Posts Tagged Paris
W G Sebald’s novels tend to begin with someone setting out on a journey. His protagonists are almost always in transit, and if they do settle somewhere it is not likely to be long-term. There are always exceptions, of course, and Max Ferber (The Emigrants) is the exception in relation to the latter trait – once he finds himself in Manchester he feels he cannot, must not leave. But Jacques Austerlitz is the archetypal Sebaldian wanderer.
We (via the narrator, who both is and is not Sebald) meet Austerlitz first in Antwerp, then in Liege, Brussels and Zeebrugge, before finding out that he is based in London. At this stage his restless quests are related to his academic interests in architecture, particularly public architecture, as he explores railway stations, prisons and fortresses, courtrooms and museums. After a two year hiatus in their relationship, the narrator and Austerlitz encounter one another again, in London, in a railway station bar. Only now do we begin to find out about his early life. Until his teenage years he had believed himself to be Dafydd Elias, growing up in Bala in Wales. Only after the death of his foster mother and the mental breakdown of his foster father does he discover that his name is Jacques Austerlitz, but he knows nothing more. The name itself signals a kind of multiple identity – a French first name and a Czech place name (which, as a surname, was shared with Fred Astaire and which, because of the Napoleonic era battle which took place there, is also the name of one of Paris’s major railway stations).
Austerlitz finds himself obsessively walking the streets of London in the early hours, and is drawn back repeatedly to Liverpool Street Station where he has a kind of vision of himself as a small child, meeting for the first time the foster parents who had been assigned to him. He feels ‘something rending’ within himself and is in a state of mental torment until he hears, by chance, a radio broadcast about the Kindertransport. This begins to trigger memories of his childhood journey, and when he hears the name of the ship, ‘SS Prague’, he determines to go to that city and find out about where it began.
Austerlitz’s quest is now to find out who his parents were, and what happened to them. He discovers, or believes he has discovered, his mother’s fate. She was deported to Terezin, from whence she was taken, we understand, ‘east’. Whilst there are uncertainties about this narrative, there are far more surrounding his father, who had left for France before the deportations from Prague began.
And so to Paris. Alongside my mission to photograph all of the memorial plaques relating to WWII that we passed as we walked its streets, I wanted to find, if I could, some of the locations described in Sebald’s novel. Sebald sometimes describes real places with absolute precision, sometimes alters or relocates them. Of course, whilst major public buildings were easy to find, I was unsure whether, given that the narrator and protagonist are both fictional constructs, the specific addresses provided would be as straightforward. But they were all there, even the bistro on boulevard Auguste Blanqui.
I received a postcard from Austerlitz giving me his new address (6 rue des cinq Diamants), in the thirteenth arrondissement. (p. 354)
I met Austerlitz, as agreed, on the day after my arrival, in the Le Havane bistro bar on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui, not far from the Glaciere Metro station. (p. 355)
The rue Barrault is said to be the last known address of Maximilian Aychenwald. Austerlitz speculates about whether his father had been caught up in one of the round-ups of Jews:
I kept wondering whether he had been interned in the half-built housing estate out at Drancy after the first police raid in Paris in August 1941, or not until July of the following year, when a whole army of French gendarmes took thirteen thousand of their Jewish fellow citizens from their homes, in what was called the grande rafle, during which over a hundred of their victims jumped out of the windows in desperation or found some other way of committing suicide. I sometimes thought I saw the window-less police cars racing through a city frozen with terror, the crowd of detainees camping out in the open in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, and the trains on which they were soon transported from Drancy and Bobigny; I pictured their journey through the Greater German Reich, I saw my father still in his good suit and his black velour hat, calm and upright among all the frightened people. (pp. 358-359)
During an earlier period in Paris, before the search for his father began, Austerlitz had had another episode of nervous collapse, and had been admitted to the Salpêtrière Hospital.
I did not return to my senses until I was in the Salpêtrière, to which I had been taken and where I was now lying in one of the men’s wards … somewhere in that gigantic complex of buildings where the borders between hospital and penitentiary have always been blurred, and which seems to have grown and spread of its own volition over the centuries until it now forms a universe of its own between the Jardin des Plantes and the Gare d’Austerlitz. (pp. 375-376)
This is the hospital at which, in the late 19th century, Charcot developed his diagnosis of ‘hysterical epilepsy’, and the phenomenon of the ‘fugueur‘ was first identified and researched. Austerlitz can remember nothing about himself or his history, but someone finds the address of his friend Marie de Verneuil and contacts her at 7 place des Vosges.
When I met Austerlitz again for morning coffee on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui, … he told me that the previous day he had heard, from one of the staff at the records centre in the rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, that Maximilian Aychenwald had been interned during the latter part of 1942 in the camp at Gurs, a place in the Pyrennean foothills … Curiously enough, said Austerlitz, a few hours after our last meeting, when he had come back from the Bibliothèque Nationale and changed trains at the Gare d’Austerlitz, he had felt a premonition that he was coming closer to his father. As I might know, he said, part of the railway network had been paralysed by a strike last Wednesday, and in the unusual silence which, as a consequence, had descended on the Gare d’Austerlitz, an idea came to him of his father’s leaving Paris from this station … I imagined, said Austerlitz, that I saw him leaning out of the window … After that I wandered round the deserted station half dazed, through the labyrinthine underpasses, over foot-bridges, up flights of steps on one side and down on the other. That station, said Austerlitz, has always seemed to me the most mysterious of all the railway terminals of Paris. … I was particularly fascinated by the way the Metro trains coming from the Bastille, having crossed the Seine, roll over the iron viaduct into the station’s upper storey, quite as if the façade were swallowing them up. And I also remember that I felt an uneasiness induced by the hall behind this façade, filled with a feeble light and almost entirely empty, where on a platform roughly assembled out of beams and boards, there stood a scaffolding reminiscent of a gallows … an impression forced itself upon me of being on the scene of some unexpiated crime. (pp. 404-407)
The records centre in the rue Geoffrey l’Asnier is now the Mémorial de la Shoah. Amongst the many records kept here, there is a room full of boxes of index cards, relating to the various internment camps and those who were imprisoned there.
I don’t know, said Austerlitz, what all this means, and so I am going to continue looking for my father, and for Marie de Verneuil as well. (p. 408)
We will never know the outcome, although it seems most likely that his parents’ journeys ended in the same, terrible place, a place with which Austerlitz’s name has resonated, whether we have been conscious of it or not, from the beginning. As James Wood points out:
And throughout the novel, present but never spoken, never written – it is the best act of Sebald’s withholding – is the other historical name that shadows the name Austerlitz, the name that begins and ends with the same letters, the name which we sometimes misread Austerlitz as, the place that Agata Austerlitz was almost certainly ‘sent east’ to in 1944, and the place that Maximilian Aychenwald was almost certainly sent to in 1942 from the French camp in Gurs: Auschwitz.
(James Wood, ‘Sent East’, London Review of Books, 6 October 2011)
Austerlitz himself will continue to wander, and it seems that his travels are not merely in space, but also in time. The small Czech boy separated from his parents, the troubled Welsh schoolboy, the London academic, and the driven man travelling through some of the most haunted places in Europe – all are one. Always in transit, in temporary or liminal spaces, descending into the underworld/labyrinth to keep the appointment he has made with his own past.
He had quite often found himself in the grip of dangerous and entirely incomprehensible currents of emotion in the Parisian railway stations, which, he said, he regarded as places marked by both blissful happiness and profound misfortune. (p. 45)
I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them. (p.144)
I felt, … said Austerlitz, as if my father were still in Paris and just waiting, so to speak, for a good opportunity to reveal himself. Such ideas infallibly come to me in places which have more of the past about them then the present. For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find out way to them at last. … And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak? (pp. 359-360)
The grey zone. It’s an endangered space, according to the murderous zealots of ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State/ISIL (I’m going to stick with Daesh, since I believe they really, really don’t like it). It’s the space where people meet, talk, think, and maybe change their minds.
President Bush said after the 9/11 attacks that there were only two options, to be with ‘us’ (the US and its allies) or with the terrorists. Daesh essentially agree – you are either with the crusade or with the caliphate. There is no middle ground.
And of course in some senses there isn’t, not when it comes to the massacring of innocents, wherever that takes place. No ‘of course I condemn the killings, but…’, or ‘of course it’s terrible but the French (or anyone else) had it coming’. No way. I am passionately, profoundly, unequivocally, unambiguously against everything that Daesh stand for and everything that they do. I despise their murderous arrogance, their callous indifference to human life.
But the danger of Daesh and their ilk is their absolute certainty. They define everyone who is not unequivocally, unambiguously with them not as mistaken or misguided but as the enemy. The Quran condemns those who take innocent lives, but Daesh see all who are not with them as guilty – corrupt and degenerate westerners in the ‘capital of prostitution and obscenity’, ‘deviant’ Muslims in Beirut, on and on and on. This year alone, they have murdered ‘crusaders’ in Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Chad, Nigeria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria…
Are they evil? Individually, I doubt it. We have to distinguish the organisation from the individuals who, as Umair Haque says, have themselves been conquered and brutalised by it. But they’ve been carefully taught, taught to hate, taught to kill without mercy or remorse, and by the time they’ve strapped on the explosive belt and picked up the Kalashnikov it is probably too late for them to be persuaded or deterred from doing evil in the name of an evil ideology. It’s not too late, though, for those who are attracted by the certainties of that ideology, or flirting with fundamentalism, if we can reach them, if we could sit down with them in the grey zone and talk, and listen. Lydia Wilson did that, talking to Daesh prisoners on death row in Kirkuk:
They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too. (Lydia Wilson, The Nation, 21 October 2015)
In the grey zone we can try to understand, and we can look into the eyes of another human being and draw on what we share whilst we explore what we don’t. The grey zone is full of the things that Daesh hate – music, art, football, laughter, friendship, conversation, love. The grey zone is where we live.
Justin Smith said of the targeting of the Eagles of Death Metal gig that ‘what the attackers hated in January [the Charlie Hebdo attacks], and what they continue to hate, is a sort of offense that we could not possibly promise to disown. It is the offense of happiness, of getting jokes, and loving oxymorons.’
‘life itself, the joy of living, was the target. … They did not attack infrastructure, politicians, military personnel, or sites of historical or cultural significance. They targeted innocent people, going about their lives, trying to make it through this difficult and complicated world with a modicum of fun and lightness. … It was, in every sense, an attack on multiculturalism; an attack on how we find happiness, outside the confines of a strict religious code of submission; an attack on the secular, enlightened spirit embodied by Paris’s vibrant, varied culture.’
Daesh tell us that the grey zone is on the brink of extinction, that it’s withering away. That’s what they want, of course, and that’s why we must protect it. Their intention in Paris was to provoke just that polarisation of views, to turn people against each other, to engender and encourage suspicion and prejudice, to make us afraid of each other. In Umair Haque’s words, ‘let’s be more courageous and wise than that’.
Billy Bragg said on Facebook:
We have to be careful not to mirror [Daesh’s] warped logic by declaring that all Muslims are enemies of the state. To do so would be to play into the hands of those who sent the murderers onto the streets of Paris. Jason Burke, writing in today’s Observer, points out that one of the main aims of ISIS is to polarise society. He quotes writings in which they state their wish to “eliminate the ‘grey zone’ between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned.” … As the National Front begins to exploit the Paris attacks to gain votes in France, we must all be very careful not to divide our communities into those who are with us and those who are against us. ISIS wants to poison our society. If we hope to defeat the terrorists, we must also be vigilant against those who would help them achieve their aim.
So we have to continue helping the refugees, because they are human beings who are desperate and afraid and who are fleeing the same terror that struck at Paris, and we have to stand up against those who would turn them away on all sorts of spurious grounds but particularly now because they might be terrorists.
Kate Norlock wrote on the feministphilosophers blog:
Note the immediate interest on the part of some powerful actors to close borders and prevent refugees from moving, and consider helping those refugees. France’s leaders are already stating their intention to respond to these attacks. I’m no politician and I don’t know what nations should do, but I know that some refugees are in Europe now because they were trying to flee deadly attacks like those in Paris. Don’t let tonight be a night that hardens hearts against refugees. Let tonight be a reason to reach out.
We have to refuse to be bystanders when anyone – on social media, on the street, in the workplace – demonises or harasses Muslims or those who look as if they might be Muslims. We have to have conversations across the various divides of age, ethnic background, religion, politics – find out what other people think, share what we think, find the common ground. We have to counter and debunk the lies that are routinely told about refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and the propaganda that xenophobic political movements such as the Front National, EDL/Britain First etc. and their equivalents across Europe will make of the Paris atrocities.
None of this will stop Daesh. I’m not sure what will. How do you stop someone with an explosive belt and a Kalashnikov, who cares nothing for the lives of the people they will mow down, and nothing for their own life, indeed who is ‘seeking to be killed’ in order to gain martyrdom? Perhaps we cannot afford to be pacifists in any absolute sense. These are the moral quandaries that face us and perplex us, and we cannot take refuge in absolutes, because absolutes are a huge part of the problem.
We’re all looking for a ‘magic bullet’ to use against this big bad. There may be political and/or military solutions (just as likely, I’m afraid, there will be political and/or military reactions that will hurt Daesh’s victims more than they hurt Daesh itself).
For myself, what I want to do most of all is to fight – not with Kalashnikovs but with words and the way I live my life – for the grey zone.
Because the last thing the grey zone is, is grey. It’s every colour under the sun. And it’s beautiful.
Enjoy your life.
Make it count.
And don’t let the murderers win.
PS I am aware that the term ‘grey zone’ was used by Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved to describe a territory of moral ambiguity, or the suspension of morality, specific to the world of the concentration camps. My use of the term in this piece is based solely on its appropriation by Isis as described above.
Décombres de l’avenir et projets rudéraux : les métamorphoses de Paris chez Verne, Hugo et Zola
Claudia Bouliane’s recently published MA dissertation is available online as a PDF.
The abstract is as follows :
Between 1853 and 1870, many areas of the French capital are torn down to allow the establishment of new avenues by Baron Haussmann, Paris’ prefect under Napoleon III. These major urban projects have struck the social imaginary and became an object of fascination for literature. This essay is located on the grounds of sociocriticism and seeks to understand how Verne’s, Hugo’s and Zola’s texts interpret the Paris’ new urban conformation. In Paris au XXe siècle (1863) Jules Verne is planning future destructions and, in turn, imagines the strange constructiveness of residual past. Although in exile, Victor Hugo is very aware of urban and social changes under way. In Paris (1867) his writing works to make compatible…
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Comme je me renseigne sur Alechinsky, sa vie son œuvre, je finis par trouver des dessins sur plans – de Paris (ça me revient : “tu sais Alechinsky, il a utilisé des cartes comme support, ça devrait t’intéresser”). Je sélectionne ici les arrondissements que je connais mieux.
L’arrondissement de ma naissance.
L’arrondissement du Lycée.
L’arrondissement de l’université.
Je trouve aussi ces impressions de Cherbourg. Petit résumé en 7 vignettes.
17 October. A demonstration is scheduled in the heart of the city, against a curfew recently imposed on certain sections of the population. There are about 30,000 demonstrators, men, women and children, many in their Sunday best, a signal of their peaceful intentions. But the reception, as they emerge from the stations and move towards their meeting place, is anything but peaceful. The police are ready for them, their instructions to pay back one blow with ten, with the assurance that whatever happens, they have the backing of their superiors. Of the 30,000, 11,000 are arrested. Some of these are herded into buses and taken to a nearby sports stadium, where they are interrogated and beaten up. Some are beaten and thrown into the river, or hung from trees and lampposts. Probably – and we’ll never know for sure – 200 of the demonstrators are killed.
This happened in Paris, in 1961, to Algerians and others of North African origin, in the context of the Algerian War and terrorist activity by the FLN. That it isn’t widely known about – was barely spoken of at all until the 1990s – is the result of one of the most successful cover-ups of our time.
It’s not that there were no accounts of these events at the time – the arrest, beating and murder of so many could hardly go unnoticed in the centre of Paris. But in France itself, there was rigorous state censorship – films and photographs were seized and destroyed, and journalists found their reports buried or edited to match the official line that it was a riot that was firmly dealt with by the police. This was echoed by most of the international press, who at best suggested that perhaps the police response was a tad firmer than absolutely necessary. Amongst the Algerian community, fear of reprisals largely ensured that, even as people desperately tried to find out what had happened to family members who never came home after the demonstration, their experiences were not made public.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote about the massacre in her autobiography, drawing on her friend Claude Lanzmann’s first-hand account:
The cops were waiting for the Algerians at the exits to the Metro … [Lanzmann] saw with his own eyes how they kicked them in the teeth and smashed their skulls. Bodies were found hanging from the trees on the Bois du Boulogne and others, disfigured and mutilated, in the Seine. … Afterwards, I heard the … bare-faced lies: two dead, when we already know of more than 50.
That there is now a plaque on the Pont St Michel, and films and TV documentaries about that night in October 1961, is due mainly to the fact that the person in charge of the Paris police force at the time was one Maurice Papon, who in the 1980s came under scrutiny not for his treatment of Algerian demonstrators twenty years earlier, but for his complicity in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux almost twenty years before that. During the course of his somewhat belated trial, the connection with the massacre was brought to light.
Didier Daeninckx’s noir policier Meurtres pour la Mémoire linked the massacre with the deportations (without naming Papon) in 1984, but interestingly was not the first fictional treatment of the massacre. Black American writer William Gardner Smith wrote The Stone Face in 1963, and Kristin Ross, in her study of the afterlife of May 68, writes that:
It is a mark of the success surrounding the official blackout of information about October 17 that Smith’s novel, written by a foreigner in France and published in the United States (it could not be published in France), would stand as one of the few representations of the event available all the way up until the early 1990s – until the moment, that is, when a generation of young Beurs, as the children of North African immigrants call themselves, had reached an age at which they could begin to demand information about their parents’ fate. Professional or academic historians have lagged well behind amateurs in the attempt to discover what occurred on October 17; investigative journalists, militants, and fiction writers like Smith, or the much more widely read detective novelist, Didier Daeninckx, kept a trace of the event alive during the thirty years when it had entered a “black hole” of memory.
For many, Michael Hanecke’s film Caché (Hidden) was the first introduction to the 17 October massacre. There’s only a brief mention of it but nonetheless it sits at the heart of the film, a film about memory and the burying of memory. It led me to try to find out whether – as seemed improbable at first – such a thing could have happened and left so little trace.
There are so many aspects of this story that fascinate. The connection between collaboration in the deportation of Jews during the Occupation and the violent repression of dissent by French citizens of north African origin even extends to the fact that an earlier crack-down on Algerian demonstrators by Papon had involved the use of the Vel’d’Hiv as a detention centre. And the fact that an event witnessed by so many could be so effectively hidden from view reflects the way in which the history of collaboration during the Occupation had to be dragged painfully into the light over decades.
There’s also the contrast with the public response to the brutal suppression of a demonstration in February 1962 organised by the Communist Party – the eight who were killed became the symbols of state violence during the Algerian War. One might have thought that this would have brought the October massacre back into public consciousness, but it seems to have had the opposite effect – it was simply eclipsed. Le Monde even reported the suppression of the Charonne demonstration as the most violent state action since 1934. Why? The only plausible explanation is the fact that the October demonstrators, unlike those who were killed and beaten a few months later, were overwhelmingly Algerian or North African.
Of course, the notion of an official cover-up is terribly pertinent today as we await prosecutions, 23 years after the event, in relation to Hillsborough. In both cases, what happened was both known and not known. Known because these things happened in public places, because there were eye-witnesses, photographs, films, newspaper articles. Not known because, in the case of the 17 October massacre those accounts were suppressed by the machinery of the state, and in the case of Hillsborough because no matter how often the truth was published and asserted it barely seemed to dent the falsehoods that had been disseminated at the time so vigorously by the police and others.
It took forty years for the victims of the 17 October massacre to be commemorated officially. We don’t know how many of them there were. We don’t know all of their names, or exactly what happened to most of them. But the events of that night in 1961 are no longer hidden.
- Simone de Beauvoir, La Force des Choses (Gallimard, 1963)
- Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour mémoire (Gallimard, 1984)
- Jean-Luc Einaudi, La Bataille de Paris: 17 octobre 1961 (Editions du Seuil, 1991)
- Jean-Luc Einaudi,’17 octobre 1961: un crime toujours pas condamné’ L’Humanité, 13/10/01
- Richard J Golsan (ed), The Papon Affair: Memory & Justice on Trial (Routledge, 2000)
- Daniel A. Gordon, ‘World Reactions to the 1961 Paris Pogrom’, University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, I (2000)
- Jim House, Neil MacMaster, Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (Oxford UP, 2006)
- Jacques Panijel, ‘Le 17 octobre 1961 – un crime d’état’, L’Humanité, 24/10/97
- Kristin Ross, May ’68 And Its Afterlives (University of Chicago Press, 2002)