Two scenes from ‘The Masseurs and a Woman’

I’ll be looking here at two scenes from The Masseurs and a Woman, which contain ample evidence of the skill, intelligence and fluidity of Shimizu’s film-making. First, the opening. As the film begins, Toku and Fuku are making their way along a country road to the resort village, canes in hand, but walking at a confident pace, evidently familiar with the route. The camera retreats as they advance, keeping the same pace, almost as if it, and we, were walking alongside them―except that, if that were the case, we’d be facing the wrong way, unable to see in front of us. Toku extols the beautiful view (“It’s as if we could see!”), turning his head to the side as if he really were looking at it. Wonderfully, we are as reliant as Toku on the power of imagination, because the camera retains its focus on the walkers, keeping the beautiful view off-screen. We can infer, however, that there is indeed a view to be seen precisely at the spot Toku imagines one, because we can see that the road has a sheer drop at the side; moments later, as the two continue ahead, trees rise up on the same side, blocking any view into the valley below. Toku isn’t simply letting his imagination run wild; he knows when splendid scenery lies before him, and he isn’t going to let the small fact of his blindness prevent him from appreciating it. The two men’s blindness is apparent as soon as the film begins, but any sense of pity we (as sighted viewers) might feel for their condition is quickly nipped in the bud, as it is plain that two men are more than capable of looking after themselves. The old cliché about blind people compensating for their disability by developing their other senses to a heightened degree seems to be making another appearance. Subtly, however, Shimizu suggests that the two men’s abilities are not quite equal, and the difference has a bearing on their personalities. We can see this in the way they walk, for that of Toku is just a little bit more assured. His cane, extended straight in front of him, occasionally taps the ground, but you get the impression that Toku would manage pretty well without it. Fuku, meanwhile, uses his cane somewhat more tentatively, holding it closer to his body, sometimes bringing it around to his side in a small curving motion, and tapping the ground more often. He’s almost always fractionally behind his companion. Their conversation confirms the visual impression. Fuku wonders how many people they’ve passed; Toku knows the answer, taking pleasure in the fact that they’re able to overtake sighted people. Fuku remarks regretfully that he bumped into a few animals, which Toku blames on his carelessness. Both men express a certain degree of resentment towards the sighted society that may act kindly towards them, but which will readily kick them into a ditch. Toku’s resentment, however, is keener, the result, perhaps, of longer experience; he takes on the role of mentor to Fuku, advising him to rely on neither people nor his cane. Suddenly Toku stops his companion, and challenges him to guess how many children are approaching. The camera stops, too―but not immediately, as if it takes a moment for it to realize that the two men have stopped, and waits for them to continue. The viewer can’t see the children, and has been given no indication of their presence; while Toku and Fuku stand listening, only then do we begin to hear, very faintly, their voices―our hearing lags behind Toku’s superior senses. Shimizu cuts for the first time to a closer, stationary shot of the two men listening intently. Eight kids, says Fuku; eight and a half, says Toku, sure that there’s a baby among them. Another cut, back to Toku and Fuku advancing, the camera reversing; sure enough, eight children, one with a baby tied to its back, walk from behind the camera and pass the two masseurs. Fuku may be good, but Toku is something else.

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Having displayed the acuity of his ears, Toku next makes use of his nose, halting Fuku abruptly. Again, the camera stops to wait; Fuku, thinking there’s danger ahead, wields his cane like a sword, while Toku, with an expression of disgust, uses his cane to point down in front of him at something the viewer can’t see. Fuku by now has realized what’s wrong; there’s a bad smell, and as they veer to sides, the camera too resumes its journey, and we now see a pile of horse dung in the middle of the road. Fuku’s sense of smell is good, but were in not for Toku, he’d have stepped right into the dung. The viewer can’t smell anything; what’s more, looking backwards, we can’t see the dung either, until Toku and Fuku have successfully passed it. The camera does not veer to the side with them, but keeps to the middle of the road, so that we get shit on our shoes. Cunningly, Shimizu has set this up with a series of subtle shot changes. Before they stop to listen to the approaching kids, we see the masseurs either in full shot, or with only their feet cut off at the bottom of the screen. When the two men stop to listen intently, the camera gets closer, just above waist height, prompting us to look and listen more intently. When the camera starts moving again, all of the men’s bodies are again visible, only this time the camera is slightly further away, allowing us to see the children pass. Toku and Fuku stop again, turning their heads back in the direction of the children; there’s another cut, and now we see them from above the knees only. When they, and the camera, start moving again, the shot remains the same, so that we can’t see the horse shit at our feet. The same shot is maintained until the two of them stop when Toku catches a whiff; when they proceed cautiously, the camera pulls back to show their full bodies again, and to reveal the shit we’ve just stepped in.

This full-body shot is a brief one; there’s then a cut to a shot with the camera around waist-level (the reason for this will be apparent later). Fuku complains that he’s tired and wants to slow down, but Toku insists that they press on in order to reach their destination before nightfall. When his friend objects that travelling in the dark is hardly a problem for them, Toku reveals the real reason for his haste: a competitive desire to arrive ahead of a group of students who earlier passed them by. Fuku is sceptical, but Toku is adamant that he can do it, that his blindness is no handicap. Again, we are gently made to appreciate the differences in character between the two: Fuku is the more demure and circumspect of the pair, while Toku is more combative, determined to prove himself against sighted people, to demonstrate that he is every bit their equal. Toku, the film suggests, is someone frustrated by the constraints of his employment, which forces him to play the part of servant, something alien to his nature. It is his seeing customers who hold social power over him; it is their society that all but forces him into working as a masseur, to accept the role that rigid tradition, seeing him only as a blind man and nothing else, would thrust upon him. Fuku may be reconciled to his lot, but Toku aims to break free of it, and so strides ahead of his colleague, vowing, as he does so, to beat the students to the resort. Here there’s a cut, and the camera once more shows the pair in a full-body shot, the two of them walking silently, Toku at the front. What we can see, and the two of them can’t, is that there is a large rock in the road, and Toku is heading straight for it. Cutting to mid-shot for the conversation about overtaking the students has enabled Shimizu to point our attention to the rock in the foreground when he then cuts to long-shot, which would not have been so noticeable had the whole conversation been filmed in long-shot. It’s something of a reversal of the situation with the horse dung; the viewer, with the privilege of sight (over which, the director, nonetheless, exerts control) is able to know what lies ahead (which, for the viewer, is also behind)*, while Toku cannot. We watch as Toku stumbles, his cry as he falls frightening Fuku into wielding his cane as a weapon, just as he did when Toku’s nose detected the smell of horse manure. For all their independence and abilities, neither man is invulnerable. While Toku scrambles to right himself, a horse-drawn carriage passes them by, enabling Toku to regain something of his dignity by displaying his olfactory expertise in being able to tell from the lingering scent of perfume that a lady from Tokyo is on board the carriage. The focus then switches to the passengers, as we see Michiho, Shintaro and Kenichi looking back in the direction of the masseurs as the driver explains who they are. A fade-out marks the end of the scene, which has lasted five minutes.

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The second scene I want to examine is my favorite in the film, and one of the most magical two minutes of cinema I know. We see Michiho walk down the street towards the camera, evidently watching something that’s going on in front of her. A cut reveals the object of her interest: Toku, in long-shot, bumping into a pair of bathers. He is on his way to Michiho’s hotel, where he is supposed to give her a massage. The collision with the bathers is an unusual mistake for him (the carelessness of the bathers notwithstanding), perhaps suggesting that his senses have become compromised by his developing feelings for Michiho, or even that they are affected by his being unknowingly observed by her. Shimizu cuts back to the observer, a slight smile on her face; she turns away and retreats, then looks back and stops. As Michiho turns her body around so that she is facing Toku again, there is a change of shot so that the camera is behind her. Both characters are now visible in long-shot, Michiho at screen left, Toku walking towards the camera at screen right. As he passes her, she turns her body so that she is always looking at him. He stops, sniffs the air, detecting her scent. He turns back towards her, and there’s a close-up of his face as he turns. At first it seems as if his face is going to ‘look’ directly at Michiho (and the camera), but instead his head keeps turning until it’s facing downwards―abashed, confused, frustrated―we can’t tell. Shimizu cuts back to Michiho, smiling more broadly now, as she slowly backs away while so that she keeps looking at him. Shimizu keeps cutting back and forth between Michiho and an increasingly confused Toku, the former slowly moving away from the masseur, frequently stopping and looking back at him. Michiho keeps leading him forwards in this manner, until, at around the same spot where Toku earlier bumped into the bathers, she almost bumps into four masseurs (including Fuku). Toku continues to follow Michiho, until he passes the other masseurs, stops, and turns towards them. Not wishing to be detained, and anxious to catch up with Michiho, he continues turning so that he is back facing the camera (a 360° turn), but he still isn’t decided, and starts turning again towards Fuku and the other masseurs. This time, while he turns, the camera briefly switches as well, so that it is on the other side of Toku, before switching back to show Toku facing screen left, at an angle of approximately 90° relative to both the other masseurs and to the direction taken by Michiho. As Fuku approaches him, Toku turns away, then back towards Fuku, and finally once again towards where Michiho wandered off. The scene ends, and there’s a cut to show Michiho at the river, looking around her as if to check whether Toku has been able to follow.

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This marvellous scene, played for the most part in a haunting silence (apart from a few eerie notes from a flute-like instrument at the beginning, and some dialogue between Toku and Fuku at the end), is a kind of teasingly erotic dance, with the camera as a third dancer, along with Toku and Michiho. Shimizu superbly choreographs both Michiho’s playful, faintly cruel seductiveness and Toku’s helpless, bewildered desire,** placing the viewer, through the camera reversals, alternately in the position of seduced and seducer, eroticizing both male and female characters. Michiho and Toku can’t have the same experience of eroticism, of course. Michiho, as a sighted character, can see the handsome Toku as the viewer can see him, whereas Toku can only imagine Michiho’s visual beauty. As an object of desire, he experiences her through sound, touch and smell―here only through smell, which is denied to the viewer. That this desire is an unfamiliar feeling for Toku is suggested by his uncharacteristically confused dealings with physical space―a hesitant and uncertain gait, halting, turning around. As a masseur, he would have been expected to deny himself any erotic desire, for the expectation that any such desire would not be expressed is what allowed blind masseurs to handle exposed flesh. His familiar environment is male, blind and celibate, hence perhaps his indecision on meeting his fellow masseurs: should he stick to the life he has known for years, a life that seems to dissatisfy him, a life he has been more or less compelled to lead, but which for all that offers the compensations of homosocial camaraderie and regular travel? Or should he break free from his designated role and explore the new sensation of desire, with all the risks of failure and humiliation involved? For her part, as a woman, Michiho too is constrained by a rigid patriarchal society (we don’t discover her story until the end), and her flirtation with Toku, a man who intrigues her even though she doesn’t seem to seriously entertain the prospect of romance, is enlivened by the thrill of transgression. But trying to unpack this little scene like this still doesn’t get to the core of what makes it so special, for, in the end, the greater part of its delicacy and mysteriousness resist explanation; as much can be said of the film as a whole.

*The rock lies slightly to the side of the road, unlike the horse shit, so we’re not put in the position of having stumbled over it as we are made to tread in the horse shit.

** His helplessness and bewilderment accentuated by his white jacket, which makes him look especially innocent. In case the contrast between naïve male and worldly, seductive female sounds misogynistic, it is part of the film’s success that it portrays Michiho not as a clichéd vamp, but as a complex and sympathetic human.

The Masseurs and a Woman (1938, Shimizu Hiroshi)

Its running time barely exceeds an hour. Its plot is light, meandering, almost trivial. The director’s approach to his material might, at first glance, seem leisurely and off-hand. Yet I would not hesitate to call The Masseurs and a Woman one of the finest films I’ve seen, reaching as close to perfection in its 66 minutes as any I know; watching it for the first time was a revelatory experience. The director, Shimizu Hiroshi, had an enormously prolific career, but much of his output has been lost, and only a handful of titles have been made available in the West. A few years ago, the Criterion Collection released a DVD set of four films (including this one) as part of its Eclipse series, but his work has yet to attain the international profile that the work of his contemporary Naruse Mikio has established in recent years, after a long period of obscurity. The enduring problem with classic Japanese cinema is that, in spite of all the lost films, the surviving ones are still considerable in number, but many of them remain difficult, in some cases almost impossible, to see, especially in decent copies with subtitles. What other treasures lie in Shimizu’s body of work that might interest Criterion for another DVD set?

Here are the basics of the story in The Masseurs and a Woman: two blind masseurs, Toku and Fuku, make their way to a mountain spring resort village.* Also staying there are two groups of hiking students, one male and one female; a young man named Shintaro and his nephew Kenichi; and a mysterious young woman from Tokyo called Michiho. The boy grows attached to Michiho, while both his uncle and Toku develop romantic feelings for her. There is a series of thefts, but the mystery is not handled with any great tension. Shimizu takes a relaxed, low-key approach to narrative, his modest mixture of comedy and drama proceeding with little sense of urgency. Instead, a spirit of open-ended freedom presides; nothing much appears to be at stake; we are simply presented with a few situations and characters, and invited to observe them. It’s all very easy-going, humorous and congenial to begin with, but a melancholy tone starts to creep in, and the film ends on a note of quiet devastation. What elevates it to the level of a masterpiece is the director’s wonderful sensitivity and intelligence in constructing his scenes and joining them together: his elegant tracking shots, use of natural sound, and mastery of editing and rhythm.

That rhythm is partly created through patterned repetition and variation, in which a situation or vignette will be replayed with small differences. I’ll trace a few of these repetitions and variations here. One beautifully controlled scene shows Kenichi silently teasing Fuku while his uncle is receiving a massage. It opens with Shintaro lying on his side, with Fuku seated behind him; both are facing towards the camera. While they engage in small talk, the boy, who is seated with his back to the camera in the foreground at the left of the frame, fiddles with a blade of grass. Viewers, if they notice Kenichi at all, might be mildly curious about what he’s up to, but they will at first probably focus on the conversation between the two men. When Shintaro closes his eyes to sleep, his nephew, seeing his chance, creeps forward and delicately tickles the masseur under the nose with the blade of grass. Fuku, thinking that it’s an insect, waves his arms about; after he resumes his work, Kenichi then uses the grass to tickle Fuku’s ear. When the boy does this for a third time, there’s a cut to a close-up of his face, which is curiously devoid of malice or even amusement, displaying only intense concentration. While his actions are cruel in effect, they are not consciously cruel in motivation; the blind man, for Kenichi, is primarily an object of fascination. The next cut is to a shot of Fuku’s reaction; we can see that this time, the boy has been a bit rougher, poking the grass right into the masseur’s nostril and leaving him with an urge to sneeze. Fuku’s facial gestures are slightly exaggerated, almost to the point of being funny, so that we might understand why a child might want to torment him. At the same time, we are encouraged to sympathize with Fuku’s vulnerability, his being at the mercy of the kindness and compassion of others. At the fourth provocation, Fuku sneezes loudly, awakening the uncle. He tries to continue with the massage, but his arms are soon flailing about again, more frantically than before―only this time there is nothing there at all, for Kenichi is doing nothing more than sitting down and watching. The scene has mostly been shot from a fixed position behind the boy, with a low camera that matches Fuku’s eye-level, which creates a sense of intimacy, as if we were present in the room to observe the action. Fuku, of course, can’t see a thing, and neither can Shintaro with his eyes closed. The only seeing character has his back to us, and in quietly observing his harassment of the masseur, Shimizu’s camera invites us to feel a certain complicity, as if we were there watching the harassment without intervening, hoping that Kenichi isn’t caught out. Later on, the boy tries a similar trick with Toku using a fan, but Toku immediately senses that something’s up, and punches the fan, causing Kenichi to burst into tears. This time, Shimizu shoots his characters side-on, with Toku to the left and Kenichi to the right of the screen. There isn’t any tension as to whether Kenichi will be caught, as his trick comes to an abrupt end. It’s a less intimate and ambiguous, more purely comic moment―a punchline that serves as an effective counterpoint and highlights the differences between the two masseurs: Fuku gentler and more liable to being mocked and goaded, Toku more quick-tempered, impulsive and better able to fight back against his tormentors.

If we can excuse to some extent Kenichi’s attempts to tease and provoke the masseurs, it is harder to be as forgiving when grown men do the same. When Fuku crosses a low bridge over a stream at night, the four male students, sitting or leaning against the sides of the bridge, mock and confuse him by making animal noises as he passes. Fuku turns around, pokes with his stick, and exits uncertainly; the young men burst into laughter. Shimizu then cuts to a shot filmed from the other side of the bridge―a slightly disorientating change in angle of 180°, which enables us to see Toku approaching from behind the students. He roughly barges his way through them and chides them to watch out―not the most reasonable of demands, given that the students could not have seen him. When one of the men objects that it was Toku who bumped into them, the masseur wheels round and challenges the four to a fight. There’s another 180° shot change at this point, so that we see Toku’s face and the backs of the four students surrounding him menacingly. Toku’s choleric behavior is far from mature, and it is not the first time he has been pointlessly antagonistic towards the students: in the first scene, he hurries to the spa resort in a competitive effort to arrive before them, and later all but cripples them with an overly thorough massage. Nonetheless, the film’s sympathies are clearly with him rather than with the mean-spirited students. As Toku and his opponents square off, Shimizu fades to black; the next scene shows the students walking slowly and stiffly along a road, sticking plasters on their faces, having obviously come off worse in the fight. This echoes an earlier scene in which the students hobble along a road after having received Toku’s massage. Shimizu has also repeated the pattern earlier set by the boy, who first played a successful trick on Fuku, only for Toku to hand him his comeuppance. Furthermore, Toku’s collision with the students points back to and contradicts Fuku’s remark in the opening scene that when blind people bump into sighted people, it is always the latter who are at fault. The concision with which Shimizu (who wrote the script in addition to directing) uses repetition and variation to connect multiple points in the film is masterly.

The same bridge that serves as the scene of Toku’s confrontation with the students is used again by Shimizu in a brief daytime scene that extends some of the same repetitions and variations. With the camera planted at one side of the bridge, we see four masseurs walking towards us. Kenichi runs out, as if from under the camera, and heads straight for first masseur. As the latter steps to one side in order to pass the boy, Kenichi blocks his path, and does so again when the masseur steps to the other side. This time, he is quickly satisfied with his trick, and walks on ahead, looking behind him at the masseur as if in admiration of the blind man’s ability to sense his presence (again, he seems to be acting out of curiosity rather than malice). By turning his head back, however, he is unable to see the second masseur, and there is a collision. When he sets off again, he looks back at the second masseur, and so bumps into the third, and in the same manner bumps into the fourth, who angrily chides him. Again, we have a sighted character pestering a blind character, and coming to grief shortly after. The fourth masseur, who cries out in pain when Kenichi collides with him, also suffers, this time bearing out the truth of Fuku’s remark about the carelessness of sighted people. It’s a reversal of the earlier night-time episode on the bridge in that this time a sighted person, and not a blind one, is responsible for the collision. Visually, the scene presents further repetitions and variations. It is filmed from the same side of the bridge used to film Toku barging into the students (the bridge also features in other scenes), and again we see four men walking towards the camera, though this time they seem to walking separately, rather than as part of a group. Toku collides with the students from behind, so that we see his face, whereas Kenichi collides with the masseurs at the front, so that we do not see his face. Both scenes show isolated characters at the centre of the screen outnumbered and perhaps threatened by four men, and in each case Shimizu uses the color white (Fuku’s coat, Toku’s towel, Kenichi’s shirt) to contrast them with the darker colors worn by their antagonists. With these carefully arranged correspondences and differences, Shimizu artfully threads together the loose, leisurely and episodic storyline, avoiding both rigidity and formlessness.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its use of sound. Shimizu developed an early enthusiasm for exterior location shooting, often involving roads (the Criterion box-set is entitled ‘Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu’), but it is the sounds to be heard at the river next to the spa that are most prominent: flowing water, birds, frogs, insects. The beauty of the natural world is not only visual, after all. The spa resort is a tranquil haven from the bustle of city life,** almost (but not quite) a paradise, and the natural sound is key to establishing this. At critical points, however, Shimizu manipulates the sound for effect. For example, while Michiho and Shintaro are engaged in tentatively flirtatious conversation, the background noises of the river and its fauna are loud and clear; when the conversation ends inconclusively and with Michiho in a pensive mood, there’s a cut to a more darkly-lit shot, with the sound suddenly muted. An even more striking instance of sound manipulation comes later. While Shintaro waits in the street for his nephew, who has run off to speak to Michiho, the street is virtually silent―unnaturally so. When he strikes a match to light his cigarette, however, the sound is unnaturally heightened, only to be muted again while Shintaro smokes. Now, of course, there’s an obvious symbolism available here in the poignant brevity of the flame bla bla bla, but while he doesn’t refuse such symbolism, Shimizu is canny enough not to make a meal of it, so there’s no close-up of the match, which is struck just below the edge of the frame. What registers instead is the eerie stillness of the moment, its offering of a chance for pause and reflection. How wonderful that in such a brief film Shimizu finds the time to be able to offer moments like these!

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In such a small, delicately balanced film as this, one bad performance might have spoiled the whole thing, but I have yet to see a single bad performance in any Japanese film of the 30s. The actors here are particularly wonderful. Takamine Mieko is understated, graceful and soulful as Michiho, while the actors playing Shintaro, Fuku and Kenichi are also first-rate. But the honors go to Tokudaiji Shin as Toku, who gives the most brilliant portrayal of blindness I have ever seen in a film, and along with Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase, one of the most brilliant portrayals of a disabled character I have seen. Tokudaiji’s achievement is to be at once naturalistic and stylized: the naturalistic aspects of his performance are in harmony with the tone of the film, while the stylized aspects are consonant with the exceptional nature of his character. At times, his acting suggests that of an outstandingly good and subtle mime, which seems somehow just right in a film so concerned with the senses.

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*Blind men traditionally found employment as masseurs in Japan, as their blindness made it easier for customers to expose their flesh to them. The film hints at social changes afoot, with talk of the increased popularity of female masseuses (I don’t know whether blind or sighted) at seaside spas threatening the job security of blind male masseurs. This is discussed as part of a wider trend, to be seen especially in Tokyo, of women taking jobs away from men. The story and title link two groups, women and blind men, traditionally marginalized and assigned strict roles by society, with the former in apparent ascendance and the latter in apparent decline.

**It’s important for the plot that Michiho, the uncle, and his nephew are all visiting from Tokyo. City and country form another of the oppositions in the film, along with sighted/blind, male/female, staying/going and appearance/truth.

whose side are you on

for Jonathan Jones

 

whose side are you on

that question again

wont leave me alone

even in the national gallery

 

seriously

anything but labour

me

alone

im looking at tit

ian      a socialist in the museum

look

 

presumably      retiring

totally fruitless

stoppages      all out

 

immediately break

jeremy corbyn

all my adult life      in the past

a cynical      muscle

accuses

 

the case      has been made

 

desire      closing

worse disruption to come

nonsense      art      people

kids in the summer holidays

visitors who come      all over

a lot of ordinary people

great art

 

the management

savage neoliberal ideologues

i       love      its hard

grind

down     the workers

 

possibly      retiring

writes      speaks

 

face      soft      old

oil      strike many

a long tradition

inclined      unthinkingly

rooms and rooms

great

might

harder

 

the most extreme provocation

public service      i cant help

much easier

government

 

i dont think

i think

throw its weight about

i didnt think

seriously      put      out

much of my lifetime

 

whose side am i on

a tory      i am

crying

hard

turn

me

one

A Forward-Looking Vision for a Brighter Tomorrow

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Good evening. It’s an honour to be here.
People of Britain: I salute you all,
And assure you that you’ve nothing to fear.
The government has its eye on the ball.
The opposition may bluster and smear,
But my Cabinet colleagues can stand tall.
The crisis is over, good times are near.
In every village, there’ll soon be a mall.

The promises we make are ones we’ll keep.
This much I pledge: our targets will be met.
Banished forever is all cause to weep
Because anything you want, you will get.
You’ll have perfect teeth and a good night’s sleep.
Your kids will receive a free fluffy pet.
Though mountains be high and valleys be deep,
I guarantee water will remain wet.

Compassion’s our watchword. Make no mistake:
We value the old, the poor and the sick.
Because that’s why we’re advising that cake
Is a good alternative to bread. Kick
A beggar, by all means, and make him ache,
But carrot should be used as well as stick.
In exchange for a picture of a steak,
Homeless riff-raff will give your boots a lick.

Now is the time for action. What I’m told
By the normal, everyday folk I meet
Is that they expect our plans to be bold.
This much I promise: cookies will be sweet.
Never again will hot chocolate be cold.
Warm ice-cream is something no-one should eat.
Plus doctors will be sacked, hospitals sold:
For details, refer to my latest tweet.

This wonderful nation truly is blessed.
Proud is our destiny, happy our fate;
Let nobody tell you we’re not the best.
The future is coming; not long to wait.
Proles in factories, working without rest;
Slave labour for all children under eight;
Life in jail if you fail you’re grammer test.
We’re in this together. Make Britain great!

 

Ferdydurke (1937, Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Danuta Borchardt)

For several years, I have had a reoccurring nightmare, which begins with my waking up in my parents’ home and getting ready for school. In the dream, I am an adult, and there is nothing extraordinary about my attending secondary school; it is merely a tiresome inconvenience. I am not obliged to wear the uniform or to attend many lessons; I am there only because I have been informed that there is one more round of exams I have to take. Sometimes I am the only one taking these exams; sometimes I am joined by a few of my old schoolmates, appearing in adult guise (though it’s been years since I’ve seen many of them in the flesh, so I can only imagine what they look like now); sometimes they appear as their teenaged selves, while I alone am fully-grown; sometimes they alternate between adolescence and adulthood; at other times, their form is vague and indistinct, or their presence is felt but not visualized. The teachers who appear vary from one dream to the next, but they always take the form of people who actually taught me all those years ago. They are always clearly visualized, and always look and act just as they did when I was their student, even though their real-life counterparts are all retired or (as in a few cases) dead. They display no surprise on encountering me again in the classroom, greeting me either with wry commiseration (the teachers who liked me) or cold hostility (the ones who didn’t). For most of the dream, there is an air of absolute normality: unpleasant, but no more so than the daily grind of waking life. The tone always changes, however, when I encounter younger pupils: bratty little eleven- and twelve-year-olds, who, in huge, threatening numbers, encircle me and ruthlessly taunt me, mocking my incongruous adult presence and odious maturity. I am always the sole victim of these taunts, for if, in the dream, I have returning peers, they are unmolested, and do no more than sadly shake their heads and walk away as I am abused. The abuse has the effect of transforming me, for I sense that my body is no longer that of an adult, but that of an eleven- or twelve-year-old, though I am aware that my mind has not regressed. By the time the nightmare ends, or imperceptibly becomes something else, I have been condemned to the hellish fate of repeating my school years (which, I should state, were not unhappy), my consciousness as a man in his late twenties or early thirties trapped in the body of my younger self, excruciatingly aware that everything I am being now taught is something I’ve already learned, that I have sat through this very same lesson, that I have heard the teacher utter these very same words, that I know it all already, or most of it, but this fact does not excuse me, for I must do it all again, and again, and again, with no end in sight.

I thought of this dream as I read Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke (the title is a nonsense word), a bizarre, obsessive plunge into puerility, which sees the thirty-year-old narrator, Kowalski, transformed by a jovially condescending teacher, Professor Pimko, into an adolescent. This is how the transformation is described:

I strained to get up, but just at that moment he looked at me indulgently from under his spectacles, and suddenly―I became small, my leg became a little leg, my hand a little hand, my persona a little persona, my being a little being, my oeuvre a little oeuvre, my body a little body, while he grew larger and larger, sitting and glancing at me, and reading my manuscript forever and ever amen―he sat.

It’s not made clear how Pimko brings about the transformation, or whether there’s any physical alteration. The air of unreality that hangs over the book prevents the reader from assuming that Kowalski literally becomes small. Just prior to Pimko’s appearance Kowalski has an uncanny, dream-like encounter with his own ghostly double, which vanishes after he strikes its face. This encounter sets the tone for the rest of the novel, the narrator’s misadventures having always an unreal, dream-like (or nightmarish) quality to them, embracing the grotesque and illogical, and with little use for explanation and motivation. Pimko gives no satisfactory reason for his visit, nor is he ever asked to give one; he simply shows up uninvited. Nor do we know the nature of his relationship with the narrator; we might assume that they were formerly teacher and pupil, but that much is never stated. Once the professor has Kowlaski in his power, he leads him to a school and enrols him there. Thereafter, Kowalski’s desire to escape the tangled thicket of ineluctable immaturity is thwarted at every turn by paralysis; no-one perceives him as anything other than a mere boy, and the more he tries to insist upon his maturity, the more naïve and immature he appears.

The story comprises three distinct movements. The first takes place in the school, where dreary teachers bore their students with rubbish like ‘Great poetry must be admired, because it is great and because it is poetry, and so we admire it’. The second movement finds Kowalski lodging with a liberal bourgeois family composed of an engineer, his activist wife and their achingly modern teenaged daughter. The third includes some sharp social satire (despite Gombrowicz’s stated disavowal of any political intent) as the narrator stays with some aristocratic country relatives. It is in this section that Danuta Borchardt’s translation runs into some problems. In her prefatory note, she writes that although she is most comfortable with British English, she decided to use American English because it is less formal. Maybe, but British English doesn’t have to be formal, and it would have been much better suited to registering the differences between the language employed by Kowalski’s upper-crust relatives and that employed by their servants. The Britain of the 1930s, with its class system, provides a much closer equivalent to the Polish society of Gombrowicz’s time than does its American counterpart. Apart from the theoretical justification behind Borchardt’s decision, in practice it leads to some unhappy results, with ‘peasant’ dialogue that is not recognizable as either British or American, but some strange mixture of the two (sample: “Yer lo’dship! Yer lo’dships, damn it! They won’t let oop! They’re curs! O Jesus! They’re twistin’ ya round too!”). It is possible that Gombrowicz’s Polish is equally odd at such points, and that the translator is simply trying to reflect this, but an explanation would have been helpful if this is the case. However, this is a quibble; in general Borchardt’s translation is a joy to read.

Kowalski’s situation may seem freakish and arbitrary, but it is not entirely so. At the beginning of the book, before he is transformed, he is already dreaming of himself as a sixteen-year-old, and then, in a half-dreaming state, before fully awakening, he worries that his body parts have become confused, and that some of them belong to his juvenile self. As a man of thirty, his status as a mature adult ought to be secure, but instead his friends and relatives plague him with their concerns about his inexperience and lack of direction. He is a published author, but finds that rather than earning him respect and prestige, as he had intended, this has only exacerbated his problems―but then, what did he expect of a book entitled Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity?* The manuscript that Pimko reads to Kowalski’s discomfort is intended to be his magnum opus, the fullest artistic expression and sum total of himself, an act of self-assertion written in reaction to his horrifying vision of his own double, which had upset his sense of self. Kowalski’s ordeals may not quite be a logical development of his inquietude, but neither are they unconnected with it. Gombrowicz is toying with and poking at the anxiety that, I suppose, everyone must feel at some points in their adult life (not indefinitely, I would imagine): the doubts one feels about one’s maturity, the nagging questions over whether one has truly grown up, whether one has left behind childhood and adolescence, and is fully prepared to meet the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps even those old enough for youth to seem hazily distant do not entirely shake off these uncertainties, which perhaps mutate into something else (for example, amazement at the gulf of years between one’s youth and one’s senescence, questions of what one retains within). Being of the same age as Gombrowicz was at the time of Ferdydurke’s publication, I am ill qualified to pursue this enquiry.

ferdy

The agitated psychology of Ferdydurke is accompanied by a disordered physicality, both mental self and bodily self being prone to breaking down, becoming distorted and unfamiliar. Gombrowicz’s contemporary, the writer Bruno Schulz, provided the first edition with an apt illustration depicting heads and limbs emerging from a tree (see above), which conveys something of the confusion of body parts one finds in the text. As Kowalski lies dreaming of his 16-year-old self, the following sensations come upon him:

Further: as I lay awake but still half dreaming, I felt that my body was not homogenous, that some parts were still those of a boy, and that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head, that my finger was poking fun at my heart, my heart at my brain, that my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose―and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery.

Perhaps even David Cronenberg would balk at attempting to realize such horrifying corporeal violence and chaos. The confusion of body parts doesn’t just occur within one individual; twice in the text, multiple characters end up in a brawling heap, all individuality erased, indistinguishable from one another as they fight. So there are twin terrors at play here: there terror of disintegration, of wholes breaking down into parts, and the terror of integration, of wholes being reduced to parts, subsumed into larger wholes. The tortuous relationship between whole and part is amusingly explored in an interlude concerning two academic antagonists, one of them a high-minded Synthethist, the other a disreputable Analyst, who is able to ‘fillip a nose and thus activate it into a life of its own’. When the Synthesist attempts to attack his enemy, the reply he receives is both funny and rather chilling:

“You heap of things!” replied the Analyst with a dreadful, analytical disdain. “I too am a heap. If you wish―kick me in the abdomen. You won’t be kicking me in the abdomen, you’ll be kicking my abdomen―nothing more. You wanted to attack my cheeks by slapping them, didn’t you? You can attack my cheek but not me. There is no me. No me at all. No me!”

This interlude, entitled ‘The Child Runs Deep in Filidor’, is itself a part that has become subsumed into a larger work, being originally a story included in Gombrowicz’s previous book Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity. Here, it appears with its own preface; later in the book, another formerly separate story appears (‘The Child Runs Deep in Filibert’), again, with its own preface.

Three body parts in particular feature prominently in Ferdydurke: the buttocks, or pupa;** the face, translated here as ‘the mug’; and legs, especially calves. It’s the legs that I found most striking, the narrator displaying something of an obsession with them. Most hilariously, ‘after a moment’s profound reflection’ (ha ha), the narrator translates a parodic modernist love poem into ‘comprehensible language’:

                                 The Poem

                Horizons burst like flasks

                a green blotch swells high in the clouds

                I move back to the shadow of the pine―

                and there:

                with greedy gulps I drink

                                                 my diurnal springtime

                                      My Translation

                Calves of legs, calves, calves

                Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves

                Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves, calves―

                The calf of my leg:

                the calf of my leg, calf, calf,

                                                          calves, calves, calves.

This will give you, I hope, an idea of Gombrowicz’s sense of humor; Ferdydurke is frequently a laugh-out-loud book, though the laughter always has a hint of mania about it. The really disconcerting thing is the feeling, never far beneath the surface, that mockery has you in its sights, which is made explicit by the closing lines:

                 It’s the end, what a gas,

                 And who’s read it is an ass!

*There is some degree of identification of the narrator with Gombrowicz himself. The latter was just over thirty at the time of the novel’s publication, having made his literary debut a collection of short stories with same title as Kowalski’s first book; to what extent the reader understands Kowalski to be a stand-in for the author is not a matter of great interest to me.

**The range of special nuances of this Polish word are apparently difficult to convey in English, and so Borchardt leaves it untranslated.