CLAIR OBSCUR is a novel that grapples with contradiction. “The contradictions the mind comes up against,” runs the epigraph by Simone Weil, “these are the only realities: they are the criterion of the real. There is no contradiction that is imaginary. Contradiction is the test of necessity.” Necessity, though, isn’t certainty, and immanence doesn’t imply understanding. In Louis Armand’s 2011 ciné-roman, set alternately in Trieste and Marseille, contradiction could be said to play the central role. The main character, Chiara (in Italian meaning “clear”) is surrounded by obscurities. Her quest – for her dead mother, for her lover’s interest, for the truth of what happened during WWII – can only proceed through contradiction, like a black and white film in which all the drama is created by a play of chiaroscuro. The only solidity that counts is the basic fact of the film itself. Even the historical dimension of the drama is never any more concrete than an opposing of viewpoints. A shot-reverse-shot. This is the source of the novel’s overwhelming sense of anxiety. Chiara’s subjectivity is less threatened than it is overwhelming, since everything she is permitted to know must be drawn from an inner resource. There is no external form of testimony that can be relied upon, only competing rhetorics (the drama oscillates between Fascist Northern Italy and Vichy France; between a past enshrined in official documents, diaries, personal effects and a present that circulates in a sequence of semi-spaces – film sets, archaeological sites, accidental encounters on trains, failed rendezvous). Contradiction, then, is both the form and motive of the novel. The camera’s forensic eye draws us inexorably towards an end in which no accumulation of evidence will ever amount to the truth. This, of course, is already to understand “contradiction” differently, since there is no possible alternative state of affairs. “There can only be talk about ‘contradiction,’” Habermas reminds us, “in the light of consistency requirements, which lose their authority or are at least subordinate to other demands – of an aesthetic nature, for example – if logic loses its conventional primacy over rhetoric.” In a world in which logic has lost that primacy, in which consistency is itself a rhetorical ploy, the novel contradicts “the last edifice of disbelief you’ve been able to erect.” We find ourselves, like Armand’s protagonist, caught as if in a dream, on the other side of the film in which we’ve imagined ourselves acting, where what we once were was nothing but a trick of light.
Morning. A street in Marseille. A woman (M) gazing into a shop window:
REPARATIONS DE POUPÉES ET BÉBÉS
À LA MINUTE
POUPÉES EN TOUS GENRES
It’s seven minutes past nine o’clock. M is standing on the footpath in front of the shop. A close-up in profile shows only her face and the intensity, or lack of intensity, in her expression. Behind the shop’s windows are displayed a curious array of objects: prostheses for the crippled (wooden legs, dentures, surgical corsets), women’s lingerie, wigs and shoes. Mirrored glass partitions located at regular intervals throughout the shop articulate the shadows cast by the various objects on display, producing the effect of a multiple diorama with peepholes and mannequins, simultaneous perspectives between object and voyeur. A sense of mystery pervades this scene. (what precisely is on display here? What for sale?)
Behind a glass panel, smeared with a residue of dust where someone had made a lackadaisical effort to polish it, a photograph of a female nude in classical pose (a French sailor’s cap set at an incongruously jaunty angle on her head), slightly disfigured by a tear in the paper running the length of her body down one side, lies at the foot of a mannequin draped in a satin négligée. In the background, a series of rooms comprised of angled planes like triangular holes punched through an architect’s setsquare at its base, revealing fragments of azure sky above a canal: a tinted etching in the style, perhaps, of vermeer. Beside it, as though framing part of the décor of a photographer’s studio, a wooden protractor, whose hole rhymes with the anatomical navel depicted by the nude, or the mythic omphalos (suggested by the vaguely maritime theme), its ultimate, unknown centre. This simple and indeed rather old-fashioned instrument seems itself to function as a motif for an achieved order, a rational symmetry, in counterpoint to the obvious decadence of the display window, represented above all by the moulded gilt cornices of the picture frame surrounding the nude photograph, its Baroque design virtually identical to the lace fringe of the mannequin’s négligée.
Additionally, the surface of the windowpane is traversed by shadows and reflections in which M’s face appears lost among strewn pieces of sky, masonry, clothes-lines strung across balconies, passing cars and buses, sunlight flaring momentarily in the clouded glass. This apparently two-dimensional plane constantly defies us to account for its veritable Balkanisation: a collage of conflicted, intersecting or overlapping fragments the naked eye is powerless to interpret as anything but a type of perversion (the nude in the sailor’s cap, the etched background, the rooms and angled planes, the tear, the mannequin, the countless reflections, residues, stigmata even). And as if this weren’t enough, the glass of the windowpane itself is distressed and subject to erratic distortions, depending upon the angle at which it is looked through. At times foreshortened, at others distended, the image thus seemingly contained in it appears to take any number of forms simultaneously: an irrationality of space, like precisely those fantastic prison architectures of Giovanni Piranesi depicted at front-left of the window display in the form of several postcard reproductions of the infamous carceri, circa 1750, arranged for sale on a revolving metal stand.
Outside the shop, on the wall directly adjacent to the postcard display, a notice has been pasted up. The top half of the notice has already come unstuck from the wall and hangs down, obscuring a large portion of the text. The rest of the notice, although slightly faded, remains legible and reads:
CONSTITUTIONAL ACT NO. 2
DEFINING THE AUTHORITY OF THE CHIEF OF THE FRENCH STATE
We, Marshal of France, chief of the French state, in consideration of the constitutional law of 10 July, 1940, decree;
ARTICLE I. Section 1. The Chief of the French state shall have full governmental powers. He shall appoint and revoke the appointment of ministers and of secretaries, who shall be responsible only to him…
ARTICLE II. All provisions of the constitutional laws of 24 February, 1875, and 16 July, 1875, which are incompatible with this act are hereby abrogated.
Vichy, 11 July, 1940. Ph. Pétain
As M steps back from the display window, her glance is drawn to a playbill that lies on the ground beneath the official notice. It’s for a performance of Molière’s École des femmes at the Vieille Charité. She scans it impassively as two gendarmes round the corner and approach along the pavement. One of them is whistling a tune from an old pre-war chanson, possibly Les deux ménétriers. The gendarme not whistling wears his blue uniform uncomfortably over a rotund physique, cap in one hand, his sunburned forehead beaded with perspiration which he compulsively mops with a sodden white cotton handkerchief monogrammed with the single initial D. At the point at which the progress of the two gendarmes would intersect with the line-of-sight between M and the playbill (were they not to detour around her by simultaneously taking a wide step to the left, the one whistling tipping his hat rather formally in doing so, more perhaps in deference to the officialdom represented by the notice than to the woman (M) with the curiously blank gaze and somewhat perturbed expression on her face; his heavily-perspiring companion wheezing a barely audible ‘jour ‘dame); at that point, the reflection of a hapless camera crew, manoeuvring a camera sideways on a pair of aluminium rails, becomes visible in the shop window just as the scene cuts to: …
…31 August, 1940.
It’s morning, W[est] has just arrived with an illicit copy of La Vérité with its regular exhortation, Ni Pétain, Ni Hitler! On W[est]’s prompting I turn to page two: LÉON TROTSKY ASSASSINÉ. Le mouvement ouvrier international est en deuil. Léon TROTSKY, premier président du Soviet de Pétrograd en 1905 et en 1917, fondateur avec Lénine de l’Internationale Communiste, créateur de l’Armée Rouge, celui qui depuis 1923 a dénoncé impitoyablement les erreurs et les trahisons opportunistes de Staline, l’animateur du mouvement pour le IVème Internationale; LEON TROTSKY est mort, le front fendu à coup de hache par une brute déchaînée… My emotions detach themselves like dead leaves. I tell myself the war must have an end but can’t bring myself to believe it. The war, surely, will pursue us to the ends of the earth. There’ll be no escape. No escape! Nothing but a nightmare of pursuit, of being hounded from sanctuary to sanctuary, only for death to loom up abruptly, with neither rhyme nor reason. The oblivion of the end in its endlessness. A bureaucratic purgatorio (damn W[est] & his Dante!) in which everything must remain forever suspended, provisional, eternally repetitive; in which you’re trapped, anaesthetised, inert, numb, unconscious, no longer anything even resembling that mythical creature we persist in naming a human being but a numbered collection of molecules waiting to be united with the void…
For no reason, when M thinks back upon this (cue «flashback»), a phrase, West’s (she might suppose, though in fact it isn’t) sticks in her mind (conveyed by a «voiceover»), which has the initial effect of evoking a certain poignancy but is rapidly made grotesque through repetition. The picture of the world is a picture of how matter dies and how matter thinks. And the war, making that picture into a horror movie with a cast of millions (cue «montage»), some vast evil laboratory littered with the dislocated bits and pieces of God’s laughable, pathetic, ridiculous children, reduced to the galvanic twitchings and palpitations of molluscs, protozoa, to re-evolve out of primal stinking matter, golem-like, under the cold stare of the new masters and idols to false reason: the Hitlers, the Francos, the Mussolinis, the Stalins. Constituting what, we ask? A revelation of that double, mirror-like existence? the humanity of the abhuman? the missing, inaccessible element? the necessity by contradiction? the divine madness?
As the camera watches her, she turns the copy of La Vérité face down on the café table. But while she’s still thinking about the picture of Trotsky, the one she can no longer see because the paper’s turned over (and what’s written on the facing side is upside-down) an altogether different phrase enters her head, overlapping Trotsky’s black and white image, which seems in consequence to be speaking it, as it were, silently – the world has no guilty conscience – as though it, the phrase, were a subtitle in a poorly edited film. Thought-titles. Sub-thoughts…
And at precisely that moment someone stands up at the back of the screening room and blocks the projector beam. A voice hisses to get out of the light. The next image that flashes on the screen is of the steps leading from the Gare Saint Charles, in Marseille, a woman in silhouette walking up them away from the camera. Next, a sequence of panoramic location shots: the twin ascenseurs de Notre Dame de la Garde, the Île d’If, the massif of the Calanques. We next see a woman, also in silhouette, crossing the courtyard of the Vieille Charité, a black handbag clutched under one arm. The same woman is seen entering a tiny secondhand bookshop with a striped awning hanging low across the front window. The camera follows her into a long, narrow room with a high ceiling. A railing runs halfway around the walls, each of which, with the exception of the shopfront, are lined with bookshelves. At the far end, a counter is visible between a stack of albums and catalogue drawers. As the camera pans to where we expect the woman to be standing, however, the room appears to be empty. This scene is followed by a close-up on a tattered black and white postcard. Beneath the image of a street intersection and a large department store, À LA SAMARITAINE, a caption reads:
48 MARSEILLE – le Quai du Port et la rue de la République – LL.
To the right of the department store, a tramline recedes in single-point perspective. The woman (who has in all probability re-entered the room through a previously concealed doorway at the back of the shop and is seen now only from the neck down) turns the postcard over in her hands so that we’re looking at its reverse-side. The words CARTE POSTAL (viewed in close-up) have been printed in oblique capitals across the top of the card. To the right of this, beneath the word ADRESSE, several lines of handwriting have been heavily scored-out in blue fountain pen ink, the text illegible. In the area reserved for CORRESPONDANCE, someone (else?) has traced, in a frail, wavering script, a text whose legibility in no way compensates for the obscurity of its meaning. The card itself bears no date, no signature and no indication of whether it was intended to convey some particular message (a code? a moral?) or simply a loose constellation of ideas, of impressions, of something imagined, overheard, glimpsed maybe, rendered in a hurried stream of words without punctuation. What’s written is this: yeux lèvres rêves et donc nuit vient première nuit et donc jour et elle doit ouvrir les yeux et faire face à cette autre réalité…
Was the hand that scribbled those lines the same hand that so deliberately obliterated the address and the identity of the addressee? The postcard had neither been stamped nor franked. Everything about it seemed fortuitous, as if it’d arrived there by accident, if indeed it’d arrived anywhere, those words, yeux lèvres rêves, written down purely in order not to have been forgotten, then left in the course of events to follow an unknown itinerary which brought it to where it now lay on the shop counter, having waited how long for her to discover it? There were other postcards, too, in the same series: 69 – MARSEILLE – Château d’If – Z.Z.; La Canebière; Basilique de Notre Dame de la Garde; Basin du Carénage; Le Fort St Jean; La Place de la Bourse; Le Panier; Entrée du Vieux Port et Pont transbordeur; Le Vieux Port itself, with a photograph of the dead-end, the cul-de-sac of the port with its cemetery of wrecked and rotting fishing boats. Enough, almost, for an entire picture book. And as if anticipating this thought, the camera pans to several albums lying open on a shop counter or, possibly, a writing desk in a bureau. One of these albums is having its pages turned by an invisible hand. With each turning, the image momentarily goes out of focus and then adjusts. This is the case at the moment the film cuts from the sheaf of postcards to the stack of albums. On the next page, as it comes into view, is a photograph of a woman and a girl sitting at a table in front of a café on the Quai du Port, still in Marseille. The woman is dressed in black gabardine, her face is pale, almost beautiful. The girl beside her is wearing a blue pinafore: she’s sitting in full sunlight, the café awning casting a shadow halfway across the table in front of her. There’s an ashtray, an empty coffee cup, a carafe of water. The waiter brings a glass of Turin gin and places it on the table and as soon as he has left the woman lifts the glass to her lips and drinks half of it straight off. All of the tables around them are crowded. It’s a week, a month even, after the signing of the armistice. The streets are crowded with refugees. From all over Europe they’ve come. The girl looks at the woman’s lips, upon which a calm smile, as though with no meaning behind it, seems to be fixed by a long photographic exposure. She’s watching the crowd pass by with such an air of detachment that she seems entirely unconnected to them, to their condition, to their common plight. I won’t die because I don’t want to die, she thinks, suddenly and for no apparent reason. But the words themselves don’t form. It’s simply the anticipated movement of her lips, the shapes of the words, the words themselves unspoken. And then, perhaps, she looks down, as if she’d dropped something while opening her handbag. She spends a long time looking without finding it, before closing the handbag again and replacing it in her lap, smoothing the fabric of her dress, raising a hand to her lips, her hair. I won’t die because I don’t want to die. Staring again at that crowd. To be alone with so many. To die alone. What were they doing there? What were any of them doing there? But the question was absurd, as if she’d asked someone, What’s my purpose in the world? and expected them to answer instead of laughing in her face, swearing at her, edging away, ignoring her. Or else she’s thinking nothing at all. Her mind, like her expression, is completely blank, her eyes wander through the crowd without knowing what it is, as though it were nothing but a wall, an obstruction, a thing standing in the way of her vision but of which she’s in fact oblivious: a mass as formless and anonymous as a collection of rags, cigarette butts, dead hair, bits and pieces of torn newspaper drifting in the street, in a billow of dust, objects separated from any context whatsoever, absorbed into that vague twilight called History…
Like her they’re bored, bored past desperation. Everything depends upon Berlin. It’s the silence before the final reckoning, the air heavy and still and thick. Flies hang listlessly beneath the café awnings. It’s only a question of how long: how long before Hitler decides to invade England or Russia, how long before all Europe, and even the world, capitulates. Nothing else seems even remotely possible. Each passing day brings the same news, the same variations on the same rumour. Like everybody else she’s waiting: for the authorisation of documents, exit visas, identity papers. It drags on. It seems it could drag on forever. A letter arrives from X to secure a stamp from Y, a permit from Z. In the meantime an exit visa has expired, a passport requires renewal, more money needs to be wired, jewellery pawned, a fur coat hawked. Or else other, unmentionable arrangements. Despite this, nothing seems to change. Whenever the situation appears better, it becomes worse. Never one without the other. And still they wait. And still she waits. As though she, too, were waiting for the world to end…
…Tuesday, 1 April, 1941.
The day begins with a telephone call: some men were seen taking W[est] away in an unmarked car. At first it sounds like a bad joke. I’m half-asleep trying to understand what they’re telling me. No, it’s not a joke. Clouded eyes, lips pressed tight against… I remember hanging up, that’s all. I try to calculate, to grasp the urgency, things to be done. From now on to speak without speaking, to exist without eating. How do you explain even the saint’s abject need to eat? Sea-rent voices. No, nothing makes itself more ready to be conveyed than the impossible. In any case, there’ll be no new delay in terror just because of one more disappearance…‡
…4 April, 1941.
Meanwhile, news of more arrests filters in from outside. I’m standing there, immobile, watching myself, seeing a silhouette in a police cell (of a man or a woman?) raising a hand high over its head, the shape of a hammer, a truncheon, a leather belt outlined in the hand, then violently bringing it down, again & again, one blur after another. Schwein! Schwein! Schwein! The room fills with a darkness which is no longer a complementary element of light, but one in opposition to it. (I abandon myself temporarily to this image, while at the same time determined not to succumb to what authors of L’Humanité call ethical abstractions). All of a sudden it seems nothing’s inconceivable, unspeakable anymore. That every nightmare has its actual counterpart in the world… In the afternoon I again look for news of W[est]. Nothing. There’s a crowd, mostly of women, gathered outside the Préfecture reading the deportation lists. They’re repeating the names of their loved ones, their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons. The love thou bearest. Their voices sound empty, mechanical, there’s no emotion left in any of them…
…27 December, 1940.
At the Café Riche on the Canebière. The port’s swarming with transients, fugitives, black marketeers, «undesirables». Everywhere tattered & defaced billboards & posters proclaim the visitation of that vieux con Pétain. In the window of a butcher’s shop:
VIVE LE MARECHAL! ÇA C’EST PAS MAL
Vichyiste slogans painted all along the dockside (try to describe things neutrally?):
TRAVAIL FAMILLE PATRIE
What of Liberté? Egalité? Passwords for the mute. Fraternité? Cain & Abel. Jacob & Essau. We’ve regressed to the time of myth & fable. Another window, this time a florist’s, displaying funeral wreaths & a framed two-day-old newspaper photograph of the traitor Pétain in uniform, right hand saluting an invisible crowd, with the caption: à Marseille, en compagnie de l’admiral Darlan, le chef de l’état passé en revue les troupes, assisté à un defile militaire quai des belges, puis est reçu par l’évêque. The grossly benign face of the maréchal gazes down from red-white-blue banners & portraits strung from the balconies, lamp posts & marquees along the Canebière (just seeing them makes me sick!). Pamphlets smeared with propaganda, sodden in the gutters. Leaflets printed in inch-high type:
JE HAIS LES MENSONGES QUI VOUS ONT FAIT
TANT DE MAL. LA TERRE, ELLE, NE MENT PAS…
Picking one up from the pavement, the ink coming off on her fingers. JE HAIS. TANT DE MAL. NE MENT PAS. ELLE. (Woman, when and as she’s wanted.) M turns it over. On the reverse, barely legible, the ghost of words whose meaning has been assassinated. Sinister graveyard mannequins of a language that exists solely to deceive, seduce, terrify. De terre en terre. A doppelganger. A piece of voodoo. A carcass of something covered in flies whose maggots reanimate the dead flesh and cause it to writhe about.
Je hais les mensonges qui vous ont fait tant de mal. La terre, elle, ne ment pas. Elle demeure votre recours. Elle est la patrie elle-même. Un champ qui tombe en friche, c’est une portion de France qui meurt. Une jachère de nouveau emblavée, c’est une portion de France qui renaît. N’espérez pas trop de l’État qui ne peut donner que ce qu’il reçoit. Comptez pour le présent sur vous-mêmes et, pour l’avenir, sur les enfants que vous aurez élevés dans le sentiment du devoir. Nous avons à restaurer la France. Montrez-la au monde qui l’observe, à l’adversaire qui l’occupe, dans tout son calme, tout son labeur et toute sa dignité. Notre défaite est venue de nos relâchements. L’esprit de jouissance détruit ce que l’esprit de sacrifice a édifié. C’est à un redressement intellectuel et moral que, d’abord, je vous convie.
She stuffs the leaflet in her handbag, to avoid spitting on it and tearing it to pieces right there in the street, in full view of whoever might be watching. Lies! She wants to scream it, but her jaw stays clenched. Thinking again of West, she walks quickly back along the rue du Marché des Capucins. The lines outside the Préfecture have begun to dwindle. People on the sidewalks look on blankly at this spectacle of despair. Who among them, she thinks, is guiltless? Who among the reprieved has not lied to save themselves? Fourteen million lies. Lies that live-on and multiply. The lies, the lies, the lies. Buzzing in the hot air around the great cadaver of France and Europe. Their buzzing will pursue her to the corners of the world, will strain the inner ear to breaking point.
‡ As here, the story resurfacing decades later, like scenes in a film recalled long after the event: Humphrey bogart in the closing shots of casablanca, the desperate lover and the drink to forget, Eau de vichy, the scene of the Marseillaise, le jour de gloire. Or the newspaper picture of the unknown migrant stabbed to death in the medina. Each as unreal as the tableaux behind department store windows: articulated homunculi in brown or beige overcoats, wigs, high-heeled boots, all threatening to animate. And the grim vessel that nightly circumnavigates this terra incognita where reflection and illumination meet in the commission of some private, inadmissible act.