Archive for February, 2012
A few seconds after the title of Grant Gee's film fades, a subtitle appears that tells us what the next 84 minutes are going to be about: "A Walk Through The Rings of Saturn." Patience (After Sebald) is a tour through a book rather than a visit to a place or the story of a life. Gee does, at times, show us locations referred to by the words of the book, but, as several interviewees say, it's foolish, really, to follow in Sebald's footsteps.
I discovered Sebald and Butor at around the same time, and noted the biographical coincidence that both had spent time at the University of Manchester, but it’s only with the publication of Across the Land and the Water that I’ve discovered quite how strong the links between the writers are. Reading The Emigrants, I had been struck by the echoes of Butor’s descriptions of Manchester, but had attributed them mainly to the common subject – after all, there are common features in descriptions of the city, particularly of the first encounters with the city, across a couple of centuries, upon which both authors draw. In the light of the ‘Mancunian Cantical’ however, it’s very clear that Butor’s novel was a direct influence, and of real significance to Sebald. I’ve gone back since both to the Max Ferber segment of The Emigrants, and to the final part of After Nature, part of which also relates to Sebald’s Manchester days. (There are interesting connections between all four texts – to take just a couple of examples, the fascination with the star-shaped Strangeways prison, and the Guy Fawkes anecdote – which deserve more attention, and may well get it at some future point.)
I’ve been much taken with the notion that Sebald might have chanced upon Passing Time in a Manchester bookshop, just as Butor’s hero Revel finds the book that’s going to shape his experience of the city, Le Meurtre de Bleston, nestling between Torture through the Ages, and a Handbook of Cricket. I now know that he owned the French text (the 1966 edition – thanks go to Terry Pitts, of the Vertigo blog, for that information), and the poem itself provides internal evidence of this – but the idea is too delightful to let go. Of course, the English edition may have prompted him to track down the French, having recognised that this extraordinary text was going to be profoundly important to him. Either way, as this poem was finished on or shortly before 26 January 1967, his response to the book must have been pretty immediate.
The poem contains a number of direct quotations in French from L’Emploi du temps, which are noted by Iain Galbraith The title of the final section is ‘Perdu dans ces filaments’, which refers to Revel’s sense that he was a virus, caught in Bleston’s threads. ‘Filaments’ also echoes ‘fil d’Ariane’, a reference to the story of Theseus who found his way through the labyrinth to kill the minotaur with the help of Ariadne’s thread – a legend that is central to L’Emploi du temps.
There are also a number of phrases that aren’t presented as quotations from L’Emploi du Temps:
|The mere shadow of a feast-day phantom/Of a defunct feast-day Bleston||L’ombre d’une fête, le fantôme d’une fête morte (24 July, p. 237)||The shadow of a festival, the ghost of a dead festival (p. 176)|
|Bleston my ashes in the wind of your dreams||Toi … qui éparpillais mes cendres au vent de tes rêves (20 Aug, p. 306)||You who in your dreams scattered my ashes to the winds (p. 225)|
|From time to time the howls of animals in the zoological/Department reach my ears||On entendait de temps en temps les hurlements des animaux dans la section zoologique (30 July, p.250)||From time to time you could hear the animals howling in their nearby cages (p. 185)|
I’ve shown these against the French text and the English translation because I think this makes it clear that Sebald’s source was the French text, which he translated into German, and which Iain Galbraith has now rendered into English.
Of course, what’s interesting isn’t just that Sebald has chosen to quote (albeit via translation) Butor’s novel, but which aspects of it appear to have made the most powerful impact on him. There are key words in L’Emploi du temps, motifs which are repeated and which gain cumulative weight as the narrative develops, and a number of these recur in the ‘Cantical’ too. I’ve picked out a few, to set out some markers for a future study, or for real Sebaldians to take further than I can.
- A shuttered world – the image of a closed shutter (grille de fer, literally Iron Curtain) is found throughout L’Emploi, reinforcing the idea of a city that is closed, but also the sense that the protagonist’s efforts to find his way, to make connections, are constantly thwarted by ‘une grille de fer fermee’.
- Mute – silence is a theme here, repeated in ‘the silence of revelation’ in part III, ‘reclining in silence’ , ‘The valleys of Bleston do not echo’, in part IV . In The Emigrants, Max Ferber speaks of the loss of his mother tongue, German, which he hasn’t spoken since parting from his parents in 1939, ‘and which survives in me as no more than an echo, a muted and incomprehensible murmur’ (p.182). Music and silence are key themes for Butor – Revel ponders the absence of music in Bleston, a symptom of its malaise. There is actually a strong musical theme in L’Emploi, and throughout Butor’s work, which will be the subject of a later blog post.
- ‘The starlings … sleepless on the sills of Lewis’s Big Warehouse’ – this passage is reworked in The Emigrants (p. 157)
- Shadows – one of the most often repeated motifs in L’Emploi. Bleston is full of shadows, both literal and metaphorical, obscuring both the way ahead and the motives and intentions of the people.
- Mamucium – Sebald’s reference to the origins of Manchester’s name recalls Butor’s offering of alternative etymologies for Bleston, from the popular ‘Bells Town’ to the improbable ‘Bella Civitas’ but focusing on Bellista, city of war. (Manchester itself was the site of a temple of Mithras.)
- ‘torture a travers les ages’ – this phrase is translated by Galbraith but he doesn’t note that it’s a quotation from L’Emploi. This is the title of one of the books that Revel sees when he’s looking for the detective novel, Le Meurtre de Bleston, which plays a key role in the narrative.
- feast-day phantom – see also Fete nocturne, more shadows, and the phantom. Bleston reduces, or tries to reduce, its inhabitants to ghosts, or shades. But there’s also a ghost in The Emigrants, the ‘grey lady’ who visits Ferber daily (pp.181-2).
- ‘the howls Of animals in the zoological Department’ – in context in L’Emploi, the animals echo Revel’s despair, and his sense of imprisonment
- Sharon’s Full Gospel – referred to also in After Nature: ‘row after rock of the sick, amid the congregation’s shrieking, were healed and even the blind had their sight restored’ (p. 98)
- The offshore ships waiting in the fog recur in The Emigrants (p. 166)
- opgekilte schottns – translated as ‘frozen shadows’ (see earlier references to shadows). Galbraith also relates this to the story of Theseus who causes the death of his father, a legend that is represented in the tapestries in Bleston’s museum
- wasteland – Bleston’s centre is ringed by areas of ‘terrain vague’. These are the locations for the travelling fair as it moves around the city, and for many of the fires which punctuate the narrative.
- ‘my ashes In the wind of your dreams’ - Sebald retains the construction ‘in the wind of your dreams’ which is lost or weakened in the English. However, whereas his wording suggests that it is Bleston that is being addressed, in the context of the novel, it is the city which is addressing Revel, who has burned his map in an attempt to revenge himself on the city.
- On ne doit plus dormir – Pascal via Adorno, the abundance of suffering permits no forgetting. Both Sebald and Butor wrote ‘contre l’oubli’.
As Galbraith says, ‘The poem presents a labyrinth of allusions, and the reader who attempts to follow them risks becoming ‘perdu dans ces filaments’ . To which I’d have to say, ‘Challenge accepted’!
Michel Butor, L’Emploi du temps (Paris: Minuit, 1956)
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London : John Calder, 1965)
W G Sebald, ‘Dark Night Sallies Forth’, in After Nature, translated by Michael Hamburger (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988)
W G Sebald, ‘Max Ferber’, in The Emigrants, translated by Michael Hulse (London: Vintage, 2002)
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, in Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, translated by Iain Galbraith (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
Michel de Certeau‘s famous description of looking down from the World Trade Centre illustrates the opposition which he explores through ‘Walking in the City’ between the ‘ville-concept’ and the real, organic city as experienced at ground level, by those who live and walk in it. From such a vantage point, the cartographer can map on to the constant motion, the indistinct sea and fog of the city, a ‘terra cognita’ of recognisable taxonomies (see White, on Zola’s Paris). Even the most complex maze or labyrinth seems straightforward when one can see the whole. But once we’re walking in the city, rather than gazing at it from on high, all of the means we have to make sense of it rapidly reveal their limitations. Maps sooner or later are ‘interrupted by an encounter with the unmappable’ (Hillis Miller).
An early review of Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps claims that ‘if [its] explicit geography … does not make that story an excellent guide to the back as well as main streets of Manchester I should be very much surprised’ (Frohock). One hopes he did not make the attempt to navigate the Manchester streets armed only with the book, and a map which marks those streets and landmarks encountered by the novel’s hero (and not all of those). The frontispiece map was prepared by Butor to guide him through the cityscape he was creating. It indicates the relative positions of the key locations as anchorage points – the stations, the homes of the various characters, the cathedrals, restaurants etc, but there are gaps where streets and buildings must be but are not recorded. Resemblances to the layout of Manchester’s city centre seem pretty much random and coincidental – for example, as noted elsewhere, the star shape of the prison is replicated on the map, but it does not sit in relation to the river, the University or any other features of the city as it does in reality. So we can dispose of the frontispiece map as a lightly disguised map of Manchester.
The other thing the frontispiece is not, is the map that Revel buys and uses to get his bearings in the city. It is like a map drawn from memory, where some configurations of streets are recalled in detail and others only vaguely. Thus it mirrors the text which is an act of resistance against the forgetfulness that Bleston’s fogs engender. Just as the text does not and cannot record everything that happened even to Revel, let alone the things that he did not witness, the map only records his experience and first-hand knowledge, and as such we are aware that it may be partial both in the sense of being incomplete, and in the sense of reflecting subjective perceptions and priorities. It recalls the famous surrealist map of the world, whose proportions relate to the cartographers’ cultural ideals rather than to geographical reality, as well as the first medieval maps, which were records of journeys taken, rather than attempts to objectively encapsulate space.
Revel’s experience of Bleston begins with him losing his way, and his failure to grasp its geography leads him to see it anthropomorphically as trying to evade him, hiding from examination as if the light burned it, or camouflaging itself as if in the folds of a cloak. Purchasing a map is the first of his tactics. However, it is apparent from the beginning that any one source of information will be insufficient. The map gives him the aviator’s or bird’s eye view but does not tell him how to make his way around the city. For that he needs the bus timetable. Taken together, these tools do not help him to find lodgings – for that he needs the intervention of a fellow exile, using informal local knowledge. To make sense of the city he needs to engage with its inhabitants, indigenous or otherwise. (See Annie Lovejoy & Harriet Hawkins‘ project Insites on ‘deep mapping’). The journal, as it logs street names and bus numbers, weaves together his sources, unreliable or partial as they are, in an attempt to encompass the reality of the city. Revel’s fight back against the city culminates in his burning of the map (one of many fires which punctuate the narrative). But that ‘profoundly irrational act’ is both negated and emphasised when he has to buy another to replace it. The map is inadequate and misleading, but essential nonetheless.
Maps imply a knowledge which denies their selectivity. They make the city readable, or purport to, and so slough off the city’s complexity and freeze its opaque mobility in a falsely transparent text. But the phantasmagoric city, in constant flux, is the antithesis of the guidebook/map representation of the city which fixes locations, connections, distances. It is this city that the text invites us to see, recognising the inadequacy of the map, showing us an inferno, a necropolis, a temple of war, a prison. It is its own past, and its own potential futures, which we explore as physiognomy, as mythology, as history, as politics, as text – a secret text, which we need to decipher, from signs and symbols, a palimpsest where what has been erased can still be traced.
See my only published paper on line here!
Robert Alter, Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005)
Jeremy Black, Maps & Politics ( London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1997)
Gary Bridge, Reason in the City of Difference: Pragmatism, Communicative Action and Contemporary Urbanism (London: Routledge, 2005)
Mary Ann Caws (ed), City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)
Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, I (Paris: Gallimard, 1990)
Mike Crang & Nigel Thrift (eds), Thinking Space (London: Routledge, 2000)
Christian Emden, Catherine Keen & David Midgley (eds), Imagining the City, Vol. I (Bern; Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006)
W M Frohock, ‘Introduction to Butor’, Yale French Studies, 24 (1959), 54-61
Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cambridge: Polity, 1996)
Ben Highmore, Michel de Certeau: Analysing Culture (London : Continuum, 2006)
David Frisby, ‘The Metropolis as Text’, in Neil Leach (ed.), The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis (London; NY: Routledge, 2002)
J. Hillis Miller, Topographies (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1995)
Nicholas White, ‘Reconstructing the City in Zola’s Paris’, Neophilologus, 8 (1997), 201-14
In future my blogging energies will be shared between this site and Doctor Her, a new blog about all things Doctor Who, from a feminist perspective. Given my previous post in defence of fantasy, this might not be too much of a surprise. But I’m very well aware that to declare one’s love for Doctor Who, or Buffy, is to be dismissed with a contemptuous curl of the lip by some. Their loss, clearly. I have strong views about what’s worth reading, watching or listening to, increasingly so as I grow older and realise that I really may not have time to read/watch/listen to all the great stuff that’s out there, so I really don’t want to waste time on the merely OK, let alone the poor. But my criteria don’t include genre categories – I may have a preference in televisual terms for fantasy rather than costume drama but I’ll only watch something if it’s written intelligently, if it has some emotional truth and weight to it, whatever category it’s in. And that, most decidedly, includes Doctor Who.
We go back a long way, the Doctor and me. Back to the mid-sixties, when he was a cosmic recorder-playing hobo. I followed him as he regenerated, and whilst I did love some Doctors more than others, I never gave up on him altogether. The BBC pretty much did though, and I wasn’t expecting the reboot at all, let alone expecting it to be – the odd clunky episode notwithstanding – a return to the quality of the very best era (Four, need you ask?).
As a kid, of course, I hid behind the sofa (metaphorically, I don’t recall literally doing so) and the limited budgets (the quarry which doubled for every alien planet ever visited, the visible zips on the monster costumes) didn’t make it less scary. But it was always about more than scaring the kids, it was about ideas. The first series had an overt educational mission, both historical and scientific, which has become less evident over the years. But what has been constant is the real heart of speculative fiction, exploring what it is, what it could be to be human.
The reboot of Who, for me, has succeeded marvellously in that arena. It’s explored love, loyalty, loss and longing. It’s made me laugh, and its made me cry. A lot. It’s made me think, it’s prompted vigorous debates, on and off line, wild divergences of opinion amongst fans. And I’m really excited about a forum where I can share and explore these things in the context of what it is, what it could be, to be a woman.
Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812. To mark the bicentennial, here's Simon Callow's superb appreciation of the novelist, from last Saturday's 'My Hero' feature in The Guardian:
You start with the work, of course. In my case The Pickwick Papers, thrust into my hands at the age of 13. It danced before my eyes, a great hokey-cokey of eccentrics, conmen, phony politicians, amorous widows and wily, witty servants, somehow catching an essence of what it is to be English, celebrating companionship, generosity, good nature, in the figure of Samuel Pickwick, Esq…
The more I attempt to define the labyrinth, the more I lose my way, appropriately enough (or not, depending on one’s understanding of the purpose they serve). The maze is more straightforward in purpose, if not in navigation. It’s a puzzle, where the objective is to reach the centre (and then find one’s way out again) but which requires choices to be made, some of which will lead to dead ends, or will take (or appear to take) the walker away from rather than towards the centre. But the most striking thing about the classical labyrinths is that there are no dead ends, no tricks at all. There is one route through, no choices to be made, no cause for confusion.
And yet Daedalus, at least according to Ovid, constructed his labyrinth so cunningly that he barely managed to escape it himself after completion. Indeed, its purpose was to imprison the minotaur, and to make its slaying a feat of legendary heroism. So, with only one path through, how could Daedalus have risked losing his way, why did Theseus need Ariadne’s thread to guide him out, and how did it keep the minotaur in?
Looking at the classical designs, whilst all one has to do to reach the centre is to keep going, the effect of the complex looping of the path is to take the walker closer to and then further from the goal, such that they start to doubt, to feel as if they must have made a wrong choice even though no choice was in fact possible, and to turn back, so ending up back at the beginning. So, if Daedalus’s labyrinth was indeed the unicursal classical design, Ariadne’s thread did not so much lead Theseus out of the labyrinth as reassure him that he was on the right route, whatever his instincts told him. It is this aspect that has encouraged the use of labyrinths for meditative purposes – one has to put aside doubt and go where the path leads. Guillermo del Toro has said that ‘unlike a maze, a labyrinth is actually a constant transit of finding, not getting lost. It’s about finding, not losing, your way…I can ascribe two concrete meanings of the labyrinth in the movie. One is the transit of the girl towards her own center, and towards her own, inside reality, which is real’.
The association between labyrinth and city is of long standing (Roman mosaic labyrinths represent fortified cities), but contributes to the confusion about terminology. The damp dark labyrinth of streets to which de Tocqueville refers was a product not of design but of its absence, and thus the disorienting effect was accidental rather than deliberate. But the personification of these great cities attributes to them the intent that the builders lacked – the distinction between the physical qualities of the cities and the texts and thoughts they engender is blurred (Faris, 1991). It’s also clear that urban labyrinths involve choices, which potentially can result in losing one’s way, finding dead ends, returning inadvertently to where one started. Being in the metropolis feels like losing control, composure, the sense of self. Lynch says that ‘there is some value in mystification, labyrinth or surprise in the environment’ but that there must be no danger of the form of the city being lost, or that one might never get out of it. There must be the possibility that the mystery can be comprehended, the form explored and in time grasped. Otherwise, the labyrinthine city becomes a trap, closing on the newcomer, the isolated wanderer.
The labyrinth is one of the key motifs of L’Emploi du temps (see Pierre Brunel for the definitive treatment of the theme), fittingly for a writer of whom it has been said that the fundamental question in his work is always ‘where am I?’. It’s a labyrinth in space, but also in time and memory. The narrative starts simply enough, with two time frames, the time of writing and the time that is written about. But as the diary continues, one memory triggers another, events in the ‘present’ require a reference back to the past outside of the linear chronology of the journal. The writing which explores the labyrinth becomes labyrinthine as memory endlessly circles. ‘The rope of words that uncoils down through the sheaf of papers and connects me directly with that moment on the first of May when I began to plait it, that rope of words is like Ariadne’s thread, because I am in a labyrinth, because I am writing in order to find my way about in it, all these lines being the marks with which I blaze the trail: the labyrinth of my days in Bleston, incomparably more bewildering than that of the Cretan palace, since it grows and alters even while I explore it’ (p. 183).
But what’s at the centre of the labyrinth? Perhaps Revel never reached it. Butor’s work is characterised by openness and mobility, and the narrative cannot be self-contained. So the book ends as Revel tells us of the pages he didn’t write, the places he didn’t visit, and of ‘something that happened on the evening of February 29th, something that seemed very important and that I shall forget as I move farther away from you, Bleston’.
Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’: le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)
Mark Crinson (ed), Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City (London: NY: Routledge, 2005)
Wendy B Faris, Labyrinths of Language: Symbolic Landscape and Narrative Design in Modern Fiction (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988)
Wendy Faris, ‘Cognitive Mapping: Labyrinths, Libraries and Crossroads’, City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy, and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)
Marilyn Thomas Faulkenburg, Church, City and Labyrinth in Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor (NY; San Francisco; Bern; Baltimore; Frankfurt am Main; Berlin; Wien; Paris: Peter Lang, 1993)
Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 1960)
Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
In response to Stuart Heritage’s article in this week’s Guardian Guide, I have no intention of defending the indefensible (i.e. Twilight). And I haven’t yet seen the first episodes of the new series of True Blood, The Walking Dead, or Being Human – Heritage may, for all I know, be right that all of these have exhausted whatever value they had. However … I do rather mind being stereotyped by my love of these shows. For the record, I do occasionally wear a black t-shirt, but I do not practice witchcraft, do not have either a cat or a Tumblr site (que?) and if I did I would neither dress one as a butler nor call the other Elysian Moonquaver. And I do not accept that I have to choose between dressed up cats and Robert Pattinson or forswearing the whole genre.
I fully intend to continue to despise the wretched Twilight and to regard Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the absolute high points of television drama, and to love True Blood (madly over the top, and, yes, featuring some rather fetching topless men), and the Brit equivalents, Being Human (can it survive the departures of Mitchell, George and Nina?), Misfits (can it continue, after that frankly rather gobsmacking final episode?), The Fades (will there be another series?).
It all goes back to Buffy. Not, for me, to Dracula, or the George Romero zombie films, or Hammer Horror. Joss Whedon‘s show overwhelmed all of the assumptions I’d made on the basis of a silly title (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, anyone?) – just as The Stand disposed of my prejudices against Stephen King. Buffy had some seriously naff special effects, but it was never about that. The scripts were so sharp, so funny, so packed with layers of references that throwaway lines are often key to a more weighty subtext and the characters never lose their plausibility however bonkers the storyline. Through the medium of this fantasy with vampires, demons and all kinds of inhuman creatures, we’re exploring human relationships – teenagers and parents, sibling rivalries, sexual discovery and betrayal, bereavement and loss – in a fantastic context that allows these things to be explored in fresh and unexpected ways, that jolt us with their familiarity whilst we accept a narrative involving an ensouled vampire or a mayor turning into a giant snake. For all the scary stuff (and there are some real shiver down the spine moments) the things that stay with you are the human elements – what Heritage calls ‘the fat streak of humanity’.
I am, in general, less fond of zombies. Vamps – in the worlds created by or inspired by Whedon – are conflicted, capable of both savagery and love, and so can be interesting. Zombies per se are not. As Heritage points out, they basically just shuffle around, slurp brains and shed body parts. However, zombie drama is not fundamentally about zombies, it’s about surviving in an apocalyptic landscape, with a mindless and relentless threat always out there, and about how human beings act together and apart in the face of that. It’s about the fragility of civilisation – it’s no accident that The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later use the same opening dramatic device as Day of the Triffids, as our hero, waking in a hospital bed, is thrown into the midst of the post-apocalyptic chaos without any warning or preparation, and has to try to find allies, and figure out what it takes to survive. The Walking Dead gets its scares from the zombies, but its drama from the beleaguered human protagonists. Buffy required us to learn the plural of apocalypse – she saved the world, a lot – but the zombie drama requires us to face the terror of a world where no one saved us.
Fundamentally, all of these dramas, like Stephen King’s novels, deal with the sense that there is something bigger than the stuff of our everyday lives, and that people are making moral choices in the face of those bigger questions, about which side they’re on. In other words, what it means to be human. To quote the eleventh doctor, ‘Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is’.
Buffy – the best bits: Harvest, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, The Body, The Gift, Tabula Rasa, Once More with Feeling, Chosen. See http://slayageonline.com/ for academic takes on the Buffy/Whedonverse.
A very incomplete list of some of my favourite apocalypses not mentioned above: Stephen King – The Mist, Cormac McCarthy – The Road, John Wyndham - The Chrysalids, Chris Marker – La Jetee, Barry Hines – Threads, P D James – Children of Men (and the rather different but also excellent film thereof), Liz Jensen – The Rapture
As a Sheffielder, albeit having blown in a mere 37 years ago, I’d be expected to take a dim view of Manchester. It’s the wrong side of the Pennines, for a start. It feels like a huge sprawling metropolis, whilst Sheffield, big city that it is, feels still like a city centre surrounded by villages. Here, one can look out over fields and moors, but be 20 minutes from not only shops but wonderful cultural opportunities – the Crucible theatre, the Showroom cinema, Music in the Round. And it really does rain a lot over there. I commuted to Manchester in the early 1980s, and going through the Chinley tunnel always felt like leaving one country and emerging in another, emerging in a different climate, a different season.
There’s a view that northern cities are much of a muchness, a view that those of us who live in them would dispute vigorously. When the narrator of Passing Time, Jacques Revel, says that ‘Bleston is not unique of its kind, that Manchester or Leeds, Newcastle or Sheffield, or Liverpool… would have had a similar effect on me’, I’ve always felt inclined to argue that had the author come to OUR University instead of Manchester’s, he would have found digs in Crookes, where the air would not have choked him, from where escape would have been easy, out on Manchester Road, or up towards Redmires, or down to Rivelin, and from where he would have been able to see the lights of the city, the kind of bird’s eye view that Revel could only approximate when he spread his map of the city out and ‘surveyed its whole extent at a glance, like some hovering bird about to pounce’ (p. 41).
Bleston is undoubtedly inspired by Manchester (Butor said as much), and draws on Manchester’s iconic status as the archetypal city of industry and of the worst aspects of industrial life. His descriptions echo those of Alexis de Tocqueville, 200 years earlier, who described the ‘damp, dark labyrinth’, the ‘half-daylight’, and the sun seen through the pall of black smoke as a disc without rays. Part of the reason for Manchester’s status as ‘shock city’ of the Victorian era is that its growth was unplanned, ‘an incoherent environment shaped hastily to exceed earthly standards … it inspired wonder and dread in equal measure’ (Crinson, Fabrications) – see this upcoming conference, noted on the Occursus blog. Eric Hazan has described three models for the growth of cities: an onion adding outer layers as it expands (Paris), mathematical grids (New York), and bacteria in a petri dish. Butor uses an even less appealing metaphor when Revel, armed with his map, sees himself as a scientist studying ‘this huge cancerous growth’ (p. 42).
W G Sebald, arriving ten years after Butor, was struck by many of the same features that Butor, Engels, de Tocqueville, and so many others, have described. In The Emigrants, he describes how Max Ferber, approaching Manchester from the moors in 1945, ‘had a bird’s eye view of the city spread out before him’ (Emigrants, p. 168), of the ‘solid mass of utter blackness’ of the city centre, the chimneys towering above the flat maze of housing. Sebald’s narrative charts the decline of industrial Manchester, from the constantly belching chimneys of 1945 to the decay and neglect of 1990/91.
The geography of Sebald’s Manchester is that of the real city, whereas Butor’s Bleston is a transformed Manchester, a composite , as Dickens’ Coketown, ‘where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in’, was an amalgam of Manchester, Oldham and Preston. Thus the frontispiece map would not serve a visitor as a guide, despite the claims of some commentators, though it borrows features from the real city. Both Butor and Sebald draw attention to the distinctive star shape of Strangeways Prison – a design common to many late 19th century prisons, including Paris’s la Petite Roquette – and Butor’s city is very much a carceral space. Revel tries to get out into countryside, fails, and never tries again – when he asks a pub landlord how he might get there, he’s referred to ‘some nice parks’, and to the wastelands between the towns; his colleague Jenkins has never left at all.
As Revel finally leaves, in the moment of his deliverance, he addresses the city for the last time: ‘as you lie dying, Bleston, whose dying embers I have fanned’ (p. 288), and Sebald’s ‘Mancunian Cantical’ ends with ‘Flutes of death for Bleston’. Both Butor and Sebald found that Manchester triggered associations and memories which inspired their writing. If one considers some of the repeated motifs that both writers use – ash, fog, darkness, shadows, silence, fires and wasteland – it’s hard to escape the notion that for both those associations and memories were rooted in wartime Europe, the Europe that Max Ferber had escaped with his life.
For all matters Sebaldian, Terry Pitts’ Vertigo blog is essential
Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990)
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London : John Calder, 1965)
Mark Crinson, ‘Towards the Beautiful City’, Fabrications: New Art and Urban Memory in Manchester (Manchester: UMiM Publishing, 2002)
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)
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