The Finality Of Narrative: Jonathan Meades On Chris Petit's Butchers Of Berlin
, August 21st, 2016 08:50
In the filmmaker and writer's latest novel, Jonathan Meades finds cause to question the conservatism of narrative, and an artist who has succeeded in transcending his medium where others have more recently failed
Were narrative just another ephemeral vogue word it would be merely irritating, a vapid tic of ill usage that bulks out expressions of hackneyed thoughtlessness and attempts to dignify them. One thinks of performative, notional, haptic, iconic - sure giveaways of the sub-literacy that abounds in the linguistic tragedy called art-speak but which remain largely confined to that debased milieu. They are silly add-ons, written and spoken by people whose hands and mouth might be usefully gaffer-taped. They are meaningless. They signify everything and nothing.
Narrative is, however, charged with meaning - a single meaning. It is programmatic. It explicitly countenances a perception of the world and of our place in it, our relationship to it. It is tied to the doggedly linear, to a progression that is arithmetical rather than geometrical. Its meaning is not mutable. A follows N and precedes R and R and a further A...The letters are not to be scrambled. They are set in stone. The temporal flow is not to be interrupted - the river (non-tidal, evidently) cannot suddenly go into reverse and head back upstream. There is a finality about narrative. It appears in its familiarity to be a solace: it is actually a mental trap, a comforting convention which crushes curiosity for we know where it's going. It inevitably culminates in a denouement. In fiction, with the resolution of a mystery, a romantic consumation or the achievement of a goal. In life, with death.
For a long period of the twentieth century forms which exist in time - film, theatre, fiction, music - were freed from submission to narrative's straitjacket. This was not always a successful endeavour. But that was hardly the point. The unities were constructed by humans. The edifice could be dismantled by humans. It was acknowledged by the presciently adventurous that the word 'novel' was synonymous with new. It was further acknowledged that there was an aesthetic obligation to honour that recognition. Just as painters amended the five hundred year practice of perspective, abjuring it as the one true way, so did writers toy with linearity, contorting it whilst not entirely dumping it. Sartre, whose literary judgment was as skewed as his political, wrote of the 'anti-novel'. He could not have been more wrong. All he did was reveal a prejudice in favour of the realism he himself practised. Works which fail to display that property are not 'anti' anything. His implication of course was that the novel should be narrative and naturalistic: so let's forget Rabelais, Sterne, Swift, Carroll, Potocki etc.
And forgotten they were when - after an brief era when imagination was applied to form and style, when the techniques of cinematic editing were briefly influential, when the unexpected was sought and great work was (of course) deemed unreadable - comforting 'normalcy' was resumed.
The story... Characters... Character 'development'... 'Identification' with characters... What happens next...
The novel's conservatism was reestablished. There was a beginning, a middle and an end - and, unfortunately, they were in that order.
The almost perpetual revolutions in aesthetic stance which occurred in the visual arts were rarely to be found in prose works and when they are they often result in the aridity of the self-consciously 'experimental'. In the visual arts, and in film, protean forces are forever at work. Much visual art can have no correspondence with literary art. There is a line of declining matter and increasing vacuity from Cezanne through Picasso and Braque and countless isms to Pollock, Motherwell and CIA approved scribbles. Then, no better but less dodgily funded, came LeWitt, Long, André, Judd, Serra, Christo, Stella, Emin, Koons and Dan Graham. The intellectually void, fantastically self-important, laughably humourless, boorishly showy dross wrought by such art-operatives (or art CEOs) is inimical to the literary process. The works exist. They are. That's all. They are are about nothing. They are placebo art, affectless. But for all their emptiness they did not copy the past, mostly.
Picasso - feted, groupie'd and championed by such biased patricians as Douglas Cooper and John Richardson - is the giant of The Twentieth Century Tradition. That's the received idea, the on dit. That's what decades of publicity have told us.
There is another, unsung, still partially occluded and vastly more worthwhile tradition which attends to the enormities and unprecedented phenomena of that benighted century rather than shy away from them into art about art or use them - as Picasso did in Guernica - to advertise the artist's big-hearted compassion. His anti-academicism is lauded by academe. Which could never happen in the case of that academic tradition which stretches from 19th century hyper-realism of Brett, Hughes and Grimshaw (one of the less recognised reactions to photography was to mimic it) to the 'new objectivity' and 'magic realism' of Holland and predominantly, Germany.
Academic, literary, figurative: these are habitual insults in the self-referential playground of Artworld. And such masters as Dix, Schad, Willink, Burra, Grosz would be appalled to be tarred by that brush. But they are far closer to academe than they are to abstraction. They are not ashamed to follow European practices and techniques. They have a subject, subjects. The paramount subject is catastrophe. And their work is literary though, being frozen in space, it quite lacks narrative. Whatever it is saying is not disclosed. Ambiguity is ubiquitous. Multiple meanings abound. There is no 'next'. The artist's attitude to his subjects, whether human or inanimate is indiscernible. One thing it is not is 'objective'. The term neue sachlichkeit was the coinage of a taxonomically inclined provincial curator and could hardly be less appropriate.
Chris Petit's The Butchers of Berlin is set in that already devastated city in 1943. The novel persistently gives the impression of being mediated by the painting that had been brought to a halt ten years earlier by the Nazi seizure of power, the unsparing painting that told truths which were invidious to a tyranny whose notion of art was bogus heroism and saccharine sentimentality (the inevitable flip side is brutality). It is useful in the context of this book to recall Jean-Francois Revel's dictum that 'there are no genres only talents.' Police procedural? Thriller? Whodunit? I don't know. But then anything that is good is essentially unclassifiable, which is why we should treat such labels as 'new objectivity' with caution if not contempt. Were one to sketch Petit's characters, mostly from various agencies ( civilian police, Gestapo, SS) against the back drop of the city they would be mere tiny insects dominated by the vast and uncompromising decor. As in many films of the wretchedly curtailed Weimar period the sets impose themselves. Their scale is out of proportion to the human body. They are not neutral. Nor are they correlative objects which implicitly grant primacy to the mostly uncomprehending dramatis personae. The back drop is not the back drop. It is the foreground. The decor is not the decor. It is the subject: there is no rule - save in the book of the conservative, institutionalised novel - which states that humans must come first. Under an immane regime like the Third Reich they don't come first. They are dwarfed by the impersonal state in which 'there is no private life' (Robert Ley, head of KdF). To effect that absence of privacy everyone is a spy. The spy spies on the spy spying on the spy. This might be considered preparation for life in the DDR. Petit's characters, involved in a series of murders as gruesome as any imagined by Derek Raymond, are rendered slight by the enormity of the crimes but more by the unforgiving city - an invention rather than a depiction. An invention which is chromatically subfusc, ever shade of black and brown from burnt sacking to dried blood. It's something of a tour de force. Though I would question a couple of sentences: 'There was even a blue sky.' (p.88) and 'Outside was sunny for a change.' They make you want to scream: no, the sky was, as usual, the colour or crematorium ash and the 'sun' was probably a mix of toxic chemicals in the sky.
Many of the characters are people who actually existed. Goering is spotted having bought a model train to add to his collection. Whether the 'real' Nebe (hanged for his part in the plot against Hitler) was as polished and wily as Petit's Nebe is anyone's guess. The lecherous drunk Francis Alwynd is evidently based on the Irish writer and fellow traveller of the NSDAP Francis Stuart. The monomaniacal blood and soil theorist Walther Darré, who drank himself to death on his release from prison, is an off stage absentee.
This is the third novel by a writer who is also a filmmaker that I have read in the past couple of years. It is a novel written by a novelist. The others weren't. They were competent screenplays laid out on the page like novels. That is to say they were blueprints, plans. Nothing more. They were awaiting a DoP, a director, a designer, actors etc. Neither writer evinced the slightest indication that he realised the two media were different from each other. Billy Wilder, who did know the difference, remarked that 'details in writing have to be photographable.' Even when employing the usually coarse, usually overbearing technology of computer animation, film has limits. Is a telling simile photographable? Prose fiction possesses a suppleness which is, or can be, peerless. How on earth do you film 'bronchial trees'? I can't imagine that Petit will show us. He knows very well that the sort of novel which adapts successfully to film is what Anthony Burgess, with bitter irony, called Class A - dull prose, plot, arithematical progression, narrative and more narrative. The sort of novel that is good for the bank balance and little else.