Aleksandr Sokurov, Alice Rahon, Anton Chekov, China Mieville, Franz Wolff-Metternich, Grace Pailthorpe, Jacques Jaujard, James Joyce, Jindrich Styrsky, Jo Baker, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil
Sometimes, connections come at you in completely unexpected ways. By chance, you read something that sticks in the memory; months later, you see something more or less unrelated; then a little after that you read something else and an unlikely (if frail) bridge seems to be formed tying all three together.
Late last summer I read A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker, a wonderfully spare novel that takes its title from the stage setting for Waiting for Godot. Though it reaches back to Ireland before the Second World War, and forward to Ireland again after the war, the focus of the novel is on France during the War. Samuel Beckett was living there, and as a citizen of a neutral country he could have been relatively unaffected by it, but when the Germans invaded he and his lover Suzanne began to forge links with the French Resistance. While they ferry messages across Paris and struggle to survive among all of the shortages, this is still a very literary and artistic city. They attend parties hosted by Marcel Duchamp, they help James Joyce and Nora to escape the city. Later, it becomes necessary for Beckett and Suzanne to leave Paris. Their journey south is full of unexpected dangers, then, at close to the mid-point of the novel, the hinge around which it all turns, as they are waiting to be smuggled across the border from Occupied France into Vichy France, there is a point when they spend a night waiting under a tree beside a country road for a contact who seems never to arrive. In Vichy, they continue their resistance, and they continue their literary and artistic contacts. Two worlds that don’t belong together are forced together.
Yesterday, I began reading The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville. It is hard to imagine a more telling contrast between two novels. Miéville’s book is probably half the length of Baker’s, yet it is more expansive, wordier. Baker’s novel is given over to small, precise details; Miéville’s is devoted to grand, extravagant images. Baker’s prose is cool and controlled, Miéville’s is lush and elaborate. Yet for all that the two novels seem to be heading in diametrically opposite directions, there in Miéville’s Nazi-occupied Paris we are given an early glimpse of “Two austere activists, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil and her lover, the Irishman Beckett”; and in scenes set in Vichy France we are invited to a party populated by some of the artists glimpsed from the corner of the eye in Baker’s novel.
The Last Days of New Paris is an indulgence in the surrealism that has informed everything Miéville has ever written. Through the sort of sleight-of-hand device you don’t want to examine too closely, the weird imaginings of surrealist artists are compressed into a bomb which, when exploded, unleashes across Paris a horde of surreal concoctions made flesh. (In some 20 pages of notes that close off the novel, and that underline my sense of the self-indulgence that informs this entire enterprise, Miéville is careful to explain the provenance of every weird manifestation – “manifs” – that he unleashes upon this Paris. Most of them are from lesser-known surrealists, Grace Pailthorpe, Alice Rahon, Jindrich Štyrsky, as if it is important to display the breadth and depth of his knowledge of surrealism.) These “manifs” have somehow permitted Nazi necromancers to unleash their own demons, and as a result the war has dragged on into the 1950s, where the citizens of Paris now cower in the interstices between the mad monsters that prowl the city.
In A Country Road, A Tree we are invited to glimpse real life seeping into art; in The Last Days of New Paris we are bombarded with images of art rushing out to disrupt real life.
And between them, there’s a film. A film that is itself the most surreal film I have ever seen. A film that takes as its subject Paris under Nazi occupation, though its approach to this subject is curious to say the least. At times the film treats the subject realistically, at others it is so oblique that the subject hardly intrudes upon our consciousness.
The film is Francofonia, directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, who made Russian Ark, a highly praised film about the Hermitage in St Petersburg. This is a very different piece of work. We begin with a harassed-sounding man, Sokurov I assume though I cannot be sure, in a dark and cluttered room, an office possibly though it seems more like a room in a private house. He is attempting to speak by Skype (in a mixture of Russian and English) with the captain of a container ship in mid-Atlantic. One of the containers on the ship apparently contains artwork destined for America, but the ship is beset by a terrible storm and there is a danger that some of the containers might be swept overboard. The Skype connection constantly breaks down after just a few seconds, and though we return to this broken conversation several times during the film we never learn the fate of the ship or of the art in that container.
From here we shift to photographs of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekov on their deathbeds and inchoate musings about their attitudes towards something or other. Then, all of a sudden, the camera is flying low over the rooftops of Paris, and now, something like 10 or 15 minutes into the film, we finally start to close in on its subject.
What we get is a dramatic reconstruction of the relationship between the French director of the Louvre at the beginning of the Second World War, Jacques Jaujard (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and the Nazi officer and Prussian aristocrat placed in charge of French Culture, Franz Wolff-Metternich (played by Benjamin Utzerath). This reconstruction, which is interesting and at times touching since the two men gradually discover a shared attitude towards art, covers only the first two years of the occupation since Metternich was recalled to Germany in 1942.
In and around this reconstruction, we get among other things a documentary account of the history of the Louvre, glimpses of some of its greatest treasures, and scenes of actors playing Napoleon Bonaparte and Marianne (the spirit of the French Revolution) wandering around the deserted and darkened halls of the museum (presumably shot on location after the museum had closed for the day). In one scene towards the end of the film Marianne and Napoleon are sitting together in one dark corner in front of a painting we barely glimpse. Marianne declares: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, to which Napoleon ahistorically responds: “L’etat, c’est moi”. Marianne’s witty riposte is: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” and Napoleon quickly returns: “L’etat, c’est moi”. And so it continues for what feels like five minutes. These are the only things either of these characters say, though we glimpse them repeatedly, hanging around moodily in gloomy halls.
It’s a strange film, by turns brilliant, bizarre, silly, inconsequential, revealing, engaging and boring. I could have done with more of the story of the Louvre during the Nazi occupation (what happened after Metternich left? We are not told, though the story of the threat to the museum’s treasures during the Nazi retreat from Paris is at least as thrilling as anything covered here.) and less of the obscure posturing. But somehow it makes Paris itself seem to emanate the surreal, which ties it to Miéville’s novel.
Francofonia; The Last Days of New Paris; A Country Road, a Tree: there’s really nothing that links the three works except Paris, the Nazi occupation, and art. And yet there are resonances between them, strange, unintended janglings that sound from one to the other. Do they enhance our readings, each to each, or are they discords that disturb our readings? I don’t know. All I know is that three very different works suddenly seem like one to me.