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April 18, 2017

Book Notes - Sara Baume "A Line Made by Walking"

A Line Made by Walking

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

A Line Made by Walking, Sara Baume's worthy followup to her stunning debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither, is a captivating novel about art and mental health.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"Fascinating, because of the cumulative power of the precise, pleasingly rhythmic sentences, and the unpredictable intelligence of the narrator’s mind. . . [In A Line Made By Walking] there is a reminder of the beauty that can be found when you allow yourself to look slowly and sadly at the world"

In her own words, here is Sara Baume's Book Notes music playlist for her novel A Line Made by Walking:

My second novel is named after an artwork of great significance by Richard Long. A Line Made by Walking was an ‘action’ undertaken in 1967 when Long was still a student in St. Martin’s School of Art in London. He caught a train out of the city, and in a field, walked up and down and up and down in a straight line until his footsteps had worn a visible track through the grass, then he documented the site in photographs. This is one of roughly seventy artworks which are described throughout the novel. Frankie, the narrator, is a young graduate struggling to establish an art practice. In the spring of her twenty-sixth year, she abandons her bedsit in the city and goes to stay, alone, in the bungalow in which her grandmother died, three years earlier. Her days are spent drifting the countryside, interrogating the decisions in life which led her up to this point. At intervals, she impels herself to recall the works she learned about in college, as an attempt to find meaning, and to continue to learn in spite of the fact that her formal education has come to an end. ‘I test myself,’ she says, over and over, ‘because no one else will, not any more…’

At the end of the novel, it was important to me to include an ‘Index of Artworks’ and an ‘Author’s Note’. In the ‘Note’, I urged readers to ‘seek out, perceive and interpret these artworks for themselves.’ I also considered adding a list of songs and suggesting that they might be played during the scenes in the novel at which they appear. There are only seven, but each is carefully chosen and placed. In my head, they play in the background of the sentences and my narrator is moved by them far more so than she is by any of the artworks, despite her best efforts.

The Radetzky March by Johann Strauss Sr., 1848 (first performance)

This is the ringtone of Frankie’s mobile, though it’s rare that anyone actually phones her. I wanted this purposeful, celebratory tune to stand in contrast to the narrator’s suspended, despondent state of mind. When it does ring, Frankie feels as if it’s goading her – an unwelcome reminder of how she has been left behind by the busyness of the world.

"Bright Eyes" by Art Garfunkel, 1978

At the end of her grandmother’s garden, Frankie often sees a colony of rabbits, all of which are brown, except for one, which is, peculiarly, purely black. It makes her remember Watership Down – the classic animated film of 1978 written and directed by Martin Rosen, based on the novel of 1972 by Richard Adams – and then this mournful song from its soundtrack. To Frankie, "Bright Eyes" is an elegy for the slow death of nature, the gradual fading of hope. It seems to her at once achingly appropriate to her own situation.

How can the light that burned so brightly
Suddenly burn so pale?

"If You Want To Be A Bird" by The Holy Modal Rounders, 1969

From another soundtrack, this time Easy Rider, 1969. In the film, the song accompanies footage of Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson careering around expansive, endless roads on their motorcycles, performing amateur acrobatics – the red dirt and dust and scrub, an epic American landscape as backdrop to their shenanigans. In the novel, Frankie has just been collected from the city by her mother and is being driven away from her independent adult life and home to her parents’ house, like a child. "If You Want To Be A Bird" is playing on the car stereo, and again, Frankie feels goaded – a song about youth and recklessness when she has just suffered her own very personal, and momentous, stumble-from-freedom.

"Wild World" by Cat Stevens, 1970

Frankie is freewheeling on a ramshackle bicycle, listening to "Wild World" through her headphones. Even though it makes her unbearably sad, nonetheless she cannot resist playing it, over and over. Throughout the novel, the narrator is irresistibly drawn to terrifically sad art, as a form of catharsis.

"Jóga" by Björk, 1997

Headphones in again, only this time, Frankie is on a train rushing through the Irish midlands in the gathering dark. Though the specific song is not mentioned here – only that it is by Björk – in my mind it’s Jóga from the album Homogenic and the lyric which resonates throughout the scene is:

Emotional landscapes…

In fact, if I had to describe – very briefly – what the novel is about as a whole, it would be hard to find two better words than these.

"Zimbabwe" by Bob Marley & The Wailers, 1979

From the album, Survival. What is interesting about this song – which the narrator calls to mind in the final chapter as a distraction tactic – is that Frankie can’t logically explain why it means so much to her, nor why she remembers all of the lyrics so effortlessly. ‘…I realise it’s the melody which moves me,’ Frankie thinks, ‘my weakness for Zimbabwe has nothing whatsoever to do with the words.’

"Blue Monday" by New Order, 1983

This is the song which plays in the background of the novel’s closing scene. I spent a long time deciding upon it, and I still can’t explain exactly why it is that it seemed to be the perfect fit. In spite of all of the gloom which leads up to it, in spite of it being a song essentially about disillusion, "Blue Monday" is intended, at the very end, to strike a note of hopeful defiance.

Sara Baume and A Line Made by Walking links:

Booklist review
Financial Times review
Guardian review
Irish Times review
Kirkus Reviews review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New Statesman review
Spectator review

Foyles essay by the author
Guardian Books podcast with the author
Irish Times essay by the author
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Spill Simmer Falter Wither
Motley interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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