John Payne in W.G Sebald’s Footsteps….
There is no doubt in my mind that Austerlitz Station in Paris is the key to this rather enigmatic novel which draws a personal and emotional and rather misleading map of Europe, said John, misleading in that the novel appears to be meandering nowhere and the story and what the novel is really about only emerges towards the end of the book. As I was saying to Eric St Lazaire the last time we met, 40 years ago the 20.00 from Paris Austerlitz to Toulouse carried three carriages which were detached in Toulouse, shunted round to the neighbouring platform and then formed the morning train to La Tour de Carol, from where a connecting train carried on through the Pyrenees to Barcelona. On the particular morning in question, said John, I had a special reason which I have no intention of disclosing for avoiding the frontier guards on the more normal route through Port Bou. At 7am in the morning the train stopped in the snow at a tiny station called L’Hospitalet près de l’Andorre. A few hardy souls climbed down onto the platform and were no doubt heartened by the fact that the bus which would carry then across the pass into Andorra, weather permitting, was already standing outside the station. As Eric St Lazaire stated at the time, this sounds a rather pointless story but he became increasingly animated as I explained to him that La Tour de Carol lay just a few miles from Mont St Louis (or Mont Sant Lluís as the Catalans call it) which is an intricate Vauban fortress erected after the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 to ensure that the Spanish would never again rule the upper reaches of the Cerdagne / Cerdaña / Cerdanya, depending on your linguistic and political preferences, not to mention the Conflent and the Petit Train Bleu. From Austerlitz station, said John, when I arrived back in Paris again by the same rather circuitous route I walked carrying my rucksack, purchased at an army surplus store in Bath on the site now occupied by the City of Bath College to the Jardin des Plantes, which has plants but is really a zoo, or that at any rate is why it plays such an important part in a novel called Rayuela (Hopscotch in English, a literal translation) by an Argentinean novelist called Julio Cortázar who was plotting his own personal and emotional geography around Europe in the footsteps of W.G. Sewald who had still not worked out exactly why the Jardin des Plantes was significant but Cortázar knew that is was something about the way the animals looked at you with a mute desperation that seemed to sum up the condition of all life on earth from human beings to pandas about to become extinct or the fly that you have just crushed with your newspaper containing dire warnings about the threat of global warming on the window of the Lamb pub in Frome. To continue, said John, St Lazaire reported to me that Cortázar had also been seen on the Circle Line in London, spending entire days travelling round and round the city which again may have something to do with the circular meaninglessness of time, space and human life. Though the Scots, said St Lazaire, have their own way of enacting this ritual on the Glasgow Subway emerging for a pint of beer at each station on the line, also known as the Clockwork Orange, thereby ensuring that it is only ever possible to complete the trip in a state of total inebriation which, said John, is the most rational response to the meaningless circularity of human life and is another example of why Scottish society is the only truly rational society in Europe. Occasionally Cortázar and his friends would emerge from the Circle Line and spend hours in the gallery of the old Courtauld Institute in Bloomsbury, only accessible by lift, where they would sit on a deep sofa and gaze at the three great Cézannes specially placed to remind Argentineans that their spiritual home is neither Buenos Aires nor Rome, but London. The real reason, said John, why the Courtauld Gallery had to move home to Somerset House was that it became totally inadequate for all the gap-year Argentinians keen to inflict their inquisitorial gaze on the work of the great master. Everything in this account is true, said John, and I believe him though later in his account of the girl with the broken shoe in Prague in 1968 I was less sure, but before that he told me about his habit of sleeping in the Bibliothèque Nationale in the rue Richelieu in Paris on his long circuitous journeys between Barcelona and London. His habit was to request the most obscure book he could find in the Latin American catalogue, sleep for at least 2 hours at is numbered desk, and once the book was delivered, he would go out to ring his friend W-P. They always ate at the same bistro in the rue Richelieu, in the afternoon John would read his book and later they would have dinner always somewhere near the Gare du Nord so that W-P could see him onto the Night Ferry to London via Dunkirk. The Prague ghetto had been uppermost in his mind since he met a Czech girl with a broken shoe in Prague in the summer of 1968. More a sandal than a shoe and by the Charles Bridge in the Mala Strana which the translator of the book we are talking about tonight calls for some strange reason the Lesser Quarter. But then the Russians arrived and he did not see the girl again or get to visit Terezin, but later he showed Alain Resnais’ film Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) to his students, and indeed St Lazaire explained to me that Sebald mentions Resnais on page 364 and his film Toute la Mémoire du Monde about the Bibliothèque Nationale. I stopped going to Paris, said John, for reasons which I would rather not talk about and so have never seen the new building which Sebald explains is up-river a little from Austerlitz Station, the Jardin des Plantes being downstream, and doubt its real existence. St Lazaire said to me the last time we met that this position of John’s on the non-existence of the new library is entirely in keeping with the Resnais film L’Année Dernière à Marienbad which he happened to know John had seen in the Octagon in Bath in 1962 when the Bath Film Society had met there, and in the same season were Wild Strawberries and Battleship Potemkin, which John claims is why he can never understand the plot of Hollywood movies. If you are lost on this one, please ask Clive as I am sure he will know about this formally interesting little film about a spa town in Bohemia, formally circular just like the Clockwork Orange or the Circle Line and needing large quantities of alcohol to fully appreciate. The Glasgow-Paris link, said John is buried deep within my subconscious and has resisted all attempts including hypnotherapy to retrieve but what is extraordinary about Austerlitz, I refer now to the novel by Sebald and not the station in Paris or even Sebald’s character of the same name, is that there is a story that emerges from the night and fog and circularity of all things which is linear, true, actually happened, is distressing, gripping, compelling even. I shall not forget it, said John, but first I need to remember it.
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