Review: “Changing Track” by Michel Butor

Changing Track, described on the blurb as “at once experimental and engrossing”, was originally published by Calder Books in 1958 as “Second Thoughts” and has long been out of print in English. Alma Books have relaunched the Calder imprint1 with this, and other works from the Calder backlist are to follow later in the year.

Butor’s best-known work, it tells of a businessman’s train journey from Paris to Rome in order to be with his mistress, who he intends to install in a job and home back in the French capital.

“Engrossing” is the word: told in the second person, you’re immersed in the thought processes of Butor’s character. Of the many nouveaux romans I’ve read, few are difficult at the level of the text: Claude Simon may share a level of obscurity with Faulkner, but Alain Robbe-Grillet’s prose is elegant and precise at all times. Changing Track, though, is the most accessible nouveau roman I’ve come across.

The second person is not a common mode of storytelling, largely because it’s difficult to sustain credibly over a long work, yet Butor manages it here. So, like an avant-garde (not to mention avant-la-lettre) version of an 80s gamebook, YOU are the hero! But who are YOU? YOU are Leon Delmont, and YOU are a bit of a shit, really – unfaithful, self-absorbed, nosy, cheap and cowardly – which may all be a piece of sly humour on Butor’s part.

The book alternates between Delmont’s observations of the people in the carriage around him and the French countryside the train speeds through, with reflections on the decisions and situations that have led him to this point.

At the start, his memories relate to events from longer ago; the closer to Rome he gets, much more recent memories – which are troubling, and begin to undermine the earlier ones – force a change of his plans (la modification is the novel’s original French title). Increasingly, less focus is given to what’s happening around him as he drifts into his memories and they threaten to overwhelm him:

“its too late now, the chain of your thoughts, forged more firmly by this journey, rolls on as relentlessly as the train itself, and in spite of all your efforts…you are caught up and fettered by it”

Narrative mode aside, Butor is subtle in his use of those techniques which define the nouveau roman. He describes scenery as it is seen from a train, relativistically: the train is both a fixed point and constantly moving:

“there [is] a road ahead along which a lorry trundles, moves away, comes nearer again, disappears behind a house, is chased by a motorcyclist who passes it in a fine curve like a slack bow, drops behind him, behind your train, then vanishes from the scene.”

Prior to this, things outside the window are, similarly, given only as much “time” as the passing glance allows: “that cafe where the iron blind is just being drawn up…that tall cracked chimney, that used-tyre dump, those little gardens…” The only relationship between these places is their proximity, and consequently this is a much more “true” sense of how a city looks from a speeding train than an attempt at pathetic fallacy, or reaching for an all-encompassing sense of atmosphere, would provide. The train moves; things are glimpsed.

The mise-en-scene invites comparisons with a film which Passing Time pre-dates by a decade: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ Express. That film portrays a film-maker and his collaborators generating ideas for a film which we, the viewer, then see played out before us. However, it takes on a life of its own as contingencies intervene: events continually force the story into different avenues. The obvious metaphor which both works share is that of a train journey as metaphor for life: things happen, and all plans are thrown askew. The linear movement of the train therefore becomes an ironic comment on the idea of progression.

Similarly to Robbe-Grillet, events in the future are described with the certainty of things that have already happened (what Robbe-Grillet calls “objectivised hypothesis”):

“you’ll lie side by side on her bed…you’ll caress each other…you’ll discuss formalities”

These daydreams become more ridiculous as the book proceeds and it becomes clear that Delmont is not going to do any of these things. What status, then, do these projected meals, walks and conversations, have? They make up a substantial part of the text, yet do not and will not “really” exist, so the narrative undermines itself.

A further ironic comment can be found in Delmont’s memory of a trip to a gallery, where he reflects on the trompe l’oeil effect2 of artworks by Pannini. Like a mise-en-abyme, they act “as though he had wished to represent on his canvas the faithfulness of the dream shared by so many artists of his time: to produce the absolute equivalent of reality, so that a painted capital was indistinguishable from a real capital”. Is this not what Changing Track purports to do?

What it also does, like Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth, is to demonstrate it’s own genesis. Another mise-en-abyme is the book Delmont carries but never opens. “In this book which you haven’t read…you know that there are characters bearing a certain resemblance to the people who have successively occupied this compartment…in this book there must be a character…a man in difficulties who wants to save himself, who is making a journey and realises that the path he has taken doesn’t lead where he expected.” The trip provides him with the idea of writing a book like he imagines this one to be and which is, of course, the one we are reading3.

 

1again: 2008 saw a welcome return to print of novels by Robbe-Grillet, Duras and Queneau, among others.

2always a sign in a nouveau roman that the author is drawing attention to the purpose of their work. Robbe-Grillet’s novels are full of them.

3an idea Italo Calvino had lots of fun with years later in If on a winter’s night a traveler.

 

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Review: “The Unmapped Country” by Ann Quin

It’s a good start to the year for fans of mid-century experimental fiction. Alma have reprinted Michel Butor’s Changing Track, and now And Other Stories have gathered these short pieces and fragments by Ann Quin.

Quin, who drowned off Brighton beach in 1973 aged 36, has long been a cult figure. She was one of a small group of British writers who looked to the continent for advances being made in fiction (in particular the nouveau roman as practised by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon and others), among whose number were Christine Brooke-Rose (who translated numerous nouveaux romans) and B.S. Johnson. Quin’s first novel, Berg, is the best-regarded of the four she published, and a return to print of her work is overdue (though the ever-reliable Dalkey Archive Press have done their best).

Chloe Aridjis uses the word “mosaic” in describing Quin, which seems to perfectly describe many of these works. Quin’s language is sharp and precise, her prose often coming in staccato bursts. Each tiny sentence is a bright facet, fragmentary on its own but combining with those around it to intensely evoke a stifling, constraining universe.

“Enclosed by gray walls. Were they gray? Corridors. Women fettered from head to toe in black and white. Their white faces.”

Her characters are trapped, emotionally or physically, and strain at the leash of polite society. The England that is portrayed is a dreary, gray place where nothing happens. ‘A Double Room’ (one of the highlights) tells of a would-be dirty weekend in a drab seaside town. In a frank portrayal of female desire, a girl longs for her married lover to perform but he is continually unable, putting off the act for a perfect moment which never, of course, arrives.

In ‘Nude and Seascape’, a man struggles to place and to arrange to his satisfaction a woman’s corpse on a beach. He spends hours, frustrated by time and tide, trying to situate the cadaver just so. The title may sound like a surrealist painting, but the vignette is so visceral and told in prose so sharp it is anything but oneiric. Like a splash of cold water, Quin’s language is refreshing and – excepting a few period details here and there – doesn’t feel dated at all.

‘Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking’ evokes an atmosphere similar to some of the early stories in Dubliners, where a child has to navigate the unknown depths and hazardous shores of adult situations, but Quin’s spare, rapid-fire prose is closer to Beckett than to Joyce.

The title story, unfinished at Quin’s death, is a breathtaking portrayal of a woman committed to an asylum. The character whose head we inhabit, Sandra, walks a fine line, her perception at one moment hallucinatory and the next deeply, terrifyingly – yet all too plausibly – paranoid.

“Once she had understood the language of birds, now no longer, it took all her time to understand her own language…if speech at all then it was the spaces between words, and the echoes the words left, or what might be really meant under the surface.”

There is a kinship in the final part of the quote above with the tropisms of Nathalie Sarraute: those sub-vocal communications and thoughts which pass across our consciousness without ever being articulated.

Two early stories, ghost-written for the New Zealand pop artist Billy Apple, are probably the weakest but evoke a similar post-beatnik milieu as early Velvet Underground songs. Although interesting, they are not otherwise representative of Quin’s work but do show consistency: these are characters from the edges and margins of society, at a time when society was less understanding of – or adaptive to – those margins than it is today.

The Unmapped Country is a superb introduction to Quin, smartly packaged and with a thoughtful introduction by Jennifer Hodgson. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Progress

Happy New Year.

I don’t tend to write much over Christmas; I always find it a time for generating new ideas or doing the writing-tasks-that-aren’t-writing, like submissions or editing or planning. And looking back at old stuff to see if it can be resurrected (a fun task, but the answer is always “no”).

Consequently, the Robin Hood novel has been submitted to an agency, a (new) short story entered for a competition. Most likely nothing will come of either, but at least it feels like I’m doing something.

I’m also going to set myself a number of targets every month in 2018. This can include a number of pages to write in the novel, define what needs done to the gamebook, or lining up correspondence etc. to support further (fruitless) submissions of Robin Hood.

I’ve also reached a natural break in the fantasy novel. I think it’s about 2/3 finished, so I’m re-reading what I’ve written so far with an eye to consistency and rhythm: what scenes work well in which order, which scenes are superfluous and which new scenes need written. Watching a load of French New Wave films recently has been fascinating for many reasons, not least in the way they draw attention to the film editor’s art.

As for fixing inconsistencies and replacing placeholder names, I’ll not worry about them until later unless they’re so obvious they impede comprehension. Fixes at the level of the sentence – or the individual word – can wait until much (much) later.

It looks like this novel will consist of 5 parts (hey, it worked for Shakespeare*), and I’ve written to the end of Part 3. Now I face a decision. Part 2 is stylistically very different from the rest of the novel. Do I write Part 4 in the same way? Would repeating the use of the effect I employed there weaken the impact of Part 2, or would it do the opposite and help to create a symmetry to the book’s overall form? I’m leaning towards the latter.

 

 

*Yes, I know the division of Renaissance plays into a 5-act structure is a later editorial convention.

The mutation of an idea

We moved from Edinburgh to Peterborough in January 2000. At that point, my sole experience of the Soke had been a trip a few weeks before, to find a place to live, and as a stop on the East Coast railway line.

The landscape around the town was a revelation, even when just viewed from the train. My only previous visit to East Anglia was fifteen years before, and I’d forgotten in the interim how flat it was. Everyone knows East Anglia is (mostly) flat, but lots of landscapes look flat-ish. This was really flat. As Andrew in Thunder and Lightnings says

“He had always imagined that if you lived in a flat place you could see for miles across the rolling planes but now he found that it wasn’t so. The horizon was in the next field”.

In addition, the earth around Peterborough is a brown so deep it’s almost black. The exposed dark furrows of those winter fields struck a chord within me, and gave me an image – and no more – that I wanted to turn into a story. A story of magic and darkness.

When we moved, I took the train to London every day, a 75-minute commute twice daily1. Until Huntingdon (the first stop), I’d have a carriage all to myself in which I could sit at a table and write. It was bliss, in its way, as the Cambridgeshire (and then Bedfordshire, and Hertfordshire) countryside rolled underneath. By the time I got off at Finsbury Park, I would have pages written.

The first thing I attempted to write was something which evoked and explored the feeling those flat, flat fertile plains had stirred in me. I can’t remember now how much I wrote before giving up; 20 pages at most, maybe. I don’t believe every piece of fiction needs fully thought-through before you begin to write, but it needs enough of a skeleton to support its own weight. This didn’t, and it was quietly shelved.

Still the idea, or a mutation of the idea, persisted. Years later (five or six) I started again; the landscape differed (it was set in a generic non-place, though we’d moved back to Edinburgh by then) but the characters that the original image had suggested remained. This story got no further. I resurrected it, with a different slant, different setting, different story – and gradually evolving characters – every winter for the next half dozen years. Like the proverbial grandfather’s axe, the story I was “re-starting” bore no resemblance in any way to the original germ, but in my head it was still the same tale, or at least a direct descendant of it. None of them were ever finished, though well over a hundred pages were written across the years.

The novel I am (slowly) coming towards the climax of, more than three years on, is technically the most recent variant. It contains neither of the original characters, none of the initial motivations or themes or concerns, and takes place entirely in a constructed fantasy world.

Jonathan Coe, in a recent Guardian, said

“Like many authors, I have a stash of unpublished manuscripts in a bottom drawer, and sometimes I cling to the idea that they might be worth exhuming. Of course, they never are.”

He’s right: now and then I look through old notebooks in the hope of finding a lost gem that I can polish, but all I see are ideas on which the dust is so thick its obscured whatever values they may once have had.

However, the nights are almost drawing out again and in those wintry mornings which have a clarity peculiar to the east coast, ideas for a new piece of fiction stir. One which takes that long-faded original idea and adds to it my current interests (and, hopefully, evidence of seventeen years’ more practice), sets it squarely in a locale to which I have a greater connection, and can tie many different things to. I hope I can finally do the idea justice.

 

 

1The litany of stations as read by the announcer at Finsbury Park every evening has a rhythm I still find soothing:

“Stevenage Hitchin

Arlesey Biggleswade

Sandy St Neots

Huntingdon

and

Peterborough”

 

 

All change: Jan Mark’s “Thunder and Lightnings” (1976)

In my previous post I wrote about nostalgia and the loss of contiguity that can trigger it. There are books, though, that I have always had: every house move has seen them boxed, shifted and unpacked; and, in time, re-read. For these books, each re-reading reveals new aspects: a form of anti- or a-nostalgia. One of these is Jan Mark’s debut novel, Thunder and Lightnings (1976).

I loved this book as a ten year-old. I took it everywhere; read it countless times. I can remember being on at least one visit to a family friend’s and immersing myself in it, to the exclusion of the other children present. I love the illustrations by Jim Russell, and the cover (above, again by Russell, such as you’d never see nowadays) of my battered edition, but I also love the current edition’s cover art.

It was not, however, the book I’d hoped it would be. When it was advertised in the school book club brochure (“The Chip Club” or “The Lucky Club”, I forget which), as an aircraft fanatic I read the blurb and expected it to be about planes. The cover did nothing to dispel the notion. So when it came, I was a little disappointed. Surely I can’t have been surprised: I knew it was going to be fiction, after all. But it wasn’t “about planes”. What was it about?

Andrew Mitchell moves with his family from Kent to a tiny village in rural Norfolk. At school he meets local oddball Victor Skelton, who is obsessed by aircraft: specifically the Lightnings that fly from nearby RAF Coltishall. The two become friends: Victor is an outsider and although never spelled out as such, Andrew is too. As Andrew becomes familiar with Victor’s idiosyncracies (which are largely his means of keeping the rest of the world at bay), he worries about how his new friend will react to the imminent replacement of Lightnings by the newer Jaguar aircraft.

That’s it, in a nutshell: two boys meet, new boy is drawn into local boy’s hobby, worries about how his friend will adapt to change. There’s no plot, as such; something I’m not sure I realised aged ten. Events occur, a friendship develops, and although it most certainly is about things, that’s pretty much it.

On a surface level, then, it’s about a friendship. But what it’s really about is change, and adapting to it.

Andrew is used to change; his family have moved many times in his twelve years: “I went to three junior schools and two secondary schools”. Victor has lived in Pallingham all his life; Lightnings have flown overhead for as long as he can remember. He is anxious about a future without them; the recent retiral of the Hawker Hunter has plainly given him a foretaste of what life without his beloved interceptors may be like. But Victor’s friendship with Andrew – evidently his first close one – and his newfound fondness for guinea pigs suggest a diversification of interests will help him through the loss.

Although Andrew is plainly used to change, he is unmoored by the move, and is feeling his way through his new life. His baby brother, Edward, is too young to be affected by the change, and accepts everything with a nonchalant interest. Until encountering Victor, Andrew’s schooldays are a vacuum: he makes little effort to reach out to other pupils, and is consequently ignored.

Andrew’s personality only comes out in relief, as he is the character through whose eyes we (mostly) read the story. In many of his conversations with Victor he is highly pedantic (not that Victor notices; or, if he does, he bats it back to Andrew). In his favour, he is self-aware enough to realise this and tries to stop, but can’t help himself. I’ve maybe re-read it three or four times since childhood, and the most recent time (last week) I was surprised by how much Andrew needles Victor, unable to reconcile the other boy’s contradictions. Throughout the book there is a face-off between a type of low-level chaos and a desire for order. Andrew’s family and Victor represent the slightly rough-around-the-edges chaotic side, while Victor’s uptight parents with their spotlessly clean house, and (arguably) Andrew with his need for tidy explanation, represent the desire for order. Such dynamics help show both boys that one person’s normal is another person’s weird, and vice-versa.

Much of the boys’ discussions take the form of low-level arguments: in the proper sense of considering each other’s point of view and revising one’s own accordingly. In this manner, Mark makes many points that no doubt escaped me as a ten year old. The boys – and Mrs. Mitchell – read the action strips in boys’ comics, but as they begin to use a nascent critical intelligence, they see through the jingoism and fantasy that usually1 underpins such characters. This is reflected in a trip to a war grave near Coltishall, where the militarism that’s never far from the surface in the UK is simply and elegantly dismantled. It’s an impressive feat the author pulls off, in getting across a genuine love of aircraft with a recognition of what purpose these multi-million-pound weapons perform, while simultaneously recognising the historical feats of the Battle of Britain yet not romanticising or idealising them.

The main theme of adaptation to change by-passed me at the very time in my life I could have done with learning from it. A parental divorce when I was very young, though I was spared the worst, left me at some subconscious level wary of upheaval. Years later, around the time I devoured Thunder and Lightnings, my Gran died. I used to go to her house for lunch every day; in her absence, rather than join my classmates in the school dinner hall, I’d head up the high street and eat my packed lunch on doorsteps, hidden from view, as if repeating the forms of the ritual would restore the substance of it. Taking pity on me, I was occasionally invited into friends’ houses by their parents to eat with them. I’ve no idea how long this went on for – no more than a week or two – before my Mum and Dad found out and I had to go to the dinner hall.

In denial? Maybe a little.

On a slightly more bathetic note, I went off football (having been a big Aberdeen fan, like most boys in my part of the country in the early 80s) when Alex Ferguson and some of the team’s best players – the ones who’d brought so much glory to the club – left throughout 1986. Like Victor, never having known the team to have changed more than just a little at the edges, the wholesale transformation (for the worst; they won only three more trophies in the next decade) was not something I could accept. I went off football almost overnight, and for the best part of a decade2.

Mark wrote the book for a competition (which she won) soon after moving to Norfolk; she based the Mitchells’ shock at the jets’ noise on her own. Coltishall replaced its Lightning fleet with Jaguars in the summer of 1974 (the year I was born), though they continued to fly from bases such as RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire until they were finally withdrawn from service in 1988. Jaguars were scrapped in 2007, though Coltishall itself had closed down the year before. There is a photograph of me, in my Aberdeen shirt, standing in front of the Lightning “gate guard” at Coltishall, taken one summer evening in (I think) 1985. Yes, I pestered my parents to drive from the caravan park we were staying at near Yarmouth, through the back roads of East Anglia, purely to see where Thunder and Lightnings was set.

As well as being the first I’d heard of Green Shield stamps and the phrase “a fine and private place”,  it taught me (pace Andrew’s Mum) “there’s no such thing as fair”. Many years later I gave a cameo role to Andrew and Victor as adults, in my story The Other Field, as a tribute.

Victor, as Andrew’s mother surmises, is more adaptable than Andrew imagines. While Andrew fears that their new friendship may already be waning, Victor is planning cycle trips to RAF Marham to see his namesakes, the Handley-Page Victors. He sees no reason for the rest of the summer holidays not to provide a deepening and a furthering of their friendship. At the end – no spoiler alert needed; this isn’t a plot-driven book, and the replacement of Lightnings by Jaguars is a matter of historical record – Victor seems accepting of the end of the era. A lone aircraft does a trademark vertical ascent:

“”forty thousand feet in two and a half minutes”, whispered Victor…he grinned, his old and famous grin, and made a searing dive with his hand.

“Well, if that wasn’t [the last Lightning of all], that ought to have been…”

There are books you start again as soon as you’ve finished them, but the ambiguous ending of this one meant that was never the case for me. No matter, I’d return to it sooner or later.

 

 

1 I’ll look at this in a future post. In my previous post on nostalgia, I split artefacts into three categories: those which were lost and which when regained are the “true” nostalgic items; those which travel alongside you and grow with you, revealing something new each time (Thunder and Lightnings); and those which also travel alongside you but which do not grow, and form a sort of halfway-house between the other two. Into that category falls I Flew With Braddock.

2 And when I got back into it, it was as a fan of Aberdeen’s big 1980s rivals, Dundee United.

 

Source:

Mark, Jan: Thunder and Lightnings (Puffin, 1978)

 

photo: Jamie Gorman