Book Of A Lifetime: Of Walking On Ice, By Werner Herzog

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The Independent Culture

Simple acts of walking are threaded through the fiction of many writers, such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka, who put their characters on the road for compelling reasons. So it seemed an idea to round them all up, and steer them into an anthology called The Burning Leg. Twenty authors gathered. Except my favourite was missing, because his words are non-fiction, though they flow fantastically. Quest, myth and even farce colour the pages of his rich and remarkable diary - the sort of diary that invites you to stop reading before pulling on your Timberlands.

The film director Werner Herzog has a certain reputation. He makes ethereal and outlandish works. He once dragged a ship up a mountain and aimed a gun at an actor. But these are small fare compared to a journey he took in 1974, from Munich to the bedside of an ailing friend near Paris. It was deep winter and Herzog believed that tramping through adversity would help the friend. The sheer effort of the walk would "bring her back" to health. This is announced at the start of Of Walking In Ice, published a few years after his self-styled pilgrimage.

Yes, Munich to Paris - in three months. That's a map, compass and little else in a small duffel bag. He sticks to the back routes and skirts the Rhine, the Black Forest and the Seine, then parts of urban France and on to the capital. Early days are shrouded in fog, which heightens his task. Steam rises from his trousers as he worries about arriving quickly enough. After three weeks, he has "walked walked walked" himself into reverie, meaning white doves and white peacocks cross the paths ahead of him.

So far, so Herzog, if you know the man: a fully paid-up German romantic. Breaking into an empty house for the night, he's also a vagabond of the road, as wayward as any star of his films: a rambling Klaus Kinski, perhaps. But seeking shelter, like tending to monster blisters and accepting lifts, marks a tempering of high-blown ideals and he becomes more grounded.

For on foot we see things properly, and with a humbler eye Herzog picks out vivid details – a tree "sweats" and a cigarette packets bloats "corpse-like". On foot some basic truths emerge, like: "you pass a lot of rubbish when you walk". And at a spot near Gedaechtnishaus he comes up with a theory I've recanted many times. Get lost once: very annoying. Get lost twice, and you'll find the right road again.

But does the man with the duffel bag, who himself might have stumbled out of Dickens or Kafka, reach his friend? I won't spoil it for future readers. Suffice to say: here's a book of a lifetime that makes you walk for a lifetime. Herzog speaks to the stroller in all of us.

Duncan Minshull is editor of 'The Burning Leg' (Hesperus)