Posts Tagged Manchester
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.
cities@manchester on Manchester, the original shock city
Originally posted on cities@manchester:
by Brian Rosa, PhD candidate in Geography
Manchester is a city of superlatives: it was the prototypical “shock city” of the Industrial Revolution, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx’s model for everything that was abhorrent in the industrial capitalist city, and one of the birthplaces of the labor and women’s suffrage movements. In its heyday, Manchester was depicted in literature of Engels, Alexis de Toqueville and later the paintings of L.S. Lowry, as an uninterrupted, chaotic anti-landscape of chimneys and smoke, strewn across a featureless topography. Its unprecedented configuration invoked equal parts awe and dread, moral panic, and tempestuous visions of the future. In 1833, Toqueville described the crowded conditions, poorly constructed housing, hulking factories, and environmental degradation of Manchester: “From the foul drain the great stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage” (cited in Konvitz 1985).
I’ve written previously about the relationship between Bleston and Manchester, and about the links between Butor and Sebald, and I’ve just been exploring the fascinating collection of essays on Sebald in Melilah, the Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies, alerted by Helen Finch’s recent blog about Sebald’s Manchester. It’s good to see the link with Butor explored a bit more, but I would have to take issue in some respects with Janet Wolff’s article, ‘Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile’, which I think fails to fully identify the deeper connections between the two writers.
I would agree that Passing Time is not about Manchester in a straightforward way but I think Wolff takes that too far when she says that ‘none of this is about an actual city’, and that Revel’s diatribes against Bleston are ‘the ravings of a neurasthenic, whose debilitated psychological state produces monsters in the environment’. (p. 52) This is not a new charge – reviewers have in the past diagnosed Revel with depression or schizophrenia. But I’d argue that rather than alerting us to an unreliable narrator, the mismatch reminds us that Bleston is not just Manchester, not just any particular city. It contains many cities, real and fantastical.
But it is based more upon Manchester in its physical reality than on any other city, and contrary to Wolff’s statement that ‘there are no physical descriptions at all (quite unlike the Manchester of ‘Max Ferber’)’, there are many descriptions of Manchester landmarks, as J B Howitt has shown (in his article ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, even though Butor takes and uses those features which are relevant to him, and changes or ignores those that are not.
What interests me most, however, is Wolff’s argument that the Manchester of The Emigrants fades into insignificance in relation to ‘another geographical, phantasmic and persistent presence’.
My studies of Butor are concerned precisely with identifying that presence in Passing Time. More anon.
- Janet Wolff, ‘Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile’, in Melilah, 2012 Supplement 2, Memory, Traces and the Holocaust in the Writings of W.G. Sebald. (Guest editors: Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Janet Wolff)
- J B Howitt, ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, Nottm French Studies, 12 (1973), 74-85
When I started this blog, part of my motivation was to enthuse, if I could, other readers about Michel Butor, and about this novel in particular. The publication of Sebald’s poems which reveal his indebtedness to Butor has helped my cause because there are more people out there reading Sebald than there are reading Butor, and my exploration of the connections between the two writers has intrigued at least one fellow blogger sufficiently to inspire him to read Passing Time. I reblogged earlier this week his reactions to the novel, and promised to post my own response here.
I’ve been lost in this book for years now. I feel as much trapped in it as Revel is in Bleston – of course, I could turn my attention to another of Butor’s many fascinating works, just as Revel could at any point take a train away from Bleston at least for a break. But somehow I always find myself back in the city again, traipsing, as Decayetude has it, around those miserable streets, searching for the dark heart of Bleston. As he says, ‘we are subjects, held prisoner in the book/narrative as Revel is in his own story’.
Exasperating, yes, and rewarding. Irritating, yes, and wonderful. Not quite a masterpiece as set against Sebald’s prose work and Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled? I can’t say – but I would maintain that this is one of the great novels of the mid-twentieth century, one of the richest, most intriguing novels I have read, and one whose interest I cannot seem to exhaust.
To pick up on a few specific observations:
- We’ve discussed the impossibility of actually writing contrapuntally or fugually in relation to an earlier blog post – and I agree, that we cannot in a written work actually hear the different melodies/voices at the same time. But Butor’s sentences echo each other and create an impression of layering, an illusion of polyphony. I want to explore this in much more depth at some future point.
- The musical structure is described as ‘quasi-mathematical’, and indeed one of the many contradictory things about Butor is that he does use mathematical grids and so forth to structure his writing, but that as intellectual, as erudite as his work is, it is always at the same time warm, passionate, idealistic. It never reads like an exercise.
- Revel feels he has blood on his hands. But so does almost everyone – or rather everyone, at least momentarily, seems guilty or dangerous. Horace Buck is almost certainly responsible for some of the fires that are Bleston’s plague. Burton himself writes murders, if he does not commit them. Richard Tenn may possibly be the model for Burton’s fictional fratricide. Jenkins not only comes under suspicion from Revel but suspects himself after a homicidal dream. Even the Bailey women suddenly appear in a sinister light when Revel tells them that he knows the pseudonymous author of the detective novel, so much so that he feels he has betrayed his friend and even endangered his life. In Bleston suspicion and betrayal are in the air.
Decayetude says that there is also ‘in the last pages, a darkness I cannot quite get to the heart of ‘. This is the quintessential experience of the reader of Passing Time. This is what nags at one, that feeling that there is something we’re missing, something at the centre of the labyrinth.
Some critics became quite tetchy in response. W M Frohock, reviewing the novel in 1959, said that ‘the hero… is not completely plausible, psychologically. After all, it is one thing to experience a kind of depression in a city like Bleston, and a different one to stay, month after month, at the bottom of the slough. Even in Bleston, Jacques Revel should really find his situation less grim on some days than he does on others’ (p. 60). Which sounds rather like an exhortation to ‘pull yourself together, Jacques’ .
These responses suggest attempts to read Passing Time as a realistic account of a year in a northern city – understandable, since we begin with what seems to be just that, and since the account is anchored in bus times and street names and the mundane detail of city life. But from the start, from the first page, that terror is present, and it and myriad references on every page tell us that 1950s Manchester is onlyone source for Bleston.
That Manchester at that time should have triggered such an intense response is something I’ve looked at elsewhere. (Aside from anything else, the extremity of the climactic conditions linked to industrial pollution was extraordinary - J B Howitt has talked of the ‘terrifying Manchester fogs … when the phenomenon of temperature-inversion produced near darkness and zero visibility around the clock for days on end’ (p. 54).)
And yet, and yet, there is more than this, and I think there are answers to be had. You just might have to wander those rain-drenched fog-bound mean streets for a long time to find the heart of that darkness….
Frohock, W M, ‘Introduction to Butor’, YFS, 24 (1959), 54-61
Howitt, J B, ‘England and the English in the Novels of Michel Butor’, MA thesis, University of Manchester, April 1972
__, ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, Nottingham French Studies, 12 (1973), 74-85
Fascinating piece on place and memory from Annie Harrison
Originally posted on cities@manchester:
Guest blog by Annie Harrison.
This article draws on the work Annie is doing for her MA by Research in Art Practice at MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University and an associated artists’ residency at Lime, an arts and health organization. Annie also works as a Project Assistant in the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester.
My art practice is concerned with place and memory. Both contribute to our sense of belonging, which in its turn plays a part in social cohesion. I am particularly interested in how memory is affected by the loss of place, and how the visual arts can aid memory in a rapidly changing urban environment. In my MA, I am researching the site of the recently redeveloped Central Manchester Hospitals and working with hospital staff to recover what the Swiss artist Christian Boltanski calls ‘small memories’, the memories of ordinary people.
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
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)
My present preoccupation is with Butor’s second novel, L’Emploi du temps, published in 1956, whose English translation is currently out of print, but which holds a particular fascination, amongst Butor’s many and diverse works. It’s inspired a remarkable number of other literary and artistic works – Allen Fisher’s poem ‘Butor – Passing Time Again’, Richard Wollheim’s novel A Family Romance, Steve Hawley’s DVD ‘Yarn’, and, as we discovered very recently, W G Sebald’s ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’. This last is not only a direct response to Passing Time, but confirms a gut feeling that the Max Ferber section of The Emigrants is inspired by Butor’s depiction of the city they both came to as strangers, just over a decade apart. A lot more about that to come…
The description of a northern industrial English town is recognisable even 50 years after the time – pollution, fog, and frightful food – and has struck a chord with English readers in particular. However, its interest is wider than that because as you follow the narrator as he tries to find his way around the city, the initially familiar becomes increasingly disquieting and you start to wonder exactly where you are.
One of the intriguing things about the novel is the gap between the prosaic realism of many passages, and the fantastic/supernatural elements which pervade the text. These elements, and the passionate hatred between the narrator and the city, are difficult to reconcile with the actual events depicted – nothing happens that isn’t entirely explicable in rational terms. But from the first page, there is an atmosphere of terror, which intensifies as the narrator finds himself more and more beleaguered. The language is intense and dramatic – Butor talks of fear, of murder and blood, betrayals and lies, secrets and vengeance. These prosaic events take on supernatural overtones – the difficulties and disappointments he encounters are blamed on the opposition of the city, a traffic accident is attempted murder, the many fires are the manifestations of the spirit which possesses and consumes the city, and the fog and polluted atmosphere are enchantments that sedate the inhabitants.
Clearly, Bleston is Manchester, where Butor spent a couple of miserable years, and the descriptions are both recognisable and drawing on the archetypes of Manchester as the iconic industrial city. It’s at once a real, grimy, foggy place, and the infernal city of de Tocqueville and Engels, Dickens and Mrs Gaskell. It’s also, though, the city of Cain, Babylon, and the labyrinth of Daedalus. It’s a city of war, and a city at war with itself. I’ll return to that in a future entry, because I think that is the key to the transformation of the grubby ordinariness of a modern industrial city into a monster.
 L’Emploi du temps (Paris: Minuit, 1956)
 Allen Fisher, ‘Butor, Passing Time Again’, Gravity (Cambridge: Salt, 2004)
 Richard Wollheim, A Family Romance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969)
 W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water : Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London : Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
 W G Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002)