Spring 2019–Winter 2020

Sentences / All Kinds of Obscure Tensions

Samuel Beckett amid the ruins

Brian Dillon

“Sentences” is a new column by Brian Dillon each installment of which examines the mechanics and style of a single sentence chosen by the author.

What was important was not our having penicillin when they had none, nor the unregarding munificence of the French Ministry of Reconstruction (as it was then called), but the occasional glimpse obtained, by us in them and also, who knows, by them in us (for they are an imaginative people), of that smile at the human condition as little to be extinguished by bombs as to be broadened by the elixirs of Burroughes and Welcome,—the smile deriding, among other things, the having and the not having, the giving and the taking, sickness and health.
—Samuel Beckett

I have in front of me on my desk a small booklet of postcards with a crumbling brown cover and diagonally printed title: “Saint-Lô / Capitale des Ruines / 5 et 7 Juin 1944.” Saint-Lô is a city in Normandy, capital of the Manche and, after Cherbourg, the second largest city in the department. During the Second World War, Saint-Lô became an organizational center and transport hub for the German army, and when the Allies invaded in June 1944, the town found itself directly south of two D-Day landing points, the beaches named Utah and Omaha. On the 6th of June, American planes began attacking Saint-Lô, killing 800 people on the first night and leveling most buildings in the city.

The postcards show Saint-Lô before and after it was bombed, starting with a general view of the prewar city across the river Vire, with the church of Notre Dame in the upper left, rising over bristling rooftops and trees. On the second postcard, there are perhaps a couple of roofs and gables still intact, most of the buildings have vanished, the trees are a few needling black Giacometti stumps, though the church looks untouched. (It was not.) Here is the sunlit Hôtel de Ville: the tall door half open, three floors of classical columns and curtained windows, surmounted by a clock—it is almost eleven in the morning. And over the page the same building: roof gone and with it the clock, while upper windows open onto daylight. The blackened facade looks ashamed of itself. Prewar Notre Dame, with its off-center clock, its placid environs empty but for three tiny figures—then in 1944 it’s as if the church, half standing, has vomited into the Place Notre Dame and toward the camera, disgorging more rubble than the building could possibly contain. Streets and squares no longer streets or squares, everything empty and pale and reduced to fragments you could hold in your hand. It looks like any other bombed-out town or city of the war, all particulars now turned abstract. About Saint-Lô, people said that even the rubble was rubble.

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