Patrick McGuinness


Patrick McGuinness (Tunesië, 1968) is een dichter en romanschrijver met een multiculturele achtergrond die sterk voelbaar is in zijn werk. Geboren uit Belgische en Ierse ouders, werd hij opgevoed in Iran, Venezuela, Frankrijk, België en Roemenië. Momenteel doceert hij Franse en vergelijkende letterkunde aan de Universiteit van Oxford.

Naast gedichten in eigen naam publiceert hij eveneens onder het pseudoniem van Roemeens dichter Liviu Campanu. Campanu komt ook voor in zijn debuutroman The Last Hundred Days (2011). Dit verhaal speelt zich af tijdens de Roemeense Revolutie van 1989. Het leverde McGuinness een nominatie voor de 2011 Man Booker Prize op. Ook voor zijn gedichten werd hij meermaals genomineerd en bekroond. McGuinness schrijft en presenteert regelmatig programma’s voor de Britse BBC-Radio.

Patrick McGuinness verbleef een maand in Passa Porta’s schrijversflat om te werken aan zijn tweede roman, een nieuwe dichtbundel en een lang essay over Brussel.






Brussels: An essay in melancholy        

What sort of a ghost tour would it be if your ghosts were not people but places? The quality of haunting would be different, because we always imagine hauntings in relation to a place, even if the place is just (just?) the mind, place being the form that makes the content perceptible. It's strange how we think of haunting as a people-thing, something essentially sociable, however unnerving; the haunters are still versions of us, they've just gone over to the other side. Ghosts are domesticated creatures, like dogs and cats, because we have invented them (maybe they think the same of us) to replicate our actions, which they repeat (repetition is important to the ghost-life: like pets and children they need routine) slowly but often with surprising exactness. They are spectral replays of our matches, won or lost (more usually the latter), and we impute to them something of ourselves we do not always see: an inability to move on, a hunger for return, which is why we think of them as haunting: you cannot haunt somewhere you've never been, not properly at least, and though there have been ghosts who have erred into other stories, other hauntings not their own, the effect there is comical, as of actors stumbling into the wrong play.  

As a child I found ghosts disappointing for these very reasons: how constructed they were, how made up they are of all they've left behind. It was our lack of ambition for ghosts that disappointed me; as if, with all we knew, we couldn't imagine something better for them than repositories for our unfinished business. I'd have liked them to pull away a little more, to peel off from us, but no: they were hemmed in by their patterns, which were our patterns. A wasted opportunity, I thought, for us in our imaginations and for them in their imagined reality.  

In Brussels it's the places that are ghosts, not the people. Brussels is haunted by its lost buildings, and it is hard to imagine a city in Europe more needlessly destroyed. And destroyed not by war or invasion or cultural revolution, but from sheer indifference, and from a blind (but also open-eyed - that combination is possible) belief in ‘Progress' that is empty because concerned more with being ‘in step' with that wishful vacuum of a word than with knowing what one might actually do with it. In this view of urban planning, change becomes an attempt to master time before one has understood it: as if the language of Time was change itself, and that we wanted to speak that language before we have anything to say in it. Most of the atrocities visited on Brussels were not by the Luftwaffe or the Wehrmacht, but by Brussels developers and politicians, and this mostly in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  

The biggest of these ghosts is the Maison du Peuple, designed by Victor Horta out of then state of the art materials for the workers to host their cultural events, rallies and exhibitions. It was opened in 1899, and contained offices, cafés, meeting halls and function rooms. Made of elegant white iron, on which craftsmen worked for more than a year, the building used bricks and glass and steel to make a space of maximum functionality whose beauty, whose materials and whose purpose, were democratic. Art nouveau for the working classes was an important part of Brussels, and of Belgium generally: though the forms may have lapsed into, or towards, the aestheticism of art deco, the original commitment of Horta and many of his contemporaries was accessible beauty created from accessible materials, that reflected the work that had gone into them not just as effort but as pleasure and fulfilment through skill. The Palais du Peuple belonged to the Socialist Party, who sold it for a huge sum and allowed it to be not just demolished in 1965 but buried in scattered wastelands in and around Brussels. The plan had been to rebuild it elsewhere; in the end it was dispersed in its hundreds of thousands of pieces, most now untraceable and irreplaceable. Sometimes a piece of ironwork or a window frame is uncovered here and there as builders dig foundations or someone turfs up a vacant lot. Sometimes the pieces surface like wreckage from a ship as the land moves or the ground dissolves after rain. In its place there stands a provocatively bland skyscraper, an upended rectangle of blank windows.  

I said Brussels is haunted by its lost buildings. It isn't true, though I'd like it to be. It's remarkably un-haunted; the city just goes on developing itself amnesically. It's we to have to provide the haunting, because we have to provide the memory, even those of us too young to remember, so we impute our hauntings to it. It is like imputing a sense of guilt to a criminal who has no concept of guilt. Brusselization is the term now used to describe indiscriminate and ignorant urban development across Europe; I remember a Belgian diplomat describing Ceausescu's destruction of Bucharest as ‘Brusselization', and then being surprised that people laughed. He hadn't been joking.  

One of the later developments of Brusselization was ‘facadism': the destruction of the whole interior of the building to retain only the shell of its front. There is also the trend whereby the modern buildings are all fronted with mirrored glass, so that they echo the older buildings across the road like a reflection in upright water. In this instance, the modern building acts as a sort of image-parasite upon what lies opposite, inverting and sucking in its beauty without needing itself to have any qualities other than reflectiveness. These are the most offensive buildings to me because they have an odd, angular beauty which catches on the gaze and makes me feel guilty at the pleasures it gives before I am able to imagine the cost at which it comes.  

The question of listing buildings is an interesting one, because what really needs listing, once the building has gone, is its aura. But how can you list an aura?    




Seferis on Cavafy's poems: ‘plinths without statues'. The line strikes me as soon as I read it, because I like the phrase more than I agree with it, in Cavafy's case at least, and because it feeds a fascination with constructed emptiness, the kind of emptiness that has designs on us, that compels the search for meaning and completion that it thwarts, and thwarts by inviting. The way we treat emptiness has a lot to do with this: sometimes I think that filling in empty spaces with your imagination is like filling in your own tax returns: it saves the state (and the poem) the effort and gives you the illusion of autonomy by doing their job for them.  




On my first night in Brussels as a visiting writer in Passaporta, I meet William Cliff, the poet of Homo Sum, Marcher au Charbon, Fête nationale and several novels. We meet in the Grand Café, which is still big but no longer grand, and eat steak tartare and pig cheeks in a sauce of mustard and honey. The first thing we do is laugh a lot on a series of very slight pretexts. This is a good sign, this wanting to like each long before either of us has done anything likeable. He is slightly feral, young-looking, and fresh in a sort of profligate way - as if there was so much freshness to him he could just squander it and it would never get used up. He is 72 but looks twenty years younger, mischievous and dark, and there is something winning about him, in his zippy fleece and a black woolly hat which, instead of pulling warmly over his skull, he perches in such a way that it covers only the top of his head and rises emptily into a cone which ends quite far from his crown. He looks like an evil smurf, le mauvais schtroumpf. After dinner, we go into one of the gay bars near his flat in Marcher au Charbon, the title of his 1978 book. The Tels Quels is small but feels cavernously empty because it isn't quite empty (empty plinth syndrome: now that I know about it, I see it everywhere): the three customers are there to emphasise the emptiness, not to break it up. Or to emphasise it by breaking it up. They are at the bar, aligned like books on a shelf and touching at the elbows. William and I sit on a sofa and drink some red wine. The place smells of spunk and raw meat, though the raw meat smell is probably coming from me. As Cliff leans into the bar and orders, the tip of his black hat swinging forward like an anglepoise lamp, but one that emits shadows and not light, it hits me: if you ever wondered what Rimbaud would have looked like at fifty, this is it.  

Later we go to his flat and he shows me his versions of Shakespeare's sonnets. The flat is dingy, book-filled, old fashioned, and dirty. The toilet/bathroom is in the same space as, and unpartitioned from, the kitchen. The Shakespeare is a beautiful, square book published by Le Hasard, a small publisher in Brussels. Cliff himself publishes with Gallimard, and NRF/Gallimard have just brought him out in their pocket classics series, where he joins the likes of Char, Valéry, Mallarmé, Boileau, and a range of international poets including Tsvetaeva, Dylan Thomas, Pessoa... Cliff is probably the most tightly formal poet now writing in the French language, and I admire his work very much: the skill is remarkable, the frankness about sex and sexuality and desire, and the completely unmaterialistic world view he carries with him make for the mix of spartan and thoroughly decadent that are his signature. His models are Scève and Charles d'Orléans, the Pleïade poets, Racine et al. Someone (OK: it was me) has called him the Belgian Thom Gunn, and as with all these ludicrous comparisons, I realise that if anyone had ever called Gunn the Anglo-American William Cliff it too would have been me.  

Here is how he starts Shakespeare's first sonnet (‘From fairest creatures we desire increase'):  

Des plus beaux êtres, nous voulons croissance
et que par eux la rose point ne meure,
qu'ils laissent dans leur tender descendance
la richesse qu'ils eurent à leur heure;    

This for me is remarkably tight and elegant; and Cliff goes on for 154 sonnets, makes light of all the difficulty by telling me simply that if you can hear the shape and see the frame (or words to that effect) of the lines, the poem will make itself.  He also tells me which of the translations are ‘ratés' - failures- and asks me ignore them, but only after I've read them. In other words, not to ignore them at all.    




Some days I become a factory for sad thoughts: the night shift starts more or less once I've decided to go to bed. As I turn the lights out in my Brussels flat, the factory lights come on. I used to make them by hand, the sad thoughts, but lately it's become more of an assembly line, the machines doing all the work: I sleep, and in the morning I have another consignment ready for distribution; for export, for import.




One day I'll write about how Brussels is never really a destination in the way London or Paris or Madrid are destinations. It's a city of plaques: no-one lived or stayed in this or that house; they stopped over, passed through, fled from, fled to...   The city echoes that, knows it about itself, in the self-obliterating strain that drives it forward, parts of it becoming generic Euro-No-Country, intent on looking like the best and sharpest and slickest version of nowhere in particular.




The last time my mother died, the final time - as she would have said, ‘une fois pour toute', once and for all - I was in Tenerife. She didn't speak much even when she was alive, so was certainly not going to waste the little she had to say on last words. So I had to make them up, not the words so much as the movement of lips. Because even alive she was hard to read, as abrupt and closed as her father, but more tortured. She was a whole ocean's worth of storm clamped inside an oyster.  

One of the sad thoughts I manufacture is that I am trying to hear her speak but, like in a bad film, the words and the movements of the mouth are out of synch. In the scenario I've constructed - her trying to say her last things to me - it causes me terrible anxiety, and I try to align her lips with the words she's speaking. It takes so much effort that I forget to hear the words themselves, and I'm not even sure they are words and in what language. I've had this often with dreams of dead people: they are saying something and I can't make it out, and so I get closer and closer, only to find it's a dark and ashy language, all muffled, and so low it's almost a growl. If those are the last words, I think to myself (my dream self thinks to itself), I'm not sure I want to hear them.  

I could perhaps trace this dream to the fact the she spoke French and was always ill at ease with English. But even that doesn't explain it, because we spoke to each other in French always. Really the dream is about distance. In my dream she speaks, and the words overlap with the lips and then the lips outpace the words. There's the feeling of something lost in the crevasse, and it's all to do with time, with aligning two sets of moments, and I know that if I don't align them I will never hear, let alone understand. But maybe that is all she has to say anyway, all she wants me to understand: the crevasse. What she has to say she will show, not tell.  

That anxiety, a tiny trace of it, remains whenever I watch dubbed programmes. Bathos, I know, but today I saw an episode of Columbo in Dutch, and had that same feeling of a narrow but deep chasm between the mouth and the words, the aftertwitch of lips which have outstayed the words they spoke.  

My mother needed subtitles more than she needed dubbing.  

Of all the poems I've ever written, this is the one I didn't.




One of the most evocative confusions occurred with the passage of my father's favourite expression - ‘to piss in your chips' - into French. For years I heard ‘pisser dans ses frites' used about people who had messed something up or rashly harmed their chances of getting a job or earning some money, or snaring a bride or a groom. In short, people who had shot themselves in the foot. Since I had only ever heard it in French, I thought it wasn't just a French term but a Belgian one; and not just a Belgian one but a Bouillonnais one, part of the heritage patois everyone trafficked in, and dovetailing very neatly with the town's culinary landscape. If anyone, anywhere, was going to be pissing in their chips, it would be us, here. I heard my grandparents, aunts and uncles and even our neighbours use the expression, until ‘Pisser dans ses frites' belonged in my mind to Bouillonnais and to Bouillonnais only. Only much later, testing it out on some young Arlonnaises in my early teens, did I realise that the phrase was in fact my father's exotic Geordie import that had grafted itself onto the Bouillonnais branch and briefly flourished there among people who took chips seriously and for whom the expression seemed so well-designed that it was impossible to imagine it being anything other than theirs. In truth, I had simply caught it for the length of its brief life in our language, and though I try sporadically to revive it in Bouillon or plant it further afield in the French-speaking world, all the dictionaries assure me it never existed.  

And yet... it seems an oversight here, in this country whose great symbols are the Manneken Pisse, the only world tourist attraction that is smaller than the souvenirs that replicate it, and the ‘baraque à frites', the chip stall. A combination of the two would surely become, in turn, the very symbol of national disaster. ‘T'as b'en pissé dans tes frites là, vieux!': ‘You've well and truly pissed in your chips there, mate'.




At my Metro stop, Bourse/Beurs, there is a bedraggled violinist who plays the same Lloyd Webber song, ‘Time to Say Goodbye', all day. All day? Or just whenever I pass? This is the question the buskee asks of the busker: is it with me or him that the responsibility for this repetitiveness lies? It may be his only song, because even at night when I stop to eat in the Grand Café, I can hear him grinding it out. For the first time I've found myself liking it, because the sound is so abrasive and matt and dirty, and the bow so harsh on the strings you'd think it was serrated, that the playing seems to de-kitsch the song stroke by stroke. It's as if he's scraping the tune off his instrument.  

It sets me off thinking about the busker's repertoire, and how it needs to be defined by the audience's passing. None of us stops and listens the way, say, we might if we were dawdling in the Grand' Place or the Galeries du Roi, if we were flâning around town. This busker is immune to his own tedium, and I wonder if he even listens to what he is playing as the people flow or, usually, seep, past him. His eyes are closed, his fingernails rimmed with filth, his violin case never has more than a few coins in the velvet folds of its lining.                                                                           




I wake up one morning with the belief that there must be a Hôtel des Deux Mondes in Brussels. Why think this I don't know. I have a lingering sense that I once arranged to meet someone for a drink there twenty years ago, but when I stepped out of my then house, in Woluwe Saint-Pierre, and confidently took the Metro into the city centre, I got there and found that the place I had always thought was the Hotel de Deux Mondes was in fact called something else. I waited there for two hours, on the off-chance that the person I was due to meet had made the same mistake, right down to the wrong hotel, which would have been, or quickly become, the right hotel if we had met each other there. They never turned up, and we had both got the wrong  wrong hotel.  

Back then it seemed to me to be a oversight on the part of Brussels not to have a Hotel des Deux Mondes, since so much of the City is based on dualities: from the street signs down to the very street names, from the announcements on trains and Metros to the menus, banknotes, parking tickets and receipts. Many street names are not even translations of each other any longer, but doubles. First the same streets had the same names, just in two languages. In those days one plus one equalled one. Now the same streets have different names in two languages. One plus one equals, as it perhaps always did, two. So Brussels was missing a trick by going so long without a Hotel des Deux Mondes. I had forgotten the incident completely until now, and when I looked it up on the internet I found one Hotel des Deux Mondes in Mauritius (that can't have been the one I was supposed to rendez-vous at) and the title of a play by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, a French novelist and dramatist who lives in Brussels and took Belgian nationality in 1999, long before it became the done thing for French people to come here for tax reasons. A tenuous link, but it's something. I read the play in the bookshop in Galerie des Princes, and it fits the bill: the Two Worlds Hotel is a place between life and death, connected to both by a lift, and the hotel guests, who don't know where they're going or how they got there, mill about outside going over their failures and successes before the Bellhop shows them into the lift and they leave the lobby. From this résumé, it sounds an awful lot like Sartre's Huis Clos, but I can assure you it's better and more humane and funnier. And there's always the lift, which is a kind of exit, whichever button you press. And, because it's a lift, there may even be some music.                                                                           




A long walk through Saint Gilles, a place I'd always thought I'd buy a flat, if and when I could afford to. It's a Sunday, I'm hung over physically (from drink and bad food) and morally (from bad things I said). The world, or at any rate Saint Gilles, repays me today: it makes me slow and behave like a loser, causes me to take the wrong tram, to hesitate too long when the right tram arrives and thus miss it, and when I go into three different cafés and install myself at a table, I am ignored by every single waiter. I have no presence, just a dragging, transparency of person and aura. Others are served, but I am invisible. In the Maison du Peuple, the Café de l'Union and the Saint Gilles, the waiters don't just pass me by, they pass me through. I try to read, but of course I can't do that for long because I'm trying to catch their eye, snag the corner of their vision, so I'm not really reading either, caught in a zone of fraught barely-there-ness, trying to look poised and indifferent to whether I'm served or not. This is the same look I have when, later, I see a bus back to Sainte-Catherine that I should take; it stops, unloads its passengers, and here again I hesitate, not wanting to run (which would undoubtedly have got me to the doors in time), and yet walking with a frantic lope which I hope hides my need to catch the bus while ensuring that I do. It doesn't and I don't, and the bus moves off without me. I lope on for a few metres, intent on showing that it wasn't really the bus I was after but something else. The closed couscous restaurant a few doors down, perhaps? Why such self-consciousness when no-one can see me?       



Brussel. Een essay in melancholie (fragmenten)

Op een dag zal ik schrijven over hoe Brussel nooit een bestemming is geweest zoals Londen, Parijs en Madrid bestemmingen zijn. Het is een stad van gedenkplaten: niemand woonde of verbleef in dit of dat huis; men logeerde er, was op doorreis, op de vlucht voor, op de vlucht naar...

De stad echoot dat, is zich daarvan bewust, in die kramp die haar almaar voortdrijft en haar zichzelf doet vergeten. En die sommige wijken doet transformeren tot een generisch Euroniemandsland, vastbesloten om eruit te zien als de beste, de scherpste, de geliktste versie van nergens in het bijzonder.


Aan mijn metrohalte, Bourse/Beurs, staat een verfomfaaide violist die de hele dag lang hetzelfde nummer van Andrew Lloyd Webber speelt, ‘Time to say goodbye'. De hele dag lang? Of enkel wanneer ik er passeer? Dit is de vraag van het straatpubliek aan de straatmuzikant: ligt de verantwoordelijkheid voor die repetitiviteit bij mij of bij hem? Misschien is het zijn enige repertoire, want zelfs als ik 's avonds voorbijloop om te eten in het Grand Café, hoor ik het hem krassen. Het is voor het eerst dat ik het nummer kan appreciëren, want het klinkt zo schurend, futloos en vuil, de boog strijkt zo ruw over de snaren dat je zou denken dat het een zaag was. Met elke haal van zijn strijkstok haalt de violist de kitsch uit het lied. Alsof hij de melodie van zijn instrument schraapt.

Het zet me aan het denken over het repertoire van de straatmuzikant, en hoe dat gedefinieerd moet worden door het publiek. Niemand van ons blijft staan en luistert zoals hij dat zou doen als hij aan het lanterfanten zou zijn op de Grote Markt of aan het flaneren in de koninklijke galerijen. Deze straatmuzikant is immuun voor zijn eigen eentonigheid, en ik vraag me af of hij zelf wel luistert naar zijn spel terwijl de mensen langs hem heen stromen of - meestal - druppelen. Zijn ogen zijn gesloten, zijn nagelranden vuil, in zijn met velours beklede vioolkist liggen nooit meer dan een paar muntjes.


Op een ochtend word ik wakker met de overtuiging dat er in Brussel een ‘Hôtel des Deux Mondes' moet bestaan. Waarom ik dat denk, weet ik niet. Ik heb het vage gevoel dat ik daar twintig jaar geleden eens met iemand had afgesproken. Maar toen ik mijn toenmalige huis in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe uitliep en de metro naar het stadscentrum nam, kwam ik tot de vaststelling dat de plek waarvan ik altijd had gedacht dat ze ‘Hôtel des Deux Mondes' heette, een andere naam had. Ik wachtte er twee uur, in de hoop dat degene met wie ik had afgesproken dezelfde fout zou maken en naar het verkeerde hotel zou komen, wat dan het juiste hotel zou zijn, of dat snel zou worden als we elkaar daar hadden getroffen. Hij daagde nooit op, we waren allebei naar het foute verkeerde hotel gegaan.

Het leek me toen onachtzaam van Brussel om geen Hôtel des Deux Mondes te hebben, aangezien zoveel in deze stad is gebaseerd op dualiteiten: van de verkeersborden tot de straatnamen, van de aankondigingen in treinen en metro's, tot de menukaarten, bankbiljetten, parkeer- en kassatickets. Veel straatnamen zijn niet eens vertalingen van elkaar. Aanvankelijk hadden dezelfde straten dezelfde namen in twee talen. In die dagen was één gelijk aan één. Nu hebben diezelfde straten verschillende namen in twee talen. Eén en één is twee, zoals dat misschien altijd al was in Brussel.

Brussel miste iets, zonder een Hôtel des Deux Mondes. Ik was het voorval helemaal vergeten tot nu, en toen ik het opzocht op internet vond ik één Hôtel des Deux Mondes op Mauritius, (dat kan niet de plek zijn geweest waar ik had afgesproken), en een toneelstuk van Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, een Franse romancier en toneelschrijver die in Brussel woont en in 1999 de Belgische nationaliteit aannam, lang voordat die gewoonte om fiscale redenen onder de Fransen opgang begon te maken.

Het verband is flinterdun, maar het is tenminste iets. Ik las het toneelstuk in de boekhandel in de Prinsengalerij, en het is perfect toepasselijk: het Hotel van Twee Werelden is een plek tussen leven en dood, via een lift verbonden met beide. De hotelgasten, die niet weten waar ze heengaan of hoe ze daar gekomen zijn, dwarrelen er rond, tobbend over hun successen en mislukkingen, tot de piccolo de lift voor hen opent en ze de lobby verlaten. Zo samengevat lijkt het verdacht veel op Sartres Huis clos, maar ik kan je verzekeren dat het beter is, humaner en grappiger.

En er is altijd die lift, die een soort uitweg is, welke knop je ook indrukt. En zoals je dat vaak hebt met liften, is er misschien zelfs een streepje muziek.


Een lange wandeling door Sint-Gillis, een wijk waar ik altijd een flat wilde kopen zodra ik me dat kon veroorloven. Het is zondag, ik heb een kater, zowel fysiek (door de drank en het slechte eten) als moreel (door de onaardige dingen die ik heb gezegd). De wereld, of tenminste Sint-Gillis, zet me dat vandaag betaald en maakt een trage loser van me, die de verkeerde tram neemt, te lang aarzelt als de juiste tram arriveert en hem dus mist, en zich aan een tafeltje installeert in drie verschillende cafés om door alle obers straal te worden genegeerd.

Ik ben niet aanwezig, ik ben maar een dralende schim, of een aura. Anderen worden bediend, ik ben onzichtbaar. In het Maison du Peuple, het Café de l'Union en Café Saint-Gilles lopen de obers me niet gewoon voorbij, ze lopen door me heen. Ik wil lezen, maar dat lukt me niet erg omdat ik hun blik wil vangen, een plaatsje wil veroveren in de hoek van hun oog. Dus ik lees niet echt, ik zit opgesloten in een beladen bijna-aanwezigheid. Ik probeer er evenwichtig uit te zien en een air uit te stralen van volkomen onverschilligheid over of ik nu bediend word of niet. Diezelfde pose neem ik aan wanneer ik later een bus naar Sint-Katelijne zie die ik zou moeten nemen. Weer aarzel ik, onwillig om te rennen (wat me ongetwijfeld op tijd bij de deuren zou hebben gebracht), maar toch een verbeten snelwandelpas inzettend, waarmee ik hoop te verhullen dat ik de bus wil halen, maar hem toch haal. Het lukt niet, de bus vertrekt zonder mij.

Ik been nog enkele meters voort, om te benadrukken dat niet de bus mijn doel was, maar iets heel anders. De gesloten couscoustent enkele deuren verder misschien? Waarom zo'n zelfbewustzijn als niemand me kon zien?  

Vertaling: Veerle Vanden Bosch 

Passa Porta
4.02.13 > 25.02.13

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