Posts Tagged W G Sebald
(adapted from a paper given at ‘There & Back Again’, a postgraduate conference at the University of Nottingham, organised by the Landscape, Space, Place Research Group. The title is taken from Iain Hacking’s fascinating study of the fugueur phenomenon)
The idea of wandering, of travelling without constraints, without a humdrum practical purpose, is perennially appealing to most of us, even if, for most of us, the drawbacks come to mind pretty speedily if we start to entertain the notion. Some do it anyway – seize the moment when the obstacles are not insuperable – but generally it’s something to enjoy vicariously, or to indulge in short bursts, taking time out of a holiday schedule to just have a stroll around foreign streets.
Throughout myth and literature there are many wanderers who cross seas, continents and centuries. For some it’s a pastime, a means of avoiding commitments or encumbrance:
I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around
I’m never in one place, I roam from town to town
And when I find myself fallin’ for some girl
I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world (Dion, The Wanderer, 1961)
Everyday in the week I’m in a different city
If I stay too long people try to pull me down
Hendrix suggests that the prejudices of the cities in which he finds himself push him to leave, as well as, like Dion, that if he does sometimes feel his heart ‘kinda gettin’ hot’ for some woman, he moves on before he gets caught. For some, wandering is a subversive practice (not using the city streets in the prescribed way), for others it’s a compulsion, even a curse.
The flâneur is one of those archetypal wanderers. This classic definition is by Baudelaire, writing in 1863 in his ‘Le Peintre de la vie moderne’.
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.
He is a perfect stroller, a passionate spectator, an erudite wanderer. He walks the streets, probably alone, with no map or itinerary, with the confidence that comes from being male, well-educated and wealthy. His milieu is the city, and quintessentially Paris. One might think that the boulevards and arcades of Haussmann’s Paris lent themselves to strolling so much better than the labyrinthine streets of the old city, but it was that old city that defined the flâneur, allowing (in Edmund White’s words) ‘a passive surrender to the aleatory flux of the innumerable and surprising streets’.
The flâneur is a prototype detective, his apparent indolence masking intense watchfulness. This recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (which was translated by Baudelaire), in which a man recovering from illness sits in a London coffee shop, watching the passers-by, and engaging in Holmesian deductions about their occupation and character. His attention is drawn by an old man who he is unable to read, and he feels compelled by insatiable curiosity to follow him, for a night and a day, as the man moves unceasingly through the city: he is the man of the crowd – not only hiding within it, but unable to exist outside it.
Walter Benjamin in his 1935 study of Baudelaire suggests that Baudelaire identifies the old man as a flâneur. This must be a misreading on Benjamin’s part, since the old man is as manic as the flâneur is composed. The flâneur may ‘set up house’ in the heart of the crowd, becoming part of ‘the ebb and flow of movement’, but he remains separate, above the mass. He is, like Baudelaire and Benjamin, at the same time engaged with and alienated by the city.
Poe’s story does give us a flâneur, however, in the person of the narrator, who can and does choose to abandon his pursuit, stepping aside to resume his life, and a different kind of wanderer, in the person of the man of the crowd. Steven Fink argues persuasively that the man of the crowd is the mythological figure of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander endlessly as punishment for a terrible crime. (He has a number of counterparts, including, amongst others, Cain, the Flying Dutchman, and the Ancient Mariner.) Certainly this description by Benjamin’s contemporary, Siegfried Krakauer, is remarkably close to Poe’s description of the old man:
‘there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of bloodthirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense – of supreme despair … How wild a history … is written within that bosom!’. (Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’)
Imagine [his face] to be many faces, each reflecting one of the periods which he traversed and all of them combining into ever new patterns as he restlessly and vainly tries on his wanderings to reconstruct out of the times that shaped him the one time he is doomed to incarnate. It is a terrible face, ‘assembled from the many faces of the dead’. (Siegfried Krakauer – History, the Last Things Before the Last (OUP, 1969))
If the man of the crowd is no flâneur, he does bear a stronger resemblance to the fugueur, a lesser-known (and shorter-lived) phenomenon which emerged in the 1880s. Bordeaux medical student Philippe Tissié and neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris documented a number of cases of men undertaking strange and unexpected trips, in states of obscured consciousness. They were subject to hallucinations, and often dominated by ideas of persecution. Their conduct during the episode appeared normal, but they were unconscious of what they were doing, and had no memory of it afterwards – in a state of dissociative fugue. A fugue state is defined as involving selective memory loss, the inability to recall specific – perhaps traumatic – events. This may be accompanied by wandering and travelling, in an attempt to recover memory/identity, or perhaps in a flight from it – the etymological paradox of flight/pursuit.
The fugueur is quite distinct from the flâneur whose journeying is deliberately aimless and random, an end in itself. His itinerary may defy linear logic but nonetheless is purposeful, even if that purpose can be discovered only retrospectively. The flâneur, in his fine clothes, walked the streets as if he owned them because, wealthy and well-educated, he could. The fugueur, in his state of obscured consciousness, was likely to be mistaken, instead, for a vagrant. Albert Dadas, ‘patient zero’ in the mini-epidemic of ‘mad travelling’, was repeatedly arrested for vagabondage. The fugueurs were generally of more modest means than the flâneurs – tradesmen, craftsmen or clerks – and their travels took them much further afield. If someone spoke of a city or a country Albert was seized by the need to go there, and did so, often then finding himself in difficulties due to lack of funds.
One of Charcot’s patients was a young Hungarian Jew named Klein, who was ‘constantly driven by an irresistible need to change his surroundings, to travel, without being able to settle down anywhere’. This particular patient prompted a link with the then prevailing view that Jews were more prone than other races to various forms of neurasthenia and that this particular manifestation was ‘in the character of their race’. Thus the Wandering Jew was, according to Henri Meige’s thesis, ‘only a sort of prototype of neurotic Israelites journeying throughout the world’. Even at the time it was pointed out, fairly acerbically, that if the Jews had a tendency to move from place to place, this was in generally externally rather than internally driven, as persecution and prejudice made it necessary to leave one home in search of another.
Charcot’s diagnosis, and his use of the term ‘hystero-epilepsy’ in particular, fell out of favour, largely due to the failure to identify a common cause that would account for a collection of rather disparate individual cases. In the twentieth century the two types of wanderer seem often to merge, as trauma and exile create a more melancholy and more driven wanderer. One can trace a line from Baudelaire’s flâneur to the Surrealists, via Walter Benjamin’s description of flânerie as a dream state in which ‘The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker [: it] conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history’, to Guy Debord’s dérive as subversive practice, and on to today’s psychogeographers. Rather than being a disaffected and detached observer, the flâneur in the late 20th and 21st century may be in flight from memory, from identity, at home nowhere, an exile who feels no connection, or only a highly problematic one, to homeland or origins.
Michel Butor’s 1956 novel, L’Emploi du temps is set in a northern English industrial city, called Bleston but clearly inspired by Manchester, where Butor had worked a few years earlier. It takes the form of a diary kept by his protagonist, Jacques Revel, in the city for a one-year placement. We know nothing of Revel’s life before his arrival in Bleston, or of what he will do after he leaves. He speaks of his year there as a prison sentence – he is unable to leave the city during that period, and compelled to leave it on a specific date. He is certainly not at home in Bleston, but he seems entirely rootless, without any connection elsewhere. In his restless wanderings through the streets, he seems to be searching – mostly fruitlessly – for lodgings, for someone whose name he does not know who he met on an earlier walk, for the elusive countryside. But ultimately his quest is to master the city by walking its streets, grasping the reality which seems to be changing around him as he walks – it is a phantasmagorical city, whose heavily polluted atmosphere creates a narcotic dream-like state, distorting his perceptions and leaving him disorientated.
Butor’s novel had a significant influence on W G Sebald, who came to Manchester about 15 years later. Sebald read L’Emploi du temps when he first arrived, and it inspired a poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, as well as having a wider impact on his work.
In Sebald’s novels, the narrator (who may or may not be, to some extent, Sebald) invariably begins by describing a journey. He is precise about when, and where, although the layering of timeframes and locations means that we can lose these certainties as the narrative progresses, but frequently the ‘why’ is obscure, not just to the reader but to the narrator himself. The narrator and the various protagonists are rarely, if ever, ‘at home’. They are often in transit or in provisional, interim spaces such as waiting rooms, railway stations, and transport cafes. Their journeys often induce episodes of near paralysis, physical or mental, and they end inconclusively, often with a sense that the quest will continue after the final page.
But if the Sebaldian narrator is a contemporary example of the melancholy flâneur, Jacques Austerlitz connects us directly with the fugueur, and with wandering as a response to trauma and loss. As a child, Austerlitz arrived in England on the Kindertransport, where his foster parents gave him a new life, and a new name, telling him nothing of his past, or the fate of his parents, until, as a sixth former, he learns that he is not Dafydd Elias.
For many years he avoids any topic or image which might shed light on or raise questions about his origins. But, increasingly isolated, and with his life ‘clouded by unrelieved despair’, tormented by insomnia, he undertakes nocturnal wanderings through London, alone, outwards into the suburbs, and then back at dawn with the commuters into the city. These excursions begin to trigger hallucinations, visions from the past, for example, the impression that ‘the noises of the city were dying down around me and the traffic was flowing silently down the street, or as if someone had plucked me by the sleeve. And I would hear people behind my back speaking in a foreign tongue …’. He is irresistibly drawn to Liverpool Street Station, a place full of ghosts, built as it is on the remains of Bedlam hospital, and, in the disused Ladies’ Waiting Room, encounters the ghosts of his foster parents and the small boy he once was.
Thus his obsessive wanderings appear to have had a sub-conscious purpose, taking him back to the point of rupture between one life and another. He embarks upon a new phase of wandering, driven by the need to find his home and his parents. Overhearing a radio documentary about the Kindertransport, and the reference to a ship named The Prague, like Albert Dadas, the original fugueur: ‘the mere mention of the city’s name in the present context was enough to convince me that I would have to go there’.
Austerlitz’s quest remains incomplete at the end of the novel. In the course of his wanderings he has, he believes, discovered his former home in Prague and traced his mother to Teresienstadt and his father to the Gurs concentration camp in France in 1942. Beyond that he knows only that his mother ‘was sent east’ in 1944. He does not know where, when, or even whether they died.
His quest, and his confrontation with the losses that defined his life, leads to ‘several fainting fits … temporary but complete loss of memory, a condition described in psychiatric textbooks … as hysterical epilepsy’. He is taken, significantly, to the Salpêtrière, where Charcot established this diagnosis almost a century earlier. This diagnosis would only be included in psychiatric textbooks as a historical footnote – an example of Sebald’s dense or layered time – we know precisely where we are, but the ‘when’ is not so straightforward.
Thus we’ve come full circle. And I want to make another tentative, perhaps fanciful connection. Sebald invites us to make all sorts of links with the name Austerlitz – the battle, the Parisian railway station, even Fred Astaire. And there’s always the echo of another name, the likely final destination of both of his parents, unspoken here except in a reference to the Auschowitz Springs near Marienbad. One more then – Ahasuerus, the name often given to the mythological Wandering Jew.
Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur – ‘être hors de chez soi, et pourtant se sentir partout chez soi (away from home and yet at home everywhere)’ has echoed through the twentieth century and into our own, accumulating more and more melancholy baggage. That this phrase has darker undertones than Baudelaire will have intended is brought home by a speech made by Hitler in 1933, in which he described the Jewish people, the ‘small, rootless international clique’, as ‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere’.
In our time then, rather than someone at ease wherever he finds himself, we are likely to think of the refugee and the exile, adapting without putting down roots, unable to return but unable fully to belong, always sub-consciously ready to move on or even keeping a bag permanently packed, just in case. For the original flâneur this characteristic was an affectation, a chosen detachment and rootlessness. For the fugueur, driven by trauma or crisis of identity, it is a curse, to have to wander, and never to find answers, or find home.
Anderson, George K, The Legend of the Wandering Jew (Hanover/London: Brown UP, 1991)
Benjamin, Walter, ed. Michael W Jennings, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2006)
Brunel, Pierre (ed), translated by Wendy Allatson et al, Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes (NY/London: Routledge, 1996)
Coverley, Merlin, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006)
Fink, Steven, ‘Who is Poe’s Man of the Crowd?’, Poe Studies, 44, 2011 (17-38)
Gilloch, Graeme, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cam.: Polity, 1996)
Goldstein, Jan, ‘The Wandering Jew and the Problem of Psychiatric Anti-Semitism in Fin-de-Siècle France’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20, 4(October 1985), 521-52
Hacking, Ian, ‘Automatisme Ambulatoire: Fugue, Hysteria and Gender at the Turn of the Century’, Modernism/Modernity, 32 (1996), 31-43
__, ‘Les Alienés voyageurs: How Fugue Became a Medical Entity, History of Psychiatry, 7, 3 (September 1996), 425-49
__, Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (Free Association Books, 1998)
Kuo, Michelle and Albert Wu, ‘Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W G Sebald and the Alienated Cosmopolitan’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 February 2013
Lauster, Martina, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Myth of the Flâneur’, Modern Language Review, 102, 1 (January 2007), 139-56
McDonough, Tom, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22
Micale, Mark S, In the Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology and the Cultural Arts in Europe and American, 1880-1940 (Stanford UP, 2004)
Seal, Bobby, ‘Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur’, Psychogeographic Review, 14 November 2013
White, Edmund, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (Bloomsbury, 2008)
Inexplicably, the quality press has not yet invited me to name my top reads over the last twelve months, but no matter, I’ll do it anyway.
There is no attempt to rank or compare, or to identify one top title – just to share some of this year’s reading pleasure.
First, Taiye Selasi’s gorgeous Ghana Must Go. Drawn to it at first just for the title, I was blown away by the opening chapter, and as the narrative pulled back from that minute detail, that moment by moment evocation of a man looking out at his garden, realising that he is about to die, the breadth of the locations and the expanding cast in no way diluted the power of the writing. I did not realise at first that I was reading it aloud in my head, the way I read a novel in French, rather than hoovering up a page in one go as I normally do. In this case it wasn’t in order to understand it, but in order to feel the rhythm of the text. This is a poem as much as it is a novel.
John Williams’ Stoner had massive word of mouth before I got round to reading it. I was not disappointed – of course the academic milieu that it describes is very familiar to me and that helped to draw me in. But the emotional punch it pulled was unexpected and I rather regretted reading it in public.
I’ve written elsewhere about the final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, from John Harvey. I read a lot of detective novels – it was a year of long train journeys – and discovered new writers, notably Ann Cleeves, Laura Lippman, Louise Doughty, Belinda Bauer and Anne Holt, as well as enjoying new stuff from existing favourite Cath Staincliffe. Her Letters to my Daughter’s Killer is powerful stuff.
Tiffany Murray’s Diamond Star Halo rocked my world, and Sugar Hall chilled my spine. I read the whole Game of Thrones series, and am eager for more. Other favourites from writers new to me were John Lanchester’s Capital, Patrick McGuiness’s The Last Hundred Days, and Sue Eckstein’s Interpreters. I will seek out more by all of them, though very sadly, Sue Eckstein’s early death means that there is only one more from her to look forward to.
Danny Rhodes’ Fan inspired me to reminisce and ruminate about my relationship with the game of football, and with Nottingham Forest in particular, and Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl both made me laugh uproariously, and moved me to tears. It prompted a blog too.
As well as discovering new writers, I had the delight of reading more by some great favourites. Lesley Glaister’s Little Egypt, Stevie Davies’ Into Suez, Liz Jensen’s The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, all very different, and all on top form.
Lynn Shepherd’s latest literary mystery, The Pierced Heart, played beautifully with the Dracula myth, and the set up – a young man travels into the heart of Europe, an older, darker Europe, is welcomed by a mysterious Baron in a castle full of alchemical texts and other, more troubling collections – not only echoes Bram Stoker but reminded me of Michel Butor’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape, about which I hope to write something in due course. And oddly there were echoes of other aspects of The Pierced Heart in Stephen King’s excellent Revival, despite the very different setting. My most recent Doctor Who blog touched on these themes.
I didn’t expect Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to be such a page-turner. I expected it to be enlightening and stimulating, sure, but it’s a huge achievement that it was genuinely difficult to put the book down. I wanted to find out ‘what happened next’, how through the centuries and the continents the human race grappled with the big questions of what it is to be good.
Other non-fiction that had an impact on me included Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, which I read before I saw Steve McQueen’s harrowing and viscerally powerful film, and Dan Jacobson’s Heshel’s Kingdom, to which I was led by W G Sebald (in the final pages of Austerlitz). There was also Philippa Comber’s fascinating memoir of her friendship with Sebald, Ariadne’s Thread, another future blog, I hope.
Belinda Bauer – Blacklands, Darkside, Finders Keepers
Ann Cleeves – Dead Water, Red Bones, Silent Voices, Burial of Ghosts
Philippa Comber – Ariadne’s Thread
Stevie Davies – Into Suez
Louise Doughty – Apple Tree Yard
Sue Eckstein – Interpreters
Lesley Glaister – Little Egypt
John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness
Anne Holt – Blessed are Those who Thirst
Dan Jacobson – Heshel’s Kingdom
Liz Jensen – The Ninth Life of Louis Drax
Stephen King – Revival
John Lanchester – Capital
Laura Lippmann – The Innocents, Life Sentences, Don’t Look Back
Patrick McGuinness – The Last Hundred Days
Kenan Malik – The Quest for a Moral Compass
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo; Sugar Hall
Solomon Northrop – Twelve Years a Slave
Danny Rhodes – Fan
Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart
Cath Staincliffe – Letters to my Daughter’s Killer
John Williams – Stoner
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.”
Terry Pitts’ Vertigo blog reviews a fascinating and important new study of W G Sebald by Helen Finch.
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.
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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)
cities@manchester on Manchester, the original shock city
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…
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Yesterday, on a quest to explore Sebald’s links with Alain Resnais’ L’Année derniere à Marienbad (for another blog), I noticed in Austerlitz the name Marie de Verneuil. She is the friend with whom Austerlitz has been in correspondence since his time in Paris, and who invites him to accompany her on a visit to Bohemia, to do some research on the spas of Europe (thus Marienbad). It would not have struck me the last time I read Austerlitz, but Marie de Verneuil is the heroine of Balzac’s first non-pseudonymous novel, Les Chouans, a historical romance based on the counter-revolutionary rebellions in Brittany.
Marie is a spy, in the employment of the revolutionary national government, whose mission is to identify and entrap the young leader of the rebels, the Marquis de Montauran. They fall in love, and the vicissitudes of their doomed romance mirror the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the opposing armies as towns change hands over and over again. This is not the Balzac of the great Comedie Humaine novels. Heavily influenced by both Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, its interest primarily lies in the way in which Balzac personifies and mythologises the landscape of Brittany as disorientating and treacherous, savage and primitive, and the way in which despite fairly obvious Republicans sympathies he enlists our emotional sympathies with Marie and the Marquis and their cause, as doomed as their romance.
But what does all of this have to do with Sebald? Balzac has an important role in Austerlitz: ‘the fifty-five small volumes of the Comedie humaine bound in carmine red’, in one of which, Le Colonel Chabert, Vera finds two small photographs, possibly placed there by Agata just before the Germans marched in. And Austerlitz, seeking respite from his frustrating and obstructed searches in the Bibliothèque Nationale, begins reading Balzac, starting with Le Colonel Chabert.
Chabert is a ghostly figure, left for dead on the battlefields of Eylau, recorded as dead in the histories of those wars, and now returned, ‘risen from the dead, so to speak’, to reclaim his identity, his inheritance, his wife. Chabert introduces himself as ‘Colonel Chabert, who died at Ehlau’, and tells of the pit of corpses in which he had been thrown after the battle and from which he clawed and tore his way out. For Austerlitz the book ‘reinforced the suspicion … that the border between life and death is less impermeable than we commonly think’.
When I first read Chabert, I thought of the deportees returning home from the camps, appearing on the streets where they had once lived but now as ghosts, revenants, shocking and uncomfortable presences amongst the living and, as revenants so often are, goads to their consciences (think of Banquo, or Jacob Marley).
Chabert, whose memories are shadowy and often confused, still hears at night the groans and sighs of the wounded and dying, just as the deportees, returned to life, brought with them the nightmare that they had escaped. And the dubious welcome he received was shared by some who found their apartments now occupied by neighbours – who sometimes justified their continued occupation on the grounds that the sole survivor of a deported family would not now need all that space.
But what of Marie de Verneuil? Pure coincidence? The only reference I can find which acknowledges the source of the name simply says that Les Chouans is never mentioned by Sebald. So did Sebald recall the name from his reading of Balzac without it having any particular significance to him? That seems improbable. Every name, every place, every reference in Sebald carries the weight of so many connections that I cannot believe this carries none. And yet it’s hard to see the link.
Maybe if I return to Marienbad, I might find something there.