objets / objects
In the eyes of a lover, everything the beloved touches and owns becomes an extension of the beloved’s body. Within Letter’s narrative of unrequited love between two characters, is another between their objects. How much of love has to do with encountering, possessing and losing objects?
She had a white bow in her hair as she sat in Ahmed’s kitchen. I remembered this object as part of Amal’s image before I knew her name or her story. Amal’s image in my memory was associated quite profoundly with this minute accessory and not very much more outside a collection of objects that I associated with the film such as brocade dresses, window shutters, and a handwritten letter. I did not realise that after this scene in the kitchen, just before Amal’s evening with Ahmed, the ribbon would fall out of her hair. Even though she encountered Ahmed the same night as she was in his kitchen eavesdropping, the loss of her bow tinkered with my memory of the film’s narrative sequence and timeline; I recalled these events as separate and disconnected. Objects can play a vital role in how we remember a story.
In each Letter story, the woman encounters the man’s collection of objects before meeting him in person. It is through these encounters that she develops an admiration for his collection and arguably begins to anticipate her love for him. She begins know the man by studying his collection of objects. Could a love of objects be the same as loving the other person? By tracing the different kinds of encounters with objects that occur in the stories between the characters, readers and viewers, Letter appears as a love affair based on the encounter, love and loss of objects.
The two main characters of each story have a collection of personal objects. From fine art to musical instruments and books, the man is surrounded by a luxurious collection that flaunts his wealth, status and education. Each man has a degree of notoriety, artistic ability, mobility and his affluence affords him the affections of many women, who in the Letter stories often remain nameless. The unknown woman, however, owns and offers fewer objects. The disparities between their collections affect how each character sees and remembers the other. Throughout her life she does not leave a trace of herself for the man save two objects; these have commonly included flowers and a handwritten letter. The first is both ephemeral and perennial: the man receives a fresh bouquet on his birthday every year and gradually anticipates their arrival annually. The second is a narrative that offers an explanation of this perennial mystery that I argue, rewrites the man’s own personal history. I divided the objects of Letter into two categories: the first category includes objects of encounter that spark the woman’s love affair with the man. The second are objects of remembrance that the woman uses to enter the man’s scope of memory by offering him a view of what he has missed or lost.
1. Objects of Encounter
We can see a curious Amal in Cairo Letter (1962) caressing the ornate furniture laid out on the pavement in front of a building. She plays a few keys of a piano as she walks to discover a large painting of Ahmed leaning on a pillar. Amal excitedly rushes to Ahmed’s manservant Ibrahim, who is overseeing the movers, and we can assume he confirms the famous musician’s residence next door. Following her introductory narration, Lisa peers into a moving van as a large harp is being offloaded amidst an array of other sculptures, musical instruments and furniture on the street. Her mother calls her inside as a piano is being hauled up a spiral staircase on a pulley. Lisa ascends to her apartment, which is adjacent to Stefan’s new home. As Jiang walks in the courtyard, she sees rows of chairs, furniture and stacks of books strewn upon in front of the house adjacent to hers. The manservant is dusting each individual book, which catches Jiang’s quiet attention. Before her encounter, the young teenager of Vienna Letter (1922) mentions, “Even before you yourself came into my life, there was an aura around you redolent of riches, something out of the ordinary, of mystery” (Zweig 12). She is similarly confronted by a vast repertoire of literature and art that exceeds anything she owns. In all these different scenes, the man’s objects operate like an encyclopaedia of another world, one that each young character is unfamiliar with and upon first sight, is fascinated by. “I would have loved to feel the soft leather of many of their bindings. I only glanced shyly and surreptitiously at their titles; there were French and English books among them and many languages that I didn’t know” (17-18). These collections shape how each woman sees his world, his interests and activities as well as the world beyond him. Preceding their first meeting, each woman develops a relationship with the man’s collection before her physical encounter with him. In his analysis of Ophuls’ film, George Wilson refers to a moment in Lisa’s first narration where she mentions that everyone has two birthdays, one that is a physical birth and another of consciousness. He writes, “This is the birth of Lisa’s consciousness and that consciousness is already focused, through the marvel and mystery of his belongings, upon a man she has not even seen” (Wilson 1126). This circumstance poses a curious question: are the objects an extension of the man or is the man an extension of these objects she encounters?
Each woman’s love for the man is triggered after falling in love with his collection as an inquisitive child. As Barthes notes in A Lover’s Discourse, “Every object touched by the loved being’s body becomes part of that body, and the subject eagerly attaches himself to it” (173). Is love diffused differently in Letter? The woman loves the object before she meets the man; he becomes the beloved body as a result of the woman loving his objects and speculating their function in his life. These first encounters with his collection become her objects of study and she is able to begin to wonder about what the man knows and does by what she sees, reads and hears. “From the loved being emanates a power nothing can stop and which will impregnate everything it comes in contact with, even if only by glance” (173). As Barthes references the story of Werther, who “unable to go see Charlotte, sends her his servant, it is the servant himself upon whom her eyes have rested who becomes for Werther a part of Charlotte” (173). Everything the loved being comes into contact with is also made part of their body. The woman’s fascination with the man’s collection in Letter triggers her interest to find the man to perhaps, love him as an extension of these objects. Each Letter story results in a pregnancy, to take Barthes’ term literally, that is both intellectual and physical. Each woman pursues a study of the man’s possessions but also become physically pregnant with the man’s child.
Each man specialises in a different artistic practice in either music or writing that range in cultural significance and historical relevance. While Ahmed is a famous yet frustrated Egyptian singer and musician in the 1960s and Stefan is a prominent Viennese pianist who eventually gives up his practice in the early 1900s. Xu is a well-known journalist and writer in Beijing in the 1930s during the Japanese invasion who speaks different languages, notably English. While in Zweig’s 1922 novella, R. is a renowned Viennese novelist we can speculate lives sometime in the early 1900s. Each work of art proffers a different kind of experience through listening or reading, not only for the women but the reader and viewer. On screen in Cairo Letter (1962) and Vienna Letter (1948), music is a way of connecting to the viewers and listeners inside and outside the film. Farid Al Atrache’s performances offer a new soundtrack of songs for his fans in 1960s Egypt and Stefan’s practice of Liszt’s famous piano étude in D Flat major also referred to as Un Sospiro, the first tune Lisa and the viewer hears him play, becomes the film’s musical score and love theme. In his analysis of the musical layering of Ophuls’ film Alexander Dhoest mentions, “The principal melody of this étude comes to signify “Stefan,” as it is repeated on several occasions” as part of Amifitheatrof’’s score” (Dhoest). As Ahmed performs different musical tracks that are both embedded in the film’s narrative and also extend beyond as popular songs. Stefan’s theme on the other hand, is woven as something that is in and of the film. The works of the two writers are more hidden as our insight into Xu’s reporting comes from commentary in the film, and R. we can only perceive through declarations made by the woman in her letter such as, “I know every line of your books by heart” (Zweig 30). We have no way of accessing these records like we do the music of the other two men.
The different encounters trigger a range of interests in each character. Wondering about the identity of the man after the arrival of his effects, Lisa hears Stefan play Un Sospiro for the first time outside his window and runs into him. She immediately confesses in her narration that after meeting him she was in love and proceeds to learn more about music and dance. As a child Jiang practices her handwriting after seeing Xu writing through his window, and as a college student she reads all of Xu’s articles. Amal, who knew of Ahmed’s fame prior to his move next door, listens to his music, follows his news, and buries herself in her studies to finish school, in order to return to Cairo. She also becomes a valuable employee in an insurance firm almost unconsciously and effortlessly. In Vienna Letter (1922) the woman mentions that “I was suddenly top of the class, I read a thousand books until late into the night because I knew that you loved books… I suddenly began practicing the piano with stubborn persistence because I thought you also loved music” (19). In relation to Ophuls’ film “Letter from an Unknown Woman: The Double Narrative,” Robin Wood asserts that, “Far from being the sentimental, and sexist, story of a woman who nobly sacrifices herself for the redemption of an unworthy man, Letter is the story of a woman driven to the vicarious realisation of her own frustrated creativity” (Wood 11). Through the encounters with the different collections, each woman studies the artistic practices of their beloveds in a way that in turn, triggers their own.
After brief physical encounters with the men or after period of observation from afar, such as in Cairo Letter (1962), each woman finds different ways to access the man’s collection by entering his apartment while he is absent. These interventions offer the women insights into the intimate quarters of the men and their collections. The unknown woman in Vienna Letter (1922) catches a glance of R.’s apartment by helping Johann carry inside a carpet he was struggling with. “It was only a fleeting, stolen glimpse of your life… now I had nourishment for never-ending dreams of you both waking and sleeping. That brief moment was the happiest of my childhood” (Zweig 23). This moment of encounter is a way of feeding her imagination, to create stories through the objects in her mind from a closer point of view. Amal narrates how she grew tired of her distance, and envious of his furniture’s proximity to him. She tosses a pillowcase into his adjacent balcony and goes over to request entrance to retrieve it. Once inside Amal manages to see and feel the furniture, his piano, see his portrait and arrange his flowers. After helping John carry a rug to Stefan’s apartment, Lisa furtively keeps her foot in the door and sneaks in to see the harp, piano and various sculptures he owns. Jiang assists the manservant by helping him carry a lush golden duvet from the courtyard clothing line into Xu’s bedroom. As the servant straightens the duvet over crumpled bed sheets, Jiang wanders briefly to survey and touch his shelves of books and inspects one particular porcelain figurine of a woman, a dancer, in European dress. Xu is a traveller, dresses in European clothes, and his first words to Jiang are in English when he first bumps into her as a child, saying “sorry”. As Sarah Artt mentions, Xu’s “possession of European clothing and decorative objects, as well as mastery of English, signifies a new global mobility in twenty-first-century China” (Artt 178). Jiang develops a “sensual relationship with European objects for their proximity [to] her lover...objects that remind her of her devotion and hint at the world beyond what she has experienced” (Artt 178). In this way, Xu is a gateway to a world Jiang is curious about but her sensual relationship with him and his objects also turns her into an object for Xu, one he must come to realise he has lost.
2. Objects of Remembrance
The man is a collector of many different kinds of objects that in turn affects his ability to remember. He also has many amorous encounters with numerous women that include the women of Letter. These encounters are often fleeting as the women become interchangeable. How can the unknown woman invoke herself in his memory? It is through a precise selection of objects the woman offers that she is able to shake the foundations of his collection of objects and dispersed memories. These objects include two primary objects: flowers and a handwritten letter while in some cases this also includes enclosed photographs. Flowers appear in each Letter story as a mysterious object that the man encounters regularly. Before Amal tosses a pillowcase into Ahmed’s apartment, we see her toss a carnation flower on to his balcony after she waters her plants. In addition to this, she also sends flowers to Ahmed on his birthday. Cairo Letter (1962) begins with the receipt of a fresh bouquet with the addition of a letter. The fresh flowers at the start of the film seem to also foreshadow Amal’s survival at the end of the film. In the other instances wilting flowers such as in Vienna Letter (1948) or an empty vase in the others, allude to a break or end in the routine. The appearance or disappearance of flowers forebodes the death of the women. The appearance of white roses occurs in Vienna Letter (1948), Beijing Letter (2004), and Vienna Letter (1922). During their evening together, Stefan purchases a single white rose, rather than his usual red, for Lisa from a female vendor he seems to visit frequently with other women. He asks her “Did I guess right? Is it your flower?” (Wexman and Hollinger; Screenplay 81). After she accepts the white rose as a symbol of her night with him, Lisa carries this symbol through to her last encounter with him when she visits Stefan’s apartment with a bouquet of white roses. When she realises he does not remember her she departs discreetly, leaving the flowers behind. Jiang and the unknown woman of Vienna Letter (1922) both send roses on the man’s birthday as mysterious senders, while it is not clear if Amal’s flowers are roses since they are not distinguished. It is the empty blue vases in Beijing Letter (2004) and Vienna Letter (1922) that cause a particularly haunting echo. After reading their letters, Xu and R. realise the years they have tacitly accepted and expected to receive flowers have stopped indefinitely and seeing the empty vase affirms the legitimacy of the letter’s words.
The flowers orchestrate a theatre of fleeting encounters in the background of the man’s life that finally reaches a climax with the creation and delivery of the letter. Unaware that the flowers were reminders of something and someone he had forgotten, his reading of the letter builds connections between his encounters and his objects that he was previously unaware. After studying and encountering the man and his collection from afar, the women have managed to splice, remix and create a work of art in the form of narrative, to offer the man. As Lester Hunt notes about Lisa, as I mentioned earlier, “This function of assembling elements drawn from experience in such a way as to give them meaning as a whole is one way to describe what an artist does” (Hunt 62). The women become artists who are able to reassemble what they have encountered into a new form guided by their subjectivity. With the exception of Cairo Letter (1962), the women offer the object of the letter instead of themselves as a way of refusing possession unless it is through a sore recognition of loss. Remaining unnamed, and unknown, this loss is unidentifiable; the woman could be any number of the women the man has slept with and could potentially represent all of them that he has seen as interchangeable. Haunted with what is not longer there and irretrievable, the women become a shadow of a collection; a collection of lost objects. Received after death, the letter narrates the loss of both the woman and the child, which is also the loss of his own personal understanding of his past to the woman’s subjectivity and his future with the loss of his son.
+ April 2015
Thesis chapter excerpt pp. 71-80