Emilien Bernard: Aside from Antoine Volodine, whose work I know you appreciate, are there other contemporary French writers you’re passionate about?
Eric Chévillard: The list would be too long and I would have to cite some friends. But I was recently impressed by Fragments de Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges. A remarkable book, masterful from start to end and yet totally backwards, full of digressions and glissades. I’m afraid it didn’t receive the welcome it deserved, which says a lot about the state of criticism and the incuriosity of readers. Such a book illustrates, though, what literature can be when it is fully comprehended. It seems to me that such a high ambition would have sooner been recognized in former eras. But the enormous contemporary laziness before this ample and generous book will have once again only noted its weight and size.
— from a 2008 interview with Eric Chévillard (my translation)
I have no doubt also been remiss in failing to observe here the English-language publication of Fragments of Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges, translated by Gregory Flanders. Here is a book teeming with intellectual farce and madcap encyclopedism that, in the year since its English-language publication in January 2017, has eluded the notice of every traditional outlet for bookish criticism.
Part of my own hesitation to herald the book’s publication was due to my expectation that said heralding would occur elsewhere. I imagined that, once Senges had effectively made his English-language debut with such an ambitious work, six hundred pages of zany erudition and irreverent jokes (and this just one month after the publication of my translation of Senges’s The Major Refutation) — well, I imagined that some publication or publications with a considerable readership would herald, yes, herald Senges as the next brilliant French writer in a long line of brilliant French writers. (In 2009, François Monti had insinuated that Senges was French literature’s “best-kept secret,” for instance.) But this has not come to pass. Neglect has been the fate of many brilliant writers, no doubt.
Only a few independent bloggers and a handful of adventurous readers seem to have noticed the book’s publication, either at their blogs or at GoodReads. Reviewing the book from galleys, the Complete Review called the book “dizzyingly entertaining, very funny […] the best sort of literary fantasy, and an entertaining satire of (so-called) literary scholarship.” Likewise, The Modern Novel appreciated and recommended the book, as “a brilliant pastiche of both literary researchers and of Lichtenberg himself. It is is thoroughly original, incredibly inventive, very learned and very funny.”
I was tempted at times to don my reviewer’s cap and proselytize for the book myself, but I demurred, and I still demur: having translated many of Senges’s words, and two of his books, I know that I’m far from impartial. Nor do I think myself capable in this instance of impassioned advocacy, perhaps veering into rant territory. Anyways, the season of the book’s publication — as well as of that of The Major Refutation‘s first appearance — has long passed.
And so I will leave the reader with just the following eyebrow-lifting passage from the book, one of my favorites. Perhaps it will incite some of you to track down this nonpareil tome.
P.S. In no way would I wish to downplay the power of blogs and bloggers to register and influence literary reception; but I do make a distinction between one-person venues (writer, editor, and publisher being the same individual) and venues where the indulgence and efforts of at least two people are required to publish an article. But why do I? I suppose I cling to the belief, or the hope, that the literary ‘establishment’ will take note of good work. Perhaps a little more cynicism is called for.
“Proposal: a series of regional research and cultural projects—attack each region—using students, locals, natives, whatever—and from every angle, every scholarly discipline, every mode of expression. In the end, for each region, produce a book, and an arts festival.”
U.S. Dept. of Interior, Paul Metcalf 1980
Edward Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (New Directions, 1950), pp. 40:
One day, Ephraim Bedlam, the water-drinker and raw carrot and celery philosopher, who always smelled like musk or gymnasium sweat, tweaked me on the cheek, asking, “Have you seen any human beings lately?”
From Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (1951):
“Are Americans really stupid?” I was asked in Warsaw. In the voice of the man who posed the question, there was despair, as well as the hope that I would contradict him. This question reveals the attitude of the average person in the people’s democracies toward the West: it is despair mixed with a residue of hope.
During the last few years, the West has given these people a number of reasons to despair politically. In the case of the inteIlectual, other, more complicated reasons come into play. Before the countries of Central and Eastern Europe entered the sphere of the Imperium, they lived through the Second World War. That war was much more devastating there than in the countries of Western Europe. It destroyed not only their economies, also but a great many vaIues which had seemed till then unshakeable.
Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural. The houses he passes on his way to work seem more like rocks rising out of the earth than like products of human hands. He considers the work he does in his office or factory as essential to the harmonious functioning of the world. The clothes he wears are exactIy what they should be, and he laughs at the idea that he might equally well be wearing a Roman toga or medieval armor. He respects and envies a minister of state or a bank director, and regards the possession of a considerable amount of money as the main guarantee of peace and security. He cannot believe that one day a rider may appear on a street he knows well, where cats sleep and children play, and start catching passers-by with his lasso. He is accustomed to satisfying those of his physiological needs which are considered private as discreetly as possible, without realizing that such a pattern of behavior is not common to all human societies. In a word, he behaves a little like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, bustling about in a shack poised precariousIy on the edge of a cliff.
His first stroll along a street littered with glass from bomb-shattered windows shakes his faith in the “naturalness” of his world. The wind scatters papers from hastily evacuated offices, papers labeled “Confidential” or “Top Secret” that evoke visions of safes, keys, conferences, couriers, and secretaries. Now the wind blows them through the street for anyone to read; yet no one does, for each man is more urgently concerned with finding a loaf of bread. Strangely enough, the world goes on even though the offices and secret files have lost all meaning. Farther down the street, he stops before a house split in half by a bomb, the privacy of people’s homes — the family smells, the warmth of the beehive life, the furniture preserving the memory of loves and hatreds — cut open to public view. The house itself, no longer a rock, but a scaffolding of plaster, concrete, and brick; and on the third floor, a solitary white bathtub, rain-rinsed of all recollection of those who once bathed in it. Its formerly influential and respected owners, now destitute, walk the fields in search of stray potatoes. Thus overnight money loses its value and becomes a meaningless mass of printed paper. His walk takes him past a little boy poking a stick into a heap of smoking ruins and whistling a song about the great leader who will preserve the nation against all enemies. The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.
He finds he acquires new habits quickly. Once, had he stumbled upon a corpse in the street, he would have called the police. A crowd would have gathered, and much talk and comment would have ensued. Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions. The man who fired the gun must have had his reasons; he might well have been executing an Underground sentence.”
Translated from Polish by Jane Zielonko. (Pp. 24-26 in the Vintage, 1990, edition)
E. Dahlberg, The Flea of Sodom (1950):
“Then I bought a chair, trundling it in a wheelbarrow along 7th Avenue. I recalled how Crates insulted whores to discipline himself, and to reprove froward flesh, I passed out cards on which was written, ‘For the frog drinking-water, for the snail cabbage and thyme, but for a rebuke nobody’. A newsvendor considered me so droll I had diarrhoea three days.”
Embarking on a 10,000-word article on Metcalf yesterday, or today, and re-reading his first published work, Will West, you re-read that paragraph that gobsmacked you when you first read it & suppose to yourself that even though Will West is a rather inferior work of art it nevertheless contains what might be the most cogent and necessary formulation of Metcalf’s credo, manifesting itself in his subsequent body of work year after year:
It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves from the past that are really dangerous in the present because we are only partly here our eyes are blind because our appetites are turned inward or backward chewing on the cold remnants of our inheritance of our facts of our history to try to find who we are what we are where we came from what is the ground we stand on to whom does it belong and did it belong. We are dangerous because when we come out of the past we are rich with its energies and poorly experienced in the business of daily living and we hurl ourselves across the present with the blind fierceness of a martyr or a convert defending our damage to the defenseless with a language they cannot understand a language created from false concepts of time of history of past present and future. In the end we will bring to the world nothing useful and although we may find what we have been and even what we are nevertheless for all our search the heavy helpless stumbling of men born in quicksand we will never know what we have done.
A chilling admonition, and timely as ever. Lest we be ignorant of our past or our country’s past. (Come to think of it, is this just a transparent gloss on Santayana’s old adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? Damn.)
“They killed the President today so they let us out of school early. They shot him while he was going from a building to his car. I didn’t like him but he was the President so I should feel said they said at school but I don’t really. The new President is the guy everybody always makes fun of.”
from Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) by Jack Womack, p. 66
“France tolerates extremes of heterodoxy and outrageous behavior because it knows that ultimately no one will be harmed: the life of the nation will scarcely be touched. The avant-garde formed first in France because there was an artistic tradition of defiance, and it has lasted longer there because the country as a whole has only reluctantly taken to heart the lessons of its own most venturesome talents. France is innoculated against itself. In the United States, any active avant-garde is so rapidly absorbed by the cultural market that it scarcely has time to form and find a name. Like the profound stability of the ocean beneath its waves and storms, there is a great reservoir of indifference and conservatism in the French which has sustained a dynamic culture.”
– Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire (Vintage, 1968), pp. 42
(Whether this is true anymore today, who knows; I doubt it. Roger Shattuck’s excellent book appeared in 1955. I have resumed work on a reflection on Satie which I began long ago and found this in my notes, and I thought of you.)
“In Luria’s field work, requests for definitions of even the most concrete objects met with resistance. ‘Try to explain to me what a tree is.’ ‘Why should I? Everyone knows what a tree is, they don’t need me telling them’, replied one illiterate peasant, aged 22. Why define, when a real-life setting is infinitely more satisfactory than a definition? Basically, the peasant was right. There is no way to refute the world of primary orality. All you can do is walk away from it into literacy.”
– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 53
“Early charters conveying land in England were originally not even dated, probably for a variety of reasons. Clanchy suggests that the most profound reason was probably that ‘dating required the scribe to express an opinion about his place in time,’ which demanded that he choose a point of reference. What point? Was he to locate this document by reference to the creation of the world? To the Crucifixion? To the birth of Christ? Popes dated documents this way, from Christ’s birth, but was it presumptuous to date a secular document as popes dated theirs? In high technology cultures today, everyone lives each day in a frame of abstract computed time enforced by millions of printed calendars, clocks, and watches. In twelfth-century England there were no clocks or watches or wall or desk calendars.”
– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 96
“Texts can be felt to have intrinsic religious value: illiterates profit from rubbing the book on their foreheads, or from whirling prayer-wheels bearing texts they cannot read. Tibetan monks used to sit on the banks of streams ‘printing pages of charms and formulas on the surface of the water with woodcut blocks.'”
– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 92
“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”
– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 14
A third sign of his decaying faculties was, that he now lost all accurate measure of time. One minute, nay, without exaggeration, a much less space of time, stretched out in his apprehension of things to a wearisome duration. Of this I can give one rather amusing instance, which was of constant recurrence. At the beginning of the last year of his life, he fell into a custom of taking immediately after dinner a cup of coffee, especially on those days when it happened that I was of his party. And such was the importance he attached to this little pleasure, that he would even make a memorandum beforehand, in the blank-paper book I had given him, that on the next day I was to dine with him, and consequently that there was to be coffee. Sometimes it would happen, that the interest of conversation carried him past the time at which he felt the craving for it; and this I was not sorry to observe, as I feared that coffee, which he had never been accustomed to, might disturb his rest at night. But, if this did not happen, then commenced a scene of some interest. Coffee must be brought ‘upon the spot,’ (a word he had constantly in his mouth during his latter days,) ‘in a moment.’ And the expressions of his impatience, though from old habit still gentle, were so lively, and had so much of infantine naïveté about them, that none of us could forbear smiling. Knowing what would happen, I had taken care that all the preparations should be made beforehand; the coffee was ground; the water was boiling; and the very moment the word was given, his servant shot in like an arrow, and plunged the coffee into the water. All that remained, therefore, was to give it time to boil up. But this trifling delay seemed unendurable to Kant. All consolations were thrown away upon him: vary the formula as we might, he was never at a loss for a reply. If it was said—‘Dear Professor, the coffee will be brought up in a moment.’—’Will be!’ he would say, ‘but there’s the rub, that it only will be:
Man never is, but always to be blest.’
If another cried out—‘The coffee is coming immediately.’—‘Yes,’ he would retort, ‘and so is the next hour: and, by the way, it’s about that length of time that I have waited for it.’ Then he would collect himself with a stoical air, and say—‘Well, one can die after all: it is but dying; and in the next world, thank God! there is no drinking of coffee, and consequently no—waiting for it.’ Sometimes he would rise from his chair, open the door, and cry out with a feeble querulousness—‘Coffee! coffee!’ And when at length he heard the servant’s step upon the stairs, he would turn round to us, and, as joyfully as ever sailor from the mast-head, he would call out—‘Land, land! my dear friends, I see land.’
– Thomas De Quincey, “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant”, 1827
(Bravo to Adelaide University for their wonderful collection of public domain eBooks, including a rich De Quincey treasure-store. This reader finds it appalling that so much of Thomas De Quincey’s writing, among the finest in the English language, has remained long out of print. Certain of his more well-known texts like Confessions of an English Opium Eater and The English Mail Coach and The Vision of Sudden Death remain ever in print, but what’s lurking beneath? Alas, we dig on still, spurning this vulgar age.)
Fly on over to Quebec Reads for a short translation from Julie Mazzieri’s Le discours sur la tombe de l’idiot that I did. It’s a bizarre and unsettling book, that’s for sure. Thanks to Peter McCambridge at Quebec Reads for publishing it and to Editions José Corti and the author, Julie Mazzieri, for granting permission to do so.
There are a great many gradations between words of everyday use and such as are not at all understood by the common people, and to the latter class may sometimes belong words which literary people would think familiar to everybody. Hyde Clark relates an anecdote of a clergyman who blamed a brother preacher for using the word felicity, “I do not think all your hearers understood it; I should say happiness.” “I can hardly think,” said the other, “that any one does not know what felicity means, and we will ask this ploughman near us. Come hither, my man! you have been at church and heard the sermon; you heard me speak of felicity; do you know what it means?” “Ees, sir!” “Well, what does felicity mean?” “Summut in the inside of a pig, but I can’t say altogether what.”
– In Growth and Structure of the English Language, by Otto Jespersen. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1905. P. 98.
“O fair Cynthia, why do others term thee unconstant, whom I have ever found immovable? Injurious time, corrupt manners, unkind men, who finding a constancy not to be matched in my sweet mistress, have christened her with the name of wavering, waxing, and waning. Is she inconstant that keepeth a settled course, which since her first creation altereth not one minute in her moving? There is nothing thought more admirable, or commendable in the sea, than the ebbing and flowing; and shall the moon, from whom the sea taketh this virtue, be accounted fickle for increasing and decreasing? Flowers in their buds are nothing worth till they be blown; nor blossoms accounted till they be ripe fruit; and shall we then say they be changeable, for that they grow from seeds to leaves, from leaves to buds, from buds to their perfection? then, why be not twigs that become trees, children that become men, and mornings that grow to evenings, termed wavering, for that they continue not at one stay? Ay, but Cynthia being in her fulness decayeth, as not delighting in her greatest beauty, or withering when she should be most honoured. When malice cannot object anything, folly will; making that a vice which is the greatest virtue. What thing (my mistress excepted) being in the pride of her beauty, and latter minute of her age, that waxeth young again? Tell me, Eumenides, what is he that having a mistress of ripe years, and infinite virtues, great honours, and unspeakable beauty, but would wish that she might grow tender again? getting youth by years, and never-decaying beauty by time; whose fair face, neither the summer’s blaze can scorch, nor winter’s blast chap, nor the numbering of years breed altering of colours. Such is my sweet Cynthia, whom time cannot touch, because she is divine, nor will offend because she is delicate. O Cynthia, if thou “shouldest always continue at thy fulness, both gods and men would conspire to ravish thee. But thou, to abate the pride of our affections, dost detract from thy perfections; thinking it sufficient if once in a month we enjoy a glimpse of thy majesty; and then, to increase our griefs, thou dost decrease thy gleams; coming out of thy royal robes, wherewith thou dazzlest our eyes, down into thy swath clouts, beguiling our eyes; and then——”
From Endymion, by John Lyly. (Euphuism wasn’t so bad, now was it?)
Further to last week’s post on translating punctuation, here are some thoughts on respecting an author’s punctuation, from a typographer’s point of view — this time via Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, an extraordinary work, of interest to many more than just typographers.
Under a section titled Treat the punctuation as notation, not expression, most of the time, we read :
Now and again the typographer finds on his desk a manuscript in which the exclamation marks and question marks stand six or nine together. Certain words may be written in bold capitals and others may be underlined five times. If the page has been written by hand, the dashes may get longer, and the screamers (exclamations) may get taller as they go. With sufficient equipment and time, the typographer can actually come close to reproducing what he sees; he can even increase its dramatic intensity in any of several ways. Theatrical typography is a genre that flourished throughout most of the twentieth century, yet whose limits are still largely unexplored.
Most writing and typography nevertheless remain contentedly abstract, like a theater script or a musical score. The script of Macbeth does not need to be bloodstained and spattered with tears; it needs to be legible. And the score of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata does not need bolder notes to mark fortissimos nor fractured notes to mark the broken chords. The score is abstract code and not raw gesture. The typeset script or musical score is also a performance in its way — but only of the text. The score is silent so the pianist can play. The script can whisper while the actors roar.
William Faulkner, like most American novelists of his generation, typed his final drafts. Noel Polk, a literary scholar and specialist on Faulkner, has prepared new editions of these novels in recent years. He found that Faulkner usually typed three hyphens for a long dash and four or five dots for an ellipsis, but that once in a while he hammered away at the key, typing hyphens or dots a dozen or more in a row. Polk decided not to try to replicate Faulkner’s keyboard jigs exactly, but he did not want to edit them entirely away. He evolved the rule of converting two, three or four hyphens to an em dash, and five or more hyphens to a two-em dash. Anything up to six dots, he replaced with a standard ellipsis, and he called for seven dots wherever Faulkner had typed seven dots or more.
These are typographic decisions that other editors or typographers might have made in other ways. But the principle underlying them is sound. That principle is: punctuation is cold notation; it is not frustrated speech; it is typographic code.
Faulkner, we can presume, did not resort to bouts of extravagant punctuation because he was unable to express himself in words. He may, however, have been looking for some of the keys that the typewriter just doesn’t have. The typographer’s task is to know the vocabulary and grammar of typography, and to put them to meaningful use on Faulkner’s behalf.
– Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, version 3.1, pp. 83-84 (Hartley & Marks, 2005)
The people of the Huns . . . exceed every degree of savagery. Since the cheeks of the children are deeply furrowed with steel from their very birth, in order that the growth of hair, when it appears at the proper time, may be checked by the wrinkled scars, they grow old without beards and without any beauty, like eunuchs. They all have compact, strong limbs and thick necks, and are so monstrously ugly and misshapen, that one might take them for two-legged beasts or for the stumps, rough-hewn into images, that are used in putting sides to bridges . . . they have no need of fire nor of savoury food, but eat the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any kind of animal whatever, which they put between their thighs and the backs of their horses, and thus warm it a little. They are never protected by any buildings, but they avoid these like the tombs, which are set apart from everyday use. . . . They dress in linen cloth or in the skins of field-mice sewn together, and they wear the same clothing indoors and out. But when they have once put their necks into a faded tunic, it is not taken off or changed until by long wear and tear it has been reduced to rags and fallen from them bit by bit. . . . They are almost glued to their horses. . . . From their horses by night or day every one of that nation . . . eats and drinks, and bowed over the narrow neck of the animal relaxes into a sleep so deep as to be accompanied by many dreams.
– Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 325 – 391 A.D.), quoted by Jacques Le Goff in Medieval Civilization, trans. Julia Barrow (Blackwell, 1988).
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I can feel
A whimsy in my blood. I know not how,
Success hath made me wanton. I could skip
Out of my skin now, like a subtle snake,
I am so limber. O! your parasite
Is a most precious thing, dropped from above,
Not bred amongst clods and clotpoles here on earth.
I muse the mystery was not made a science,
It is so liberally professed. Almost
All the wise world is little else, in nature,
But parasites or sub-parasites . . .
Lines lifted from Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or the Fox (III. i . 3-13).
We are now in a little town in Ohio. Here and there among the houses, which are certainly comical in their structure, all towered and pillared and trellised, like a child’s drawing of a hous, we saw strange, shell-like cellars extending deep into the earth. Our inquiries brought the information that these were originally designed as roasting pits for the preparation of human flesh. Upon consulting a history book, I learned that cannibalism was prevalent in the Middle West as late as 1924. These pits are now the scene of dog-baiting and cock-fighting. This region is up-to-date in the extreme: it is not at all unusual to see other sights in these diggings — women cohabiting with sheep, pigs, and dogs; men masturbating stallions with greased inner-tubes; surgeons performing cancer operations; local election rallies featuring the castrating and lynching of Negroes — all this is done to acquaint the public with a new cosmetic or tooth powder, or to open a new movie palace or church. I do not wonder that this state ranks second in the number of sons it has contributed to the White House.
– from Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight (New Directions, 1941)
Here is a page from Paul Metcalf’s Apalache (1976), to my mind one of the most beautiful books ever written. The work is available in vol 1 of Metcalf’s Collected Works, published by Coffee House Press, or alternately in an exceptionally handsome 1st edition from Turtle Island Foundation. (The page scan is from the latter.)
From Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium, (trans. Patrick Creagh), from the start of memo 2, on “quickness,” an exquisite anecdote:
I will start by telling you an ancient legend.
Late in life the emperor Charlemagne fell in love with a German girl. The barons at his court were extremely worried when they saw that the sovereign, wholly taken up with his amorous passion and unmindful of his regal dignity, was neglecting the affairs of state. When the girl suddenly died, the courtiers were greatly relieved — but not for long, because Charlemagne’s love did not die with her. The emperor had the embalmed body carried to his bedchamber, where he refused to be parted from it. The Archbishop Turpin, alarmed by this macabre passion, suspected an enchantment and insisted on examining the corpse. Hidden under the girl’s dead tongue he found a ring with a precious stone set in it. As soon as the ring was in Turpin’s hands, Charlemagne fell passionately in love with the archbishop and hurriedly had the girl buried. In order to escape the embarrassing situation, Turpin flung the ring into Lake Constance. Charlemagne thereupon fell in love with the lake and would not leave its shores.
Calvino glosses the legend (which he finds in a book of unpublished notes by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, in the Pléiade edition of the author’s works, 1.1315) thus: What we have here is a series of totally abnormal events linked together: the love of an old man for a young girl, a necrophiliac obsession and a homosexual impulse, while in the end everything subsides into melancholy contemplation, with the old king staring in rapture at the lake. Beautifully.
While I haven’t found Calvino’s fiction often to my taste, I would recommend this short book, Six Memos for the Next Millenium, to all and sundry.
My translation of Géometrie dans la poussière (Editions Verticales, 2004) will find a publisher, it’s only a matter of time.
For now I would invite you to check out a chapter excerpt published a couple weeks ago at 3:AM Magazine.
I would not envy the critic whose job it is to convey or describe Senges’ humor; attempts to parse humor are so rarely humorous. If I thought it were within my abilities, maybe I would not be translating Senges’ work, I would be happy to just describe it. But alas, some things were not meant to be.
From the recently published excerpt:
The role of animals in the city is, believe me, just as delicate a question: it takes diplomacy to understand and manage it, you can’t just open the gates of the royal menagerie and let the wildcats out willy-nilly, let out the jackdaws and sparrowhawks, the apes, the parrots, the carps and the camels, the salukis and the thoroughbreds which will constitute your patrimony. Distinction and a sense of harmony are in every circumstance vital to the accomplishment of our urban project…
Joanna Walsh selected it for publication, and it is accompanied by a drawing by Sarabeth Dunton. Thanks to Joanna, and to Gallimard who granted permission to excerpt the work.
Also, if so inclined, you can find a couple other of chapter excerpts from the same book at the Brooklyn Rail: chapter 1, and chapter 3. Or in print: a selection of four chapters (2, 12, 13, 14) was recently published in Sonofabook #2 (CB Editions).
Gorse is a Dublin-based literary journal that first came to my attention sometime last year.
I really love the visual appearance of Gorse. The distinctive geometric pastel motifs of its cover are super evocative, though I can’t say of what. There’s a strong grain or texture to the motifs, a certain way that the ink bleeds onto the paper of the original design that is utterly unique. Niall McCormack is the artist responsible behind that.
Noticing that Gorse had published literature in translation before (in issue 3, some poems by Thomas Bernhard, Hölderlin, and Georg Trakl, translated by Will Stone), this February I sent in a translation of a short piece of writing, ‘Façons, Contrefaçons,’ by Pierre Senges, who is one of my favorite authors. I am most grateful to editor Susan Tomaselli for selecting it, and for mailing me two contributor copies of Gorse #4.
I translated and had this text published for the same reason that I have translated other of Senges’s texts — because upon reading it (in les écrits #132, where it was published in 2011), I thought it was brilliant, and I wanted to be able to read the text in English. My French is good, but for any extended reading of a literary text, I must open a dictionary if I want to understand everything, or nearly everything.
Contrefaçons means counterfeiting or forgery, and the text is none other than a counterfeiter’s soliloquy addressed to a silent stranger – the reader – who shows up at his door at midnight, who is admitted entrance, and is – truly – given a counterfeit bill before being sent on his (or her) way.
I like to think that the playing card (bookmark) that was included with the first 150 individually numbered copies is the counterfeit bill our host plies us with. Also, I would note that this playing card seems to suggest an eventual reunion of either the contributors to issue #4 — voilà:
— or any number of possible combinations of players holding cards to make a full deck.
And just now, belatedly, I’ve noticed the overlapping, beguiling presence of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs in McCormack’s motif, all at the same time, or in alternating focus. The loose idea of this adjoins with Tomaselli’s far-roving editorial essay, ‘Wonder is Really Nothing,’ discussing Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, and various tangential matters.
I will never know exactly how many people eventually read “Making, Faking,” but it is probably some of the best exposure my writings/translations have yet enjoyed. Gorse is sold in fine bookstores. Unless you live in Ireland, you can get a copy of it shipped to you anywhere in the world, whether you’re in Uruguay or Singapore or Key West, for about €25.
From a translated excerpt from Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges published last month at The Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation series, readable online:
The paradox is: one wants to get lost in the city, take a chance, blindfold oneself, imagine forests (how one behaves in a forest, the behavior of the forest itself), but the city does everything to ensure that no one gets lost, despite little snares and misunderstandings (to fail to find one’s way, to chase after the bus: that’s not really what it means to get lost); even if one were to ask the landscape designers to construct cul-de-sacs and diagonal passageways, these attempts would be of no avail in view of the immense arrows posted at each intersection and the numerous maps posted at eye level, maps on which everything is distinct, of a terrible precision (there is a mark of Cain there, which the traveler never can escape, wherever he may go: a red ring encircling the words: you are here).
This is the second excerpt from Géométrie dans la poussière to appear at The Brooklyn Rail. The first chapter can be read here. Another translated excerpt will be online at 3:AM Magazine in coming months, as well as short prose texts by Senges at two other publications.
“In my youthful days, I never entered a great library, suppose of one hundred thousand volumes, but my predominant feeling was one of pain and disturbance of mind, — not much unlike that which drew tears from Xerxes, on viewing his immense army, and reflecting that in one hundred years not one soul would remain alive. To me, with respect to the books, the same effect would be brought about by my own death. Here, said I, are one hundred thousand books, the worst of them capable of giving me some pleasure and instruction; and before I can have had time to extract the honey from one-twentieth of this hive, in all likelihood I shall be summoned away. This thought, I am sure, must have often occurred to yourself; and you may judge how much it was aggravated when I found that, subtracting all merely professional books—books of reference, as dictionaries, &c. &c. &c. — from the universal library of Europe, there would still remain a total of not less than twelve hundred thousand books over and above what the presses of Europe are still disemboguing into the ocean of literature, many of them immense folios or quartos. Now, I had been told by an eminent English author, that, with respect to one single work, namely, the History of Thuanus, a calculation had been made by a Portuguese monk, which showed that barely to read over the words (and allowing no time for reflection) would require three years’ labour, at the rate of (I think) three hours a day. Further, I had myself ascertained that to read a duodecimo volume, in prose, of four hundred pages — all skipping being barred, and the rapid reading which belongs to the vulgar interest of a novel — was a very sufficient work for one day. Consequently, three hundred and sixty-five per annum — that is (with a very small allowance for the claims of life on one’s own account and that of one’s friends), one thousand for every triennium; that is, ten thousand for thirty years — will be as much as a man who lives for that only can hope to accomplish. From the age of twenty to eighty, therefore — if a man were so unhappy as to live to eighty — the utmost he could hope to travel through would be twenty thousand volumes,— a number not, perhaps, above five per cent, of what the mere current literature of Europe would accumulate in that period of years. Now, from this amount of twenty thousand make a deduction on account of books of larger size, books to be studied and books to be read slowly and many times over (as all works in which the composition is a principal part of their pretensions), — allow a fair discount for such deductions, and the twenty thousand will perhaps shrink to eight or five thousand. All this arithmetical statement you must not conceive to relate to any fanciful case of misery. No; I protest to you that I speak of as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed. And it soon increased; for the same panic seized upon me with respect to the works of art. I found that I had no chance of hearing the twenty-five thousandth part of the music that had been produced. And so of other arts. Nor was this all; for, happening to say to myself, one night as I entered a long street, “I shall never see the one thousandth part of the people who are living in this single street,” it occurred to me that every man and woman was a most interesting book, if one knew how to read them. Here opened upon me a new world of misery; for, if books and works of art existed by millions, men existed by hundreds of millions. Nay, even if it had been possible for me to know all of my own generation, yet, like Dr. Faustus, who desired to see “Helen of Greece,” I should still have been dissatisfied; for what was one generation to all that were past? Nay, even if it had been possible for me to know all of my own generation, yet, like Dr. Faustus, who desired to see “Helen of Greece,” I should still have been dissatisfied; for what was one generation to all that were past? Nay, my madness took yet a higher flight; for I considered that I stood on a little isthmus of time, which connected the two great worlds, the past and the future. I stood in equal relation to both; I asked for admittance to one as much as to the other. Even if a necromancer could have brought up the great men of the seventeenth century, I should have said, “What good does all this do me? Where are those of the twentieth century? —and so onward! In short, I never turned my thoughts this way but I fell into a downright midsummer madness. I could not enjoy what I had, — craving for that which I had not, and could not have; was thirsty, like Tantalus, in the midst of waters; even when using my present wealth, thought only of its perishableness; and “wept to have what I so feared to lose.”
Thomas De Quincey. “Letters to a young man whose education has been neglected; and other papers.” Pages 82-85.
In George Saintsbury’s History of English Prose Rhythm, the following excerpt from Hazlitt’s “Farewell to Essay-Writing”:
… In this hope, while “fields are dank and ways are mire,” I follow the same direction to a neighbouring wood, where, having gained the dry, level greensward, I can see my way for a mile before me, closed in on each side by copse-wood, and ending in a point of light more or less brilliant, as the day is bright or cloudy. What a walk is this to me! I have no need of book or companion—the days, the hours, the thoughts of my youth are at my side, and blend with the air that fans my cheek. Here I can saunter for hours, bending my eye forward, stopping and turning to look back, thinking to strike off into some less trodden path, yet hesitating to quit the one I am in, afraid to snap the brittle threads of memory. I remark the shining trunks and slender branches of the birch-trees, waving in the idle breeze; or a pheasant springs up on whirring wing; or I recall the spot where I once found a wood-pigeon at the foot of a tree, weltering in its gore, and think how many seasons have flown since “it left its little life in air.” Dates, names, faces come back—to what purpose? Or why think of them now? Or rather, why not think of them oftener? We walk through life, as through a narrow path, with a thin curtain drawn around it; behind are ranged rich portraits, airy harps are strung—yet we will not stretch forth our hands and lift aside the veil, to catch glimpses of the one, or sweep the chords of the other. As in a theatre, when the old-fashioned green curtain drew up, groups of figures, fantastic dresses, laughing faces, rich banquets, stately columns, gleaming vistas appeared beyond; so we have only at any time to “peep through the blanket of the past,” to possess ourselves at once of all that has regaled our senses, that is stored up in our memory, that has struck our fancy, that has pierced our hearts:—yet to all this we are indifferent, insensible, and seem intent only on the present vexation, the future disappointment.
– William Hazlitt, 1828
This post follows the previous day’s post “The Princess Collated (1 of 2).” Now, to compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves in its various translations…
Pictured: My copy of the Mitford translation and The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles, alongside the modern Flammarion edition of La Princesse de Clèves.
La magnificence et la galanterie n’ont jamais paru en France avec tant d’éclat que dans les dernières années du règne de Henri second.
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. (Buss, 1992)
The last years of Henri II’s reign saw a display of opulence and gallantry such as has never been equalled in France. (Mitford, 1950)
Note how Mitford reverses the sentence structure to improve it, and how she opts for an active verb structure (years | saw | object), whereas Buss uses a weak, passive one (… were displayed). The superlative structure jamais… avec tant d’éclat que becomes through Mitford such as has never been equalled. Compared to the slight awkwardness of Buss’s “At no time in…”, beginning on a negative (which, to my ear, sounds like a trial lawyer pleading a defendant’s innocence), Mitford’s phrase has a pleasant cadence and an appropriate elegance. Instead of magnificence and gallantry, which would be literal translations, from Mitford we get opulence and gallantry — a definite improvement. Buss’s translation has splendour and refinement, losing gallantry altogether.
(Yet anyone who had a historical understanding of French chivalric or even English chevalerie would be better off with gallantry I think — centuries of tradition and connotation reside therein! Knights wooing maidens, fighting Saracens, bearing heraldry, performing feats of valour to no end. Think of Buss’s poor, unsuspecting readers who don’t know what they’re missing !)
Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux ; quoique sa passion pour Diane de Poitiers, duchesse de Valentinois, eût commencé il y avait plus de vingt ans, elle n’en était pas moins violente, et il n’en donnait pas des témoignages moins éclatants.
The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite. (Buss, 1992)
The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. His passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, began when he was barely twenty, but was none the less violent for that, nor were the tokens she received of it any the less dazzling. (Mitford, 1950)
… This Prince was amorous and handsome, and though his passion for Diana of Poitiers Duchess of Valentinois, was of above twenty years standing, it was not the less violent, nor did he give less distinguishing proofs of it. (anonymous)
As with the first sentence, Mitford takes the liberty of freely altering the theme of the phrase, reordering clauses and building a totally new sentence. It’s an astonishing liberty she takes, and astonishingly successful. Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux becomes The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. (Did Mitford even working from the same text as Buss?! It seems doubtful for a moment. Perhaps not; there’s no mention of Henri’s dad, François I, in the original. The sentence becomes periodic, with three modifying clauses interceding — almost four — before we learn we are dealing with a great lover of women. Yes!
Comme il réussissait admirablement dans tous les exercices du corps, il en faisait une de ses plus grandes occupations. C’étaient tous les jours des parties de chasse et de paume, des ballets, des courses de bagues, ou de semblables divertissements
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation… (Buss, 1992)
He was remarkably skilful in physical exercises, and devoted much attention to them… (Perry, 1891)
He excelled at all forms of sport and much of his time was given up to it… (Mitford, 1950)
Note the lean, functional terseness of the Mitford — no comma even. But also note how Buss’s beginning with the word since (i.e., because? I can’t help but read it any other way) ineptly alters the sense of the phrase. It is absent from the original, but the addition subtly suggests a prince who only partakes of exercise since he’s not good at much else — we go from une de ses plus grandes occupations to the fatal his main occupation, how very boring this sounds in English!; and what an ungallant king who hardly does anything but play sports, because it’s the one thing he’s capable of doing well !; whereas Mitford easily paraphrases, much of his time was given up to it, not sounding dull, but relating information.
Nancy Mitford, ladies and gentleman. An amazing mind and an amazing body of work. Spend some time.
It’s hard to know why Penguin, who once published the Mitford translation in 1963 — and who knows what other years, go figure, at WorldCat — went on to publish what appears, judging from the first one or two paragraphs, to be an inelegant and somewhat sloppy, if not flawed and inferior, translation.
Mitford’s translation is currently published by New Directions, as are four other of her books in the NYRB Classics series.