Posts Tagged Labyrinths
‘and I haven’t even time to set down something that happened on the evening of February 29th, something that seemed very important and that I shall forget as I move farther away from you, Bleston, as you lie dying, Bleston, whose dying embers I have fanned, for now the long minute hand stands upright and my departure closes this last sentence’ (Michel Butor, Passing Time, p. 288)
What happened on that Leap Day we will never know. We have some details of some of the events and developments of that month – the diarist, Jacques Revel, dines with the Bailey family for the first time (whilst noting that he was spending less time with their elder daughter, Ann, as his affections begin to drift towards her sister Rose), and meets George Burton for the first time, not knowing at that stage that he is the author of the detective novel which plays an important role in events. He buys a second copy of The Bleston Murder, having lent the first to Ann.
None of this suggests that February 29 would turn out to be an especially significant date. Of course, February 29 is always going to seem significant, by virtue of its rarity. It’s a day that only exists once every four years, and thus one that can be, in effect, hidden for three out of four years. Almost a ‘jour fantome’.
Is it the centre of the labyrinth that is the narrative of Passing Time? Some have said so – describing the date as the ‘geometrical centre’ of Revel’s year in Bleston. If you do the sums, it’s one month short of the halfway point of Revel’s year in Bleston. However, his final month is a month of tying up loose ends and saying his ‘adieux’ – with the announcement of Ann’s engagement to his friend and colleague James (her sister Rose has already become engaged to his friend and compatriot Lucien) he is merely passing time in Bleston until the pre-ordained departure date. Indeed, he feels himself reduced to a ghost, a Sunday-afternoon ghost, revisiting the places he has known during his life in Bleston.
Revel’s diary is an attempt to master the city which has bamboozled and disoriented him from the moment of his arrival, by creating with his own narrative the Ariadne’s thread to guide him through the labyrinth. In doing so, he creates his own labyrinth, as what is initially a straightforwardly linear account twists and turns, as he reflects on more immediate events, reminds himself as he records the events of one day of the later developments that they foreshadow, and so on.
So his failure to record what happened on 29 February is, firstly, indicative of the failure of this enterprise. The time of writing and the time written about will never be reconciled and this gap is the evidence of that disjunction. It’s a blank space, an empty centre, an enigma. The final page is a record of other failures. He notes that he ‘had not even been able to visit the old church of St Jude’s on the other side of the Slee’, St Jude the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. St Jude’s is close to a small synagogue, which Revel has also failed to visit (having forgotten that he’d wanted to do so), and to the sinister prison, itself described as ‘a sort of hole’ within the tissue of the city.
He describes ‘those sinister days in February’ when his longing to leave the city is at its most intense, but which he would prefer not to think about, ‘but which on the contrary I ought to be able to pick out from among the tangle of my winter memories with strong supple pincers of language, which I ought to keep firmly before my eyes’ (p. 286). So rather than being unable to recall what happened on 29 February, perhaps Revel chooses not to.
It’s not just a generalised recognition that he ran out of time to fill in the gap, it’s a deliberate blank, which draws our attention to a significant absence. Like the blank space on the back of the detective novel, where the author’s photograph should sit, like the missing pieces in the sequence of stained glass windows, the blank spaces on the frontispiece map, the ‘terrain vague’ on the outskirts of the town, the incomplete New Cathedral building… ‘an incomplete alphabet of which I know one letter is missing, a keyboard of which I know one note is missing, a Tarot pack of which I know one card is missing’. That the missing day is the one that only occurs every four years (it occurred in 1952, during Butor’s first year in Manchester) obviously draws even more attention to it.
That we cannot know what happened is part of the fascination of the book. It is at the same time an entirely closed narrative structure – we have no knowledge of anything that happened prior to Revel’s arrival in Bleston, nor what he will do or where he will go next – and an open one which tantalises us with the many mysteries of the text, drawing us back in to wander the rain-drenched streets again in search of answers. The disparity between the mundane events which Revel records and the intensity of the language in which he describes them suggests that the gaps – the things that aren’t said – are of deep significance, that all is not as it initially seems, that maybe we aren’t (just) in a fictionalised version of Manchester after all…
A great follow-up to my Marienbad post – Resnais and labyrinths.
In 1956, Alain Resnais created a 20-minute long film entitled Toute la Mémoire du Monde (All the World’s Memory) that beautifully mixes documentary information with a fictitious style of filming and editing. What I just wrote is however symptomatic of a prejudice according to which documentary should tend towards objectivity in an attempt to capture the “truth” of what they are filming. We know that choosing such an ambition for a film is doomed to failure. On the contrary, when one voluntarily embraces the subjectivity of the documentarian, the chances are that the resulting movie would be much more powerful in communicating the piece of reality it is describing (we will see that soon in Peter Watkins’ movies). Toute la Mémoire du Monde is part of these movies. Through the dramatic journey of a book traveling through the registration and archival process of the Bibliothèque nationale de France
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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)
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(‘1837: Of the Refrain, Deleuze & Guattari, pp. 343-4)
There’s so much in this short passage that resonates with me. Often with Deleuze my grasp is fleeting – I understand (or think I do) for a moment and then it’s lost again (rather like the offside rule, or long division). But that last phrase – ‘one ventures from home on the thread of a tune’ – stays with me, and moves me somehow. That thread – Ariadne’s thread – sounds so fragile. And whereas it led Daedalus and Theseus out of the labyrinth and to safety, this leads from home to who knows where. The music is the magic, the song is the charm.
Another phrase that’s lodged firmly in my mind since a fascinating seminar on Proust and Barthes by Thomas Baldwin from the University of Kent, is ‘variations without a theme’. If there’s no theme, then what is it that’s being varied? I think it’s Deleuze’s thread of a tune. Whatever we begin with changes as we venture further from home – music as a form of becoming – and we never go back to it, but what we hear is still connected, it carries the memory. Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations give us a foretaste of what twentieth century composers would do with that freedom from the constraints of a theme – as Alfred Brendel wrote, ‘The theme has ceased to reign over its unruly offspring. Rather, the variations decide what the theme may have to offer them. Instead of being confirmed, adorned and glorified, it is improved, parodied, ridiculed,disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted’ (Brendel, p. 114).
Music in the last century has truly ventured from home, and often denies the listener a reassuring homecoming, a resolution. Beethoven can confound the listener’s expectations along the way, can sound a century later than he was, but finally, we know that all the threads will be gathered together, in a very firm and decisive final chord (albeit one for which we are made to wait, thinking each could be the final one, only to hear another, and another – as unforgettably parodied by Dudley Moore). Even in jazz, we often know whilst we hear each of the soloists take the theme and play with it, however far out they go, that they will return at the end to the theme as we first heard it.
Music that doesn’t do that is hard. The ‘difficult’ composers of the serialist movement and the postwar era have not become mainstream – the process whereby what appears new and scary gradually becomes accessible worked for Stravinsky and Debussy but not (yet?) for Boulez and Stockhausen. We struggle to find the thread, to hold on to it, to follow it through the piece, and we feel unsettled when we end up not back at home but somewhere else entirely.
Deleuze and Guattari were drawn to Messiaen’s music because it puts ‘in continuous variation all components’ and forms a rhizome instead of a tree (Bogue, p. 24). As in a raga, the music could in theory go on forever, and so we hear it as part of something bigger, not complete in itself. (Sometimes an unresolved ending is very clearly an ending, nonetheless – I’m thinking of a chamber piece by Kurtag, beautifully performed by the incomparable Ensemble 360, which ends abruptly, cut off in mid-phrase, as was the life that it commemorates, and I wish I could recall its title.).
Butor’s long-term musical collaborator Henri Pousseur shared his vision of polyphony and openness, saying that ‘composition will not always be the production of closed and finished objects which one can buy and sell …. We will have to think increasingly in a collective way ‘ (Obituary), and in his work expanded serialist techniques to integrate past musics, to mediate between styles which might seem irreconcilable. As Butor said of poetry, ‘one can play infinitely, multiplying the variations and the processes of construction’, and he preferred to speak of art as transformation rather than creation, because the artist starts not with a blank slate, at the beginning of the process, but with all that there is already in the world, all of the words, the notes, the colours. The threads are there to be woven together, to be followed wherever they lead.
All music is a dynamic, complex conversation; it’s ‘the domain of possibilities, or potentialities … a fold, a flow, a source of possibility, and in consequence a labyrinth‘ (Bidima, in Buchanan & Swiboda, p. 179). The composer engages with the conductor and the performers, and they in turn engage with the audience in an encounter which will be repeated in other places and other contexts but will never be absolutely the same. Some have taken this several steps further, giving opportunities for participants (performers or audience) to change the music by making choices, or introducing elements of pure chance (albeit within predefined parameters). In Pousseur’s Miroir de Votre Faust (libretto by Butor), the soprano has to listen for her cue when a particular phrase recurs, and it recurs arbitrarily, because the pages, unbound so that the music can be shuffled around before performance, contain many ‘windows’ – rectangular holes that allow one to see through to the next one or two pages. The performer cannot be sure what is coming next or what will return in an entirely new context. In performance (and this can only work in performance) this creates enormous tension as she gathers herself up to sing and then pauses, realising this is not her cue, or launches herself, seizes the moment, just in time. The sense of risk is exhilarating.
In the post-war world the notion of going home became at the same time more poignantly desirable and more problematic. In Europe between 11 and 20 million people were displaced. Many never found their way home. Others did, but found that home, and they, had changed beyond recognition or recovery. Even those who were not displaced by war – Butor and Sebald amongst them – had to question notions of home. Butor, growing up in occupied Paris, saw a familiar childhood home become a place of darkness, suspicion, fear and danger, and his subsequent restless travels suggest that transformation had a long-term effect. For Sebald a growing understanding of the Nazi era forced him to see his childhood home as a place of darkness and he found it impossible to settle in Germany; he said once that his ideal station ‘would be a hotel in Switzerland’, just as Butor chooses to live near the French/Swiss border. So to be unsettled is to be of our times. To venture from home, like Butor and Sebald, like Revel and Ferber, is to accept risk, but to set off new harmonics, to find in a city of emigrants the thread that connects with the unrecoverable home: ‘The valleys of Bleston do not echo/And with them is no more returning’ – Bleston IV, p. 21).
Jean-Godefroy Bidima, ‘Music and the Socio-Historical Real’, in Deleuze and Music, ed. Ian Buchanan & Marcel Swiboda (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004)
Ronald Bogue, Deleuze on Music, Painting, and the Arts (NY, London: Routledge, 2003)
Alfred Brendel, ‘Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations’, in Alfred Brendel on Music (Chicago: A Cappella, 2001)
Michel Butor, Dialogue avec 33 variations de L. van Beethoven sur une valse de Diabelli (Paris: Gallimard, 1971)
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi (London; NY: Continuum, 2007)
Umberto Eco, The Open Work (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989)
Henri Pousseur, Musiques Croisées (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998)
W G Sebald, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
The more I attempt to define the labyrinth, the more I lose my way, appropriately enough (or not, depending on one’s understanding of the purpose they serve). The maze is more straightforward in purpose, if not in navigation. It’s a puzzle, where the objective is to reach the centre (and then find one’s way out again) but which requires choices to be made, some of which will lead to dead ends, or will take (or appear to take) the walker away from rather than towards the centre. But the most striking thing about the classical labyrinths is that there are no dead ends, no tricks at all. There is one route through, no choices to be made, no cause for confusion.
And yet Daedalus, at least according to Ovid, constructed his labyrinth so cunningly that he barely managed to escape it himself after completion. Indeed, its purpose was to imprison the minotaur, and to make its slaying a feat of legendary heroism. So, with only one path through, how could Daedalus have risked losing his way, why did Theseus need Ariadne’s thread to guide him out, and how did it keep the minotaur in?
Looking at the classical designs, whilst all one has to do to reach the centre is to keep going, the effect of the complex looping of the path is to take the walker closer to and then further from the goal, such that they start to doubt, to feel as if they must have made a wrong choice even though no choice was in fact possible, and to turn back, so ending up back at the beginning. So, if Daedalus’s labyrinth was indeed the unicursal classical design, Ariadne’s thread did not so much lead Theseus out of the labyrinth as reassure him that he was on the right route, whatever his instincts told him. It is this aspect that has encouraged the use of labyrinths for meditative purposes – one has to put aside doubt and go where the path leads. Guillermo del Toro has said that ‘unlike a maze, a labyrinth is actually a constant transit of finding, not getting lost. It’s about finding, not losing, your way…I can ascribe two concrete meanings of the labyrinth in the movie. One is the transit of the girl towards her own center, and towards her own, inside reality, which is real’.
The association between labyrinth and city is of long standing (Roman mosaic labyrinths represent fortified cities), but contributes to the confusion about terminology. The damp dark labyrinth of streets to which de Tocqueville refers was a product not of design but of its absence, and thus the disorienting effect was accidental rather than deliberate. But the personification of these great cities attributes to them the intent that the builders lacked – the distinction between the physical qualities of the cities and the texts and thoughts they engender is blurred (Faris, 1991). It’s also clear that urban labyrinths involve choices, which potentially can result in losing one’s way, finding dead ends, returning inadvertently to where one started. Being in the metropolis feels like losing control, composure, the sense of self. Lynch says that ‘there is some value in mystification, labyrinth or surprise in the environment’ but that there must be no danger of the form of the city being lost, or that one might never get out of it. There must be the possibility that the mystery can be comprehended, the form explored and in time grasped. Otherwise, the labyrinthine city becomes a trap, closing on the newcomer, the isolated wanderer.
The labyrinth is one of the key motifs of L’Emploi du temps (see Pierre Brunel for the definitive treatment of the theme), fittingly for a writer of whom it has been said that the fundamental question in his work is always ‘where am I?’. It’s a labyrinth in space, but also in time and memory. The narrative starts simply enough, with two time frames, the time of writing and the time that is written about. But as the diary continues, one memory triggers another, events in the ‘present’ require a reference back to the past outside of the linear chronology of the journal. The writing which explores the labyrinth becomes labyrinthine as memory endlessly circles. ‘The rope of words that uncoils down through the sheaf of papers and connects me directly with that moment on the first of May when I began to plait it, that rope of words is like Ariadne’s thread, because I am in a labyrinth, because I am writing in order to find my way about in it, all these lines being the marks with which I blaze the trail: the labyrinth of my days in Bleston, incomparably more bewildering than that of the Cretan palace, since it grows and alters even while I explore it’ (p. 183).
But what’s at the centre of the labyrinth? Perhaps Revel never reached it. Butor’s work is characterised by openness and mobility, and the narrative cannot be self-contained. So the book ends as Revel tells us of the pages he didn’t write, the places he didn’t visit, and of ‘something that happened on the evening of February 29th, something that seemed very important and that I shall forget as I move farther away from you, Bleston’.
Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’: le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)
Mark Crinson (ed), Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City (London: NY: Routledge, 2005)
Wendy B Faris, Labyrinths of Language: Symbolic Landscape and Narrative Design in Modern Fiction (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988)
Wendy Faris, ‘Cognitive Mapping: Labyrinths, Libraries and Crossroads’, City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy, and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)
Marilyn Thomas Faulkenburg, Church, City and Labyrinth in Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor (NY; San Francisco; Bern; Baltimore; Frankfurt am Main; Berlin; Wien; Paris: Peter Lang, 1993)
Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 1960)
Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
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)