Archive for category Literature
It’s rare that I finish a novel that I really haven’t enjoyed and find myself obsessed with it. That’s what’s happened, though, with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. This is a novel I was strongly recommended to read, and I can see why. I can recognise its beauty and brilliance. I can recognise the things it has in common with works that I love and revere – Butor’s L’Emploi du temps, for example, and W G Sebald’s Vertigo, or The Rings of Saturn.
But the experience of reading it – I so nearly gave up. It was as if I was trapped in one of my own anxiety dreams. Knowing I need to be somewhere, that I’m responsible for something, and finding that time and space are conspiring against me. From the start, the protagonist appears to know, vaguely, that he is here (wherever that is) in order to do something important, but not precisely what, when, or why. As in dreams, the relationship of the people he meets to him and to each other shifts and some who appear at the start to be strangers to him become in the course of the novel his father in law, wife and son. Other people from his past appear, incongruously, whilst his parents, expected throughout the course of the narrative, are never encountered at all. Even the common feature of such dreams that one is inappropriately (or not at all) dressed occurs as Ryder is swept off to undertake high-profile public engagements in his dressing gown (the inappropriateness appears to go unnoticed by everyone else). I read on with such reluctance, fearing that Ryder’s experiences would find their way into and would amplify my own nightly unsettledness – and they did.
It also tied in spookily well with my ongoing fascination with labyrinths and mazes. The city in which Ryder arrives, ahead of his concert, is one in which you could walk in circles indefinitely, as Ryder himself notes. He encounters dead ends – a street blocked off by a brick wall, with no way around it and no opening, but which lies between him and his destination. He is constantly getting lost, his journeys taking him seemingly very far from his destination, only for him to realise he has come back to his starting point. The novel traces ‘an odd, sepulchral, maze-like journey’, through a ‘deterring labyrinth’. But it’s not just a static labyrinth or maze, as baffling and disorienting as they can be, because space is constantly distorting itself, like Butor’s Bleston, which ‘grows and alters even while I explore it’ (Passing Time, pp. 182-3).
But it was only after I had, finally, finished the book that I remembered that I had, some months previously, lent it to someone else, someone who suffers from serious problems with short-term memory, and increasingly with anxiety associated with that condition, needing frequent reassurance as what happened even ten minutes ago is lost in fog. I had wondered idly at other times what impact this would have on her reading – and she does read, making good use of her local library – surely after a few pages she would have forgotten what she had just read, and have to go back again and again, so that she would never actually finish the book? But this book … as she read it, did she recognise her own anxieties in its pages?
It seems to me that living with that kind of memory loss must be like a waking anxiety dream. To have, throughout the day, that sense that you are missing something, that you should be doing something, that you should be somewhere, and to be unable to retrieve the information with any sense of certainty… If you write things down, how do you know for sure whether the writing is telling you that something will happen, or that something has happened? As events from the past float into your memory you have no way of anchoring them in chronology, they could have happened yesterday, or months ago. The gaps are troubling so you may fill them with explanations that start off as speculation but become fixed as you hang on to them for reassurance that you know what happened really. And whilst sometimes you are anxious and you know that the cause of the fear is that your memory is so poor, at other times you don’t remember that you can’t remember, and deny that you need help and can’t see why people keep reminding you of things.
I can’t see that I will want to re-read The Unconsoled any time soon. It simply troubles me too much, taps too accurately into my own anxieties and insecurities, and into the fog of memory loss that I witness second hand. But it’s brilliant, and it’s still in my head, weeks after I reached the final page.
The long history of Belle Vue Gardens in Manchester is being celebrated this month, and it seems timely to note its appearance, under the name of Pleasance Gardens, in Michel Butor’s Manchester-inspired 1956 novel L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time).
Butor’s view of Manchester (Bleston in the novel) was, it must be admitted, largely negative. He loathed the climate, and the food, and seems to have been deeply unhappy in the city, where he arrived to take up the post of lecteur in the French department at the University in 1952.
He seems to have taken to Belle Vue, however. Pleasance Gardens, along with the various peripatetic fairs which rotated around the periphery of the city, on the areas of waste land, represent a mobile and open element in a closed, even carceral city, and a window on different kinds of community than those indigenous to Bleston. The narrator sees the friends he knows in a different light in these places, which may be in Bleston but are not fully part of it and don’t share its malaise.
Pleasance Gardens appears on the frontispiece map, in the bottom left-hand corner, its shape not dissimilar to that of the real Belle Vue. Butor took from the real city of Manchester the geography and architecture that interested him and that fitted with his narrative preoccupations, and ignored or altered the rest. The descriptions include a great deal of precision and detail – however, the historians of Belle Vue will have to judge where the fictional version departs from its model.
He describes the entrance to the Gardens:
The monumental entrance-gates whose two square towers, adorned with grimy stucco, are crowned … with two enormous yellow half-moons fixed to lightning conductors, and are joined by two iron rods bearing an inscription in red-painted letters beaded with electric bulbs then gleaming softly pink: ‘Pleasance Gardens’.
The big folding door which is armoured as if to protect a safe, and only opens on great occasions and for important processions, whereas we, the daily crowd, have to make our way in by one of the six wicket-gates on the right (those on the left are for the way out) with their turnstiles and ticket collectors’
The earthenware topped table which displayed, on a larger scale and in greater detail, with fresh colours and crude lettering, that green quarter circle with its apex pointing towards the town centre…
The tickets themselves are described in detail:
the slip of grey cardboard covered with printed lettering: On one side in tall capitals PLEASANCE GARDENS, and then in smaller letters: Valid for one visitor, Sunday, December 2nd. And on the other side: REMEMBER that this garden is intended for recreation, not for disorderly behaviour; please keep your dignity in all circumstances’
On this winter visit:
There was scarcely anybody in the big, cheap restaurants or in the billiard-rooms; avenues, all round, bore black and white arrows directing one to the bear-pit, the stadium, the switch-back, the aviaries, the exit and the monkey-house.
We walked in silence past roundabouts with metal aeroplanes and wooden horses, … and past the station for the miniature railway where three children sat shivering in an open truck waiting to start; and past the lake, which was empty because its concrete bottom was being cleaned’.
Posters everywhere echoed: ‘Come back for the New Year, come and see the fireworks’.
A later visit, in summer, followed one of the fires that feature so frequently in the novel. Belle Vue was devastated by fire in 1958, and whether this account was inspired by a real event I do not know – it may well be that whilst Manchester was plagued by an unusually large number of arson attacks over the period that Butor was there, he extrapolated from that to a fire at Pleasance Gardens, purely for narrative purposes.
In the open air cafe that is set up there in summer in the middle of the zoological section, among the wolves’ and foxes’ cages and the ragged-winged cranes’ enclosure, the duck-ponds and the seals’ basins with their white-painted concrete islands. I could see, above the stationary booths of this mammoth fairground, eerily outlined in the faint luminous haze, the tops of the calcined posts of the Scenic Railway, with a few beams still fixed to them like gibbets or like the branch-stumps that project from the peeled trunks of trees struck by lightning; and I listened to the noise of the demolition-workers’ axes’
If Butor generally warmed to the Gardens, his portrayal of the animals in the Zoo is less enthusiastic – he speaks of the cries of the animals and birds mingling with the noise of demolition, of melancholy zebras and wretched wild beasts, and of their howls during the firework display. Perhaps their imprisonment chimed uncomfortably with his own sense of being trapped in the city.
W G Sebald describes, in his extraordinary novel Austerlitz, a recording of a film made at the Terezin concentration camp, as part of the effort to present it as a humane and civilised place to visitors from the Red Cross (overcrowding in the camp was reduced before the visit by wholesale deportations to Auschwitz, and once the visitors had left, remaining inmates were summarily despatched too).
In Austerlitz’s search for a glimpse of his mother, who had been interned there before her death, he slows the film down to give him a greater chance of spotting her fleeting image. This creates many strange effects, the inmates now move wearily, not quite touching the ground, blurring and dissolving. But:
‘Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of sounds in this slow motion version. In a brief sequence at the very beginning, … the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the soundtrack … had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended’. (Austerlitz, pp. 348-9)
The deception that the film sought to achieve is exposed.
The association between Terezin and music has another dimension, however. A remarkable number of inmates were Czech composers, musicians and conductors, and this, combined with the Nazi attempt to make the camp appear to be a model community with a rich cultural life, gave opportunities for music to be created and performed here. There is no easy comfort in this fact, when one knows that most of those who played, composed and conducted died here, or at Auschwitz, and that the moments of escape into this other world were few, and may in some ways have made the contrast with the brutality and barbarism of the regime even harder to bear.
The music of Terezin, however, now reaches new audiences through performance and recordings. Each time we hear the voices of those the Nazis sought to silence, that is a small victory.
Czech conductor Rafael Schachter – transported to Terezin in 1941, organised a performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and finally of Verdi’s Requiem, performed for the last time just a few weeks before his transfer to Auschwitz in October 1944
Jazz musician and arranger Fritz Weiss – arrived in Terezin in 1941, set up a dixieland band called the Ghetto Swingers. Fritz was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, with his father, and was killed there on his 25th birthday.
Viktor Ullmann – Silesian/Austrian composer, pupil of Schoenberg, was transported to Terezin in 1942. He composed many works there, all but thirteen of which have been lost, before being transported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed.
Gideon Klein – Czech pianist and composer, who like Ullmann composed many works in the camp as well as performing regularly in recitals. Just after completing his final string trio, he was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Furstengrube, where he died during the liquidation of the camp.
Pavel Haas – Czech composer, exponent of Janacek’s school of composition, who used elements of folk and jazz in his work. He was transferred to Auschwitz after the propaganda film was completed, and was murdered there.
Hans Krasa wrote the children’s opera Brundibar in 1938, and it was first performed in the Jewish orphanage in Prague. After Krasa and many of his cast were sent to Terezin, he reconstructed the score from memory, and the opera was performed there regularly, culminating in a performance for the propaganda film. Krasa and his performers were sent to Auschwitz as soon as the filming was finished, and were gassed there.
Not all of the musicians of Terezin were killed. Alice Herz-Sommer survived, along with her son. Now 110, Alice sees life as miraculous and beautiful, she has chosen hope over hate.
“The world is wonderful, it’s full of beauty and full of miracles. Our brain, the memory, how does it work? Not to speak of art and music … It is a miracle.”
It has been a funny old year. Funny peculiar, though not without the odd moment of mirth and merriment along the way.
I came back from one secondment to my regular job in January, and went off on the next secondment in December. This new one is a major change – working for HEFCE, based at home when not attending meetings in various exotic parts of the UK (oh, OK then, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester, Dorking…). It’s a fantastic opportunity, and challenges the way I organise my life as well as requiring me to acquire new knowledge and new skills.
I graduated, again. Did the whole gown and mortar board thing which I hadn’t been fussed about when I was 21 and graduating for the first time. And then, with barely a pause, on to the doctorate. Studying part-time, it’s going to be a long haul, with who knows what possibilities at the end of it, but I’m loving it.
In February, a beloved friend and colleague died, and we – his family, friends, colleagues, students – grieved but also worked together to put on an amazing event in his honour, the 24 Hour Inspire. We raised money for local cancer charities, and have raised more since, through an art exhibition, plant and cake sales and various 10k runs/marathon bike rides, etc. And we’re now planning the 24 Hour Inspire 2014, and the publication of Tim’s diary. He will continue to inspire.
Culturally, my high points in 2013 have been:
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Showroom, talking about Americanah, and Half of a Yellow Sun
- Peter Hill premiering newly discovered/completed Messiaen at the Upper Chapel (and playing Bach, Berg and Schoenberg too)
- Arnie Somogyi’s Scenes in the City, playing Mingus at Sheffield Jazz
- Tramlines – the Enid in the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Jones Revue and Selecter at Devonshire Green. (And more, but those were the absolute top bits).
- The 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on life, the universe and everything, including Ed Daw’s blues piano, Rachel Falconer on poetry and birds, Jenny Saul on implicit bias, Claire McGourlay on the Innocence Project, and personal narratives from Brendan Stone and Elena Rodriguez-Falcon. Plus John Cockburn’s rendition of (What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace Love and Understanding, and my favourite Beatles B-side, Things we Said Today, and more busking from Mike Weir, Graham McElearney and Eugenia Chung. And more, lots more.
- Fabulous Beethoven quartets/quintet from the Elias at the Upper Chapel
- A magical Winter’s Tale at the Crucible
- Two awesome Britten operas (Peter Grimes and Death in Venice) from Opera North at Leeds Grand
- New (to me) authors enjoyed this year: Maggie O’Farrell, Louise Doughty, Lucy Caldwell, C J Sansom, Alison Moore, Edward St Aubyn, Rebecca Solnit, Wilkie Collins, Jonathan Franzen
- Wonderful new books from authors I’ve enjoyed before: Stephen King’s Dr Sleep and Joyland, Lynn Shepherd’s A Treacherous Likeness, Jon McGregor‘s This isn’t the Sort of Thing…., Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy
- Finally finished Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe. Allons-y, to La Prisonniere!
- I’ve learned to love Marvel superheroes (Avengers Assemble! Thor! Iron Man! Agents of Shield!), and have thrilled to The Walking Dead, Orphan Black (virtuoso performance(s) from Tatiana Maslany), Utopia and, of course, Dr Who.
- Speaking of which, not only an absolutely stonking 50th anniversary episode, but also a fascinating and very touching drama about the show’s early days, with David Bradley as William Hartnell, the sweet and funny The Five-ish Doctors, with Peter Davison, Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker sending themselves and everyone else up with great affection, and Matthew Sweet’s Culture Show special. And the Christmas episode…
- Other cracking telly – Broadchurch, Homeland, Misfits, The Fall, Southcliffe, The Guilty, The Americans… And from across the Channel, not only another masterclass in French profanity from Spiral, but the wonderful The Returned
- And other top films – Joss Whedon’s Much Ado, Lore, The Hobbit Pts 1 & 2, Lincoln, and Patience (after Sebald).
About the blog itself. It’s been less focused on my areas of research recently, and that will continue to be the case, as I’m working on the PhD. The odd digression will find its place here – as Tim used to say, tangents are there to be gone off on, and the blog is a good way of nailing those (to mix my metaphors somewhat) and stopping them from distracting me for too long. I shall be continuing to go on about all sorts of other things that pique my interest. In particular the blog will continue to be a place where refugee stories are foregrounded, as a riposte to the mean and dishonest coverage which those stories tend to receive.
Over the last year, my posting has been somewhat erratic. I note that I didn’t write anything between March and June (I made up for it in June, however, with a Refugee Week blog-blitz, as well as a piece about Last Year at Marienbad which I still intend to follow up. That hiatus may have had something to do with being in the final stages of my degree – finishing off my dissertation, and a last batch of essays and presentations.
There are so many fantastic bloggers out there, too many to do justice to. We lost one this year, as the great Norman Geras passed away. But I’ll continue to enjoy, and to share/reblog That’s How the Light Gets In, Nowt Much to Say, and Futile Democracy, amongst others. For my research interests, I will no doubt continue to find lots to think about and follow up in blogs from Decayetude and Vertigo.
So, thanks to the aforementioned bloggers, to the various people with whom I’ve shared the cultural delights enumerated above, to friends and family who’ve supported me in my ventures and refrained (mostly) from telling me I’m mad to try to do so many things.
Thing is, I have a history of depression. I know that the best way for me to fight that, to avoid sliding back into that dark pit, is to do lots of stuff I care about. So, not just the job – which I care about, passionately – and my wonderful family, but research, writing, ensuring that we do Tim proud via the charity, and so on. I am very aware that there’s a tipping point, that if I do too much stuff I care about, given that I also have to do stuff that I have to do, just because I have to do it, the anxiety of having so much going on can itself lead to sleepless nights, which make me less able to cope, thus leading to more worrying and so on and on… It’s all about balance, and about having support when I need it. So, to all of you who, whether you know it or not, provide that support, and help me to keep that balance, a heartfelt thanks.
In particular, over this last year, I’d like to thank:
For unstinting support and encouragement through the part-time degree and especially as I reached the final stages – tutors Sophie Belot and Annie Rouxeville, and classmate Liz Perry. And a special thanks to Chris Turgoose for ensuring that my graduation gown stayed put via an ingenious arrangement of string and safety pins.
For support and encouragement to go on to the PhD – the aforementioned Sophie, Annie, and Liz, plus Rachel Falconer, Helen Finch, and my supervisors Amanda Crawley Jackson and Richard Steadman-Jones
For their contributions to the work of Inspiration for Life, and the 24 Hour Inspire, and their support in commemorating and celebrating Tim – Tracy Hilton, Ruth Arnold, Vanessa Toulmin, Chris Sexton, John Cockburn, Lee Thompson, Matt Mears and David Mowbray
My family, of course, without whom…
And, finally, Tim. I’d have loved to share this year’s triumphs and tribulations with him.
Have a wonderful 2014 all of you.
Terry Pitts’ Vertigo blog reviews a fascinating and important new study of W G Sebald by Helen Finch.
Originally posted on Vertigo:
Part of the disorientation of Sebald’s characters can be viewed as precisely an attempt to go astray, to resist compulsory heterosexuality and to transgress the borders of Germany and Europe in search of a queer affinity that might provide a source of resistance to the straightening and oppressive orientation of bourgeois society and family.
Helen Finch’s new book Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life is an ambitious, thin book that contains a dense, closely argued “queer reading of Sebald’s work.” The result is one of the most important books on Sebald to date. I am sure that there are a number of Sebald readers, casual and otherwise, who will look askance at a queer reading of his work, but, as Finch demonstrates, the clues – both obvious and coded – are there in plain sight.
View original 1,125 more words
…. and nowhere more so than in the haunting (in so many ways) French drama The Returned which recently left viewers on tenterhooks (or alternatively furious and vowing never to darken its doors again) with a final episode that left more questions than answers, and a long wait for series 2.
The dead return, apparently unchanged (at least initially), and unaware of their deadness. Camille walks through her front door as if nothing untoward had happened (she’d died in a coach accident a couple of years previously), demanding food and complaining bitterly that her room has been rearranged. There’s no overt horror in her re-appearance, which allows a much more subtle take on its effects upon her family. The pattern is repeated elsewhere as the newly undead attempt to find their old lives and slip back into them, only to be confronted by the fact that other lives have moved on in the meantime.
Where do these revenants fit in, in the literature and mythology of the undead? They are not ghosts, which tend to be seen only fitfully and not by all, and to have no physical substance – Camille and her fellow returners are absolutely here, physically, ravenously hungry and startlingly randy too. Ghosts often have a purpose too – like Banquo they are here to shake their gory locks at those responsible for their untimely demise, or to seek a way of resolving their unfinished business in this world – but if these have a purpose it’s not clear what it might be – at least not yet. They are not zombies, whose physical substance has been reactivated without the personality, the mind, the soul (if you will) that previously accompanied it - an ex-person, reduced to a body and a hunger – these returners know who they were, who they loved, and have the full range of human thought and emotion.
Dramatically, there is much that recalls those stories of individuals believed to be dead, and reappearing unexpectedly to cause consternation and conflict as they try to reclaim their lives (Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Martin Guerre, Rebecca West‘s Return of the Soldier). However, Rebecca West’s returning soldier and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert are not instantly recognisable as the people they once were. Chabert, who has clawed his way out of a mound of corpses, looks like what his former wife would wish to believe he was, a madman and an imposter. Those who made their way home across Europe, as he did, over a century later, were often changed beyond recognition too, their health (mental and physical) permanently damaged, skeletal and haunted both by what they had witnessed and by their own survival. The return of the deportees was a ‘retour a la vie’, and some at least, with care and medical treatment, did begin again to resemble their previous selves. Like Dickens’ Dr Manette, ‘recalled to life’ after years of incarceration, and gradually establishing a fragile hold on life again.
In The Returned, Camille’s father says to his estranged wife Claire that ‘you prayed for this’ – it’s an accusation rather than a statement, even though in his own way he too had sought a continuing connection with the daughter he’d lost. That reminded me of the episode of Buffy (‘Forever’, Season 5), where Dawn attempts to use witchcraft to bring back her mother, realising as she hears the footsteps approach the door that what has come back will not be the person she is grieving for. She breaks the spell, just in time. This thread is picked up in the following season as Buffy herself crosses back over that threshold between death and life, and feels that she isn’t quite as she was, that she has ‘come back wrong’.
Stephen King explored this too, in Pet Sematary, where the knowledge that one could bring back the deceased is too powerful for the protagonist to resist, even having tested the water, as it were, with a cat (who most decidedly isn’t the creature it was before)
and in the madness of terrible loss and grief does not turn back as Dawn did from bringing back his lost son. The returned in King’s narrative look and sound almost like themselves. Almost. They know stuff though, that they should not know, and they are malign, clearly demonic. Some of The Returned’s revenants seem to know stuff in the same way and to be able to use their knowledge to challenge or goad the living. But whether they are on the side of the angels I would not want to say. Ask me in a year or so, when I’ve seen Season 2.
The Returned‘s revenants were not (despite Claire’s prayers) brought back by the living, they appear to have simply returned. But throughout literature the appearance of the dead amongst the living has always been associated with a threat – with the terror or destruction of the living, or with the exposure of past crimes and injustices. Or, at the very least, the confrontation of the living with the trauma of death, in the person of those who have inhabited the liminal space between death and life. Thus neither the unexpectedly alive nor the undead can simply be reintegrated into society, even if the living can accept them. They haunt us, and are themselves haunted,
What these various narratives address is the sense of unfinished business that is inevitably part of bereavement, and the notion that death is a threshold that might, just, be permeable. There’s a moment in an otherwise entirely negligible children’s film, Caspar the Friendly Ghost (yes, I know, bear with me) where the dead mother entreats her husband and daughter: ‘I know you have been searching for me, but there’s something you must understand. You and Kat loved me so well when I was alive that I have no unfinished business, please don’t let me be yours.’ That one line justifies the existence of the film, for me. Because so many of these narratives are really about how impossible it is for the living to deal with death.
Which takes me back to Buffy, and the extraordinary words that Joss Whedon puts into the mouth of Anya (she’s a thousand-year-old vengeance demon, but don’t worry about that, the point is that she says the stuff that we feel, and think, but don’t say):
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, season 5)
So the unfinished business is not theirs, but ours. And they come back, in dreams, but we know that their presence is not quite right, that time is out of joint if they are here. I’ve dreamed so often that my mother is alive. But never without that sense of unease, which could not be further from the feeling that I associate with her, of warmth and comfort and of being loved. She has gone, and we haven’t got over it, and we won’t, but we know it is real.
Still, that boundary, that threshold, is always disturbingly present, just on the edge of our field of vision, and so we will continue to be fascinated by the notion that sometimes they do come back, and how that might be, even if it is and will always be the stuff of nightmares.
Related articles (beware spoilers)
- The Returned (2004) (rantbit.wordpress.com)
- some further thoughts on Colonel Chabert here: http://cathannabel.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/sebald-and-balzac-quests-and-connections/
I’m not a train person in general. Not in the sense that I have any feeling for the ‘romance of steam’ or the beauty of the engines. I’m the wrong gender to feel any urge to catalogue their numbers, or to build model railways in my attic or garden. Trains, like cars, and planes and buses are just ways of getting where you want to go.
In general. But in the context of the stories I’ve been posting and reading and thinking about during Refugee Week, trains have a powerful, poignant, terrible significance. I’ve stolen my title from Steve Reich, whose composition of that name explored the journeys that he had made and that he might have made during the war years, using recorded speech from Holocaust survivors, amongst others.
The railway station is a heterotopic space, holding together both the actual location and the destinations with which it connects. And so Liverpool Street Station for W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz connected him with his own past, as the small boy who had arrived from Prague with the Kindertransport, and with the station on which he’d said goodbye to his mother, clutching a small suitcase and a rucksack with food in it. Indirectly it connected him with the station at which his mother was herded onto a cattle truck and taken off to Terezin.
His name recalls the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, where Francois Mauriac describes children being dragged from their mothers and pushed onto the trains, one sombre morning.
Not long after, on another continent, trains crammed with refugees from India to Pakistan, or from Pakistan to India, after Partition, were ambushed and their passengers massacred. The dramatisation of those events in The Jewel in the Crown still haunts me.
Perhaps because on another continent, twenty years later, a train commissioned by an expat who worked for the Nigerian railways to take Igbo refugees south, was ambushed, and its passengers massacred. Among them were the people who my father had found hiding in an abandoned house opposite our own, in Zaria, and taken to the army compound in the back of his car, covered with blankets, hoping they would find safety. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her wonderful novel Half of a Yellow Sun, describes the arrival of another train full of refugees that did reach safety, but traumatised, mentally and physically.
I think sometimes of a children’s book by Susan Cooper, who can conjure up a terrifying sense of evil, enough to chill adult bones – it’s part of her The Dark is Rising series, but I can’t recall which – in which the rhythms of the train say ‘into the dark, into the dark, into the dark…’ Hard to get that out of one’s head, once it’s been introduced. And I think of it every time I read the accounts of those trains crossing Europe, heading East, to ‘work camps’, to Pitchipoi, into the dark.
And perhaps most hauntingly, of ‘le train fantome’. In the summer of 1944, as the Allies were advancing across Europe, with Paris liberated, the convoys were still rolling.
But not all of the trains took their passengers into the dark. This photograph captures an extraordinary moment. The 743rd tank battalion encountered a group of civilians, skeletally thin, terrified. They had been en route to another camp, but abandoned by their SS guards – at this moment they understood that they were free.
And at railway stations in England, in 1939, and so many years since, the trains have brought people into hope and life and freedom. They brought with them not just the belongings that they had managed to salvage and to hold on to on the journey but the places they had lived, and the lives they had to abandon, and the memories that would shape them.
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish
(W G Sebald, Poemtrees, in Across the Land and the Water)
- The Haunting Persistence of Memory: W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” (rosslangager.com)
- Disused train station to host Holocaust museum (praguepost.com)
Intensely fascinating or tedious twaddle. Given my propensity for enigmatic French nouveaux romans and their cinematic equivalents you can guess which side I come down on.
Visually it is stunning, in a chilly way. The ornate mirrors and labyrinthine corridors, that extraordinary garden, the statues, Delphine Seyrig herself. The music is intense and overpowering, the acting stylised and static. The setting is a hotel, or a spa, possibly, but not certainly, in Marienbad. They – X and A - met here last year, or have never met before.
Alain Robbe Grillet, who wrote the screen play, describes the film thus:
The whole film … is the story of a persuading: it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words. And if his persistence, his secret conviction, finally prevail, they do so among a perfect labyrinth of false trains, variants, failures and repetitions. … In this sealed, stifling world, men and things alike seem victims of some spell, as in the kind of dreams where one feels guided by some fatal inevitability, where it would be as futile to try to change the slightest detail as to run away. (Introduction to the screenplay, p. 9)
This is very much in keeping with the Robbe-Grillet manifesto. For him the text is the world, not a description of the world. The notion of a novel or a film having ‘something to say’ is profoundly boring:
When a novelist has ‘something to say’ they mean a message. It has political connotations, or a religious message, or a moral prescription. … They are saying that the writer has a world view, a sort of truth that he wishes to communicate, and that his writing has an ulterior significance. I am against this’. (Paris Review, spring 86, no. 99, interview with Shusha Guppy)
However, the director of the film is Alain Resnais, whose films have plenty to say. In Night and Fog he worked with the poet Jean Cayrol, whose powerful closing words, a call to awareness, would seem to be the antithesis of Robbe-Grillet’s approach. He fuses memory and imagination, and in the labyrinth of barbed wire, searches for and confronts the Minotaur, the monster, hiding in its heart. Hiroshima mon amour deals with the viewer’s reaction – ‘some of us see nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing. Others see everything. Everything. That is the point’. A whole sequence of films deal with trauma and memory and whilst others may seem more directly to address political or ethical concerns, Last Year at Marienbad does see ‘some of the concerns and tropes of Resnais’ earlier engagements with trauma, pain and death return … in various transposed forms.’ (Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais, p. 85).
Perhaps the tension between the two Alains is at the heart of Marienbad’s enigmatic power. The viewer is invited by Robbe-Grillet to let themselves be carried along by the extraordinary images, the voices of the actors, the soundtrack, the music, the rhythm of the cutting, the passion of the characters, and describes it as a film ‘addressed exclusively to his sensibility’ rather than turning to ‘clumsy systems of interpretation which machine-made fiction or films grind out for him ad nauseam’ (Robbe-Grillet, p. 13). However, whilst it is certainly possible to be swept along by the the film in the way he recommends, it is almost impossible not to start trying to solve the puzzle. After all, a repeated motif in the film is that of games, and the winning of games, and the game of interpretation is too tempting to resist. And Resnais himself summarises the film with a question – ‘qui a raison?’. For Resnais, the protagonists in his films are real beings. They have their own lives, ‘latent, mysterious’ (Kline, p. 86). But realism doesn’t exclude ambiguity – what Deleuze calls a cinema of undecidability.
It’s difficult, knowing how far apart the writer and director were in their conception of the film (despite some of Robbe-Grillet’s statements on the subject), not to read the film in the light of this. When the images on screen often contradict the usually authoritative sounding voice-over, perhaps what we are seeing is Resnais asserting his vision of the film against the screenplay, which was so minutely detailed as to seemingly leave Resnais little room to manoeuvre, intruding on his territory with instructions on camera movement, lighting, etc. Robbe-Grillet describes the film as ‘in fact the story of a communication between two people … one making a suggestion, the other resisting, and the two finally united , as if that was how it had always been.’ However, Resnais has introduced into that narrative ambiguity that would seem to undermine that clear resolution. We do not see X and A leave the hotel at all, let alone together. They seem to meet, at the appointed hour, without speaking to each other, barely looking at each other, and walk very slowly and stiffly away from the lobby and out of view. Neither has any luggage though the voice-over has told us previously that she ‘packed a few things’. And if they do leave the hotel, it is only to get lost, forever, in the garden, alone or together.
The two Alains did not work, strictly speaking, together (ARG wrote the screenplay with minimal intervention from AR, and AR did the filming without intervention from ARG), and do not see the film in the same way. One intriguing sidelight on this is that AR used a recording of ARG reading his screenplay to guide the male actors. But not Delphine Seyrig. ARG himself has said that Resnais is A (Seyrig’s character). Certainly, there would seem to be a link between A and Elle (the woman in Hiroshima mon amour), both appearing to be traumatised, repressing memories.
X speaks in imperatives – Come here. Come closer. Follow me. Listen to me. Remember. I’ve come to take you away. You know …. that we are going to leave. A pleads, denies – No, it’s impossible. No, I don’t want to. No, I don’t know what happened then. No! You’re making it up. I don’t know you. No, it’s too far… Please. Let me alone… please… For pity’s sake! He is insistent – possibly to the point of rape. She seems traumatised, fearful. Her pose is characteristically with one arm across her body, her hand on her shoulder – a defensive posture, which at moments is almost cowering.
He asserts his memories, but increasingly doubts them, questions his own recollection – ‘no, that can’t be right’.
Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay calls for a scene where A is raped by X. Resnais refused to film this. The rape is suggested in X’s voice over – ‘I took you, half by force’, and then denied – ‘Probably it wasn’t by force’, but without complete conviction. He is trying to persuade himself as much as her here, that he did not use force. The question hangs in the air. Certainly he is forceful and she is afraid. She keeps her distance, ‘as if on the threshold, as if at the entrance to a place that was too dark, or too strange …’ She seems to show the classic symptoms of trauma, the continual reliving of the wounding experience.
So, how do we interpret this strange film? Are they all in fact dead, and the hotel is a sort of ante-room to the afterlife? Is the hotel peopled by automata, and X alone has autonomy, memory, and perspective? Does he have to seize the moment when the automata are able to move, to betwitch A into life, identifying/creating a past for her? Or is X aware of his status as a character in a film, imprisoned in the screenplay? Thus he starts to direct A, rather than merely describing things to her. He rejects one scenario (where she is shot) as ‘not the right ending’. Paradoxically, as Luc Lagier says in his documentary, we have a film that is closed in upon itself, but open to a seemingly infinite number of interpretations.
My own particular interests focus on trauma and memory, on the labyrinth which is such a powerful motif in the films and novels of the postwar period (Resnais’s labyrinths of barbed wire in Night & Fog, or the corridors of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Toute la memoire du monde; Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth amongst other works, and of course Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps…), and on W G Sebald’s engagement with the film, and the place, in Austerlitz, and in his poetry. In ‘The Year Before Last’ he writes:
The match game
was meant to decide everything.
The gleaming parquet floor
stretched before us. All round us
were mirrors, guests, motionless -
and in the middle you
in your feather boa. Hadn’t
we met once before?
In a taxus maze?
On a stage? The perspectival
prospect, pruned hedges,
little round trees and balustrades,
the palace in the background?
So, having been tinkering with this blog post for months already, I am pretty certain I’m not yet in a position to leave Marienbad. Bleston, all over again.
Tess Jaray, A ‘Mystery and a Confession’, Irish Pages, 1, 2 (Autumn/Winter, 2002/3), 137-9
T Jefferson Kline, Screening the Text (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992)
Luc Lagier, ‘Dans le labyrinthe de Marienbad’ (documentary featured on Marienbad DVD)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, interviewed by Shusha Guppy, Paris Review, 99 (spring 1986)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, trans. Richard Howard, Last Year at Marienbad: a cine novel (London: John Calder, 1962)
W. G. Sebald and Michael Hamburger, ‘A Final Poem: Marienbad Elegy’, Irish Pages, 1, 2 (Autumn-Winter, 2002/3), 125-32
Freddy Sweet, The Film Narratives of Alain Resnais (UMI Research Press, 1981)
Emma Williams, Alain Resnais (Manchester UP, 2006)