The Last Wave

To ‘Pages of Hackney’ last month for a book launch. Pages is a great small independent bookshop I’d not visited before (it opened around the time I left London), with a lively programme of events and extensive second-hand department in the basement. The launch was held in the basement, where I found myself sat next to a display cabinet of pulp erotica. A couple of boxes of LPs were in another corner, and there was so much wine that bottles were stacked up the stairs.

The launch was for The Last Wave, the debut novel by Gillian Best. It centres on the life of Martha, told through the alternating first-person narratives of her family, neighbour, and Martha herself, jumping across time, non-chronologically, from her childhood, and resolving in a symbolic doubling involving her granddaughter.

The opening chapter is set towards the end of the story, boldly breaking the narrative arc by revealing the story’s trajectory, thus placing the novel’s emphasis on individual moments in a family’s life. As each chapter changes voices through the book, we are brought into lives which contain some joy and plenty of regret, and I had a better time with some members of the family than others. I was most won over by the granddaughter, Myrtle, whose combination of drive and wit optimistically counterbalanced the anxieties of adulthood.

The novel is weighted by what one might think of as hot topics for a newspaper: not just Alzheimer’s, but also cancer! Not just post-war sexual repression, but also twenty-first century lesbian coming out! But Best deals with delicate themes authoritatively, avoiding crassness, and with some subtly powerful detail, as in a quiet observation of death’s bureaucracy. When siblings Harriet and Iain are shown a catalogue of cremation urns, Harriet’s thoughts turn unexpectedly to the copy-writer: ‘I thought about the person who had had to write the copy for the brochure, to quietly and sombrely extol the virtues of a gold-plated urn over a simple and understated china white urn. […] It was absurd’ (283-84).

The sea, specifically the English Channel, provides a persistent backdrop for the book, whoever the narrator, and whatever the time-period. Martha derives spiritual strength from the sea, but this remains elusive to those around her, and the sea stops short of taking on the archetypal or transcendental status of a character itself. Yet the book begins with an archetypal image, introducing a terrifically tense opening chapter inside the mind of Martha’s husband. John reaches out for the absent Martha in their bed, her whereabouts unknown. This is a motif that goes back to the ancients: Menelaus does it to the absent Helen in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (424-5); more recently, Mr Ramsay does it in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (Time Passes §3). Best takes this image and embellishes it with items from the world she has created – the sand, the seabed – making it resonate freshly.

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‘Total Rain’: Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice

Werner Herzog, Of Walking in Ice: Munich – Paris, 23 November – 14 December 1974
Translated by Marje Herzog and Alan Greenberg, Free Association, 2008

Suffolk, December 2009
Suffolk, December 2009

Pale brandy on my left thigh, which hurts from my groin down with every step. Why is walking so full of woe? I encourage myself, since nobody else encourages me. Bockighofen – Sontheim – Volkertsheim.
(27 November)

In November 1974, upon learning that the film writer Lotte Eisner was seriously ill, Werner Herzog set out to walk from his home in Munich to Eisner’s in Paris, with the conviction that she would stay alive if he travelled on foot. Of Walking in Ice is Herzog’s published diary of the journey which has the same sense of grand folly he has often committed to film. In Fitzcarraldo (1982) a paddle steamer is dragged over a great peak between two strands of a river. The remarkable triumph of this famous endeavour, which led Herzog to describe himself as ‘Conquistador of the Useless’, inspires a sense of wonder at this magnificent, pointless achievement. During the filming of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog felt alone: isolated by his cast’s and crew’s lack of faith in the project. The solitary expedition of his walk to Paris exhibits a similar self-inflicted exclusion from society. His descriptions of his isolation and physical pain are at times comical in the light of the wilfulness of his seemingly unnecessary walk.

It is a great walking book, possessing a kind of sublime whimsy which stands at odds with the artful strolling of psychogeographers. In its initial, French form, defined by Guy Debord in the 1950s, psychogeography was the term used for a random navigation of a city, deliberately dismissing the prescribed routes to create new and mysterious correspondences between locations. Iain Sinclair is credited with redefining psychogeography in Britain, imbuing the term with a mystical sense of the history of the land uncovered by walking. Herzog’s walk contains neither of these aspects. The closest he comes to the British form of psychogeography is when he visits the house where Joan of Arc was born, at Domrémy: ‘There is her signature, before which I stand a long time. She signed it “Jehanne,” but most likely her hand was guided’ (7 December). Meanwhile, French psychogeography is vaguely discernable in his accidental deviations: ‘I’ve probably made several wrong decisions in a row concerning my route and, in hindsight, this has led me to the right course. What’s really bad is that after acknowledging a wrong decision, I don’t have the nerve to turn back, since I’d rather correct myself with another wrong decision’ (2 December). Primarily, however, Herzog offers us a bald account of his various pains and his loneliness on a journey with a serious and defined destination. His book drifts with the artlessness of a diary not intended for publication, its observations plain, sparkling with direct clarity: ‘Because of the frost, the earthworms unable to cross the asphalt road have burst’ (8 December).

The weather is consistently bad. Upon waking in a display mobile home that he had broken into for rest and shelter,

I immediately pulled the covers of my display bed over my ears when I saw how hard it was raining outside. Please, not this again! Can the sun be losing every consecutive battle? […] then it really began to rain, Total Rain, a lasting-forever winter rain that demoralized me even more because of its coldness, so unfriendly and all-penetrating. (7 December)

Yet the danger threatened by the sun’s lost battles is not principally a soaking. When he finally arrives in Paris, he is indulged: ‘she knew that I was someone on foot and therefore unprotected’ (14 December). He was indeed unprotected from the terrible weather, but more tellingly, in being unshielded by the metal and glass body of a car, train or aeroplane – mechanical exoskeletons which sustain a private world in the midst of unfamiliar and inhospitable territory – he was unprotected from psychological affects of lengthy and solitary travel.

‘Utter loneliness, a brook and its dell are my companions’ he writes (8 December) before following the halting flight of a heron for many miles. The next day, a stray dog follows him, again for many miles. These days of loneliness, pain and communion with animals transform him. On the first day of the walk, his powers are godlike: ‘Our Eisner mustn’t die, she will not die, I won’t permit it. […] When I move, a buffalo moves. When I rest, a mountain reposes’ (23 November). After eighteen days of walking, however, his identification with the numinous animals has been shaken: ‘When I have to get up now, a mammoth will arise’ (11 December). No longer moving as a mighty buffalo, Herzog is sat on by a mammoth. He loses both his humanity and his animal power, describing himself as, ‘disfigured’ (10 December), or ‘the Gloomy One’ (11 December), to the point where his face ‘wasn’t altogether known to me anymore’ (11 December). Alongside this loss of identity is a paranoia that even a rare spell of good weather cannot expel:

For the first time some sunshine again, and I thought to myself, “This will do you good,” but now my shadow was lurking beside me […]. At noon, my shadow cowered there creepingly, down around my legs, causing me in truth such anxiety. (1 December)

Although his confidence and humanity are shaken, Herzog remains tied to the essential truth and necessity of his expedition. He complains repeatedly of the appalling weather, the pain in his groin and thigh, and while he occasionally accepts brief lifts from passing cars or tractors, he always stubbornly returns to the walk. This persistence in the face of his self-inflicted misery is not admirable in itself, and his diary is certainly not filled with the kind of wondrous revelations that would advocate a similar trek to others, as you might hope to find in recent nature writing. Yet there is a value simply in doing a thing that few others would think to do: he gains an experience which is rare in the machine age.

His encounters with other people are, for the most part, perfunctory and reticent: someone who offers a lift, café waitresses, security guards. Otherwise there are only exchanged glances, less meaningful than those he exchanges with animals. 2 December must have been a good day, though, for he concludes with a positive qualification of his solitude: ‘Is the Loneliness good? Yes, it is’ (2 December). It is the same day where, earlier, he encountered an elderly woman who tells him about her children,

one by one, when they were born, when they died. When she becomes aware that I want to go on, she talks three times as fast, shortening destinies, skipping on the deaths of three children although adding them later on, unwilling to let even one fate slip away […]. After the demise of an entire generation of offspring, she would speak no more about herself except to say that she gathers wood, every day; I should have stayed longer (2 December).

He had hitherto passed and spoken with several other people without much comment, yet only here he feels he should have tarried. It is the same desire to stop and speak, or simply to stop and be together, in the face of death that stimulated the walk. Perhaps it was this encounter that encouraged his conviviality during his short stay in the house of ‘two aged women’ and two young girls, later that same day. There is unexpected tenderness in the brief exchange with one of the girls:

soon she grew trustful and made me tell her about the jungle, about snakes and elephants. She would probe me with trick questions to see whether or not I was telling the truth. […] I hand her my knife for the night, just in case I turn out to be a robber after all. (2 December)

This life-affirming day, when even loneliness is good, holds the elusive key to understanding the motivation behind Herzog’s grand foolishness. His method is vindicated as his respectful conversations delicately reveal life’s joy and misery.