Moun­tain Lines: A Jour­ney through the French Alps

Jonathan Arlan
  • Review
October 5, 2017

Moun­tain Lines: A Jour­ney through the French Alps by Jonathan Arlan | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

To read Moun­tain Lines as a trav­el­ogue is a small mis­take. The open­ing line is a warn­ing: I should say up front that, as far as grand adven­ture sto­ries go, mine is nei­ther espe­cial­ly grand — at least in terms of dis­tance trav­eled — nor all that adven­tur­ous.” Arlan’s month-long hike from Lake Gene­va through the French Alps to Nice is, instead, just a back­drop for the kind of inte­ri­or trekking that makes a two-legged mem­oir worth reading.

On every page of sore feet and mud and hunger pains, there is a tes­ta­ment to the val­ue of suf­fer­ing — of forc­ing dis­com­fort for the promise of relief. How much clean­er would the sheets feel,” asks Arlan, a self-described intense­ly lazy per­son,” if he took the hard way? How much bet­ter would the bath feel? How much more mirac­u­lous would every sun­ny day seem after walk­ing up into a thun­der­storm and back down out of it?” If this book does noth­ing but raise aware­ness of the lux­u­ry of clean sheets in a world gone mad with new desires, it will not have been writ­ten in vain.

A cer­tain kind of read­er might throw the book at the wall when Arlan declines going skin­ny dip­ping with very pret­ty Swiss girls in a lake before din­ner. Most­ly, though, the youngish nar­ra­tor on the cusp of a nom­i­nal tran­si­tion (into His Thir­ties) is a trust­wor­thy guide through a space that is open to every­one. In that space, his great­est dis­cov­ery is entire­ly believ­able: A kind of mag­ic… from being so far from any­thing or any­one I knew.”

In one stand­out moment, Arlan lets a stranger take his pic­ture. I’m smil­ing and stand­ing straight,” he says. I look healthy, which is not at all how I felt. But pic­tures have a way of telling a bet­ter ver­sion of the truth, one that’s clos­er to an ide­al than the actu­al mem­o­ry could ever be.” It’s a com­pelling moment, how­ev­er obvi­ous it might be to those who remem­ber trips with­out full pho­to­graph­ic cov­er­age. Words tell dif­fer­ent sto­ries, and, if we can trust Arlan’s self-report­ed feel­ings over the stranger’s snap­shot, truer ones.

But there is a sec­ond edge to this kind of sto­ry­telling that is shared with pho­to albums: the delib­er­ate cura­tion of the traveler’s own expe­ri­ence. At one rest hut, Arlan thinks for a moment of rechart­ing his route from Gene­va to Genoa because the two cities’ names (prob­a­bly) both come from the Celtic for bend. God, I thought, that would make a great title.” At oth­er moments, he’ll make a choice and note that No one knew and no one cared.” At every bend, our narrator’s expe­ri­ence is ori­ent­ed not just inwards, but out, towards us.

This is what Gra­ham Greene called The splin­ter of ice in the heart of every writer” — the dis­tance a writer keeps from his own expe­ri­ence of the world. In mem­oir, the splin­ter is espe­cial­ly acute. Today, the ice is spread­ing far beyond the writer’s pro­fes­sion, to chill the lives touched by Snap Sto­ries and Insta­gram Sto­ries and Face­book My Day” updates. Moun­tain Lines plays a won­der­ful role in this con­ver­sa­tion: What does it mean to craft and con­front our own nar­ra­tives? Arlan’s trek is the sim­plest form of a sim­ple ploy — trav­el­ing (in a straight line, by feet) to find him­self — and he knows it. But an ancient approach is fit­ting for an all too con­tem­po­rary ques­tion: What does it look like to spend time in your own head?

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