Posts Tagged W G Sebald
Since the announcement of Michel Butor’s death a few days ago, obituaries, hommages, appreciations and recollections have appeared in the quality press across Europe . But not here in the UK. Not a word.
It wasn’t always thus. In 1956, Butor’s second novel, L’Emploi du temps, was published, with an English translation appearing in 1960 (Passing Time). The setting was immediately recognisable to British readers – a northern English city, rain drenched and fog bound, grimy and sooty, where you can’t get a drink until evening, and you can’t get a decent meal anywhere, at any time.
This was Manchester, where Butor, fresh from teaching in Egypt and ‘inundated with sun’, came for a two-year stint as a lecteur at the University. Manchester, masquerading as Bleston, where Revel, a young Frenchman, came for a one year contract translating documents for a shipping company.
It’s not the city’s landmarks that make it so recognisable. Butor keeps some features but plays fast and loose with their relative positions, adds a second Cathedral, and configures the railway stations in a kind of noose around the city centre. He transforms Belle Vue into Plaisance Gardens. His street names mingle the authentically Mancunian (Chorley) and the generic (New Bridge, Birch Street) with odd-sounding names such as Continents, Mountains or Geology.
Anyone trying to use the frontispiece map as a guide to Manchester would very soon get as lost as Revel did – quite apart from the liberties Butor has taken with the real city, the map shows only those streets and landmarks which play a part in the narrative. Manchester’s Strangeways prison does, however, retain its distinctive shape and is a brooding presence at the heart of the novel.
Manchester’s rain and fog, the smoke from its chimneys, the days without daylight, the sprawl of the city in which one could walk for hours and not reach the countryside, the black water of the canal – these are both the reality of 1950s Manchester and its myth.
And the novel draws you in with its opening chapter, which blends poetry
Suddenly there were a lot of lights. … I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark window-pane covered on the outside with raindrops, a myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling
with the mundane miseries of travel
this was not the fast through train which I ought to have taken and on which I was to have been met; I had missed that by a few minutes at Euston, which was why I’d had to wait indefinitely at some junction for this mail-train
and foreshadowing, of the mundane miseries still to come, and of the darker and deeper threat to be faced:
I remember standing up and smoothing out the creases in my raincoat, which was then still sand-coloured. ….For my vision was still like clear water; since then, every day has clouded it further with a sprinkling of ash
It’s reasonably clear at this stage that the narrator is writing in May about the events of the previous October. As the time scheme for the novel becomes more complex, the darker undertones become more prominent, and the reader will either be mesmerised, as caught up in the threads as the narrator himself, or merely mystified and frustrated.
Poet Allen Fisher was in the former category, and that tantalising opening section inspired his own poem, ‘Butor. Passing Time again’:
window-pane covered on the
litdrops, a myriad
restring parcel of
drizzled down from the grimy
sealing a thin blanket of noises
enfold me begin to thin
Philosopher Richard Wollheim’s 1969 novel A Family Romance uses a diary format to chronicle a man’s plans to poison his wife. The protagonist is reading L’Emploi du temps and ruminates on the notion of murder and argues – seemingly with Butor but more accurately with Revel – about the way in which the diary records events, looping backwards and looking ahead – but ultimately coming to a realisation that ‘a man might change his mind’.
the hero, a young Frenchman, … picks up a crime story called ‘The Murder of Bleston’, Le Meurtre de Bleston. … He wants to murder Bleston and wishes someone actually would. (p. 15) … The author of the book I’m reading attributes to an author within the book an interesting theory about the book he’s writing. He – the author within the book – is a writer of detective stories, and his theory is that every detective story is constructed around, we might say is a string stretched between two murders: the murder committed by the assassin upon the victim, and the murder committed by the detective … upon the assassin (p. 55)
As against the author of L’Emploi du temps I invoke a notion of completeness which insists, not that everything is in, nothing out, but rather that any signle thing that is in should bear upon it the marks of every other thing, in or out. … If my criticism of Butor is justified, what he ignores – namely, that addition alters what is added to – is something that is not a necessary feature of all writing but is a feature of, and a defect in, his writing (p. 122)
I have argued … that the later entries [in Revel’s diary] are either disruptive or superfluous. Disruptive, that needs no explanation: superflueous, in that if the later entries do not nollify the earlier ones, then they have been anticipated by them, everythng that they have to say is buried in the earlier ones if only we dig deep enough. Alternatively, if Butor really felt he still had something to say, why did he not rewrite the diary as a totality? (pp. 161-2)
It gave better than any other book I’ve ever read the feeling of how where one is affects who or how one is. … perhaps it’s not so much a matter of what a place does to one as what one does to the place or rather what one can’t do to the place, ‘the intractability of Bleston'(p. 229)
In criticising L’Emploi du temps, what I never appreciated is that a man might change his mind (p. 236)
For artist Steve Hawley the novel seemed to anticipate interative fiction, and it inspired his film, Yarn:
a “recombinant narrative” or generative cinema DVD video installation, using archive footage of Manchester of the 1950s, and a voiceover spoken by a computer programme, which uses the capacity of the DVD medium to present different scenes and spoken text so that the narrative never repeats itself.
The experience is like the 1001 nights, in that the story has no beginning and no end, but rather an immersion in a narrative world where fact and fiction are blended.
I have explored elsewhere the response of W G Sebald, who came to Manchester 15 years after Butor, to L’Emploi du temps. This is evidenced in his long poem, ‘Bleston: a Mancunian Cantical’, published in English translation in 2011. The darkness of Bleston fed into his state of melancholy, his alienation from his birthplace and his preoccupation with the landscape of trauma.
So, different readers will find different ways of reading this complex novel. In doing so they echo Revel’s own efforts to make sense of what is happening to him, of what Bleston is doing to him, or what he can or can’t do to it. As he reads the detective novel Le Meurtre de Bleston he extrapolates from the hints and clues in the text and conversations with friends, coming to believe that the novel is a fictionalised exposé of a real murder and thus that his revelation of the pseudonymous author’s real identity threatens his safety, and ultimately that a road accident which befalls him is an attempted murder. He casts himself as the detective, just as he casts himself as Theseus once he discovers the series of tapestries telling that story. He casts the city as a sorcerer, as a Hydra, as the Minotaur within the labyrinth of its streets, and himself as embattled, attempting to resist its power.
There are so many threads that one can follow through the labyrinth of the text. But given its capacity to draw in British readers in particular through the fascination of seeing ourselves through others’ eyes, and through the dry humour of the portrayal of a 1950s northern city, it is sad that Jean Stewart’s English translation is currently only available at prices that would deter all but the most dedicated readers. Perhaps, when the British press gets around to noticing Butor’s passing and commemorating it appropriately, some enterprising publisher will take a punt on reissuing it, and giving a new generation of readers the chance to explore those rainy streets and lose themselves in Bleston.
Meantime, his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape can be found in translation at quite a reasonable price, if you feel inclined to explore its Gothic mysteries…
Allen Fisher, ‘Butor. Passing Time Again’, in Gravity (Salt, 2004)
Steve Hawley, ‘Locative Narrative and an IPhone App: Manchester as a Mythical City’ http://www.stevehawley.info/writing.html
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, in Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, translated by Iain Galbraith (Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
Richard Wollheim, A Family Romance (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1969)
(This is an edited version of a talk given at the ‘Everywhere & Nowhere’ postgraduate symposium of the Landscape, Space & Place group at the University of Nottingham, on 20 June 2016)
It might seem odd to posit the city of Manchester as an imagined place. However, from the beginnings of its rapid growth in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the real city was mythologised by the many from around these islands and beyond them who came to see the miracle or shock city of the age. Manchester in the Industrial Revolution became an archetype of both shock and wonder, awesome and awful at the same time. As it grew, with remarkable speed and with no discernible plan, it attracted comparisons both with the greatest of human and divine achievements, and with the works of the devil.
For Disraeli it was ‘as great a human exploit as Athens’, for Carlyle, ‘every whit as wonderful, as fearful, as unimaginable, as the oldest Salem or prophetic city’. Many accounts, alongside these exalted descriptions, acknowledge the dichotomy – for example this from the Chambers Edinburgh Journal of 1858:
Manchester streets may be irregular, and its trading inscriptions pretentious, its smoke may be dense and its mud ultra-muddy, but not any or all of these things can prevent the image of a great city rising before us as the very symbol of civilisation, foremost in the march of improvement, a grand incarnation of progress.
Alexis de Tocqueville too was able to recognise both extremes. In Manchester ‘the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development, and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.’
Overall though the majority came down on the ‘awful’ side of the divide. Even Mrs Gaskell, who was a local, described the impression of the men working in the factories as ‘demons’. For others it was ‘a Babel in brick’, a ‘revolting labyrinth’, and its river was ‘the Styx of this new Hades’.
There were particular aspects of Manchester that inspired these reactions. De Tocqueville said that:
Everything in the external appearance of the city attests the individual powers of man; nothing the directing power of society. At every turn, human liberty shows its capricious force.
Whereas some cities’ growth can be illustrated by an expanding grid, or like Paris by the addition of layer upon layer of suburbs, Manchester grew organically, cramming factories and workers’ housing into whatever space was available, without much consideration of the living conditions that would result, minor things such as sanitation, for example, and the outcomes were grim.
Manchester was thus characterised as ‘a vast unknowable chaos’, illustrated by the invocation of Erebus, in Greek mythology the personification of darkness, born of Chaos, who inhabits a place of darkness between Earth and Hades. So we have descriptions of chimneys ‘belching forth clouds of Erebean darkness and dirt, as if they had a dispensation from the devil’.
Hippolyte Taine records that ‘in the city’s main hotel, the gas had to be lit for five days: at midday one could not see clearly enough to write.’ The darkness was noted well into the 1950s when Butor was there. There were two factors here, not only the constant smoke from the chimneys but the moist air and relatively flat terrain, which meant that ‘the acid and other impurities become dissolved in the moisture, and the black parts of the smoke become wet and heavy’. This combination created the ‘terrifying Manchester fogs … when the phenomenon of temperature-inversion produced near darkness and zero visibility around the clock for days on end’.
The pollution had other effects. Sir James Crichton Browne (1902) rather marvellously described how ‘A sable incubus embarrasses your breathing, a hideous scum settles on your skin and clothes, a swart awning offends your vision, [and] a sullen cloud oppresses your spirits’.
There is a kind of trope of ‘first view of Manchester’ which strengthens the sense of an archetype, a mythical place. For example:
Alexis de Tocqueville – Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algerie (1835): A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen through it is a disc without rays. Under this half daylight, 300000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. A thousand noises disturb this damp, dark, labyrinth.
Hugh Miller – First Impressions of England and its People (1847): One receives one’s first intimation of its existence from the lurid gloom that overhangs it. There is a murky blot in one section of the sky which broadens and heightens as we approach, until at length it seems spread over half the firmament. And now the innumerable chimneys come in view, tall and dim in the dun haze, each bearing atop its own troubled pennon of darkness.
Mrs Gaskell – North & South (1855): For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep, lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay.
Hippolyte Taine – Notes sur l’Angleterre (1874): We approach Manchester. In the copper sky of the sunset, a strangely shaped cloud hangs over the plain; beneath this immobile cover, the high chimneys, like obelisks, bristle in their hundreds; one can distinguish an enormous dark mass, the vague rows of buildings, and we enter the Babel of brick.
W G Sebald, The Emigrants (1992)
Max Ferber’s arrival in 1945: From a last bluff he had had a bird’s eye view of the city spread out before him … Over the flatland to the west, a curiously shaped cloud extended to the horizon, and the last rays of sunlight were blazing past its edges, and for a while lit up the entire panorama as if by firelight or Bengal flares. Not until this illumination died … did his eye roam, taking in the crammed and interlinked rows of houses, the textile mills and dying works, the gasometers, chemical plants and factories of every kind, as far as what he took to be the centre of the city, where all seemed one solid mass of utter blackness, bereft of any further distinguishing features.
The narrator’s arrival in 1966: By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city that spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.
What strikes the observer in each case is that where they should be able to see the city, instead they see a pall of black smoke, a ‘murky blot’ in one part of the sky, a strangely shaped cloud that hangs over it. Coming closer they see the chimneys, each with its ‘troubled pennon of darkness’ and closer still the mass of buildings, the black river, the sombre brickwork. It’s also worth noting the striking similarity between Sebald’s description of Max Ferber’s first view of the city, and Hippolyte Taine’s.
Another feature attributed to Manchester which led to associations with hell or at least a cursed place was the absence of native flora and fauna. Birdlife was largely absent at the height of industrial activity, and much restricted later, until the Clean Air act created a more hospitable environment. And attempts to create parks, to give the inhabitants a taste of the countryside were doomed as trees and shrubs and blooms were poisoned by the fumes.
These conditions were not unique to Manchester. The industrial cities of the North East inspired John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings, and those of the Black Country Tolkien’s vision of Mordor.
And there’s an intriguing apocalyptic story published in the Idler magazine in 1893 about the doom of London, resulting from a seven day fog, with no wind to clear it, suffocating all of the inhabitants. But Manchester seemed to exert a particular fascination – the scale and the extremity of the conditions in the city drew visitors from across the country and from Europe. As Tristram Hunt says, in his study of the Victorian city, ‘in Manchester it was always worse’.
By the 1950s some of the most notorious slums had disappeared, and proper sanitation had long since removed the threat of cholera and typhus. But the fogs were still extreme, the air still heavy with smoke and metallic tasting vapours, the rain still a near-constant. In addition to the effects of pollution, there were areas of wasteland, bomb sites from the war, not yet redeveloped.
Michel Butor’s novel L’Emploi du temps, published 60 years ago, transformed Manchester into Bleston, and used its mythology to imbue its rain-drenched streets with a sense of dread and danger. Taking elements of the real city he subverts its mundane reality so that Manchester becomes Babel, Babylon, Daedalus’ labyrinth, a Circe or a Hydra. It also becomes Paris under Nazi occupation.
Michel Butor arrived in Manchester in 1951, straight from a spell teaching in Egypt. He was, as he described it, inundated with sun, and then plunged into Mancunian darkness. It was a climatic shock, and the very features of the city which had inspired earlier writers to flights of heightened prose and invocations of hell were to influence his response.
Darkness, fog, mud and soot, rain. These elements feature on almost every page of his novel, L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time), in which the city is renamed Bleston. So far, so realistic. But from very early on they begin to be associated with something beyond the combination of natural and manmade phenomena which Butor was observing.
The fog makes it difficult to find one’s way in the city – masking its shape so that the unwary find themselves going in circles, losing all sense of direction. It stifles, engulfs and sedates, oppressing the spirits. Bleston/Manchester, is a labyrinth, eluding navigation, confounding any attempt to grasp its totality, the narrator, Jacques Revel, says that ‘it grows and alters even while I explore it’. As in Andre Gide’s version of the Cretan labyrinth in his novel Thésée, the ‘narcotic fumes’ sap the will so that those within the labyrinth lose the desire to escape, forget that escape is even possible. On the walls near Bleston’s station, posters illustrate holiday destinations, but the narrator comments sardonically ‘as if it was really possible to get away’. His one attempt to get to countryside is doomed – the best the city can offer, it seems, is some nice parks. Thus the city is a prison, as it was effectively for so many of its past inhabitants.
Butor commented that ‘it is easy to see how the French capital hides beneath the mask of Bleston’. On the face of it, it’s far from easy. Paris is the city of light, a cosmopolitan centre of culture – Bleston/Manchester is characterised by darkness, dirt and narrowness of vision (literally and metaphorically). But something in the constant smell of smoke in the air, the darkness of evening when everything was closed, the way the inhabitants hunched their shoulders against the rain and scurried home ‘as if there were only a few minutes left before some rigid curfew’ triggered memories for Butor of a very different Paris.
Those who fled Paris in 1940 and then returned after the armistice found it uncanny, familiar yet profoundly different. There was a curfew, the clocks had been changed so that it got dark an hour earlier, and a pall of smoke hung over the city from the burning of tanks of oil as the German army advanced, which poisoned the air and drove its birdlife away.
This was the Paris of Butor’s adolescence. He lived near the Hotel Lutetia, HQ of the Abwehr (and after Liberation, the meeting point for returning deportees), near the prison du Cherche Midi where many resistance members were imprisoned, and he walked to school through streets where now plaques commemorate those who were killed during the Occupation and the liberation of the city. At his school both pupils and staff disappeared, some deported or imprisoned, some choosing a clandestine life in the Resistance. Butor described the sense that nothing was happening but that this nothing was bloody. The carceral menace of everyday life, as Debarati Sanyal put it.
Thus in Bleston the fog and the darkness are metaphorical as well as literal, creating not only confusion but fear. There is a constant sense of menace, and the city itself is the source. Personified as a sorcerer, as a Hydra, as both labyrinth and Minotaur, Bleston is at war with Revel, and he with it. But it’s also at war with itself, consuming itself in fire (prosaically a series of arson attacks on various premises encircling the city). The recurring motif of Cain and Abel is a reminder of the divisions between those who collaborated and those who resisted, as well as between occupier and occupied.
The novel is no allegory of the Occupation. This is one reading of a book that defies categorisation, a many-layered text. But my argument is that something in the extremity of Manchester, where it’s always worse, prompted memories of those dark years in Butor, and those memories created the tension in the novel, between the mundane events and the dark, violent interpretations of those events, between the humorous realism of the grim up north descriptions of rain and atrocious food and the sense of dread and danger on every page.
Around ten years after L’Emploi du temps was published, another young European, W G Sebald, arrived in the city, read Butor’s book, and began to write about his own Manchester, in The Emigrants and After Nature, transforming the landscape of industrial decay into a melancholic landscape of loss and trauma.
Like Butor, W G Sebald encountered a significant culture shock on arriving in Manchester, after teaching in Switzerland. Sebald was profoundly alienated from his home country of Germany. His sense of isolation ‘could not have been helped by his wanderings through scenes of slum clearance and urban decay.’
Objectively those areas were disappearing so one might surmise that Sebald sought them out, was drawn to their melancholy which reflected and intensified his own. It’s true that the Manchester Development Plan approved in 1961 (although not fully implemented, as I’ll mention later), and the implementation of smokeless zones were making significant improvements in the atmosphere and cleanliness of the city, even if children growing up in the city in the 60s still had plenty of bombsites to play on. However, Sebald’s ‘melancholy at alienation, and exile in a strange land’ found its correlative in the ‘desolate leftovers of nineteenth century Manchester’. It is also suggested that Sebald’s reading of L’Emploi du temps enhanced his melancholy but again it is likely that he was drawn to the novel because it resonated with his own mood and response to Manchester.
Thus the picture painted in The Emigrants of Manchester as ‘a city of ruins, dust, deserted streets, blocked canals, a city in terminal decline’ is probably a distortion. However, the narrative is only in part about the Manchester that Sebald encountered in 1966-7. ‘Manchester … fades into insignificance in relation to another important geographical, phantasmic and persistent presence, which is Germany’.
Sebald gives us more than one Manchester. We see the city first of all through the eyes of the narrator (who both is and isn’t Sebald) arriving in the 1960s, and then through the eyes of the titular Emigrant, Max Ferber, who arrives in 1945, having been sent on the Kindertransport in 1938 from Munich, and finally the narrator’s return in the 1990s, finding that a further cycle of improvement and decay has taken place in the interim.
For Ferber, Manchester triggers memories of Germany. This is partly due to its immigrant communities, the Jewish quarters with their names evoking a European past. But as Thomas Mann, exiled in the US, said, ‘Where I am, is Germany’. There’s another connotation. Manchester’s ‘night and fog’, its fire buried in ash, its chimneys, evoke a past that he escaped, thanks to his parents’ foresight, but which they did not.
Ernestine Schlant describes this aspect of Sebald’s writing as ‘“dense” time – a time in which past and present intersect, commingle, and overlap. This commingling destroys sequence and evokes the sense of a labyrinth with no exit‘. She was speaking specifically of Sebald’s writing, but it would equally be a powerful description of Butor’s novel, where Bleston’s past as Roman temple of war, divided Reformation city and industrial machine are threaded with Butor’s memories of Paris at war.
A brief postscript – I mentioned the Manchester Development Plan, published in 1961. This as it turns out is another imaginary Manchester – not drawing upon the myths of the past but upon a vision of the future.
Plans were drawn up in 1945, but budgetary constraints and building regulations meant that they were largely put on hold. By the time they were revisited, technological advances had opened up hitherto unimaginable possibilities for the city, with moving pavements, heliports and monorails. Once again, the economic climate changed before the plans could be realised and they stand now as a memorial to that other unrealised Manchester.
So in this very real city we can glimpse Engels’ hell on earth, Butor’s city at war, Sebald’s post-Holocaust landscape, the idealistic vision of the 1960s planners. The features that made Manchester the shock city of the 19th century are no longer readily visible. Manchester now is arguably just one of our major cities, unlikely to inspire comparisons with Athens or with Hades. But the past in all its various forms, as well as the unrealised visions of the future are there to be stumbled over, bubbling up between the paving stones. Unmemorialised, their presence is still felt.
Michel Butor, L’Emploi du temps (Minuit, 1956); English translation (by Jean Stewart), Passing Time (Faber, 1965)
W G Sebald, Die Ausgewanderten (Fischer, 1992); English translation (by Michael Hulse), The Emigrants (Vintage, 2002)
__, Nach der Natur (Fischer, 1995); English translation (by Michael Hamburger), After Nature (Hamish Hamilton, 2002)
Robert Barr, The Doom of London, The Idler (1893)
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby (1844)
Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1840)
Leon Faucher, Manchester in 1844
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848), North and South (1855)
Andre Gide, Thésée (1946)
James Phillips Kay, The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (1832)
Hugh Miller, First Impressions of England and its People (1869)
Hippolyte Taine, Notes sur l’Angleterre (1874)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algérie (1835)
Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (Penguin, 1990)
Mireille Calle-Gruber, La Ville dans L’Emploi du temps de Michel Butor (Nizet, 1995)
Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt (eds), Saturn’s Moons: W G Sebald – a Handbook (Legenda, 2011)
Mark Crinson, Urban Memory (Routledge, 2005)
J B Howitt, Michel Butor and Manchester, Nottingham French Studies, 12, 2 (1973)
Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (Phoenix, 2005)
Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Manchester (Hale, 1970)
Alan J Kidd, Manchester (Keele UP, 1996)
Gary S Messinger, Manchester in the Victorian Age (MUP, 1985)
Stephen Mosley, The Chimney of the World (Routledge, 2008)
Terry Pitts, La Catastrophe muette: Sebald à Manchester, Ligeia, 105-8 (2011)
Peter Preston and Paul Simpson-Housley (eds), Writing the City: Eden, Babylon and the New Jerusalem (Routledge, 1994)
Natalie Rudd, Fabrications : New Art and Urban Memory in Manchester (UMiM, 2002)
Debarati Sanyal, The French War, in Cambridge Companion to the Literature of WWII (CUP, 2009)
Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence (Routledge, 1999)
Janet Wolff, Max Ferber and the Persistence of Pre-Memory in Mancunian Exile, Melilah, 2 (2012)
(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)