Posts Tagged Charles Dickens
…. 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 currently reading The Old Curiosity Shop and, in one of those curious coincidences without which Dickens' plots would have ground to a halt, I read the following passage shortly after hearing news that the Hillsborough families are one step closer to justice:
Let moralists and philosophers say what they may, it is very questionable whether a guilty man would have felt half as much misery that night, as Kit did, being innocent.
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…
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)
Eric Hazan, L’Invention de Paris: il n’y a pas de pas perdus (Paris: Seuil, 2002)
J B Howitt, ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, Nottingham French Studies, 12 (1973), 74-85
Musée Carnavalet, L’impossible photographie: prisons parisiennes 1851-2010 (Paris: Paris Musées, 2010)
W G Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002)
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water : Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London : Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algérie (Paris: Gallimard, 1958)