My parents did not want me to come here to stay. They are, like everybody, fearful of being completely alone and suspicious of people who choose to be. They hesitate, like everybody, to understand how it could heal me, as I believe it can. I believe: I am less fearful of being alone than I am of not being able to be alone.
Tramp Press is a small independent press from Ireland whose “aim is to find, nurture and publish exceptional literary talent. Tramp Press is committed to finding only the best and most deserving books, by new and established writers.” They are best known for the Goldsmiths Prize winning and Republic of Consciousness Prize Solar Bones, although, as with this book, they had to pass the rights to a UK publisher to make it Booker eligible.
A Line Made by Walking is Sara Baume’s second novel, loosely autobiographically based, although ultimately fictional.
Works about Lower, Slower Views. I test myself: Richard Long “A Line Made by Walking”, 1967. A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expense of glass. Long doesn’t like to interfere with the landscapes through which he walks, but sometimes builds sculptures from materials supplied by chance. Then he leaves them behind to fall apart. Pieces which takes up as little space in the world as possible. And which do little damage.
Our first person narrator, Frankie starts aged twenty-five, and when she turns twenty-six she remarks that she is now unambiguously nearer thirty than twenty (which perhaps gives away that she is no mathematician but rather an arts student).
She has been a keen artist all her life but: “how I adored to draw as a child, a teen; all my life before I began to try and shape a career out of it.”
Having graduated from college, and while working in an art gallery in Dublin, as a way into an artistic vocation, she undergoes a mental breakdown. One trigger being a Werner Herzog film, Encounters at The End of the World, and a scene involving “the impenetrable resolve of a deranged penguin” who simply walks away from his colony towards the mountains 70 km away.
Her identification with the penguin including her own inability to be part of everyday life, which she realises that she and her family have historically excused as a part of her artistic temperament, an excuse that increasingly rings hollow, not least as she feels like a fraud:
Because I am the complicated, creative, cantankerous younger child, my family have always afforded me dispensation from the petty responsibilities of life, from the conventional social graces.
But nowadays I feel guilty that I am granted the immunity of the artistically gifted, having never actually achieved anything to prove myself worthy.
She returns first to the family home — which she always refers to as “the famine hospital” (after the purpose for which it was originally built) but then retreats to live alone in her recently deceased grandmother’s home in the remote countryside (“turbine hill,” she calls it, after the large wind turbine behind the house).
There she largely walks in the local countryside, and ponders what has led her here.
And yet, here I am. Perceiving everything that is wonderful to be proportionately difficult; everything that is possible an elaborate battle to achieve. My happy life was never enough for me. I always considered my time to be more precious than that of other people and almost every routine pursuit—equitable employment, domestic chores, friendship — unworthy of it. Now I see how this rebellion against ordinary happiness is the greatest vanity of them all.
Early on in her stay on turbine hill, she finds a dead robin, or rather it feels as if the dead robin somehow found her:
Because my small world is coming apart in increments, it seems fitting that the creatures should be dying too. They are being killed with me, they are being killed for me.
I decide I will take a photograph of this robin. The first in a series, perhaps.
A photograph about how everything is being slowly killed.
This series of animals that she discovers forms an artistic project around which the book is based — each chapter illustrated by one such photo but only of wild animals she discovers, already dead or dying:
Here is another rule for my project: no pets, only wild things. So it can be about the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.
The image to the right is the actual image of the robin (from a similar artistic project Baume herself undertook some years earlier than the novel).
But in the book the photographs are reproduced in grainy black and white, as a quite deliberate nod to the great W.G. Sebald.
Another key theme relating to her no longer being a young person or student is how “innate flexibility fades,” skills that we all have as children disappear through lack of use.
And perhaps this leads to her desire to test herself, by recalling works of modern conceptual art (often performance art) that relate to the feelings she is analyzing.
Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff.
Around seventy such works feature in the novel — each introduced and described verbally (but not reproduced) in a similar way, for example:
I watch the neighbours passing. I think: there are only two directions, really. Away from home, and back again, and you cannot, on all sincerity, say that you are going somewhere when you return so soon, and play it over again the next day, without ever making any progress.
Works about Progress, I test myself: Vito Acconci, Step Piece, 1970. At 8am every day in Apartment 6B, 102 Christopher Street, New York City, Acconci stepped up and down off an eighteen-inch stool at a rate of thirty steps a minute for as long as was physically possible, and I know there particulars, because at the end of every month Acconci drew up a report delineating the negligible variation between days. Charting, exhaustively, his total lack of headway.
The reader is invited by Baume in her author’s afterword to experience the art for themselves and form their own interpretation, and I certainly found it added to the book to do so (via google) or perhaps that her interpretations added to the art, although in many respects, particularly as the works are so conceptual, the description in the novel can easily stand alone:
I love that an idea can be so powerful it doesn’t matter whether I’ve seen the artwork for real or not.
Frankie also finds herself wondering whether she see art where other don’t, and whether this is a function of her artistic nature or a sign of her mental fragility:
I can’t remember the name of the piece, or the artist. Maybe it wasn’t even an artwork. Why must I automatically assume that every strange object is a sculpture, that every public display of unorthodox behavior is an act of performance.
The ability to talk to people: that’s the key to the world. It doesn’t matter whether you are able to articulate your own thoughts and feelings and meanings or not. What matters is being able to make the noises that encourage others to feel comfortable, and the inquiries which present them with the opportunity to articulate their thoughts and feelings and meanings, the particulars of their existences, their passions, preoccupations, beliefs.
This is a deliberately slow, meditative book — Frankie herself realising that there is no easy resolution in sight — “I lie down and think about how this whole long, dark summer ought to end in a substantial event. But probably won’t. For the first time, I acknowledge the possibility that nothing will die, or change, or even happen.” — but it is all the more powerful for being so.
An original and powerful work — recommended.