Friday, January 11, 2008

Reveries of a solitary walker

I've been reading this, Rousseau's final work, for ages now. I keep dipping in and reading and re-reading the ten walks that Rousseau takes in this book. I think it may have just become my favourite book of all time.

Rousseau is an extraordinary character, totally unbearable, seriously paranoid, impossible to live with. The book Rousseau's Dog is a superb and, at times, hilarious account of his stay with David Hume after he had been run out of everywhere in mainland Europe. He seriously believed everyone was conspiring against him and it was impossible to do him a good turn without him taking great offence. He was extraordinarily rude. It is said he left his children outside the orphanage.

And yet... And yet in these walks he comes across as such a powerful figure. They are at times laugh-out-loud funny because his paranoia is still rampant, but you still feel very, very strongly for this man. There is something about him, something deep and elemental, which makes you feel warmth, pity, worry for him. It's more than just the eccentricity which we Brits are famously attracted to. There's something about his soul, which simply pours out of these essays, in which he lays himself bare.

The fifth walk is heartbreaking. The rest of the walks describe contemporaneous events, but the fifth reminisces about a time, some years before, when he was staying with a family and spending his days floating in a boat and investigating a couple of islands and collecting and studying the botany of the countryside. He was there because he had been "stoned out of his previous house by a mob led by the local minister." It's almost bathetic, you do laugh, but then, in the following pages, you are taken on a journey into the mind of a sad, lonely, dying old man, remembering beauty and tranquility, finally, perhaps, coming to terms with the anger and irritation that has driven his entire life. It is magnificent.

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