Short But Close - A Humble Approach to the Arts

Date About Titel From
02.10.2011 Alice Munro Surprises in ordinary landscape Claudio
16.10.2011 Ian McEwan Saturday Claudio
26.02.2012 John Updike A Sense of Shelter Claudio
14.03.2012 Wes Anderson A dramaturgical walk through Hotel Chevalier Claudio
14.10.2013 Vince Gilligan What's so Freaking Good about Breaking Bad? Claudio

What's so Freaking Good about Breaking Bad?

In den USA lief vor kurzem die vorletzte Folge von Breaking Bad. Die Quoten sind besser denn je. Was ist das Geheimrezept der Serie? Und ließe es sich irgendwie nachkochen?


Kleiner Ausschnitt der letzten Folge von Breaking Bad, wie Marius sie sich vorstellte. Hier kann man sich die ganzen Folge von Marius anschauen

Walter White, die Hauptfigur von Breaking Bad, kocht das beste Crystal Meth im ganzen Land. Es ist so gut, dass er sich innerhalb weniger Monate vom überbegabten Chemielehrer in einen Drogenboss verwandeln konnte. Natürlich sind jetzt alle hinter seiner einmaligen Rezeptur her. Doch Walter White weiß: Nicht nur das richtige Rezept ist entscheidend, sondern auch die richtige Arbeitsweise.

Vince Gilligan, der „Creator“ von Breaking Bad, hat die beste Serie der Filmlandschaft entwickelt. Sie ist so gut, dass er sich innerhalb weniger Jahre vom überbegabten Akte-X-Autor in einen Medienstar verwandeln konnte. Natürlich sind jetzt alle hinter seiner einmaligen Rezeptur her. Der amerikanische Fernsehsender AMC hat vor kurzem einen Spin-Off angekündigt. Ein mexikanischer Remake ist bereits in Vorbereitung. Und auch hierzulande kündigte der ZDF-Programmdirektor Norbert Himmler kürzlich vollmundig an, man plane für 2014 „Breaking Bad auf deutsch.“

Das alles liegt daran, dass Breaking Bad mindestens genauso süchtig macht wie die Droge, um die sich in ihr alles dreht. Und daran, dass Vince Gilligan sich absolut sicher ist, dass nach der 5. Staffel Schluss sein soll. Was bleibt den Sendern also anderes übrig, als verzweifelt nach Ersatzstoffen zu suchen?

Was aber ist das Erfolgsgeheimnis von Breaking Bad

Im Internet streiten sich Laien und Profis über genau diese Frage. Man findet umfangreiche Listen, ebenso wie universell einsetzbare Kalendersprüche („It constantly pushes its own boundaries.“)

Unter der Zutatenliste gibt es einige wiederkehrende Kandidaten: Die starke Prämisse, der konsequent schwarze Humor, die abgründige Figurenzeichnung und auch der hohe Produktionswert (obwohl der mit ca. 3 Millionen Dollar pro Folge nicht unbedingt rekordverdächtig ist).

Die Zutaten sind natürlich enorm wichtig. Und doch wird meiner Meinung nach ein ganz entscheidender Punkt systematisch übersehen: Das unnachahmliche Gespür für Rhythmus.

Als ich die Pilotfolge 2009 zum ersten Mal sah, hatte ich zwei Gedanken. Der erste war: „Man, erzählen die schnell.“ Und der zweite: „Man, lassen die sich viel Zeit!“

Das hört sich widersprüchlich an, aber genau so war es. Innerhalb von nur 90 Minuten habe ich miterlebt, wie ein ohnehin schon bemitleidenswerter Chemielehrer eine Krebsdiagnose bekommt, über seinen Schwager Verbindungen ins Drogenmillieu aufbaut, mit einem seiner Ex-Schüler einen Wohnwagen kauft und darin im großen Stil Cystal Meth kocht, sich mit Cops und Druglords in eine schier auswegslose Situation hineinmanövriert - und am Ende doch noch den Kopf aus der Schlinge zieht.

Und gleichzeitig hatte ich miterlebt, wie eben dieser Chemielehrer minutenlang nichts anderes tut, als auf seinem Stepper zu marschieren und Streichhölzer in seinen abgehalfterten Pool zu werfen.

Kurzum: Ich kenne keine Serie, die so genau weiß, wann sie einen stillen Moment über Minuten hinweg ausdehnen darf – und wann sie eine furiose Szene frühzeitig beenden kann. Falls es so etwas gibt wie ein absolutes „Gespür für Rhythmus“, dann hat Breaking Bad genau das.

Doch wie kriegt man das hin?

Liegt es wirklich einfach nur am Genie der amerikanischen Autoren (auch Vince Gilligan arbeitet natürlich in einem Team)? Wäre ein – wie auch immer geartetes – deutsches Imitat also schon allein deshalb von vornherein zum Scheitern verurteilt, weil man keine ähnlich talentierten Autoren auftreiben kann?

So leicht ist es glaube ich nicht. Anders als beim absoluten Gehör handelt es sich beim „absoluten Gespür“ meiner Meinung nach nicht um eine angeborene Fähigkeit. Vielmehr braucht man: Viel Erfahrung, viele Freiheiten, viel Arbeit, viel Zeit, und vor allem: Viel Zeit zum Überarbeiten.

In dieser Ausgabe von Close Reading will ich deshalb eine zunächst ziemlich unscheinbare Szene aus der Pilotfolge von Breaking Bad genauer unter die Lupe nehmen. Sie ist ruhig, handlungsarm und fast völlig dialoglos. Und doch ist es eine „Wegscheideszene“, denn sie zeigt genau diejenigen Sekunden, in denen sich Walter White entscheidet, seinem alten Leben good-bye zu sagen.

Die Streichhölzer im Pool

Auf YouTube findet sich leider nur eine verfälschte Version dieser Schlüsselszene (es wurden andere Szenen dazwischen montiert und ein neuer Soundtrack gewählt). Deshalb muss ich sie hier beschreiben. Sie folgt direkt auf die Szene, in dem Walt mit dem denkwürdigen Satz „Fuck you – and your eye brows!“ seinen Zweitjob in der Waschanlage gekündigt hat:

Blaue Morgendämmerung. Walter White sitzt im Morgenmantel vor seinem Pool. Beide – Walt und Pool – haben schon mal bessere Zeiten gesehen. Auf dem Tisch neben ihm eine einsame Bierflasche. Wahrscheinlich hat sie nicht geholfen. Walter entzündet ein Streichholz und betrachtet die Flamme, die zuerst stolz auflodert, dann aber schnell zusammenschrumpft. Ehe sie erlischt wirft Walter das Streichholz mit einer müden Handbewegung in den Pool. Sofort lässt er das nächste Hölzchen über die Reibefläche gleiten. Diesmal betrachtet er die Flamme etwas genauer (die Handkamera wechselt in eine nahe Einstellung), doch auch dieses Streichholz landet im Pool. Das gleiche geschieht mit dem dritten Streichholz – nur dass die Handkamera diesmal die Wurfbewegung aufgreift, kurz auf den Pool schwenkt, und dann wieder bei Walter landet, der mit den Fingern bereits nach dem vierten Streichholz sucht. Nun aber hält Walt inne und steckt es wieder zurück in die Schachtel. Er lehnt den Kopf zurück, schaut kurz in den sich schwach rötenden Himmel. Dann fällt sein Blick auf den Beistelltisch, auf dem – wir erkennen es erst jetzt – ein Telefon liegt. Walter tauscht Streichholzschachtel mit Telefon und ruft seinen Schwager Hank an. Er hat sich entschieden, auf die dunkle Seite zu wechseln.

Ich beschreibe das deshalb so ausführlich, weil ich zeigen will, wie viel Zeit sich die Serie nimmt, um diesen entscheidenden Moment wirken zu lassen. Noch Sekunden zuvor hat Walt seinen Chef zur Sau gemacht und Produkte aus dem Verkaufsregal geschleudert. Doch hier ist er ganz bei sich und seiner auswegslosen Situation. Und auch wir sind ganz bei ihm. Wir achten auf jedes Detail. Wir spüren die Anspannung. Und das, obwohl doch angeblich auf diesen kleinen TV-Bildschirmen nicht genug Platz ist, um „episch“, oder „kinohaft“ zu erzählen.

Wieso gelingt diese Szene so gut?

Wieso glauben wir einerseits zu spüren, was Walt denkt – und finden ihn gleichzeitig auf faszinierende Weise unergründbar?

Zunächst einmal muss man vorausschicken, dass diese Szene in einer vorhergehenden Szene gut vorbereitet wurde. Knapp 15 Minuten zuvor sahen wir Mr. White dabei zu, wie er einer typisch indifferenten Schulklasse vermitteln wollte, was an Chemie so faszinierend ist. Da sagte er: „Chemistry is the study of change. Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements – they combine and change into compounds. Well that's – that's all of life, right? It's the cycle, it's solution, dissolution – just over and over and over.“

Während Walt sich in diesen Monolog hineinsteigerte, bemerkten wir, dass er mehr mit sich selbst sprach als mit seinen Schülern. Die Flamme des Bunsenbrenners, an der er diesen Gedankengang demonstrierte, loderte vor seinem Gesicht Gesicht. Ganz ähnlich wie die Flamme des Feuerzeugs in der entscheidenden Szene 15 Minuten später.

Ganz ohne Worte begreifen wir also, was in Walters Kopf vorgeht, als er da alleine am Pool sitzt. Er denkt über die Veränderungen des Lebens nach. Die Veränderungen, die ihn einst, als renommierten Chemiker, endlos faszinierten, und die nun, nach seiner Krebsdiagnose, in seinem eigenen Körper stattfinden. Er entscheidet sich, diesen Veränderungen nicht länger nur zuzusehen. Er entscheidet, selbst etwas zu verändern.

Ganz simpel und naheliegend, eigentlich. Wussten die Macher von Breaking Bad von Anfang an, dass es nur so funktionieren kann? War es ihr angeborenes Talent, von dem die Amerikaner so viel zu haben scheinen und wir Deutschen – unserem Fernsehprogramm nach zu urteilen – so wenig?

Oder haben sie es sich im Gegenteil hart erarbeitet?

Ein Blick in eine frühere Fassung des Pilotdrehbuchs kann hier Abhilfe verschaffen. Zum Glück findet man derartiges ja schnell im Netz. In dieser Fassung finden sich jedenfalls einige sehr aufschlussreiche Unterschiede zur letztendlich abgedrehten Folge.

Möglichst kurz zusammengefasst: In der früheren Fassung flippt Walt beim Car Wash nicht aus, sondern verlässt lediglich wortlos das Gebäude.

Walt fährt nachhause. Er ist sonderbar apatisch. Er wird es den gesamten Abend über bleiben.

Zuhause angekommen fragt ihn seine Frau Skyler über seine Kreditkartennutzung, nicht aber über sein Wohlbefinden (diese Szene findet sich auch im fertigen Piloten, jedoch an anderer Stelle). Das Gespräch wird von dem Geknatter eines Maschinengewehrs unterbrochen – Walter Jr. schaut im Nebenzimmer Scarface.

Es läuft gerade das große Finale, in dem Al Pachino sein eigenes Himmelfahrtskommando noch mit ein paar Ausrufezeichen versieht. Walt redet kurz mit seinem Sohn, schaut dann gedankenverloren auf den TV-Bildschirm.

Beim nächsten Schnitt klingelt sein Wecker. Walt steigt im Morgengrauen vor allen anderen aus dem Bett und macht Morgensport auf seinem Stepper. Er steppt sich in Rage, bis der Stepper zerbricht. Walt murmelt zu sich selbst „Two years“ - die ungefähre Zeit, die er noch zu leben hat. Im nächsten Bild sitzt er allein in der Küche und wählt Hanks Nummer.

In dieser Drehbuchsequenz hat Walt letztlich die gleiche Entscheidung getroffen wie im fertigen Film. Auch diese Szenen sind keineswegs gehetzt, sondern einfühlsam geschrieben. Man hätte es dabei belassen können. Aber dann wären wir nicht so nah an Walts Innenleben herangekommen. Anstatt seine Gedanken aus seinem Gesichtsausdruck im Licht der Streichholzflamme ablesen zu dürfen hätten wir dabei zuschauen müssen, wie Scarface seine Gedanken mittels Maschinengewehr in Walts Kopf einhämmert.

Es wäre auch gutes Fernsehen gewesen. Vielleicht sogar sehr gutes. Aber kein brillantes.

Wie kam es zu diesen Änderungen, wie kam es zu der „Entdeckung“ der Pool-Szene? Natürlich kann man darüber nur mutmaßen. (Schließlich wissen wir nicht einmal, wie viele weitere Fassungen zuvor und danach geschrieben werden mussten.) Aber es scheint offensichtlich, dass man schneller auf den Punkt kommen wollte. Die Sequenz musste einfach kürzer werden. Schließlich gibt es im Fernsehen strike Zeitvorgaben.

Doch derartige Kürzungen gelingen natürlich nur, wenn man es schafft, einen guten Ersatz zu finden. Wenn man ein einziges Bild findet, das in der Lage ist, alle vier anderen zu ersetzen. Ein Bild, das Walts gesamte Entwicklung einfängt – und zwar, indem es geschickt einige Lücken lässt, und gleichzeitig geschickt an zuvor Gesehenes anknüpft.

Genau das ist es, was die Streichholz-Idee leistet. Hat man diese Idee erst einmal gefunden – diese eine Idee, die Großes im Kleinen erzählt – dann, und nur dann, kann man es sich auch wieder erlauben, ihr die entsprechende Zeit zu gewähren, damit sie sich voll und ganz entfalten kann.

Genau das ist es, was mir beim ersten Zuschauen den paradoxen Eindruck einer langsamen Hetzjagd vermittelte.

Was kann man aber tun, um auf derartige Ideen überhaupt erst einmal zu kommen? Die Schritte, die hier wie gezeigt zwischen der Drehbuchfassung und der verfilmten Szene liegen, zeigen beispielhaft auf, dass kommerzieller Druck (die Sendelänge) nicht zwangsläufig der erzählerischen Qualität (einfühlsames, präzises Erzählen) schaden muss. Im Gegenteil, die beiden Faktoren scheinen sich geradezu gegenseitig zu befruchten - wenn die Voraussetzungen stimmen.

Diese Voraussetzungen sind eigentlich altbekannt, scheitern allem Anschein nach hierzulande jedoch noch immer an der Umsetzung. Es muss eine enge, vertrauensvolle Zusammenarbeit zwischen Produzenten, Autoren und „Creator“ bestehen. Der „Creator“ braucht die nötigen Freiheiten. Die Autoren brauchen den nötigen Austausch – möglicherweise eben den oft zitierten „writer's room“. Und alle gemeinsam brauchen sie die nötige Risikobereitschaft, neue Wege zu beschreiten.

So kann ein kreatives Millieu entstehen, in dem tatsächliche Originalität heranwächst. Und diese Originalität muss nicht immer aus dem ganz großen Wurf bestehen – sie kann, wenn es um einzelne Szenen geht, auch in ganz simplen, aber einfühlsamen Einfällen liegen.

In einem Interview mit der FAZ (leider nicht online verfügbar, hier aber folgerichtig umschrieben) erzählte Norbert Himmler von seinem Besuch in einem Serienlabor von HBO. Er war fasziniert davon, wie viel Vertrauen der Sender der Autorin und Darstellerin Lena Dunham bei der Produktion der Serie Girls entgegen bringt. Seine Schlussfolgerung: „Ich glaube, so muss im fiktionalen Bereich die Beziehung zwischen einer guten Redaktion und einem guten Produzenten aussehen.“

Dass er den Autoren aus dieser Gleichung - anscheinend ohne es überhaupt zu bemerken! - herauskürzte, ist allzu bezeichnend. Ob unter dieser Prämisse wirklich eine gute Serie entstehen, kann bleibt deshalb (noch) zu bezweifeln.

Eins nämlich weiß Vince Gilligan genau so gut wie seine Kreation Walter White: Ohne die richtige Arbeitsweise ist auch die beste Rezeptur nichts wert.

Dieser Beitrag wurde ursprünglich im Freitag veröffentlicht (22.09.2013).



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A dramaturgical walk through Hotel Chevalier (Wes Anderson)

Watch the film on vimeo

„Only a fool tells all he knows. A wise man keeps his mouth shut.“

In this analysis, I will be the fool and Wes Anderson's short film Hotel Chevalier will be the wise man. I will be the one trying desperately to discern why Hotel Chevalier is so fascinating to me. And Hotel Chevalier will keep holding back some of its secrets, and will thereby – no matter how much I try to take it apart – not let itself be nailed down completely.

I will be taking you step by step through the reactions and expectations I have when watching the film. And I've watched it more than once. (The short film was released and screened as a prelude to Darjeeling Limited but I will take Hotel Chevalier completely on its own because – well, the film just works so perfectly well on its own).

So let's take a close look.


The very first scene is a simple figure shot of the reception: We're introduced to the setting – a nice looking cozy French hotel. The phone is ringing and the concierge takes his time to pick it up.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier Then we switch right into a very interesting shot: All we see of the caller (Mr. Whitman) are his feet and legs. A much larger portion of the frame is devoted to the cluttering mess Mr. Whitman has made of his hotel room. From this alone, we gather a bunch of information, which will later be confirmed: That he's living in this room on his own, that he's been living there for quite a while, that he doesn't have much to do outside of the hotel room etc. An even more startling detail is the TV-Set, which displays what looks like a black-and-white war documentary. The corpses framed here are covered with a blanket with their boots sticking out at the end. This mirrors Mr. Whitman's own two feet and quite possibly his own inner feeling.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier In the next shot we see Mr. Whitman for the first time. He has adapted quite well into the surroundings of his hotel room: the bathrobe he is wearing does not set itself apart from the color of the bedsheets. Our notion that he's living by himself is affirmed by the way he's laying in his bed on one side, while the other side is covered with books, a notebook, and a CD: these objects are laying around where normally, his partner / lover may be lying. He looks pretty lonely and unoccupied. What's even more telling is the way he's ordering his grilled cheese sandwich: He's trying to order in French – and has probably done so plenty of times – but struggles with the one word that may change from order to order. In short: He's working on adapting to his (French) surroundings, but cannot quite manage to hide his (American) origin.


Anyway, all this is – or has become – his normal mode of life. A mode which will be interrupted by the very next phone call. Expecting the concierge, Mr. Whitman picks up the phone in a relaxed way – but then he hears a female voice.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier We switch immediately into a close-up shot, showing his facial features – while still somehow relaxed and expressionless – freeze in place. We know that something is wrong. Mr. Whitman does not even answer to her “hello”, but apparently she knows him well enough or can tell from his heavy breathing that he's there. Everything we need to, at this point, know about the relationship between him and the female caller is condensed into the pause he makes before telling her his room number. From this we know that the relationship between the two must be an intimate but damaged one. Obviously, the woman wants to see him and he would rather not see her. But there must still be an intimate connection between the two, because he simply can't manage to tell her: no.


So at this point, already, I was pretty much hooked. I wanted to know who the mysterious woman was, of course, and what their relationship was like, and what the hell Mr. Whitman is doing in this hotel room. I was hooked because of all the open questions, all of which were basically laid bare by Mr. Whitmans strange reaction to the phone call. Hotel Chevalier, being no fool, does not tell us everything at once: it keeps handing us bits and pieces, exposes some secrets, and makes us long for what more is to come.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier This is why I think we pay so much close attention to the following things Mr. Whitman does in preparation for the woman's arrival. He picks up some of the clothes laying around. He starts filling up a bath with water. He takes a look in the mirror (and does not seem to excited about the face greeting him therein). He switches the lights off and back on – probably testing out which “light mood” would best fit the situation. He switches off the TV, of course.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier All of these are pretty normal preparations for when you're expecting a female guest. But Mr. Whitman even goes a little step further: He unwraps a little statuette and places it neatly on a drawer. Then he goes to his iPod station and prepares the exact song he wants to play while greeting her. Only then does he go back into the bathroom and takes of his bathrobe.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier Then there's a time jump. We see Mr. Whitman in much the same position of the first shot. Only now the frame has been moved up a notch – revealing less of the partner-less bed and instead framing one of those typical paintings that hang on the walls of low-upper class hotels. And the most important change of couse is the suit Mr. Whitman is now wearing, waiting patiently and still pretty much without the whiff of any certain facial expression.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier Finally, there's a knock on the door. Mr. Whitman moves out of frame to the door. The music starts playing and we know – even before the camera catches up with his movements, that he's turned on the song he prepared earlier. And then we see her. She's talking on her cell phone but then switches it off as soon as their eyes meet. She flashes a smirk at him, but then drops it because it probably was not answered by any comforting gesture of Mr. Whitman. Instead, she asks him about the music which she seems to find out of place. The way they hug once again confirm out earlier assumptions: she wants to kiss him – on the cheek, at least – but all he can manage is a long, possibly even cordial hug. He wants to know how she found him – confirming further that he has in some way run away from her.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier She evades any real answer and instead proceeds to examine his hotel room. At this point we realize that Mr. Whitman went to extremes to tidy everything up. We see the statuette from the scene before, but along with it several postcards, collectibles and even self-made paintings – all neatly put on display on desk and drawer. She smiles at him, sort of like saying, “I love this playful side of yours.” But at this crucial point, the viewer is ahead of her. He knows that the outer facade Mr. Whitman has erected within only half an hour does not represent his current life very well. Everything is designed to trick her into believing that he's leading a happy life without her. The song comments on this very directly (almost obtrusively) for the first time “I want to look inside your head, yes I do.”

And this is, to me, the central theme of Hotel Chevalier: The possibility of looking inside somebody else's head. The woman wants to know what Mr. Whitman's life has been like since they parted. So the first thing she does is examine his surroundings very closely. The way she tests the paint of the still life on the drawer (while the song comments: “the painting you stole from Picasso”) seems to show that she's skeptical about this display, but can't quite put her finger on what's wrong with it.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier In the bathroom, the probing goes even further. She uses his toothbrush – sort of like they were still a couple where one can share such things. She asks him about his haircut, which has apparently changed since they last saw each other. His answer Barbara in the lobby cut it reveals a further clue that he does not leave his hotel much, not even to get a hair cut. There's a short irritation about the bath: We saw him fill it up more than half an hour ago, expecting himself to take a bath – but now he states that he prepared it for her. This raises some eyebrows but is not resolved within the film plot.

So even though only a couple of words have been spoken between him and her, we, as viewers, know just as much as we need to know about their relationship: we know that there's been hurt in the past, that he's run away from the situation, that he has put up a facade (possibly to take away her chances of hurting him even more?) and she's beginning to look through it. And we've discovered the main theme of ts film, so now we're excited to see whether the two will get a chance to look inside each other's heads or not.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier

Finally, she simply asks “what the fuck is going on?”. She's not buying into all this crap. As we already know, Mr. Whitman is not one for simple questions and answers, though. Instead of saying anything, he simply sits down on his bed. She sits down in the chair in the other room – so now there is a maximum distance between the two – and tries another question. He's very vague on how long he's been staying in the hotel room, and once again succeeds in distracting from the questions at hand by making her laugh. Up to this point, his defensive armor seems air-tight. When she discloses that she's planning on leaving tomorrow morning, he does nothing more than take out a one-bite piece of hotel chocolate. No matter how directly she asks him questions (“are you running away from me”), he finds a way of evading it ironically (“I thought I already did”).

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier Despite all this, we keep sensing that there is a level of deep longing, maybe even deep understanding, for each other. Maybe they're both sorry for what has happened in the past but both don't know how to undo the fatal knot that's been tied. I'm not quite sure why this feeling seems steadily present. Maybe it has to do with the way she keeps smirking at him, or maybe the way she behaves like him (standing in front of the mirror like him when he was alone), and quite probably the way they both let their bodies glide to the mattress just before the waiter arrives with lunch.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier It's due to this feeling of compassion between the two that makes their rushed and intense kiss – right after the waiter has left – surprising but nonetheless consistent. Or maybe we've just been hoping all along that they'll drop their standard routines and get down to some action.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier The ensuing undressing on the bed is all the more telling. They switch places like they know this choreography very well. While he does not even loosen a single button of his suit – his protective armor – he undresses her completely, revealing bruises on her leg and arm. This is the first glimpse he seems to be getting behind her solid facade. When he first sees them (“you've got bruises on you body”) is, to me, the first time he reveals any true emotion at all. So while she is exposed, he himself tries to keep up his tough shell a little longer. There's the wonderfully ambivalent “I promise, I will never be your friend, no matter what – ever” which just makes you stop and wonder: is this a promise the be her lover again (i.e. not “just” a friend) or a reiteration of his previous stance: i.e. “I will not let you into my life again”). Even when she goes on to say that she loves him and never hurt him on purpose, his reply (“I don't care”) can once again be taken as an utterance of forgiveness or of scorn.

So does the film resolve these issues or not? Will the two get back together or not? My personal interpretation is that the film intentionally remains open about this. It does something much more beautiful than to give easy answers: it opens our minds to the tiny nuances, the complexities, and the contradictions of human relationships.

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier We don't learn specifically what caused the woman's bruises. We never find out what exactly she did to hurt him. We will never now whether they'll get back together or not. Those were not, in retrospect, the questions the movie really set out to answer in the first place. The theme of the film is not whether a loving couple will manage to resolve all the conflicts between them. The theme of the film is whether they will get a chance to look inside each other's head. And this question, at least, is answered with a definite “yes”. She lets him see her bruises. And he, in return, does a very simple thing. He asks her if she wants to see his view of Paris. In this startling moment, he drops all pretensions and simply invites her to see what his life is really like. And it's certainly no coincidence that as he says this, her head disappears behind his head and it looks for a moment like she is “wearing” his head instead of her own!

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier He dresses her in the very bathrobe he himself was wearing when he was alone in the hotel and simply takes her out onto the balcony. All this takes place in slow motion – and as we take time to focus on their small gestures, witness his head turning to take one final glimpse at the hotel room that has been imprisoning him, and once again pay close attention to the lines of the song (“You live in a fancy appartment […] But where do you go to my lovely, when you're alone in your bed? Tell me the parts that surround you, I want to look inside your head”)

Wes Anderson - Hotel Chevalier

What she now sees, and what we see with her, is not a romantic setting of the Parisian skyline. It is, simply, a hotel wall. And by what we've come to know about Mr. Whitman, there can be no doubt that this, at last, truly is what it's like inside his head: He's in the middle of the city of love, but he's completely void of love. As void of love as the completely banal outer facade of a hotel room.



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John Updike - A Sense of Shelter

Picture from Amy McGill found on blogs.wdtn.com


	Snow fell against the high school all day, wet big-flaked snow that
	did not accumulate well. Sharpening two pencils, William looked
 3	down on a parking lot that was a blackboard in reverse; car tires
 	had cut smooth arcs of black into the white, and wherever a
 	school bus had backed around, it had left an autocratic signature
 6	of two V's. The snow, though at moments it whirled opaquely,
 	could not quite bleach these scars away. The temperature must be
 	exactly freezing. The window was open a crack, and a canted
 9	pane of glass lifted outdoor air into his face, coating the
 	cedarwood scent of pencil shavings with the transparent odor of
 	the wet windowsill. With each revolution of the handle his
 12	knuckles came within a fraction of an inch of the tilted glass, and
 	the faint chill this proximity breathed on them sharpened
 	William's already acute sense of shelter.
 15	[…]
	„What do you know about me“ he asked, setting himself up for a
	finishing insult but dreading it. He hated the stiff feel of his smile
 18	between his cheeks; he glimpsed, as if the snow were a mirror,
 	how hateful he looked.
	„That you're basically very nice.“
 21	Her reply blinded him to his physical discomfort, set him burning
 	with regret. „Listen,“ he said, „I did love you. Let's at least get
 	that straight.“
 24	„You never loved anybody, Billy,“ she said. „You don't know
 	what it is.“
	„O.K.,“ he said. „Pardon me.“
 27	„You're excused.“
	„You better wait in the school,“ he told her. „He's-eez-eez going
	to be a long time.“
 30	She didn't answer and walked a little distance, along the slack
 	cable that divided the parking lot from the softball field. One
 	bicycle, rusted as if it had been there for years, leaned in the rack,
 	its fenders supporting crescents of white.
	[...]

A sense for detail

I'm very far from being an expert on Updike. So far, I've only read a handful of his early stories – and the fact that I picked them up was in one part due to the New Yorker Fiction podcast and in the other due to Ian McEwan being one of Updike's greatest fans.

So far, what has intrigued me very much about Updike is his great sense for detail. In fact, his love for detail seems to be a blessing as well as a curse: Updike's beautiful observations and metaphors are always on the edge of seeming too artistically constructed. Luckily, in his early stories, he manages to justify this keen sense for observation by narrating through the eyes of very observational protagonists (who, I have been told, are very often of autobiographical 'origin' – and thus represent the 'observational eyes' of the master himself).

To me, it's the details that enable Updike to manage one of his greatest feats: to transform an ordinary, commonplace plot – or maybe the better term would be: occurrence – into a tragedy of existential proportions.

A Sense of Shelter is about a teenager, William, who simply loves school. That is, he doesn't seem to particularly enjoy the education he's receiving there. And he doesn't really enjoy the company of his classmates (he's more of an outcast). What he does like about it is 'the sense of shelter' the institutional framework of the school gives him. He feels at home there, he feels like everything's in order there.

Now the very simple occurrence the short story describes is this: For years William has been in love with a schoolmate named Mary Landis. But naturally he has never told her. This being his senior year in high school, however, he decides that this day, of all days, is to be the one on which he will finally confess his love to her. This Mary is, of course, popular, very pretty, part of the cheerleading team, and guess what: she hates school. So after walking through the school's empty halls (which actually takes up the biggest portion of the story), William runs into her and even manages to let those three rare words part from his lips.

Mary's reaction: She just doesn't take his confession of love seriously – after all, the two of them are living in completely different worlds (i.e. she has the looks but is not looking forward to a great life, while he is unpopular but smart and therefore has a great future waiting for him).

So let's get to the first part of the quoted passage, which comprises the story's very first paragraph.

Snow serves as the leitmotif to the entire story. It represents the outside of the school, which, through the eyes of our protagonist, seems like a very uncomfortable place. As such, it constitutes the opposite to the very comforting environment of the high school building. The very first portion of the very first sentence serves to introduce this contradiction: “snow fell against the high school all day.” (l. 1) On its own, this clause could generate a rather romantic impression of a school building covered in fluffy snow – with the schoolchildren inside waiting for the bell to finally release them into an afternoon of snow-ball fights and freezing exhaustion. But before this mental image can even begin to take shape, it is obliterated by the second part of the sentence, which informs us more precisely about what kind of snow we're dealing with: it's the slushy kind of snow that melts as soon as you touch it – the 'disappointing' kind of snow.

Elaborating upon this contradiction between the comfortable inside and the uncomfortable outside, we're introduced to a very striking metaphor: to William, the parking lot looks like a “blackboard in reverse” (l. 3). Now, in my eyes, this is not a very intuitive metaphor, which is why the narrator chooses to 'explain what he means' in the very next sentence: The snow has created a white plane on the asphalt and the tire-marks the school bus has left look like black 'handwriting' on it. The great beauty of this metaphor is that it is not only very visual, but also serves to create a very unique impression of one of the story's major themes – the theme which might be called, a little sloppily, that of 'life inside school vs. life outside of school'. The parking lot is a black-board in reverse: the rules that serve to organize the comforting framework of what's going on inside the school are turned on their head once you go outside. The bus is like an autocratic 'teacher', leaving mean marks on the blackboard. The snow does not manage to cover these “scars” (l. 7) (An additional metaphor, maybe unneeded, but useful in expanding upon the threatening atmosphere being created within introductory sentences).

Now, this last simile complicates the relationship between outside and inside a little: Is the outside only threatening to William because the 'autocratic teaching' going on inside the school has left marks (“scars”) on him that will hinder him in functioning in society once he's graduated from school? I don't want to take this interpretation too far (although I'm getting the feeling that I've already done so – but the more closely I contemplate this passage, the more ambivalent, even mysterious, it becomes), so let's try to stick to what the text tells us: No matter what the exact chain of cause and effect between outside and inside may be, in William it generates the impression that he's safe as long as he stays in school. This is what the paragraph's final sentence builds up to: the cold air reaching his face, the mixture of scents from inside and outside (I guess the very mentioning of the smell of freshly sharpened pencils is enough to generate in every reader memories of his own time spent in school), the proximity of his knuckles to the outside – it is this mixing of elements from outside and inside that evoke in William a sense of shelter, a sense of just still being on the right side of the 'border'.

Notice how poetically (some might say: obtrusively) the act of sharpening the pencil is linked to the sharpening of William's sense for this very special feeling. (Even more impressively, this sentence fulfills the function of suggesting that it really is William who's having all these great impressions: the mentioning of his 'sharp senses' serves to make it more plausible that he may even come up with such an insightful metaphor as the 'reversed blackboard' – i.e., that this metaphor may stem from his own imagination and is not – as some critics of Updike may argue – generated purely by the aesthetic ambitions of the narrator.)

Now to the second part of the quoted passage. I included a portion of the dialogue between Marie and William so that you can get an impression of what the relationship between the two is like. I don't want to get into the dialogue all too closely – for this, you will have to read the entire short story. If you decide to do so, one suggestion would be to watch out for how a commonplace dialogue is transformed into a problem of almost tragic, all-or-nothing proportions: All of a sudden, Marie gets Billy to question if he is even capable of loving anybody.

All I wanted to get at was the very last paragraph of the quoted passage (the story goes on for only a few paragraphs after this). When reading the story for the first time, I was startled by Updike's audacity to end this encounter, not with, say, a description of how Marie chooses to walk away from William (so that we would be able to draw our conclusions from that), but with the very simple image of snow accumulating on the fenders of a rusted bicycle. The description of Marie's reaction is very vague (“She didn't answer and walked a little distance,” l. 30), but her surroundings, especially the snow, get all the attention (“along the slack cable that divided the parking lot from the softball field. One bicycle, usted as if it had been there for years, leaned in the rack, its fenders supporting crescents of white.” l. 31 - 33)

Some might say this is an old trick. The trick of describing the surroundings of a character in hope to avoid telling us all too directly what we're currently supposed to be thinking about this character. I don't know. Maybe there's some truth to that... But it's probably not that simple. Because we're not just dealing with any kind of description here, we're dealing with yet another great detail on the very central leitmotif of the story: the snow. This way, we get absolutely dazzling effects from contemplating all the different meanings which this final variation on the leitmotif may entail. After all, this reference to the leitmotiv is placed at the very climax of the story. And what's more, we've just been told that there appears to be a close connection between the snow and William's appearance: “he glimpsed, as if the snow were a mirror, how hateful he looked.” (l. 18)

I'll just offer a few thoughts: obviously, we've come round full circle from the story's introductory paragraph, and there have been essential changes. In the very first sentence, the snow was described as 'wet big-flaked snow that did not accumulate well' and was slushed and 'cut' by the tires of a bus. But what we end up with at the end of the story is that same snow accumulating on the fenders of a bicycle wheel.

I don't want to risk being carried away by over-blown interpretations of this reversal (or, with respect to the “blackboard in reverse”: the reversal of the reversal). But to say the least, there are countless ambivalent associations one might have while trying to come up with an adequate explanation for this turn-around.

So here's just my personal chain of associations: The snow is still the same snow. We're just being told that while it may seem slushy and icky from a distance and under the black, heavy tires of a school bus, it is also capable of accumulating if you take a close look at the way the snow actually is capable of accumulating on the light, romantically rusted fenders of an ordinary bike. From this, one could derive that what seemed so threatening from afar (the prospect of graduating from high-school, the dangers associated with leaving this 'place of shelter'), might, once experienced, turn out to be manageable. And how did this change of perception come about? Maybe it was initiated by the cathartic effect of finally telling somebody you love her, even if you get turned down.

It's all the more telling, however, that William doesn't like the outside very much. Right after the final mention of the snow on the fenders, he turns on his feet and returns to the shelter of the school building. (The very next sentence goes: “The warmth inside the door felt heavy”) Maybe he's not quite up to the task of standing his own snow-covered ground. But the comfortable, protective air on the inside has, within the few seconds of his absence, turned into something “heavy”, something more burdensome – something certainly less sheltering.

Berlin, 25.02.2012



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Ian McEwan - Saturday
	„And the forward motion is prompt, it instantly returns him to his
	list, the proximal and distal causes of his emotional state. A
 3 	second can be a long time in introspection.
		Long enough for Henry to make a start on the negative
	features, certainly enough time for him to think, or sense, without
 6	unwrapping the thought into syntax and words, that it is in fact the
	state of the world that troubles him most, and the marchers are
	there to remind him of it. The world probably has changed
 9	fundamentally and the matter is being clumsily handled,
	particularly by the Americans. There are people around the planet,
	well-connected and organised, who would like to kill him and his
12	family and friends to make a point.
		The scale of death contemplated is no longer at issue;
	there'll be more deaths on a similar scale, probably in this city. Is
15	he so frightened that he can't face the fact? The assertions and the
	questions don't spell themselves out. He experiences them more as
	a mental shrug followed by an interrogative pulse.
18		This is the pre-verbal language that linguists call
	mentalese.
		Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns,
21	consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second,
	and blending it inseparably with its distinctive emotional hue,
	which itself is rather like a colour. A sickly yellow. Even with a
24	poet's gift of compression, it could take hundreds of words and
	many minutes to describe. So that when a flash of red streaks in
	across his left peripheral vision, like a shape on his retina in a
27	bout of insomnia, it already has the quality of an idea, a new idea,
	unexpected and dangerous, but entirely his, and not of the world
	beyond himself.
30		He's driving with unconscious expertise into the narrow
	column of space framed on the right by a kerb-flanked cycle path,
	and on the left by a line of parked cars. It's from this line that the
33	thought springs, and with it, the snap of a wing mirror cleanly
	sheared and the whine of sheet-steel surfaces sliding under
	pressure as two cars pour into a gap wide enough for one.
36	Perowne's instant decision at the moment of impact is to
	accelerate as he swerves right.
		There are other sounds – the staccato ratte of the red car on
39	his left side raking a half-dozen stationary vehicles, and the
	thwack of concrete against rubber, like an amplified single
	handclap as the Mercedes mounts the cycle-path kerb. His back
42	wheel hits the kerb too. Then he's ahead of the intruder and
	braking. The slewed cars stop thirty yards apart, engines cut, and
	for a moment there's silence, and no one gets out.“


There are many reasons why this scene has stayed in my head ever since I read it for the first time, but here's just one:

Shortly after having read Saturday, I participated in a creative-writing course at the FU-Berlin which was being held by Ulrich Peltzer. Among the many interesting things he got us to think about was this: Most really good novels, he stated, tend to have a central passage where the novel sort of explains its own mode of story-telling: the novel itself tells you (either directly or indirectly) why it is being narrated the way it is and not in any other way.

To me, the above passage most certainly fits this description very well. As a matter of fact one could argue that the self-referential material is all too abundant here – even for McEwan's standards. It lays out in direct terms that the personal narrator of Saturday spends a lot of time describing its main protagonist's – his name is Henry Perowne – thought processes, but that these passages are not supposed to be taken as an authentic protocol of his inner processes because, frankly, these would have to be captured in 'mentalese' – a language which itself consists more of feelings and 'hues' than of words.

How, then, should one go about narrating Saturday? There's a short YouTube video of McEwan explaining the benefits of 'free indirect discourse', also referred to as 'free indirect style'. LINK. In it, he argues that writers have been developing tools to help them get a grip on the way thoughts are represented in one's head for much longer than neuroscientists have. And most certainly, this passage – and McEwan's writing as a whole – is a shot at this particular goal.

James Wood describes the term 'free indirect style' in the following way: 'Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: 'Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.' In my example, the word stupid marks the sentence as written in free indirect style. Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: 'Ted watched the orchestra through tears.' The addition of the word 'stupid' raises the question: whose word is this? It's unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvellous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted.' (1) [my italics]

Now, what's startling about this passage from Saturday is how abundantly it is outright telling the reader that it is doing 'free' (i.e. non-flagged) indirect discourse: 'introspection' (l. 3), 'without unwrapping the thought into syntax and words' (l. 5f.), and the whole passage on 'mentalese', which begins with the very repetitive 'The assertions and the questions don't spell themselves out.' etc. etc.

The irony of this passage is that while both protagonist and narrator are marvelling at how the brain manages to compress complex thoughts into emotions or even colors (cf. l. 22) in a way that not even a poet (!) could manage, the passage itself is not at all as concise as it could be: In addition to the references to the problem of adequately describing mental processes, isn't it, for example, absolutely tautological to extend the phrase 'distinctive emotional hue' (l. 22) with the subordinate clause 'which itself is rather like a colour' (l. 23)?

I'm not quite sure, this could very well be 'bad' or 'clumsy' or 'all-too-explanatory' writing. But it could also be a technique to make yet another statement about human thoughts, namely: that they tend to be repetitive, tend to circle around an idea before being able to fully grasp it, tend to be self-reflexive, and tend to be full of both shortcuts ('there'll be more deaths on a similar scale') and detours ('kill him and his family and friends').

Saturday>'s plot and theme only serve to make it even harder to decide on these terms. After all, its protagonist is a neurosurgeon – and at that one who is from the very beginning described as an 'habitual observer of his own moods.' So looking at pretty much any given passage, we can never be quite sure whether it is the narrator who is describing Henry's emotions in a more detailed way than Henry himself would be aware of – or if it is in fact Henry himself who is thinking about his own thoughts. To be sure, the fact that the novel takes pains to establish Henry as an observer of his own moods allows for the conclusion that we're supposed to assume that at least Henry could be thinking all these analytical thoughts which we're presented with throughout the novel. (2)

Be this as it may, the plentitude of self-referential material make it clear that the narrator 'wants' to be very clear on why he is telling you things the way he is. It's like he's saying: 'look, reader: I'm trying to get into the head of Henry but don't be fooled into thinking that my sentences could ever even come close to capturing the miracle of what it is actually like to really be Henry Perowne. All I can do is translate the 'emotional hues' he's confronted with into a comprehensible order and correct syntax – and hope that you'll be along for the ride, because there's just as much to learn just from that.' This, to me, is the very honest goal all of McEwans recent novels are aiming at - because, as the rest of the passage shows, McEwan is a master at translating personal experiences into very palpable and comprehensible pictures.

Just have a look at the wonderful way the narator explains how, when day-dreaming, exterior events can seem to be generated by one's own mind. He starts off with a very analytical, once again introverted statement: 'So that when a flash of red streaks in across his left peripheral vision, like a shape on his retina in a bout of insomnia, it already (3) has the quality of an idea, a new idea, unexpected and dangerous, but entirely his, and not of the world beyond himself.' (l. 25f.). Immediately following this sentence, the narrator changes perspectives a little and now, for the first time in this passage, gives us a detailed account of exterior events. Lines 32f. showcase a flash of sharp sounds and precise imagery: the 'snap of a wing mirror cleanly sheared and the whine of sheet-steel surfaces sliding under pressure as two cars pour into a gap wide enough for one.' Notice how the quadruple alliteration in 'sheet-steel surfaces sliding' onomatopetically transfers a sense of this screeching sound. But the source which generates all these noises (there are more to come in l. 38f.) is not the car in its common shape but still the 'thought' representing the car. Only in the next paragraph is the 'red flash' of 'thought' definitively identified as the 'red car' (l. 38). And a few lines later, this same car again is referred to as an 'intruder'. Now, 'intruder' is a noun one does not commonly find in descriptions of street incidents. One doesn't usually intrude streets; one intrudes on conversations, one intrudes private places – one intrudes people's minds. Henry's mind, one is tempted to add.

So what we end up with is a very clever way of representing the transition and interaction between exterior events and inner thoughts. This process is even foreshadowed in the very first sentence of the quoted passage: 'And the forward motion is prompt, it instantly returns him to his list, the proximal and distal causes of his emotional state.' It is the motion of Henry's car which gets his own thoughts going at the beginning of the passage and it is the intrusion of somebody else's car which forces him to hit the breaks on them.

It's this balancing act between writing from the inside and from the outside – fulfilling both the mission to convey human emotions and the goal to remain comprehensible and entertaining – which I see as one of the major challenges in literature. And it's a challenge that McEwan's never fails to at least rise up to.

Berlin, 16.10.2011

Footnotes:

(1) Wood, James: How Fiction Works. London 2008. P. 10.

(2) To discuss this, let's have a short look at the passage on mentalese: 'The assertions and the questions don't spell themselves out. He experiences them more as a mental shrug followed by an interrogative pulse. This is the pre-verbal language that linguists call mentalese. Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second, and blending it inseparably with its distinctive emotional hue, which itself is rather like a colour.' In this particular passage, it does not seem very likely that Henry would have to explain to himself what mentalese is ('Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns.') Being an observant neuroscientist, this must be common knowledge to him. On the other hand, it is not entirely out of consideration that Henry, as some scientists do, has a habit of calling learned definitions to mind when contemplating a particular problem. This assumption does, however, seem a little far-fetched and so it could just be the case that the narrator, in this particular passage, is really trying to get a point across to the reader. From this perspective, the fact that everything is spelled out in such broad terms would serve as a marker for the importance of this passage pertaining to its vital function as what Peltzer would call setting up a 'contract with the reader'.

(3) Why 'already'? Wouldn't one expect the complete opposite, i.e. 'still'? This must be a very clever example of free indirect discourse, comparable to the use of the word 'stupid' in the example James Wood uses. After all, maybe Henry is surprised that shortly after having thought about the dangers of terrorist attacks, he is already being confronted by a 'dangerous red thought'. Please comment if you have any other explanations.



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Surprises in ordinary landscape

Alice Munro 1980

Alice Munro around 1980 outside her old house in North Vancouver. Photo by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

So this goes back to about 1,5 years ago, when Katharina handed me her copy of Alice Munro's Runaway to borrow. We had been speaking about how her writing classes in Biel had impaired her appreciation for most novels and stories – the reason being that once you're discussing your own writing on a daily basis, it becomes so easy to see through the techniques most contemporary authors use; every sentence they form seems more artificial, more goal-oriented, more pretentious than before.

But with Runaway, she said, it was different. The stories really intrigued her – but not necessarily in an intellectual but in a much more down-to-earth-way. However, she couldn't figure out exactly what it was about Munro's stories that were creating this 'effect'. So she let me borrow the book – saying that she's interested on my take on it.

As I said: this took place about 1,5 years ago. And of course, I could not come up with an answer. Even though by today I don't regard Runaway to be Munro's best collection of short stories, I was immediately taken in by Munro's prose – just like Katharina, Mom and pretty much all the rest of the family. I dare even say that Munro has in a way become the common denominator of the family's taste in literature – which diverges, at times, quite radically.

But, just like Katharina, I could never put a finger on what exactly was so intriguing about her.

However, being labeled the 'family philosopher' on this site, I kind of feel obliged to at least finally put up a short, personal take on Alice Munro – and thereby maybe even revive the Reviews-section of this site which has recently been suffering from neglect. (1) All I can offer, though, is sort of a metaphor, derived from Munro's own work, to try to approximate the certain kind of magic her fiction achieves.

This is the metaphor of geology.

Throughout Munro's oeuvre, geology is a recurring motif. I can think of two stories that feature a main character who's a geologist – and I'm sure there are more (maybe the Winters can help out in finding further examples). In Deep-Holes - from her most recent collection Too Much Happiness -, the main character's husband is a geologist. In fact, the second paragraph of the story begins this way: 'The picnic was in honour of Alex's publishing his first solo article in Zeitschrift für Geomorphology. (2) Only ten pages later – encompassing the passing of many years! –, Alex has retired from teaching and is planning on writing a book on geomorphology. Sally, 'to her own surprise', becomes interested in geology and decides to help him with his studies:

'So she became the small figure in black or bright clothing, contrasting with the ribbons of Silurian or Devonian rock. Or with the gneiss formed by intense compression, folded and deformed by clashes of the American and Pacific plates to make the present continent. Gradually she learned to use her eyes and apply new knowledge, till she could stand in an empty suburban street and realize that far beneath her shoes was a crater filled with rubble never to be seen, that never had been seen, because there were no eyes to see it at its creation or throughout the long history of its being made and filled and hidden and lost. Alex did such things the honour of knowing about them, the very best he could, and she admired him for that, although she knew enough not to say so.' [my italics].

This passage, to me, is the greatest – not at all pretentiously self-referential – metaphor for Munro's way of writing.

Now, Munro has written hundreds of short stories, and all of them have their own particular dramaturgy. But there are two things she does rather consistently. First, as every newspaper keeps on mentioning, her characters are pretty much always every-day sorts of people who are always living in the provinces (and only sometimes in the cities) of Canada – usually somewhere in Ottawa. However, their problems and desires are usually very universal (at least within Western cultures, but also beyond that, I would say). And secondly: a large portion of her stories, although rarely more than 35 pages in length, usually cover several decades in the lives of their protagonists. And, as Deborah Treisman from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast points out, it's hard to think of another writer who manages to narrate this fast-paced passage of time more naturally and expertly than her.

To me, these two aspects are interrelated in a very important way: On the one hand, the down-to-earth-ness, the prosaicness, of her characters and their universal problems leave the impression of realism, of a lack of pretension and make-believe (which Katharina, most of all, is so allergic to). On the other hand, the very quick passage of time creates the impression that we, as readers, are bearing witness to the very most important events within that person's life. (3)

And this, to me, is exactly what makes geomorphology so fascinating: Beneath the seemingly solid and static surface of the earth there are huge, unimaginable forces that have the most profound effects on the very structure of the earth. By looking at a mountain, for example, you become, to a certain degree, aware of this: Once you think about it, you can basically only stand back in awe of the forces that managed to shape this massive, monstrous rock-formation in front of you. Only, and this is decisive, in everyday life, you don't notice this: geomorphology moves at such a slow pace that it is virtually impossible for any one human being to witness it directly. Only by being able to fast-forward through millions of years, do we get a real impression of the great forces that shape – well, basically everything we see around us.

So here's what I'm actually trying to get at this entire time: With her stories, Munro is doing the same thing to our understanding of life that one of those computer-animated simulations of tectonic movements over the course of millions of years is doing to our understanding of geomorphology. By fast-forwarding through the protagonist's life she makes things visible that would normally be outside of the field of vision of both her protagonist and the reader. By racing through seemingly commonplace occurrences within the life of one person, she's showing us, in a very subtle way, how that person has changed throughout time. And by doing that, she's basically, in her best moments, offering a glimpse at the awe-inspiring forces that shape life without our ever noticing it.

This may be why Royce, a character from one of Munro's most recent short stories Axis, experiences a moment of epiphany – one that will change the course of his life – when looking at a cliff he has never noticed before:

'Then he got out and he saw across the road in the cut of the highway a tower of ancient-looking rock that seemed quite out of place there. […] He was on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, though he did not know that name or anything about it. But he was captivated. Why had he never been told anything about this? This surprise, this careless challenge in the ordinary landscape. He felt a comic sort of outrage that something made for him to explore had been there all along and nobody had told him. Nevertheless he knew. Before he got into the next car he knew that he was going to find out. He was not going to let this go. Geology was what it was called - and all this time he had been fooling around with arguments, with philosophy and political science. It wouldn't be easy. It would mean saving money, starting again with pimpled brats just out of high school. But that was what he would do. Later, he often told people about this trip, about the sight of the escarpment that had turned his life around. If asked what he'd been doing there he'd wonder and then remember that he had gone up there to see a girl...' [my italics]

I guess no further comment is needed regarding this passage. Suffice it to say that in the very last paragraph of Deep-Holes, Sally is having a very bitter-sweet thought which expresses the core of my 'argument' much more concisely than I would be able to express: 'And it was possible, too, that age could be her ally, turning her into somebody she didn't know yet. She has seen the look on the faces of certain old people – marooned on islands of their own choosing, clear sighted, content.'

Berlin, 02.10.2011

Footnotes:

(1) Dare I state that I seem to be the only one contributing to it? Well, being the one who came up with the idea, I guess it's my own fault...

(2) I have no idea why the editors didn't catch the obvious error in the German word.

(3) These events may be minor encounters or mere observations – or, on the other side of the spectrum: moments in which a loved one is lost. Whether 'major' or 'minor', these occurences may be described as 'out of the ordinary' – but, crucially, since the entire life of the character is being covered, it does not seem surprising or contrived that things like this could and do happen.



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