Predictably unpredictable

Remembering Serge Gainsbourg on the anniversary of his birth.

Elegant and tactless, charmingly "ugly", often inopportune like a bad joke coming too late, Lucien Ginsburg was born on 2 April 1928 in Paris to Russian-Jewish parents. "I was born under a lucky star ... a yellow one," he once ironically remarked referring to the star of David he had to wear on his arm as a kid when Paris opened its doors to the nightmare of Nazism.

It was a live performance by Boris Vian that allegedly inspired the singer-to-be: Vian's idiosyncratic provocations and ironic cynicism, Serge Gainsbourg later confessed, were a great influence on his decision to take to the piano in (un)popular fashion. Unapologetically improper, Gainsbourg survived his fame through constant and unpredictable innovation. From smoky jazz bars to symphonic pop, from "le yéyé" to roots dub, passing by Nazi rock and rap, the restless trajectory he drew underscores his inability to conform.

Recently commemorated with a lame and derivative biopic, Monsieur Gainsbourg himself, true to his insubordinate curiosity and obtrusive genius, traversed le septième art on his own, unique, terms. Besides sound-tracking more than 50 films, whose scores often outshined their not exactly memorable visual counterpart, Gainsbourg briefly stood behind the camera. In 1976, borrowing the title from his international hit Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus, he staged an anomalous tale of uncompromising love. Reminiscent of the stiff acting and wooden mise-en-scène of Paul Morrisey's films, Je T'Aime is a bizarre sex-western of startling profundity.

A gay garbage truck driver (Joe D'Alessandro) falls in love with a boyish looking waitress (Jane Birkin) but can only love her via her posterior. While the song had desecrated the trite clichés of love songs with the steamy chorus "I love you, me neither" and scandalised with its impudent groans, the film functions almost in an inverse fashion. Through what at first sight may seem a gratuitous and idiotic narrative device, Gainsbourg composes the ultimate romance, transcending the barriers of gender to celebrate the universality of the noblest sentiment. As the fornicating couple has it: "the important is not where you put it, the important is to love."

A final episode worth considering: Forgotten until 2002, when the Parisian Radio Communauté Juive broadcasted it for the first time, "Le sable et le Soldat" was commissioned by the cultural attaché of the Israeli embassy to the French singer. Written in 1967 with the six-day war against Egypt looming on the horizon, the song is a hymn to the Tsahal, the Israeli army that would shortly after crush Nasser's forces. The lyric runs: "I will defend the sand of the Promised Land against all enemies/the Goliaths from the pyramids will back down in front of the star of David/I will defend the sand of Israel."

Serge Gainsbourg in 1984. Photo: Getty Images
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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