When Alizée turned north into Lygon Street out of Fenwick, she saw him wandering slowly in the opposite direction past the Eolian Hall. His head was turned towards the creamy déco pile, evocative, in its Mediterranean blancheur, of her homeland as it shimmered faintly in the midday heat. The bottlegreen brim of his Fedora described a gloomy arc of shadow which just veiled his eyes, further occluded by the bluish haze of smoke from his Candela, as he tacked past the hall in a not altogether steady drift, whether dreamily attracted by its magnetism, or faintly oppressed by the rising heat, it was difficult to say at that distance.
He had adjusted his wardrobe to the weather and was wearing the limegreen dress shirt, its French cuffs folded back and cinched together by gold links which matched the garters hitching up his sleeves. The skyblue waistcoat hung open, exposing a suggestion of suspender where the book, hugged loosely to his breast, pushed back the edge of his vest. The dark green patterned bowtie was a little askew, its jaunty angle mimicking the rakish slant of the Fedora’s brim. He wore the checked, mustardcoloured slacks, the breaks of which bounced gracefully over the tan, brogued wingtips of the derby boots along with his slow, loping gait as he sauntered past the hall, regarding it abstractedly and yet with a set to his mouth, around the butt of the green cigar, which implied contentment with life.
Alizée quickened her pace until just before he passed the Eolian Hall completely and turned his head back to twelve o’clock. When he seemed on the verge of noticing her, she slowed up abruptly to match his casual saunter, raising her right hand, encumbered, as always, with the iPhone, and waved it at him.
—Buongiorno! she greeted him enthusiastically as they closed the distance.
He took the Candela out of his mouth and saluted her with it as he approached.
She came on with her habitual onslaught of high energy, running into him just before the triple row of terraces under the creamy, partly mutilated cornice which dominated this block of Lygon Street, its mascarons, jutting from corbels, projecting from ends of plaster, gazing fixedly into the green wastes of the General Cemetery across the street, stoically ignorant of the exuberant display of affection to their collective left. For Alizée did not hesitate to kiss him fully on the lips as she flung her arms around his neck, rocking him back a little in his centre of gravity with the collision of her lips as he returned the embrace more equivocally, resting the free fingers of his right hand lightly, briefly on her flank.
—Una bella giornata, vero? she enthused. Che sole! che cielo! For once, Melbourne seems like home—though not, I should say, a Natale!
—Sì. I think we’re past winter now, he admitted coolly as he stepped back from her embrace, returning the green cigar to the corner of his mouth for a quick drag.
He turned his head a little to the right, blew a plume of smoke politely to one side of her, but his hard grey eyes remained firmly fixed ahead, on Alizée, as they took the measure of her very quickly through the veil of smoke. In an instant, his cool manner had softened a little. Though the eyes lost none of their probing, assessing quality, they seemed to smile at her.
—You’re not in your shop today. What are you up to? he asked with amiable brutality.
—Faccio del shopping, she said, holding up the green Woolies bag depending from her left hand. The bag was very light—empty even. E tu? What are you reading?
Without waiting for a reply, she grasped the book, a slim paperback, not rudely, but with a certain proprietorial familiarity, the fingers of her left hand curling around the pages until they were against his shirtfront. His face wore a faint, wry expression which might have signified amusement or annoyance as he let her take it away from him.
She flipped her wrist back to reveal the front cover. It was a French giallo. The cover showed a young brunette, slim with attractive, pointed features—not entirely dissimilar to Alizée herself—in a silk slip with spaghetti straps—rather like the green cotton playsuit she was wearing—squeezing her small tette together and regarding the graceful shadow between them with the proud absorption of feminine possession. The photograph had been solarized so that the lowlights of the brunette’s skin were weirdly purple and the bronzy slip had been rendered garish and fauvistic. The title was Le facteur fatal, by an author—a Belgian perhaps—calling himself Didier Daeninckx.
The left corner of Alizée’s mouth made a small reflexive moue.
—Tu lis d’trucs comme ça?
He shrugged Gallically, the end of the Candela sketching a volute of smoke—like a question mark—with the sprezzatura of the gesture. He gave an impression of being bored by the conversation.
—I just found it in an opshop in Brunswick Road, he said, jerking his thumb back over his shoulder, indicating the direction he had come. With the vertical movement of the cigar, the question mark crossed itself out.
—Je l’ai acheté pour lire du français.
With a slight inclination of his head,—like a very reduced bow,—he proffered his left hand, palm upward, to her, his eyes, fixed on hers with a polite insistence which seemed, simultaneously, to mock the courtliness of the silent request for repatriation.
Alizée returned Le facteur fatal to him.
There was a brief vacuum in the conversation filled only by the circulation beside them as they regarded each other for a moment of doubtful comfortability, their eyes palpating faces that were still inscrutable to each other even after six weeks. Alizée broke the pause cautiously.
—I haven’t seen you around for a couple of weeks, she essayed hesitantly;—not since the day we went to Williamstown together. I thought you must have gone somewhere to see your family—per Natale, perhaps?
His face lost none of its pleasant inscrutability, his eyes seeming to glitter as they squinted through the last puff of smoke he took from the Candela. He took his time dropping the fuming butt to the asphalt and heeling it out with his derby. He toed the flattened cylinder towards the bluestone gutter with what seemed a thoughtful bunt of his boot.
—I had to go to… Sydney per una settimana – o giù di lì.
—Ancora una volta? You were in Sydney last month as well.
Alizée’s eyes acquired a cautiously roguish twinkle.
—Ton métier de flâneur te porte loin.
His eyes searched her face for a halfbeat, and then:
—We never sleep.
Their eyes smiled at each other and her face flushed attractively beneath the Mediterranean tan, although the smile, on his side, did not quite reach his lips.
He broke eye contact with her after a circumspect interval. A southbound Route 1 tram was passing them, slowing with a screel of its wheels. It braked in the long perspective of Lygon Street under the petrified falaises of the City skyline erupting through the green amoncellement of trees that stood sentry along the fenceline of the General Cemetery. He watched as it drew to a stop at the corner of Fenwick Street, the train of southbound traffic pausing deferentially in its wake, and three passengers alighted from the B-class, going their several ways with caution.
One of the typical denizens of Yarra, this one an arts student who fancied herself a feminine John Lennon, with dark, round, silverrimmed sunglasses, a loud, mannish shirt and thin black jeans, the hems of which were rolled up to reveal her Doc Martens, passed them bearing a canvas tote over her shoulder, an obnoxious slogan against the government stencilled on the side of it. He looked down at his brogues and let the girl pass before speaking. When he did so, it was with an experimental essay at confidence that seemed scrupulously mindful of not appearing too forceful in pressing its suit, too inconsiderate of the manifold reasons Alizée might have for rejecting the proposition.
—Look, he said, I know you have no family in this country, but I understand that you might have other… engagements on Monday.
He paused momentarily. Alizée declined to take advantage of this fenestration in his speech as an opportunity to rise to the bait it implied.
He went on a deal more softly, and his eyes, though still sharp, still probing, still assessing her visage minutely as he spoke, almost gave an impression, as they narrowed slightly, of having hit upon a happy inspiration couched in the proposition his voice was rehearsing, one he himself had not previously divined.
—Would you perhaps like to take a cheeky avventura with me on Christmas Day? un picnic, perhaps? to an undisclosed location to be advised when your eyes are looking at it?
At the word ‘avventura’, the blue jets in Alizée’s silver eyes flared up appreciably.
—I don’t think it’s going to be as hot as this on Monday, he added as an afterthought, an additional justification to the good; an exculpation of Melbourne’s unbankable weather, of the debatable antipodean pleasure of passing a blazingly hot Christmas Day outdoors more generally—if she needed it.
Alizée did not. Her face broke into broad enthusiasm at the idea.
—O, un’avventura sounds brilliant! And if the weather isn’t fine, we will adventure anyway!
A soupçcon of roguish sidelight entered her eye briefly once again as her bangs shook with the enthusiastic upward movement of her head in a jerkish nod—or perhaps it was the sun alighting on her forehead as those parenthetical twin curtains moved briefly aside from their usual halfdrawn position occluding her features.
He seemed a little taken aback by how well this proposta had been received and watched her access of enthusiasm from those removes, the cool depths of assessment, with the wry indulgence of a parent giving a delightful child its head.
—Buono, he said in the next second, when she had settled down. Then I will make i preparativi. I’ll go to Rathdowne Street now and pick up a few things.
—Hai bisogno che porto qualcosa?
—Del vino, perhaps. I’ll leave it to you. Whatever you like.
His voice had acquired a seductive firmness and his mouth now joined his eyes, as they held hers gently in parting, in a very definite smile.
—A lunedì, he said softly.
—A lunedì—Ciao, caro!
She launched her lips at him again and he took the collision more gracefully this time, though he still demurred to linger long in her embrace.
—Ciao, he said, giving her one gentle pat on the derrière en passant and slipping smoothly past her to continue his southward flânerie, with more purpose in his stride this time.
He made the corner quickly, and when he had rounded it into Fenwick Street, he stopped abruptly just inside. His eyes were turned down to the pavement and, with the gravity of his reflections, his face slowly resumed its habitual cast of dour pensiveness as his eyes scanned the asphalt for something that was within himself. His posture seemed to relax of its own accord and he leant his shoulder to the white plaster wall of the house on the corner as he thought.
The persistent passage of traffic and trams behind him did not seem to reach him.
Then, rolling suddenly around, he turned, voltafaccia, towards Lygon Street and the grille of the General Cemetery. He moved stealthily forward two steps until he presented the narrowest possible profile to the street and, transferring the book to his other hand, reached into the left pocket of his waistcoat. He produced the small rectangular hand mirror and, holding it down at his hip, angled it back up Lygon Street until, in its arc, it caught the profile of the Maltese ragazza in the olive playsuit with the embroidered bodice.
Alizée had not advanced very far from where he had left her. She was standing in front of the Eolian Hall and was studying it intently. Her head turned from left to right, not in the big movements she had used with him, but in small ones, as if she were looking for something—a clue, perhaps, or something she had lost.
Then, as he watched her in the angle of the mirror, his face devoid of expression, she raised the iPhone and took a photo of the pile.
I was throwing my foulard over my shoulder and buttoning myself up against the bitterness of another Melbourne winter, half-longing that Sunday was Wednesday, when I would be in Bello and practically in a bikini (stripped, as I would be, of the brown overcoat, scarf and gloves), when my cover as a man of the crowd was temporarily blown and I made an éblouissement to the eye of a passing photographer.
A shout-out to Melbourne guitarist and composer Mastaneh Nazarian, one-fourth of the collaborative quartet Kafka Pony, who tied into your Melbourne Flâneur outside the Tin Pot Café in Fitzroy North as I was tying off the loose ends of my toilette in public, preparatory to braving the bitter wind, and managed to break through my brooding mood de bourreau enough to persuade me to lighten up a little and stand still for a few photos.
‘You’re not really that serious,’ she jokingly chided me as she wrangled me into bearing my fangs in a grin.
Il Divino, with his nez cassé, his saturnine, satyr-like features, and his filthy black rags and boots, would go glowering about le vie di Roma, according to Raffaello, alone and looking for all the world ‘like a hangman.’
As I explained to Mastaneh, even when I think I’m smiling, my face seems to naturally wear the mien of an executioner. Being an introvert, I am so mired dans les profondeurs of my dark dreams and deep cogitations, so far from the sunny surface of life on which le reste du monde mindlessly floats, that even when I make an epic breaststroke and launch myself off the ocean floor towards the surface in a display of exuberant extroversion, I still only get half-way, my ideas of extravagant, gregarious gaiety being, it seems, so subtle and leaden that they resemble the deadly seriousness of Keatonian, granite-faced gravity much more than gay levity.
As I joked to her while we walked to the Edinburgh Gardens, following a brief stop-off at her apartment to grab her camera, I noticed that she didn’t invite me up in case I was Jack the Ripper.
I must admit, I have become a deal less tolerant of adventitious tyings-into by interested strangers on the streets of Melbourne since the CV. As a gentleman of the old school, I dislike familiarity and informality as a rule, and I was a little vexed when Mastaneh tied into me in front of the Tin Pot.
She caught me coming out of the café, where I had been plotting the literary crime I intend to commit against the citizens of Melbourne, and I was still half-dreaming of the heroine of my literary thriller, trying to see and understand who this fatal ‘girl of my dreams’ is.
Mastaneh caught me in a state of confusion, a kind of hypnopompic state as I emerged from both the café and the trance-like reverie of introverted intuition in which I do my best writing. Coming slowly to my senses, I was attending with the drunk’s narrowness of focus to the extroverted sensing activities of sorting out my toilette ahead of a long trudge back to Abbotsford in the cold.
My tongue was tied and rather tardy in coming loose as she launched a dozen questions at me, and I was faced with that problem which perplexes the person who habitually lives, as I do, in the platonic realms of thought, and for whom a dandified appearance, howsoever glamorous, is but the least and weakest anchor attaching him to this material reality; to wit:—how to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’
I confess, between the befuddlement of awaking from the waking dream of writing and the regrettable reluctance to allow myself to be abordé by a stranger (a consequence of the Coronavirus), I didn’t make it altogether easy for Mastaneh to get to know me, but all credit to her for breaking down my resistance, getting me to stand still for an impromptu modelling session in the Edinburgh Gardens—and even getting me to smile.
It’s my anecdotal impression that people have become a great deal less pleasant to interact with—even casually—since the Coronavirus, so it was a blessed relief to have an encounter with a stranger in Melbourne that left me feeling richer, not poorer, for the experience.
When I think of the often grating encounters I’ve had with people in Melbourne post-pandemic, full of casual impolitesses towards me, an assumed familiarity and informality with a perfect stranger I find detestable, and a marked decline in people’s social skills and graces after two years of enforced isolation, I’m reminded of the poetic homily which the Toronto radio DJ intones at the end of the Canadian short film Cold (2013):
When I first moved to Toronto, a lot of people told me to be ready for the cold. It’s funny, you know, because you get used to the weather pretty quick. It’s the city that takes a while to warm up to you – the people.
We’re so safe in everything we do, hiding behind head-phones and cell phones, stealing glances on the subway, sticking to what we know, who we know. God, do we ever stick to who we know! Maybe if we didn’t, we’d realize that we’re all a little lonely out here. Each of us is a little cold.
Melbourne is not quite as intemperate as Toronto, but certainly, the metaphor of the city’s weather as an analogue for the froideur of the people transfers rather neatly to Melbourne: each of us has become a little colder in the last two years, not least of all your Melbourne Flâneur, who has become a great deal more guarded in his dealings with people and colder of eye.
Despite the Victorian Government’s rhetoric, staying apart has certainly not kept us together socially, and I make no bones about the fact that, having observed a noticeable decline in people’s social skills during the past two years, the less I have to do with my fellow Melburnians post-pandemic, the happier I generally am.
What a regrettable state of affairs! It really oughn’t to be that way. As the Toronto DJ says at the beginning of Cold:
Well – I just think what makes the city colder is the fact that we’re so busy trying to stay out of each other’s way….
—Devo G., Cold
Although she tied into me awkwardly, my interaction with Mastaneh was perhaps the first pleasant encounter I’ve had with a stranger in Melbourne in two years—the first one where I didn’t wish that my mien de meurtrier was not merely a façade of pre-emptive defence against being bothered by someone who wants to take energy and value from me rather than, as Mastaneh did, generously give it.
Her impromptu approach was a pleasant premonition of what I was to expect later on in the week, for your Melbourne Flâneur is currently ‘out of the office’ and on holiday in Bellingen, that little town tucked away on the North Coast of NSW which is like the whole of Melbourne folded down to two small streets—a street-corner even, the corner of Hyde and Church streets being as legendary in the flâneurial experience of your peripatetic scribe as either Collins or Bourke streets.
If Paris is my spiritual home, my Mecca of memory and flânerie, and Melbourne my ‘Paris-on-the-Yarra’, a colony in the cultural caliphate of that ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, then Bellingen—(Bello to the locals)—is some kind of ‘home away from home’ for me:—it has, like Paris, some spiritual resonance for me, some sympathetic vibration which makes my heart beat more easily here than it does even in Melbourne.
I’ve looked forward to my holiday for almost as long as I’ve been away. Last year I wrote a post, “The Bellingen Flâneur”, in which I recorded the gratifying discovery that, after five years away from this town, which I lived in comparatively briefly and left under a cloud of heartbreak to take up my life in Melbourne, I had merely to take one circuit of Hyde Street to find myself back in the bosom of people who thought well of me—a revelation which I hadn’t at all expected.
A poetic note I wrote in my notebook earlier this year, as I sat on the platform at Macedon Station, says it all:
I’m always searching for Bellingen, I realized, as I strolled beneath the low, lichened branches of Macedon, but I did not find it here. As I passed the welltended hedges, the verdant rues-murs of Victoria street, like Proust before the hawthorns, I had an intimation of something—too dim to be the image of a memory, yet too sharp to be a presentiment—but, like the inverted exposure of a negative, I could not say what it is. Except, perhaps, it occurred to me, it might have been the equation of an analogy: Macedon is to Woodend what Dorrigo is to Bello: beautiful but dead.
Why am I always searching for Bello? What did I leave behind there when I came down here? what life, or vision of life? I don’t know. But if I’m honest, even more than Paris, it seems a paradise lost I’m always searching for, a heart’shome, in these Victorian climes. Perhaps, as much as I hate to admit it, in Bellingen I found a community, a collective of which I was a part.
I ‘hate to admit it’ because, being a dandy and a flâneur, I am necessarily a solitary soul—wolfish, un homme à part. The dandy-flâneur may indeed be Mr. Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’, ‘the type and genius of deep crime’ who refuses to be physically alone. He may find himself, as its guiding spirit, the genius of that ambulating loci, in the amorphous foule as it vomits itself over the sidewalk, but like the old man of Mr. Poe’s tale, the dandy-flâneur, as a man who stubbornly stands outside the hierarchy of bourgeois masculine values, has nothing but an icy, Flaubertian contempt for the crowd he is ‘in’ but not really ‘of’.
He is only ‘of the crowd’ in the sense that Mr. Poe gives in his classic formulation, as being ‘the type and genius of deep crime.’ I have written elsewhere of the dandy’s ‘operative identity’, his ‘cover’ as a spy, a saboteur and æsthetic terrorist, a résistant to bourgeois, capitalistic values who blows up his whole life in an economic Non serviam, detonating himself in a vision of Truth and Beauty in the densest midst of the blandest crowd. The crowd too is part of the dandy-flâneur’s ‘operative identity’, a shield and a cover, a part of his fashionable armature, under cover of which he prosecutes his æsthetic crimes of resistance against the bourgeois madness of technocratic capitalism.
In Bellingen, I made a spectacular explosion every day on Hyde Street in my hat and my suit which, as people have frequently told me since, was an éblouissement which gladdened their eyes. In Melbourne, too, I make the same daily detonation, but the crowd is thicker, denser, more obviously a shield behind which even as conspicuous a dandy as myself can fade into the background of the crowd, an æsthetic terrorist ready to pull the pin of my poetic wit in the midst of this foule.
As a man of fashion, I pose a narrow portal onto immeasurable depths. And as a writer, the best and truest part of who I am lies in another dimension to the fashionable frame that wanders, lonely as a cloud, as a mere man of the crowd.
Melbourne has certainly grown a little colder since the Coronavirus, and I wish I hadn’t become more reluctant to engage with people.
In the days when I used to do Daygame myself, I believed it was the best way to cut across the frame of coldness people wear in the city to insulate themselves against importunate approach. You never know who an attractive stranger is—or could be—until you cut across their frame with a pre-emptive offer of value and warmth.
I didn’t know what a talented person was generously giving me her attention when Mastaneh tied into me. It was only when I was through two days of train travel and safely ensconced in Bello that I was at my leisure to see who Mastaneh was. As a literary man, I can only approve of a band with the good taste to name itself after a writer who was content to be another anonymous ‘man of the crowd’ and subversive saboteur of bourgeois society, and I invite you to check out Kafka Pony’s music on Bandcamp and show them some warmth.
Mastaneh gave me a good lesson as to what to expect when I got up to Bello, and what I missed about the place—that sense of warmth, of community.
I didn’t just shuck my overcoat when I got up here, out of the cold of Melbourne and into the bosom of people who think well of me, despite my singular oddity as the dandy of Hyde Street. I got into the warmth of who I really am when I don’t feel I have to wear the face of an executioner just to get from one end of Collins Street to the other unmolested by energy vampires.
It would be nice if, instead of staying out of each other’s way, we could get back into each other’s way in Melbourne—not with the sense that I have so often experienced it, post-pandemic, of strangers seeking to take energy and value from one another, but in the way that Mastaneh so generously demonstrated—of seeking to freely give a little warmth and value to a stranger.
I intended to shoot this video when I was up in Bello last year, on the actual location where the scene I read to you takes place—the Meeting Place Park in front of the town library, the romantic backdrop to my famous attempt to ‘mash a pash’ out of the Norwegian tourist as it was to some of my other (more successful) efforts at seduction.
But I was having too much fun running the gab with my friends in weighty convos as we solved the problems of the world, so the video above didn’t get shot until after my abortive voyage to NSW was over and I was back in Victoria. You’ll have to imagine Geelong’s Johnstone Park—an altogether more grandiose green space—as standing in for the humble Meeting Place Park while you listen to me lube your lugs with the lubricious details of my adventitious adventure date with la Norvégienne.
Your Melbourne Flâneur goes on tour again to NSW from the middle of June—and hopefully this year, it won’t be an abortive experience!
First stop is Bello il Bello, where I alight on 15 June, so to all my friends in Bellingen, you will find me safely ensconced in my ‘office’, the Hyde café, and holding court for une quinzaine de jours from the following day, that feast day sacred to all writers (particularly those of a flâneurial disposition), the holy Bloomsday.
After that, it’s on to Sydney for another dizaine de jours in early July, and then your Melbourne Flâneur gets diplomatic and makes an embassy to our nation’s capital, running amok among the Canberran architecture for two weeks.
But to return to the raconteurial anecdote I unpack in the video above, the escalation of la belle Emma to the bedroom was the most memorable and significant of several such flâneurial encounters I had in the couple of years I lived in Bellingen.
As I say in the video, there are a few places in the world more romantic than Bellingen at night—particularly in the dead of winter, and the Meeting Place Park, which more than once served me as an impromptu boudoir for entertaining some lady-friend met fugitively, always had a resonance of Paris for me.
Indeed, even alone (and there were certain evenings when I went and huddled in the park for an hour or so, enjoying the triste twilight of winter), the flâneur in me could evoke from the trio of lamps in the Meeting Place Park and the façade of the Memorial Hall across the street the memory of the humble little neighbourhood parks of Montmartre—the one in the place Constantin Pecqueur (since renamed the square Joël Le Tac, after a hero of the Résistance), or the square Carpeaux, places I would go to sit on a summer evening before dinner.
At the risk of ‘Byronizing’ Bellingen and having a foule de touristes descend upon it, I’ll go so far as to make the bold claim that, on a winter’s night, nowhere in the world—not even my best belovèd Paris—is as romantic as Bellingen when you have a girl on your arm—particularly when she’s a beautiful Norwegian tourist with dark hair, pale, delicate features, and a smile as inscrutable as la Gioconda’s.
And without wishing to inflate my credentials as a pocket-edition Casanova too greatly, I’m no stranger, as a flâneur and a former Daygamer, to the peculiar pleasure of playing cicerone to some girl I’ve just met, conducting her on an epic escalation that ends in a place and an experience I could not have anticipated when I first tied into this attractive étrangère on the street, this passante I heroically resist passing by but choose to approach.
I’ve given you, dear readers, some hints, some teases of a plot I’ve been plotting since our second lockdown in Melbourne, when the only flâneries I could take were through memory and imagination, transmuting some of the experiences I had had doing Daygame on the streets of Melbourne into my first substantial work of fiction in about fifteen years.
And though I hesitate to tell you more about the literary crime I am plotting, which emerges as an off-shoot of The Spleen of Melbourne project, suffice it to say that, like Thomas Hardy re-entering ‘the olden haunts at last’ in one of my favourite poems, “After a Journey”, I have had cause and occasion in the last three months to re-enter ‘the dead scenes’ of my Melburnian amours and attempt to track, digital sound recorder in hand, the ‘voiceless ghosts’ of myself and some girl I briefly loved lingering in the traces of these places.
Last Tuesday night, for instance, I was up till after 2:00 a.m. in the city, re-tracing with my sound recorder the steps of a flânerie I had taken with a Canadian lady who had tied into me, liking, as she did, the cut of my dandified jib, from a certain cocktail bar in Swanston Street to a point, in Elizabeth Street, which ended in enigma and mystery for me.
I have written elsewhere on this vlog of the immense pleasure that nighttime flânerie gives me when I go out, analogue camera in hand, to bag some image of beauty that has caught my eye in other wanderings, how the walk takes on an intoxicating momentum of its own, leading me to other prospects, other potential images. In the last three months, I have found a similar, but even more rarefied pleasure in retracing my night walks through Melbourne with women using the sound recorder.
There’s a fair amount of ‘method acting’ involved even in the passive process of recording: four times between midnight and 2:00 a.m. last Tuesday, I retraced the steps I had taken, arm-in-arm, with la Canadienne. I was reliving in my memory what I had actually experienced with her and simultaneously imagining myself in the fictional version of our flânerie, which is altogether more surreal and sinister.
By the third time I set off from my ‘first position’ and passed the security guys in front of The Toff in Town, treading stealthily so as to get as little sound of a solo set of footsteps on the recording as possible, they must have thought I was some fou and wondered what the hell I was up to.
One woman with whom I shared a few beautiful flâneries de nuit in Melbourne used to call me ‘Puss in Boots’ due to my dandified prowling. The nickname confused me at first. Dredging up a dim memory of the fairy tale from childhood, I asked her: ‘Wasn’t he some kind of con man?’
Bien sûr, and she was savvy enough to intuit my Machiavellian admiration for these artists who are, as David W. Maurer calls them in The Big Con (1940), ‘the aristocrats of crime’. But more than that, she was savvy enough to tell me, in that intuition, what my ‘totem animal’ is: at night, I am the cat, that furry flâneur who is the urban hunter of big cities, as aristocratic a prowler as the little black panther who treads stealthily through Saul Bass’ title sequence to Walk on the Wild Side (1962).
I can’t wait to get up to Bello and do some night shooting. All the time I lived up there, the magic of midnight in Bellingen seemed so much a part of life it never occurred to me to record an instance of it. When I was up there last year, on my final night, loitering in Church Street after even No. 5 had closed, I knew I had had too much fun—I had been so run off my feet with it, with my Proustian obligations to be the literary social butterfly of Bellingen, that I had forgotten to haul out my camera even once to capture the ‘dead scenes’ of all my amours.
If you would like to read how it turned out with la Emma, you can purchase a personally inscribed and wax-sealed copy of Follow Me, My Lovely… below.
“Follow Me, My Lovely…” [softcover]
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“Follow Me, My Lovely…” [eBook]
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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!
Today The Melbourne Flâneur comes to you from Eltham, a charming suburb on the northeastern outskirts of Melbourne where urbanity begins to shade into rusticity.
I love Eltham. It’s got a good bookshop in the main street, a multitude of nice cafés in which to write, and it was the memorable scene of your Melbourne Flâneur’s last great seduction before he retired from Daygame, so its streets have the vivid imprint of potent memories embedded in them for your pocket-edition Casanova.
But rather than reflect on that, in the video above I lounge with all my flâneurial indolence in Eltham’s gilded greenery (reminiscent, when viewed through heavily squinting eyes, of a Parisian park) as I read you a few pages from my first book, Orpheid: L’Arrivée (2012).
That’s the non-fiction novel where a very thinly disguised avatar for yours truly (one who is hardly more than a floating consciousness with a mythological nom de guerre) makes an epic voyage as laborious as walking across the bottom of the sea in a diving bell.
The premise of the book is very simple: my first night in Paris, the first night of my life off the terrestrial shore de l’Australie in foreign climes. But the extended metaphor I use throughout the book to describe the experience of being halfway around the world, at night, in a foreign country is the metaphor of space travel and setting foot on the moon. And nowhere do I use this metaphor more extensively than in the extract I read you above, which I think contains one of the longest sentences in the entire book, a burlesque of President Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University which lasts more than an entire page.
Watch for the moment in the video when I have to sneak a breath to get through it!
I don’t really consider myself to be a comic writer, although some people have told me that they like my writing best when my satirical fangs show through. In this book, the fangs are definitely embedded in myself—right up to the gums: I never miss an opportunity to ironize my own neurotic foibles, frequently styling myself, in my Chaplinical dandyism, as ‘our presumptuous little hero’.
In that sense Orpheid: L’Arrivée is a ‘comic epic’: the ‘comedy’ lies in the fact that I treat—with a Keatonianly straight face—what would ordinarily be the most banal events and actions as I undertake to manœuvre myself and my small mountain of luggage de l’aéroport Charles-de-Gaulle à l’Hôtel Caulaincourt as if these were noble and heroic acts worthy of immortalization in an Homeric epic.
Like an astronaut setting foot upon a foreign world, everything that passes before my eyes becomes fascinating, exerts its own peculiar gravity which arrests my progress momentarily, drawing me towards it to pause and investigate. In fine, the experience of the book is intended, for the reader, to be what the experience of that night was for me: the most acute example I had yet known of the psychogeographic experience of flânerie itself—what M. Rimbaud calls ‘un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ (‘a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses’).
I’ve described Orpheid: L’Arrivée as an ‘epic prose poem’, and I think that sums up both my strengths and my limits as a writer. In a recent post on this vlog I asked the question ‘Can prose be poetry?’, and admitted that, like M. Flaubert, one of the great banes of my life is that I’m a prosateur by nature, not a poète—although I have the reputation of being one.
As I said in that post, the habits of mind associated with prose and poetry are really antithetical to each other, and I’m rarely so inspired as to write verse. Most of my poetic output was written in France, when, like a flower, I felt my soul expand in its natural climes, swimming in the sea of soil and air, of Truth and Beauty, which surrounded me every day.
Otherwise, like M. Flaubert, whatever inclination to lyricism there is in me (et l’inclination est forte) finds itself kinkily perverted away from prosody and funnelled along the unnatural channel of prose, a narrow watercourse most unsuitable for the efflorescent floods of rhapsody which overtake me. Like M. Flaubert, I have the rather painful experience, as a writer, of being a poet by inclination but without natural talent in that direction, my analytic habits of mind, like his, being more suited to prose than prosody.
And yet, for reasons which mystify and miff me, I have the reputation of being ‘a poet’.
In recent years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never succeed in talking people out of this misconception of me, and even to feel that, if they’re so stubbornly insistent in their error, then they’re probably right.
In lieu of forcing my mind into the crystal lattices of verse, a skill and habit I admire in poètes pur-sang but cannot emulate, I have always written my peculiar espèce de prose prosodique with its multilingual patois and neologisms, and have always been, bastard cousin to them, un poète en prose.
The essence of prose poetry, I think (an essence which Orpheid L’Arrivée demonstrates at quite a remarkable scale of simultaneous expansion and concentration, considering the typical brevity of the form), is ‘seeing the ordinary anew’.
What people have most often remarked to me about a prose they deem to be ‘poetic’ is that there is an unusual capacity in my writing to present a new vision of things, a different angle on the familiar which they recognize but which they tell me is not necessarily obvious to them until I drew their attention to it, a quality which is more ‘latent’ in the things themselves than apparent on first view.
Well, this is a perfectly natural skill for someone who began his career as a professional writer in the domain of film criticism to possess. My ‘journalistic training’ was as a foreign correspondent in a realm which is all about reporting vivid descriptions of vision, about lyrically communicating the experience which these visions in the dark provoked in me. It was a training which both formed and rewarded the analytic habit of mind, the incontournable désir to break down the parts of my pleasure and analyse what makes the machine of it run, which is natural to me.
I don’t know that I was ever conscious, as a young man writing film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, of styling my thumbnail reviews as ‘poems in prose’, but certainly I was so conscious of the little space I was afforded that, in retrospect, it seems I schooled myself in squeezing my mind into something like the crystal lattice of verse. I made a form of my own which was so tight that the rhapsodic results were often explosive for the readers.
In order to see the prosaic world painted anew on the page, a lyrical, rhapsodic style of prose is called for. If I’m honest, I don’t know if there are any poètes pur-sang today. A poet is a flower of humanity that can only grow up in a natural environment, and we live in such an artificial one, where technology is the very air that we breathe, that perhaps prose is the only weak poetic weapon with which to tackle and attack our prosaic reality, to beat back its encroachment on our humanity.
M. Aragon was a poet first and prose-writer second, a survivor of the race of poets when there were still some lines of lineage of that endangered species left to dribble into the future. He was also a surrealist in the first, enthusiastic, misguided but organic flush of that movement when, weak as it was, surrealism was yet a shield to bludgeon and beat back a usurping technological artificiality which was not yet all-powerful.
The English title of Le Paysan de Paris does not quite give the sense which M. Aragon intends to convey in French. Yes, ‘paysan’ may be translated as ‘peasant’, but in poetic conjunction with the name of the French metropolis, the Capital of Modernity, he is trying to suggest that to be a Parisian is to be a type of provincial, someone who is yet still close to nature in the midst of this technological marvel with all its glittering, seductive artificiality.
Now, here we have a little secret password of freemasonry by which fanatical Paris aficionados, French as well as foreign, recognize one another. This word is ‘province.’ With a shrug of the shoulders, the true Parisian, though he may never travel out of the city for years at a stretch, refuses to live in Paris. He lives in the treizième or the deuxième or the dix-huitième; not in Paris but in his arrondissement—in the third, the seventh, the twentieth. And this is the provinces.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, “First Sketches”, p. 832
It took reading Hr. Benjamin’s insight to put the vague apprehension into sharp relief, but as soon as I read those words, I recognized the truth of them in my own experience.
Only the day after the events recounted in Orpheid: L’Arrivée, as I ambled about the 18e, seeking by daylight what I had but glimpsed in a tourbillon of light and colour the night before, I would have the sense—which would never leave me in Montmartre—that this paradis artificiel would be sufficient for a lifetime. You could live in this small tranche of Paris, on its northern outskirts, and never be bored, never have cause to venture outside it.
I seem to associate that sensation of mind—too diffuse to be a thought—with the memory of a man, grey-haired, who shuffled out of the dazzling sunlight and into the cool, wood-panelled oasis of the Café de la Place and up to the comptoir beside me as I was drinking my demi. Between him and the patron passed that secret handshake of freemasonry, the handshake of merely being Montmartreans together on another day in bourgeois paradise, and by the end my time there, the ineffaceable patina of being a ‘Parisian provincial’, a ‘dix-huitièmard’ (to coin a term), would varnish the wood of my soul too.
In her journal article “The Surrealism of the Habitual: From Poetic Language to the Prose of Life” (2011), Alison James discusses surrealist prose poetry with respect to Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations into language. She cites André Breton’s argument in defence of M. Aragon when he was accused, after the publication of one of his poems, of incitement to murder.
… [T]he goal of poetry and art [according to Breton] has always been to soar above the real and above common thought…. In formulating this argument, Breton refers to Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics and in particular to Hegel’s insistence on the distinction between poetry and prose. For Hegel, poetry is the most perfect and universal of the arts because it comes closest to the self-apprehension of spirit. However, its linguistic medium poses a problem, for art ‘ought to place us on ground different from that adopted in everyday life, as well as in our religious ideas and actions, and in the speculations of philosophy’…. Language, when used in poetry, should therefore not be left ‘in a state in which it is used every day’ … but must set itself apart from the ‘common prose of life’ … —an expression that Hegel uses to refer to both the ‘prosaic’ dimension of existence and to linguistic signs that mediate this level of experience.
But in Le Paysan de Paris, M. Aragon (who himself has not infrequent recourse to Hegel) is most trenchant in his view that the prosodic lies in the prosaic. This is perhaps one of the few genuinely revelatory concetti to emerge from surrealism as an intellectual movement and as an artistic mode of militant resistance to the increasing ‘banalization’ of technologically-driven modern life.
Certains lieux, plusieurs spectacles, j’éprouvais leur force contre moi bien grande, sans découvrir le principe de cet enchantement. Il y avait des objets usuels qui, à n’en pas douter, participaient pour moi du mystère, me plongeaient dans le mystère. … Il me semblait bien que l’essence de ces plaisirs fût toute métaphysique, il me semblait bien qu’elle impliquât à leur occasion une sorte de goût passionné de la révélation. Un objet se transfigurait à mes yeux, il ne prenait point l’allure allégorique ni le caractère du symbole; il manifestait moins une idée qu’il n’était cette idée même. Il se prolongeait ainsi profondément dans la masse du monde.
I felt the great power that certain places, certain sights exercised over me, without discovering the principle of this enchantment. Some everyday objects unquestionably contained for me a part of that mystery, plunged me into that mystery. … I felt sure that the essence of such pleasures was entirely metaphysical and involved a sort of passion for revelation with regard to them. The way I saw it, an object became transfigured: it took on neither the allegorical aspect nor the character of the symbol, it did not so much manifest an idea as constitute that very idea. Thus it extended deeply into the world’s mass.
—Louis Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, “Le sentiment de la nature aux Buttes-Chaumont” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), pp. 140-1 [p. 128]
This anti-platonic intuition that objects themselves—in all their crude, material reality—are the eternal Forms is perhaps, as I say, the only really revelatory idea to come out of surrealism, and sets the stage for a ‘poetry of modern life’ that is deeply immersed in the prosaic and the temporal, in the marvellous flux of artificial forms that speed surreally by the flâneur’s eyes in his investigations of arcades and parks.
In his coda to Le Paysan de Paris, M. Aragon indulges himself (perhaps satirically) in one of those chauvinistic manifestoes favoured by the surrealists—or at least by his hierophantic, inquisitorial friend, M. Breton. But M. Aragon is a greater intellect than M. Breton, just as he was a greater writer, and the slash and sweep of his pronouncements cut vividly through, just as the notion articulated in the quote above does, to add in one breathless burst of premises several firm planks to a nascent æsthetic philosophy of literary flâneurism:
Du plus rapide apercevoir une apparition se levait. Je ne me sentais pas responsable de ce fantastique où je vivais. Le fantastique ou le merveilleux. C’est dans cette zone que ma connaissance était proprement la notion. J’y accédais par un escalier dérobé, l’image. La recherche abstraite me l’a fait tenir pour une illusion grossière, et voici qu’à son terme la notion, dans sa forme concrète, avec son trésor de particularités, ne me semble plus en rien différente de ce mode méprisé de la connaissance, l’image, qui est la connaissance poétique, et les formes vulgaires de la connaissance ne sont, sous le prétexte de la science ou de la logique, que les étapes conscientes que brûle merveilleusement l’image, le buisson ardent.
Je sais ce qu’une telle conception choque, et l’objection qu’elle comporte. Un certain sentiment du réel. Pur sentiment. Car où prend-on que le concret soit le réel? N’est-il pas au contraire tout ce qui est hors du réel, le réel n’est-il pas le jugement abstrait, que le concret ne présuppose que dans la dialectique? Et l’image n’a-t-elle pas, en tant que telle, sa réalité qui est son application, sa substitution à la connaissance? Sans doute l’image n’est-elle pas le concret, mais la conscience possible, la plus grande conscience possible du concret. D’ailleurs peu importe l’objection quelle qu’elle soit qu’on oppose à une semblable vue de l’esprit. Cette objection même est une image. Il n’y a pas, foncièrement, une façon de penser qui ne soit une image. Seulement la plupart des images, faiblement prises, ne comportent dans l’esprit qui les emploie aucun jugement de réalité, et c’est par là qu’elles gardent ce caractère abstrait, qui fait leur pauvreté et leur inefficience. Le propre de l’image poétique à l’encontre de l’image essentielle, pour m’en remettre à ce qualificatif médiocre, est de comporter ce caractère de matérialisation, qui a sur l’homme un grand pouvoir, qui lui ferait croire à une impossibilité logique au nom de sa logique. L’image poétique se présente sous la forme du fait, avec tout le nécessaire de celui-ci. Or le fait, que personne jamais n’a songé à contester, fût-ce Hegel, et même celui-ci ne lui accordait-il pas une importance prépondérante, le fait n’est point dans l’objet, mais dans le sujet: le fait n’existe qu’en fonction du temps, c’est-à-dire du langage. Le fait n’est qu’une catégorie. Mais l’image emprunte seulement la forme du fait, car l’esprit peut l’envisager en dehors de lui. L’image donc aux divers stades de son développement apparaît à l’esprit avec toutes les garanties qu’il réclame des modes de sa connaissance. Elle est la loi dans le domaine de l’abstraction, le fait dans celui de l’événement, la connaissance dans le concret. C’est par ce dernier terme qu’on en juge, et qu’on peut brièvement déclarer que l’image est la voie de toute connaissance. Alors on est fondé à considérer l’image comme la résultante de tout le mouvement de l’esprit, à négliger tout ce qui n’est pas elle, à ne s’adonner qu’à l’activité poétique au détriment de toute autre activité.
C’est à la poésie que tend l’homme.
Il n’y a de connaissance que du particulier.
Il n’y a de poésie que du concret.
La folie est la prédominance de l’abstrait et du général sur le concret et la poésie.
La réalité est l’absence apparente de contradiction.
Le merveilleux, c’est la contradiction qui apparaît dans le réel.
L’amour est un état de confusion du réel et du merveilleux. Dans cet état, les contradictions de l’être apparaissent comme réellement essentielles à l’être.
Où le merveilleux perd ses droits commence l’abstrait.
Le fantastique, l’au-delà, le rêve, la survie, le paradis, l’enfer, la poésie, autant de mots pour signifier le concret.
Il n’est d’amour que du concret.
From the swiftest glimpse an apparition arose. I did not feel responsible for this zone of the fantastic in which I was living. The fantastic or the marvellous. It is within this zone that my knowledge constituted true notion. My access to it was by a secret stairway, the image. Abstract research had induced me to consider it a crude illusion, yet finally notion, in its concrete form, with its treasure of particularities, no longer seems to me in any respect different from this despised method of knowledge, the image, which is poetic knowledge; while the vulgar forms of knowledge are nothing more, under their guise of science or logic, than the conscious halting places past which the image scorches, the image transformed marvellously into a burning bush.
I realize how shocking such a conception seems, I know the objection that may be made to it. A certain feeling for the real. For how did the idea come about that it is the concrete which is the real? Is not the concrete, on the contrary, all that is beyond the real, is not the real the abstract judgment which the concrete presupposes only in the dialectical process? And does not the image, as such, possess its own reality which is its application to knowledge, its substitution for it? The image is not in itself the concrete, of course, but the consciousness, the greatest possible consciousness of the concrete. In any case, whatever kind of objection may be made to such a view of the mind is itself of little importance, that very objection being an image. Basically, no way of thought exists that is not an image. However, most images are registered so weakly by the mind employing them that they incarnate absolutely no estimation of reality, and consequently retain the abstract nature which determines their impoverishment and ineffectiveness. The property of the poetic image, as opposed to the essential image, … is to incarnate this quality of materialization, one that exercises a tremendous power over man and is quite capable of making him believe in a logical impossibility in the name of logic. … [T]he image is the path of all knowledge. One is then justified in regarding the image as the resultant of all the mind’s impulses, in ignoring everything that is not image, and in devoting oneself exclusively to poetic activity at the expense of all other activity.
It is towards poetry that man is gravitating.
There is no other knowledge than that of the particular.
There is no other poetry than that of the concrete.
Madness is the predominance of the abstract and the general over the concrete, over poetry.
Reality is the apparent absence of contradiction.
The marvellous is the eruption of contradiction within the real.
Love is a state of confusion between the real and the marvellous. In this state, the contradictions of being seem really essential to being.
Wherever the marvellous is dispossessed, the abstract moves in.
The fantastic, the beyond, dream, survival, paradise, hell, poetry, so many words signifying the concrete.
There is no other love than that of the concrete.
—Louis Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, “Le songe du paysan” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), pp. 243-5, 248 [pp. 213-4, 217]
Thus, in M. Aragon’s surrealistic view, the poetic is quite firmly embedded in the concrete, in the prosaic, and what appeals to the eye as a poetic image provokes M. Rimbaud’s definition of ‘clairvoyance’—literally ‘clear-seeing’—that ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens.’
Etymologically, the concept of ‘surréalisme’ suggests something—a dimension, a reality—above or over concrete reality, and this view of surrealism as a poetic reaction to the banality of the everyday is certainly implied by M. Breton’s appeal to the æsthetic authority of Hegel.
And this doctrinaire view of what it is for a work of art to be ‘surreal’—to be ‘over’-real, too real to be apprehensible with the concrete eye in our diminished platonic state—is a view that M. Aragon appears to reject. One paints not what is in the mind’s eye, superimposing this image, as a kind of overlay, or ‘filter’, upon the image of the world which appeals to our physical vision, but the disruptive element of the marvellous which is always—and already—present within things as their secret substance, the irrational contradictions which are already there, in plain sight but overlooked, ignored by consciousness.
La vie parisienne est féconde en sujets poétiques et merveilleux. Le merveilleux nous enveloppe et nous abreuve comme l’atmosphère; mais nous ne le voyons pas.
Parisian life is abundant in marvellous and poetic subjects. The marvellous surrounds us and suckles us like the air, but we do not see it.
Hr. Benjamin, in his classic essay on surrealism, written when the movement was already on the intellectual decline, speaks of it as possessing access to ‘profane illumination’. With as cunning an artificer as Hr. Benjamin, we must assume that an indirect reference to the title of M. Rimbaud’s prose poetry collection (which he cites directly in his essay) is not coincidental.
Taking the word ‘vulgar’ in its Catholic sense, the ‘vulgar incidents’ and the ‘vulgar objects’ of our banal, artificial modernity shine forth their ‘profane illuminations’, and as M. Aragon states in his preface to Le Paysan de Paris:
Des mythes nouveaux naissent sous chacun de nos pas. Là où l’homme a vécu commence la légende, là où il vit. … Chaque jour se modifie le sentiment moderne de l’existence. Une mythologie se noue et se dénoue. … M’appartient-il, j’ai déjà vingt-six ans, de participer à ce miracle? Aurai-je longtemps le sentiment du merveilleux quotidien? Je le vois qui se perd dans chaque homme qui avance dans sa propre vie comme dans un chemin de mieux en mieux pavé, qui avance dans l’habitude du monde avec une aisance croissante, qui se défait progressivement du goût et de la perception de l’insolite.
New myths spring up beneath each step we take. Legend begins where man has lived, where he lives. … Each day the modern sense of existence becomes subtly altered. A mythology ravels and unravels. … I am already twenty-six years old, am I still privileged to take part in this miracle? How long shall I retain this sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence? I see it fade away in every man who advances into his life as though along an always smoother road, who advances into the world’s habits with an increasing ease, who rids himself progressively of the taste and texture of the unwonted, the unthought of.
—Louis Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, “Préface à une mythologie moderne” (translated by Simon Watson Taylor), pp. 15-6 [p. 24]
In fine, rather than a superimposition of something above this reality upon our vision of it, the surrealist dérèglement is ‘seeing anew’, perceiving the marvellous reality of the poetic that is already there in our stultifying banality, the irrational discordances between our bizarre, artificial objects and customs—the whole apparatus of ‘le spectacle’, as Guy Debord calls it—which familiarity with them has made us blind to.
As Ms. James explains, Hr. Wittgenstein was deeply concerned with the problem of ‘re-concretizing’ language (to coin a term), to bring words back from the airy abstractions of the intellectuals and re-couple them to the gold standard of everyday usage. But, as she states in her article, ‘[r]ather than “bringing words back”, [surrealism] is a literature that aims to defamiliarize, to make new, to take language and thought away from the commonplace.’
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, cited in James (2011, p. 416)
Refamiliarization by defamiliarization: To take the pseudo-Freudian aspect of surrealism’s revolutionary program, if we are so immersed in the abstract, artificial spectacle of modern life that we cannot perceive the irrational discordances embedded in our artefacts and customs, the defamiliarization of abstracted language serves as a lens to consciously refocus our inward vision upon the madness of our concrete reality.
One might say that the prose poetic impulse to ‘see the ordinary anew’ is a function of Ezra Pound’s demand of modern artists that they should ‘make it new’—create (as M. Aragon seeks to do in Le Paysan de Paris) a mythology of the modern which is itself the basis of a new classicism.
The classical forms of poetry are unsuited to the spirit and conditions of our prosaic modern life, one in which Mr. Kurtz’s horror is kept in continual, uneasy abeyance, but which forever threatens to eclipse and overwhelm us. Beauty and horror, as M. Baudelaire, exercising profound clairvoyance, could perceive at the birth of modern poetry, are the two sides of the coin of banality we trade in daily.
Thus, in this banal, prosy landscape of indentured drudgery which is the modern city, perhaps only a ‘poetic’ prose, one which re-alerts us to the omnipresent but invisible marvellous by stealth, appropriating the utilitarian literary form of prose which science and commerce have elevated to a global lingua franca, is the only means to be authentically a ‘poet’ in this open-air, unbarred prison we all live in.
The poet in prose sneaks his profane illuminations of the marvellous reality, the beauty of our universal horror, out through the horizontal bars of uniform, black-inked type. He squeezes the folded letter out through the bars, but because it is written in prose, the cryptic cypher of the concealed poem fails signally to reach all but his fellow illuminati—the brethren of other flâneuristic souls who suffer in our Edenic Hell.
… [T]he most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance. The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.
The situationists, who were really the last inheritors of the tribal, faddish tendencies of European modernism, tracing their line of descent directly from the surrealists, were also, like them, one of the last résistants to the bulldozing banality of modern life, the flipside of its horrible beauty.
In their pseudo-scientific study of the urban environment known as psychogeography, and more specifically in their method of scientific investigation, the dérive(literally, the ‘drift’), the situationists codified a method of experimental urban exploration pioneered by the surrealists, and of which M. Aragon gives us perhaps the first scientific account in the second movement of Le Paysan de Paris: “Le sentiment de la nature aux Buttes-Chaumont” (“A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont”).
In that section, he describes how he, M. Breton, and a fellow Surrealist, Marcel Noll, undertook an ambitious pilgrimage one night to the parc des Buttes-Chaumont, in the 19earrondissement, on the northeastern outskirts of Paris. Assailing the gates of the citadel (which they found, to their surprise and delight, to be open), the three amigos undertook a circumambulation of the park, which centres around a man-made lake and a tiny, mountainous island. At the top of the butte is a very picturesque little belvedere which one approaches by means of a footbridge known to Parisians as ‘le pont des Suicidées’ because it’s a charming spot to take a brodie from.
The dérive, to my mind, is slightly different to flânerie, and therefore more suited to having a ‘surreal experience’ of the ordinary places of modernity, such as the parc des Buttes-Chaumont as M. Aragon describes it in Le Paysan de Paris.
The dérive, in my experience, is more about the absorption and synthesis of the ‘trade winds of vibe’ that course through the vectors of the urban milieu, while flânerie is an æsthetic investigation, and therefore more analytic. The flâneur is on the hunt for modernity, as M. Baudelaire says, whereas the dériveur opens himself up to being a willing prey to modernity’s alternating, alienating vibes of beauty and horror.
Daydreaming is one of the key sources of poetry—a poem often starts as a daydream that finds its way into language—and walking seems to bring a sort of alertness, an associative kind of thinking, a drifting state of mind.
A walk is a way of entering the body, and also of leaving it. I am both here and there, betwixt and between, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else. I move in a liminal space.
You will recall, chers lecteurs, that in my previous post I said that the bar, the café, the scene of Vivian Sobchack’s ‘lounge time’ and another site of flânerie, was a ‘liminal social space’. Whether walking or pausing in his progress, the flâneur’s natural environment is not so much the city itself as liminal space—adjacent places of multiple, contradictory usage, spheres of ambiguity, sites of transitory passage.
Mr. Hirsch, in his article, delineates the types of walking, and he cites Thoreau, who mistook the origins of the word ‘saunter’, a type of frolicking stroll akin to flânerie at its most energetic, as coming from medieval pilgrimages ‘à la Sainte Terre’ (to the Holy Land). Mr. Hirsch sets us straight on this score, telling us that ‘[t]he word saunter comes from santer, meaning “to muse”, to “be in a reverie”’. Thus, the flâneuristic relationship between walking and thinking is still completed in the word, though not in the way Mr. Thoreau imagined.
Mr. Hirsch goes on to describe this ambulatory form of reverie, this ‘dream-walking’ while wide-awake, as ‘a way of ruminating, … a form of labor without laboring, what Kant calls “purposiveness without purpose.”’
Now, these two paradoxical phrases are instructive, for a phrase of my own which you will encounter time and again in the Orpheid is the description of ‘our presumptuous little hero’ as being engaged in the equally paradoxical occupation of ‘productive indolence’: My flâneuristic days in Paris were taken up with the ‘work’ of walking, of thinking, of lounging in cafés, of writing in parks, of drawing at the Louvre. By the standards of our technocratic society, I was a ‘fainéant’—literally, a ‘do-nothing’, an idler, and yet I have never, in my entire life, turned out more pages of prose, and poetry, and art, than in those days.
That’s the flâneurial paradox of Hirsch’s ‘labor without laboring’, of Kant’s ‘purposiveness without purpose’, and my own ‘productive indolence’: the prosaic poet of modern life is a résistant in the ‘Worker’s Paradise’ of the City, a passive idler by the standards of commerce, but as much of a driven ‘producer’—and not a passive consumer—as one of Ayn Rand’s technocratic supermen.
I had my own ‘dérive à trois’ at the parc des Buttes-Chaumont, with a couple of Californian friends I met in Paris, one of whom I still keep in occasional contact with. It was nothing near as blissful as M. Aragon’s tramp by night with MM. Breton et Noll, but I still remember the vivid poetry of life in ‘les Tuileries des gens’: a girl, lying on the grass in the sunshine, reading Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale in a cream-coloured, Gallimard wrapper; the gaggle of little French schoolchildren who descended on us from the pont des Suicidées as we paused in our ramble under the shelter of the belvedere at the top of the butte.
Rereading my second draft of the account of that day, I notice that I say that the children’s voices ‘perfumed’ the air for me, a poetic tournure that suggests the evanescent beauty that quite ordinary (and I’m sure, for my companions, quite unmemorable) incursion into our sanctuary had for me as we gazed back towards Sacré Cœur.
The ambition is still to tell the story of that day, and of the days preceding it, when an Englishman we met introduced me to my destiny as a poet, albeit in prose. To be a flâneur; to be deeply embedded as an anarchic undercover résistant in this prosaic modern reality, with its banal horror and flashes of beauty; to be able to see, and to say, both; to allow the dérèglement du dérive to surreally overtake one like a drug, but then to be able to apply analysis to the parts of one’s pleasure;—that is really what it is to be a prose poet.
But that memoir of my halcyon days in Paris is some way off. In the meantime, if what I have said here has whetted your appetite for what might just be one of the most surreal reading experiences you’ve ever had, do you dare to take a walk on the wild side, accompanying yours truly on a neurotic comic dérive around Montmartre by night?
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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.
“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.
Special shout-out to one of my readers in Brisbane, Mr. Glen Available of Scenic Writers Shack. Today’s video on The Melbourne Flâneur is the fulfilment of the infinitely delayed promise to Mr. Glen that the third instalment in my ongoing series of extracts from the novel I am currently writing, set in what he describes as ‘Australia’s third best city’, would be delivered ‘soon(ish)’.
‘Soon(ish)’, for me, evidently means eighteen months after Episode 2—but in my defence, Your Honour, I plead extenuating circumstances and throw myself upon the mercy of the Court. As I explain in the video above, I was all set to shoot Episode 3 at Broadford, or Seymour, or some equally picturesque spot in the vicinity of same, in March of last year when the Coronavirus caused us all to slam down steel shutters everywhere.
I never got to Broadford, but I think the universe was saving the video for a more suitably picturesque locale—the beautiful San Remo, a mere bridge-span from the world-famous Phillip Island, which you can just see behind me in the video.
I only had to get through three lockdowns (including one last week at San Remo itself) before circumstances finally smiled upon me and I had the perfect opportunity to shoot this video. Perfect, that is, except for the light shower you see occasionally moistening your Melbourne Flâneur, who was sans his trademark trenchcoat because the BOM promised him a sunny day!
The excerpt I read in the video is set in the Pig ’n’ Whistle, a veritable Brisbane institution with venues all over town. I was in the Brunswick street pub, in Fortitude Valley, one evening, debriefing my brains with my journal, when I happened to look up and see a scene from John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) playing, silently, on the TV in the corner of the bar. It was the scene where Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones are enjoying una bella giornata on the terrace of an Italian villa, and no twist of fate could have pleased me more than to have an opportunity to regale you with my blow-by-blow analysis of Bogie’s textbook seduction with the Italianate backdrop of San Remo and Phillip Island alle spalle.
I hope it was worth the eighteen-month wait.
Eighteen months to go from 62 per cent completion of the second draft to 91 per cent might seem, to the blissfully uninitiated, a rather leisurely pace of literary production. What was, when I last updated you in this post, a novella of less than 40,000 words has, in that time, crossed the Rubicon into novel territory and is now advancing on 60,000 words. It’s been a difficult project for me since its commencement more than four years ago, and it’s only since February last year, when I finished revising and rewriting the section I share with you in the video, that I’ve really started to get a firm handle on this project.
Mr. Glen, in a recent post on his blog, admits—stout fellow—that he hasn’t the stamina for the marathon which is novel-writing. It’s a brave admission. But you may as well say that you haven’t the strength to write a book, for whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the discipline of long-form writing is the same, and I would argue that the literary demands of non-fiction are as great, if not greater, than those of fiction.
Even I, after five books, went through a dark period just a few years ago, when this story was still in the infancy of its second draft, where I came to the sobering conclusion that it would die stillborn with me and I would never publish another book. Like Glen, I feared I hadn’t the strength and stamina to write in the tens of thousands of words anymore.
Fortunately, I recovered my mojo pour les mots, and though, having just passed my thirty-eighth lap of the sun last month, I find my physical energy for the mental exertion of writing is appreciably less than it was when I was 28, or 18, I nevertheless feel, as a writer, that I’m just coming into my prime.
It’s a strange intimation from the universe, for I’ve made no renovations in my style; that, I think, was set in stone by the age of thirty. Rather, I think, a writer, as he ages, uses his voice more adroitly. What he has to say and how he says it more seamlessly dovetails into one another; and perhaps, like all artists whose late styles have a loose, bravura freedom about them, a sense of the elegant essence of their youthful style now unconstrained—like Henry James in his late novels, for instance—there is more efficiency in how what an aging writer has to say dovetails with the way in which he says it.
Oy vey, that was a rather late-Jamesian sentence. But to summarize: the two, in other words, are more firmly and happily wedded.
The exigencies of being a businessman, of hiring my Montblanc out aux autres, of course eats into one’s time and energy for one’s own writing, but if anything, the mid-life rigours of running my pen on the rationalistic basis of a business has put infrastructure and processes under my own writing process, so that, even if I still sweat blood over every word I commit myself to, trying to make it le seul mot juste, I’m still more efficient than I was when I practised my art merely for art’s own sake.
And when, during our epic second lockdown in Melbourne, the decline in confidence correlated with a dip in demand for my personal services, I had not just the free time but the infrastructure and processes in place to really advance this work in progress—along with all my other artistic projects.
You’ll have to peel off my fingernails one by one to get me to admit there’s any good in lockdowns, but for writers or anyone else who is the least artistically inclined, I can offer this from my own experience of house arrest: Treat your art in a business-like manner and develop an infrastructure and internal processes for managing your time and assessing your progress. For when something like a four-month lockdown comes along, it’s manna from heaven in terms of making day-to-day progress on your projects.
And this commitment to day-to-day doing, I think, is the essential difference between being ‘an author’ and being ‘a writer’.
I first heard Hunter S. Thompson advance this line of reasoning many years ago, and it stuck with me. I don’t remember where I read it, but it may have been in The Rum Diary (1959). You can be the author of a book, he said, without necessarily being a writer. It doesn’t necessarily require any literary predisposition to be the author of a published book—and I can say without any irony or glib disparagement that the publishing landscape of today amply justifies Mr. Thompson’s view.
Of course, on deeper examination, the equation balances the other way, too: you can be a writer without necessarily being an author. But that realization is less revelatory than the one implicit in Mr. Thompson’s distinction between writers and authors.
And that realization is this: The fundamental difference between being a writer and being an author can be boiled down to the grammatical difference between being someone who does something and someone who has done something, between the present-tense act of writing itself and the past-tense achievement of having written a book which has then been published.
I’ve never forgotten how my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Foley, drummed into us the notion that the ‘-er’ and ‘-or’ suffixes mean ‘one who’—one who does something in the present tense. A writer, therefore, is ‘one who writes’.
But, English being a devil of a language, it doesn’t quite work the other way around. An author is not ‘one who auths’.
Shakespearean as it sounds, ‘to auth’ is not an occupation; it’s not even a verb. And yet to be ‘an author’ of a book signifies a past-tense achievement, some work that has been written and has been crowned with the ultimate literary laurel of publication, but which does not indicate that the individual in question is presently engaged in literary labours.
Having published five books, I guess I have the right to call myself ‘an author’, to rest on those laurels, but if I firmly believe, as I said in my last post, that a man is what he does, it follows that he isn’t what he has done.
It gets philosophical here, for at some fundamental level, to do is to be. When an animal stops doing, it dies. And then it stops being. The same with a man. When we stop engaging with all the living passion of our being in the creative activities which define us and instead sit in the empire of our past achievements, we’re as good as done.
In the dark days when I seriously thought my days of ‘authoring’ were over and I wouldn’t have the distinction to call myself an author on a sixth day of my life, the work in progress on that day being achevé, my thoughts born and holdable in my hands as a book, the only thought that cheered me was the notion that the doing is the thing.
We confuse being ‘a writer’ with being ‘an author’, the doing with the done, and consequently place too much value on publication as the quantifiable, verifiable product of our labours, when really it is the present-tense production of words, written by our own hands on pages, that signifies the ‘one who’ activity of being a writer.
As Jasmine B. Ulmer observes in her journal article “Writing Slow Ontology” (2017), there is an ontology, a specific mode of being coupled with this activity of doing. One isn’t a writer when one has ‘done’ the writing, but as one does it. The internal economy of the being who writes is connected, in that present-tense activity, with the words that pour out of his hand, thought and act being uniquely united in the process of writing.
And the awareness that there is a unique ontology to my profession and my art-form, that there is a unique mode of being in this doing which I do for its own sake, day by day, drawing slowly, inexorably, and with hope and faith towards the single day when what I am writing is done and published—but never counting on that day, never taking it for granted as a given vouchsafed by God—is particularly relevant to what I write; to what I have to say as a writer; and how I say it through my style.
This work in progress, like all my books, being a Sistine Chapel I’m always on my back to, the tirelessly retouched tableau of days of my life first sketched in the pages of my journal, is the infinitely rewritten act of that first writing, and therefore of experiences and sensations which my being actually did and had done to it.
And when it comes to the question of why a man would waste whole days of his life (as it might seem to denser souls) tirelessly rewriting in successive drafts the history of minute acts and experiences in other days of his life, the answer is circularly resolved by the ontology of the craft: I am a writer, and writing is what I do.
I look forward in hope and faith to the day when I can say this work is done and I can share with you the whole story of a few minutes of my life when a woman gave me a strange revelation between her legs, one which has always stuck with me as a tale I owed it to her soul, her being, as much as to my own, to tell—a modest testament to what James Joyce, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), calls ‘the reality of experience’.
But if I were to meet with an accident before the work was achevé, that day of doneness when, mother unburdened of her travail, and I could call myself, for the sixth time, ‘an author’, I would feel more sanguine about the prospect than I used to as a younger man. Franz Kafka died a writer rather than an author and couldn’t even finish the three novels upon which his reputation rests. Indeed, he ordered his friend, Max Brod, to burn his writings, the evidence of his peculiar being on this plain, which must have seemed to him a hilarious hell.
The doing was enough for him. He would have been joyously, beatifically content if we had lost the evidence of his unique being. Achievement and the past-tense plaudits of publication were anathema to Herr Kafka’s perverse soul.
So I say to other writers who, as I do, despair of finishing what they start, the doing is the thing. Be a writer and let the achievement of your project take care of itself in the doing of your days.
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.