DUALITY OF BEING Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique and Paul Auster’s City of Glass
The two artistic creations we are about to discuss may not have much in common at first sight, not only because of one masterwork being a movie, the other one a short novel, but simply because both works are so intensely and uniquely specific in their poetics and conveying of messages. The messages that the two masterpieces communicate to the audiences sometimes appear to be somewhat secreted, hiding underneath the obvious surface, and might, consequently, if not regarded closely enough, speak against our embarking on this attempt of drawing parallels between a detective story and a hypnotic cinematic tale of love and mysteries of life that dwell in an undefined area between factual reality and the misty world of dreams.
Let us start with the help of the thoughts of one of the greatest and most influential French poets - consider this quote by Charles Baudelaire: “Il me semble que je serais toujours bien lá où je ne suis pas” (from “Any where out of the world” /”N’importe oů hors du monde”).
“It always seems to me that I should be happy anywhere but where I am”, states the composer of Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil, 1857) (a decadent collection impregnated with a kind of »Inferno flavor«), “and this question of moving is one that I am eternally discussing with my soul”, adds Baudelaire later on in the poem.
He is bluntly putting forward the idea that he will always be happy in a place where he is not. A constant tendency to move, to transgress the existing borders of being and living, the feeling that the life one leads is not real enough, a notion of a parallel world or even universe where one exists as well, in the flesh, and weaves a multifaceted net of (seemingly) random choices and decisions, unconnected with the ones being simultaneously created elsewhere, all of these colorings are meticulously brushed into the works of Paul Auster and Krysztof Kieslowski. So what precisely do this once Jewish middle class kid from Newark, New Jersey, now a renowned writer, poet, translator, and editor, and a Polish cinematic genius, originally from Warsaw, truly have in common, when it comes to the two works mentioned in this writing’s title?
As it is the case in Kieslowski’s later, frantically, yet deservingly so, famous trilogy Three Colours (Blue, White, and Red), the powerful musical score (by Zbigniew Preisner) underlines almost all the scenes in the movie The Double Life of Veronique, and enhances their supernatural kind of flavor that in fact saturates the movie in its entirety. Had Auster’s novel been transformed into a movie, the soundtrack would have undoubtedly been as revealing of the story’s baffling and sinister atmosphere and at the same time as effect-boosting as it is Preisner’s music in Kieslowski. We are, nevertheless, dealing with two different media, and that should not go completely unnoted.
Weronika (Irene Jacob) in Krakow, Poland in Kieslowski’s tender and spellbinding masterpiece from 1991, by accident (which, naturally, is not a real strike of chance, but a mysterious, evanescent sleight of fate) catches a glimpse of her French double, Veronique (also Irene Jacob), who is boarding a tourist bus and taking pictures; not knowingly she gets the Polish self into her focus. (She discovers that long after the trip when the slides of the photos she took fall out of her bag.)
When Weronika suddenly dies of a heart attack on stage, while performing (singing) for the first time with the Krakow Philharmonic, at that very same moment the French Veronique senses an indefinable and inexplicable sense of loss and vagueness of existence. Kieslowski magnificently touches the area of the metaphysical and makes us believe that there is undoubtedly our double treading the Earth somewhere. And this bond is fatal and indestructible.
Daniel Quinn in City of Glass (1985) is a writer of detective stories who gets involved into an intricately woven bizarre sequence of events that were, so he thinks, initially intended for a man interestingly named Paul Auster, but a phone call (this being the turning point in Quinn’s life and the beginning of his decline) originally addressed to a Paul Auster (supposedly a well known detective) gets directed to Quinn (the phone lines got mixed up, or did they?). That is how Quinn gets in the middle of this conundrum. Quinn, who agrees to take on a detective job (assumes the name of Paul Auster, the not yet discovered detective, and the manners and wits of his own literary creation, Max Work) is supposed to follow a man Peter Stillman, a once renowned Columbia University Professor, just released from a mental institution and out there, on the streets of Manhattan, allegedly on a mission to kill his, once tortured – supposedly by Stillman himself - son Peter. The uncertainty of all things around and within Quinn makes the reader wonder about the credibility of the events (within the borders of the literary universe, naturally), although the writer himself, i.e. the real Paul Auster, intervenes on occasion to remind us that all that is written is as real as it can be, for it is based on Quinn’s own notes. A charming postmodernistic, metafictional trait, no doubt.
When Quinn is at Grand Central and in his stooped position eagerly waiting for Stillman to get off a train from Poughkeepsie so his private eye hunt can start, two identical Stillmans disembark the train, one looking like a bum, the other one, the spitting image of the first, except for the fact that he looks like a distinguished gentleman in brand new clothes and carrying an expensive leather bag. Quinn has to make a choice and decides to follow the first Stillman, the bum.
Now all of a sudden we are faced with a quadruple doubling, not only a simple case of Weronika vs. Veronique. We have two Stillmans, Quinn is in fact Auster, at the same time Max Work, as well as a writer William Wilson, which is the pseudonym he always used. This doubling, or better even, multiplication, looks like the Devil’s doppel(quardruple)ganger trick. We are now irrevocably trapped in the forceps of the City of Glass (or Mirrors and mirror images).
The inscrutable Professor Stillman in his dissertation years ago talked about the doom of the Tower of Babel and the scattered, chaotic world that resulted from the Fall. He is now still (again) on a mission to collect the scattered bits and pieces of things as well as words and from that discarded “debris” form a new world and a new language that will again unite the hollow peoples of the world and generate the birth of a new Paradise.
He, in his insanity (or perhaps the world around him is insane for not seeing the truth, the real collapse of order and utter chaos that is destroying our lives?), is picking up trash from the grounds of Manhattan, creating with his daily walks shapes or routes shaped like the letters that form (or so Quinn tentatively concludes) the phrase “Tower of Babel”.
Like Stillman, Veronique too feels a crack, a rupture in the completeness of, mostly her own, inner world; the crack opens up in the instant of Weronika’s death (the destruction of Babel). This is the moment when Veronique watches a puppet show in which the princess dies, but turns into a butterfly and flies over the stage into the light. The lyrics of the music that offers the background to the scene is taken from Dante’s Inferno “Verso il Cielo” (Towards the Sky, or Into the Light, if we dare to be a bit more poetic, religious even). A touch of Dante is no doubt telling and may indeed speak of Kieslowski’s desire to evoke Biblical references, perhaps the (Sumerian) meaning of the word Babel (i.e. the Gate of God).
The Gate seems to seal for Veronique when Weronika dies; Quinn gets lost in the labyrinth (confusion) (Babel meaning confusion in Hebrew) of unresolved stories, tips, and clues that all seem to lead to a dead end, a closed door for him as well.
Just as New York in City of Glass is presented as a multi-layered, frenzied society, a world of fractured, shattered identities, so does Paris become a chaotic maze of constant wondering and searching for something lost and, at the same time, something terribly imminent to Veronique. The bits and pieces of her life do get (at least partially) re-collected, as apposed to Quinn’s, with the help of a puppeteer Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter). He begins sending Veronique, whom he secretly loves, unusual gifts, from shoe laces to an empty cigar box, and finally a tape with a recording of what seem to be random sounds, but in fact they are clues that eventually bring her to her secret admirer, waiting for her at a train station café.
There is, both in Auster as well as in Kieslowski, an unresolved, ghostly kind of air that permeates the atmospheres of the Sin City, New York, and dreamy, melancholic Paris.
Both narratives are surrealistic, hard to pinpoint or dissect, with Auster’s book being a real postmodernistic mystery story. Kieslowski is not that far away from a mystery narrative himself, just that in his story no crimes have been committed. This is how Hal Hinson, Washington Post staff writer, described in his review Kieslowski’s touch in The Double Life of Veronique: “It’s a masterfully calibrated mood piece, a sort of psychological mystery story that casts the viewer as a detective searching for the solution to a crime that has never been committed.”
Veronique continues to live, but it looks like she will leave Alexandre, for he had completed the puzzle, showed her the insight of her dual existence, he resurrected the Tower of Babel and brought back reason and understanding of seemingly incomprehensible matters. Yet his beloved woman does not want the completion, for the time and space we invade in a way demands mysteries to continue and bits and pieces of reality to remain scattered. The wholeness she once may have possessed can not be retrieved. The mysteries remain to haunt her and all of us partake in this predestined state of being.
At the end of Auster’s story Quinn vanishes, implying that characters in fiction are dependent on the story for their very existence, and when the story comes to an end, they die. Auster and Kieslowski are puppeteers that freely operate their characters, they brilliantly master the scene, temporal and special aspects of their narratives.
“Kieslowski never really brings his story to any resolution, and that’s as it should be. The Double Life of Veronique is a mesmerizing poetic work composed in an eerie minor key. Its effect on the viewer is subtle but very real. The film takes us completely into its world, and in doing so, it leaves us with the impression that our own world, once we return to it, is far richer and portentous than we had imagined”, states Hinson.
Open endings are typical for postmodernistic approach to art. No more did Kieslowski strive to reach a solid, tangible conclusion than did Auster attempt to achieve a clarification or disentanglement of the labyrinth of paths and stories he interweaves. No solutions are needed, or possible whatsoever.
We just need to keep on moving through the maze of the mysteries of life, or as Auster writes in the book, describing Quinn’s daily routine: “Motion was of the essence, the act of putting one foot in front of the other and allowing himself to follow the drift of his own body…On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.” (4) “Using aimless motion as a technique of reversal, on his best days he could bring the outside in and thus usurp the sovereignty of inwardness….Wandering, therefore, was a kind of mindlessness.” (74) In other words, following Baudelaire’s lead, Quinn and Veronique are always on the move, trying to grab the illusive, reach the unreachable, be happy ELSEWHERE.
With the destruction of the Tower of Babel, the multiplicity of languages and truths briskly and irreversibly swamped the world. And this is the world in which wherever we are NOT, we ARE truly ourselves.
Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. Penguin Books. 1990.
Hinsen, Hal. “The Double Life of Veronique”. Washingtonpost.com. December 13, 1999. August15, 2006. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpsrv/style/longterm/movies/videos/thedoublelifeofveroniquenrhinson_a0a726.htm)
http://www.tangmonkey.com/columns/10401584628418.php - The New York Trilogy. December, 17 2002. August 16, 2006.