmeshed in them. For the most part, he keeps his passions bottled up, preferring to wander away when fate does not smile. Emotion is conveyed surreptitiously — a silent vanishing, an inevitable return, a sidelong glance. My favourite line in the volume: “A wanderer plays on muted strings when he reaches the age of two score and ten. That is when he plays on muted strings.”