Other people’s countries: the malady of time and place

Last summer I discovered Patrick McGuinness and read his Bucharest set novel The last hundred days – see Belgitude in Bucharest. Now it’s time for the book which set the whole thing off: Other people’s countries (reviews: Amazon | Guardian | Observer | Independent | Literary Review | Spectator | Caught by the river).

Disarming, eloquent and illuminating, this meditation on place, time and memory, could only have been written by a poet, or a novelist, or a professor. Happily, Patrick McGuinness is all three, and Other People’s Countries is a marvel: a stunning piece of lyrical writing, rich in narrative and character – full of fresh ways of looking at how we grow up, how we start to make sense of the world.

A very special book of short, Proustian pieces on childhood and how the places of our childhood are embedded in us.

It’s a truly lovely thing made up of 50+ short sketches, or dare I say drifts, some from McGuinness’ two previous books of poetry. The book includes those twin devices beloved of curating readers – a dramatis personae and a map of the Walloon town of Bouillon, but no index (another project?). The list of personae includes visitors, tourists and passers-through (“everyone passed through, not many stayed”), including, intriguingly, Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice and Jack Warner – I’m sensing war film. We’ll see. In the afterword McGuinness cautions about “things you tell yourself, that you invoke and perform for yourself in order to be and to remain yourself…I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday”.

We’re in memory country again, and partly a stranger in a strange land, although less so than Gorra. And memory is tied to place:

When I’m asked about events in my childhood, about my childhood at all, I think mostly of rooms. I think of times as places, with walls and windows and doors.

As for most people, “plenty of nothing” happened, a childhood characterised by Essence of indoors, “that sublimate of all that’s gone”. The family house itself “is now empty most of the year, and sits marinading in its past”.

The cover of the hardback edition (above) shows an owl flying out from a wallpaper of green leaves and flowers, characterising the Ardennais fondness for animal parts, “not just for eating but for home decoration”. The cover for the paperback edition is a stock image of keys, tied up in a metaphor for how you remember the past:

That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you could make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite so well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.

More musings in My suits, a two page meditation on the nature of anticipation: ” I could already imagine myself gone, so that everywhere I went I could only think about what it would be like without me there”, putting a “black border” around days: “even as you live them forwards, you’re looking at them from behind, seeing them as they would be if they were over.” And as an aside:

I think every child tries that experiment where, faced with a date in the future they dread, and believing the old adage about time going faster when you’re busy or having fun, they slow down and avoid enjoying things too much, hoping to put the brakes on Time. This in turn means they don’t enjoy the present, which gives them another thing, other than its pastness, to regret about the past.”

Some sketches are more factual, but with a twist in the tail:

  • Corbion: the art of “composing sweepingly universal rules from minuscule amounts of unrepresentative data”, Corbion is a town where the inhabitants “were reputed to be unable to gender their nouns”, while the population of Paliseul is sensitive to the cold
  • Triage: “my parents often misused ready-made expressions not only in each other’s languages but, by the end, in their own…by dint of living with the other, each became gradually unmoored from their native tongues”, and for their children, “an exhilirating world of malapropism and cross-purposes”
  • Centenarian: “an old school photograph keeps turning up in Le Cercle d’Histoire de Bouillon, where the same photographs and reminiscences keep turning up anyway (this is why we keep reading it, for the sameness laid over change)”

The tone is not donnish, taking unexpected turns on places, feeling at first misplaced but then more personal. References are also made forward to other sketches, giving the book a dynamism not often found in writing in this style.

Growing up with two countries is different from moving to another, although there is clearly much in common, not least a feeling of being adrift, of superimposing time and place. Bouillon is the home of McGuinness’ parallel Belgian self, it is someone else’s country. In Naturalisation he quotes Simenon: “there was no reason for me to be born Belgian”, seeing this as “a refreshing antidote to the usual stridences of belonging”. And Belgian writer William Cliff, not Belgian but “from Belgium”.

What of Gordon Jackson and friends? McGuinness retells the story of Against the wind, a 1946 film, “as it was felt, in that hybrid long-finished but real-time-unfolding present tense that reflects the inside of our lives far better than those three stooges, the past, present and future”.

The book concludes, inevitably, with Déjà vu:

Two tenses grappling with one instant, one perception:

forgotten as it happens, recalled before it has begun.

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Belgitude in Bucharest: an adrift sense of belonging

Update, April 2015: see my post on Other people’s countries: the malady of time and place. It’s also nice to see that Patrick returned to Bucharest last summer.

I picked up on Patrick McGuinness via the Guardian review of Other people’s countries (Amazon; 2014), described as “the great book on Belgium, modern memory and modern being”. McGuinness is half Belgian – insert “which half” joke here:

Being only half-Belgian does not disqualify me from the slightly adrift sense of belonging that constitutes Belgitude, because all Belgians are only half-Belgian.

He’s half Walloon, while my partner is fully Flemish. In the poem Belgitude (audio), one of several in his first collection The Canals of Mars (2004) McGuinness writes: “Surveys showed that most Belgians questioned/ would have preferred to be from somewhere else”, while The Belgiad captures the nature of Belgian towns: “Caesarean state:/ every roadsign a mirror/ every town a suburb…All has that faint emphasis, as if the place were in italics,/ could look like elsewhere yet be nowhere else. ”

In A page in the life McGuinness is described as a “poet and novelist who is most at home elsewhere”, and in a reading at Villanova University he explores how our lives can be thought of as cities – roads turn out not to be there, while we inhabit several places at once and make maps of our lives and memories. This all strikes a chord with life as an ‘international’; see

The immigrant who arrives too late in life to adapt to his new country, but too early to survive on nostalgia for the old country, has to create a third, imagined country to live in.

I’ve started though with The last hundred days (Amazon; 2011), on the fall of the Ceaușescu regime in Romania, which made the Booker longlist. Maybe I’m reading differently these days, but heck this is well written. The Independent review cites some of the “aperçus that have the reader reaching for a pencil”:

the Boulevard of Socialist Victory: “a vast avenue that didn’t so much vanish into the distance as use it up, drawing everything around into itself”

As a bonus it turns out the book has a walking theme. The narrator’s rather lovely colleague Prof Leo O’Heix is writing a book called The city of lost walks:

Leo worked on his book about Bucharest…he could not keep up with the city’s obliteration. The place was coming down quicker than it could be described…it survived in guide books and memoirs, and in the trove of notes and photographs that lay heaped on Leo’s dining table, waiting to be turned into prose. The prose, meanwhile, went from topical to commemorative in a fraction of the time it usually took such transformations…Leo had begun writing a practical guidebook for a travel company, but finished up composing an urban elegy, a memorial to a place gone or going at very cobble and cornice.

Against the wall a metre-square map of Bucharest, stuck with lines and clusters of coloured pins, was attached to a cork board. ‘Red pins are the walks taken, blue pins are the walks yet to take. Black ones are the walks you can’t take any more – the lost walks’.

Leo’s apartment is full of books, paintings, icons salvaged from wrecked buildings, papered with photographs of the country’s destruction and home to scrapbooks and videos hidden in the boxes of action films – “his flat had become the city’s hidden visage, like a backwards portrait of Dorian Grey: as the place itself disappeared around us, so Leo’s apartment grew in compressed splendour”.

The last section of Jilted city (Amazon; reviews/quotes: Guardian | TLS | Tower Poetry), McGuinness’ 2010 volume of poetry, is a set of poems also called City of lost walks, allegedly written by Romanian poet Liviu Campanu (1932-1994) and translated by McGuinness. But Campanu is a fiction – he appears peripherally in The last hundred days as a pathologist. McGuinness describes him as “a late middle aged heavy smoking Romanian with big sad eyes and a penchant for reading Ovid”. The fictional Campanu “reversing the absurd process by which [Romania’s] real dissident authors were edited out” (Guardian), gives McGuinness “new ways to be myself”. (In the YouTube video below McGuinness says he used the device of Campanu to show that not all east European poets wrote dissident verse – see for example Leaving do.)

In a further twist our narrator helps the debonair Sergiu Trofim, a sidelined luminary of the pre-Ceausescu days, to restore an uncensored version of his memoirs. Trofim dictates to his official transcriber, “a grey-faced buzzard with a socialist-realist scowl”, who saves the papers to a disk for ‘editing’. When they return for proofreading transformed the narrator rescues the deleted files from the recycle bin and prints them at the British Embassy library to be smuggled abroad, with the result that Trofim becomes a celebrity dissident. (A quick shoutout to the official publication’s ghostwriter: Hadrian ‘The Wall’ Vintile.)

Quoting Mallarmé’:

The world already exists. What’s the point of describing it? Our job is to understand the connections.

The Walking Library

a 1930s style walking library in London, from the VSW Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive

Updates…8 Nov 2013: hear Dee’s contribution to Talking Walking’s 5 year walking forecast series…24 Feb 2015: vid with Dee from My Bookcase, also Stories from the Walking Library, seminar in Embra on 20 Feb, and an article in Cultural Geographies (open access).

How ace is this? A Talking Walking podcast on The Walking Library, a ‘performance piece’ conceived by Deirdre Heddon and Misha Myers for the Sideways Walking and Art Festival in 2012. With the help of a troupe of volunteer walking librarians a library of more than 90 books that people suggested were “good to take for a walk” was walked 375 km across Belgium. Along the way locals donated books to the project, and at the end of the festival the library was donated to the festival organisers.

In her research of the histories and discourses of walking Dee kept encountering
descriptions of books and journals that were carried by walkers, as a kind of travelling
companion. This prompted the idea of The Walking Library (sadly no sign of the catalogue, but some listed here, plus see the photo on Facebook and 34 page PDF):

The Walking Library carries a curated library of books and facilitates a peripatetic reading group as it journeys, allowing engagement with and reflection on the library’s content, and some sketching with words or images.

The Walking Library is being continued by Alec Finlay’s Bothy Project on Eigg (see the book list at the end of the post). Update: for further details see Bothan Shuibhne 2013 and The Walking Library for Sweeney’s Bothy.

Another wheeze from Dee – she celebrated her 40th birthday by undertaking 40 walks with family, friends and colleagues – see the 40 Walks Blog, and not least the Paris Arcades walk and an article: ‘Turning 40: 40 turns: Walking & friendship’, Performance Research 2012, 17 (2) pp67-75, eprint).

2013 Walking Library projects:

  • Tree Walk – Glasgow, 27 November, during National Tree Week
  • Bedrock Walk – from Dalwhinnie to Glen Nevis, 15-21 July, as part of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Stories in the Land project
  • PSi 19 Night Walk – Palo Alto/Stanford, 28 June; from dusk to dawn to visit the sleeping libraries of Palo Alto and Stanford University as part of the Performance Studies International Conference
  • From Ohio to Scotland and back again