Posts Tagged Man of the Crowd

Reading the Detectives

What we don’t know is more interesting than what we know, both in the sciences and in the arts.  The classic detective story is a puzzle which must, to satisfy its readers, provide a solution, tie up loose ends, arrange retribution, and restore the natural order of things (typified in many of the TV detective series I recall from the 1970s by the postscript where they all go home and have tea, and a bit of a laugh, no matter how traumatic the preceding events have been). The satisfaction of the tidy ending can simultaneously be a disappointment.  The final ‘reveal’, the scene where someone (the brilliant detective’s slightly dozy sidekick, perhaps) says, ‘But what I still don’t understand is…’, allowing the brilliant detective to resolve that last apparent anomaly, leaves the reader or viewer little to ponder on once the book is closed or the credits have rolled.

To be fair, the best examples of the genre, whilst making use of its conventions and tropes, also stretch and subvert them.  The detective novels that have remained in print for decades are those which have more to satisfy the reader than merely the solving of a riddle.  We might re-read or re-watch a lesser work once, just to spot where the clues were if we’d been bright enough to pick them up, or even in the hope of finding a continuity error or plot hole, but we’re not likely to revisit them repeatedly.  In my many re-readings of, for example, Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, in contrast, it’s not the plot, but the characters, the quality of the writing that give repeated pleasure.

If the classic mystery, the ‘roman enigme’, is a puzzle to be solved, and, like a completed crossword, of limited interest thereafter, the ‘roman noir’, is a more complex and nuanced narrative.  Tellingly, it flourished in the ’40s and ’50s in France, often taking the Occupation as subject and setting (Atack, 2010), providing a medium in which the ambiguities of the era could be explored, but has also been used more recently by such writers as Didier Daeninckx, to stage ‘complex crimes that to be solved involve precisely a return to the past, to the hidden history of State and/or establishment criminality’ (Gorrara, 79) (see Daeninckx’s Meurtres pour Memoires, which uncovers two dark and hidden areas of France’s past, the massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris in 1961, and the wartime deportation of Jews, events linked by one man, Maurice Papon).

The roman noir takes the reader well off the tourist map, into a city of shadows and secrets, into the realm of the uncanny.  In this labyrinth, the detective wanders the streets, as shadowy and ambiguous a figure as those he tracks – indeed, as Butor said, the flaneur-detective and the criminal ‘are at bottom identical.  The second places his steps in the footprints of the first who remains unaware of him, although the former is without knowing it the initiator, the guide of the second’ (Histoire extraordinaire, p. 33).  Walter Benjamin drew on Baudelaire‘s fascination with Poe’s ur-detective story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’,  to link the flaneur and the detective when he wrote that ‘No matter what trail the flaneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime’. This is highly ambiguous – is the flaneur a detective, tracking down transgressions and transgressors, or a criminal, whose wanderings are themselves transgressive and/or may lead him into crime/to commit crime?  (McDonough, 101).

Michel Butor’s Passing Time isn’t a detective novel, though one critic described it as of the fusion of this genre and the experimental novel.  But his Bleston is the perfect setting for a ‘roman noir’, a place of shadows and labyrinthine streets, a place where fear and suspicion are in the air.  Butor was ‘devouring’ detective novels at this time, and right at the heart of Passing Time, he places an exposition on the principles upon which they are constructed.  Crime novelist George Burton (alias J K Hamilton) argues that every detective novel is based around two murders, the crime itself, and the (symbolic or actual) destruction of the criminal by the detective when they are exposed, killed by ‘the explosion of truth (143-4).  The detective’s role is to ‘disturb and probe, to expose and alter things’, to tear off veils and masks, abolish errors, ignorance and lies, to cleanse ‘this small fraction of the world’ from its offence and the defilement that the murder brings with it.  According to Burton, he is:

‘the true son of the murderer Oedipus, not only because he solves a riddle, but also because he kills the man to whom he owes his title, without whom he would not exist in that capacity (without crimes, without mysterious crimes, what would he be?) because this murder was foretold for him from the day of his birth or, if you prefer, because it is inherent in his nature, through it alone he fulfils himself and attains the highest power’ (145)

The detective novel superimposes two temporal sequences, that which begins with the discovery of the crime and concludes with the discovery of its perpetrator, and that which leads up to the crime, which is reconstructed by the detective (not necessarily emerging in a linear form, but usually presented to us as such at the climax of the novel).   Similarly, Passing Time has a linear time frame beginning in May when Revel starts writing his journal, and ending in September with his departure from Bleston, but his journal narrative begins in October with his arrival, initially linear but gradually becoming ‘a desperate attempt to account for several months simultaneously, ending as the narrator leaves the town with the awareness that no year can ever be completely recovered, as the lack of time to describe the events of February 29 so symbolizes’ (Lloyd, 2005, pp 143-4).

Just as there are (at least) two time frames, there are (at least) two texts, that which gives the true version of events, which the guilty party has erased, or tried to erase, and the alternative version of events which has been superimposed upon it.  The detective’s goal is to uncover the true story from the traces left behind, to decipher and restore the palimpsest.

The detective novel itself, a green Penguin crime title, with a blank space where the author photograph normally appears, is the trigger for most of the events in the narrative. (I should say, the books themselves, since Revel buys two copies, and Ann a third.)  Revel is attracted by the ambiguity of the title – Le Meurtre de Bleston could refer at the same time to a murder committed in Bleston, and to the murder of Bleston, thus allowing him ‘to enjoy a small private revenge against this town’ (54).  But it becomes ‘an auxiliary so precious that I can almost say that a new phase of my adventure began at the instant when … I read for the first time those opening words which I now know by heart’ (55).  The precision with which the author describes the city and its monuments suggests to him that the story might be based on real events, leading him to attempt his own detective work when the book’s author is injured in an ‘accident’.  More than that, Revel feels that he’s being led along:

‘through a newspaper poster I had discovered J C Hamilton’s detective story, The Bleston Murder; through reading this I had discovered the Murderer’s Window, which in its turn had given rise to this conversation with its closing words of advice to visit the New Cathedral.  It was as though a trail had been laid for me, at each stage of which I was allowed to see the end of the next stage, a trail which was to lead me hopelessly astray’ (80).

The book(s) wander(s) through Bleston just as their owner does.  Linking all of Revel’s contacts in Bleston (his landlady, the two sisters with whom he consecutively falls in love, his colleague Jenkins, his compatriot Lucien) with the single exception of Horace Buck, the African worker who befriends him, and linking via the sisters to their friends and thus to the suspected real life counterpart of the book’s perpetrator, it is passed on, lost, replaced (in a second-hand version with an indecipherable signature), and reappears in a bewildering sequence.

The re-reading of detective novels is expounded upon here too.  Revel justifies his re-reading of The Bleston Murder on the basis that it is ‘a precious guide for a newcomer among the perplexities and misunderstandings of that city’ , but for Jenkins, an aficionado of the genre, ‘they take on a kind of transparency.  As you trace out the illusions of the beginning, you glimpse the truth that you remember more or less clearly’ (88).

Revel becomes a detective, to unravel his own past and reconstruct it.   But his quest is doomed to failure, there is no final revelation. For the writers of noir, and the nouveau romanciers, the Borgesian imminent revelation often remains imminent, unrealised, or reveals a new mystery.  If the narrator/hero finds a path through the labyrinth, ‘it is only to discover that the exit is really an entrance, that the labyrinth solved is no more than a labyrinth within a greater labyrinth’ (Porter, 256). And so nothing here is finally resolved.  Revel’s feud with the city ends with an uneasy truce (‘We are quits’ (249)), the ‘accident’ that fuels his guilt and his suspicions appears ultimately to be just an accident, the only murderers he encounters are fictional or mythical.   There is no return to the harmony of an established order.  But the process of interpreting the palimpsest, reconstructing the past, following the trail and making the links does start something, not contained within the arbitrary parameters of the narrative:

‘Thus each day, evoking other days like harmonics, transforms the appearance of the past, and while certain periods come into the light others, formerly illuminated, tend to grow dim, and to lie silent and unknown until with the passage of time fresh echoes come to awaken them.  Thus the sequence of former days is only restored to us through a whole host of other days, constantly changing, and every event calls up an echo from other, earlier events which caused it or explain it or correspond to it, every monument, every object, every image sending us back to other periods which we must reawaken in order to recover the lost secret of their power for good or evil’ (283)

Margaret Atack, ‘Representing the Occupation in the Novel of the 1950s: Ne jugez pas’, Cincinnati Romance Review, 29 (2010), 76-88

Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1961)

–   Histoire Extraordinaire: Essays on a Dream of Baudelaire’s, translated by R Howard (Jonathan Cape, 1969)

Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour Memoires (Paris: Gallimard, 1984)

Claire Gorrara, The Roman Noir in Post-War French Culture: Dark Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Louise Hardwick (ed), New Approaches to Crime in French Literature, Culture and Film (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009)

Rosemary Lloyd, Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life (Cornell UP, 2005)

Tom McDonough, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22

Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven; London: Yale UP, 1981)

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Turning the pages – Stephen King and Marcel Proust (and Michel Butor)

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)

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