Richard Armitage + madeleines
This is a musing with the caveat that I have no idea which parts Richard Armitage will read in the staged reading of Pinter’s screenplay of À la recherche du temps perdu. I read the first four volumes in the older English translation as Remembrance of Things Past while I was living in Germany in 1999 (long story). I stopped reading it because that was the last volume my source had in English and I didn’t want to read it in German. Somehow I never started again — I think because although the reflections are often singularly beautiful, there’s no strong plot to drive one on and the characters are remarkably motionless for my taste. This work fits in loosely with a number of things we know Armitage has enjoyed (The Master and Margarita, Crime and Punishment, works by John Fowles) in terms of its modernist associations and heavily atmospheric feel. There’s a newer translation (1992) available with the more literally accurate title, The Search for Lost Time. I have not looked back at the novel to write this, nor have I ever read the screenplay. Just the usual: musings about the appeal of the work in general and its intersections and affinities with me and with Richard Armitage.
The image most often associated with Proust even by those who’ve never read his work, is that of the madeleine. Those who’ve never tried one can obtain three in a small package at almost every Starbucks and try them that way, first. They’re baked in a pan that makes them look like a mussel shell, and the fluting of the backside of the little cake means that the outside layer is just a little severe, while the inside is spongy and orangey or lemony. They’re better warm, but I would say I buy a package once or twice a week. I like them with green tea — dry enough to absorb the tea flavor, but still moist enough to be enjoyable (and not fall to pieces in the tea like a biscotto does in coffee). My ex-SO’s mother always used to bake madeleines and send them in their dozens to her granddaughters here and there; they are definitely the sort of cake for a child: small, compact, tasty, not crumbly or difficult to eat.
For those who have not read the novel(s), the deal with Proust and the madeleine is that when the narrator of the work eats one, he’s transported back into his childhood, when his aunt ate them for breakfast with her tea and he was given a bite on Sunday mornings. The novels have a number of themes, not least an argument for the role of art as the most desirable mechanism for finding and holding the lost past again. One focus of this general emphasis is the question of memory. Scholars in multiple fields in the U.S. were heavily occupied with the study (especially of the accuracy of traumatic) memory in the 1990s and so it’s no coincidence that the 90s brought with them both a new translation of Proust and a renewed examination of what he had to say about memory in the European modern. Too, the experience of doing one thing and instantly being transported back to another moment is one that many adults of my acquaintance have. I certainly do. One reason I became interested in memory, frankly, is that I have been cursed with a really good one. I have a hard time forgetting things and it constantly causes me problems.
Memory is a strong theme of almost all cultural production in the western European modern; historians have argued for the fundamental break of the revolutionary period after 1789 and the ways in which it established irreparable ruptures with the past. They have also pointed out the normalization and acceleration of time itself in the wake of the French Revolution. If things could change (and become better), they were, however, now also stood at risk of falling into desuetude, such that the fabric that sustained a particular memory was always in danger of disappearing. One consequence of this, we might suppose, is the increasing location of memory in the mind and spirit (as opposed to in physical locations or places of memory). The memory studies of Freud, for instance, coincided roughly with Proust. If the place were lost, the mind could still contain the memory.
These themes show up in Armitage’s work, which is not particularly surprising, given the increased concern given to a particular kind of autobiographical memory of the past (and its motivational qualities for the individual and the individuated self) in modernity. In other words, responding to memory is a problem that every modern character confronts in some way or other. What’s interesting of course, is how Armitage chooses to play them.
The madeleine invokes a particular kind of sense memory that is ultimately involuntary. One tastes the cake and is transported into the past. The involuntary sense memory that popped immediately into mind as most memorable to me in Armitage’s work occurs in Spooks 7.3, when Lucas is suddenly showered with water after a meeting with a colleague.
Lucas, the character who perhaps most wants to forget his past, is reminded of it accidentally as the rain hits him unexpectedly. His reaction is immediate and visceral, drawing him back into his experience with his Russian interrogators and torturers.
Interesting about this — the way in which the memory of his torture in Russia contorts Lucas’ entire face, causing his mouth and lips almost to lose definition. The caps above overaccentuate this quite a bit because of the image twitter due to interlacing (as opposed to progressive scan), but even factoring that in, Armitage’s face is still incredibly mobile here. Fascinatingly, this is one of the scenes in which his features appear most to melt — almost as the memory of what’s happened to him undoes Lucas entirely. (As we know, Armitage had his own sense memory to help him in playing this scene, as he agreed to be waterboarded to prepare for it.) Physically, Lucas curls on himself and is bowled to the side by the power of the memory he’s just experienced.
The power of this scene carries Armitage into his portrayal of the subsequent scene. (One of many things that I admire about Armitage’s work is that he typically manages a strong level of convincing festural and vocal continuity between scenes that are almost certainly filmed out of sequence. We can point to a number of places in his oeuvre where he begins a scene with an obvious transitional move from a previous one. (A particular favorite of mine is John Porter’s reference to his brutally extracted tooth in Strike Back 1.2.) Above, the subsequent scene to the flashback to Russia comes at about 0:53, when Lucas goes in to tell Harry about his flashback.
In this scene, I’d particularly like to distinguish two qualities of Lucas’ voice — first, his diction, which is uncharacteristically light (almost as if Armitage is avoiding touching his teeth — in contrast to Lucas’ usually crisper speech) and held back — Armitage is not enunciating here at all; second, the pitch. This looser diction than usual makes his speech sound tentative, almost a bit drowsy, nearly unformed at times. Enervated, perhaps, as if the conversation is costing much more than Harry realizes. The other matter is the pitch — Lucas starts the scene at at a relatively high pitch in Armitage’s range (high speech is a clear distress signal in a number of Armitage’s earlier characters; Thorin would change this pattern slightly) — but it never falls significantly into normal range, and indeed, as Lucas is leaving the office, at 1:23, it sounds like it’s rising again. Indeed, it’s not until Lucas leaves Harry’s presence that he establishes his normal vocal range.
The other thing are the really rich microexpressions as Lucas insists on his version of the story — that the interrogator really wanted to know about “Sugarhorse.” Here are a few:
In combination with Armitage’s voice, we see here: hesitancy (and a very unfirm holding of the mouth at the beginning, almost as if his mouth hurts him, or as if it’s difficult to get the words out if he doesn’t speak as gently as possible — I’m having a hard time describing what I’m seeing here, but it’s fascinating nonetheless), shame, fatigue, exhaustion, pain, avoidance, and a touch of introspective frustration. Playing against Harry (whose denials are so flat that they seem obvious and cause Lucas to ask, as well, as he’s leaving, making the last entreaty that he didn’t want to suffer for nothing), they enhance our awareness of how badly this particular traumatic memory is hurting him — and also of what the cost is to reveal it to Harry.
Lucas’ torture is, of course, not the kind of sense memory that Proust sought to evoke in his own work — for Proust, the madeleine is a pleasant rather than a traumatic memory. The psychologists of the modern felt strongly that these involuntary memories were purer precisely because they happened apparently against our will and took us by surprise in their appearance and in the associations they drew. We tend to find these sense memories very telling; for instance, I was reading an article today on the quintessential smells that call Britain to mind for people who leave. Proust contrasted this kind of memory in his work with the intentional search for the past, with the desire to find it again somewhere. The obvious connection in this theme with Armitage’s work are the scenes that have to do with memory in North & South. That’s for tomorrow, I think.