Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tracks and Bones

From Sebald's Austerlitz:

"Geradeso wie die Lebendigen ziehen die Toten, wenn es ihnen zu eng wird, nach draußen in eine weniger dicht besiedelte Gegend, wo sie in gehörigem Abstand voneinander ihre Ruhe finden können. Aber es kommen ja immer neue nach, in unendlicher Folge, zu deren Unterbringung zuletzt, wenn alles belegt ist, Gräber durch Gräber gegraben werden, bis auf dem ganzen Acker die Gebeine kreuz und quer durcheinander lieben. Dort, wo einmal die Bestattungs- und Bleichfelder waren, auf dem Areal der 1865 erbauten Broadstreet Station, kamen 1984 bei den im Zuge der Abbrucharbeiten vorgenommenen Ausgrabungen unter einem Taxistand über vierhundert Skelette zutage. Ich bin damals des öfteren dort gewesen, sagte Austerlitz, teilweise wegen meiner baugeschichtlichen Interessen, teilweise auch aus anderen, mir unverständlichen Gründen, und habe photographische Aufnahmen gemacht von den Überresten der Toten, und ich entsinne mich, wie einer der Archäologen, mit dem ich ins Gespräch gekommen bin, mir gesagt hat, daß in jedem Kubikmeter Abraum, den man aus dieser Grube entfernte, die Gerippe von durchschnittlich acht Menschen gefunden worden sind." (Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 2003. p. 192)

From City Secrets: London

"The area behind St. Pancras Station is rich in atmosphere and history, if in little else. It used to be called Battle Bridte, this being where the recalcitrant Queen Boudicca led the Iceni to their doom against Caesar's legions. Legend has her buried beneath Platform Seven of St. Pancras."

"Wander up Pancras Road, past the car-washes and bakeries that occupy the vast arches beneath the track and you'll find St. Pancras Old Church, allegedly one of London's most ancient holy sites, and named after a fourth-century martyr. The mediaeval church was restored beyond salvation by Victorian do-gooders, but its churchyard, its garden freshly planted, is a treasure. Forging the Midland line required levelling the old, tightly packed burial ground, and a scandal arose when early passenges espied bones and skulls poking from the trackside. The young Thomas Hardy helped relocate the remains and gravestones, many of which are swirled and stacked around the churchyards London planes, and later wrote about it:

We late lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am.'

Somewhere below, along with the uncharted dead, lies the buried Fleet River, whose passage from Hampstead to the Thames is now contained entirely in an iron pipe. Of the "spa and wells" of old St. Pancras, there is no sign."
(Adams, Tim, ed. City Secrets: London. New York: The Little Bookroom, 2001. pp. 100-101.)

Cities are, by their very nature, layered places. Is it a particular characteristic of train stations, though, to be especially brutal in churning up and paving over the layers of the past? Is it coincidence that train stations were both brought into the context of the displaced dead in both of these very different works? Of course, what to do with the dead is a persistent problem of modernizing and expanding cities. (Only tangentially related: The New York Times recently ran a story about Colma, CA, "a Town of 2.2 Square Miles, Most of It 6 Feet Deep," which was founded as a necropolis for neighboring cities, whose graveyards were all full up.)

What interests me, though, is the deliberate allusion in Sebald to the skeletons under Broadstreet Station. Though train stations and their surroundings are frequently employed as highly symbolic liminal spaces throughout the novel, this one instance is particularly poignant. The novel deals largely with exile, but no other passage about displacement speaks so directly to the hopelessness of the exile's wish of finding a place.

Another strange consonance between my snooty travel guide and Sebald's novel:

"At least Norman Foster's 1989 plan to flatten the graceful curve of the Great Northern Hotel remains scuppered." (City Secrets: London, p. 100)

"[Austerlitz] habe den Nachmittag, sagte er, damit verbracht, sich in dem Great Eastern [Hotel], das nächstens von Grund auf renoviert werden solle, ein wenig umzusehen, hauptsächlich in dem Freimaurertempel, der um die Jahrhundertwende von den Direktoren der Eisenbahngesellschaft in das damals gerade erst fertiggestellte und auf das luxuriöseste ausgestattete Hotel hineingebaut worden ist." (Austerlitz: p. 65)

He proceeds to describe (over several pages) the Masonic Temple itself and the (many layers of) labyrinthine cellars of the Great Eastern Hotel (which stands near Liverpool Street Station) where food is stored and prepared (ein kleines Totenreich für sich - p. 67).

It's not a new revelation that Sebald is interested in layers (his narrative itself is structured in layers and layers of heresay, which call the reliability of the entire narrative into question), train stations (Austerlitz is named after one, for heaven's sake), and architecture (the novel contains more than a little architectural history, clearly), but it seems that there is a good paper (book) to be written about these themes. And how interesting that other people (like the dear writer in my snooty guide, and good old Thomas Hardy) are also interested in graveyards being buried under train tracks.


wjh said...

Do you read any particular texts that deal with the theory of place and space? I would be interested in that.

(Also, Sebald needs to stop putting commas everywhere. Mann is not a good example for EVERYTHING. ;-)

EEJ said...

Yes, I do... I'll hopefully be getting around to reading more soon... stay tuned for more. And yes, Sebald does love to just go on... there's one sentence in there that is *actually* ten pages long. Difficult to quote in an essay.

Dan said...

I hate to bring down the tone, but I reckon there's a Zombies-on-the-Tube movie in there too...

Anonymous said...

If you are interested in cities and space I would try "Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino and "The Species of Spaces" by George Perec.

The first is significantly more abstract, but has a lot of layers to consider beyond the rather fantastic top layer.

The second is mostly musings on spaces themselves.


EEJ said...

Invisible Cities is one of my favorite books (all of Calvino, really... he deals with space in all his books. I haven't read The Species of Spaces but it sounds right up my alley... Thanks for the recommendation.