It’s a Surreal World

<This post contains spoilers.>

One of my favourite “How many … does it take to …?” jokes is:

How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? 
Three. Two to fill the bathtub with clocks, and one to set the giraffe on fire

* * * * * * * * * *

I’m taking a class about four surrealists: painter René Magritte (1898-1967), writer Jorge Borges (1899-1986), filmmaker Luis Buñuel  (1900-1983), and (hyperrealist) writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008).  Through the class so far, which has focused on Robbe-Grillet and Borges, I’ve felt that what what we’ve read and seen is so familiar, so … normal. So real. I know it’s surreal (or hyperreal), but it feels real. It feels absurd and dreamlike and confusing — and that feels entirely normal, not unlike my everyday experience. And I notice that for others in the class, all older than I am (I think), much of what we’ve read and seen seems surpassingly strange, although also beautiful, at times, and often ingeniously clever. I’m not sure if this is how it really feels to others or not; I’m basing my quasi-assessment on comments people have made in class.

In any case, I’m trying to discover why it is that the surreal feels normal to me. Until last week, I had never read Borges ( I know!), and yet as we read his stories, I felt I knew them already, had read them dozens of times before.  (We read parts of “The Aleph,” “Pierre Menard:  Author of the Quixote,” “The Book of Sand,” and “Borges and I.”) Someone in class mentioned their similarity to some Edgar Allan Poe stories, which is certainly true – “Borges and I” may remind readers of “The Raven” in its duality of ego and alter ego  (Borges was influenced by Poe). Kafka also comes to mind. And “bizarre phenomena injected into what should be prosaic settings” (one element of surrealism, noted here) — as the Aleph (unified infinity) spinning around in someone’s basement — is common now to most visual (modern? postmodern?) art, I think, and to much fiction.

The Robbe-Grillet book we’re reading, The Erasers, also feels familiar, reminding me of many modern crime novels, with multiple points of view, and observations and assumptions of narrators/actors who may be intentionally or unknowingly deceptive; even first-person and omniscient narrators are sometimes untrustworthy. And some crime fiction now is even written with The Erasers’ fatalistic sensibility, the idea that we can’t help but act as we are fated to, no matter how we try to change the course of events.

book cover: The Erasers (Robbe-Grillet)Of course, The Erasers is also (intentionally) reminiscent of the much older, and many times reworked, Oedipus story, most obviously because the very action Wallas tries to prevent is the action he commits (and/or has committed), possibly the killing of his father.

The film we watched, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), for which Robbe-Grillet wrote the screenplay, also reminds me of bits of other books and movies. Fascinatingly, apparently Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay derived from The Invention of Morel, “a novella written twenty-one years earlier by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges’ colleague of the Fantastic” (see Senses of Cinema’s Last Year at Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation for more info).

Maybe it’s just a function of growing older, that everything reminds one of something.

Or maybe the world has become more surreal, or it’s harder and harder in the post(post)modern age to be surreal, when the ironic gesture, multiple and unauthorised points of view (such as blogs), seemingly endless and wildly varying possibilities of global links and virtual hyperlinks, and frankly irrational politics and absurd pop culture are the norm.

Literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov says, in his book The Fantastic:

“The nineteenth century transpired, it is true, in a metaphysics of the real and the imaginary, and the literature of the fantastic is nothing but the bad conscience of this positivist era. But today, we can no longer believe in an immutable, external reality, nor in a literature which is merely the transcription of such a reality.” (quoted in an article on “The Aleph” at Blog Critics; Todorov calls “The Aleph” meta-fantastic.)

I think perhaps that it’s the engagement of the surrealists with doubt that allows them to blend almost seamlessly into the post-modern world and to seem so ordinary (as in “Yes, of course that’s how it is”) now.

* * * * * * * * * *

Over the last week, I’ve tried to apply myself to discerning which specific other books and films these pieces in class have evoked from my tangled memory. I realised two of them are films I’ve never seen but have heard so much about that I almost feel I have seen them, which is in itself somewhat dreamlike and surreal …

<> The 2000 film Memento (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000) is a film I haven’t seen but it’s referenced everywhere. The plot: “A man, suffering from short-term memory loss, uses notes and tattoos to hunt for the man he thinks killed his wife.” (Guess who it is?)  It’s sort an of update of The Erasers, except that the man doesn’t remember killing his wife (rather than his father). It’s also been compared by some with Last Year at Marienbad.

<> I haven’t seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), either, but I’m aware that it’s about a spotless mind, that is, one with memories erased: “Much of the film takes place in Joel’s mind. As his memories are erased, Joel finds himself revisiting them in reverse.” (In The Erasers, Wallas hunts for but can’t find an eraser that works as he wants it to.) And it has elements, elliptically, of Last Year: “Although they apparently do not realize it at the time, Joel and Clementine are in fact former lovers, now separated after having spent two years together.”

Both of those films move both forward and backward through time.

Of course there are many post-modern books and films with aspects of surrealism, almost all of which I haven’t read or seen and so would not be reminded of.  Unless you think one can remember what hasn’t been experienced or observed. Do you think that?

A few books (that I haven’t read) whose descriptions mark them as more surreal (and similar to Borges’ stories, The Erasers, and Last Year) than not:

<> The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) by J. G. Ballard: “There is no clear beginning or end to the book, and it does not follow any of the conventional novelistic standards: the protagonist (such as he is) changes name with each chapter/story (Talbert, Traven, Travis, Talbot, etc), just as his role and his visions of the world around him seems to change constantly. (Ballard explains in the 1990 annotated edition that the character’s name was inspired by reclusive novelist B. Traven, whose identity is still not certainly known.) … It is never quite clear how much of the novel ‘really’ takes place, and how much only occurs inside the protagonist’s own head. Characters that he kills return again in later chapters (his wife seems to die several times)…. Inner and outer landscapes seem to merge together (a Ballardian specialty).”

<> Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves  (2000): a book that exists about a dissertation that does not exist, about a film that does not exist, about a house that does not exist. The book is filled with hundreds of footnotes, referencing a lot of things that do exist, but even more that don’t. Borges-esque. “Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other throughout the story in disorienting and elaborate ways.”

<> Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004): It apparently includes scholarly footnotes to invented biographies, magical texts and journals, though this isn’t one of the story’s central features as it is in the Borges “Pierre Menard” review.

<> And this book, Assumptions, by Percival Everett, hasn’t even been published yet but from its review on NPR yesterday, it sounds like it has a lot in common with The Erasers. It’s a crime novel in 3 sections, which toys with the genre of crime fiction. Each section overturns the book’s opening premise, and in one section, the detective begins to fear he may be hallucinating a large part of the case.  (The transcript is deficient; you’d have to listen to hear the proper review.)

* * * * * * * * * *

All of the works listed below I have actually read or seen; they have all come to mind at times when I’ve been reading The Erasers, and Borges, and when I saw Last Year.

Now that I see them all listed, I can understand better why these surrealist pieces in class don’t strike me as particularly strange; they perhaps were quite odd in their time, but now they are just postmodern. Their common elements — non-linearity and playing with chronology, a dreamlike or nightmarish sensibility, the unreliability of memory, multiple and misleading points of view, a disquieting sense of inevitability, objects inserted where they may not conventionally belong, a deliberate confusion of what’s “real” and what’s not, fictional characters with minds of their own, who can choose to be part of the story or not, and so on — are in wide use now in the arts.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Shadow of the Wind - book cover<> The Shadow of the Wind (La sombra del viento, 2001/ transl. 2004) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón; “The Book of Sand” strongly reminds me of this. And Borges is referenced in the NYT review of the book: It’s like “Gabriel García Márquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges.”


“In this Borgesian labyrinth each book awaits someone to choose it, make it part of his or her life, and thereby renew its own lost life. Mostly for its handsome binding, little [10-year-old] Daniel picks out a novel eponymously titled ”The Shadow of the Wind,” by an obscure Spanish writer, Julián Carax [who was actually not a real person in terms of history]. The choice will melodramatically shape the child’s life, launching him as a young man, five years later, upon the garish, gothic quest that is the elaborate centerpiece of Ruiz Zafón’s novel. At the same time, among other dramatic and interlocking quests that go back to the 1920’s, it will shape an odd redemption for Carax’s own dark tragedy. The main story is too zestfully convoluted to set out in any detail and allow space for the lush side stories that weave through it.”

Also, as in The Erasers, there is a doubling of searcher and searched-for in The Shadow of the Wind.

<> Borges’ writing in general reminded me of aspects of Sophie’s World (Sofies verden, 1991/trans. 1995) by Jostein Gaarder. (Which, interestingly, in light of Borges’ ideas about translation, was not just translated into English but was actually rewritten for an English-speaking audience.)  As in “The Aleph,” some rules of physics are suspended within the otherwise ordinary fictional world. In Sophie’s World, characters can enter the story and leave it at will. Objects also disappear into the story.

<> This is also true of Jasper Fford’s “Thursday Next” series. In this series, “the line between literature and reality becomes increasingly thin, allowing characters in the books and those in ‘real life’ to jump in and out of novels.” So Thursday can change the ending of, e.g., Jane Eyre. And the characters in novels are discovered to be self aware, knowing they are in a book.

<> “The Aleph” also reminds me of Nicholson Baker’s detailed lists of very specific things (as in The Mezzanine, 1988). And of course of Revelation, in the Bible, when John describes the fantastical things he sees in his revelation.

<> “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote” is so reminiscent of a story or book with historical characters who aren’t historical, and in which that character’s publications are described in detail. I wish I could recall what that story or book is … Maybe it’s one of these many books that include lots of fictional books … I remember all the “false” books cited in AS Byatt’s Possession (1990) … it’s possible that’s the memory tweaking my brain.

<> Last Year at Marienbad reminded me of many movies, for various reasons — Though they’re very different in tone, something about it was reminiscent of The Beaches of Agnès (2008), Agnès Varda’s documentary of her life.  As someone noted in a review of The Beaches: “Memory, [Varda] says, is like a swarm of confused flies. She envisions hers for us.”

<> Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) is similar to all these pieces in its conscious confusing of what’s real and what’s not. The audience doesn’t know whether what’s happening is “true” or “real” — is it his “real” life or is it a play he’s directing, and if it’s a play, is it a play about his life, and if it is, is it “true”? …

Stardust Memories is also similar in style in places to Fellini’s 8-1/2 (1963; though not nearly as good, IMO … I agree with Ebert’s review of Stardust for the most part); and 8-1/2 also sort of reminded me of Last Year at Marienbad (esp. the use of architecture and geometry, and so many wandering, stylised people…), as did Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli spiriti, 1965), in some ways, such as Juliet’s troubling visions and memories …

<> And of course, Allen’s film Alice (1980) is full of magical realism, which is different from surrealism but also calls into question what’s real and what’s not. Wikipedia says Alice is a reworking of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. Both seem to me to use elements of magic in the service of surrealism, as means of expressing “the sub-conscious, unconscious, the repressed and inexpressible.” (see Wikipedia: Magical Realism compared with surrealism.)

L'Avventura still<> As someone else in class also mentioned, The Erasers is reminiscent a bit of L’Avventura (1960), dir. by Michelangelo Antonioni, in its disorienting chronology and confusion about “did it happen? or didn’t it?” (As Wikipedia says: “L’Avventura has a narrative structure in which an apparently important central mystery is gradually forgotten and left unsolved.”) Also, just look at the trailer to see how similar in place and style some of the scenes are to Last Year at Marienbad. (photo: L’Avventura still; credit: Criterion)

<> Even the otherwise straightforward  The Hours (by Michael Cunningham, movie in 2002) gives “life” to a book’s character (Mrs Dalloway), with the book’s author (Woolf) in a parallel role to her character, and the book appearing in the third interwoven story as well. Though the film isn’t surreal per se, it reminds me of Borges, writ small.

<> Synecdoche, New York (2008) is quite disorienting, postmodern, surreal. It’s about how we use and organise our personas, and as Roger Ebert says: ” The film begins as apparently realistic, but as the set expands it shades off into — complexity? fantasy? chaos?”  A review comparing it with Fellini’s 8-1/2 asks: “Aren’t all men merely playing out the destiny given to them, taking cues and direction while slowly losing grip on one’s own life?”

That’s a central question in both films, and central to The Erasers. Ebert’s review also describes something that the Borges pieces, The Erasers (sort of), and Synecdoche have in common: “What happens in the film isn’t supposed to happen in life. The membrane between fact and fiction becomes permeable, and the separate lives intermingle. Caden hardly seems to know whose life he’s living; his characters develop minds of their own.”

O'Horten still<> O’Horten (2007), a Norwegian film, has some classic surreal moments in it…. It’s about a just-retired 67-yr-old train engineer, Odd Horten, who has spent almost 40 years moving trains expertly but is now stuck in place. As the NYT reviewer notes, Horten “has spent most of his life ruled by a timetable and traveling in straight lines. What will happen when he is allowed to stray, to meander, to loaf?”

Some interesting bits include a scene with a man carrying a massive fish home up an icy hill, asking Horten, who’s holding onto a pole on the sidewalk to keep from sliding, whether he likes a particular kind of butter sauce, followed by a man in a suit sliding down the hill on his butt, sitting upright, holding a briefcase. (Reminded me of Magritte.) (Photo: O’Horten still; credit: Photo Agency).

The most extended, mysterious part is his 12-hour interaction with another older man, Sissener, whom he finds sleeping in the street and helps home, whose claims to be a diplomat with a deceased schizophrenic inventor brother are later called into serious question after some blindfolded driving. A great movie! The emphasis on mechanical and linear elements in contrast to the endless wandering and confusion of O’Horten remind me of The Erasers.

<> Another Norwegian film, The Bothersome Man (Den brysomme mannen, 2006) is very dark, very surreal in a nightmarish, dystopian way. The main character arrives some place — a place that’s sterile, bland, mechanical — with no memory of how he got there. The stylised characters reminded me of the characters in Last Year. And the motif of memory (or lack of memory … faulty memory, unreliable memory) in both Last Year and The Erasers.

<> The Hitchcock film Vertigo (1959), which I’ve seen several times, also reminds me — a lot — of Last Year at Marienbad. Or vice versa: “Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1962) can be seen as an elliptical reworking of the plot of Vertigo as well as being filled with details from the film, even down to the musical score.” It also reminds me of The Erasers!

Persona still<> There are elements of Bergman’s Persona (1966) that also came to mind when watching Last Year: the not knowing what’s real and what’s imagined, the disorienting feel of the movie and chronology, etc.  Central to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957) is memory, conflicting perception, a perhaps unreliable narrator, and lots of nightmares and dreams.

<> Some recent crime fiction that comes to mind with deceptive and multiple perspectives (including the killer’s pov) — mixing various people’s observations (Rashomon-style, as was mentioned in class) and their differing assumptions or beliefs about what’s happening or happened, similar to The Erasers, are: Echoes from the Dead (2008) by Johan Theorin; The Blood Spilt (2004/trans. 2007) by Asa Larsson (one of the characters whose pov we read is a lone female wolf’s); The Fifth Woman (1996; transl. 2000)and Sidetracked (1995; transl. 1999), both by Henning Mankel; Mind’s Eye (published as The Wide-Meshed Net in Sweden, 1993; transl. 2008) by Håkan Nesser; Blackwater (1993, transl. 1995) by Kerstin Ekman; When the Devil Holds the Candle (1998; trans. 2004) by Karin Fossum; et al.

<> Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) by Jonathan Safran Foer is a whimsical novel about grieving that offers at least three people’s perspectives, in tandem, on some of the same events of the plot, with surprises at the end. There is a lot of repetition in this book, especially of the words “incredibly” and “extremely,” and also of actions and thoughts. Also a lot of wandering around the city.

<> Tom Rachman’s recent book, The Imperfectionists (2010), portrays a European newsroom, over decades, “through a sort of Cubist lens, with everyone viewed from various angles.”

The surreal-est part of that book was about Ornella de Monterecchi, the mother of the Italian press officer: “She lives alone amid a mountain of clutter consisting of every issue of the paper from the late 1970s to the present day. These she insists on reading in sequence. The current date might be Feb. 18, 2007, but in her world, it’s April 23, 1994.” Then, one day, a newspaper issue is missing: “The turn of tomorrow has come, and it has gone. Nowhere will she find a copy of April 24, 1994. She must move on to April 25. But skipping a day has a peculiar effect: these stacks seem far less authoritative all of a sudden — less like the paper and more like plain paper.” (Source)  As in The Erasers, there’s something in there about mechanical means of trying to control time, the past, memory …

Also reminds me of Borges, with the power of the concrete object (the newspaper) to affect one’s experience of the real world, to a point….

* * * * * * * * * *

Some of these works are only slightly similar to The Erasers, Last Year, and the Borges pieces, but enough so that they were evoked by what we’ve seen and read of these surrealists in class. Or have I seen and read them at all? Am I taking a class?

One thought on “It’s a Surreal World

  1. What a great post! I’ve read Borges since my decades-ago Spanish major in college, and love him still. Your comments and connections are fascinating!

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