Two walk New York

April 21, 2023 2 Comments

I’ve been reading Teju Cole’s celebrated novel of 2011, Open city, set mainly in central New York.  It’s an unusual piece of writing.  The book captures the experience of Julius, a young Nigerian-American (Cole himself being one) who’s in training to be a psychiatrist, as he wanders about in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.  He’s neither lost nor socially uncomfortable, and his grasp of cultural knowledge, especially ‘high’ culture, is formidable.  He narrates his own episodic story over a year or so.  For much of the time we watch him exploring the city, mostly on foot – New York being one of the few American cities where walking isn’t regarded as an eccentric form of locomotion.

Early on in the book, in a passage entirely typical of the fluidity and sophistication of his thinking, Julius explains why he chooses to walk:

The walks met a need: they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and once I discovered them as therapy, they became the normal thing, and I forgot what life had been like before I started walking.  Work was a regimen of perfection and competence, and it neither allowed improvisation nor tolerated mistakes.  As interesting as my research project was – I was conducting a clinical study of affective disorders in the elderly – the level of detail it demanded was of an intricacy that exceeded anything else I had done so far.  The streets served as a welcome opposite to all that.  Every decision – where to turn left, how long to remain lost in thought in front of an abandoned building, whether to watch the sun set over New Jersey, or to lope in the shadows on the East Side looking across to Queens – was inconsequential, and was for that reason a reminder of freedom.

Sometimes Julius walks with a purpose, but most often he wanders at will or whim, drawn by a passing thought or sight.  Sometimes he meets friends or acquaintances, but more often he walks alone.  Not exactly alone, because his thoughts, and especially his memories, accompany him all the time.  Open City has reminded many readers of The rings of Saturn and other books by W.G. Sebald.  They share the same freedom of mental association, and, though Julius doesn’t suffer from the maladies that afflict Sebold’s characters, his experiences in the city, major and minor, have a similar habit of setting off prolonged meditations on memory, time and pain.

As I read, I started to think about another New Yorker for whom walking the streets was a crucial part of his life and literary work.  In 1964 Frank O’Hara published his book Lunch poems.  He presented them as the product of the walks he took in the lunch breaks from his work at the Museum of Modern Art.  Many of his poems do indeed present as thoughts of the moment as he paces the streets, and clearly immersive walking was a creatively stimulating activity for him.  Only urban walking would do: ‘the country is no good for us / There’s nothing / to bump into / or fall apart glassily / There’s not enough / poured concrete / and brassy / reflections.’  The beginning of ‘A step away from them’, with its easy, colloquial language, camera-like eye and swift thought-association, is characteristic:

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.

And here’s another beginning, equally specific in its referencing of the New York landscape.  (Matsumi ‘Mike’ Kanemitsu was an abstract expressionist painter; hard hatted construction workers seem to have been a thing with O’Hara):

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but now I’m happy for a time and interested

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I’d like to have a silver hat please
and get to Moriarty’s where I wait for
LeRoi …

Some of O’Hara’s best poems work by following this sort of catalogue of chance sightings with a perception of rare moment and emotional power, that brings the flow to a sudden stop, as in ‘The day Lady died’.  In another poem, ’Walking to walk’, the poet pauses to cross the street.  The break in foot rhythm causes a parallel break in metre.  Continual observation gives way to an inward turn of thought:

It’s going to be the sunny side
from now
    on. Get out, all of you.

This is my traffic over the night
and how
    should I range my pride

each oceanic morning like a cutter
if I
  confuse the dark world is round
round who
     in my eyes at morning saves

nothing from nobody? I’m becoming
the street.
    Who are you in love with?
  Straight against the light I cross.

Teju Cole’s Julius is equally addicted to moving on foot through the streets of Manhattan (and, in the central section of the book, Brussels).  He uses his walks to generate meditations on a myriad of subjects, some extended, others fleeting, as when he spots a tall woman on the subway, whose clothes ‘brought to my memory the virtuoso black-on-black paintings by Velázquez’.  Like O’Hara, he has a staggering range of cultural references, which he drops with a flip showiness. 

Teju Cole

But there are differences.  Julius, with his African childhood and Nigerian father and German mother, has a much more complex personal and cultural hinterland than O’Hara.  And whereas O’Hara feels wholly at home in the artistic social circles he’s part of, relishing his many close friendships in the city, Julius, though he has acquaintances, wanders New York as a loner.  As we get to know him, he seems more and more solitary in the world.  His girlfriend has left him and gone to live on the West Coast, he’s surprised to hear from his neighbour Seth that his wife died months before, his mentor Professor Saito falls ill and dies.  The city isn’t always a safe place for him.  In a shocking incursion into his uninterrupted ambling, he’s set upon in the street by two men – they’re black and he thinks at first they’re an unlikely threat – and is badly beaten.

Frank O’Hara

For all his ability to think around relationships with apparent sympathy – he is, after all, a working psychiatrist by the end of the book – the reader gradually detaches from a too-close identification with Julius, and comes to understand that he’s unable to face some of the truths about himself.  During a party towards the end of the story, Moji, a Nigerian woman he knows suddenly accuses him of a terrible crime she says he committed against her some years earlier in Nigeria.  He introduces his delayed account of this confrontation with studied evasion (‘thinking about the story of my life …  I am satisfied that I have hewed close to the good’), he’s silent when she asks, ‘will you say something?’, and after he’s left he moves his narration on without comment.  Our doubts about his reliability as a narrator and as a person intensify.  In the final scene, after a Mahler concert in Carnegie Hall (‘the first movement of the Ninth Symphony is like a great ship slipping out of port’) he accidentally locks himself out of the building, on a high, vertiginous fire escape. His attempt to elevate this bathetic situation into a transcendental moment between extinction below and the ‘dead, shining stars’ above now strikes us as comic rather than penetrating, and his erudition as ostentatious.

Julius is a complex character, hard to figure out.  He may be wandering the same New York streets as O’Hara, but his experience seems a long way from the poet’s delighted, in-the-moment enjoyment of urban walking.

Comments (2)

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  1. Dafydd Pritchard says:

    Diddorol iawn, Andrew.

    Melys moes mwy.


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