Essays: This Year in Marienbad |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

This Year in Marienbad

by Jonathan Meades

All the world knows Marienbad: the statues, the match-game, the broken glass, the swooning Delphine Seyrig, the voice that incants, 'Once more I walk on, once more down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, this structure from another century — this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel where endless corridors succeed silent deserted corridors...' All the world knows this Marienbad, Alain Robbe-Grillet's invention brought to a sort of life by Alain Resnais at Nymphenburg near Munich and at another Bavarian schloss, both loci two hundred miles south of our west Bohemian spa which was already then, when the film was turned in 1961, called Marianske Lazne. Marienbad does not exist. Nothing could be less astonishing; after all, this town in a bowl of pine-crenellated hills is a town of the Sudetenland which was ignominiously ceded to the Third Reich in 1938 and whose Czech inhabitants were expelled with what they could carry. That it should shun its German appellation is as natural as well water (140 springs, 8-10 degrees Celsius, carbonated, used in the treatment of renal, urological, respiratory, rhinitic, asthmatic, digestive, endocrinal and metabolic problems — among others).

And yet... the place is far from innocent of its past. And it is forever contaminated by its filmic representation. This must sound preposterous, the suggestion that Robbe-Grillet's work can somehow be taken as naturalistic or reportorial; but, walk along the corridors (lugubrious, endless) of the New Baths and you begin to conceive of L'Année Dernière à Marienbad as a synthesis of all valetudinarian reveries. One corridor gives on to another then a third, and they're all the same: a plastic chair; exposed pipes hurrying to the vanishing point; a static man; the smell of coke (no, no — the stuff that's like coal); another static figure, this one a woman, waiting, like the man, without expectation, with a blue card in her hand. They wait in silence — this is a national talent; they wait for balneotherapy, hydro-inhalations, cold hoses, spring gas injections, massages, mud packs. They wait to spray their gums with water as a prophylactic against gingivitis, they wait to swim in rubber caps in silence — at a Czech spa swimming bath the only sound is of lapping water turned white by a cupped hand, a crooked arm. No one talks or dives or squeals with aquatic delight. They take their treatments seriously, and they believe in them. What water placebos have over chemical placebos (the sort that is normal in virtually spa-less Britain) is the lack of side-effect. It's a low risk means of therapy, it's thus analogous with the political system that promotes it and pays for it; it may not get you right but it won't make you iller than you already are; and it's slow, its effects are gradual, it props you up. It could of course bore you to death, but it won't kill you. It won't foster alopecia the way adriamycin will but then it won't stem cancer. Scepticism about the efficacy of well water is not confined to the British though the British are alone in Europe in having no state owned spas and the British, despite their ever increasing consumption of mineral water, are the one nation that doesn't frequent Czech spas — everywhere you look is a Kuwaiti or a Russian or a Hungarian. The doctor who is director of the spa at Marianske, Miroslav Skapik, suggested over lunch (healthy bouillon, unhealthy fat in batter) that there was a schism within the Czech medical profession on the subject of waters: 'There is a wall.' But, he went on, no one disputes the therapeutic as opposed to the medical benefits of Marianske Lazne or Karlovy Vary. As we strolled near a statue of Red Riding Hood, a local girl who found fame in a political allegory, Dr Skapik's medical director (mad boffin crewcut, mad boffin specs with lenses ground from Dimple glass) explained with a giggle — I think it was a giggle — the therapeutic benefits which everyone is agreed about: 'Patients get rid of the negative effects of everyday life. You know cybernetics? We re-programme them, we re-programme people.' Was I really hearing this? It was like going to France and seeing slit-skirted tarts and winos in berets, it was like going to Spain and being told 'mañana'. This was the Czechoslovakia of a sinister sitcom, stereotypically horrible. But he looks such a nice little mad boffin, I caught myself thinking. Did this man really deal in re-educative mud packs, was he really an agent of terror by cold hose? The perverse potential of baths cannot be overemphasized. But no — people come here to enjoy themselves; that, anyway, is how the Czechs see it. There are countless stories and gags about infidelities at spas, drunkenness at spas, dancing the night away at spas. But although people come by themselves, subbed by the state, spouseless, cash-heavy, spruce in new threads from the fashion mecca that is Prague, looking for a Good Time, the prevailing air is one of innocence earnestly indulged. It's all rather like the more sedate sort of British resort a long time ago — Scarborough in the 30s, say. Which is as it should be, for sea bathing stations and wells share a history and a common purpose — albeit a purpose which is now forgotten, to re-create the spirit and recharge the body, i.e. to 're-programme' it. Not so sinister after all. Common purpose, common pursuits, common architecture. Whether the suffix is sur mer or on sea or bad or wells or les eaux or spa doesn't really matter. All resorts are more like each other than they are like the market or manufacturing towns of their own countries. They all have the same ad-hoc nitespot, it probably is the same one, it probably travels like a circus. This year in Marienbad the eternal verities are being reinforced: in the back room of a fin de siècle hotel, in a bar complex like that of a straitened polytechnic, in the former ball room of the casino middle aged men who understand the sartorial language of popular entertainment (butterscotch suits with black lapels, shirts with frilly fronts like mail-order lingerie) are playing chugging versions of 'Volare' and 'O Sole Mio' on flimsy electric organs, on metallic carmine guitars. And newly met couples enjoying freshly minted flings gambol with ever decreasing inhibition till they dare dance le slow, cheek to worker's cheek, wiggling a little the way those re-programmed into youth always will. It might be Bournemouth, it might be La Baule. And so might the buildings which are rich, francophile, encrusted with ornament, gay in the old sense. The encrustations are anthropomorphic: caryatids, atlantes, canephorae, herms, terms, satyrs, hercules. They are so wrought, these great plaster figures, to look as though they are holding the weight of the buildings they adorn. And the women among them are clearly on steroids, their musculature is freakishly bulgy; often they're orgasmically enrapt like Bernini's St Teresa though the modelling owes more to that great artist's great predecessor. What we have here is Michelangelo by the tonne. I reckon that these writhing figures are an invitation to lubricity, triggers of holiday romance.

The Robbe-Grillet/Resnais film is not the only French representation of this town. There is too a song by a marvellous singer, quite unknown in Britain (as are most exponents of chanson), called Barbara. In her Marienbad there is porphyry, there are jade castles, there are diamonds and black nights, there are aubades; most of all there is her heartbreaking voice and a violin to make one shiver at the thought of lost love. Hers is the Marienbad of the old regime, before the town became a popular utility. There is an odd and wittingly fostered disjunction between the popular utility and the props of the old regime which are being zealously restored. It is as though a set is being reconstructed for a dramatic spectacle of a different order to the one that was originally played on it. Marianske Lazne is becoming a museum whose one exhibit is its former self: the 'colonnades', an airy glass and iron structure of c1890, where spa guests drink in their numbered mugs from fountains of spring water, has been done up with a diligence that would delight British conservationists. The New Baths where Edward VII used to lie in Ottoman splendour will be good as new by the time of their centenary in 1993. In the park through the middle of the town every tree is made to weep so that at dusk they have silhouettes like old English sheep dogs — this is the only canine facet of the place, there is no excrement on the crewcut lawns. Everywhere you'll find (wooden) scaffolding, houses being given a tosh of paint; even the paths in the dark woods are bereft of the usual sylvan decoration of torn tights and discarded balloons. It all seems too good to be true; and when you get to Pilsen you see that it is. When you see that great beer city, a Bohemian Burton on Trent, you realize why people need spas, why Marianske Lazne is such a haven. Perched over Pilsen as you approach it from the west is a vast mushroom of industrial smog, a mushroom without its stipe supported by some maleficent magic, a mushroom the colour of a nicotine knuckle. There's more yet: this city of unrelenting terraced palazzi, Florentine in provenance and grandeur, looks like a Piranesian nightmare. It looks like Berlin, 1945, but in the aftermath of a really bad war. The air is constellated with black particles like would-be bats. The buildings are sublime in their soot-fleeced dereliction. No wonder the workers of Urquell and Gambrinus and the Skoda car plant crave the water and uninfected air of Marianske; no wonder Dr Skapik repeated to me that there is no industry within 25 miles of Marianske and that the air is 'allergen free'. No one who sees Pilsen will ever again take for granted Clean Air legislation.

So the baths at Marianske witness now a gamut of industrially related skin diseases that would never have been seen in Marienbad. You see blisters of every size and shade, you see rashes and weals, you see skin which mimics burnt vinyl. And so on. And if this is what their outsides are like what about their insides? Can water really work on organs which are the victims of such atmospheric abuse? Or is what we have here a secular Lourdes? If it is it's a handsome one. There can be few nicer looking spots in which to kid yourself that you're doing yourself good. It wills you to think that way, so much so that you'll return, next year, to Marienbad to do yourself good, whether you need to or not. Re-programming is a process as endless as the corridors.