A Walter Benjamin moment

We’re visiting Paris in the New Year. So this seems like an appropriate time to revisit Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the touchstone for misplaced migrants and restless walkers, who as it happens also spent some time in Denmark.

Benjamin stayed at Skovsbostrand, Bertolt Brecht‘s house in Svendborg, in the summers of 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1938. In September 1938 he was in Copenhagen, where he obtained some transparencies from a “master tattoo artist”. On 18 September he visited the Brechts in Dragør. He also spent a weekend in Gedser, just across the Baltic from Germany, with Gretel Karplus (later Adorno), between 22-23 September 1934(?).

Like Brecht, Benjamin wasn’t taken with Denmark, finding the southern tip of Fyn “one of the most remote areas you can imagine”, with its “unexploited” nature and lack of links to the modern world a mixed blessing. The summers in Skovsbostrand were isolated and lonely, and drab compared to the likes of Ibiza. Maybe he got on better in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen’s arcades

Obviously every self respecting urban walker has to have a go at walking with Walter, so last year I launched my Copenhagen Arcades Project. First, an aside on arcades. The standard English translation for Walter’s passage, the word arcade evokes something grand, probably glazed, involving arches. Passage: not so much; think back passage, ginnel, jitty, wynd.

With a couple of exceptions Copenhagen’s arcades are definitely passages, or even smutveje (shortcuts), definitely not designed for lingering. Much of the city centre is made up of karréer, a (usually) five storey building complex encircling an inner courtyard, a space somewhere between public and private. This part of the cityscape is hidden from view, unvisited by the passer-by. A smutvej can open up this terrain.

Having said that, our first stop, August Bournonvilles Passage, is already an anomaly. Named in 2005 when the stretch was pedestrianised, this shortest of shortcuts is most notable for Stærekassen, a chunk of Art Deco built for Statsradiofoni (now part of DR) in 1931. Its mosaic roof portrays four cultural worthies, Hans Christian Andersen, Johannes V Jensen, Carl Nielsen and Adam Oehlenschläger, with the last also to be found as a statue just round the corner.

Walking past Nyhavn and up Bredgade brings us to Sankt Annæ Passage, between two of the city’s most fornemme (exclusive) streets. Opposite the eponymous plads, this passage is promising from the outside with a wrought iron sign, but disappoints within, mainly giving access to offices housed in the courtyards.

Sankt Annæ Passage

Emerging out of the far end of the passage brings us onto Store Kongensgade. A short stroll back towards the city’s main shopping drag of Strøget takes us to Pistolstræde. Glazed over in a recent refurbishment with smart signage, this web of backstreets is populated by shops and cafes mainly at the luxury end of the spectrum, and feels a tad self-conscious. How do these shops stay in business? There’s never anyone in them. (One answer: they move to the suburbs. Konditori Antoinette moved to Hvidovrevej, just down the road from us, in August, and feels a bit out of place.)

Finally, time for the real thing! Five blocks further down Strøget lies Jorcks Passage, as good as it gets. Built between 1893 and 1895 by Vilhelm Dahlerup, responsible for countless Historicist buildings in the city, this arcade is worthy of the name, housing a pleasingly eclectic range of premises as well as mini toddler statues in bays along the walls.

Jorcks Passage

Jorcks Passage

The buildings surrounding the arcade link back to our first smutvej, with DR broadcasting their first radio programmes from the premises in 1924, and forward to our last. KTAS (now TDC) opened their first telephone exchange here in 1896. It remained in operation for a scant 13 years, replaced by Telefonhuset at Nørregade 21. This lasted 5o years, from 1909 until 1959, before moving to Borups Allé 43. That building is still owned by TDC, although their current HQ is at Sydhavn.

Left behind is Sankt Petri Passage, allegedly offering public access through the karréer from Nørregade to Larslejsstræde, although it has always presented me nothing more than a massively closed wooden door.

What other options are on offer today for the city centre flâneur? In his Travels through Germany Michael Gorra “subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin’s Arcade project”:

Most German cities have reconfigured their central shopping districts into pedestrian zones, in a way that makes the arcade seem merely an extension of the street itself, a space far less odd and magical than it had been for Benjamin, liminal only in the way it opens onto an underground parking garage.

In Malled: 60 years of under cover shopping Will Self describes shopping centres as non-spaces, abolishing time and space (is a table outside a cafe in a mall inside or outside?). With a limited retail offering they are all the same, places where nothing happens by accident. The design ensures that you can only progress forward, slowly, encountering a series of fixed scenarios and then moving on.

Benjamin’s arcades were designed for shopping and strolling, places to see and be seen. For me Copenhagen’s central shopping district offers little room for flâneurie, celebrated for its early pedestrianisation but lacking the brio of the passeggiata. Likewise its malls lack allure, with Fields, once the largest shopping centre in Scandinavia, rising in a grey desert and neighbourhood centres built in the 1950s and 60s tending to the functional.

When I think ‘arcade’ I’m at Glasgow’s Argyle Street or Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade, and before you know it you are in a something shiny like Princes Square. So my arcade of choice is instead the heart-achingly stunning Párizsi Udvar in Budapest, currently in need of restoration and resembling rather more a cathedral.

Párizsi Udvar

The Arcades Project methodology

Benjamin started his research for what is known in English as The Arcades Project in 1927, before he moved to Paris in 1933. When he left in 1940 he entrusted the result, a vast compendium of notes and reflections assembled from a range of sources and arranged in 36 categories with multiple cross-references, to his friend Georges Bataille, then working at the Bibliothèque Nationale. What could Walter have done with a database package and a customised taxonomy?

Much has been postulated about this approach to writing, which Benjamin himself called ‘literary montage’. As “the strolling spectator who collects mental notes taken on leisurely city walks and transcribes them into written form…he does not just write about the flâneur but he writes as a flâneur” (source). Further, “to read Benjamin’s key work is in itself analogous to the practice of flâneurie” (source).

Certainly his methodology can bring some comfort to every writer of endless drafts (I’ve had this post in my drafts for more than a year) and random notetaker – to what extent is The Arcades Project Walter’s notebook? He himself expected his research to result in a small article, polished off in a couple of weeks, and did at least succeed in siphoning bits off into published essays. His exhaustive approach can perhaps also shed new light on issues of #curationism.

But still, his belief that you don’t properly understand something unless it passes bodily through you rings very true: if you are blocked, write out your work again, in a fair copy. In that process something will happen, new connections will surface as you quote yourself, a different person in time and space. It’s like going for a walk and seeing things more clearly.

Why Paris? 

From a 1929 essay, quoted by Edmund White in The flâneur (full quote):

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved…The great reminiscences, the historical frissons – these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist.

The flâneur is in search of experience, not knowledge. Most experience ends up interpreted as – and replaced by – knowledge, but for the flâneur the experience remains somehow pure, useless, raw…Practical Romans…show no curiosity about their city’s past…Parisians are the ones who wander their own city.

We’ll see how we get on.

Update, Jan 2017: as well as a draft on our trip to Paris I’m now embarking on Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss, not least to follow up on WB’s Frankfurt years (my own: 1982-83) – he presented (and withdrew) his post-doctoral dissertation to the Germanistik department at the university in 1925…WestMarket, Copenhagen’s new food market, essentially an arcade…

Primary Benjamin:

Secondary Benjamin:

Benjamin in Berlin: Berlin chronicle (review snippet) | Berlin childhood around 1900 | In search of WB’s BerlinA stroll through WB’s Berlin

After Benjamin:

Virtual Biennale

The 2016 Biennale Architettura in Venice runs from 28 May to 27 November, curated by Alejandro Aravena with the theme of Reporting from the Front. We were lucky enough to pay a visit in 2014, when I concluded that “a fine line was walked between the effective and the pretentious”.

In contrast to Rem Koolhaas’ 2014 erudite edition Aravena “pitches activism against starchitecture”. Olly Wainwright: “does it make for an engaging show, or a tedious traipse through holier-than-thou humanitarianism and architectural self-flagellation”? His review of the pavilions is headlined “a souped-up pre-school playground”, singling out Belgium and Switzerland for their “refreshingly narrow focus” and Poland for shining a spotlight on the labour conditions of the people who actually build architecture. (More pavilions: Dezeen’s top 10 | A+U.)

Sifting through the coverage from my filter bubble, Dezeen doubtless has loads of stimulating stuff but tl;dr. Worth a look though is the provocation from the Architecture Foundation’s Phineas Harper. Update: see also Cosmopolitan Scum.

After 2014’s Cliff and concrete cows this time Britain’s contribution (interview) is all a bit chest-beatingly downbeat. The curatorial team has come up with Home Economics, a reflection on the home as the contemporary frontline of British architecture, reimagined in timescales of days, months, years and decades.

Compare and contrast with Denmark’s all trumpets blazing celebration of self, entitled Art of Many and The Right to Space (interview). On #some Everything Goes and Art of Too Many have been suggested as alternative titles. The exhibition consists of a “wunderkammer of architectural prototypes”, an overflødigshorn of 130 recent projects from 70 practices, aimed at demonstrating humanism based on cooperation. The pavilion also boasts a video installation with (obv) Jan Gehl and a 520 page catalogue (cost: DK 320, a rather lower krone to page ratio than often seen).

the Danish pavilion (Carl Brummer, 1932)

As well as missing the inventiveness and humour of other contributions, it sounds a tad mundane, tapping into the oft seen Scandi “we know best” flaw. For coverage på dansk see Arkfo and Politiken, largely critiquing the Danish effort, plus commissioner DAC (dansk) bigging it up.

Bylyd has a recording from the launch debate, bringing up some interesting points which get behind the familiar soundbites:

  • Bjarke Ingels is a fan of generous (sic) spaces “proportioned for machines”, who knew, and wants architects to go beyond “little boutique statements” – go him!
  • Jan Gehl, marking his 50th anniversary in research, sees the right to walk as fundamental, preferably in public spaces – as ever, you can’t argue with that; as Gehl Architects’ Helle Søholt points out, public space is “challenged by increased security, climate adaptation, densification, commercialization and data” as well as the demon car (which brings to mind the segment on 9 June’s Urbanist where Skopje’s citizenry fight to retain their Brutalist buildings and wide open spaces)
  • we spend 90% of our time indoors, much of it sitting down, while 40% of the world’s carbon emissions come from construction, yikes
  • issues around professions working together rather than in separate ghettoes – echoes of #FLthecity

Denmark is not involved in the Nordic pavilion, achingly PC in 2014 and in 2016 curated by two internationals, ArchDaily founder David Basulto from Chile and Rotterdam based Brit James Taylor-Foster (interview). In Therapy presents 300 projects exploring architectural themes instrumental in constructing Nordic society with psychoanalysis as a framework, including an abstracted interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. In Dezeen: “the architectural heritage of [Norway and Sweden] is constraining the newest generation of designers”, with Nordic architecture “on the verge of stagnation”. Interesting.

The range of collateral events is overwhelming – see UCL Urban Lab’s Turning Tables and LSE Cities’ Conflicts of an urban age for starters. And whoa! Scotland has a presence under the banner of Prospect North, curated by inter alia Lateral North (Facebook) and part of a nationwide year long Festival of Architecture. The exhibition “delivers a series of innovative mapping strategies, individual narratives, portraits and evocative imagery highlighting Scotland’s place and identity within an economically emerging northern region”. Related events inevitably include How Nordic is it?.

See the Scotland on Sunday report, which highlights co-curator Dualchas Architects‘ accompanying book, in which ten Scottish writers (including Kathleen Jamie) provide contributions about Scotland “when the map is turned and the compass realigned” to remind us that the north of Scotland is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. See also ArchDaily.

Russia’s Fair Enough, a fake trade fair riffing on the lifestyle of architecture, was probably my 2014 favourite. This time they’re exploring the proposed revamp of VDNKh (critique | Calvert Journal), Moscow’s Stalin era exhibition centre. Dare to dream! There’s lots more on the Soviet Union’s failed utopian architecture in Calvert22’s Power & Architecture season: see reviews/articles from Dezeen, PORT magazine and The Spaces. Plus “amidst all the bourgeois romanticism of the humble; amidst all the identikit, tired old dancing on the corpse of modernity, monumentality and utopia” we have in search of progressive architecture, on ‘palatial Communism’ in action.

Copenhagen’s paternoster lifts

Update: more lifts – New York’s elevators define the city

Paternoster lifts, God bless them. First encountered in Dr Murke in 1979, and seemingly a significant part of Heinrich Böll’s legacy – the very lift that inspired the story is the setting a WDR 2 interview show. Definitely a German thing – the final scene of Doris Dörrie’s 1985 film Männer has also stayed with me, and as evidenced by the 789 comments to the recent Guardian story, a thing for many other people too.

It turns out that Copenhagen boasts five paternosters, three of which are easily accessible. Some Google action brings up videos of three of them.

Easiest to visit is probably the KVUC building at Vognmagergade 8, a stone’s throw from Nørreport and just round the corner from the Danish Film Institute. KVUC is an adult education centre, so access shouldn’t be a problem.

Built for a public utility company in best National Romantic style in 1913, the building certainly looks like it should have a paternoster. Heritage Elevator’s video shows students getting on and off in orderly fashion.

Vognmagergade 8

Vognmagergade 8 (pic: Arkitekturbilleder)

Next up, the Axelborg building, at a plum spot opposite the main entrance to Tivoli. Dating from 1920, Axelborg houses a number of agricultural organisations and hosts conferences and other events. Getting into the foyer at least is easy enough. Heritage Elevators has bagged this one too, and there’s a further vid from January 2015. Note however that this paternoster was the scene of a fatal accident in May this year.

While you’re there take a look at the plaque on the wall of the pub on the ground floor, marking the spot where Børge Thing, leader of Danish resistance group BOPA, narrowly escaped arrest in 1944. Axelborg is named after Absalon, the founder of Copenhagen (Axel is the Danish equivalent), and has some notable neighbours. On one side is Arne Jacobsen’s 1960 SAS Royal Hotel, while the other will shortly be occupied by the 16 floor Axel Towers, replacing the Scala building pulled down in 2012.

Axelborg and the SAS Royal Hotel

Axelborg and the SAS Royal Hotel

Getting out of the city centre and moving on a few decades brings us to Frederiksberg Town Hall, inaugurated in 1953 after a 12 year building process. Frederiksberg is well worth a visit – a separate council area with a population of over 100K it is surrounded by Copenhagen but retains a rather different feel, due not least to its own brand of street furniture and a profusion of street trees.

There are tours of the town hall on the first Saturday of every month (see pics), but it is a public building so more than likely you can take a look during working hours. Failing that, there’s a two part video.

Frederiksberg Town Hall

Frederiksberg Town Hall

Paternoster no 4 can be found in Denmark’s parliament building, aka Borgen. Originally all Borgen’s lifts were paternosters, but all bar one were decommissioned in 1990. Assorted parliamentarians have used the lift to make a sharp exit, if not Birgitte Nyborg, while in 2014 a TV 2 reporter lost his equipment down the shaft. There’s a video showing the full circuit.

parliamentarian and paternoster

parliamentarian and paternoster (pic: Kasper S)

The fifth and final paternoster can be found in Danske Bank’s HQ in Holmens Kanal, or so they say. It’s in all the listicles, but no further information can be found.

On a related note, I’m pretty sure Danish escalators go at a faster lick than their UK equivalents, and the ones without steps are really steep – have a go next time you are at CPH airport.

Sources: Arkark.dkArkitekturbilleder, EkstrabladetFrihedsmuseets VennerInden for voldene, Kristeligt Dagblad.

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.

opc

Flâneur in Copenhagen

Back on 19 February I attended Flanør, an event hosted by the Goethe Institut and the Forening af Danske Kulturtidsskrifter, co-hosted by (and at) upscale newspaper Information. Speakers were Ricarda Messner (interview) and Fabian Saul from Flaneur Magazine, and Ulf Peter Hallberg, a Swedish writer living in Berlin since 1983. Here are some photos.

Kicking off proceedings Peter asked Ricarda (publisher) and Fabian (editor) to define “flâneur “. Cue much shifting in chairs, ending up with:

  • Ricarda: doing something without an aim
  • Fabian: dealing with things which could be lost, on the edge of time; ahead of time, avant garde

Frankly I’m with them on this, it is all more than a tad nebulous and open to interpretation, plus it’s really hard not to come over all pseud’s corner. Looking back my notes are pretty gnomic, and I reckon we’d all do better reading one or more of these articles: William Helmreich in Aeon | Paris Review praises the flâneur | The urban observer.

But Flaneur Magazine (Facebook | Twitter) is a lovely thing, internationally focused and published in English. Each issue explores a single street, so far in Berlin (review), Leipzig, Montreal and Rome (video review), with Athens coming up in the autumn. If they would like to tackle Copenhagen I’m inclined to suggest Valby Langgade. Each issue deals with some oddity, confusion, or disruption, with an overall theme emerging during a two month research period.

Moving on, Ulf Peter Hallberg was born in Malmö and now lives in Berlin. I came across him too late! from a post by Politikens Boghal on Facebook. He’s another one who blends fiction with real life – see his latest, Strindbergs skugga i Nordens Paris (2012), which intertwines his own background with August Strindberg’s stay in Copenhagen from 1887 to 1889 (published på dansk as Det store tivoli in 2014).

He also walks, and wrote the seminal Flanörens blick (The flâneur’s gaze, 1996; på dansk as Flanørens blik, 2000; Kristeligt DagbladLitteratursiden). It’s an essayroman; quotes from all the usual suspects, photos…I now have an autographed copy : D and plan to write a book report – it’s par for the course that the first book in Danish I might _really_ like to translate is actually Swedish…

Ulf’s flâneurie habit started with childhood visits to Copenhagen with his father, in particular to the auction houses on Bredgade. His father was a collector, along with the flâneur one of the social archetypes in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and sought inter alia wooden statues from Africa. This approach to life, the attempt to create – curate? – a universal order, is reflected in the novel Europeiskt skräp (2009) – published in English in 2013 as European trash: fourteen ways to remember a father (Amazon | “blends memoir, essay and fiction in an evocative journey through his late father’s world of collecting the European trash”).

And so time was up, before I could get my question/statement in on Kierkegaard (Denmark’s ultimate flâneur), and everyone rushed off looking at their shoes as per usual.

For me Copenhagen is just not set up for flâneurie, or Danes to be flâneur; it’s not just the hygge, it’s also the over-planning and regulation in both public spaces and personal lives – and not least, the fact that the bike is king. Can you be a flâneur on a bike? Every time I go into ‘town’, ie central Copenhagen, I’m reminded that cyclists rule. While car drivers have become accustomed to giving way on crossings, the rules of the road vs pavement etc, these cyclists just aren’t bothered. The lack of crossings doesn’t help – you can be left standing wondering just how fast those bikes are going, and what direction the next one is going to come from. It’s disturbing for someone with a serious jaywalking habit. But I digress.

Also of interest was the fact that flâneurie’s partner in crime, psychogeography, never came up, as it also didn’t on a recent Danish podcast about Sebald. (And did Asger Jorn, a founder member of the Situationist International and a close friend of Guy Debord, not indulge in the dérive?) Why is this? A quick check of bookshop Saxo brings up zero for Danish translations of Messrs McFarlane or Sinclair, gosh, and while there are translations of Sebald’s The rings of Saturn (1995; translation: 2011) and Vertigo (1990; translation: 2012; see review), Austerlitz (from 2001) will debut in translation in December. Double gosh. And Sebald seems to have a Spanish following, so it’s not just an Anglo/German thing.

But hov, what’s this? On 26 March Mette Kit Jensen (interview) gave a ‘performance lecture’ at Nikolai Kunsthal with the title Ongoing flâneuse, complete with turtle (sic), or perhaps, tortoise. I assume the shelled one was given full respect, I’m not totally comfortable with that aspect…anyway, I was otherwise engaged, and go for the literary turn rather than performance/interventions in any case, however Mette looks interesting. Last year she exhibited Flaneuse de l’Europe, an audiowalk and book at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde, as part of their Museum in the city project:

an audio walk conceived through research the artist has carried out in several larger Europeen cities, such as Rome, Athens, Paris and Istanbul using sounds, impressions and narratives. The short stories are joined together in one long story, which connects to places in Roskilde. Local sound scapes recorded in Roskilde are mixed with global places and episodes in one total sound collage where proximity and flash backs alternate.

An article in Kunsten.nu gives a bit of background (in English here – scroll!) and a map, plus there’s an audio version should you find yourself in Roskilde. See my audiowalks post for more on this one city to the tune of another trope.

Update: had a go at  Det store tivoli (Information: excerpts another last | review | Berlingske | svensk); apparently CPH was dubbed the Paris of the North after the World Exhibition of 1888; Hvidovre Bibliotekerne kindly lent me their new copy, but after three renewals it was time to hand it back – often an issue with library books. The main character is Strindberg’s secretary Knud Wiisby (1865-1941), hired by Edvard Brandes to spy on what August gets up to. (Ulf made Wiisby up, but connected with him on some level, and also has a vague family connection with CPH at that time. Or something.) Wiisby has a close relationship with Swedish author Victoria Benedictsson, who just happened to have unrequited love for Georg Brandes. And why not? Rather more worryingly there appears to be a parallel story set in LA in the present day, but there’s a sticker over that part of the cover.

Update, March 2017: Swedish app merchant Guidly launched a soundwalk about Victoria in Copenhagen at KBH Læser (FB event). The 90 minute walk, with some parts på dansk, runs from Axeltorv, where she met Brandes in 1886, to Kongens Nytorv, where she killed herself in a hotel room two years later.

Below: scenes from my drift in central Copenhagen, prior to the Flanør event.

Travels through Germany: adrift in a land with too much memory

wanderer

Caspar David Friedrich’s The wanderer above the sea of fog (1818), a source of inspiration from Hamburg art gallery (source: Wikimedia)

I came across The bells in their silence: travels through Germany (Princeton University Press, 2004; Amherst Magazine) by Michael Gorra via his Portrait of a novel: Henry James and the making of an American masterpiece (2012).

Nobody writes travelogues about Germany. The country spurs many anxious volumes of investigative reporting…but not travel books, not the free-ranging and impressionistic works of literary nonfiction we associate with VS Naipaul and Bruce Chatwin.

Gorra’s hypothesis is that “our American memory of WWII still informs our relationship with contemporary Germany” (Publishers Weekly), and there is much musing on this German Problem in the book, but otherwise, written “with one foot in the library and one on the street”, it was perfect, for me and other footloose international Germanists living elsewhere. And it only cost a penny! (Here’s how that works.)

It’s a kind of a meta travel book:

Gorra uses Goethe’s account of his Italian journey as a model for testing the traveler’s response to Germany today, and he subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin’s Arcade project. He reads post-Wende Berlin through the novels of Theodor Fontane…and enlists WG Sebald as a guide to the place of fragments and digressions in travel writing.

At home abroad

The book grew out of a sabbatical year in the late 1990s – Gorra’s wife was seconded to Hamburg, and as a non-Germanist he found himself adrift and able to explore at his leisure, “walking the same streets, visiting and revisiting the same places…my hours only as regular as I cared to keep them, shaped now and then by a newspaper’s deadline, but much more often by groceries…even a routine measured out by errands and lunch can be made to seem full”. For many reviewers the absence of ‘living Germans’ or of conventional travel writing (a description Gorra uses consciously) about Germany, “from which the author maintains a subtle but unmistakable distance” (Chicago Tribune) is the book’s weakness. It’s written rather through the twin lenses of literature and history, perhaps just as essential to understanding a country’s DNA (“we would not see so much of the present if we were not first interested in the past”), finding its own “balance between the inner travels prompted by our travels to confront the unfamiliar” (Vertigo). Like many footloose internationals, “it sometimes took the absence of my own language to remind me that I wasn’t entirely at home”. After his first few months Gorra had “both gotten used to Germany and then begun to find it strange again”, with “Mercedes taxis the color of Jersey cream”. Isherwood’s “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking” epitomises this period of expat life, with “bits and pieces of experience that I didn’t know what to do with”, conscious of his own baggage behind the lens:

the only way in which we can make sense of a new place is to locate it in relation to those that we’ve known before…the mistake comes only when we try to assimilate them to a single criterion of value

For Gorra the custom in shops of exchanging money via a little tray rather than hand to hand feels dehumanising, putting a distinction between the server and served. (The Germans – and the Danes – would doubtless say that it’s more hygenic that way.) Then there’s the bed linen. Moving on from the 90cm square pillows, a meaningful cultural difference is that “each person in Germany is meant to sleep under his own covers. No snuggling under a common blanket…it’s as if the bedding itself were conspiring to keep us each in our appointed place, to prevent any meeting in the chilly middle ground.” He assembles a selection of quotes from travel literature on the theme, including Mark Twain.

Metonomy and metaphor

This leads to a discussion of figurative language in travel writing. As a form it is essentially metonymic, digressing from one thing to another, with contiguous subjects as new sights or people or thoughts stray across one’s path. It moves from one object or scene to the next because they are either spatially or temporally contiguous, and in that movement attempts to evoke a world, an itinerary. Much travel literature identifies “those aspects of a country or culture that differ – or are believed to differ – from other countries, other cultures, and then identifies that part with the whole”. This can quickly lead to cliché . But travel writing relies on metaphor as well – the very idea of metaphor stands in itself as a kind of travel, with its original meaning equivalent to the Latin translatio, a bearing across, a movement of meaning from one spot to another. Metaphor works through similarity, in which one term is substituted for another, relying on the comparison and resemblance of apparently dissimilar things. This allows the mind to juxtapose disparate fragments and reveal their hidden connections. Metonymy tends to underline the difference between home and abroad, while metaphor works to erase it. Travel writing depends on one inverted metaphor, in which the description of abroad becomes a tacit description of home, the one standing as the other’s obverse image. One place evokes another, and the sum of their metonymic differences provides in itself a metaphor for all that divides them. Hence, on Germany: “at once homogenous and unified and also polymorphic and disparate…particular and universal at once…each fragment of what would become Germany seems to suggest its entirety…one part may substitute itself – metaphorically, metonymically – for the whole”.

Fragments and digressions

Moving on, the key chapter is that on fragments and disgressions, which starts in a bookshop in Hamburg, a”realm of unattained pleasures” as Gorra does not read German. Books can “remain the object of a Proustian longing, forever out of reach and therefore incapable of disappointing me”. Into this category falls Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a book that would “contain the world…[assembled] out of quotations, cross-references and fragments” but which Benjamin never actually began to write. Like the flâneur who knows when and how to indulge in “a bit of creative loafing” travel writing frequently goes off piste, departing or returning to a central narrative. According to Schlegel many literary works remain “fragments at the time of their origin”, forming a whole only when put together, perhaps using a “peg on which to hang a narrative of one’s own”, such as returning to the journey of an earlier traveller, or as a panorama of a place in time. And on Hamburg’s arcades:

Most German cities have reconfigured their central shopping districts into pedestrian zones, in a way that makes the arcade seem merely an extension of the street itself, a space far less odd and magical than it had been for Benjamin, liminal only in the way it opens onto an underground parking garage…Hamburg’s arcades have no mystery but they do have confusion. I often get lost in them, barely know one from another, and constantly discover new ones.

The final chapter of the book turns to the personal, with an account of Buddenbrooks counterpointed with Gorra’s own family history, and then the birth of his child, an event which brings out something distinctively local, which he describes by borrowing from TS Eliot: “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time”.

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.