Archive for January, 2012
When I was 9 years old, my family lived in Zaria, in Northern Nigeria. It was 1966, and a series of coups d’etat were hiking up tensions between the north and south, tensions which in May and September of that year resulted in mobs seeking out and killing on the streets, in the schools and hospitals and churches, anyone recognised as being of Igbo origin. I don’t know how many died. Probably no one does. Because of the civil war that followed, the pogroms in the north have received little attention – though Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her stunning novel Half of a Yellow Sun portrayed these events incredibly powerfully. I was a child, and my parents protected me and my younger siblings from the horror of what was happening. But even as a child I heard and saw enough – even when the adult conversations stopped abruptly in my presence – to be haunted by what I’d half overheard, seen out of the corner of my eye. I’ve needed to try to understand what happened, not just in Northern Nigeria in 1966, but whenever an attempt is made to wipe a group of people from the face of the earth.
We’re told that we must remember the past in order not to relive it. It’s a lot more complicated than that of course. In order not to relive it we’d have to understand it. Memories aren’t necessarily trustworthy – after the Liberation, Michel Butor has spoken of how his parent’s generation said of the years of occupation, 1939-1945 was a nightmare, but it’s over, so we’ll forget all of that and pick up where we left off. His generation of writers has been preoccupied with memory, and how we revisit, rework and reshape as we try to master the past. The simple imperative to remember would seem to have done us little good in the generations since Auschwitz. It didn’t stop, or even slow down, the slaughter in Rwanda, the massacres in Srebenica, decades of pogroms in Nigeria, the devastation in Darfur, the killings in Cambodia. But remember we must. The important thing is that we remember right, and we remember well.
I’m reminded, oddly perhaps in this context, of a song from South Pacific: ‘You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.’ Frances McDormand’s character in Mississippi Burning echoes these words very closely: ‘Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation is what’s said in the Bible… At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.’ And so we need to teach the opposite, for the sake of the future.
And for the sake of the past. The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives. First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity. For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice. Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability. As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed. This load may also scream.
And so, for the sake of the past, we need to give back to the victims of genocide what we can – their names, their stories, their voices. Serge Klarsfeld reconstructed the convoy lists from the French internment camps and gave the people once herded onto cattle trucks a name, an address, sometimes a photograph, a letter. The photographs of the children – see them if you can bear it, and I think one has to bear it – in their best clothes or on summer holidays, looking solemn or smiling for the camera, tell you everything, in a way, about genocide. Sheffield’s wonderful Ensemble 360 performed music last spring by composers who were imprisoned at Terezin – music created in the midst of a nightmare, by composers who had barely begun to achieve their potential before they were silenced.
Hélène Berr is one of the people I will be thinking of on Holocaust Memorial Day. She was 20 when Paris was occupied, from a thoroughly assimilated French Jewish family, a student at the Sorbonne. She was 21 when she started the journal in which, at first, the war and the Nazi persecution are almost background noise. She was almost 23 when she was arrested, a few months before Paris was liberated, and then deported to Auschwitz on one of the convoys from Drancy. It was her 23rd birthday when she was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen. She was 24 when she died, in Bergen Belsen, 5 days before the camp was liberated. Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was finally published in 2008 and when I read it I loved her, and I grieved for the fate I already knew would be hers. Another voice that wasn’t quite silenced, after all.
Hélène Berr, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2008)
Les 11400 enfants Juifs deportés de france (Mairie de Paris, 2007)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Harper, 2007)
I find myself – as someone who always has at least two books on the go – currently reading both the second volume of Proust’s A la recherche… and Stephen King’s latest blockbuster, 11.22.63. If I say that these present two very different reading experiences, an ironic ‘who knew?’ would be a reasonable response. However, I invariably find that the things I’m reading in parallel, however different they may be in genre, register, subject matter or anything else, create intriguing connections and trigger, at the very least, random ruminations on the various topics that preoccupy me.
Proust is actually immensely readable, if you let yourself go, let yourself float along on his endless sentences, absorbing it all rather than worrying about what is happening (not a huge amount, in general, it’s not about external events as much as internal processes – the process by which the narrator becomes indifferent to Gilberte with whom he has been in love, for example). One doesn’t pick the book up with the sense of urgency that Stephen King can generate, and one is unlikely to be tempted to skip mealtimes or be late for appointments, or to miss out on sleep in order to read just one more chapter. But you can lose yourself in it, immersed in his world – and it’s also funnier than one might have expected. Obviously Proust is hugely influential on 20th century fiction, not just in France. Butor certainly shows the influence of his style in his labyrinthine sentences – bizarrely, he was criticised for this by the literary establishment, on the basis that the French language demands short sentences. Understandably he referred them to Proust, only to be told, well, Proust is Proust. Taking the view that Butor is Butor, he dumped the draft with the short, pithy sentences for the one that draws you in and takes you on a hypnotic journey where the phrases loop around and around so that the key words and images accumulate more and more power as they resonate with each other.
If everyone agrees that Proust is a great writer, not many have actually read any, let alone all, of his great oeuvre. Stephen King is read by millions, but disparaged by many, even if his critical standing is better than it used to be. He now gets reviews in the quality press, even if most still start with a defence of the coverage being given to this kind of book. It wasn’t always so, and the change is reflected in the book covers – early editions looked tacky, whilst more recent reissues and new titles, have a generally classier look. The schlock-horror image put me off for a long time, and I only read King because a friend told me I must, and lent me The Stand. I didn’t expect to like it. But within a page, I was hooked, and read it straight through, twice. That’s one of his great gifts; right from the start he makes you want – need – to know what happens and, very importantly, makes you care about the people he introduces, so that the compulsion to read on is not just curiosity but an emotional connection.
He’s a hugely talented writer, who can transcend genre, but who for the most part is happy to work within it; a horror writer who can go for the gross-out but whose power resides in his ability to make you connect with his characters, and in his ability to make goodness as compelling as evil. Not all of King’s books are great, but none are less than readable, and many will repay re-reading. He uses the classic horror writer’s trick, of starting with the everyday, the familiar, and introducing something that’s just that bit off key, unsettling. Often this is done by the narrator forewarning us that this apparently mundane event is far from it – in 11.22.63 the trigger is a teacher reading the work of a pupil in his adult learners’ creative writing class. We don’t know how or why this will change everything, but we know that it will do so, and everything thereafter is imbued with this disquiet – a sense of the uncanny, das unheimliche, to use Freud’s term. It’s a cognitive dissonance – something is both familiar and foreign, and so one is at the same time attracted and repelled.
One thing King does very powerfully is to create a bad place. Derry, Maine, is one such – a town that just isn’t quite right, where this disquiet is manifested in the mutual mistrust of the locals, the desire of visitors to get the hell out as soon as they can, and a feeling that bad things have happened, may be still happening, and are probably just around the next corner. It’s part of King’s fictional geography of Maine, his home state, a trinity to match Lovecraft‘s Massachusetts trinity (Derry, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot on the one hand, Innsmouth, Arkham and Dunwich on the other) and we visit it in many of his novels – he references the plots and characters of those earlier novels often too, so the reader who’s familiar with the opus has an added weight of unease. Interesting in this context to see the new Topophobia exhibition and publication, on fear of place in contemporary art.
I thought of that aspect of King quite often when reading L’Emploi du temps. Butor’s narrator arrives in a northern industrial city, his train is late, and he’s lost his letter of introduction with details of the firm he’ll be working for or his hotel, so on his first evening in the city he gets lost, and ends up sleeping on a bench in the 3rd class waiting room. Obviously this is an inauspicious start, but right from these first pages, there’s the sense that it’s more than that. Jacques Revel is afraid. He’s ‘seized with sudden panic…. for one endless second… overwhelmed by an absurd wish to draw back, to give it all up, to escape’ (Passing Time, p. 8). Later, a colleague, who’s never left the city, tells him ‘there’s something peculiar about this place, something which I’ve never seen satisfactorily described in any story set elsewhere, a sort of permanent dread’ (p. 89). Just like Derry, Bleston is a place where we are in suspense, waiting for the bad things to which everything is leading, and which everything is attempting to conceal, and where ‘even at midday the few passers-by hurry, hugging the walls, humming to themselves with lowered heads as if it were black night’ (p. 90). Something is wrong with Bleston, but unlike King, Butor does not require us to accept a supernatural explanation for this. We’re potentially in the realm of Todorov’s ‘fantastic uncanny’, where the apparently supernatural is subsequently explained as illusion (through dreams, drugs, madness), but we are ultimately left with uncertainty, as the book ends with the narrator’s departure, and his acknowledgement of the lacunae in his narrative. The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the classic example of this – the reader is left to ponder whether the governess is delusional, and nothing supernatural has actually happened, or whether the laws of reality have changed as she believes. The French have a higher regard for fantastic literature than we have. Poe and Lovecraft are held in much higher esteem there, and both are present in Butor’s Bleston – Poe’s short story ‘The Man of the Crowd‘ has intriguing echoes in not only the supernatural but the detective story aspects of the book, and we also find the Lovecraftian motif of a place where every route out leads back to the place one is attempting to escape – see Ramsay Campbell‘s story ‘The Church in High Street’ for a more recent hommage to Lovecraft in this respect. To quote Revel’s colleague again: ‘Perhaps you’ve already tried to escape, but in that case you’ve only just made a beginning, M. Revel … you’ll be losing more than your way’ (p. 89-90).
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1965)
Ramsay Campbell, ‘The Church in High Street’, Cold Print (London: Grafton Books, 1985)
Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s “Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)”’, New Literary History, 7, 3 (1976), 525-48
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898 (London: Penguin, 1986)
Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)
H P Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927 (NY: Dover, 1973)
H P Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin, 1999)
Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Marcel Proust, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1918(Paris: Gallimard, 1988)
Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Seuil, 1976)
My present preoccupation is with Butor’s second novel, L’Emploi du temps, published in 1956, whose English translation is currently out of print, but which holds a particular fascination, amongst Butor’s many and diverse works. It’s inspired a remarkable number of other literary and artistic works – Allen Fisher’s poem ‘Butor – Passing Time Again’, Richard Wollheim’s novel A Family Romance, Steve Hawley’s DVD ‘Yarn’, and, as we discovered very recently, W G Sebald’s ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’. This last is not only a direct response to Passing Time, but confirms a gut feeling that the Max Ferber section of The Emigrants is inspired by Butor’s depiction of the city they both came to as strangers, just over a decade apart. A lot more about that to come…
The description of a northern industrial English town is recognisable even 50 years after the time – pollution, fog, and frightful food – and has struck a chord with English readers in particular. However, its interest is wider than that because as you follow the narrator as he tries to find his way around the city, the initially familiar becomes increasingly disquieting and you start to wonder exactly where you are.
One of the intriguing things about the novel is the gap between the prosaic realism of many passages, and the fantastic/supernatural elements which pervade the text. These elements, and the passionate hatred between the narrator and the city, are difficult to reconcile with the actual events depicted – nothing happens that isn’t entirely explicable in rational terms. But from the first page, there is an atmosphere of terror, which intensifies as the narrator finds himself more and more beleaguered. The language is intense and dramatic – Butor talks of fear, of murder and blood, betrayals and lies, secrets and vengeance. These prosaic events take on supernatural overtones – the difficulties and disappointments he encounters are blamed on the opposition of the city, a traffic accident is attempted murder, the many fires are the manifestations of the spirit which possesses and consumes the city, and the fog and polluted atmosphere are enchantments that sedate the inhabitants.
Clearly, Bleston is Manchester, where Butor spent a couple of miserable years, and the descriptions are both recognisable and drawing on the archetypes of Manchester as the iconic industrial city. It’s at once a real, grimy, foggy place, and the infernal city of de Tocqueville and Engels, Dickens and Mrs Gaskell. It’s also, though, the city of Cain, Babylon, and the labyrinth of Daedalus. It’s a city of war, and a city at war with itself. I’ll return to that in a future entry, because I think that is the key to the transformation of the grubby ordinariness of a modern industrial city into a monster.
 L’Emploi du temps (Paris: Minuit, 1956)
 Allen Fisher, ‘Butor, Passing Time Again’, Gravity (Cambridge: Salt, 2004)
 Richard Wollheim, A Family Romance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969)
 W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water : Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London : Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
 W G Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002)
My probably infrequent entries to this blog will, I anticipate, fall into three categories, potentially overlapping. Firstly, the work of Michel Butor, nouveau romancier, far less well known than he deserves, one of the most fascinating writers of the postwar era, and all of whose works are rich in allusion and reflection, ideas and passion, intellect and humanity. Secondly, I’ll occasionally write about what other things I’m reading (currently Proust and Stephen King), listening to or watching. And there may be events, anniversaries, and other sources of inspiration that prompt an entry from time to time.
I’m an administrator at the University of Sheffield, where I’m also a part-time student, studying French Language & Cultures for my second undergraduate degree (the first, in English & Biblical Studies, was also with Sheffield, many decades ago). I grew up in West Africa, an experience which has been hugely influential on me, and which can be evidenced not only in my enthusiastic support for Ghana’s national football team (in contrast to my despairing loyalty to Nottingham Forest), but also in my interest in postcolonial African history and, because I lived in Northern Nigeria during the bloody preamble to the Civil War, in genocide and xenophobia wherever they manifest themselves. Alongside my work, and my studies, and my family life, I am passionate about music, literature and visual art.
My entries to this blog have proved to be more frequent than I had anticipated. And the topics I’m covering have shifted too. I completed the degree referred to above, and am now a part-time PhD student, doing research on Michel Butor and W G Sebald, and that is absorbing all of my writing/thinking energy on those topics. What I’m reading, listening to or watching does inform my blogging, as do events and anniversaries. But if a theme has emerged over the years it has been more political than I anticipated with a strong focus, not just during Refugee Week, on the plight of those who flee war zones and persecution, and how we respond to their need for sanctuary. I retired from my post at the University of Sheffield at the end of 2015 and hope to have more time to think and write, some of the output of which may end up here. You have been warned.
Anyone interested in finding out more about Butor – and it would delight me enormously if anyone was inspired to read him by this blog – should start with the novels, which is fine if you read French, a tad more tricky if not, as the English translations are not easy to track down, or rather expensive if you do. I’ll give details of both editions, where possible:
Passage de Milan (Paris: Minuit, 1954)
L’Emploi du Temps (Paris: Minuit, 1956)/ Passing Time
La Modification (Paris: Minuit, 1957)/ A Change of Heart or Second Thoughts
Degrés (Paris: Gallimard, 1960)/ Degrees
Mobile: étude pour une représentation des États-Unis (Paris: Gallimard, 1962) / Mobile
Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe: capriccio (Paris: Gallimard, 1967) / Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape
Anthologie nomade (Paris: Gallimard, 2004)