The Living Rooms

Andrew O'Hagan

There was a tenement flat in the Glasgow of my youth that seemed haunted to me. I’m speaking of a time before I knew how it is people not buildings which become haunted, and walking down West Princes Street three times a week I would stop at a certain corner and look up to find the yellow window at 15 Queens Terrace. I suppose I must have been nervous in those days, uncertain, to an uncertain degree, whether I’d ever cope in the adult world, but the light in the tenement flat made me frightened of ghosts. It made me realise that absence was just another presence.

On 21 December 1908, beyond the yellow window, an elderly spinster called Marion Gilchrist was murdered in her dining room and a brooch was stolen. In what was understood by Conan Doyle and others to be a case of rank anti-Semitism, a down-at-heel Jew called Oscar Slater was arrested and later convicted of the murder on circumstantial evidence. Some claimed to have seen a man ‘like’ Slater running from the house in a hurry at the time of the murder. In fact, people more often described seeing another man, and those who testified against Slater later admitted they were pressured to give the evidence they gave. Slater was also condemned for seeming guilty and for having a pawn ticket for a brooch about his person, though the item represented by Slater’s ticket was lodged at a date before the crime was committed. Slater appeared to have some sort of doppelganger, so did his conscience, so did his belongings. The case was fascinating, but I have to say it was the house that summoned the mysteries for me: we like to think that bricks have memories, that windows are eyes or the retinas of eyes, and the flat in Queens Terrace came to seem to me like a repository of hidden truths about human nature. It was a museum of the uncanny.

The same feeling struck as I approached 14 Walden Street, the home of the family Schneider. The black front door and weathered bricks made me realise very quickly that I was looking at a contained narrative, a deeply embedded work of suggestion and memory and wonder, and putting the key into the lock I imagined, among other things, that I was opening Priest’s great book. There was an immediate sense of the basement, whose windows had peeped onto the street as if embarrassed - certainly shy - of what remains below. The atmosphere of the basement crept into every area of the Schneider houses, and in the hall of number 14, with its poor English light and brown panels, one felt that the world had suddenly been sucked into a void at one’s back with the closing of the door.

Proust wrote that dreams and reality are made of the same substance. The kitchen made me think so. I saw the woman at the sink and saw the window in front of her, the window shining out like a vision of the future, and the woman seemed almost to belong there, surrounded by her things, her plates, her cutlery, a tin of air freshener. I didn’t want to impede her or disturb her in any way and I didn’t want to reason with her. I simply wanted to experience this woman standing at the sink washing dishes with a circular motion of her left hand. She seemed so real and so alive with contemplation in that small room smelling of Fairy Liquid.  

One doesn’t feel with the family Schneider that one is seeing ghosts - no, one feels that one is a ghost oneself, haunting these people in the middle of their heart-breaking routines. When I finally came before a mirror in the Schneider house I half-expected not to see myself reflected; I felt I floated from room to room, seeing but not being seen. Someone once described Waiting for Godot as a play in which nothing happens twice. The Schneider project is like that, a nothingness that one inhabits twice over, and on each occasion you discover a core strangeness about yourself that must be the signature feeling for ghosts. The houses did not frighten me straightforwardly: they made me realise that I myself am capable of being the cause of fear, like a voyeur in the guise of an intruder, like an actor in a nightmare.

The living room had no people in it, but it had the threat of life: a two-seater sofa, a glass table with a doily under the ashtray, a framed picture turned to the wall. Was that glasses in the corner cupboard, waiting for some small, efficacious, social event? Was that two bags of shopping left on the floor under the television set? And was that a couple of paperbacks, or did I make that up? On leaving the houses behind, I found that I hadn’t left them at all: these dwellings were dwelling in me, and I kept adding things I was sure I had seen there. Class means many things in Britain -- a certain way of speaking, a certain attitude towards debt -- but when it comes down to it class is an inventory of objects. The doily under the ashtray is a piece of evidence; the books, if they existed, are evidence too; the patterned rug is a dead give-away: these unspeaking people are caught in the middle of their lower-middle-class lives, and each room offers a narrative of limited aspiration. This is just another element, though, for the main force of the Schneider houses is philosophical. I realised that as I stood in the living room and looked at the fireplace: there is nothing in life so cold as a cold fireplace. 

Gregor Schneider is a poet of the ominous. His work gives new meaning to the term 'life-threatening’. When people use that phrase they usually mean that something poses a danger to life, but Schneider might use it differently, for his work suggests that life itself is a threat, an ominous activity, and that living is a desperate act of repetition where one breath must follow another in a seemingly involuntary drama of survival. In the middle of life itself we are stranded. Going up the stairs in each house, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the appearance of weak lighting on gloss-painted doors. If the dead sing lullabies, I heard one just then, and I thought of James Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, the part where Gretta is standing on the stairs being watched by her husband, just as she listens to an old song coming down from a room overhead: ‘He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter...

A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fire of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls’ tender fire. In one letter that he had written to her then he had said: ‘Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?’

This is, among other things, an expression of desire. On the first floor landing of 14 Walden Street -- and again at number 16 -- you hear water trickling in the bathroom, and stepping into that room you find a man hunched under a weakling shower, his back turned, and you see by his movements that he is masturbating. A cake of green soap sits on the washbasin beside a half-squeezed tube of Colgate toothpaste. Like a fresh new chapter in a novel of desire, the sight of the the man prompts you to enlarge the story: is this the dishwashing woman’s husband? What’s the relationship between the woman’s domestic glare into the middle distance and this man’s not-entirely-happy-seeming posture in the shower? Connecting the routines, you find yourself embarrassed, for what is more embarrassing than being a spectator to the incidentals of other people’s loneliness? Standing there, eyeing the green soap, I thought what a prison we make of our inventories. 

Herr Schneider knows enough to make the viewer, the participant, the visiting ghost, enter into dialogue with his or her own domestic past, and the results are neither cosy nor forgettable. I swear there was something murderous in those houses. From the gloss paint-work, the locked doors, the efforts at comfort which only conveyed discomfort -- coal fires, convector heaters, a gas fire, and central heating, in each of the houses -- one felt that there was something in the atmosphere that was both terribly familiar and deeply grotesque.

We might call it the mythic strain. We might call it the force of the uncanny. Why does the story of Peter Pan get so perfectly under our skin, if not because of its mythic power, the fact that the germ of its psychology (the demand to live forever in childhood) is so embedded in us? Why do the stories of missing persons chime so deeply with what we know about ourselves, if not because of its uncanny force, the fact that we all exist with the fear of not existing at all. What is it about The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, if not that its mythical, uncanny strangeness already has a place and a language in our conscience, so that its argument comes to us not as a matter of persuasion but as a test of recognition? This is also how we respond to the mythical large canvases of Mark Rothko: we recognise them; we accept them for what they are. For me, walking into the bedroom of the Schneider houses, particularly the first one, was like walking through a door into an exact moment from my own past, and knowing, when I arrived, that this room had been waiting for me, unchanged, unbidden. 

This must have been the 1970s. The whiteness of the room is a Kays Catalogue version of the fashion of the period: Nova Magazine, space-age interiors, ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. A furry rug lies across the bed. The wardrobes are mirrored and ample for storing unworn dresses and for reflecting back each night the (one feels) uneventful story of the residents’ love-life. A small heater is whirring on the white carpet: the heat is cloying, unnatural. In the corner a small person sits under a bin-liner. I don’t know if this is a child, but I tell myself it is, a child like so many other children, hiding away from adult secrets. At first I assumed the small person must be dead, but he or she is breathing. What is happening in this house, I asked. The power of the piece is to make you create narratives for these images to occupy. I saw a small pipe sticking out of one of the stairs and I paused to consider whether the child wasn’t gassing the parents, in the manner of the boy in Patrick McGrath’s masterpiece of English gothic, Spider.

I don’t suppose so. I don’t suppose anything. There was a changing mat against a wall and a stair-gate at the top of the stairs: somewhere a baby must exist, but the room at the top is locked and there is no baby-joy or baby-feeling, just a sort of overwhelming despair at the idea of absence. Are not all ghosts in a sense private investigators? I stepped to the basement and realised, as I said before, that this was the centre of the house, a darkened subconscious with patterned wallpaper, no windows, and very few items with which to furnish a story, which itself might furnish a story. 

In the Glasgow tenement of my youth, the one where Oscar Slater was supposed to have killed the old lady, the quality that made the place resonate so darkly was the element that might be called Dostoyevsky. Even 70 yeas after the event, the apartment seemed to radiate with a heat of conscience; and its brickwork, its unknowable rooms viewed by a boy way down on the street, bore witness to the working-out of a double life, Oscar Slater’s, who either travelled up the stairs those years ago and beat an old spinster to death and stole her broach, or who was never there at all, and whose absence from the scene is another life for him, one that we imagine with as much drama and pathos and clarity as the other. 

The double life is not only Raskolnikov’s, but that of each person who reads Crime and Punishment. Likewise, the double life was not only Oscar Slater’s, but that of myself as a boy looking up at the windows of 15 Queens Terrace. The power of the Schneider project comes with the experience of going from one house to the next, which is a copy of the first but not exactly. It is like seeing two consecutive Hamlets with the same props and sets but different actors -- the words are the life -- or like seeing a run of Warhol Marilyns, where we look to minor differences in the printing process to glean some sense of originality. 

Nightmares rely on duplication the same as commerce relies on multiples; it’s an essential part of their manufacture. Since childhood, I have had a nightmare about numbers, about accumulating figures, and I remember vividly waking up in bed with a damp forehead and a head full of digits, knowing that the only way to calm down was to count backwards to zero. I have come to see this dream, which has never gone away, as a sort of crisis-drama about individuality: it is a rather Scottish nightmare, a Jekyll and Hyde sort of dream, in which the threat of multiple selves spins madly away from the personable zero. I have never been convinced that anything -- or anyone -- can simply be one thing, and so the Schneider houses, 14 and 16 Walden Street, seem immediately to me to confirm a modernist fear and a large hunch about personhood. We are not entirely ourselves. Or, as Arthur Rimbaud said: ‘Life is elsewhere’. 

Life is next door, perhaps, or staring back at you from the summit of your own bed. In The Double, the young Dostoevsky prized open a truth about himself and about Russia which only grew more true with time, with language, with imagination and memory. Golyiadkin comes back from a harrowing trip to his doctor to discover something strange within the dark, smoke-begrimed walls of his little room. The translation is by Constance Garnett: ‘The stranger, also in his coat and hat, was sitting before him on his bed, and with a faint smile, screwing up his eyes, nodded to him in a friendly way. Mr. Golyiadkin wanted to scream, but could not - to protest in some way, but his strength failed him. His hair stood on end, and he almost fell down with horror. And, indeed, there was good reason. He recognised his nocturnal visitor. The nocturnal visitor was no other than himself - Mr. Golyiadkin himself, another Mr. Golyiadkin, but absolutely the same as himself - in fact, what is called a double in every respect.’ Then there is the question of performance. I have already said how the Schneider project makes ghosts of its spectators, and I further suggest that we are performing ghosts when we walk through those rooms. We are ghosts and the sons and daughters of ghosts. We are, after all, surrounded by actors, and though the atmosphere of the houses encourages us to forget that fact, we nevertheless wander up the stairs like people in a movie, waiting for a shock or a sudden action. Like the Hamlet I mentioned before, we may wander through the spaces suffering a crisis of conscience, not quite knowing if that is Claudius wanking in the bathroom whilst Gertrude washes the dishes, feeling paralysed when it comes to knowing what our own performance should be.

Die Familie Schneider has the feel of film noir and the mythical denseness of German Romanticism. It has the surreal nostalgic beauty of Joseph Cornell’s boxes and a sculptural sense of form. But what remains, apart from some mysterious self-amplification for those who go through the byways of those silent halls? Well, images remain, and they remain in duplicate. The cold fireplace. The weak light on the gloss-painted doors. The green soap in the bathroom. The heating appliance at the feet of the concealed child. In the second house I noticed a piece of peeled plaster on the underside of one of the stairs. It was shaped like Australia, and, seeing it, I remembered that a bare-patch on plaster or on wallpaper always looks like a country to a child’s eye, and I wanted to go back again and see if it was there too in the first house. Yet I couldn’t go back. My visit with the Familie Schneider was over, and I couldn’t return except through the long and duplicate corridors of my own memory.


About Andrew O’Hagan 

Andrew O’Hagan is the author of the novels The Missing, Our Fathers, Personality and Be Near Me, which won the 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize award for fiction. He is a winner of the James Taut Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and his work has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a Whitbread Award, and, in 2003, he received the E.M. Forster Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This year saw the publication of a non-fiction collection, The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America; as well as O’Hagan’s edited selection of Robert Burns's poems for Canongate, published as A Night Out With Robert Burns.