The Silence

For a long while, Ingmar Bergman was one of those filmmakers I’d heard a lot of people praise, but didn’t know much about, aside from a single viewing of his most famous film, The Seventh Seal, on TV. I set about watching a number of his films, and in the main they weren’t quite what I expected. (I’m feeling ready for a re-watch, for a better take on him.) Only one clicked with me, 1963’s The Silence, a dream-like and unresolved narrative whose characters, world, and story seem haunted by something unnamed, and which in turn came to haunt me. It seemed more like a Robert Aickman short story, replete with surreal and menacing tensions, than anything else I’ve seen.

Two sisters, Ester and Anna, along with Anna’s young son Johan, are travelling by train through an unnamed European country. Ester is ill, coughing blood with a strangled, silent cough into a handkerchief, and they decide to stop so she can rest. The remainder of the film takes place in and around a seemingly massive, and mostly empty, hotel, in a country whose language none of the three main characters understand, and where the tensions between the sisters come to a head. Eventually, it’s decided Anna and Johan will continue, while Ester remains behind.

So, what are the tensions between the sisters? Ester, the older, is a literary translator, and we only need to witness her strangled-to-silence coughing to know how much she represses her body’s physicality. She’s both jealous and judgemental of the more sensuous Anna’s love life, including the love of her son. One interpretation (offered by Woody Allen in his foreword to Bergman’s autobiography) is that Ester is “the head”, the intellect, and Anna is “the body”, but this, I think, is to play into the sisters’ own trap. Ester is cut off from her body, but tortured by the absence of what it can provide. She longs to have physical contact — with her sister, her nephew — but can’t achieve it, and later confesses how repugnant she felt sleeping with men to be. “I wouldn’t accept my wretched role,” she says, of being a wife, a mother, a man’s lover. “But now it’s too damned lonely.” Perhaps the best illustration of Ester’s relationship with her body is when she turns on a radio while lying in bed. We only see her hand in the shot, and when lively music comes on, her hand dances on top of the radio, obviously enjoying it; then her head comes into shot, taking over, and the hand is forced to change the station to something more somber, more intellectual, and the dancing stops. She chain-smokes and chain-drinks, as though trying to stifle her body’s need for sensation. Whether her illness is an expression of her desire to be cut off from her body permanently, or is her body forcing her to pay attention to it — at several points, it literally cuts her off, leaving her choking for air, in what for me is the most frightening moment in any film I’ve ever seen — is one of the unresolved aspects of the film.

Anna, meanwhile, enjoys bodily pleasures — she likes bathing, she likes food, she likes wearing nice clothes, she likes caressing her son, herself, and men. Ester’s prurience and judgement makes her feel guilty for enjoying these things, but perhaps she’s forced into playing them up in front of her older sister, acting the role of the sybarite, as the two push each other to opposing extremes. Neither, then, is “the head” or “the body” — they’re too fully rounded as characters for that — but their unhealthy relationship forces them into these restrictive and self-damaging opposing roles.

For me, the film is not so much about the sisters’ conflict, as their dual influence on the boy, Johan, and his attempts to integrate these corresponding aspects of himself. He enjoys the physical contact with his mother, but is also intellectually curious, which is Ester’s territory. His warring sisters, though, provide no help in learning how to integrate the two, nor how to deal with the third element the film confronts him with: male sexuality.

Whenever Ester looks out of the hotel’s window, she sees an emaciated donkey pulling a cart, as though to remind herself of her own illness-wracked body. When Johan looks out of a window — either of the train or the hotel — he sees tanks. When he ventures into the hotel’s corridors, he takes his toy pistol. It all starts to seem a little Freudian, with him as the little boy, wielding his little pistol. And the world he enters, when he ventures out into the hotel’s corridors, is oddly fairy-tale-ish, as though it’s there to teach him how to deal with his little-pistol boyhood, before it becomes a dark and powerful tank-like masculinity.

What he finds are seven dwarfs (performers at a local theatre) and a giant (the hotel steward). When he shoots his cap-gun at the dwarfs they pretend to die, then invite him into the room and put him in a dress, as though to teach him to temper his manhood. One wears a chimpanzee mask and jumps up and down on a bed comically, perhaps asking him how much of an animal he wants to be. The boy wanders off and comes across the kindly giant of a hotel steward, who also puts on a comical performance, pretending to teach a sausage a lesson before biting its head off, as though to remind the boy how a man should keep his sexual urges in check. Elsewhere, the boy looks at a massive painting of the centaur Nessus taking Heracles’s wife, Deianeira, on his back — a scene which will lead to an attempted seduction or rape, and ultimately to Heracles’s own death. Johan is clearly fascinated by the painting, but when Ester mentions horses when talking to him of what’s going to happen in the coming summer, Johan says he’s scared of them. It’s perhaps the animal part of himself he’s talking about.

Ester suggests he read to her. The book we’ve seen him reading is Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, whose Byronic hero is single-mindedly intent on seducing women (is this really a suitable book for a boy of his age?). Johan at this moment looks outside and sees a tank in the street, as though to remind himself of the fear of his own sexual role, and instead of reading to his aunt, retreats further into childhood by putting on a Punch & Judy show. Punch kills Judy, then gets scared and (as Johan explains) starts talking in a funny language. Is the Punch & Judy show enacting what he’s starting to feel is the role of a man, culturally-implied by Nessus and Lermontov, to abuse women? Or perhaps it’s broader than that, and the tank made him think of death, and Judy’s death reminded him of Ester’s illness, and it’s losing her he’s afraid of.

“I’ll draw you a nice picture,” Johan says…

All of this is only lightly suggested, and none of it’s fully resolved. So much of the film remains dream-like, even after several close viewings. And perhaps that’s because The Silence, ultimately, has its origin in a dream, as Ingmar Bergman says in his autobiography:

“I am in an enormous, foreign city. I am on my way toward the forbidden part of town. It is not even some dubious area of ill repute with its steaming flesh pots, but something much worse. There the laws of reality and the rules of society cease to exist. Anything can happen and everything does. I dreamed this dream over and over again.”

The film, at one point, was to be titled “Timoka”, the name of the city the sisters stop in; at another time, it was to be “The Silence of God”. I think a lot of the film’s power comes from the unspecific nature of the title. Calling it “Timoka” might have made it sound like a political allegory (and some contemporary reviewers did read it as an allegory of the Cold War). Calling it “The Silence of God” would have made it sound as though the whole mess could be, and ought to be, blamed on a creator. (Ester does at one point, in the midst of her illness’ worst paroxysms, beg “Dear God, please let me die at home”, but we never learn if that prayer is answered or not.) Calling it simply The Silence leaves it open to so many interpretations that it takes on a generalised existential quality: silence as the human condition. There’s the silence of the unspoken tensions between the sisters, and the silence (or inability to communicate) between people generally. Contrasted with this, there’s a positive silence, in the way some things can be communicated without words: Johan’s playing with the dwarfs and the hotel steward, Anna’s seduction of a café waiter (to whom she says “How nice that we don’t understand each other”), the universality of music (it’s the only thing Ester says that the hotel steward immediately understands, along with “Johann Sebastian Bach”, whose music even Anna says sounds nice, in a rare moment of accord). There is, of course, also the silence of death, and the silence of Ester’s distressingly breathless choking, her soundless gasping for air. There’s the silence of Ester’s loneliness, too (“All this talk… There’s no need to discuss loneliness…”). At several points in the film — which doesn’t have a musical score — a fast ticking plays over the soundtrack, like a sort of intensified silence. The ticking of mortality? It comes to each of the major characters, though at one point might be mistaken for the sound of the hotel steward’s fob watch. What does it all mean?

“What does it all mean?” is still my attitude to The Silence. It’s a film with a perhaps bottomless well of meanings. As Robin Wood has written in his book on Bergman:

“One watches the film almost emotionlessly, as if paralyzed, and comes out feeling that one has experienced very little. Then hours—or even days—later, one comes to realize how deep and disturbing the experience has been…”

Bergman influenced a whole generation of filmmakers. Johan wandering the corridors of this unnamed hotel in single-point perspective reminds me of Danny in Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel; the bizarrely-dressed dwarf troop in league with a young boy can’t help reminding me of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits; and there’s more than a touch of David Lynch about the whole thing. (Plus, Bergman’s probably singlehandedly responsible for all of Woody Allen’s non-funny films. The intentionally non-funny ones, anyway.)

The Silence seems to me like a Symbolist work of art, something like Munch’s The Scream, perhaps, with which it shares an archetypal purity and ambiguity. Munch’s central figure with the wailing mouth — is it screaming, or hearing a scream, or screaming to drown out a scream, or mouthing a scream it can’t produce but can hear? And what of The Silence — the silence before a scream, the silence after one, the silence in longing for one? To all this, perhaps the best answer is — …

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The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

1984 HB, art by Bruce Hogarth

The Changeover (1984) is Margaret Mahy’s second YA novel, and her second Carnegie Medal Winner (following The Haunting in 1982). According to her postscript to the 2003 Modern Classics edition, it started out as the story of an 11-year-old girl who sought the help of a somewhat witchy girl of her own age to save her younger brother from a supernatural menace, but that story faltered until Mahy changed the witchy girl to an older (though still witchy) boy, and upped the protagonist’s age to 14, introducing an element of incipient sexuality to the mix. (The novel was initially published with the subtitle, “A Supernatural Romance”, though that seems to have been dropped in modern editions.)

Laura is a part-Maori girl of 14 who takes care of her 3-year-old brother Jacko after school while her mother Kate runs the local branch of a chain bookstore. (Laura and Jacko’s father went off with another woman, leaving the family in something just above poverty. As Kate says: “It’s not that we’re poor… But we’re usually short.” I particularly like how Mahy puts it when an unexpected expense comes up, and Kate “gritted her teeth in financial agony”.)

1985 HB

Bringing Jacko home one day from his daytime babysitter, the pair pop into a new shop, Brique à Braque, run by the eccentric/creepy Carmody Braque, who Laura thinks smells of “rotting time”. (He’s later described as “an improbable cross between Dracula and Mr Pickwick”.) Braque playfully stamps the back of Jacko’s hand with a rubber stamp, but afterwards the boy is bothered by it, and the image won’t come off. Jacko falls ill, a doctor is called, and pretty soon he’s comatose in hospital. Laura is convinced it’s Braque, through his stamp, magically draining her brother of his life, but her mother dismisses this with a “Don’t frighten me any more with your Space Invaders rubbish!” (A rare 80s-specific moment for the book.)

2018 cover

The only thing to do, then, is for Laura to get help for Jacko in her own way. She has long felt that an older boy at school, Sorensen Carlisle (known as “Sorry”), is something of a witch, and she’s often found him looking at her, as though he knows she knows. She decides to call on him at his home and ask for help. There, she meets his witchy mother and witchy grandmother, and learns his mother became pregnant assuming she’d have a girl, a young witch to complete the traditional trio of crone, mother, and virgin. But he was a boy, so she gave him up to be fostered, only to learn, much later, that he nevertheless had a witch’s powers. By that time, Sorry had had to learn to live with and understand his powers on his own, as well as having become the focus for his alcoholic foster-father’s rages. He turned up in a terrible state at the Carlisle home, and now, though somewhat better, is still highly reserved and at times almost alienated, emotionally. (When he speaks of what’s happened to Jacko, Laura thinks “He behaved as if something had gone wrong with a car, not a brother.”)

But the family agree to help. Braque, they think, isn’t a human being at all — at least, not now, anyway — but “an old and careful demon”, “a wicked spirit that has managed to win a body for itself once more and has probably gone on by absorbing the lives of others…” The only way to break his hold on Jacko, though, is to put Braque under a similar hold. He’d be too wary of any of the Carlisle family to let them get close enough, but Laura might. However, she’d only be able to put him under a hold if she was a witch herself. And so the family suggest she become one. She’s already proved she’s a “sensitive” through being able to see the witchiness in Sorry, and Braque won’t be expecting her, previously not a witch, to have suddenly become one. The Carlisles can initiate her through “the changeover” of the book’s title:

“We will marry you, if we can, to some sleeping aspect of yourself, and you must wake it.”

1994 Puffin PB cover, art by Tom Stimpson

The world of The Changeover feels very much like that of Mahy’s earlier novel, The Haunting. In both, certain families have a strain of magic, and though this means they can do wonderful things, they’re also far more emotionally reserved — not because of their powers, but because they are so much more sensitive. (Sorry’s mother says “We are a fond family rather than a loving one”, but this may be an emotionally cool family’s inability to judge just how cool it is.) Both the Carlisles in The Changeover, and the Scholars in The Haunting have the power to change reality, but this doesn’t make life easier for them — rather, the opposite, considering the distance this puts between them and their fellow human beings, and all the pitfalls the misuse of power throws in front of them.

In a way, in The Changeover, we get a glimpse of three stages in the life of a “magical” person, and how they might or might not go wrong. Braque, if not an actual demon, has certainly become one through multiple lifetimes of preying on others, till he has come to enjoy it, calling himself “something of a gourmet”. Sorry, on the other hand, has been abused by life and now stands at a crossroads, unsure how much he wants to invest himself in being an ordinary human, or how much he wants to take ownership of his capacity to feel. And Laura, taking her first steps into the world of power, is hovering over its first pitfall: once she has Braque at her mercy, she can do anything she likes to him. She tells herself “He’s not a real person, Mr Braque isn’t”, and he has, after all, been torturing not just her brother, but herself and her mother with all he’s been doing. But it leads to the question:

“Given the chance to be cruel did you get cruelty out of your system by acting on the chance, or did you invite it in?”

Laura’s story is also about her learning to understand — or at least come to terms with — men. She likes Jacko, of course, but he’s only a boy. She’s grown to resent her “dark, powerful father” who abandoned the family, and feels her mother’s new boyfriend, Chris, is taking her mother away from her rather than adding to the family. She’s attracted to Sorry, but finds his oddly distanced personality, and his frank sexual curiosity in women, somewhat difficult. And of course Braque is the ultimate example, to Laura, of how a powerful and selfish man can behave. But through coming to understand Sorry, and his own rather sorry story, she starts to understand her father and her mother’s boyfriend a little more, while knowing to draw the line at ever forgiving something like Braque.

The Changeover was made into a feature film, released in 2017, with Timothy Spall perfect as the creepy Braque, and a brief appearance from Xena’s Lucy Lawless as Sorry’s mother. It’s a dark, quite effective take on the story, set some years after the earthquake of 2011 that hit Christchurch, New Zealand (which is where Mahy’s novel is set). The plot makes a few abrupt departures from the book (I thought one element of the ending took things a bit far, but perhaps because I was mentally comparing it to the book). It’s the feel that’s the most different thing. Mahy’s book is infused with the coming-into-magic air of an adolescent’s burgeoning awareness of themselves, the world, and their place in it; the film is much more of a supernatural thriller, creepy and compelling, but without so much of the positive magic of Mahy’s novel. A good film, nonetheless, keeping some of the book’s restraint as far as magical powers go, and upping the presence and menace of Braque.

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The Alabaster Hand by A N L Munby

1974 Tandem paperback

In a brief foreword to The Alabaster Hand and Other Ghost Stories (first published in 1949), A N L Munby says that these stories “were written between 1943 and 1945 in a prison-camp just outside the ancient walled town of Eichstätt in Upper Franconia”. In fact, Alan Noel Latimer Munby — “Tim” to his friends — spent five consecutive years in German POW camps. He’d joined the Territorial Army some years before the Second World War started, and in 1940 was sent to the continent to help defend Calais. Two days later, with German guns less than 100 yards from the town, Munby and the captain of the French defending forces shared a bottle of brandy, then gave themselves up. Munby was sent to Laufen in 1940, Warburg in 1941, and then Oflag VII B in Eichstätt in 1942. While there, he formed an antiquarian society and gave lectures (he’d been a book cataloguer for Sotheby’s before the war), wrote humorous poetry and a mock-Baedeker guide to the camp, helped make fake uniforms and stand-in parade dummies for escapees, and, of course, wrote ghost stories in the style of M R James. (At least one of which, “The Alabaster Hand”, was composed during an air-raid blackout, with Munby and a friend composing alternate paragraphs.) Three of these tales — “The Four Poster”, “The White Sack” and “The Topley Place Sale” — were published in a camp magazine, printed on a press owned by the Bishop of Eichstätt. (A fellow POW, Elliott Viney, who helped with the magazine, was later the printer of the first edition of The Alabaster Hand in England.)

But before this makes it sound as though Munby had a jolly war, when he was freed and returned to England in 1945 he found that his wife, whom he’d married only the year before his capture, had just died. (He’d marry again, and have a son.) Munby returned to his work for Sotheby’s, but soon left to become librarian at King’s College, Cambridge.

If it weren’t for that foreword, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to look for signs of the Second World War in the Alabaster Hand stories — though that, of course, may be the point. Munby’s narrators (or, quite possibly, his single narrator, as they could all be the same person) gad about the British countryside, visiting friends who own country houses, popping into isolated chapels in remote villages, or take walking trips in Welsh or Scottish mountains. They peruse booksellers’ catalogues, discover the stories behind obscurities in their own antiquarian collections, and have time to listen to the supernatural experiences of old acquaintances. It’s quite possible these ghostly stories, scary though they are, were mainly designed as a sort of mental holiday from the realities of Stalag life, both for their writer and his fellow-prisoners.

But there are a few moments when war — not the Second World War, but still possibly based in elements of Munby’s own experience — breaks through the pipe-smoke fug of academic bookishness and M R James-ishness. For instance, in “The Lectern”, we learn of one Thomas Prandle, whose sheep-farming forebears raised themselves to somewhat surly minor gentry (there are a few examples of upstart gentry behaving badly in these stories, and they always get their comeuppance). Prandle joins the late-18th century equivalent of the Territorial Army, and eventually gets his chance to do some overseas soldiering, though not (as with Munby) in France, but in Ulster. It falls far short of his dreams of soldierly heroism:

“It very soon became clear to Prandle and his troop that this wasn’t the glamorous business for which they’d been training so long. Instead of the dashing cavalry charge that he’d pictured he found the drab necessity of conducting house-to-house searches in a hostile countryside. There is no glory for the soldier matched against guerrillas — no enemy is drawn up in line to do battle, only a sordid series of murdered sentries, shots in the dark and vanishing assailants. The inevitable reprisals only made a bad situation worse. The soldier is at an enormous disadvantage in dealing with civilians. If he is a man of chivalry, they can insult him with impunity, for he cannot retaliate. If an unarmed man is killed by a soldier there is an immediate outcry…”

This surely can’t have been Munby’s experience in Calais, as he wasn’t part of the occupying forces, which makes me wonder if he perhaps formed this picture of Thomas Prandle from observing his German captors.

First HB cover, with art by Joanna Dowling

The only explicit mention of modern war comes in “Number Seventy-nine”, the tale of an antiquarian bookseller’s cataloguer, Merton, who “came down from Oxford in 1913, and got caught up in the war before he’d settled down to anything. He was badly shell-shocked in France, and when he got his discharge in 1918 he was a nervous wreck…” Merton, much to his employer’s delight, becomes engaged, but is even more distraught when he loses his fiancé in an automobile accident. (Reading which, I couldn’t help wondering how Munby must have felt about this tale when his own wife died before his return to England.) Merton turns to spiritualism and then, in a final desperate move, to a manuscript on necromancy his employer has just acquired. His employer (who is telling the sorry tale-within-a-tale to Munby’s narrator) hears Merton scream and run from the shop, and looking out, sees “a shadowy figure… of grey colouring” following him, accompanied by a smell he recognises from an exhumation he’d happened on as a boy. (Smells — quite often of burning — accompany other Munby spectres, too. The reality of burned flesh may be another wartime experience of Munby’s.)

The most visceral passage in all of these stories comes in “The Tudor Chimney”. The narrator’s wealthy friend, who has recently taken up the hobby of renovating an old house, opens a bricked-in chimney and looses something that the narrator encounters one night. Generally, in these tales, the spook is witnessed by someone else, or is even relegated to a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale, but this time the narrator himself sees the thing, and his response is authentic:

“There are certain human passions that strip from a man the veneer of civilised culture which normally encases him, that turn him into something primitive and elemental. I felt myself spiritually naked when face to face with the apparition that confronted me that night.”

This passage stands out because, generally, Munby’s narrator is quite cool about the existence of ghosts. In “A Christmas Game”, the narrator sees one coming for a fellow guest, but, knowing it’s not there for him, doesn’t seem to feel any fear. It’s not as with Lovecraft, where the very fact of an entity’s existence is enough to drive a man to madness. Nor is this quite M R James’s approach. Mike Ashley has described Munby as the “Closest to inheriting the mantle of M R James”, and the air of antiquarianism, churchiness, strangely-historied things bought on impulse at auction, and horrors rooted in recent centuries past, is certainly there. But the differences are evident in a tale like “The Tudor Chimney”. While James generally lays out, piece by piece, the whole background necessary to understand the full import of his spook before it makes its final appearance, Munby has us see the ghost, and know it as a ghost, then his characters start the investigation into what or who it is, how it came to be a ghost, and how to lay its disturbed soul. And once it’s dealt with, the characters get on with life pretty much as before, no sanity points lost. A ghost, as the narrator of “The Tudor Chimney” says, “isn’t the sort of thing one can shut away and keep out of one’s mind”, but it’s also, in these stories, not the sort of thing to shake one’s faith.

Munby’s tales are brisk, compared to James’s, and once you get past the POW’s holiday-in-the-mind of gadding about the British countryside engaging in idle antiquarian research, the supernatural elements are introduced quickly, have their stories told in straightforward narratives rather than Jamesian hints, and then they’re put to one side. But they’re effective tales for all that, and if they’re lacking the weird power of M R James’s originals, they get their little shiver of terror by more than mere association.

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