|Jan/Feb 2009 Nonfiction|
Damon Galgut is the author of A Sinless Season (1982), Small Circle of Beings (1988), The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991), The Quarry (1995), The Good Doctor (2003), Strategy and Siege (2005), and "The Follower" (2005). The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003. His new novel, The Impostor, will be published in the U.S. by Grove Press in January 2009.
Half a lifetime ago at the age of just 19, Damon Galgut's first novel, A Sinless Season, was published. He describes it now as "not a book I'm very proud of," and "too way back in the mists for me to dredge up," but even then he touched on his recurring theme of walking. "He preferred to be alone and in motion," he wrote, "not allowing his body to solidify into the restrictions of companionship or stillness."
More recently, his story "The Follower" begins: "He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking and alone."
"I spend at least a portion of every day walking," he tells me. "There's a certain security and comfort associated with it, I guess. It started in mid-adolescence when things were quite unpleasant at home, and I think it was a way of escaping, but that impulse has never entirely left me. I'm always very restless if I sit in the same place for too long." Now, as a writer, "The impulse to get away from home is sort of grafted onto the impulse to think about what I'm doing at home, in other words, the work. So the two are really inseparable.
"It's about the rhythm of the walk. There's something about the rhythm of walking that's deeply satisfying. It's partly to do with the fact that you can do it without having to think about it. I mean, one can't drive a car without thinking about it. Your mind has to stay on what you're doing, whereas with walking you can actually do it automatically, with an unconscious part of your mind, which sets the rest of my mind free to work in a very particular way. So that's very often what I do if I'm stuck. I'll create a mission to go down to the shops to get something I don't really need, but I persuade myself I do, to get away from sitting still."
Funnily enough, he is unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf's wonderful essay, "Street Haunting," in which she describes this dilemma. For her the solution was a pencil. "No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil," she wrote, "but there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner... So when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: 'Really I must buy a pencil,' as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter—rambling the streets of London." A justification seems necessary when simply walking for its own sake is seen to be doing nothing.
And then sometimes she finds that suddenly the fog that has been gathering while sitting still for too long clears, like the time when, "One day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary rush."
German writer Robert Walser, in his novella The Walk, elaborates when pleading for a reduction in taxes. "'Permit me to inform you,' I said frankly and freely to the tax man... 'that I enjoy, as a poor writer and pen-pusher or homme de letters, a very dubious income.'... The superintendent or inspector of taxes said: 'But you're always to be seen out for a walk!'"
"'Walk,' was my answer, 'I definitely must, to invigorate myself and to maintain contact with the living world, without perceiving which I could not write the half of one more single word, or produce the tiniest poem in verse or prose. Without walking, I would be dead, and my profession, which I love passionately, would be destroyed. Also, without walking and gathering reports, I would not be able to render one single further report, or the tiniest of essays, let alone a real long story. Without walking, I would not be able to make any observations or studies at all... On a lovely and far-wandering walk a thousand usable and useful thoughts occur to me. Shut in at home, I would miserably decay and dry up.'"
Rebecca Solnit, in her chapter on labyrinths in Wanderlust, compares writing to walking. "I have often wished," she muses, "that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that a sentence is likewise a road and reading is traveling (I did the math once and found the text of one of my books would be four miles long were it rolled out as a single line of words instead of being set in rows on pages, rolled up like thread on a spool)."
Along with criticism of idleness when out walking, comes suspicion of the walker. Wariness of the stranger entering or passing through, in the words of Thomas De Quincey, "by base pedestrian methods." In Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm—"a strange coming and going of feet"—when Bonaparte Blenkins arrives, the Dutch woman says: "I'll have no tramps sleeping on my farm. If he'd had money wouldn't he have bought a horse? Men who walk," she reasons, are nothing but "thieves, liars, murderers, Rome's priests, seducers."
In De Quincey's day innkeepers developed a shrewd way of evaluating potential guests. "Four wax-lights carried before me by obedient mutes, these were but ordinary honors," he noted, "meant (as old experience had instructed me) for the first engineering step towards effecting a lodgment upon the stranger's purse. In fact the wax-lights are used by innkeepers, both abroad and at home, to 'try the range of their guns.' If the stranger submits quietly, as a good anti-pedestrian ought surely to do, and fires no counter gun by way of protest, then he is recognized at once as passively within range, and amenable to orders. I have always looked upon this fine of five or seven shillings (for wax that you do not absolutely need) as a sort of inaugural honorarium entrance-money; what in jails used to be known as smart money, proclaiming me to be a man comme il faut; and no toll in this world of tolls do I pay so cheerfully."
Galgut, in his novel The Quarry, conjures up the pedestrian stranger appearing on "the road unspooling through that landscape of grass in which nothing moves except what you dream up in it... I started with an image of a man on a road," he says. "I had no idea who he was, where he was coming from, where he was going." Only that "he was a man with a past."
More unexpected, perhaps, is suspicion from those you're walking away from. "When he first started walking he was twelve or thirteen years old," Galgut writes in "The Follower." "He walked aimlessly for hours through the quiet suburban streets, he liked feeling that he was inside everything but also outside it at the same time. But when he took to walking at night it caused consternation and alarm, his mother started questioning him, where do you go to, you can tell me..."
"She takes his arm and looks into his eyes, searching for lies or drugs, what does she see there. Soon afterwards he goes out walking again. He goes through the cool dark, with lighted windows in the distance, dogs barking far off, scents of flowers heavy on the air, he is everywhere and nowhere, he is what his senses tell him, he is nobody."
"Years later, when he has left home, he continues to walk. By now it's probably himself he's escaping. It's something that he needs to do and he goes out a few times a day. Other people, those who don't walk themselves, are still suspicious of him, more than once he is asked that same question, where do you go to, you can tell me, where do you go."
As a child Galgut had cancer and was bedridden for a long period of time. When he finally began to recover and was "allowed to leave the bed," the mother in his autobiographical novella Small Circle of Beings tells us: "I must teach him to use his feet. An infant once more, he staggers and reels on thin white legs." And later, when he is an adolescent: "I still think of him as weak and soft. His body has lain on too many beds, under too many sheets, to lie down on mountains now." I wonder if perhaps it was having this simple but precious act of independence, that most of us take for granted, snatched away from him for a time, that compels him to walk. "I haven't thought about that in terms of the obsession with walking," he considers. "Maybe there is such a connection, but it's a deeply unconscious one. It's possible, I guess. Most of the people I know see little point in walking just purely for enjoyment. It's a foreign idea to them."
"By contrast," he continues in "The Follower," "he's learned to recognize other walkers in the street, a weird and various tribe of nomads, driven by different motives and intentions, some looking for a room, some trying to escape the room they have. Their faces and clothes and histories don't match, but there is something common to them all, something hard to define but it has to do with the way they carry themselves, the intensity of purpose as they move."
It is this that he recognizes in Reiner, whose follower he reluctantly becomes. "As he comes to the crest of a hill" while walking in Greece, "he becomes aware of another figure far away... When they draw even they stop." They conduct a conversation "with a curious formality, the width of the road between them," like a blank page, "and yet there is something in the way they relate that is not quite intimate, but familiar. As if they have met somewhere before, long ago." But this is a mirage; no two walkers are alike.
Later, in Africa, Reiner wants more detailed maps: "Then we can plan every part of the walk."
The way Galgut's novels have taken shape gives us a clue as to how he prefers to walk. "I didn't know the whole arc of the journey from beginning to end, but I did know points along the way, and the exploration for me lay in joining the dots. There's the same sense governing the unfolding of a plot as there is that governs a certain kind of journey, in the sense that you might begin your journey without knowing where you were going to, and without knowing exactly which choice you would make if you came to a place where the road forked. There are infinite numbers of ways you can go. Or perhaps they're not infinite, but they feel infinite. And the choice you make at a particular fork will determine where your road's going to take you and to what further choices."
Unlike Galgut, Reiner has no curiosity about people. "Even here in South Africa, where he had never been, Reiner has no interest in what is happening around him, when he goes on his long walks through the streets" of Cape Town, "he has a pair of earplugs that he pushes into his ears, he doesn't want external noises to intrude." And when he returns from the library, "It turns out he hasn't found out about the history of the country at all. Instead he's researched the climate, the terrain and topography, everything coded into numbers." And yet he is contradictory. Even when Galgut "leaves his flat on the most mundane errand Reiner is always with him. He is worn down by the constant presence."
Though Galgut says he has little faith in the human race as a whole, and his writing is often described as bleak, he is fascinated and moved by relationships between individuals. "I always find myself on slightly uncertain ground when this question of bleakness comes up," he says, quite undefensively considering the question, "because I have to recognize it as part of... it's clearly present in the work because nearly everybody comments on it in some shape or form, but it doesn't feel like bleakness to me because it just is intrinsically part of how I see things. In a way I'm trying to understand something that's maybe more apparent to other people than it is to me. I have to acknowledge that my view of the world, of the way the world works, of the way human interactions work, is very often out of step with the general view. People have a lot more optimism about their own lives, and about human life in general than maybe I do. But what other people see as bleakness or cynicism, I really do see as a form of realism. It really is just how I see things to be. I don't think my temperament is so unnaturally weighted that I'm distorting the way I see."
At the same time his writing displays compassion and intimacy. And at times in our conversation I find myself uncomfortably wondering which of my idiosyncrasies he might be observing for use in his fiction later. "I think people manage to connect in quite extraordinary ways, actually," he says. "That there are moments of, for want of a better word, real meaning that happen between people."
In his story "Lovers," a son goes in search of his remote, deceased father, and discovers an old love that his father never acted on. In her confusion, the old woman mistakes him for the father. "I could think of little other than this soft, appalling caress," says the man. But at the same time "Her body did not seem old in the blue dark... I did pause a moment to think before I performed this final act of kindness allowed me in my life. But it was more than that. There was a kind of love in it, and a passion too. It gave her peace, and him. Perhaps it also gave me peace."
In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," a convalescent, with the heightened senses that come from a long illness, sits in a coffee house and observes the passing crowd. "It seemed that in my peculiar mental state, I could frequently read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years," he says. But in the end he concludes "It was well said of a certain German book that... it does not permit itself to be read." Likewise, there are people we would not want to really know. And Reiner was better left to finish his walk on his own.
Reflecting on the need to walk, Galgut says, "I suppose there's a certain melancholy associated with it, too. Walking features a lot in the long, lonely midnight walks through strange cities in the writing of WG Sebald," referring to one of his favorite authors. The title character in Sebald's Austerlitz recalls, "how secure have I felt seated at the desk in my house in the dark night, just watching the tip of my pencil in the lamplight following its shadow, as if of its own accord and with perfect fidelity, while that shadow moved regularly from left to right, line by line, over the ruled paper... But I soon realized that the shadows were falling over me... I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence." And accelerating towards a mental breakdown, he begins to echo the remedy used by Dickens more than a century earlier, and goes on "nocturnal wanderings through London, to escape the insomnia which increasingly tormented me. For over a year," said Austerlitz, "I would leave my house as darkness fell, walking on and on... It is a fact that you can traverse this vast city almost from end to end on foot in a single night... and once you are used to walking alone and meeting only a few nocturnal specters on your way, you soon begin to wonder why, apparently because of some agreement concluded long ago, Londoners of all ages lie in their beds in those countless buildings in Greenwich, Bayswater or Kensington, under a safe roof, as they suppose, while really they are only stretched out with their faces turned to the earth in fear, like travelers of the past resting on their way through the desert."
On his "Night Walks" Dickens explored the experience of "houselessness." And both Dickens and Austerlitz are preoccupied with "Bedlam... the hospital for the insane and other destitute persons." "I had a fancy in my head which could best be pursued within sight of its walls and dome," wrote Dickens: "Are not the sane and the insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming? Are not all of us outside this hospital who dream, more or less in the condition of those inside it? ...do we not nightly jumble events and personages and times and places, as these do daily? Are we not sometimes troubled by our own sleeping inconsistencies, and do we not vexedly try to account for them and excuse them, just as these do sometimes in respect of their waking delusions?"
Austerlitz is troubled by "where the dead were buried once the churchyards of London could hold no more. When space becomes too cramped the dead, like the living, move out into less densely populated districts where they can rest at a decent distance from each other. But more and more keep coming, a never-ending succession of them... At Broad Street station, built in 1865 on the site of the former burial grounds and bleachfields, excavations during the demolition work of 1984 brought to light over four hundred skeletons underneath a taxi rank. I went there quite often at the time, said Austerlitz, partly because of my interest in architectural history and partly for other reasons which I could not explain even to myself, and I took photographs of the remains of the dead."
"And indeed in those houseless night walks," wrote Dickens, "it was a solemn consideration what enormous hosts of dead belong to one old great city, and how, if they were raised while the living slept, there would not be the space of a pin's point in all the streets and ways for the living to come out into. Not only that, but the vast armies of dead would overflow the hills and valleys beyond the city, and would stretch away all round it, God knows how far."
And yet at that time of night, in South African cities, perhaps a lone pedestrian would welcome the dead, for as Ivan Vladislavic wistfully observes, a "stranger, passing fearfully through the streets, whether in search of someone with open hands of whom he might ask directions or merely of someone to avoid in the pursuit of solitude, finds no one at all."
Robert Louis Stevenson warned against walking companions. "A walking tour," he wrote, "should be gone upon alone, because freedom is of the essence; because you should be able to stop and go on, and follow this way or that, as the freak takes you; and because you must have your own pace, and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl." When he found himself in the company of a four-legged "lady friend" in his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, he decided: "Let her go at her own pace, and let me patiently follow." Though "What that pace was, there is no word mean enough to describe; it was something as much slower than a walk as a walk is slower than a run; it kept me hanging on each foot for an incredible length of time; in five minutes it exhausted the spirit and set up a fever in all the muscles of the leg. And yet I had to keep close at hand and measure my advance exactly upon hers; for if I dropped a few yards into the rear, or went on a few yards ahead, Modestine" as he had christened her "came instantly to a halt and began to browse."
He had bought her for "sixty-five francs and a glass of brandy" and "sold her, saddle and all, for five-and-thirty. The pecuniary gain is not obvious, but I had bought freedom into the bargain." Nevertheless, when they had to part after 12 days he found himself weeping.
Happily, Galgut tells me that not all his shared walks have been disastrous. One of his best memories is when he and his friend Graham Weir "met up in India, and four of us went hiking up in the Himalayas, and that was fabulous. It was fantastic.
"Nepal is covered by paths that have been made by walking. Primarily because the terrain is so impenetrable that they haven't been able to put roads through anywhere. So people still rely on walking, simply because they have no other choice. So all the mountain villages and little settlements are connected by footpaths, and you're just walking on that network of paths, and there's something very simple and lovely about it. Nothing connects you to a landscape more intimately than walking through it. We had a wonderful time, walking from village to village. And wherever you happened to land up that particular day is where you'd settle down. There's always an inn, with people willing to take you in. We did that for about two weeks.
"Though I guess for some of the locals, who were carrying the most unbelievable loads up to their villages, the walk was not nearly as spiritually uplifting an experience as it was for us," he adds on reflection.
Travel is one of his great passions, particularly to India, where he keeps returning. It's hard to say what attracts him to it, he says, "because it's actually a dreadful place in lots of ways. I hate speaking in cliché's and I'm scared I'll lapse into cliché if I start talking about it. It's the sensual experience, I guess, of being there. Because India's a full-on assault on your senses. Absolutely in your face, you can't escape it at all, and it's an assault on every sense that you have, I mean the smell... sight... The noise levels are very hard to deal with, especially for me, I like silence. It's colors, it's textures, it's tastes, it's sounds. It's a complete invasion. And in many respects that's a positive experience. A lot of it is very, very inspiring, very stimulating. It kind of throws the familiar world on its head and turns it inside out.
"But obviously in many ways the invasion of your senses is not a welcome one. Some of the sights are really overwhelmingly unpleasant. A lot of what you see will never leave you. It just jangles you up in the most painful kind of way. But even that long term I think is beneficial. I don't believe in staying inside comfortable boundaries, especially if you want to be writing about the world, you have to continually shake up your perception of the world and see it in a different kind of way. So India is a very reliable way of doing that.
"Although, in the end everything becomes familiar," he adds. "Even pain and poverty become familiar. I think people get used to anything, which is one of our limitations, because it's only when you see something as strange that you're willing to change it. When you see something as normal you see no reason to alter it," he says, touching indirectly on what outsiders often observe about South Africans' responses to crime. As he puts it in Small Circle of Beings: "That is our affliction, if you like. There is nothing in the world, nothing at all, which we cannot, in the end, come to accept."
As if unconsciously illustrating the point, he mentions that he has been lucky in his experiences of crime, because they were only "near muggings. On both occasions I've become aware of people sneaking up behind me, but I used the oldest and safest avoidance tactic—I ran like hell, and got away!" In both cases it was in the belt between the Cape Town city center and Green Point, where he lives. "In the early evening, twilight time.
"A lot of the time when I'm walking I'm not very present in the real world," he says. "But at particular times of the day and in particular areas my awareness would revert, as a natural safety measure, to the world around me. You can sense when you're more vulnerable than at other times. Like walking to yoga," about which he is also passionate, "it's through Sea Point. And on the surface of it Main Road Sea Point is probably not the most savoury area, but it's been absolutely fine. One of my familiar sights then is seeing the workers who have finished for the day hurrying to catch their taxi or train. So there's a certain kind of intent loping that's going on in the street. If I had to walk on that Main Road just a few hours later, when it's getting dark, all my senses would be tuned very differently. But it's also what you put out," he reflects.
"The guy who lives downstairs, two nights ago I had to take him to Somerset Hospital because he was walking home and got stabbed. But again, I don't think he was trying to resist. But he was seen as trying to resist. He was trying to get his wallet out of his pocket to give to them." In this instance the car which Galgut ambivalently recently acquired proved to be useful.
"It's my mother's 17-year-old Honda," he says. "I've acquired a car, if only to fill up the parking space that I've also come by recently. I'm using it for the kind of journeys that I wouldn't be able to walk, particularly at night, because walking at night is not always a viable option. And for long distance journeys. And that's about it, actually. So nothing's really changed. I still walk to yoga every day. I still walk to town."
This is the third car he's owned in his life, but it's been about ten years since he's owned a car. "I don't enjoy the experience of driving," he says. "I find it extremely unnatural. I constantly have a shift in my head where I see myself from a distance, and I see what I'm doing, and it seems quite bizarre. You're sitting on a seat with a little circle in front of you, with your feet on little pedals, and according to how you're depressing the peddles you're going faster or slower, and according to how you turn the circle you're adjusting your direction. It's a very strange activity.
"One of the satisfying things about walking as a mode of travel is that your input and effort are directly proportionate to the distance that you cover, so for me that's a real journey. There's a direct correspondence between the energy, the amount of time that you're taking, and the surface of the earth that you're covering. All the modern forms of transport, from the motor car through to the aeroplane, are unnatural, in the sense that you get in, into an enclosed space, and in a disproportionately short period of time you can go right around the world, and step out." You can also avoid seeing what you find unpleasant. As the child in Flannery O'Connor's story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," says: "Let's go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at it much."
"The shock of that has been culturally absorbed into the normality of our present lives," Galgut continues, "but there's actually nothing normal about it. I love to travel, but I take days to recover and accept that I've arrived somewhere, or that I've left where I was.
"I long in a nostalgic way—as though I've ever done it, and I haven't—for the days of ship travel. It strikes me as a satisfying way to travel because you're physically present in the space that you're crossing. It doesn't cut you off from the distance, or the space, or the time. On a train you also go through every stage of the journey."
When Thoreau witnessed the train being built between Boston and Fitchburg, not far from the famous pond in Walden, he was of the opinion that walking would remain the fastest and most efficient way to get anywhere. It would be cheaper and healthier, yes, but it would also be quicker than going by train. He couldn't imagine the speed at which the future world would move.
Rebecca Solnit believes that thought moves best at three miles an hour, and "the surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world." And when the threads of restlessness and anxiety, or the intimidation of being confronted by a blank page, have been untangled, and one is pleasantly tired, it is good to return to one's room. Michael Ventura reminds us that it's the only talent you really need as a writer—"the talent of the room." Without it "your other talents are worthless. Writing is something you do alone in a room... How long can you stay in that room?"
When Virginia Woolf returns home from her "Street Haunting" adventure, she concludes: "It is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed... And here—let us examine it tenderly, let us touch it with reverence—is the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil."
De Quincey, Thomas. Coleridge and Opium-Eating and Other Writings. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1862.
Dickens, Charles. "Night Walks," in The Uncommercial Traveler. London: Chapman and Hall, 1901.
Galgut, Damon. A Sinless Season. Johannesburg: Ball, 1982.
—Small Circle of Beings. Johannesburg: Lowry Publications, 1988.
—"Lovers," in Small Circle of Beings.
—The Quarry. London: Viking, 1995.
—"The Follower," in The Paris Review, No. 174, Summer 2005.
O'Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find (anthology). London: Faber and Faber, 1955.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Man of the Crowd," in Tales of Mystery and Imagination. London: Minerva Press, 1840.
Schreiner, Olive. The Story of an African Farm. Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1883.
Sebald, WG. Austerlitz. Penguin Books, 2001.
Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust. Penguin USA, 2001.
—Motion Studies. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. "Walking Tours," in Virginibus Puerisque. London: T Nelson, 1876.
—Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. London: T Nelson, 1879.
Ventura, Michael. "The Talent of the Room," in LA Weekly, 21-27 May 1993.
Vladislavic, Ivan. Portrait with Keys. Johannesburg: Umuzi, 2006.
Walser, Robert. "The Walk," in Selected Stories. New York Review of Books, 1917.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Hogarth Press, 1927.
—"Street Haunting," in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press, 1930.