‘This is the city. Melbourne, Victoria. It’s a big one. Second-largest city in Australia; it’s still growing. It’s a big animal with a big appetite. Five million people. There are five million stories in this naked city. The stories you’re about to hear are true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Hell, nobody’s innocent.
There’s a bilious melancholy, a choleric sorrow to Melbourne behind the magic mystery of the real. That’s the Spleen of Melbourne. It’s Paris-on-the-Yarra, a place of love and crime. And beneath its Parisian underbelly, the lonely experience of abortive, fugitive romance feels like the obscure workings of some organized crime.
And that’s my business. I live here. I’m a flâneur.
Well, a happy new year to all the fans, friends and followers of The Melbourne Flâneur vlog at home and abroad! And as my personal new year gets set to kick off this week with the Sun’s segue out of Capricorn and into Aquarius, it augurs beaucoup propitious to announce the release (which formally occurred on New Year’s Day) of my brand-spanking-new audiobook, The Spleen of Melbourne: Prose Poetry & Fiction.
Feast your peepers upon the nouvel évangile below.
I’m very proud of this CD. It was the fruit of my lockdown in Newcastle last year, one of the very few things which kept me sane during that period (not always the easiest thing for an Aquarian to be). And a shout-out to Implant Media, in Brunswick East, who mastered and produced the album for me. Despite some fatiguing delays in production which prevented me from getting this baby out before 1st January, they rendered my vision exquisitely so that the physical artefact you see above is precisely what I was imagining in my little villa in Newy.
The Spleen of Melbourne is a project I’ve been working on almost for as long as I’ve been living in Melbourne, and I’m certainly not done with it yet—not by a long shot. In fact, in several of my posts on this vlog, you will have heard me use the phrase ‘the spleen of Melbourne’ in reference to my prose poetry. As I explain in the short the preface to the sleeve booklet accompanying the CD:
There is a sinister tristesse, a bilious melancholy to Melbourne. Just as Baudelaire saw the choleric sorrow beneath the gaiety of Paris, the flâneur of Melbourne sees the chthonic element of its Parisian underbelly—the spleen of softly-lit milieux at eventide when the Angelus of the trambell tolls; or the rage of white-hot days when the Seine-like Yarra, in its moutonnement, mooches like brown mud between the quais as it mutters its way from Richmond.
—Dean Kyte, “Preface to The Spleen of Melbourne CD”
Of course, the title of this project is an hommage to Charles Baudelaire’s collection of prose poems, Le Spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen), published posthumously in 1869. Also known as Petits Poèmes en prose, this collection of fifty short prose pieces is as significant a landmark in modern poetry as M. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857).
Indeed, although M. Baudelaire drew his inspiration, in turn, from Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), which is considered to be the first collection of ‘poems in prose’, imagining a kind of medieval Paris, it was not until M. Baudelaire turned his merciless gaze upon the modern ruins of that Paris imagined by M. Bertrand, the Paris of the Second Empire, undergoing radical renovation via the vandalism of the self-proclaimed ‘demolition artist’ Baron Haussmann, that ‘prose poetry’, as a peculiarly modern form of verse, one infinitely appropriate to modern, urban conditions of speed and rapid change, was legitimately born.
As M. Baudelaire writes in a letter to his friend, Arsène Houssaye, which forms the preface to Le Spleen de Paris:
Who among us has not, in his days of ambition, dreamed up the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and yet sudden enough to adapt itself to the lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of consciousness?
It is, above all, the frequentation of enormous cities, it is the intersection of their innumerable connections, which engenders this obsessive ideal.
To which I can only say, with my hand on my heart and a profound reverence towards mon maître, ‘Mais oui.’
It is indeed ‘la fréquentation des villes énormes’ and the flâneur’s apperception of their ‘innombrables rapports’ which engenders in the literary soul given to strolling this ‘idéal obsédant’ to create prosody out of the prosaic, often horrifying, prose of modern, urban life.
Having been a flâneur in Paris, when I first came to Melbourne, I perceived immediately its intimate connection to my heart’s home, the first city of flânerie, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century. It’s an apperception which is, perhaps, not obvious to the native-born Melburnian, nor to the Australian generally, but to a Parisian soul whose karma has cursed him to be born in the antipodean hell of these climes, that clairvoyant poetic apperception of Melbourne’s subtle similitude to Paris makes my prosaic passegiate through this Inferno, far from my heart’s home, more bearable.
And in The Spleen of Melbourne audiobook, you’ll not only hear that subtle similitude to Paris in my prose poems, which are amplified by the artificial paradises and altered states of my dense soundscapes, but you’ll also see the similitude that I see. The CD, packaging, and 24-page sleeve booklet are all illustrated with my analogue photographs of Melbourne, shot on Kodak film.
The Spleen of Melbourne project, which has encompassed parts of my writing, sound design, videography, filmmaking, and photography for the last five years, is more than merely about prose poetry. M. Baudelaire dreamed of ‘le miracle d’une prose poétique, musicale sans rhythme et sans rime’, one capable of juxtaposing the Spleen and the Ideal of modern, urban life.
In other words, living and dying shortly before the birth of the cinema, he dreamed of a form of ‘literary’ montage, an imperfect, proto-cinematic form of writing that Walter Benjamin would appropriate as the overarching editorial æsthetic of his Arcades Project.
As a writer whose first passion, above even words, is film, the art of mounted, edited, moving images, I dream of the miracle of a flâneurial cinema, prosaic and yet prosodic, one where sounds and images rhyme; and where the prosy poetry of my voice-overs and narrations reflect that lyrical movement of my soul in flânerie, the slow-sudden cuts and shifts of dream and memory, the cartwheels of consciousness I turn as I trip down la rue.
M. Baudelaire dreamed of a prose that was poetic; I dream of a cinema that is poetic.
The CD I imagined into being in Newcastle is but the first iteration, the first physical essay of an idea for a completely interactive, multimedia ‘book’ of some kind, the impractical idea of which I have dreamed of in my ‘jours d’ambition’ ever since I first sailed into Melbourne and saw that it was a place where the prose of its own life is profoundly overlaid, for the clairvoyant, Rimbaudian seer, with the poetry of a Paris remembered, imagined and dreamed. I have called this project in writing, audio, video, film and photography “The Spleen of Melbourne”, and over the next several years you will doubtless see further versions of this project in different media as I make other essays at realizing my impossible book.
The Spleen of Melbourne is about the poetic soul of the world’s most liveable city; it’s about how a poetic soul who suffers in the artificial paradise of this faux-Paris-on-the-Yarra experiences it in his flâneries. The theme of The Spleen of Melbourne is the inexplicable melancholy, grief and loneliness we feel as postmodern, urban men and women wandering amidst the wreckage and ruination of modernity which M. Baudelaire predicted as the end of technological progress in his visions of a ruined, renovated Paris.
But where, pray tell, is the guarantee of progress for the morrow? For the disciples of the sages of steam and chemical matches understand it thus: progress only manifests itself to them under the guise of an indefinite series. Where, then, is the guarantee? It only exists, I say, in your credulity and fatuity.
I leave to one side the scientific question of whether, in rendering humanity more delicate in direct proportion to the new pleasures it delivers them, indefinite progress might not be humanity’s most ingenious and cruellest of tortures; if, proceeding through an obstinate negation of itself, it might not be a form of suicide unceasingly renewed, and if, enclosed in the fiery circle of divine logic, it might not resemble the scorpion that stings itself with its terrible tail, this eternal desire which ultimately makes for eternal despair?
In this urban landscape of seductive alienation—the whole City as Luna Park—I write elegiacally about the frustrating griefs I’ve experienced pursuing the Baudelairean Ideal of love through Daygame—fugitive, ephemeral, abortive romances which all soured and turned rapidly to Baudelairean Spleen—sometimes within the course of a single day.
The constant metaphor I revert to in describing my experiences of love in The Spleen of Melbourne is the metaphor of crime. This is an appropriate poetic figure for a city notorious for its connections to the Calabrian Onorata Società, colloquially known not as the ‘underworld’ of Melbourne, but, in a particularly Aussie tournure, as its ‘underbelly’.
I speak on the CD, as I have done on this vlog, of the ‘Parisian underbelly’ of Melbourne. The ‘chthonic element’ of Melbourne I mentioned above is this ‘under-world’, this poetic apperception of a stratum of reality beneath the manifest which is the intimate yet invisible relationship this city has for me with Paris. Sometimes at night, in the streets, in the dark, when I’m out with my cameras hunting, as Brassaï hunted his ‘Paris de nuit’, my Melbourne by night, I feel myself close to this soft, Parisian underbelly, and I can remember what it’s like to walk les rues de Montmartre, the friendly menace of the streets and squares softly-lit at late hours.
Thus, I hold a dark mirror up to the city in the prose poems and photographs on this CD, revealing a different, more Parisian, more surreally noirish Melbourne than most Melburnians will immediately recognize. But, as M. Rimbaud famously said:
… One must be a seer; one must make oneself a seer.
The poet makes himself a seer through a long, immense, and rational derangement of all his senses.
—Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871 (my translation)
As a Capricornian Aquarian—a ‘Capriquarian’, if you will—born on the cusp of Mystery and Imagination, like my fellow Capriquarians on the other side of the divide, David Lynch and Federico Fellini, altered states and artificial paradises of bleak fantasy appeal to me, and I think you’ll find a ‘friendly menace’ in my darkness and deranged vision of Melbourne.
Mystery and Imagination are two qualities distinct, and yet, like darkness and light, they co-exist in an inyo, ever-revolving, and one is needed to penetrate the other. All, for me, is Mystery; so much becomes clear in The Spleen of Melbourne as I ponder the ‘baffling crimes’ of my heartbreaks. And all, equally, is Imagination, that ‘Reine des Facultés’, as M. Baudelaire termed her—that Queen of the Faculties which every true poet from Blake onwards has intuitively known is the firm ground of our mysterious reality, and the one diamond-headed pick by which we may crack the granite fog of mysterious reality on which we eternally stand in perpetual darkness at noon.
You can purchase your copy of The Spleen of Melbourne below, or visit the product page in the Dean Kyte Bookstore for more info, including a video of yours truly giving you the guided tour. Every physical copy of the audiobook comes personally signed, wax-sealed, and gift-wrapped by the same two hands that wrote the poems, shot the photos, and designed the artefact. That’s your exclusive guarantee of artistic authenticity.
And to celebrate the release of my new audiobook, I am going to hold an online launch for The Spleen of Melbourne via Zoom. I’m currently developing a PowerPoint presentation in which I take you through the history of the project. I’m going to take you on a whirlwind tour from Paris to Melbourne, via Berlin, discussing my æsthetic philosophy of flânerie. I’ll introduce you to the landmark figures in my thinking, from Charles Baudelaire, to Walter Benjamin, to Oswald Spengler, and more.
It will be the first time I’ve ever attempted to set forth my philosophy of flânerie in public in a concentrated oral form, so if you want to know how all the diverse things I write about on The Melbourne Flânerie vlog dovetail in one Unified Field Theory of Flânerie, you won’t want to miss this dilly of a PowerPoint presentation I’m preparing.
There’ll be readings of pieces that are on the CD with live accompaniment, readings of pieces that aren’t but will be in future versions of this project, films, videos, and a live Q&A. A date hasn’t been definitely decided, but when it is, expect an invite in your inbox!
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“The Spleen of Melbourne” [CD audiobook]
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“The Spleen of Melbourne” [MP3 audiobook]
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“Office at night”: A ficción by Dean Kyte. The track above is best heard through earphones.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur I release a new ‘amplified flânograph’ for your delectation, chers lecteurs—one of those snapshots bagged in the course of my flâneries, enhanced with an atmospheric soundscape and a short story to animate and enliven the static image.
The photograph above was taken about two weeks before I booked out of Melbourne for warmer climes. I don’t usually shoot on colour film, being a black-and-white purist, so I wanted to use up the roll before I headed north. There were two nights in mid-May when I went a bit mad, and this image of a bald man on the ameche in his office on the first floor of Block Court, just before he shut up shop for the night, was snapped on the first.
Usually when your Melbourne Flâneur is between homes, he’s a night-cat, prowling the streets of the city after dark, and sometimes armed—with cameras, of course. But with all the lockdowns we endured in Melbourne last year, it had been a long time since I had been locked and loaded for a nighttime expedition to hunt down ‘the wonder’, ‘le merveilleux’, the magic mystery of the city at night.
It was a cold and bitter evening even in mid-May, and I cast off from The Miami Hotel, in West Melbourne, at sunset on a crazy trudge around the CBD and Carlton, bagging a number of sights I had thought, in my constrained flâneries during lockdown, might make good images—better ones in colour than in black-and-white.
Photographically inclined followers of this vlog will perhaps recognize this feeling, but when I exercised my inner cat (who had been housebound for too many months) and went on my first nighttime hunt in ages, the predatory activity of adding images to my bag took on an impetus of its own: The crazy, zigzagging walk, alone at night, through disparate zones of poetry and danger, guided only by the associations of memory, as I recalled some romantic place where I had added a girl to my trophy tally, or the instinct for a mystic image which seemed to hover, shimmering and glimmering, in the dusky light of a distant streetcorner, took on its own drunken momentum.
And the sound of that momentum (largely unknown to you souls too young to know the rigorous dérèglement de tous les sens induced by the LSD alchemy of film) was the mechanical ratchet, like a rising tempo, of winding on and snapping one image after another.
I’m usually stingier than Scrooge when it comes to using up my film, but that night I went through a third of a roll of Ektar, and the image above, taken halfway through my passeggiata ubriaca, was definitely the most memorable, an experience in itself.
It was so memorable an experience, in fact, that nearly two months later, as I was on the train to Coffs Harbour, I was inspired to write the first draft of a short story, “Office at night”, based on that image. I wrote two further drafts at Coffs and two in Bellingen during my holiday up there. The soundscape which accompanies the short story was also created in Coffs and refined during my fourth lockdown in Newcastle.
The six-minute tale is a fictionalized version of the taking of that photograph. I had always wanted to get a shot of Block Court, one of the great art déco arcades of Melbourne, and I think I was right in believing that it would look better on colour film than in black-and-white, as that eerie green glow over the bay window—like the Empire Hotel sign in Vertigo (1958)—gives some indication.
It was around 6:15, nearly an hour after sundown, when I hustled up Collins street to nab the shot. I just happened to be in time to see light in the office on the first floor directly over the arcade. There was a bald man framed in the corner of the window frame. He was standing in profile behind his desk and was taking a call on his mobile phone. He gave the impression of having just gotten up from his desk to leave for the evening when the phone call had come through and had been caught in that transitional moment of being physically still in one place while having left it mentally.
I don’t usually take photographs with people in them. I get photographed a good deal myself, and so I’m aware that there’s a certain moral dilemma about ‘stealing people’s souls’ which I’d rather avoid. And in any event, my interest (as you’ve doubtless gleaned from my films, videos, and photographs) is architecture, not people. Empty spaces are the actors in my dramas, not those pesky humans. I will usually disdain to take the shot if someone strays into my frame—unless their back is turned or (as in the instance above) they’re at a sufficient distance as to be individually unrecognizable—a mere generic sign for the human presence in the empty architectural spaces that fascinate me.
So I had to make a quick decision about whether to clip the bald man’s soul or pass up the shot, but that second source of light on the first floor directly over the arcade was too photogenic—as was the bald man’s presence, en plein action, right in the corner of the frame, as smeary a sign for the human presence as an artist’s signature in the corner of a canvas.
Those impromptu additions to the image of the arcade at night I had imagined were ultimately too good to pass up.
I’m not so hot at photographing action—which is another reason why I disdain to photograph people. I’m too considered a photographer, take too much time over composing the shot and testing my settings, to be good at snapshooting. But in this instance, I knew I had to be quick to get the shot without traffic—either vehicular or on the hoof—getting between me and the image of the arcade with the lighted windows above it. Moreover, I had to nail down the bald man before he changed his pose too dramatically or rung off.
I had hardly time to check my settings. I was really winging it—and in fact, I had to grab two shots, because the first one did involve some unphotogenic intrusions of silhouettes passing before the arcade. By the time I wound on and recomposed for shot #2, the bald man was hanging up.
There’s a useful phone kiosk à deux pas down Collins street, more or less in front of that engraved pilaster you see on the left-hand margin of the frame. I had my Pentax K1000 resting on the metal tray, which I was borrowing to note down the time, the settings I had used, and the exposure of the two shots. As I was rounding out my notes (a job that took no more than a minute), I looked up and was just in time to see that the lights in the office above the arcade were off. My eyes flicked to street level, and I was just in time to see the bald man walking out of Block Court and turning east up Collins street, towards Swanston.
And that image—both the photographic one that I took and the memorable, puzzling image a minute later of the darkened office and the man walking out of the arcade—is, in essence, the backstory which forms the story of “Office at night”.
Now I don’t know who the bald man is, and I don’t know what goes on in the office on the first floor above the arcade. I did try to find that information out when I was writing the subsequent drafts of the story in Coffs and Bello, but decided that I would rather the mystery to remain inviolate.
In any event, those facts are immaterial to the story that I tell in the ficción—mere MacGuffins, as Mr. Hitchcock would call them.
Don’t even ask me who the bald man is my fictionalized version of the story: I don’t know who he is even in my imagining of him, though I know what he does, and I have a very vague idea of what he takes out of the safe.
The point is that the image of him, with his gleaming pink pate and ill-fitting grey jacket, both taking the mysterious call in the office and leaving it to walk up Collins street towards the Paris End, carved itself indelibly upon my memory in those few brief seconds of sighting him through my viewfinder and, a minute later, when I looked up from my Moleskine to see him walking away from me forever.
Which is to say that, despite the physical distance between us, and despite the fact of his ignorance of me watching him, I formed ‘a connection’ with the bald man. The bullish bald head and the jacket too tight for his stocky body were the two details on the surface of that image that were enough to catapult me across Collins street and into the office with him, to empathize with him even in his mystery.
For the next seven weeks, first in Melbourne, and then, for much longer, in Wagga Wagga, as I worked at unkinking the larger story of which “Office at night”, like my previous flânograph on this vlog, “Dreidel”, is an experimental episode, the ‘total image’ of the bald man—of my brief encounter with him—stayed with me, percolating in my unconscious in other landscapes, so that, when I came to be sitting on the XPT, bored, tired and anxious on my way to Coffs as I struggled to breathe behind my mask, the total image of him swam up to consciousness again to distract me briefly from my discomfort, and to be transcribed in a fictionalized version of our encounter and connection, apparently from his perspective.
Why should this ‘total image’ of the bald man, of my brief encounter with him at a distance, have had such an enduring impact on me that I carried that image, in my mind, to Wagga, and Coffs, and Bello, and even to Newcastle?
Well, in large part it has to do with the fortunate intersection of what I had consciously come to Block Court to do on that particular evening in mid-May and the wholly unexpected illumination of another facet in my evolving æsthetic philosophy of flânerie which that lighted window on the second storey above the arcade represented.
During our dreary second lockdown in Melbourne last year (the one in which we earned the unenviable honour of being ‘the most locked down city in the world’), when opportunities for flânerie were constrained by a five-kilometre radius; only two permitted hours of exercise per day; a strict curfew; and the Stasi-like harassment of the cops, I took to wandering around the immediate neighbourhood of The Miami Hotel, in North Melbourne, and particularly, in my daily quest for that black nectar, the ebony ambrosia to which I am matutinally addicted, to the Mecca of cafés around Errol street.
An idea began to form for me in the streets of North Melbourne, one of those ideas, as Walter Benjamin says, that ‘feeds on the sensory data taking shape before [the flâneur’s] eyes but often possesses itself of abstract knowledge—indeed, of dead facts….’
Last year, during our second lockdown, I wrote a post entitled “A flâneur in Chinatown” in which I cited a journal article by Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong, “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019). While McDonogh and Wong used the metaphor of the verticality of global Chinatowns as an analogue for the verticality of Chinese writing—and the consequent illegibility of these densely layered urban spaces to Occidental eyes—I began to look at my circumscribed flâneurial neighbourhood through McDonogh and Wong’s lens of inscrutably illegible verticality.
Melbourne is actually a rather low-built city. But the impression of horizontality as a superordinate architectural æsthetic which strikes one rather forcefully in Adelaide, for instance, is not immediately obvious to the naked eye in Melbourne. On the contrary, Melbourne gives one a somewhat deceptive impression of verticality, which is perhaps partly a function of its density and narrowness even in suburbia.
But even in the inner-city suburbs with their famous and picturesque row houses, such as North Melbourne, the terraces rarely extend above two storeys. I think, in addition to the density of these terraces built cheek-by-jowl and the narrowness of the old streets and lanes tranched between the major thoroughfares, the grandiosity of the façades contributes to an impression of verticality which is slightly deceptive.
The horizontality of Melbourne is somewhat concealed from immediate perception by such nineteenth-century tricks as the love of iron Corinthians pegging the corrugated skirts of wide awnings to the edges of the street, as we see so picturesquely along that block of Errol street leading to the North Melbourne Town Hall; by rows of pilasters and harmoniously arched windows of Venetian Renaissance variety leaping along upper-storey façades; by the cowled escutcheons which bear the central plaques telling the musical, perfumed names of the terraces, or featuring crenelated shells, deeply recessed, evoking the Way of St. James; by plinth-like corners terminating in spiked and spired urns, and mass-produced mascarons bearing what I consider to be ‘the face of Melbourne’, that neo-classical, rather matronly dame of nondescript aspect with her Venusian hairdo.
I love all this with a rapture that sends me into flights of poetry, but it was the windows—particularly those arched, Venetian Renaissance-style windows, not entirely indigenous to Melbourne on our shores, but deeply characteristic of the place as of no other town or city in Australia—which captured my attention in my morning scuttles outdoors for coffee.
More than once, of a morning, as I waited on the sidewalk in Errol or Victoria streets, regarding with curiosity the row of terraces opposite me, I had to be awakened from my rêverie by having my name called twice. And in Queensberry street, standing in the bluestone gutter outside Bread Club, I was particularly fixated on the four, paired first-floor windows above Ace Antiques and Collectables across the street, around which faded advertisements for The Age and the Herald Sun still barely emblaze the red brickwork.
Who lives behind these first-floor windows which look down on Melbourne through winking, half-drawn curtains, or sleepy, half-lowered shades? Does anyone at all? In some perhaps, but in the suburbs of Melbourne immediately adjacent to the CBD where I was, that potential seemed more doubtful than likely, since the ground floors of many terraces in West and North Melbourne are occupied, as their nineteenth-century architects intended, by shops.
The question of who—or what—was up there on the storey above the street became a source of flâneurial fascination for me, the one riddle of the city which lockdown allowed my legs to consider as they carried me to one coffee shop or another. Forced to read into their sombre depths from the angle of the street below, I tried to make up with lateral movement what I couldn’t gain in vertical, eyeballing them in a tracking pan as I surveilled them in my passage so as to gain the widest arc of vision into their interiors from below.
Alas! to no avail. A view of ceiling, sometimes truncated by a slash of grimy, half-drawn curtain or half-lowered shade, gave some suggestion of a resident human presence domiciled (perhaps indigently) in the dress circle above the stage of Errol or Victoria streets, but just as often, an intimation of haphazardly piled and abandoned boxes, or dusty emptiness, implied their use as storerooms—sometimes storing nothing at all.
I began even to wonder if these first-floor windows were accessible to the tenants or owners of the ground-floor shops, or if, like Rapunzel’s tower, internal staircases hidden to my eyes had atrophied and fallen away in the sedimentary archaeology of Melbourne’s history, so that all that remained was an empire of empty or forgotten rooms which hovered at that stratum in the air above the city, and which could only be reached and explored if you cast a ladder up to the windows.
The mystery of who or what is up there on Melbourne’s second storeys remained, like the bald man’s grift on the first floor of Block Court, inviolate.
It’s not as though this question of what is on the upper storeys of buildings, inaccessible to penetration beyond their ground-floor commercial façades, hasn’t occurred to me before. Take an hour off to sit in the Bourke street mall and regard the opaque windows of the Diamond House and the Public Benefit Bootery, for instance, and the question of what all this commercial space—apparently empty, apparently even in disrepair—above the famously affaireux level of Bourke street is being used for will doubtless occur to you too.
But it took reading McDonogh and Wong’s journal article during lockdown for me to really begin formulating embodied ideas—these Eleusinian inferences and intuitions about the mysteries of actuality which strike the flâneur, in his ambulations, with the abstract force of ‘dead facts’—of my own.
And it’s from that place of inference and intuition, my sense of the tantalizing inaccessibility of the life (or lives) behind upper-storey windows when seen from the level of the street, that the mystery I’ve attempted to articulate in “Office at night” proceeded.
Those lit first-floor windows fortuitously intersected with my errand to make a record of Block Court on colour film at night, and the latter image (which would doubtless have been beautiful in itself) was enlivened by the image of the former, personified by the figure of the bald man engaged in his eternally mysterious activity of taking a phone call to which I had no access in a space to which I also had no access.
Prior to my encounter with McDonogh and Wong, the image of lighted windows at night had long fascinated me. There is an inaccessibility about these too, for although the ground-floor lighted windows of houses would appear to allow the voyeur to gaze directly in and see who, or what, exists inside the black box of the façade, when seen in lateral passage from a moving vehicle (from whence the image of lighted windows at night obtains its mysterious romance and power), this voyeuristic desire is denied.
Many has been the time, taking the overnight XPT between Melbourne and Sydney, or between Sydney and Brisbane, when, nearing some little country town in the dead of night and seeing a small flurry of these lit windows at a distance, I have felt (as I did with the bald man) a sense of my soul leaping across darkness and distance and wishing, for a moment, to be within that lighted window; to sample the atmosphere of respite from movement which it shines, like a welcoming hearth, to the weary traveller in flight past it; to know who also is awake at that hour (albeit in the moored comfort of their own home) and how their little bower is decorated.
I had a more localized experience of this sensation in Melbourne, on my birthday, some years ago.
I had dinner and drinks with some friends at Fed Square and had left their convivial company, as I often do, feeling more dissatisfied by the social experience than satisfied by it. I was staying at Fairfield that week, in one of Melbourne’s old brick-veneer bungalows. This one had been modernized and redecorated somewhat, but not so much, fortunately, as to ruin the charm of stoical discomfort which these old-fashioned suburban homes possess.
As it happened—annoyingly—Metro was doing trackwork on the Hurstbridge line that week, so I had to transfer onto a rail replacement bus at Clifton Hill which would swing by the inner-eastern stations of Westgarth and Dennis before depositing me at Fairfield.
It was late when I left my friends, and later still when the Hurstbridge train terminated at Clifton Hill and I transferred, along with the other tired, late-night refugees from the city, onto the bus. As it passed through Westgarth in the dark, I had that same experience of seeing an occasional lit window streak across the panes reflecting nothing back but my weary visage, and I felt my heart lift and leap towards these fugitive examples of Melbourne’s charming old suburban homes—brick-veneers behind low, redbrick fences and California bungalows with their columned porches—in which some soul, wealthier than I, was still awake.
There was the sense that the ‘black boxes’ formed by their attractive, tantalizing façades, beckoning to me (weary traveller that I was), were somewhat like Rubik’s Cubes, or Chinese puzzles:—they contained the mystery of an unimaginable life within which my mind, nevertheless, set itself to imagining, seeing a world of old-fashioned luxury and ease, of bibelots and bric-à-brac consonant with their exteriors—a world of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ I would feel eternally at home in and would be endlessly content to explore, like a museum.
But the mystery of penetration had to be foregone as the bus bore me on to bed, and I could at least be satisfied that this week I would be able to penetrate one such example of the general mystery of what lies behind the façades of Melbourne’s delightfully decrepit inner-city houses.
And to extend the metaphor a little further, I had something of the sense which I imagine cat-burglars to have when I saw those occasional lit windows in Westgarth, provocatively beckoning me to peep at them and pry them, so forceful was the denied desire of the voyeur in lateral flight past them to pause, to stop, to investigate, and to know what manner of life lay behind the beautiful black box of the façade.
In some sense, I am fortunate, with my itinerant manner of life as a ‘writer-at-large’, to have had a wide experience of Melbourne homes, in many suburbs, and rather than being a cat-burglar, I am more like a safecracker: by the instinct bred of professional experience, I turn the mysterious dial of social convention and the door of the vault swings open to occasionally reveal to me the secret of what lies behind Melbourne’s beautiful suburban façades.
Être flâneur, c’est être voyeur.
One who understood this deep alliance between fleeting observation in movement and fixed, illicit spectatorship was Edward Hopper. During our second lockdown, I read Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography(1995), a book I cannot recommend but from which I managed to dredge a few things that were barely useful to the ideas about windows and verticality then forming in me.
The window, of course, is the signature of Mr. Hopper’s art, the frame within the frame which subjects the private sphere of occluded domesticity to public speculation, the proscenium which externalizes the internal.
When I chanced serendipitously on the bald man publicly framed in private action in the bay window on the first floor of Block Court, it was with the consciousness that his presence in the corner of the lighted window above the empty arcade made the collision of these two images I’ve described somewhat ‘Hopperesque’.
And of course, when I came to write the ficción accompanying my flânograph, I chose the title “Office at night” with a deep tip of my Fedora towards Mr. Hopper, whose 1940 painting of that title, with its equally ambiguous narrative, hangs in the Walker Art Center at Minneapolis.
Of that work, Mr. Hopper explained to his patron at the Walker:
My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me. … Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.
—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Mr. Hopper’s spirit of scrupulous crypticity, where the angle of vision is emphasised as salient, and the surfaces of things are described with a minuteness that almost invests them with an aura of obscure significance, but where all the internal, interior qualities of narrative are stubbornly elided, certainly guided me in the writing of this story.
And, certainly, I ‘worked on’ the central image of it much as Ms. Levin describes Mr. Hopper ‘working on’ the images of his paintings, trying to draw out something very vague yet very crystalline from himself through successive sketches and couches of colour as he modelled the concrete, physical details of images that are ultimately clairvoyant inner visions. A comparison of the five drafts I wrote of “Office at night” (including the final version in the audio track) would reveal significant differences, showing how much I cut, changed and sculpted the details in order for each one to add up to the final revelation of perspective expressed in the last sentence.
Likewise, the angle of vision in Mr. Hopper’s Office at Night is significant, if only because it jars the spectator. We are not moored to the floor, with its rich green carpet, but ‘rather high in the air’, floating within the office.
The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the ‘L’ train in New York City after dark glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind.
—Edward Hopper, letter to Norman A. Geske, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 324)
Like myself, Mr. Hopper loved the flâneuristic experience of travelling by train at night, the way vision in movement mingles with a certain voyeuristic scopophilia excited by the flashes of light and life issuing from windows which ‘tell a picture’, but ‘no obvious anecdote’.
Another of his ‘snapshots’, Night Windows (1928), also painted from the vantage of an elevated train in flight, features three windows, like the bay window of the office on the first floor of Block Court, which presents a kind of ‘triptych’, the central panel of which is the slightly pornographic image of the fesses of a girl in a pink slip bending over, her head out of frame.
Just as I said the gleaming pinkness of the bald man’s pate and the fashionable faux pas of his ill-fitting jacket were enough to suggest a ‘character’ to me in the weeks after seeing his fleeting image, Mr. Hopper said obliquely of his pornographic Madonna in Night Windows:
The way in which a few objects are arranged on a table, or a curtain billows in the breeze can set the mood and indicate the kind of person who inhabits the room.
—Edward Hopper, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 219)
Which is to say that, chez Hopper, the external world, comprised of superficial details, is the interior landscape of the ‘characters’ depicted: his interiors are their psychological interiors externalized. Just as we cannot see a person’s character but obliquely, as manifested in behaviour and action, dark façades, like the corner of the building depicted in Night Windows, are ‘cranial vaults’ which allow us, through their ocular fenestrations, to catch oblique glimpses of the private person fluttering about, like a moth, among the furnishings of their mind.
Moreover, what gives his paintings their uncanny, slightly surreal quality is his unique manner of representing people by the objects which surround them. I do not mean to imply that Mr. Hopper engages in any cheap literary symbolism of the type that we are used to, where x object is perfectly equivalent to y person—pas du tout.
Rather, as a writer with a visual bent myself, one who abhors the human presence in his films and photos and is perversely entranced by the photogenic possibilities of humans’ artistic and architectural products, the ‘ruins of modernity’ manifested as, and personified by, statues and buildings, I see a fraternal sensibility in operation chez Hopper: As in a dream, architectural details—houses, railroad tracks, tunnels, advertising signs, chimneys—are the people of his paintings. By an immense, convoluted process of displacement, things which have no obvious figurative similitude to the human being nevertheless stand in for the absent people of Mr. Hopper’s architectural ‘portraits’.
In one of his rare, groping moments of self-explanation, Mr. Hopper stated:
It’s hard for the layman to understand what the painter is trying to do. The painter himself is the only one that can really know…. And in the case of the objective painter, he uses natural phenomena to communicate … perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.
The ‘universal vocabulary’ of concrete objects is Mr. Hopper’s private symbology, and you will recall, chers lecteurs, that in my last post I alerted you to Louis Aragon’s provocative claim, in Le Paysan de Paris, that the image—and the concrete image at that—is the singular source of the poetic and the surreal.
Hence, when I say that concrete objects, the elements and details of architecture ‘symbolize’ people in some substantial sense in Mr. Hopper’s work, it is with an eye to M. Aragon that I class Mr. Hopper among the surrealists—at the very pinnacle of the movement, in fact, an honour he would doubtless deprecate.
But he is more surreal than the surrealists, for in his conscious devotion to ‘objective painting’, to the draughtsman-like description of material reality, he unconsciously paints the sur-reality, the reality that is over and above this one, sharing with M. Aragon the same stubborn, innate sense that le merveilleux is not a Platonic conception but is deeply embedded in the world’s mass. For Mr. Hopper too, certain sights, certain places, certain objects become divinely transfigured merely by the fact of their ugly, debased being as actuality: they take on ‘neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol’, nor do they ‘so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea.’
In that sense am I suggesting that buildings and architecture, as well as the modest objects of modern life, are deeply symbolic of the absent people in Mr. Hopper’s paintings. By a kind of Freudian dream displacement, people become the buildings they inhabit, and a painting like House by the Railroad (1925), for instance, can easily be read as a portrait of Mr. Hopper’s starchy Gilded Age youth, ‘gone with the wind’, struggling, like the gangling Nyacker himself in his stiff wing collar, to maintain a faintly ridiculous Victorian dignity against the locomotive onslaught of modernity.
To take just three examples, all painted in 1939, of how the concrete manifests its deep symbolism chez Hopper, there is such a dream-like collapse between the ‘natural phenomena’ which constitute Mr. Hopper’s universal vocabulary and the symbolic freight these objects of the world are intended to carry in Bridle Path, Cape Cod Evening, and Ground Swell.
These paintings which have, in their ostensible subject matter, nothing at all to do with the war in Europe and the looming threat that conflict posed to isolationist America, are in fact deeply obsessed by it. Indeed, there is not only such a surcharge of symbolic freight placed upon the ‘natural phenomena’—a rearing horse confronting a dark tunnel in Central Park; a dog amidst tall grass pricking up its ears; a shelf of wave threatening a pleasure craft on a sunny day—that serve as a universal vocabulary for Mr. Hopper’s anxieties about inevitable American involvement in the European conflict that these images, as symbols, collapse under the burden of communicating a diffuse and generalized state of anxiety, but, as in a dream (and there is an undeniably oneiric quality to Mr. Hopper’s employment of natural phenomena as a hieroglyphic vocabulary), between the original symbolic meaning, the hyperobject of world war that he intends to vocalize and express, and the final image, several displacements occur, so that the symbol undergoes multiple slippages, transfers, transformations, as in an intellectual game of Chinese Whispers.
It is as though, in these three paintings, Mr. Hopper is placing the original symbol of the war in Europe through such a succession of verbal and visual rhymes as to arrive at three separate images which, as ‘natural phenomena’ conveying only a disquieting sense of generalized anxiety, have nothing even implicit to do with the subject of the war, but in which, as in the images of the Tarot, the subterraneanly latent, chthonic significance of the original symbol can just barely be read in the manifest content of the tableaux.
Flâneur that he is, Mr. Hopper draws (to put another spin on that Benjaminian principle of ‘embodied knowledge’ I enunciated earlier) inferences and intuitions from a world of concrete symbolism: the ‘dead facts’ of concrete objects release, under his slavishly descriptive brush, the perfume of the marvellous and the surreal which is deeply embedded, as their Platonic substrate, in the DNA of dead matter.
As a quintessential surrealist, Mr. Hopper belongs for me among a very small cadre of artists—M. Ingres in the world of painting, and Mr. Hitchcock and Ozu-sensei in the world of cinema. What distinguishes these four artists is their slavish, obtusely unimaginative commitment to the depiction of concrete reality. They are so committed to the cause of realism that, as Sr. Picasso admiringly admitted with respect to M. Ingres, they are the greatest abstractionists of all.
The ‘abstraction’ of Mr. Hopper (again, he would deplore to be numbered among the non-objectivists) is similar to the abstraction of Ozu-sensei; and that abstraction, as a function of cinematic décor, is similar to M. Aragon’s apperception that the objects of the world ‘embody’ ideas rather than ‘manifest’ them. In Mr. Hopper’s concrete abstraction, as in that of Ozu-sensei, the objects of reality (or the reality of objects, if you prefer) are so compositionally potent in sensuous form and colour that they embody a symbolic character—the transfiguration of themselves sensed by M. Aragon.
Like Ozu-sensei, Mr. Hopper is one of the great painters of incidental still-lifes—those ‘few objects arranged on a table’ which reveal the psychological potency of a given space.
And it is perhaps this quality of the spiritual life of ‘things’ that M. Baudelaire referred to when he said that the marvellous and the poetic surrounds and suckles us like the air, but that we are oblivious to it. It requires some visionary sensibility that these artists had but denied—even to the point of doing violence to their own souls, attempting to ‘amputate’ it through repression—a ‘photogenic orientation’ towards the objects of reality, to draw out of them that store of poetry they are so fecund in—la photogénie—the abstract aspect they concretely embody.
These four artists lived so rigidly in their consciousnesses that the unconscious, for them, was pushed into such repressed abeyance that it could only manifest itself as concrete images that are abstractly distorted reports of reality. David Fincher talks about the ‘iron umbrella’ of Mr. Hitchcock’s vision, the suffocating rigour which murders creativity, foreclosing all other creative possibilities but the one he has decided upon in their cradle.
All these artists put up their iron umbrellas, erecting a suffocating bell-jar over their work, through whose translucent but distorting glass we see a world we recognize as rational fact, but fact viewed through the irrational prism of a deeply personal vision. For Ingres, Hopper, Hitchcock and Ozu in their respective ways, the rigorous, iron-clad verisimilitude of technical draughtsmanship is the very superstructure from which their deeply personal and idiosyncratic dreams emerge.
And for all these artists, the fetishization of material verisimilitude produces an ultimately symbolic, dreamlike effect upon us, but one which is eminently disavowable by the artist himself because the conscious concentration on describing what is material and actual is so scrupulously rigorous as to occupy all his artistic energies.
The deep affinity between Mr. Hopper’s painting and the art of the cinema has been exhaustively examined—not least by Ms. Levin, who devotes an appendix to the subject in her biography. Mr. Hitchcock himself was not shy in giving credit to Mr. Hopper, graciously confiding to interviewers that the Bates maison in Psycho (1960) was directly modelled on the House by the Railroad.
The trans-disciplinary respect was mutual. Mr. Hopper too, Ms. Levin tells us, was an avid cinephile, regularly ducking into cinemas in his predatory flâneries after fresh subject matter, and he kept abreast of developments in cinematic storytelling well into the age of Godard.
The cinema, and its root art-form of photography, were identified early by critics (not always favourably in an era of encroaching non-objectivism) as being unusually apposite to an understanding of Mr. Hopper’s painting.
I don’t think it is exactly accurate to say that Mr. Hopper was one of the last remaining adherents of ‘photorealism’ in a desertifying ocean of non-objectivism, the tide of which was ever-rising in his lifetime, and which he fought, with the valiant conservatism of his faith, to repulse. His style, to my mind, is slightly too gauche in its ponderous grasping for crystalline precision to be rightly compared with the dazzling illusions of photorealism that academicians like Cabanel and Bouguereau were capable of.
This is partly what I’m indicating when I talk about Mr. Hopper’s ‘inadvertent’ surrealism. He was an American commercial artist at the turn of the twentieth century, and his æsthetic is fundamentally based on the realistic and naturalistic premises of American commercial art.
He anticipates—but also, to my mind, emerges from, or in reaction to—the pulp fiction æsthetic of American commercial art. The ‘realism’ of this ‘genre painting’, its photographic veracity—which is to say, its legibility as an image—is in turn founded on the gritty ‘objectivity’ of nineteenth-century literary naturalism, imported into the Anglophone world from France. We know that Mr. Hopper was an immense Francophile, that he knew the language intimately, and was thoroughly versed in French nineteenth-century prose and poetry.
Mr. Hopper draws on the same ‘hyper-lucidity’ of pulp fiction and paperback cover artwork, a brand of realism that is both gritty and natural, and surreal and melodramatic. Being designed explicitly to advertise narratives, the paintings of pulp fiction are deeply premised on the narrative conventions of literature: the static, photographically veracious image must convey a proto-cinematic sense of ‘story’, of a beginning preceding the image we see; a middle it concretely represents; and an end, after it, we can anticipate—multiply—in tantalizing predictions of what might happen next.
Likewise, there is a sense of ‘narrative in motion’ in Mr. Hopper’s paintings which is a far more ‘literary’ corollary for the hyper-lucid mode of pulp fiction artwork. And to have a narrative that can be discerned across a narrow tranche of time in a single image, you require photographically realistic figures in recognizably naturalistic locales and situations.
But while Mr. Hopper partakes of the same conventions as American commercial painting, and while a tantalizing ambiguity similar to Mr. Hopper’s does exist in pulp fiction illustration, the point of divergence is this: the image depicted in the pulp cover painting tends to be what M. Cartier-Bresson calls ‘le moment décisif’ of the narrative in motion, whereas Mr. Hopper routinely chooses a ‘transitional moment’ in the narrative told by his paintings, one which renders their legibility, despite their photographic veracity, problematic.
Art director Robert Boyle, a close collaborator of Mr. Hitchcock, sees this same tendency between the two artists and calls it the ‘penultimate moment’:
‘The Hopper Look’ is the look of a moment in time before something has happened, or very often after it’s happened, but never at the moment of the happening. If you see a young woman in her room, very often bare, and she’s in a contemplative mood, has it happened? Or is it about to happen?
We’re used to the quick delivery, and we’re not always intrigued by the development. And with a Hitchcock film, the development is the interesting part. And I don’t mean to just say Hitchcock; I think this is true of most good films – maybe all of them.
The painting Mr. Boyle is referring to in that quote is Mr. Hopper’s Eleven a.m. (1926), another image in which the upper-storey window plays a significant rôle as a vector for voyeurism, although in this early instance, as in many of his later paintings, the angle of regard is reversed, from within to without.
Eleven a.m. … shows a woman in a quiet pose…. Yet, as so often, Hopper’s suggestion that this is a real, precise situation is not entirely borne out by the visual evidence….
Hopper presents us with a transitional situation. He permits us a tiny glimpse of the city outside, and, at the left, he gives a non-committal suggestion of another room behind the slightly open curtain. … The sense of mystery, instead of residing in an immaterial phenomenon, is engendered by the simple fact that we cannot see its origin. It is not metaphysical, but merely outside our field of perception.
—Ivo Kranzfelder, Hopper, p. 37
The décor of physical space is in some sense consubstantial with this transitional quality of time in Mr. Hopper’s paintings: he chooses what he going to be ‘real’ about, and works over certain areas of the canvas while treating others summarily. The effect of this is to complicate our reading of the image, to put us in the position, as Mr. Boyle observes, of wondering what has happened, or if it has happened yet, or what indeed may happen in this locale and situation which is photographically veracious enough for us to instantly recognize it, but not so realistic as to give us, as in the hyperlucid world of pulp fiction painting, an immediate sense of spatiotemporal orientation at the decisive moment of action in the drama.
In Mr. Hopper too, it is the ‘development’ that intrigues us, and the quick delivery of American commercial painting is infinitely delayed.
And thus, as the critics of his time recognized, while there is something of the ‘snapshot’ quality of photography in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, his brand of realism is not of the ‘photorealist’ variety—the kind of hyperlucidity that photography had already rendered redundant by the time MM. Cabanel et Bouguereau came on the scene:
This is an art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement. Nature’s sayso is not the artist’s affirmation.
—Edward Alden Jewell, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 220)
Ms. Levin tells us that during his youthful apprenticeship in art and flânerie in Paris, Mr. Hopper flirted briefly with photography, taking pictures of architectural details such as those immensely photogenic staircases in Parisian apartment houses, the streets of the Rive Gauche, and the bridges spanning the Seine, emulating the lonely, melancholy manner of M. Atget, but that he gave up photography as an aide-mémoire to painting because ‘the camera sees things from a different angle, not like the eye.’
And this is the point that many photographers—particularly digital photographers—fail to grasp, but which, as a writer who takes photos and makes films, I am painfully aware of. It may be redundant to say it, but the camera is not capable of that ‘art of selection, of proper emphasis, of painstaking arrangement’ which can only proceed from a human consciousness deeply schooled in some art of representation. The camera, reporting Nature’s sayso with unimaginative veracity, sees things ‘from a different angle’ to the artist’s eye.
Particularly when the photographer works in the expensive medium of film, as I do, he becomes distinctly aware that what looks like it could potentially be ‘an image’ when regarded with the naked eye sometimes loses its apparent photogeneity when the arbitrary cadre of the viewfinder is set around it. And just as often, the putative ‘image’ of some architectural detail composed in the viewfinder with settings carefully adjusted turns out to be a picture of rien de tout.
In other words, what dissatisfied Mr. Hopper about photography, an art-form he would appear to have some natural affinity with, is that the photographic image can rarely tell a story. The mere veracious reporting of everything in the frame at a given moment of time, unselected, unemphasised, unarranged, is antithetical to his deeply literary style of painting, where there is a transitional sense of ‘narrative in motion’.
It’s exceedingly difficult—impossible in nine instances out of ten—to take a ‘good photograph’, which I define as one that requires no words, no story that has to be supplied after the fact as a commentary, to gloss what is visible in the image. That moment in time should be compositionally sufficient to supply a beginning and an end to the action frozen in time in the image which may be logically inferred—and almost no photographs, of the many billions that have been taken, do this.
Certainly, it is my consciousness of the insufficiency of photography as an art-form, its inability to reliably supply that narrative dimension of time to physical spaces (a problem which the invention of cinema solved), that has led me to write fictions like “Office at night” ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ my own photographs.
And certainly, in making a deep tip of my Fedora to Mr. Hopper in “Office at night”, I wrote that short story as a deliberate exercise with the conscious intention of ‘reverse-engineering’ the transitional, literary nature of his painting from imagistic description back into descriptive words, that sense, in his painting, that the obscurity of time is consubstantial with the obliquity of space.
I start my narrative at the moment the photograph was taken, the bald man finishing up his phone call. It’s a transitional moment, the moment, as Mr. Boyle says, after something significant has happened, and implying that the scene comes before some other significant happening. As in a Hopper painting, legibility of the bald man’s affect and behaviour is rendered difficult, for although the narrative voice carries on matter-of-factly as if the subject of the phone conversation were known to us, we cannot infer the cause from the effects we witness in the story.
The cause remains, as in Eleven a.m., ‘outside our field of perception’—but temporally, not, as in Mr. Hopper’s painting, spatially.
If you listen to the track a few times, you’ll notice that there are times when the description of objects, spatial relationships, the bald man’s affect and behaviour, seems needlessly minute for such a short story—minute to the point of redundancy. And yet there are other instances where, with the summariness of Mr. Hopper, I have treated these same details cavalierly.
Listening to the story a second or third time with the last sentence in mind will reveal the reason for this inconsistency of vision in a narrative whose tone gives the impression of being an objective report. As in Mr. Hopper’s paintings, perspective, in the final mental tableau completed by the crowning sentence, is shown to be the key to how clearly we see and interpret objects and their spatial relationships, and how clearly we can read behaviour and affect.
That inferential synthesis is really the purview of cinema as an art-form. It appropriates the spatial veracity of photography and supplies the missing dimension of time which gives physical objects in relational actuality to one another an experiential coherence, and it can, from without, approximate with more or less success the internal psychological drives and dynamics of human beings which is more perfectly realized in literary narratives.
It’s in this sense that Mr. Hopper’s painting is more closely aligned with cinema than with photography, despite the limitation of stasis. Mr. Hopper is a poet, essentially, but he is a prose poet, a master of the short story.
As I intended with “Office at night”, his paintings are like a handful of pages ripped out of a novel: they puzzle and intrigue us precisely because they are the moments of ‘development’ in a larger narrative they assume we are following, like a film, but can only see in a single frame, like a photograph.
Many of his works are like camera shots consciously framed to give us a purified version of that strange blend of communicativeness and incommunicativeness that is ‘Hollywood.’
—Parker Tyler, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 506-7)
The paradox in Mr. Tyler’s quote is illuminating, for if we can conclude one definite thing about Mr. Hopper it is that ‘communication’ was very important to him, a problem made galling by the fact that this very poetic, literary man with the quality of the novelist about him was more adept at writing in the hieroglyphs of images than in words.
… Introspective and intellectual, yet distrustful of verbal communication, he continued to struggle when he had to express himself in writing. As he had throughout his life, he preferred to speak through visual images…. In his painting, this visual communication took on a subtlety: details, shapes, colors, postures, scale, and specific juxtapositions join to convey many levels of meaning.
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 282
Ms. Levin tells us that after reading the book The Naked Truth and Personal Vision by the director of the art gallery at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Mr. Hopper felt sufficiently exercised to write to him:
I do not know what the ‘Naked Truth’ is, but I know that a ‘personal vision’ is the most important element in a painter’s equipment, but it must be communicated [doubly underlined].
—Edward Hopper, letter to Bartlett Hayes, as cited in Levin (1995, pp. 486-7)
We noticed above his telling remark that the ‘objective painter’ uses ‘natural phenomena to communicate perhaps because it’s a universal vocabulary.’ As a literary man at heart, he recurs to the metaphor of vocabulary to express what kind of tools are in his ‘painter’s equipment’.
Robert Frost, a poet whom Mr. Hopper greatly admired, and with whom he had a distant, occasional correspondence, stated that ‘every poem is an exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood’, and as Ms. Levin explains:
[Hopper’s] reality, as always, was fabricated, not just from casual memories collected, but out of his personal vision. His every painting is an ‘exaggeration carefully trammeled to suit the mood.’
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 493
It is this ‘exaggeration’ that I mean when I talk about the ‘poetry’, the abstract quality deeply embedded within the mass of the objects of reality. In the paintings of Mr. Hopper or the films of Ozu-sensei, the ‘photogenic orientation’ of these artists abstracts the harmonious exaggeration of their poetry from objects, that harmonious exaggeration being the mood which is an emergent property of the Gestalt of décor in Mr. Hopper’s paintings as much as in Ozu-sensei’s films.
Writing in the first issue of the journal Reality, which he founded in 1953, Mr. Hopper made what amounts to his manifesto on this score, stating with earnest conviction:
Great art is the outward expression of an inner life of the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision [my emphasis] of the world.
—Edward Hopper, “Statements by Four Artists”, Reality, Spring 1953, p. 8
In some sense, as I said above, the means of expression at which he was most adept was incompatible with his message, the ‘inner life of the artist’ being perhaps better communicated through poetry or fiction than through the sculpting of the outward forms of objects in paint. Hence the admixture of ‘communicativeness and incommunicativeness’ which makes Mr. Hopper’s paintings seductive and intriguing.
In this struggle to communicate by one artistic means a message which is better suited to another medium, I can certainly sympathize with him, though in the opposite direction; for if Mr. Hopper, as a visual artist, is really a poet or novelist manqué, as a writer with a distinctly visual style, I am definitely filmmaker manqué. We have both missed our callings and have attempted, in mastering the arts we came to early in our lives, to make them do the opposite of what they are intended to do. He attempts to tell stories through images. I attempt to paint images through words.
But there is another sense in which the notion of a ‘personal vision’ to be communicated by imperfect means links us fraternally. I commenced by saying that to be a flâneur is to be a voyeur. Personal vision predicates both avocations, the latter pathologically, although if I am arguing for the studied idleness of flânerie as a fine art (and I am), in its close relationship with dandyism, it too is certainly also pathological.
We cannot claim for Mr. Hopper election to the academy of dandies, but he does belong to a very rare corpus of visual artists we can justifiably call flâneurs, other exemplars of this rare species being MM. Manet et Degas. Among painters, these gentlemen represent the arcane strain of flâneurism that runs, like the barest trickle of an underground stream, often lost for decades, the torch being carried by one man alone who doesn’t bear a direct heir, through the intellectual tradition of European modernity.
Mr. Hopper undertook his apprenticeship in the arcane tradition of flânerie on the holy ground of Paris, a spiritual successor to MM. Manet et Degas, and like them, he is un romancier des mœurs. The libertine French spirit suffuses his repressed Puritan soul, and smuggling that deep saturation of Parisian influence back into America, he paints the modes and manners of his native place and time with the same Flaubertian irony of those great moralists, MM. Manet et Degas.
To be a flâneur is to live a much more transitional, a much more osmotic existence than most people are comfortable with. The exteriority of the street is our salon; we are no more privately ‘at home’ than in the public sphere. And certainly, there are flâneries and there are flâneries that one might take: the æsthetic quest for the marvellous and the beautiful we undertake by day is very different from the more ruthless, predatory hunt after these same things we undertake by night.
Light (or the lack of it) determines the moral nature of the beautiful and marvellous things we discover in sunlight or in shade.
What comes out of Ms. Levin’s biography is that Mr. Hopper had a predilection for the nocturnal hunt. It more deeply inspired him, which is paradoxical, as his Puritanical Yankee nature reacted with apparent fear and loathing at the moral quality of the beautiful and marvellous things he saw in Paris at night. He was constitutionally unsuited to embrace his eyes’ desires and was self-condemned, like his youthful hero, M. Degas, to artistic voyeurism, flâneuristically sketching his croquis of Parisian mœurs in cafés.
Both Night Windows and Office at Night were products of nocturnal prowls. New York Post film critic Archer Winsten wrote that Mr. Hopper ‘spends a great deal of time walking in the city he loves and has always loved. He likes to look in windows and see people standing there in the light at night. For this same reason he likes to ride on els.’
Mr. Hopper betrayed himself as the perfect type of the artistic flâneur, the deceptively indolent man of the crowd driven by a deep, barely expressible vision of surreal beauty, when Mr. Winsten asked him what he did—outside of painting—for ‘fun’.
I get most of my pleasure out of the city itself.
—Edward Hopper to Archer Winsten, as cited in Levin (1995, p. 270)
The idea of ‘fun’ is as imponderable to a working artist as to an idle flâneur. Our only pleasure lies in the scopic activity of looking, whether with the fixity of the voyeur, or in fleeting movement, collecting those croquis des mœurs on the run, dashed down in a notebook as poetic snapshots of the city, this ruinous theme park of modernity we are wandering through in a continuous death march. The enforced leisure of our work is our pleasure.
And what makes Mr. Hopper a card-carrying member of this extremely exclusive clique of flâneurial artists is very much his subscription to an æsthetic cause articulated by M. Baudelaire in Le Peintre de la vie moderne; that is, to draw out the eternal from the ephemeral, to ‘crystallize’ or ‘arrest’, as Mr. Hopper said to his wife, ‘a moment of time acutely realized.’
We think of Mr. Hopper as a great painter in oils, a medium which, in visual terms, is the equivalent of the novel—slow to paint, slow to dry, with a heavy, enduring stasis about it, a substantiality equivalent to eternity, and not at all well-suited to the ‘portability’ of the transitory flâneurial quest to catch impressions on the fly.
But just as M. Manet was an exquisite café watercolourist, and M. Degas was capable, in his monotypes, of recording impressions of brothels almost daguerreotypic, Mr. Hopper was, in the twenties, a great printmaker, as capable as they of capturing immediate—almost photographic—sensations of the city. And all his life he remained a great field-sketcher, taking notes, in his flâneries, which he would then ‘work up’ into those novelistic fables of American morals and manners given enduring life in his oil paintings.
Herman Gulack recalled running into Hopper at the Automat, sitting by a window with just a plate with two rolls. When Gulack asked if he would like a cup of coffee, he replied that he was only making believe to be a customer in order to observe the view through the window and across the street. Hopper, having made sketches for the overall disposition of his composition, would then retain in his memory his impression of what he had seen.
—Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 518
It’s much easier, in the main, to be a flâneurial writer than a flâneurial artist, for, like spies, we can not only scope out our intel and note it down in the field without breaking cover, but because we carry the novelistic tableau we are painting in words in our heads, we are able, like guerrillas, to paint it in the sites and sights of the city without being discovered, to sail in, make our terroristic assaults upon the banality of the city, detonating our visions of beauty in the midst of the unsuspecting crowd, and sail out again.
Certainly, in my work, the weapon of the camera aids me in arresting that tableau of the ‘spleen of Melbourne’ I am building up in words. I’m not quite ready to tip my mitt and tell you, chers lecteurs, what great literary crime I am up to, but yes, both “Office at night” and “Dreidel” are episodes in a larger narrative, and the image of a third short story based on one of my photographs, a further clue to the big plot I am plotting, is just about developed in the darkroom of my mind and ready for writing.
If you enjoyed “Office at night” and want to hear episode 3 sooner rather than later, you can inspire me by plinking some coffee-cash in the fuel fund below. I have just had a new batch of branded Melbourne Flâneur postcards featuring “Block Court, Collins street, evening” printed, and if you purchase the MP3 audiostory of “Office at night” for $A5.00 using the link below, I will send you a copy of the postcard, featuring a short, personalised message of thanks just for you.
“Office at night” [MP3 audiostory and postcard]
An atmospheric short story where more is going on than meets the eye—or the ear. Purchase the MP3 of Dean Kyte’s new ficción and receive the postcard above, signed by Dean and featuring a handwritten, personalised message just for you!
Jay snapped me sans overcoat but otherwise suited up for winter as I swanned around summery Coffs, an unofficial ambassador of Melbourne moda bringing a soupçon of Collins street chic to Harbour drive.
The only unfashionable touch by your Melbourne Flâneur’s über-æsthetic lights: the muzzle (or ‘chin-sling’, as I call it) in my south paw, a fad which no one will ever convince me is elegant—even the flower-bedizened variety I reluctantly port.
Even when forced to hide my mug behind a mask, dear readers, the dandy in me indomitably prevails, and I must bring a touch of the æsthetic even to this despised item of bourgeois uniformity.
But whether I am airing my dial or have my mug camouflaged behind a floral mask, it seems I am instantly recognized in these parts. Even at the bus stop, preparing to decamp from Coffs to Bellingen, I was recognized by someone I had never seen in my life.
‘You’re going to Bellingen, aren’t you?’ the guy asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied, somewhat surprised. Perhaps, I thought, the bowtie I was wearing gave me away as the type of person who would be waiting for the bus to Bello.
‘Yeah, I’ve seen you there,’ he said.
‘It must have been a long time ago,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been there in five years.’
He seemed doubtful about that claim, as if it were more likely that he had last seen me only five weeks ago.
The encounter puzzled me until I alighted in Bello. Hardly had I squared away my luggage at the Diggers Tavern and taken my first fashionable flânerie in æons up one side of Hyde street, the Champs-Élysées of Bellingen, and down the other before I was recognized by John Ross, owner of the Alternatives Bookshop, who greeted me with the words: ‘We were just talking about you.’
That is a phrase I have heard repeated continuously. Five years may have passed, but my ‘celebrity’ in Bellingen (as John called it, introducing me to two passers-by) as its most dandistic resident remained undimmed by half a decade’s absence. Indeed, on Sunday, as I lounged on the grassy bank of the Bellinger River, relishing the sun (a dominical ritual of confirmed Bellingenites), two friends sitting at some distance and recognizing a jaunty Fedora worn rakishly askew inquired of their companions if it could be me and, more to the point, if they had lived in Bellingen long enough ‘to know who Dean is.’
I’ve become a fabled creature here, which I didn’t expect. If you have lived in Bello in the years ‘A.D.’ (‘After Dean’), you have clearly missed a spectacle as dazzling and memorable (in the annals of fashion, at least) as the Transfiguration of Our Lord.
I used to have a lady friend here, a cute little sculptress who lived up the hill in Dorrigo and who would come down to Bello on a Sunday to work a shift at the former Lodge 241 café. It never ceased to amuse her how, on our dates or after-work flâneries, we were forced to stop every few metres in our progress along Hyde street to acknowledge the friendly salutations of the most diverse people.
To her, I seemed to know everyone in town, but to me, it felt more like everyone knew me—even the people I didn’t know.
Conspicuous as I was in my day, I thought that when I departed Bello for Melbourne five years ago, I would be promptly forgotten. But it was I who had forgotten the curious phenomenon of ‘Bello time’, whereby a man can go away for five years and be greeted warmly by half the town as if the last time he had been seen in these parts was last week.
But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I am certainly not the only literary man to have passed a season or two in this town, and certainly not the most internationally celebrated, Peter Carey having lived in Bellingen and having set the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) in this landscape.
Moreover, journalist George Negus and I occasionally shared co-working space at ‘my office’, the Hyde, and one of the last times I imbibed a long black there before checking out, on a day when the café was particularly bondé de gens, Mr. Negus and I were forced to sit coude-à-coude at the counter and cement the distant intimacy of our long nodding acquaintance with some polite pleasantries about the political nouvelles du jour, that mustachioed gent never suspecting the local literary celebrity he was rubbing his grizzled elbow against.
I kid, of course.
But like all jests, there’s a zesty grain of truth in the observation that if these two literary gentlemen have more conspicuous clout in the world of letters than your presumptuous little flâneur, in the public imaginary of Bellingen, at least, with the rigorous rectitude and correctness of my dress, I have always fitted the image of an homme de lettres more thoroughly than my more famous colleagues—for all my friends and acquaintances here know that the hygiene of my deportment reflects the intellectual hygiene of a man who makes the most exquisite discriminations with words.
But I find myself in an odd—even an embarrassing—position, overwhelmed by the well-wishing of people who have never forgotten me and never, it seems, ceased to think well of me in my absence.
All the time I lived here, people predicted an imminent removal to Melbourne for me, telling me that, with my sens inné de la mode, I was meant more for Collins street than for Church street, but I think I defied even the most prevoyant forecast about that imminent departure date by staying nearly two and a half years in Bello.
When I did, finally, satisfy the prophecy which had attended me from the first and vamoosed to Victoria, it was with the deeply regretted sense that this beloved landscape had, indeed, been eventually exhausted for me as a source of flâneuristic exploit—particularly as regards the flâneur’s addictive habitude of æsthetically investigating the women of the cities and towns he prowls through.
The dandy is always seeking to crystallize his image, to make his outward appearance thoroughly congruent and consubstantial with his inward self, and in Melbourne, it’s true, I seemed to find and set in perfect place the last pieces of the puzzle to my character which I had been searching for in landscapes as various as the Gold Coast, Paris, and even Bellingen.
I will always be, first and foremost, a Parisian, proud citoyen of the first city of modernity, and hence of modernity’s most decadent product, fashion. But if I have integrated the high polish of the dandistic Parisian flâneur with a life spent wandering the streets of this benighted antipodean isle’s provincial capital of fashion, such that I have become a Melbourne flâneur, it is fair to say that without a couple of years of my life spent squinting still more tightly, trying to disengage and draw forth, like a fabulous perfume, the flâneuristic romance of marvellous novelty from Bellingen’s streets through half-closed lids, I would not have been able to see, as a living reality, a fragrant atmosphere which thoroughly surrounds and suckles me, the poetic Parisian substrate to Melbourne’s pedestrian actuality.
In other words, in Bellingen too (which I have occasionally described to the uninitiated as being like the whole of Melbourne folded up into two short streets) I found the lost quality of Parisian romance, of marvellous novelty, and in some sense the narrow circuit I traced for more than two years up and down Hyde and Church streets prepared me, as no place since Paris had, for the assiduous literary oisiveté of wandering the streets of Melbourne, on the perennial trail for tails and tales.
In fine, I think that, unacknowledged as my literary genius may be by the wider world as compared with Bellingen’s more famous scrivenly denizens both past and present, if I hold a special affection nei cuori dei Bellingeni, it is perhaps because they sense that, fitting the bill of an homme de lettres more perfectly, as one who uses words with the precision of a camera, I have seen the secret essence in this town, in real scenes set in its streets, and have recorded that invisible, fragrant essence which makes this town such a special place.
My last book, Follow Me, My Lovely…, was set here, the history of a night and a morning when I navigated a gorgeous Norwegian tourist I picked up at the backpackers through a flurried flânerie of streets and scenes, and my next novel is also set in the same streets, where the ghost of the former girl—(and of others, bien entendu)—lingers over the marvellous novelty of my romance with another.
In my last post, datelined Wagga, I wrote that I was coming to the end of the second draft of that novel, and there was a moment, in my assiduous painting and repainting of the scene, set in the little park in front of the Bellingen library, where I and that other began a slow escalation of each other which would lead, inevitably, to a transcendent experience in the bedroom, when I felt again the palpability not merely of her body, but of the place and the hour.
On Sunday, not a block west of the library, I beheld her face—a face I had striven through five years to hold firm in my mind, and which I had believed I would never see again—and her neat little body, that body I had held tenderly in the park.
There she was, at some short distance from me, dear readers, at a tantalizing inconjunction of space and time which made it possible for us both to pretend that we had not seen each other, or that, seeing each other, we did not recognize each other. But I know she knew me at a glance, despite the obfuscating bowtie (a foppery I didn’t port in those days), just as I knew her at a glance, swaddled in the faux-fur collar of her velour jacket.
Oui, there she was, one of the feminine ‘Elect’, one of that modest corpus of dames who have undressed your Melbourne Flâneur, who have divested him of his fashionable armour and have laid him out in state, and who have had the dubious honour of beholding the holiest of holies behind that implacable front.
I’ve said that one of the few things which sustained me through our extended Melbourne lockdown was the ability, in concentrating on this novel, to escape the limited vision of the restricted present, and take flâneries through my memories of Bellingen, repainting with precision the Memorial Hall, the walk across Lavenders Bridge and up the path above the skate park, No. 5 Church Street, and Church street itself before the camphor laurels had been removed and replaced.
But when I saw my palpable paramour’s face once again, slightly longer and narrower than I remembered it, she who had led me, arm-in-arm, on months of painstaking promenade through my memories of the streets of Bellingen as perhaps the Eternal Feminine essence of the place, consubstantial with it—for it was her even more than here that I have been trying, through five years, to paint perfectly with words—I saw in her face the slight, painterly distortion, the fault of perspective I had made in my painting of the place.
That slight lengthening and narrowing of her actual visage (as compared to my lovingly beheld memory of it) was like all the slight displacements I have discovered in re-walking these streets I have loved and written lovingly about.
The streetlight in Short Street lane is white, not yellow as I remember it, and the strangler fig under which we exchanged our first kisses ‘feels’ further down the lane, towards Church street, than I have pictured it—even with assiduous referral to Google Maps to aid and orient me.
Most significantly, it was not until I sat on the bank of the river on Sunday afternoon, remembering all the women with whom I had passed a tender moment on that spot, that I realized, for all my concentration on precisely rendering the actuality of the place, how much the palpable, experienced memory of pleasure in Bellingen—how much I used to enjoy sitting on that riverbank, whether alone or in company—has lain buried, sleeping deeply in my unconscious for five years.
Through all my restless movement through places and scenes—not just in Melbourne, but in all the towns and cities my flâneries have taken me to—the memory of the place where I was, for the longest time in my life, most consistently happy has lain buried and is, perhaps, unpaintable, as closely as one might approximate the essence of it.
I recall a quote by M. Degas, who says:
‘C’est très bien de copier ce qu’on voit, c’est beaucoup mieux de dessiner ce que l’on ne voit plus que dans sa mémoire. C’est une transformation pendant laquelle l’ingéniosité collabore avec la mémoire. Vous ne reproduisez que ce qui vous a frappé, c’est-à-dire le nécessaire. … Voilà pourquoi les tableaux faits de cette façon, par un homme ayant une mémoire cultivée, connaissant les maîtres et son métier, sont presque toujours des œuvres remarquables.’
‘It’s all very well to copy what you can see, but it’s even better to draw what you can no longer see, except in memory. A transformation is worked upon the base material of actuality in which genius collaborates with recollection. You only reproduce what has struck you, which is to say, that which is essential to the image. … That is why paintings made in such a manner by a man with a cultivated memory, one who knows both the Old Masters and his trade, are almost always remarkable works.’
—Edgar Degas (my translation)
Follow Me, My Lovely…, written in this landscape, while I still had immediate visual access to every point in the parcours, while I could still see and measure the relative distances between every spot through which I had escalated the Norwegian in our nine-hour flânerie around Bellingen, has a very different quality and character to the one this next novel, Sentimental Journey, will have.
It’s a book I began writing almost immediately after I left Bello five years ago, and being reliant on my memories of the place, and of the woman, slight distortions and displacements—those qualities that M. Degas calls ‘remarkable’—have crept into my rendition of Bellingen, such that, between the essential traits of the image—and even within them—an imaginative collaboration of genius with memory has inadvertently occurred.
I suspect that, at the deepest level, the reason why the good burghers of Bello hold me in a regard I feel I have hardly earned is that they sense, despite my punishing exactitude, despite my dandistic subscription to absolute, rigorous perfection in everything—the sincerity of my dedication to my art which flows out from it through all my life—before reality I fail to get it ‘quite right’—and in that tiny failure, that loophole where the genius of imagination intersects with a rigorously cultivated memory of the place, the inestimable ‘essence of Bellingen’ emerges in my writing about my remembered experiences here.
Other, more celebrated men of letters may have written about this place, but I think i Bellingeni know that their presumptuous little flâneur has observed and absorbed the essence of the living reality of this place, and in his Parisian hallucination of it, will one day present a startling snapshot of the town in tableau at a moment of its most recent history.
What esprit de flânerie had drawn him here he could not say. But the image of it,—the rusted tracks, their ties overtaken by the marauding verdure; the red, unrolling rollingstock blocking tracks which vanished in the horizon of ruinous green,—seemed an apt metaphor for his life with women.
As afternoon segued to evening with the savageness of a cut, he saw himself as an empty, twilit platform where no woman would again alight, the unchalerous shell of a darkened station which would no more warmly receive the transitory train of her ambassade through the embassy set over the foreign country of his interior life. A lamp which illuminated nothing; a sign which apprised no one of nowhere; a bench conveniently placed, and upon whose convenience no one rested and refreshed themselves:—Sometimes places, in their abstraction, resemble us more closely than do other people.
—Dean Kyte, “駅の物語” (“Conte de gare”)
I’ve always had a fascination with trains and train stations. You might think train travel a rather contradictory passion for a flâneur, the most freewheeling of voyageurs: Why should this epic pedestrian, drawn in his dreamy dérive by lines of random desire which sing out to his eye from every street corner, be inexorably attracted to the most restrictive and linear mode of movement through space, one which offers only limited scope for him to exercise his predatory passion for æsthetic investigation?
Hélas, if, like Walt Whitman, I contradict myself, then, dear readers, I contradict myself. As I hope the video and prose poem above attest, I contain multitudes. My soul is as large, as empty and as cryptic a labyrinthine structure as that palatial tomb which lounges alongside the Yarra, receiving and debouching visitors to Melbourne.
And it is certainly no coincidence that as a Melbourne flâneur, I should equally be an aficiónado of that kissing cousin of the train, the tram.
As an aristocrat of the gutter, a gentleman who makes his home in the street, to park my wheels momentarily in the tram, democratic chariot of Melburnians of every caste and class, and exercise my penetrating gaze over Collins or Bourke or Flinders streets from the very midst of them is to enjoy a flâneurial delectation which no other city in the world can offer to as extensive an extent. Verily, to make one’s royal procession up Bourke street on the back of one of these reines de la rue, shaking her bells at the milling mallers who make deferential way for her, is really to get a recherché experience of one of the world’s great thoroughfares.
I’m not quite sure what it is about trains and stations that has always attracted me to them, except that, as Sig. De Chirico seemed to apprehend in paintings such as Gare Montparnasse (1914), both the station and the train are places of dream.
Like Cole Porter, I get no kick in a plane. Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do. But lay me down in the gently rocking berceau of a roomette and let me nurse my dreams on that flux of images flying by the window, towns known and unknown, and I will feel myself swaddled in a womb of contentment.
Soon my month-long sojourn in Wagga Wagga ends and I reboard the train, bound for the destinations which are the purpose of my three-month voyage in NSW—Coffs Harbour and Bellingen.
Of course, the destination is a woman. Or women, as the case may be.
I’ve been nursing the dream of seeing Bello again since our second, soul-destroying lockdown in Melbourne last year. In the four months I was under house arrest in a West Melbourne hotel room, my restless esprit ennuyeux de flâneur confined to perambulations through dreams and memories inspired by old photographs and footage taken, as in the video above, during other voyages, writing the second draft of my current work in progress, set in Bellingen, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast, was one of the few things that kept me sane.
When our ‘Dear Leader’, Mr. Andrews, deigned to release us last November, dangling a tentative morsel of liberty before us (albeit one bounded by a radius of 25 kilometres), my experience of coming out of deep freeze was the inverse of what my Melburnian confrères had complained of all through lockdown: I had lived tensely on my nerve endings for so many months that I felt a sudden crash in energy and an onset of depression at being abbreviatedly free, whereas most of my fellow Melburnians had had their dose of depression in the prison of their homes.
Almost the first thing I did as soon as I was out of the cage was to re-open lines of communication with a woman, the thought of whom, like Dulcinea, had been one of those few things which kept my windmill-wizened brain sane when it seemed eminently possible that the Victorian Government and Victoria Police would go full Stasi on us.
And, as you can imagine with these undependable dames, even a polite inquiry into one’s health was met with radio silence.
That, and freedom, and the American election all coinciding at once seemed to soak my vibe of every adrenal ounce I had needed to endure four months of lockdown in a state which had descended with frightening rapidity towards totalitarianism.
And it was in that state of physical and emotional exhaustion that I made the video above and penned the attendant prose poem.
Trawling through my footage, I seemed to find in the abandoned Trentham train station an image of my soul at that desolate moment. Trentham’s a little town, about halfway between Woodend and Daylesford, which reminded me a great deal of Bellingen when I had stayed there about two years before. As refugees from Newtown in Sydney ‘tree change’ to Bellingen, imagining a verdant, paradisal embassy of inner-city liberalism in the country, so Fitzrovians fleeing Melbourne are steadily driving the property prices in Trentham up above a million dollars.
I’m told you can follow the old railway ties, half-buried in the verdure, from the station to quite a good pub in the next town, but that was a flânerie too energetic for yours truly, being more in the way of a ‘hike’, and my Italian-shod soul demands a nature denuded by copious asphalt and good paving to support it. I probably walked no further towards the slaking refreshment of that mythical pub than where you find my camera set up in the first two shots of the video.
But in the image of an abandoned country railway station at dusk, and in the ghostly sound of a spectral steam train puffing along a ruined route down which no train could nowadays pass, I saw an image of myself, shagged and fagged and fashed on the threshold of middle age, my days as a ladies’ man now well behind me down that ruined pike, having decided that there was one woman left for me in the world to conquer or none at all, one whose tardy silence to my text seemed to leave me, like my camera in the video, lingering restlessly for a train that had been infinitely delayed—and maybe even derailed long before I had arrived at the terminus of this moment of realization that there was but one woman in the world I would deign to travel to the end of the line with.
That sense of the mood—and often the melancholy mood—of empty places which I have elsewhere called ‘the Spleen of Melbourne’, a dark, ponderous sadness about the unpeopled spaces of the city, the unfathomable, heart-breaking mystery of the real and manifest and visible which I and my cameras seem very sensitive to, was potent for me then.
I did eventually hear from the lady in question, and her perky obliquities were worse than if she had left me mired in my tristes mystères of unknowing and Jamesian speculation upon the multiple potential motives of her silence.
And I admit that, since November of last year, I haven’t been quite myself, and I certainly haven’t been at my best. I haven’t entirely recovered from that triple blow of sudden decompression from lockdown, a conversation unresolved and infinitely deferred, and the latest (as it then was) apocalyptic twist to the devolving screw of Western civilization which an American election in the time of Coronavirus represented.
Mostly since then I’ve just tried to beat back my spleen, tamp it down by blows and kicks and cudgels until such time as I could get on that train and find out for myself what goes on with this dame.
Now the train of months has just about drawn up to the platform, and I’m about to find out if this whole trip to NSW, assiduously planned, was worth the price of knowing the truth, or whether I would have been happier trying to decipher unhappy mysteries from the distance of another state.
The train and the station seem quite significant symbols for me in my writing, as in my life. My latest work in progress, a memoir of seduction, is about an occasion when I took the XPT from Bello (or Urunga, to be more precise) to Brisbane, partly to catch the last few days of David Lynch’s exhibition at GoMA, Between Two Worlds, and partly to slay myself in the kind of unfettered Daygame you can’t do but covertly in a small town.
I was all set to get on the train at around 11:00 that night when, an hour or two before I was due at the station, I had the romantic encounter, right there in Bello, I was going to Brisbane for.
I almost missed my train: the lady in question was showing me such a good time I almost blew off a whole trip to Brisbane just to finish what I had started with her. I didn’t sleep that night—and not because it’s damn difficult to do blanket duty on the overnight XPT: I nursed the memory of her kisses as the train rocked and rolled me to Briz Vegas, tried not to let their reality dissolve into dreams until such time as I would be able to write this totally unexpected victory down verbatim in my journal.
I’m now 93% through the second draft of that book, and last week I had a chance to get down to the commencement of the finale, my second round with the redhead, when I was back in Bello, finishing off the pleasure I had deferred for the love of art.
Possibly it makes a difference to be on this side of the border, to be this much closer to the place, both in space and time, for there was a moment, in rewriting the scene, when the sensual reality of the experience—not just her hand in my lap and mine under her dress, but the little park before the library with its globes of yellow light giving it a Parisian air, and the delicious freddezza of Bello in June, made more delicious still when you have the warmth of a woman in your arms—produced the same sensual frisson in me as I felt that night so many years ago.
I could see the place and hear it again. I could feel the chill, valley night which I’ll know again, after so many years’ distance, in another week or two. Having taken me away from a place where the spectres of myself in scenes of dead love with various women are still vivid in my memory, the train will take me back there.
If I were to connect the psychological network map of my amoursmorts, I think I would discover that women and trains and stations all seem unconsciously connected to me, and that, indeed, I can plot the points of some of the stations of my experience as equally the terminuses of my affairs with several women.
There was the French girl, never to be forgotten, and never, I fear, to be sufficiently honoured in the pearl-like words of peerless prose her soul deserves, whom I kissed goodbye with the heart-breaking knowledge that I would never see her again in this life at the turnstile to the Métro in Belleville.
A few hours hence, I would be getting on the Eurostar to London, and thence, by tube, to Heathrow, carrying the sacred chalice of her kiss across continents and time zones as I wrote the memory of her down in my journal.
The last girl who was of any significance to me before I gave up Daygame, I also saw off on the Metro—at Eltham Station in Melbourne. A Dutch girl of Persian descent, I still see her pretty, dark face framed with ringlets becoming as small as a postage stamp through the pane of the door as it flies away from me, back to Holland.
And as for the object of my fact-finding mission north of the border, the last time I saw her was when we were on a train together in Brisbane, far removed from the climes in which we had known each other in Coffs.
I remember writing to her in a belated birthday card about a year after that last rendez-vous that, when I had gotten off the train at Roma Street, I had not looked back at her—had not been able to look back at her—because I was looking forward to the next time I would see her.
After a lot of near misses in the intervening years, the moment I have been looking forward to may be imminent. The tragedy would be to discover that that last moment of loving vision I sacrificed for this next moment, and which I have looked forward to with anticipation, was really the end of our relation; that I missed my connection with her; and that, for years, I have been wandering around the tomb of Roma Street, not even realizing that I am in the terminus of love.
If you enjoyed the video and the prose poem, you can download the soundtrack for $A2.00. Just click the “Buy” link below.
At 8:30 this morning, your Melbourne Flâneurought to have been on a train to Wagga Wagga to commence three-and-a-half months of housesitting in slightly warmer NSW.
The dreary, year-long winter we’ve been suffering in Melbourne was one good reason to get out for a stretch. The other was the omnipresent threat of another totalitarian lockdown, always in abeyance, but the boom ever-ready to be lowered on us.
I had my ticket on the 8:30 XPT from Melbourne to Sydney booked on 10 March—more than two months in advance. But we had had a snap five-day lockdown less than a month before, in February, and there seems to be a pattern to these things: we get two-, or two-and-a-half months of freedom, and then the paternalistic ‘Powers-That-Be’ slam the steel shutter down statewide.
I figured there was a good chance I wouldn’t make my train.
I had just got back from Euroa, where the photograph above was taken, a rare exercise in colour for me and a kind of cry in the soul over the two, Proustian directions in which my life would be pulled in the month of May—towards Sydney, a ‘summery winter’, and freedom; and towards Melbourne, my ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’, but a place predictively poised to tumble back into being East Berlin—when it was announced that after three months of no cases, another breach in hotel quarantine had occurred.
I was nervous. For two weeks, I kept my beady beads posted on two governments’ websites—on both sides of the border, monitoring what kind of extroverted sensing hoops I would have to jump through in order to be safely on the Sydney side on Friday 28 May.
Until Monday afternoon, all was quiet on the eastern front, the Melbourne side of Checkpoint Charlie, but my epic introverted intuition had told me well in advance that my luck couldn’t hold until Friday. When the Victorian Minister for Health, Martin Foley, announced with a barely restrained bourgeois glee on Monday afternoon that the two weeks of quiet had been a false flag under which the enemy among us had circulated, that ‘sleeper cells’ of Coronavirus cases had been activated in the community to simultaneously detonate terror among us, I felt a bomb go off underneath me.
My introverted intuition began deep calculations I was hardly conscious of. It had observed the pattern from three previous lockdowns, and this seemed just like our epic Lockdown 2.0—even down to the coincidence in date: ‘The Authorities’ (over whom, pray tell…?) had failed to get on top of the mysterious Wollert case; they had dithered around for two vital weeks; they would dither around for a few days more, playing around with ‘COVID-safe settings’ as they pretended to give a damn above the citizenry’s personal liberties; and then, at an arbitrary moment and without prior notice, they would panic and slam us back into lockdown.
From Monday afternoon to Friday morning seemed too far a leap to count on freedom—and my luck—holding. On Tuesday a.m., when I amscrayed out of my last scheduled Victorian housesit—in the City of Maribyrnong, begad!—and booked back to The Miami Hotel, there was a line of cars backed up past Ballarat road to get into the COVID testing station in Hampstead road.
I tried to keep a cool head that day—not easy for as neurotic a customer as yours truly. Anything that smacks of extroverted sensing—of dealing with the world as a physical reality in real time—gets my pulse and respiration up. I consider having to deal with government dictats as being an ‘extroverted sensing activity’, because it wrenches me out of the world of abstract dreams and ideas, the platonic, Matrix-level reality I usually inhabit, and back into my body, back into the sensory here and now.
True to form, by Wednesday morning, case numbers and exposure locations had metastasized and exploded, and those deep calculations told me that today was untenable. By 6:00 p.m., there would be a lockdown.
The Government was mooting that more drastic action than Tuesday evening’s ramp-up in settings had not been ruled out—which my intuition told me, based on their past form in three previous lockdowns, was as positive a statement as they would make that they planned to lock us down or close the border before they actually did it.
Moreover, it was the tone of the Victorian Opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, that told me something was deeply up and some heavy hinkiness was due to go down. Despite the mandarinical statement of our grinning Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, on Tuesday evening, who said we would not ‘necessarily’ require a lockdown with the more stringent settings he had advised, and the statement of the Acting Premier, James Merlino, on Wednesday morning, who stressed that these restrictions were merely to buy contact tracers ‘time’ in order to get the situation well in hand, I sensed a yelping desperation in Mr. O’Brien’s voice when he said that, by now, Victorians know how this usually goes, and we would like, in this instance, a different outcome to the three previous lockdowns.
That tone of desperation carried more weight with me, intuitively, than the mandarinical assurances of the State Government. In this regard, Mr. O’Brien is right: these guys have form; they smile reassuringly like mandarins in the morning, and by nightfall they have you in the hoosegow.
The point with regards to ‘form’ in imposing the ‘final solution’ of lockdown is this: The Victorian Government is like a poker player that cannot mask his tells. After three rounds of this, if your intuition is on-point, you can read in their mandarinical assurances, and in the pattern of days of dithering beforehand and then arbitrary panic when its too late, where the tenor of the Kahunas’ thinking is tending.
At 11:59 a.m. on Wednesday morning, I booked a ticket on that evening’s XPT out of Southern Cross, bound for Wagga. I still expected that before I could feel the wheels turning under me at 7:50 p.m., I would have been in lockdown at The Miami for nearly two hours—or worse still, they would turn me away at the station, telling us the border was closed.
Certainly, in those deep calculations, as my intuition assessed the Government’s tells, I knew that getting on the train today would not be an option. The situation couldn’t hold steady till then, and they would certainly call a lockdown before the weekend to curtail movement on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
For someone who hates extroverted sensing activities, and who had consequently had his life planned for an 8:30 a.m. departure two days hence for months beforehand, I don’t know what spirit possessed me in those six hours to get myself in order to roll under the wire for a great escape from Victoria on Wednesday night.
It was the introverted intuitive’s equivalent of a James Bond manœuvre: somehow, I predictively read an emergent situation and reacted to it, ahead of it, with an innovative, spontaneous evasive action in the physical here and now. That’s not bad for a guy who’s more like Woody Allen than James Bond.
I was not even reassured when, at 6:10, my prediction of a lockdown announcement was proven wrong. I ordered a cab, checked out of The Miami, asking them to hold my room in case there was some unforeseeable craziness between then and 7:50 which caused me to come back, and some ten minutes later I was in the cab at the corner of Bourke street, waiting for the lights to change, when a friend and client called me.
‘I’m going now,’ I said. ‘I’ve been spooked and I’m not waiting till Friday morning. They’re too quick to lock us down.’
My client/friend agreed. His view: they would wait to see Wednesday’s figures on Thursday morning, and then lower the boom.
I was not even reassured when I made it on the train. Five minutes from take-off time, the conductor came back on the line after delivering her usual spiel, but her usual sing-song delivery was replaced with new hesitation as she made an extra announcement.
This is it, I thought. They’re going to tell us we’re in lockdown and that we have to get off the train and go home.
Fortunately, she merely came back on to remind us of Mandarin Sutton’s indoor mask mandate of the day before.
When I saw the stately colonnade of Albury Station filing by the window round about eleven, I was filled, momentarily, with a wonder that had, for once, little to do with the cinematic possibilities which the longest railway station platform in NSW usually inspire in me: It had been a little over two years since I had last passed this way, and I had been plotting a break-out of East Berlin for nearly the last one.
Albury became my Checkpoint Charlie at that moment: I had defected; I was now in the West, out of the hideous, totalitarian nightmare which Victoria has devolved back into for the past year, as regularly and predictably as clockwork.
I had been looking forward to this seasonal stint in a slightly warmer winter for months. Like many people in Victoria today, I would have been devastated if this day, which I had planned months beforehand to start in Melbourne and end in Wagga, had been aborted by the Government.
I use the extended metaphor of the Cold War to describe the state of Victoria ‘lightly’ (though you can probably hear the poisonous venom dripping through the freezing irony of my voice, dear readers), but I mean it in deadly earnest, and if I didn’t treat the matter lightly with a Flaubertian burlesque against the bourgeoisie, I would certainly eviscerate the Government with my wit.
Even in the last month, where I have sampled a range of Victorian life from Euroa, to Geelong, to Melbourne, the State Government’s intrusions into privacy and liberty have become progressively so intolerable that, towards the end, like a child, I was literally counting the sleeps to this day.
With the Bond manœuvre, I stole a march on the lockdown, even got well-under the wire of its extension into NSW for incoming Victorian travellers. The issue is this: though I’ve got an ‘alibi’ for every scene of the crime the Government has so far listed, I’m happy to go along with my less fortunate confrères south of the border and comply with the stay-at-home directives in solidarity with their seven-day lockdown.
But I would much prefer to do it on this side of Checkpoint Charlie—exactly where I planned to be today.
Having the choice makes a big difference. I have to live and work in NSW for the next three-and-a-half months: I don’t want to start off the working holiday by being a bearer of bad juju, running amuck among the good burghers of Wagga with my unmasked mug. I’d rather lay low in the airlock and come out breathing easy next week, but being an Aquarian, I don’t like to be told what to do—especially by the Government.
So, the Melbourne Flâneur goes ‘on tour’ for the first time in nearly two years. I’ll be here in Wagga for the whole of June, so I’ll have plenty of time to walk the streets after I come out of the airlock next week. From what I saw of it by night, it looks like a beautiful town. My cameras are locked and loaded and ready to do some night-shooting.
Then, to my friends in Bellingen and Coffs Harbour, you will once again see my chapeau’d silhouette striding along Hyde street for two-three weeks in July. Then it’s on to Lake Macquarie and Sydney in August, and Nowra in September.
Hopefully, I will not have to do another Bond roll to slide back under the steel shutter into Victoria, red lights blinking and klaxons clanging.
“Dreidel”: A short story by Dean Kyte. The track above is best heard through headphones.
Today on The Melbourne Flâneur, a treat for you: no video, chers lecteurs, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted what I call an ‘amplified flânograph’—that is, one of the photos I occasionally take on my flâneries amplified by an atmospheric soundscape of the location.
The last amplified flânograph I posted on The Melbourne Flâneur was in March last year, when we still had our heads stuck in the sand over Coronavirus. It featured my photo of Uniacke court, a laneway off Little Bourke street, which formed the basis for a soundscape and a super-short story.
I know how much you enjoy these evocative short stories based on my photographs, so I took the photograph above (which you can also find in The Melbourne Flâneur zine) and used it as the jumping-off point for a soundscape and short story set in O’Donnell Gardens, an espace vert next door to Melbourne’s world-famous Luna Park.
The main feature of O’Donnell Gardens, as you can see in the photo, is an impressive sandstone fountain in Art Déco style erected in 1935 as a memorial to Edward O’Donnell, who was a municipal councillor for the then City of St Kilda. According to Monuments Australia, Cr. O’Donnell served ‘without interruption for over forty years’, being first elected to council in 1888, serving as mayor of St Kilda on six occasions, and eventually losing the election of 1932, a year before his death.
As far as I know, the memorial no longer operates as a functioning fountain, but it’s a thoroughly photogenic piece of public sculpture in the high style of Art Déco, and on the grey, rainy day I snapped two half-frozen and depressed-looking pigeons using its niches as the one warm place to shelter, the grizzly griffins gave this 1930’s Déco memorial a very grim and Gothic air.
You wouldn’t believe it (unless you live in Melbourne, where any absurdity is possible, weather-wise), but I took this picture on 1 December, 2019—the first official day of summer, where my journal entry for that day notes that we reached a wintry top of just 17 degrees.
My journal also grumpily notes that I ‘made the mistake of not taking my overcoat as I set out to take a flânerie around St Kilda’ (which I had not visited in over a year) on that day. I remember being very sick of the way that winter was dragging on that year, so I evidently decided that ‘enough was bloody enough’ on what was supposed to be the first day of summer, and tried to get away with just wearing my trusty trenchcoat as a topcoat on what turned out to be a windy, wintry, rainy day.
Yes, even experienced Melbourne flâneurs make these optimistic rookie errors, dear readers.
But despite being underclad to the tune of two couches of wool, I was, as ever, everything the well-dressed flâneur ought to be in my greenish-grey double-breasted suit, lime-coloured shirt, aqua tie, and grey Stetson Whippet. Apart from putting my Pentax K1000 camera on the leash for a walk around St Kilda, seeing if anything photogenic would pop out at me in that locale and under those weather conditions, I was doing a bit of Daygame en passant, and I was evidently a picture myself to the feathered, fur-shawled Dutch girl I tied into in Carlisle street, whose return remark to me when I laid the genuine compliment on her was: ‘You look like a movie.’
It was a movie-ish kind of day.
There are days in Melbourne when weather and architecture combine suggestively and, seen through half-closed lids, the streets look vaguely Parisian or San Franciscan. As you know, I’m an analogue purist, shooting on film—black-and-white film at that. I think the analogue photo above—the only shot I snapped that day, the only image to which I deigned to commit a frame of film—shows that surreal, suggestive quality—an Australeuropean, Californated Gothic Déco—which, in evoking other places, is entirely, uniquely Melbourne’s own.
Melbourne must surely be one of the greatest cities for flâneurial street photography in the world. To a certain sensitive sensibility able not only to see but to imagine—and to paint its imaginings in the veritable reality that is seen and photographed—it possesses the cinematic, surreal qualities that Paris had for Atget and Brassaï, albeit in a vestigial, adulterated form.
That vestigial adumbration, adulteration and attenuation is what requires the ‘sensitive sensibility’ not only to perceive it but to draw it out in photography, and to my mind, only the discipline of film—the additional difficulty of getting good results with the medium—can really do it. I occasionally take a picture with my phone, flicking on the grey-scale filter (which is as close as a digital camera can come to velvety blacks and silky whites) beforehand. But the image is never as good, never as poetic as the picture my Pentax would see in pure black-and-white, through the mist of film grain.
That’s more like how I see Melbourne: it’s not a city meant to be seen sharply, as through the Hi-Def lens of a DSLR. It’s meant to be seen as in a dream, through half-closed lids. Nor is it, I think, a city meant to be seen in colour, despite the garish street art which helps to give it its surreal quality. To me, Melbourne’s a black-and-white city, a city of film, like Paris.
At the beginning of 2020, when the bushfires in Gippsland were so huge and so intense that they drifted their pall over Melbourne, there was one extraordinary afternoon when it was both rainy and smoky, so that it seemed as if the city was blanketed in a San Francisco fog.
I took my Pentax out and prowled around the CBD, getting some once-in-a-lifetime shots: a view of Eureka Skydeck from Bond street, for instance, its top half fading into invisibility. The trams along a misty Swanston street. The clock tower of the Town Hall and, a mere two blocks further up Collins street, in the Paris End, the iconic tower of No. 120 half-shrouded.
On that afternoon more than at any other time when I have captured aspects of this city on black-and-white film, Melbourne seemed to me like a city of dreams, a surreal, poetic city seen through half-closed lids, evoking other places with its mélange of architectural quotations and native elements, like weird weather and clanging trams, all its inimitable own.
In a post last year (also available in The Melbourne Flâneur zine), I called flânography, this dreamy style of film photography, contingent and yet decisive, that I occasionally practise as I wander the streets in my psychogeographic dérives, ‘the poetry of photography’.
And if I flatter myself that there is actually some extractable poetic content in images like the one above, it’s the poetry of amplification in the imagined audiostory I’ve attached to it—which in turn was ‘extracted’ from the soundscape I made to amplify and evoke my memory of the image I actually photographed that day.
Like nested boxes, the soundscape came out of the photograph, and the story out of the soundscape.
As in my videos and films, the story, or ‘script’, you might be surprised to learn, was actually the last part to be created. Like the surround sound you experience in a cinema which adds depth to the two dimensions of the image on the screen, I merely wanted to amplify the world of O’Donnell Gardens beyond the edges of the frame, and out of the ‘image’ of that environment of sound, a story unconsciously emerged—nothing I witnessed that day, but authentic elements of Melbourne life which my writer’s eyes and brain have seen and filed away only to emerge years later, jumbled together like the displaced symbols of a dream, in the story inspired by the photograph above.
I mentioned in a recent post that during our second Melbourne lockdown, when opportunities for flânerie were curtailed by cops and curfews, I went deep into this dreamlike state, re-membering in fiction the places and people I had encountered in some of my most baffling experiences as a pocket-edition Casanova tying into dames on the streets of Melbourne. That project is still highly classified and marked for my eyes only, but consider “Dreidel” another provocative down-payment on the dark plot I’m plotting, where the wide-awake world of Melbourne is not at all what it appears to be…
If you’ve enjoyed this ‘amplified flânograph’ and are interested in hearing more audiostories based on my photos on a more regular basis, you can support my work by putting some coffee-money in the fuel fund below. I have some postcards featuring the photo above, and if you purchase the MP3 audiostory of “Dreidel” for $A5.00, I will wave the magic wand of my Montblanc over a postcard, write a personalised message to you on it, sign it, stamp it, and send it to you with all the compliments of your Melbourne Flâneur.
(Please note that the postage of one  diamond-encrusted dreidel to you will cost extra.)
“Dreidel” MP3 audiostory
An unusual gift exchange occurs near Melbourne’s Luna Park in this intriguing and atmospheric short story by Dean Kyte, inspired by one of his photographs. Purchase the MP3 and receive a complementary handwritten postcard featuring the photo, personally addressed to you and signed by Dean Kyte!
I was either concentrating very hard, or Denis was very jungled-up (which is hard to do in Centre place at the moment, still beaucoup underpopulated as Melbourne struggles to shake off the enduring shackles of lockdown), because I didn’t notice anyone lurking in the laneway with a camera trained on yours truly.
But I remember the day—how could I not when I had opted to break out the white tie, white French cuff shirt with spread collar, and white opal cufflinks to go with my dark grey suit with its alternating pink and white pinstripes? Consequently, I remember what I was writing that day, and I’ve got a pretty good idea what I was studying so intently when Denis captured me peering at my screen.
I think I was probably plotting a literary murder at that moment!
Yes, beneath the serene, snapbrim-shaded visage of your Melbourne Flâneur, it looks like Denis has caught me, not red-mitted, but with full mens rea and Machiavellian malice aforethought.
It’s a great photo. I particularly like the way Denis has dialled down the vividness of my preferred location for literary enterprise to emphasise the grey and white camouflage of my ensemble. The skin tone of face and hand are the only sign of anything human hiding out in the monochrome locale.
Though you probably wouldn’t imagine from Denis’s photo that I was meditating on hinky deeds at that moment, I think he’s probably captured something essential about me, wrapped up in dark labours which seem externalized to the environment around me. As a writer, I am as ‘un prince qui jouit partout de son incognito’ (‘a prince who revels in his anonymity everywhere he goes’), as M. Baudelaire puts it: to be an homme de lettres is to possess an exclusive species of celebrity—the freedom to walk the streets and still remain utterly unknown.
This is a deeply satisfying species of celebrity which Delta Goodrem, for instance (who just walked past me in Centre place wearing a horrendously ugly white overcoat, like the shaggy pelt of some synthetic beast), will never know.
Ms. Goodrem, God bless her, is no princess enjoying her incognito. She wishes very much to be seen by her serfs, if not actually approached by them.
When I’m at work at the 3 Little Monkeys, I often fancy myself (as Denis seems to have intuited) as being deep undercover—practically invisible to the environment, so invisible does the environment become to me when I enter deeply into the meditative state of writing. But being an unreconstructed dandy, even camo’d up in my grey combo, I recognize that I stand out as the one of the more conspicuous pieces of wildlife in vibrant Centre place.
Although I have many other secret and not-so-secret writing locations cached around Melbourne, the 3 Little Monkeys has been the Melbourne Flâneur’s ‘head office’ for as long as I’ve lived here: as tiny, as ‘inconvenient’ a locale in which to write as this little café might appear, practically from Day 1 of my vie melburnienne I have colonized a table on its shoulder-width terrace in Centre place, come rain or come shine, and have done the boulot of writing.
As a flâneur, the thing I love about Centre place is the Parisian ambiance of this narrow café strip. I fell in love with that ambiance almost immediately, for the dark grey slate of the ledge of sidewalk running along both sides of the laneway reminded me of the asphalt trottoirs of Paris. Then too, the absurdly narrow width of those sidewalks, crammed, on either side of the garage-like doorways of the cafés, with postage-stamp tables, stools and the upturned milkcrates which serve, in Melbourne, as our native seating, recalled to me some of the tiny, tavolino-lined terrasses I sat on in the backstreets of Paris, scribbling away.
From my vantage at either of the two tables on the terrace of the 3 Little Monkeys, I have a narrow vision of the grey Melbourne firmament between the CAE and the Punthill Hotel—almost as grey as the platinum sky of Paris. When I first came to Melbourne, the no outdoor smoking rule had not yet been introduced, so—most Parisian of all—the grey atmosphere of Centre place was typically further clouded with carcinogens.
Moreover, the 3 Little Monkeys faces the side entrance of the Majorca Building, one of the jewels of art déco architecture in Melbourne. It didn’t take me a week to realize the cinematic potential of the terrace of the 3 Little Monkeys, and very early on in my vie melburnienne, I made the video below, in which you can see me sitting in meditative bliss on the terrace of the café but reflected, ghost-like, in the elegant side entrance to the Majorca Building across the laneway.
I’ve always written outdoors, in parks and cafés. When I was a film critic on the Gold Coast, I got into the habit of writing the first draft of my reviews as soon as I came out of the cinema. I would write in cinema foyers, on the platform of train stations, at bus stops. The most uncomfortable locations served as ersatz offices for me, and I learned to block out the environment and go inward, projecting my thoughts onto the landscape around me.
I learned to enter something like a ‘conscious trance’ in public: within a few minutes of picking up my pen, all the noise and distraction of the place falls away, and it is almost as though material reality becomes a symbolic projection of what I’m thinking. The words are ‘out there’, occluded in the shapes of streets and people, trees and flowers, and the deeper my gaze penetrates into the environment around me as I write, the more I am mining out of myself the precise shape of a thought.
It’s in one of those trance-like states, when my introverted intuition is operating at maximum revs and, despite the manifold colourful distractions posed by Centre place, I’m locked onto an image deep within myself, one which I can see spelled out in the environment around me as I search for le seul mot juste, that Denis has captured me in the picture above.
But although I had gotten into the habit of taking the office outdoors on the Gold Coast, it was not until I went to Paris that the habit of conducting the most private, the most introverted of arts in the most public of places became a matter of the deepest necessity. In Paris, the streets were my office: having no private place in which to write, I bared all, exposing myself to the public gaze in parks, gardens, galleries, bars, cafés, street-side benches.
The analogy of the flasher, the exhibitionist is not sans raison for the écrivain en plein air—particularly one who is as unreconstructed a dandy as myself. I have written elsewhere of the deep introversion which is a prerequisite of dandysme pur-sang, and of how the dandy’s shy propensity towards introversion makes the literary art, one typically conducted in deepest privacy, almost the only profession that this ‘splendour among shades’ is fit for.
But for the writer who is a dandy and a flâneur, a man of the street, a man who is forced to make his home in the street, to treat the most public, the most impersonal and uncomfortable of environments as casually and comfortably as if he were relaxing in his own private parlour, there is almost a samurai-like discipline about the way in which he makes friends with discomfort, performing the most private art-form, the ‘art of thinking’—which is what writing is when it is performed with absolute sincerity—in the most public of places.
In fine, in making himself, in his deepest reflections and meditations, vulnerable to view, in entering that trance-like state of deepest, most concentrated intuition in public, he ‘exposes himself’ in the act of thinking.
Like public onanism, there’s something rather aberrant about writing en plein air, I admit, because we usually regard it as so difficult a task that a setting of perfect comfort and seclusion is required to optimally milk the muse of inspiration. All distractions must be banished so that we can concentrate.
There’s something aberrant, moreover, about thinking in our society, so that someone who is clearly ‘doing it’ in public is making rather a spectacle of himself!
But after a certain point in my career, having been jostled and hassled out of my sedentary nature by life, I found it almost impossible to have a private place in which to write, and having been forced to discipline myself by doing the work in public, making the best of all possible conditions, making myself oblivious to all external distractions by entering a conscious state of trance, I would not want to go back to the days when I had my own desk and chair in my own private office.
The experience of making do with my lap, with dirty park benches, with cramped and narrow tavolini or corners of noisy cafés and bars in Paris, of having my pages rained on or blown away by the wind, of being harassed by distracting gypsies wanting to gyp me out of a euro, was a salutary training for what my life, as a peripatetic writer living out of a suitcase and a duffel, has largely been since then. Like the samurai who makes a pillow of a stone, as a writer I have made the street my ‘private thinking parlour’, and I am perfectly comfortable and relaxed doing my private business of thinking in public.
In Paris, ‘my office’, the place I repaired to every evening to do my writing, was Le Cépage Montmartrois, at 65, rue Caulaincourt, the golden café I immortalized with page after page of hallucinatory description in my first book, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012).
For the price of a demi of Amstel, I could sit for hours on a grey-gold Parisian evening, my notes of the day, the drawings I had sketched before the works of the masters in the Louvre, the maps tracing my flâneries, my dog-eared copies of Flaubert and Baudelaire, my beautiful monograph on Ingres all spread open before me on the tiny table as I wrote, like fantastic celestial maps linking all my disparate thoughts.
I was, for a time, a subject of curiosity to the indulgent folk who ran Le Cépage, so extravagant and strange was the wealth of material I produced every evening in the arcane alchemy of converting the reality of experience into scintillating prose. They’ve probably forgotten me by now, but there was a brief period when the burning question of the day was what ‘le M’sieu’ (as I was then known aux bons gens du Cépage) was up to with all these puzzling pages covered in his cryptic script.
As Les Deux Magots was to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, so Le Cépage was to me—and is, for it remains the café by which I have measured all my far-flung ‘offices’ ever since. As I wrote in L’Arrivée, the moment the taxi drew up, in the dark of night, before ‘le sein d’or du Cépage’, I knew (as one occasionally knows with a woman one meets by chance) that my life was inextricably linked to this café, and that we had been predestined by our mutual karma to meet and become historically significant to each other.
But Orfeo did not yet know that le mystère du nom de ce café-ci would be the least of les mystères which Le Cépage Montmartrois would pose for his sensuous investigation, nor that tous les mystères which it would pose before him would in one way or another be connected avec la question du nom. How could he? He had had no connaissance of its existence avant ce soir. Nevertheless, faced avec ce café-ci with its enigmatic nom, ce café which immediately invited Orfeo’s sensuous investigation, he had the inescapable sense that somehow he had known that Le Cépage Montmartrois would be here, as if it were somehow connected à son destin and all that he had come à Paris à la recherche of, although he had had no premonition of it beforehand. He had had no conscious premonition of it, but nevertheless he felt as though he had had some unconscious intimation of its existence; and however hard he stared into the alluring lueur of it, Orfeo could not for the life of him make out what it was about ce café-ci, what hovered in its golden radiance which made him feel as though its mystère—its mystique, même—was somehow personally and intimately connected with him, avec son destin. He was bouleversed by the 哀れness that ce point-ci at which he had been destined to arrive since the dawn of his days, which he had worked towards in his soul without any conscious connaissance that this physical point dans l’espace was destined to be consubstantial with Orfeo’s psychological, and spiritual, and developmental arrivée à sa nouvelle réalité, was indeed ce point-là; and that henceforth ce point, as le cœur et l’épicentre of that experiential map which Orfeo would draw de sa nouvelle réalité, would be his anchorage, le point to which he would habitually return, whether or not it was precisely le point to which he had asked le chauffeur to deliver him to. For the golden allueure du Cépage Montmartrois was too strong to be resisted, so that Orfeo felt that whatever was mystérieux about Le Cépage Montmartrois, whatever impalpable allure was atomized in that golden agency which had called to Orfeo’s unconscious mind from across oceans and was consubstantial avec la forme de ce café-ci, whatever it was that was in the yellowmellow beurrelueur of this particular café—nay, even inside of it—to be explored, was destined to be intimately connected with Orfeo’s sensuous investigations du monde parisien; and his explorations du nouveau monde de sa nouvelle réalité, as he redrew his own experiential map du monde de jour en jour, pushing back the boundaries of himself, would have their bearing upon ce lieu-ci as much they would derive their bearings from this anchoring point, such that whatever was le mystère du Cépage Montmartrois which le détective des belles choses, in his unique destin, had been called this great distance to rationalize and resolve, to reveal to all in all its mysterious relations, parttopart and parttowhole; this mystère had its inevitable cœur—its starting point—au sein d’or du Cépage Montmartrois.
—Dean Kyte, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012)
I think you can tell by the babel of lyricism which Le Cépage evoked in me that it was love at first sight!
Only in Bellingen, where the rather restless lifestyle I’ve led for the last seven years really began, have I had a similar experience of a café which felt as much to me like a ‘home’, a place where I would effectively ‘live’—and do my best living—when I went there every day to write.
When I stepped off the XPT and my friends straightway took me to the Vintage Nest (as the Hyde was then), a café-cum-quirky-antique-store in a former drapers’ shop on the main drag, I knew I would love Bellingen. At that time, the café was run by the church who owned the op-shop next door, as a rather upmarket outlet for their more valuable wares.
It was tragedy to me when it changed hands and the ever-altering array of beautiful antiques which gave the place so much character and charm gradually disappeared, but faithful to the last, for more than two years, rarely a nine o’clock would chime without me coming through the door to set up my laptop, pour a long black into the fuel tank, and start writing.
And it’s as much a testament to my affinity with the Hyde in the early days after the change-over that, as Le Cépage occupies so many pages of my first book, there’s a significant scene set at the Hyde in my last book, Follow Me, My Lovely… (2016). I think I devote some of the best writing in Follow Me, My Lovely… to the morning-after moment when I took the most beautiful girl I have ever had in my bed to ‘the best café in town’ for breakfast.
So cafés are, for me, more than merely ‘my office’, the places I go to in order to write: they are significant sources of inspiration in my writing. I love them as much as some of the women I have known, and like women who have left some lasting impact upon me, sometimes I feel driven to immortalize the ‘souls’ of these cafés in which I have done my work.
I don’t think they saw me at the 3 Little Monkeys for the rest of the year after lockdown was declared in mid-March. But I still needed the matutinal fuel of writing. I discovered some good java-joints in North Melbourne, where I hunkered down to weather the storm, but it was not the same to have to dash out for five minutes each morning, hiding my beautiful mug behind a mask, simply to port back to my room a paper chalice I could suck on while punishing my brains.
As misanthropic as I am at mid-life, I missed the people, whose hubbub in the laneway makes the jangling music that accompanies my mental labours. Inured to distraction as unconducive circumstance has made me, I am probably one of those writers Ms. Temple cites in her post as actually requiring a measure of background noise to focus me: my literary antibodies need something in the environment to fight against.
There is, as Ms. Temple says, something vaguely ‘performative’ about being a café littérateur, but only, I would argue, if you’re there to make a ‘show’ of writing rather than to write. Whatever the artist, we can all tell a poseur from a professional—except, it seems, the poseur himself. As Denis’s portrait reveals, there is an earnestness, a look of presence—of investment in the present moment—which radiates from the writer who is really thinking, and who is not just licking the end of his pencil.
As a case of a writer who undertook the public performance of his craft with sincerity, Ms. Temple cites Harlan Ellison, who had the idée géniale of writing in the windows of bookshops, like a cobbler or a watchmaker plying his trade in his shop-window. ‘I do it because I think particularly in this country people … think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere,’ Ellison said. ‘… So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job … like being a plumber or an electrician.’
Living a peripatetic lifestyle, one of the joys of being a writer on the hoof is having an ‘office’ in every city, town and suburb I visit, just as a sailor has a girl in every port. Wherever my flâneries take me, the first order of business is to find a café that serves good coffee but, more importantly, has a good ambiance in which to write.
So in Sydney, you will typically find your Melbourne Flâneur stationed at Parisi or Jet, his ‘field offices’ in the Queen Victoria Building. In Brisbane, I have my command post set up at the suitably European Marchetti in the Tattersall’s Arcade, where you might hear me pass a few terse words of Italian with the wait staff.
Adelaide still poses a problem for me. Being a Parisian in my soul, I do like the French crêperieLe Carpe Diem in Grenfell street, but there’s unfortunately not a lot of visual interest or colourful foot-traffic at the eastern end of Grenfell street. The coffee is great, but the location is comme ci comme ça.
En revanche, you can get a good brew at the well-situated Larry & Ladd in the Regent Arcade. Unfortunately, if you want to write, you need to sit at the big benches outside the café in the middle of the arcade, because Messrs. Larry and Ladd play their dance music so loud it’s like a nightclub inside.
It certainly gives your literary antibodies something to fight!
By far the best café for writing in Adelaide, in my experience, is a little out-of-the-way place in Somerton Park, so if any Adelaidean writers can recommend a more central location, I would be happy to hear any suggestions in the comments below.
And I invite you to take a closer look at Denis’s Instagram. With so much of photographic interest in Bendigo to occupy him, I was very complimented to receive his picture of me out of the blue and discover that I had caught his savvy eye while revelling in my princely incognito! Check out more of his work here and on Facebook.
A cartridge of expired Kodachrome 40 Type A film of indeterminate date; a Chinon Super 8 motion picture camera dating presumably from the 1970’s—these two bounced and lunged with the movement of the 58 tram, Toorak-bound, as it turned left—that is to say, eastward—in an S from William street into Flinders lane, and thence almost immediately right—which is to say, south—into Market street. Of this elegant manœuvre, the only instance where one of Melbourne’s 25 tram routes proceeds for even one short block along any of the ‘little streets’ or laneways which accompany the city’s major thoroughfares, neither film nor camera (which were then in operation to record this unique spectacle) captured anything. Instead, during the ninety-second journey, both film and camera were fixated upon another image of uncertain definition, whether a scratch in the glass pane directly in front of the operator, through which he was filming, a mark too fine to be clearly perceived upon its surface except by film and camera held close to, or else a hair or fibre, itself of unusually elegant curvature—almost the only thing, despite its abstraction, with sufficient force of being to impress itself with permanence upon the expired film, rendered nearly blind by time, as a clearly discernible object—one which happened to lodge in the camera’s gate at the commencement of the journey, shuddering in consonance with the movement of the tram, and alighting coincident with the end of the trip at Flinders and Queensbridge streets, it is difficult to say with certainty.
Thus history, in its nearsightedness, chooses to record the passage of odd figures upon a background it retrospectively reduces to rheumy grain.
—Dean Kyte, “Objectif”
I got a nice surprise on Christmas Day: a cartridge of ancient Kodachrome Super 8 film, which I sent to Film Rescue International in Canada to have developed in October, was now ready for download.
I had low expectations for this film: my guess was that, at the time when I opened the cardboard box, cracked the mint-condition foil wrapping, and snapped the magazine into the butt of my Chinon Super 8 camera, the cartridge was at least thirty years old—probably closer to forty.
The cartridge of expired Kodachrome came with the camera, which I picked up for $20 at Hunter Gatherer, the boutique op-shop in the Royal Arcade. The shop assistant sliced ten clams off the price because I almost ruined the white shirt I was wearing just in handling the camera: the rubber eyepiece had melted all through the case and had gotten onto everything—including the box of film.
That gives you some sense of the conditions in which the film had been stored.
Nevertheless, I wanted to see if anything could be gotten out of three-and-a-half minutes of ancient Kodachrome. I locked and loaded my prize and went hunting for sights to clout.
I took it to Ballarat and prowled all through the Art Gallery, spending a lot of those precious frames on the two enigmatic Norman Lindsay paintings housed there. We took what I intended to be our own “Trip Down Market Street” together—(Market street, Melbourne, that is)—and various other things I don’t recall.
The problem is that you can’t get expired Super 8 film developed in Australia: the good folks at nano lab, in Daylesford, who have the domestic market cornered on this expensive obsession, won’t do it. Instead, they’ll refer you across the pond to Film Rescue International.
So what is, under normal circumstances, a prohibitively expensive hobby becomes more expensive still with expired film stock. There’s the cost of international postage to consider, and dealing in Canadian dinero, which adds a bump to the price.
Plus a long lead time, as you wait for your parcel to get across the pond and for Film Rescue to queue it into their bimonthly processing regimen.
Plus the fact that the colour dye couplers for Kodachrome no longer exist, so Film Rescue has to process your film in black and white.
All good excuses for me to procrastinate getting the film developed, and as I exercised my procrastinating skills, my cartridge of Kodachrome suffered further mistreatment: I stuffed it in my duffel (which, with my peripatetic lifestyle de flâneur, does not stay stationary for long), and for two-and-a-half years I lugged it all around the country under all kinds of weather conditions.
But finally, during lockdown, I decided to send it across the Pacific to our confrères in Canada and pay the price of discovering what, if anything, was on my cartridge of used and abused film.
Not much, it turns out. Apart from three very washed-out seconds at the end of the reel showing a tram passing before the Elizabeth street entrance of Flinders Street Station, the only clearly visible thing on the reel is the odd figure in the film above.
As I say in the short film I made of this miraculous mistake, I’m not altogether sure what it is, but it accompanied me all through my tram trip along Flinders lane and down Market street, an unwelcome passenger I did not see at the time, but almost the only thing on the whole reel that my film and camera did see.
I had just finished reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s collection of short stories Instantanés (Snapshots) (1962) the day before the reel of Kodachrome turned up in my inbox, ready for download. When I saw this curious figure sketched on the otherwise blank film, the only image clearly preserved for posterity on a reel of film which is probably as old as I am, and which required decades of abused waiting and movements through space and time before its life intersected with mine so that we could both fulfil our destinies together as recorders of images, I was reminded of Robbe-Grillet’s ambiguous ‘court-métrages en mots’, and thought I would have a go at writing something in his style to accompany the short film I made of the out-take above.
I scored Instantanés off Amazon during Melbourne Lockdown 2.0, when the level of unread words left on my nightstand was verging on blinking red light territory. I was sold on disbursing my dough to the Bezos monolith after watching this discussion on Robbe-Grillet in which English writer Tom McCarthy intriguingly describes the first story in the collection, “Le mannequin” (1954), accompanied by his own ‘cute-crappy’ illustrations of it. (His exegesis of “Le mannequin” is between 4:28 and 7:15, if you’re interested.)
If you’re unfamiliar with Alain Robbe-Grillet, it’s probably not surprising. I find that most French people I mention him to don’t know who he is—at least not until you mention his most famous assignment as scenarist of L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961)—and even then, they tend to confuse him with the film’s director, Alain Resnais. This despite the fact that M. Robbe-Grillet was elected to the Académie française in 2004, to take his place among ‘les Immortels’ of French literature.
I guess having the magick formula ‘de l’Académie française’ after one’s name doesn’t count for much with the average Frenchman these days.
His writing is definitely an acquired taste, and the taste is difficult to acquire, because M. Robbe-Grillet is the most bitter, asper of all writers. There is no sweetness at all in his implacably ‘objective’, almost anti-human, novels, which focus obsessively on a world of external detail. Against these backgrounds, delineated with almost geometric precision, his ‘characters’ move, like the chess-piece people of L’année dernière à Marienbad, as vectors, algebraically quantified by letters (‘A’, ‘X’, ‘M’, etc.) rather than qualified by names.
M. Robbe-Grillet was the foremost exponent and theoretician of the nouveau roman (or ‘new novel’), a typically French literary movement of the fifties and sixties which rejected the humanist assumptions of the classical nineteenth-century novel, the novel of human-focused drama and intrigue with its roots in Balzac. You can well imagine that such a rigorously experimental literary movement would appeal to the French and that it would have little appeal or traction in the Anglophone world, for whom the premier nineteenth-century novelists are writers like Austen and Dickens—people deeply interested in other people.
So while M. Robbe-Grillet and his coterie (including Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras) made some strategic incursions into the Anglosphere, the nouveaux romanciers were largely a phenomenon restricted by the language of a culture—and thus of a particular place—and seem, in retrospect, to be very much a product of their time. They were part of the first generation of postmodernists, and in their work of rigorous deconstruction, they did for French fiction what writers like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida were doing for French non-fiction at the time.
And as we have seen with the poisonous fall-out of postmodernism in the Anglosphere, these ludic games with language that French intellectuals like to play—and which the wonderfully supple French language allows—do not translate well into English. The airy structural ambiguity of French, with its genders and tenses, collapses into oversimplified terms in English, which is a much more pragmatic language of ideas than French, focused as it is on material reality, efficacy of practical outcomes, and the terse eloquence of clipped statements that convey facts with no wastage of words—all the virtues of our ‘scientific’, ‘journalistic’ language which have made Hemingway, since the 1920’s, the supposed ideal of Anglophonic literature.
Given our cultural taste for the concrete and material, you might think that M. Robbe-Grillet would have found more popularity in the Anglosphere. It’s true that he had, with Richard Howard as his translator, the best possible letter of introduction to our world at the height of his intellectual respectability in France.
But despite the rigor of his factual, objective style, M. Robbe-Grillet is not merely a French Hemingway, and the deleterious narrowing of our ideals of good, clean, English prose does not adequately prepare us for the sum that cumulatively emerges from M. Robbe-Grillet’s laboriously delineated parts.
His French is not at all ‘simple’ as we might say that Hemingway is the epitome of good, simple English prose. He was a scientist, an agronomist, prior to becoming a novelist, and because his language is so precise, M. Robbe-Grillet’s French vocabulary is surprisingly large, studded with technical terms of art which further tax the English reader as we attempt to mentally construct the spaces described sentence by sentence in his novels and stories.
To give an example of how complex his deceptively simple language is, here is my translation of probably the most famous single passage in the whole of M. Robbe-Grillet’s œuvre—the description of a slice of tomato in his first published novel, Les Gommes (The Erasers) (1953):
A truly flawless wedge of tomato, machine-cut from a perfectly symmetrical fruit.
The peripheral flesh, compact and homogenous, of a handsome chemical red, is regularly thick between a band of shining skin and the cavity where the seeds are magazined, yellow, well-calibrated, held in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly along a bulge of the heart. This heart, of a slightly grainy, attenuated pink, commences, on the side of the lower depression, through a cluster of white veins, one of which extends itself towards the seeds in perhaps a little uncertain manner.
On top, an accident, barely visible, has occurred: a corner of skin, peeled away by one or two millimetres, raises itself imperceptibly.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Les Gommes (translated by Dean Kyte)
Alors, you get the sense in this snippet of the formality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language, which I haven’t substantially changed, just transferred across to English, and his use of the present tense and passive voice as a means of rendering an ‘objective’ present.
It’s almost impossible to adequately translate ‘d’un rose atténué légèrement granuleux’ which, as an adjectival phrase juxtaposing softness and roughness, lightness and slightness in four words, appears almost to contradict itself when one starts, from a literal place, to render it in English. Moreover, you get a sense of the technicality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language with the ‘heart’ of the tomato sitting inside its ‘cavity’ (‘la loge’). I’ve been a little creative in availing myself of the very obsolete English verb ‘magazined’ as a translation of ‘où sont rangés’ in an attempt to give my vision of the seeds, ‘bien calibrés’, of this tomato ‘découpé à la machine’ as being almost like the bullets of a well-balanced automatic weapon.
If a prose poem dedicated to a quarter of a tomato doesn’t turn you on, you won’t get much kick out of the stories of Instantanés, published after L’année dernière à Marienbad, with its long tracking shots, its sculptural tableauxvivants, and its unreliable narration, had demonstrated what M. Robbe-Grillet’s very cinematic style of writing ‘looked like’ when translated to film.
But what I like about these super-short stories is that he seems to do in words something similar to what I try to do with my short films: they are descriptions of locales in which nothing (or nothing of dramatic import) happens, and yet there is a vaguely sinister air about the environments he describes, whether it’s the unattended room of “Le mannequin”, the theatre of “Scène” (1955), or the Métro station of “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain” (1959).
And in a couple of stories, like “Le remplaçant” (1954) (in which a dull history lesson is juxtaposed with a boy’s attempt to jump up and grasp the leaves of a tree outside), or “Le Chemin du retour” (1954) (which ends with an embarrassed trio failing to communicate their gratitude to the boatman who rescues them from an island), there is a sense of an ultimately more satisfying, more sinister moral emerging as a function of Robbe-Grillet’s description of the plotless, undramatic actions of everyday life—more satisfying and more sinister because the morals of these ‘fables of the everyday’ seem even more obscure.
I think it’s no coincidence that M. Robbe-Grillet (along with his nouveau roman colleague Marguerite Duras) is really the only writer to have ever made a second career for himself as a filmmaker: more than merely being boring ‘photographs in words’, the ‘snapshots’ of Instantanés are deeply cinematic short films.
In “Scène”, for instance, the description of a theatre performance, you can almost sense the placement of the camera in M. Robbe-Grillet’s words: for most of the story, it feels fixed at a point you might regard as the natural placement for a camera photographing a play—a master-shot that frames the whole proscenium, with maybe a telephoto lens affixed which allows us to see some of the smaller details alluded to in the text.
Then, at a point far advanced in this brief story, the implicit ‘camera’ of M. Robbe-Grillet’s prose draws back appreciably: the ‘master-shot’ through which we have been watching this performance is not the true master-shot at all. That shot would encompass the auditorium as well as the stage. By introducing an unexpected line of dialogue into the text, he creates a ‘cut’ that changes our perspective, a new placement in space that simultaneously alters our conception of the time at which the performance is occurring.
That line’s a bit of a spoiler, and I’m not going to give it away here. Infinitesimally slight as it is by comparison with the traditional plot twists the dramatic mechanics of the nineteenth-century novel have taught us to expect, the slightness of that revelation makes it all the more satisfying in reading and is an example of those sinister and obscure morals about the hidden order of the world which seem to emerge as the natural function of M. Robbe-Grillet’s implacable commitment to objectively describing the visible.
Moreover, certain of the stories, like “La Plage” (1956) and “L’escalier mécanique” (part of the triptych “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain”) evoke, as cinematic images, one of M. Robbe-Grillet’s abiding themes, that of temporal recursion.
If he will permit himself a metaphor (and Alain Robbe-Grillet is so dogmatically unromantic a writer that he will permit himself very few), the one metaphor that comes up time and again is the equation of the infinite repetition of space with the endless loop of time. The slow, stately tracking shots through the mirrored corridors of the château in L’année dernière à Marienbad is the visual evocation of this theme, which is equally present in the improbable recursive structure of Les Gommes, in which a detective sent to a city to investigate the murder of a man the night before ends up assassinating him exactly 24 hours later, with all the clues he gathers in the course of the day pointing to this unpredictable yet inevitable fait accompli.
Like Borges, the visual metaphor of the labyrinth, the repetitive extension into space which symbolizes the infinitely ramifying extension into time, obsesses M. Robbe-Grillet as a perfect geometric arrangement to describe the hidden order of the objective world. As in Koyaanisqatsi (1982), the cinematic image of people riding up an escalator in the Métro in “L’escalier mécanique” leaves us with the uneasy sense that the five people we watch getting on the conveyor belt at the beginning of the story are the same people we watch getting on again at the end of the story.
At the end of a fascinating, funny, and delightfully informal lecture at San Francisco University in 1989, M. Robbe-Grillet is challenged on the influence of the cinema upon the nouveau roman. A young man who is not easily dissuaded by the great man’s Gallic shrug of indifference presses his point: surely the nouveau roman, with its concern for surfaces and objectivity, is a reaction of the novel itself to the medium of cinema, just as Impressionism was a reaction against the objectivity of photography?
‘Ouais, j’n’cwois pas,’ M. Robbe-Grillet drawls, indulging the possibility, but clearly antagonistic to the idea, albeit humorously so. He shrugs with all the Olympian Gallic boredom he can muster—De Gaulle-grade stuff—and shakes his head. ‘Cwois pas.’
The cinema, he says, is more of a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence: it’s there in the culture, one of innumerable major landmarks which have erupted in modern life—like Marxism, or psychoanalysis, for example—and one which had equally influenced Surrealism and Existentialism before the advent of the nouveau roman.
It seems a remarkably facile—even disingenuous—remark for a novelist almost unique in having had a second career as a film director.
It’s indeed inevitable, as M. Robbe-Grillet admits, that the novel, after the invention of cinema, should adapt—or seek to adapt—itself to the innovations in the grammar of storytelling which are natural to the visual medium. But his style of writing (like that of his nouveau roman colleagues) is more deeply engaged with visual storytelling, with the problematic assumptions of objectivity which clear depictions of external surfaces allow, than would have been imagined without the referent of an economical visual storytelling medium for literary storytelling to react to.
For myself, as a wordsmith who is, paradoxically, primarily a visual thinker, a writer whose first love is film, not books, and who enjoys making short films as a relaxing creative alternative to the mental rigors of crafting perfect words, it’s not an error in my process that I make my films before I write the scripts for them.
I’m deeply marked, as a writer, by the grammar and conventions of visual storytelling. It is indeed a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence upon my books, but in terms of my films, they must work first of all as films—as the cinematic unfoldment of visual images across time—before I write the prose poems, ficciones or video essays I will read over them as narrations.
Even in the film above, where the image is no image, where I can’t say objectively what it is that has made this permanent imprint upon the fifty-foot conveyor belt of film as the only thing that can be clearly seen, the image comes first.
And there is, for me, a satisfying, albeit sinister moral about the hidden order of the objective world in that the one film I could make from those fifty feet of ancient, expired Kodachrome was a film in which the one objective image was a mistake that must be subjectively interpreted.
The temporal labyrinth of film records an endless loop of nothing but one inscrutable mistake that perfectly repeats itself each time, like a Rorschach test which is also a koan about the simultaneously objective and subjective nature of reality.
What I subjectively saw through the Chinon’s viewfinder as we bounced through Flinders lane and down Market street was not what it and the Kodachrome were objectively seeing at the moment when we three were realizing our destinies together as recorders of images.
As M. Robbe-Grillet says, the essence of his writing, and what, I think, brings it closer to the medium of film than that of any other writer, is that his rigorous objectivity is but a mask for the most rigorous subjectivity. It is both simultaneously. And only film and literature working together can realize each other’s strengths as both objective, and subjective, storytelling media.
I’ve even included a bonus spread showcasing my moody black-and-white film photography. It features pix of Melbourne’s mean streets and gritty laneways as yet unorbed by you, dear readers.
A piece of fiction, plenty of groovy graphic design, and—most ambitious and gruelling of all—I even turned one of my videos, “Dismembrance of things past”, into a six-page, 54-frame comic strip.
Thank God the video was only one minute. Photoshop almost went into meltdown, and me with it.
Check out the super-short video below as I take you through a whirlwind flick-through of what you’ll find inside!
I’ve always loved the grungy zine æsthetic. As you can see in the video, with the slick paper and full-colour pages, this zine isn’t quite ‘grungy’, but it’s as close as a dandified fellow as your Melbourne Flâneur can come to getting ‘down and dirty’. I chose a dirty, low-res printing option to give it that grungy, Risograph-style sprezzatura.
Mostly, I used the zine æsthetic as a licence to take some innovative liberties with graphic design. You’ll notice, for instance, that in the article titles, I do some funky things like turning the lettering on its side, back-to-front, etc. I primarily designed The Melbourne Flâneur zine for print rather than for on-screen reading because, even though I crafted it on the laptop through my Artisanal Desktop Publishing process, I wanted it to be tangible, substantial, like an old-school zine, but handmade new-school-style.
The primary purpose of the zine was to create something exclusive I could give to my clients as a piece of added value. Often when I’m working with businesspeople, academics or other creatives, they evince an interest in reading my work or looking at my art, but the urgency of servicing their projects doesn’t leave a lot of time for that.
I wanted to design something tangible and substantial which would give them an insight into my world as a peripatetic writer, the Melbourne I see through the lens of my Pentax K1000 and my Minolta XL 401 Super 8 camera, as well as something a bit off-beat, design-wise, mixing the funkiness of the zine with the boutique approach I take to writing, editing, designing and publishing documentation.
The thing I like about zines is that the artisanal, handcrafted aspect of these typewritten, photocopied, stapled-together little mags gives them a sense of ‘exclusivity’.
The magazine proper is a totally commercial creation: it’s always pushing products at you. The zine, on the other hand, takes the commercial form and makes it distinctly personal. The exclusivity which comes as a function of a zine’s tiny print run subverts the slick-paper mag’s purpose to push as much soulless product to as many faces as possible and makes the format a humble, intimate ‘advertisement for oneself’.
I often drop in at Sticky Institute, the zine shop in Campbell Arcade, and pick up a few weird little creations. I love owning a few handcrafted zines by Melbourne writers and artists that I can puzzle and ponder over, and I wanted to give my clients something of that experience of exclusivity, of entering intimately into my world of flânerie, into my dark vision of Melbourne as a place of friendly menace.
The Melbourne Flâneur zine is now available for purchase in the Dean Kyte Bookstore. If you want to experience this feeling of exclusivity and re-read all your favourite articles, revised and illustrated for print, you can purchase a physical copy for $A25, including worldwide postage, or you can download the PDF eZine for free!
Just click this link to go straight to the product page in the Dean Kyte Bookstore.
And I now have brochures for my print and video products!
The two new brochures below are more of the many creative fruits I pumped out during lockdown. I’m really pleased with the designs I came up with. After a rocky start, I caught a wave of inspiration. I invite you to download my new brochures and check out what I came up for yourself!
In whatever city Chinatown is located, these Chinese embassies are zones of mystery and ambiguity.
And the tragedy for the flâneur is that these places we know so well know us so little. We are erased from the faces of places as soon as we depart them. We are as unpermanent a mark upon the memory of their streets as a lover’s caress is upon our skin.
And for the flâneur, the Daygamer left over in the labyrinth, whose streets are the dædal of his days, to re-encounter the coin de rue where he passed a moment of amour with some passante and to encounter no trace of her, nor of himself, evokes a sensation not of ‘déjà vu’, but of jamais vu—jamais vécu.
—Dean Kyte, “Chinatown(s)”
The one compromised pleasure that a man used to moving his gams as energetically as yours truly can take in the current, prison-like atmosphere of Melbourne is that forced confinement focuses the flâneur’s gaze inward.
Like Xavier de Maistre, who, in Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794), takes the reader on a six-week walking tour around the room of a young officer under arrest in Turin, during the Melbourne lockdown, I’ve been taking flâneries through the footage I’ve shot in the course of my travels.
Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the product of one such prostrate promenade undertaken in bed as I flick through the files on my laptop.
One tires, after a time, of the narrow view afforded onto King street, and in such a blank, impersonal setting, eyes which are used to scanning the streets for occult meaning turn inward. Except in Paris, my introverted intuition has never been stronger than during this time: forced to look within myself for the visual stimulation I would usually seek externally in walking through the world, these days when I write or fool around with my old footage, new syntheses of memories and dreams emerge, new crystallizations of thought and image kaleidoscopically collide in miraculous revelations.
The prose poem I intone in the video above, “Chinatown(s)”, is one such synthesis of dream and memory, one such crystallization of thought and image.
I shot the raw footage on a rainy night in Little Bourke street a couple of years ago. Melbourne’s Chinatown is a particularly photogenic sight to see on nights when it’s raining hard, the red lanterns and the neon signs reflected viciously and viscously by the treacherous slate sidewalks.
Initially, I shot the footage with the intention of using it as the basis for one of the interactive menus on my latest Blu-ray Disc, Cinescritos: Writings in Image & Sound (2018). I set the camera up at a particular site in Little Bourke street which was as near as I could recall to the exact spot where I had tied into an attractive-looking dame whose life—and body—had briefly intersected with mine.
The dark and teary sky weeping on the camera lens, creating kaleidoscopic aureoles around the lanterns, had been intended to silently suggest what that spot means to me now.
But in looking back at the footage from the distance of two years hence, I suddenly recalled that this spot in Chinatown was significant to me for another brief but flaming intersection of bodies and lives: A deux pas behind the camera is Tattersalls lane, where, on another rainy day even further back in time, I had been lugged by a girl I had just as randomly picked up at my ‘office’ in Centre place.
One of the fun things for couples to do in Melbourne is to take a dérive around the city on a rainy winter’s day. Clinging to each other, flâneur and flâneuse, we took a random randonnée in the vicinity of Chinatown, escalating each other all the while.
In the course of our dérive, she steered me into Section 8, one of the more unusual Melbourne bars. It’s a popup bar cobbled together out of shipping pallets and packing containers in a carpark off Tattersalls lane. It’s not an ideal intimacy venue, but on an overcast, drizzly weekday morning when no one else is game to sit outside, you can end up going pretty far with a girl at Section 8—if the vibe between you is right.
We ended up going very far indeed that day—though not, the management will be relieved to hear, at Section 8. The place where she parted from my arms, a block east of Chinatown, was even more exposed than that, and again, the gentle rain that fell upon us as we inhaled each other’s kisses would seem, an eternity of minutes later, like a curtain of tears before my eyes as I watched her walk away forever.
I wrote in another post that I feel, after all my aventures, like the victim of a ‘baffling crime’: every femme is fatal for me, pumping a slug in my heart. And as I watched this one exit behind the curtain of tears that Melbourne lowered over the back-alley stage of our brief encounter, the mystery of the real, the way that what is external to us seems somehow to uncannily reflect the inner landscape of our consciousness, was an appropriate metaphor to mirror my perplexity at her départ.
So there is, as I evoke in the prose poem above, a sense of ‘oneiric encounter’, of sensual threat and promise for me about Melbourne’s Chinatown. It’s a place I tend to avoid in my flâneries, for the unbelievable successes in Daygame I’ve enjoyed there—(like dreams, they seem, in rational retrospect, almost too good to be true)—have left a couple of scars upon my heart.
Those two blocks of Little Bourke street evoke for me the ineffable yet dagger-like douleur au cœur I call ‘the spleen of Melbourne’.
And because of the fragrant odour of sensual threat and promise they evoke, Chinatowns more generally arouse this acute, erotic melancholy in me. The last night I spent in Paris, a girl hauled me back to her apartment in the Chinese quartier of Belleville. I remember standing at her balcony that late summer evening as she showered off the day’s work. Snoop that I am, I was looking across the street—as narrow as Little Bourke street—at the little dollhouse lives of the Asian families in the apartment-house opposite.
Their quotidian reality seemed as sensual to me as the wooden railing beneath my hands, the image of them before my eyes as sensual as the image in my mind of the girl, as magnificent as a bather by Ingres, sudsing her pearl-like belly in a room behind me.
And like her, like the railing, like tout Paris, they too would disappear from before my eyes in a couple of hours.
In the prose poem, I refer to these enclaves of sensual mystery as ‘Chinese embassies’, for there is a sense of autonomy about Chinatowns, in whatever city you encounter them.
They are privileged zones. The Chinatown of a city is like an arcade without a roof: it has all the phantasmagoric characteristics of the ‘dream street’ that Walter Benjamin identified with the passage.
Their friendship arches, like the two polychrome portals which bracket the approach to Chinatown in Swanston and Exhibition streets, serve to delimit the zone of foreign exclusivity just as the entrances of an arcade delimit its exclusivity from the street. Their lanterns hang above the street like the gas-lamps which hang in serried rows around the peristyle of the arcade.
The only difference is that, instead of internalizing the external by putting a roof over the street, Chinatowns externalize the internal, by unroofing the multi-storey rue-galerie of shops, exposing these ‘cathedrals of commerce’, with their naves and side-chapels, to the scrutiny of heaven.
As Gary W. McDonogh and Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong observe in their journal article “The Flaneur Looks Up: Reading Chinatown Verticalities” (2019), this organization of the street upon different levels, mixing the commercial with the residential, the public space with the private, is more semantically crucial to how we interpret the architecture of global Chinatowns than in other built-up urban areas.
‘While Chinatowns worldwide vary in their histories, configurations, peoples, power, and imagery,’ McDonogh and Wong write, ‘they are invariably lived at street level …. [T]hese street-level interactions mean that our eyes stray upwards only momentarily to arches, signs, or cornices or downward to half-hidden shops….’
Franz Hessel, in his book Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital (1929), declared emphatically that ‘[t]he flaneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, cafe terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new.’
McDonogh and Wong touch upon the fact (although it seems to me that they miss its fundamental significance) that the verticality of Chinese calligraphy in neon signage attached, over several storeys, to the façades of buildings is key to the unique way in which the flâneur ‘reads the street’ of global Chinatowns.
With a pinch of Japanese and Chinese at my disposal, the lurid neon swooshes of Hànzì leering in the night is a little less obscure to me than to most occidental barbarians. Nevertheless, as a cunning linguist, the pleasure I derive from ‘reading the streets’ of Chinatowns is not unlike the difficult pleasure I derive from attempting to read a book written in a language I am not yet proficient in: the words, sentences and pages formed by the hieroglyphs of all those things Herr Hessel enumerates are not just fragrantly ‘new’, but however bright the Sinograms beam, there are still lacunas in my understanding as vast and dark as the night itself.
You can perhaps intuit why I equate the quotidian yet mysterious banality of Chinatowns with the matter-of-fact mysteries of female behaviour.
This admixture of clarity and obscurity is the exclusive province of those ‘zones of mystery and ambiguity’ we call Chinatowns, and they seem an environmental metaphor for the ‘trade’ (deniable as such because it is plausibly deniable) that women make of love. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the Chinese genius for commerce in a hostile environment locates what is readable by the barbarian with a minimum of interpretation squarely at street level. The exotic mysteries of the Orient, however, are discreetly concealed in storeys above or below.
The intrepid—or foolish—flâneur who ventures into Chinatown must cast his eyes in the direction of his desires, must read the promises or threats opaquely veiled behind façades, just as a man must read a woman’s essential character behind the glittering mask she puts up as a front. As McDonogh and Wong observe, the ‘resolutely ordinary’ character of actual Chinatown streets interacts with our imaginary of them as ‘mythic’ and ‘mystical’ places. Likewise, behind the smoke and mirrors, the prosaic banality of women interacts with our ‘pedestalization’ of them as idols of virtue or of vice.
The ‘walk on the wild side’ afforded by Australian Chinatowns is a pretty tepid flirtation with vice. Brisbane’s Chinatown is now—like the rest of Fortitude Valley—a desert of gentrification. Sydney’s is a very shabby affair. Adelaide’s seems like an appendix to the Central Markets—which is where the real flâneurial action lies.
Only in Melbourne, it seems to me, can some vestigial sense of exotic danger still be experienced in Chinatown, and it is, I think, a function of Victoria’s more intimate and symbiotic historical relationship with China. Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t an ‘historical Disneyland’ of a Chinatown, a ‘World’s Fair’ pavilion set down between Swanston and Exhibition streets; that much of its history has mercifully been erased.
No, it’s part of the historical fabric of Melbourne itself as a nineteenth-century city, a Gold Rush city, with all the cosmopolitan grandeur of fabulous wealth built on the corrupt grasping of international chancers.
Though he makes no direct allusion to Chinatown, in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), the great nineteenth-century novel of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, Fergus Hume situates Little Bourke street as the epicentre of poverty and vice. After a dazzling tour of its big brother (as busy as its proverbial reputation), he leads us into Little Bourke street, whose lineaments we can still vaguely discern in Chinatown to this day:
‘But his guide, with whom familiarity with the proletarians had, in a great measure, bred indifference, hurried him away to Little Bourke Street, where the narrowness of the street, with the high buildings on each side, the dim light of the sparsely scattered gas lamps, and the few ragged looking figures slouching along, formed a strong contrast to the brilliant and crowded scene they had just left.’
San Francisco is another of these ‘nouveau riche’ nineteenth-century Gold Rush cities whose tony veneer of sophistication is like so much gilt over its foundations built on the hard graft and grasping for gold, and like Melbourne, it is famous for its Chinatown.
The symbiotic relationship that the Chinatowns of these cities have to their circumambient urban fabric is, I would contend, a function of the historical symbiosis of Orientals and Occidentals in San Francisco and Melbourne.
Their Chinatowns are more than ‘Eastern embassies’ that have failed to really take root on Western soil: they are, through their Gold Rush heritage, thoroughly assimilated into the fabric of their cities. The piquant charm of the Far East they add to the gaudy neoclassical architecture pining for the respectability of a European capital is part of the peculiar native charm of San Francisco and Melbourne.
The similarity between these two cities separated by an ocean is striking. In his story “Dead Yellow Women” (1925), the quintessential writer of San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett, has the Continental Op loosen his laconic tongue just enough to provide this vivid description:
‘San Francisco’s Chinatown jumps out of the shopping district at California Street and runs north to the Latin Quarter—a strip two blocks wide by six long….
‘Grant Avenue, the main street and spine of the strip, is for most of its length a street of gaudy shops and flashy chop-suey houses catering to the tourist trade, where the racket of American jazz orchestras drowns the occasional squeak of a Chinese flute. Farther out, there isn’t so much paint and gilt, and you can catch the proper Chinese smell of spices and vinegar and dried things. If you leave the main thoroughfares and showplaces and start poking around in alleys and dark corners, and nothing happens to you, the chances are you’ll find some interesting things—though you won’t like some of them.’
Swap Swanston for California street, and Little Bourke street for Grant avenue, and the description might almost hold for Melbourne—including the final, stinging remark. For if I have found the femmes I’ve stumbled over in the laneways leading off Little Bourke street to be ‘interesting specimens’, in my bafflement after the fact, when I’ve woken up from the opium dream of their seductive charms, I haven’t liked the feeling that I’ve just had my breast pocket picked.
As an operative of the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch, the Op is what we might call a ‘professional flâneur’ in Chinatown, though he would prefer the title he often gives himself of ‘manhunter’. I might occasionally tail some quail in Chinatown, but the Op is a big game hunter, after birds of any feather who are up to their necks in bad juju.
McDonogh and Wong state: ‘Chinatowns as mythic places often are linked to icons … of underground mysteries from film and literature that contribute to the global imaginary of Chinatowns.’ They remark ‘how powerfully Chinatown is an imagined space in popular culture, where truth and fiction mingle and images flow from cinema to history to tourism.’
Which leads me to the greatest depiction of this fluid, feminine zone of mystery and ambiguity in literature and film—Roman Polanski’s flâneur movie par excellence, Chinatown (1974), in which the eponymous, putative setting hardly figures as a physical place.
Chinatown, to which the movie’s hero, Angeleno private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), makes constant, obsessive reference, is the primal scene of sexual trauma from which he cannot escape. Gittes, with his sharp suits, Florsheim shoes, and polished Hollywood manner, may have transcended his days as a flatfoot in L.A.’s Chinatown, but his profession as a ‘bedroom dick’ puts him right back in the torrid zone of fluid, feminine ambiguity.
He tells his paramour, black widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), that Chinatown is a place that bothers everyone who works there. ‘You can’t always tell what’s going on,’ he says to this dame who’s as difficult to read as a Chinese newspaper. ‘Like with you.’
When you’re playing spoon with such a dish, it’s best to follow the advice the District Attorney gives his men in Chinatown and do ‘as little as possible’—for, as Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), tells Gittes, while ‘you may think you know what you’re dealing with, … believe me, you don’t.’
Gittes is the flâneur figure-cum-detective: his social mobility gives him a unique droit de cité in L.A., transcending the strata of society from grand monde to demi-monde, allowing him to read the tenor of the streets with the same vertical orientation that the flâneur must use as his compass in Chinatown.
In this world turned on its side, one might almost say that in the all-encompassing diffuseness of the criminal and sexual conspiracy he finds himself drowning in, ‘Chinatown’, for Gittes, is hardly a localized place but a state of doubleness, of recursive multiplicity that constitutes the whole of L.A.—a fluid nexus of evil whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
And, of course, at the heart of Gittes’ fearful yet fascinated relationship with Chinatown, there is his relationship with a woman—or women, rather. ‘Cherchez la femme,’ Mrs. Mulwray philosophically says as they lay abed after exertions, echoing the demands and directives of Gittes’ clients—and other interested parties—that he should ‘find the girl’ if he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery.
But like water, there is no bottom to women’s mystery, and the alluring vessel is as arbitrary a beginning or ending point as the portals set over Chinatowns worldwide.
These are some of the thoughts I attempted to express in the video and prose poem above. In these times when contact with the outer world of Melbourne is forbidden to me, I turn my gaze inward and meditate on the mysteries of the women I have known in my flâneries around town, whose painful memories and perplexing dreams I thought I had drowned in the heart of me.
But, like the Lady in the Lake, they are not drowned, merely sleeping, and can be awoken once again by a pure heart.
I’ve made the soundtrack of this video available for purchase on my Bandcamp profile. If you would like to shout me half a coffee, you can download “Chinatown(s)” for $A2.00 and have the pleasure of my dulcet tones intoning the prose poem in your lugs pour toujours. Just click the “Buy” link below.