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

Den Grønne Sti: walking from Frederiksberg to Valby

Amid the cacophony about cycling in Copenhagen there is a handful of innovative facilities for walking as a way of getting around. Den Grønne Sti (green path), also known as Nørrebroruten, is a handy way of cutting across Copenhagen’s tiresome topography from outer Nørrebro to Frederiksberg and on to Valby. Started as a pilot project in 2008, Nørrebroruten is 9km long, part of a 40km network of green (cycle) paths to be completed some day soon.

The path starts at Lyngbyvej in Bispebjerg and ends at Valby Langgade. Copenhagen Green states almost as an afterthought that “pedestrians are allowed to use the route too”, thanks guys, and bigs up mainly the northern section. Here’s a look at the southwestern section, following parts of the old railway line through Frederiksberg to Valby. Signage isn’t fantastic – a couple of times I had to retrace my steps to relocate the path after crossing a road, but for most of the stretch it’s a pleasant stroll. OpenStreetMap’s route plan shows clearly how the path opens up new routes from a to b across the city.

Start at Kejserinde Dagmars Plads, just across the road from Frederiksberg Centret and the metro. Kejserinde Dagmar, aka Tsarina Maria Feodorovna and mother of the last tsar, was daughter of Christian IX of Denmark (the father in law of Europe) and younger sister of Britain’s Queen Alexandra. Seemingly a feisty pair.

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Cross the road and walk across the windswept plains of Copenhagen Business School’s campus (update: redevelopment afoot), complete with pampas grass.

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A bit of a dogleg at Finsensvej brings you to a bicycle counter…

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…and a nice wooded stretch. The path was initially designed for commuters, but on a Saturday afternoon there were dogwalkers, people carrying their shopping home, etc. But let’s just enjoy the autumn colours.

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HF Dalgas (usually translated as allotments, but with permanent structures allowed and running water for six months of the year many people use their plots as quasi summer houses) offers some great photo opportunities…

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…with some reasonably successful new developments the other side of the path.

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At this point the path runs alongside Solbjerg Parkkirkegård, dating from 1865. One of Denmark’s biggest graveyards at 18 hectares, it’s to be turned into a park by 2050, the result of changing burial fashions.

A rather larger dog leg at Roskildevej (a labrador rather than a beagle, maybe) and under the railway bridge brings you to Domus Vista, completed in 1969 and until 2005 the tallest residential structure in Scandinavia. Now in need of the same level of TLC being lavished on all those new developments.

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Leaving Frederiksberg and walking across the aktuell if underwhelming Monrads Plads (DG Monrad is the anti-hero in DR’s current blockbusting 1864) and you are on Valby Langgade. Turn left for Langgade S tog station on Herman Bangs Plads with its new street art, courtesy of Områdefornyelsen Gammel Valby and Statens Kunstfond.

Now clearly this only works when it’s dark (see pics in Magasinetkbh’s article), but Søren Ulrik Thomsen’s poem regn søvn blå kys from his 1982 collection Ukendt under den samme måne is displayed on that building in neon, part of the Valby Fortællinger gable art project. The word blå (blue) is in blue. Søren Ulrik sounds like a good egg – in an article in Politiken about the opening he says “there should be traffic, so you can get the city buzz. Lots of traffic, on different levels and going in different directions.”

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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 road not taken

Do you end up in much the same place regardless of which road you take? Just a thought for a Monday morning.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost, 1916.

Copenhagen’s graveyards

Updates…April 2014: the fab Slow Travel Berlin has just come up with a tour of Berlin’s cemeteries – rather more to work with there, but still, should revisit…Oct 2015; see photos of Mariebjerg Kirkegård (1926-33) in Gentofte, an example of Modernist landscape architecture and part of Denmark’s ‘cultural canon’…Nov 2015: Cathays Cemetery heritage walks and podcasts…March 2016: CPH’s graveyards – places for grief or recreation?

Most cemeteries in Denmark are managed by the Folkekirke, but 11 kommuner run their own, and Copenhagen manages five (plus two crematoria):

Guided tours led by leather jacketed kirkegårdsvejleder Stine Helweg are on offer during the summer. I went on a Kierkegaard walk on 11 September – this is what it is, a tour of a cemetery is probably never going to be very dynamic. Stine’s style tends to the deadpan and self effacing, with facts complemented by readings.

Assistens Kirkegård

Although Vestre Kirkegård is the biggest of the five it doesn’t attract the most attention – Assistens Kirkegård has the graves of two internationally famous Danes, plus the unique Kuturcentret Assistens, which offers a range of activities. It’s also part of the European Cemeteries Route.

Two Sunday afternoon tours on offer during the summer:

  • Den fortællende have – cultural geographer Christopher Jørgensen on people and events from the history of the cemetery (suspect same style as Stine above, but for DK 50)
  • Digterruten på Assistens – street poet Christian Kronmann borrows the voices of writers and poets, they lend their words (not for me)

See also the map, with four different routes around famous graves, plus the inevitable patchy blog and Facebook page.

Also used as a park in inner city Nørrebro – dogs on lead only! Building going on due to the metro – not sure of long term impact.

Update, May 2014: the graveyard has just been listed. The process caused a certain amount of controversy and debate around how to maintain a balance between preservation and progress, the old fashioned and the modern. (Did anyone say metaphor?) The listing has put a stop to a proposed super cycle path and should ensure that no more graves are moved to accommodate the new metro station, and that more voices are heard when any further alterations to the 1989 plan for the area are proposed. Plus there’s Captain Irishman.