Book review: A Philosophy of Walking

footprints in the sand. Picture: Contributed
footprints in the sand. Picture: Contributed
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A GOOD translator doesn’t just take the words of a writer in one language and make them easily comprehensible for readers of another; he or she also captures something of the original author’s unique rhythms and linguistic ticks. Whether these rhythms and ticks will appeal to a foreign audience, however, can be hard to predict.

A Philosophy Of Walking

Frédéric Gros

Verso, £16.99

Sometimes a writer’s style in one language lends itself well to close translation into another: the staccato sentences of the Dutch author and poet Otto de Kat, for example, as rendered into English by Sam Garrett, will appeal to anyone who appreciates Hemingway-esque economy. But sometimes a style that makes the author sound elegant in one tongue can make him seem comical in another; and that, at times, is the fate of the French academic Frédéric Gros, as translated into English here by John Howe.

Whether you read it with a Glasgow accent, an RP English accent or any other accent found on these islands, the sentence “Thirdly, the Cynic lived, obviously, out of doors” sounds clunky and over-punctuated. Put on your best ’Allo, ’Allo accent and read it again, however, and it is much kinder on the ear. By translating the rhythms of Gros’s writing so directly, Howe perhaps gives us a greater insight into the inner workings of the author’s brain, but he also robs him of gravitas – which is a shame, because judged by its content alone, A Philosophy Of Walking is a brilliant little book.

Essentially a survey of what walking has meant to some of the greatest thinkers in Western culture, mixed with a smattering of Gros’s own meditations on putting one foot in front of the other, it selects nuggets of wisdom from Rousseau, Rimbaud, Kant, Nietzsche, Thoreau and others and stitches them together to make a sort of instruction manual for the enlightened walker.

Like the aforementioned Cynics, Gros thinks the walker should be as unencumbered as possible, the better to unplug himself from the world of material things. He shouldn’t necessarily walk alone, as advocated by Rousseau, but Gros argues that, while walking with three or four people it is possible to enjoy “moments of shared solitude”: any more and the party becomes “a colony, an army on the march”.

Gros’s mindful walker realises, as Thoreau did, that walking is not a means to an end but an end in itself: “What profit is obtained from a long forest walk? None… Nevertheless the benefit to me, to my life… is immense.” And in defiance of the outdoors industry’s attempts to turn walking into a sport (“What’s your ranking? What’s your time?”), one of Gros’s contributions is that walking should ideally be undertaken at “a good slowness”.

“Days of slow walking are very long,” he writes, “they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe.” Amen to that.