:: Article

Art-house noir

By Anushree Nande.

In terms of plot, Nicholas Royle’s Antwerp (2004) is fairly unoriginal: a serial killer whose victims of preference are prostitutes, a murder investigation, the locations in a foreign land, none of it is revolutionary. What intrigues is its writing, feel, atmosphere and structure. Laurence Phelan in The Independent on Sunday goes so far as to call it, ‘A fictional answer to the strongest art-house noir.’

Nicholas Royle was only 17 years of age when he visited the Tate in London and saw Paul Delvaux’s Venus Asleep (1944) for the first time in person, having seen it before on the cover of the Bauhaus single, ‘Dark Entries’ (1980). Royle then visited the Paul Delvaux museum in Saint-Idesbald and the surrealist remains his favourite painter to date. The connection was cemented further when Royle, in the process of writing Saxophone Dreams (1996), wrote to the Belgian and got back a signed postcard of a relatively recent painting.

This reverence is evident in Antwerp, which is a paen to Delvaux from the very first chapter ‘Dark Entries’ recreating the Venus Asleep painting: A teenage Johnny Vos walks in to find a dead prostitute lying on her bed. The Bauhaus single is what plays in the background during this scene. The book is divided in ten parts and most parts are named after Delvaux’s paintings, with each part containing a few chapters, the names of which are linked with the narrative content.

Many sections include references to the paintings, or even in some cases direct representations/re-creations. For example the ‘T Zuid’ chapter (Part two in the book, which is titled ‘Dawn Over the City’) where Vos and his cast re-create Delvaux’s Dawn over the City (1940). This showcases intricate and deliberate intertextuality and, taken with the rest of the random cultural entities mentioned and scattered throughout the book, forms a parallel narrative alongside the main one, a narrative, as Jonathan Coe says, ‘full of bizarre cultural references that are shaped into something coherent and accessible by his style of writing.’

Anything completely made up feels inauthentic to Royle, he prefers to stick to reality as much as possible, experimenting with the made up and the not made up. ‘It is easy to imagine a character in a particular setting, if you’ve actually been there.’ In order to get an authentic feel for areas in Antwerp’s Red Light district, Falconplein and Verversrui in particular, Royle wandered around them with a hidden camera under his jacket, and the first edition of Antwerp has some of those images on the cover. In addition, exploring abandoned buildings for location and setting has been research that Royle follows for all his books. For him, such places are fertile grounds for possible stories, plots and characters.

With his fascination for writing about reality, it isn’t surprising that the writer likes to include real people in his books. This is either in a very direct way – Harry Kummel and Henk Van Rensbergen, or simple references to real people, people he has come across and people who have helped him in the process of writing the novel (Iain Burns, Eddy Verhaeghe, Wim Vermandel etc).

While researching Antwerp, he came across Henk Van Rensbergen’s website which echoes his view: “The deafening noises have been replaced by silence, but if you listen carefully they will tell you their story.’ He contacted Rensbergen for a closer personal look around those places and this correspondence resulted in a trip around the Joseph LeMaire Institut, which features in the book as one of the serial killer’s hiding places. Similarly, the actual website is mentioned in the book as the one Frank checks out after a recommendation from Paul, his news editor, and the chapter is titled ‘abandoned-places.com’.

The book also shows a lot of second-hand research, something Royle considers as authentic as first-hand experiences. In the acknowledgements section at the back of the book, he has listed texts referred to during the process of writing the book.

Paul Delvaux: Surrealising the Nude – David Scott (Reaktion Books), Unreal Reality: The Cinema of Harry Kumel – David Soren (Lucas Brothers Publishers), Split Screen: Belgian Cinema and Cultural Identity – Philip Mosley (State University of New York Press), Paul Delvaux: 1897-1994 (Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium), Delvaux: Barbara Emerson (Fonds Mercator), Surrealism: Desire Unbound – Edited by Jennifer Mundy (Tate Publishing) and Grain Elevators – Lisa Mahar-Keplinger (Princeton Architectural Press)

Not only that, Antwerp includes many detailed discussions and descriptions about film, culture, surrealism, art etc, as well as the various cultural entities that make up Belgium.

In terms of form, even before Royle started writing the novel, he knew he wanted it to have a strong cinematic core, both in content and structure. He was introduced to Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) by a colleague in Time-Out’s film-section where he used to work before his job as a creative writing lecturer at MMU, and thought the director and his films would be perfect. (It was a bonus that he was Belgian.) He wrote to the director explaining everything, including the fact that he would be an actual character in the narrative, and a murder suspect for part of the story. This resulted in an invitation to Antwerp where Kumel showed him around, and told him many interesting facts, including one about Alain Resnais shooting part of Providence (1977), one of Royle’s favourite films, in Cogels-Osylei. Royle directly translated this scene into his book, simply replacing himself with the character of Frank Warner.

Technique and structure are evident throughout Antwerp, raising a crucial point which sets it apart from many other literary thrillers: its strong relationship between content and form. Its prequel, Director’s Cut (2000) stemmed from Royle’s experiences of living next to a part of London’s overground network. The images and sounds of the train passing by at night had a deep impact on him. He imagined that the train was an unending strip of film and all the passengers visible through the windows between the flashes of light were different characters. We can see these inspirations being transferred to Antwerp where film is not purely for purposes of content but closely impacts form. Royle lists Alain Resnais’ Providence (1977) and Last Year in Marienbad (1961), and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (1966) as some of his inspirations, because they feature Antwerp as a main part of their narratives. Research, as well as a close reading of Antwerp unearths many other connections between Royle’s choice of inspirations and the narrative content. Last Year in Marienbad – which was incidentally written by Robbe-Grillet – has similarities with Daughters of Darkness (Kumel, 1971), the recreation of a particular provocative pose being one example. Both Providence and Trans-Europ-Express are mentioned in Antwerp’s actual narrative; the latter is also a chapter name. However, the most important link between all of these directors is that their works are directly, or indirectly, inspired by Paul Delvaux. (Paul Delvaux and Robbe-Grillet even collaborated on a book, Construction of a Ruined Temple for the Goddess Vanadis.) Someone Nicholas Royle himself has been deeply affected by, a fact evident even in smallest amount of narrative intertextuality in Antwerp – the cover art of its newer editions is a tattoo of a Delvaux painting. The actress, Asia Argento, asked the tattoo artist to use the original painting with the simple addition of the wings in order to make it unique. Royle came across this during his research and published it on the cover.

These celluloid inspirations perhaps also give us an insight into Antwerp’s cinematic style. A simple example is when Frank Warner is in the bath and the end of the chapter features ‘FADE TO BLACK,’ a command usually found in a script. However Royle’s most major use of film as form is in his ingenious construction of points of view. He incorporates all three points of view (including the very rare second person) in the same narrative: first person for Wim De Blieck, (Royle has admitted to De Blieck being the character he felt most interested in, and this is evident in the fact that he is the book’s only first person narrator), third person for Frank Warner, his girlfriend, Sian and Johnny Vos, and second person for the serial killer.

This creates a stunning effect, which gives rise to many fragmented narratives that come together eventually, even if not completely, not unlike the technique of multiple ‘camera angles’ in a film. This makes sure we have all the information, but yet we never really see the whole picture very clearly, an effect magnified by Royle’s use of unreliable narrators. The use of the second person for the serial killer also gives rise to a chilling atmosphere that reminds us of traditional slasher films, where the camera angle gives viewers the point of view through the eyes of the killer. Royle similarly implicates the readers in the actual murders and committed atrocities by making them involuntary but complicit participants, adding to the strong voyeurism element present throughout Antwerp’s narrative. But there is a very matter-of-fact, devoid of emotion quality about the killer’s narration, which only adds to his inherent ‘cold’ nature. And not only is each victim of the killer found with a VHS tape of a different Kumel film [Hannah Witowski with Monsieur Hawarden (Kumel, 1968), Katya Egorova with Les Levres Rouges (The Daughters of Darkness) (Kumel, 1971)], but each section from the killer’s point of view also mentions the release of the Kumel film of that year – ‘Kumel’s Lost Paradise (1978) was a hit both in Flanders and Wallonia.’

However, Royle maintains that the cinematic writing style is not deliberate. Perhaps his keen love for photography also (unknowingly) influences his emphasis on fixed images in Antwerp, whose preface has a Harry Kumel quotation:‘If there’s one important thing in a film, it’s the frame.’

Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that Serpent’s Tail didn’t have enough money to cover the costs of multiple reproductions of the actual reprints of Delvaux’s paintings in Antwerp (something that Royle had got permission for). By having to rely on simply hinting at the images or depicting a recreation, the surreal effect of the narrative is heightened and we wouldn’t have one of the things that enrich the experience of the novel – its heavy reliance on reader interpretations because of potentially multiple meanings. This does not stop Royle from letting go of his intense research into Delvaux. It is evident that with Johnny Vos shooting a biopic of the Belgian surrealist, mentions of surrealist paintings and discussions about surrealism are an important part of the narrative content.

Delvaux turned to surrealism in the 1930s and his first two famous paintings, Pink Bows (1937) and Phases of the Moon (1939) made use of certain somnambulant figures which soon became his trademark. There is an urgent sense of abandonment and loneliness in these figures and it is a sentiment that Royle has managed to transfer onto his characters, as well as settings. And therein lies a potential reason for his choice of Belgium and Antwerp. Belgium is ingrained with problems of division, identity, and consequent isolation.

The whole country is skewed – and no wonder. Opposing forces are tearing it apart while simultaneously converging on the capital. The line that runs across the country, separating Francophone Wallonia in the south, from Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north, passes to the south of Brussels, an enclave of a city where 80% of the population speak French.

The city of Antwerp exemplifies this better than any other in Belgium, both metaphorically and visually (it is divided into two by the river Schelde). There is a similar division present within all the characters of Antwerp who have split personalities and lost or confused identities. All of them are detached, always in the frame but watching from far away and disconnected to the world and happenings around them. This could have been inspired by Delvaux’s figures. It is a division constantly referred to throughout the narrative in a variety of direct and metaphorical forms; from the first page Royle mentions the Hudson River dividing Hoboken and Manhattan hence indicating that Johnny Vos could lead a double life: ‘The two places, Hoboken and Manhattan were only fifteen minutes apart by train, yet divided by the Hudson River and a state line.’

The chapter ‘Split-Screen’ which is based mainly in Ostend is another great example, pointing again to Royle’s thoughtful selection of location. Daughters of Darkness (Kumel, 1971) is set in Ostend but was only partly shot there (the rest shot in Brussels). Hence in the film, there is constant intercutting between the interior of the Astoria in Brussels and exterior of Ostend. In the book, Frank, who has gone there in search of Sian, notes that it is a smooth transition so that you can’t see the join, hence creating the illusion that you were in one place, when in reality, you were in another. We can see the same theme with Royle’s treatment of Antwerp’s Red Light district where the feeling of loss of identity, abandonment and loneliness is at its most potent. All the women working in Antwerp’s Red Light district come there to find a new identity and instead end up losing theirs. We can see it too in the postcard Penny sends Wim: Delvaux’s La voix/voie publique (The Public Voice/The Public Way), with an Oostende postmark. [5] Ostend is the place he’d found her in the first place, so when she has run away yet again, this postcard could be a symbolic way of representing ‘getting lost and being found,’ which brings us again to questions of identity. Could it be a coincidence these themes are widely present in all three: the works of Harry Kumel, the paintings of Paul Delvaux, and Royle’s Antwerp which is based around the first two? [6]

One thing is very clear. Without his research Royle would not have been able to unearth so many of the connections between seemingly random things that are present in the novel. There is a lot of fact and realism buried within the postmodern, surrealist layers he creates – real people, places, allusions to real things, paintings, films, art, music, other cultural entities. It’s a never-ending process of the discovery of new things about the existence of identity, trying to find out where we fit it, where we belong, whether there truly is such a thing. There is much left uncovered and undiscovered and both Antwerp and this reading is simply a human attempt to slightly lessen that void.

Anushree Nande was born and brought up in Mumbai, India. She holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Creative Writing (with Media Studies) from Edge Hill University, England. She blogs at Lost In Translation, has two published short stories – ‘L’Effet De Papillon’ and ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ – and is working on her first novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 9th, 2012.