On the one hand, it has been somewhat discouraging to see how little notice The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges has received from the anglophone press. A book this inventive, this daring, this original in its conception comes along but rarely, but rarely. I spent many months translating the book, and it was finally published last December, 2016. (The time of year when online outlets are vaunting their impeccable taste by amassing lists of the year’s most brilliant books – no coincidence there!) Being a naïve fool, I had high expectations for the book, the hope of securing a wide readership for it through some positive reviews. Well, in the ten months that have since elapsed, every outlet claiming to have its pulse on the world of translated literature, or of contemporary literature writ large – from World Literature Today to Words Without Borders to Asymptote to Lithub, or what have you – has failed to notice The Major Refutation. (Ditto for another extraordinary work by the same author, Fragments of Lichtenberg, translated by Gregory Flanders and published by Dalkey Archive a month after The Refutation‘s appearance. A conspiracy of silence? What has effectively happened is that a major contemporary author has made his debut in English while escaping the notice of every official outlet. This situation is more of a commonplace than I used to think.)
BUT…. on the other hand, the critical assessments for The Major Refutation have been astute and discerning. I am grateful to the book’s readers and reviewers, a few of whom I solicited. And so to allay my chagrin, and to incite my readers to seek this extraordinary book out, I would compile some of their praise and descriptions here.
* * * * *
“With a stirring echo of florid baroque language, The Major Refutation calls in the prominent personages of the day, and implicates the state, merchant bankers, and the Church in the creation and perpetuation of the myth of the new world.” – (roughghosts)
“… a glorious book about dupes & dupers.” – (Joseph McElroy, email correspondence)
“… a book of fictional invention masquerading as historical artifact, further masquerading as scholarly treatise. It never flinches, it has not one single tell that it is anything but what it appears to be: a 16th century work…'” – (Ronald Morton)
“… more ingenious and creative than most books being published these days […] It reads like something William H. Gass or Alexander Theroux may have written […] I enjoyed the outlandish erudition on display.” – (Steven Moore, correspondence + etc)
“I assume that everyone wishes literature were just vituperative rants saturated in scholastic detail, but devoid of characters, plot, and description. Voilà: The Major Refutation… The project itself, the skeptical assault on events we know to have been real, is genuinely discomforting. Readers of texts like this tend to pride ourselves on our skepticism and our doubting; here, the skepticism is gloriously productive of insults and scorn, and the insults and scorn are often well-deserved, but ultimately we, the readers, know that the skepticism was misplaced. Is ours, too, misplaced?” – (Justin Evans)
“… brilliant… very learned…” – (The Modern Novel)
“Don’t miss it; it is one of the Major Novels of ’17 […] seriously folks, any list of Novels of ’17 which don’t feature [Fragments of Lichtenberg or The Major Refutation], you can just tell that List to fuck off. Right here, this is what novels look like.” – (Nathan N.R. Gaddis)
* * * * *
Also, here is the publisher page (Contra Mundum Press), with a link to a substantial chunk of the text, readable now online.
I have 7,000 words of translation in Hotel #3, just published. If that ain’t good, I don’t know what is. Now, if only I could sell a publisher another project…
Check out the introduction I wrote; I explain in what ways Pierre Senges is ‘Borgesian’ and offer up an elliptical view of his work. It’s pretty good.
And right here is where you can buy the issue, with the 7,000 word translation. (Other contributors include the small-town upstarts Gordon Lish & Nick Cave?!)
J’ai fait de plus loin que moi un voyage abracadabrant
il y a longtemps que je ne m’étais pas revu
me voici en moi comme un homme dans une maison
qui s’est faite en son absence
je te salue, silence
je ne suis pas revenu pour revenir
je suis arrivé à ce qui commence
“L’homme Rapaillé: Liminaire,” Gaston Miron
Writing a translation, publishing a translation:
Hesitations and doubts play no small part therein, and not just before the piece goes to press… All truth told, I can’t read a translation I’ve had published without itching to revise (read: correct) it.
For this reason, I’ve begun to conceive of translation as a series of progressive revelations, with ever a film of impurity remaining on my eyes, akin to a cataract: a permanent, partial blindness (so irksome).
One irony is that some of the revisions or corrections I would introduce, I would just as soon repeal or overrule, one fortnight on. Though I earnestly seek it, I find no stable ground.
The first book I translated, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (La réfutation majeure, 2004) is at long last available for purchase from the publisher and many fine booksellers.
The full title is The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545). The publisher is Contra Mundum Press (on other occasions the publisher of Miklós Szentkuthy and lots of other interesting authors). Here is the publicity page at Contra Mundum’s website, where you will find a link to a free 25-page sample.
The better part of this book is essentially a Renaissance treatise addressed to Charles V. According to its author, the New World would be an illusory, non-existent land, the object of a collective fraud perpetrated by a coalition of cartographers, merchants and government actors, all greedy for gain. Sound familiar? Plus ça change…
It took a long time – many months, much worry over etymologies and syntax, a touch of my sanity; a willing editor/publisher; countless queries to the author, who encouraged me in my efforts. All that and much more. It took a special perversity, too, to refute the continent of my birth, and a special pleasure.
Is that journey over, now that the book is published? I think it stays with me. So many of its passages are seared into my mind. They are already starting to fade from memory. Then perhaps some years from now I will pick up the book, and remember the sentences anew.
The retail price of the book is $16 or $18 USD, depending on who you buy from. Give a copy to that special truther in your life. Ask your local librarian to acquire a copy. Tell your colleagues at work about it to make them suspicious. Read it for fun.
“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.)
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.
O how many have we seen in the court of princes, to whom it had been better for them that they had been no lordes of their will, & lesse of their desires, because sythens they did that they might & desired, begon to do that they ought not to do? If the man ye offendes vs ought to aske pardon, let euery man aske pardon to himself before any other, for in my life I found neuer none yt hurte me so muche as my self, I haue been only the procurer of mine own hurt. Who made me fall into pryde, but mine only presumpsion and fondnes? Who durste haue prisoned my sorowfull heart with enuye, but lacke of naturall gouernement? who durst haue inflamed myne inwardes with the fyer of yre, if it had not been my great impacience? what is the cause I am so great a gurmander, but that my bringyng vp was to delicate? what is the cause I haue not departed with my goodes to the poore and nedye, but the excessiue loue I had to my riches? who gaue leue to my flesh to rise against my folish desire, if my heart had not been fixed in voluptuous pleasures? O my soule, of all this domage & open faultes, to whom do you lay ye blame, but to myne owne sensualitie? Great folly it is, ye thefe beyng within the house, to seke for him without: euen so it is with vs a manifest faulte of experience, when seyng in vs the blame, and yet charge another with the occasion: by this we ought to perceiue that we shall neuer cease to complaine vntil the tyme we begyn to amende. Oh, howe often & many tymes hath vertue fought with the botome of our consciences, whiche stirred vs to be good, and our sensulitie resisted, whiche is vaine frowardnes, by the which battail folowed a darke corrupte judgement: but to conclude, we of oure selues as of our selues are very miserable.
Sunday and I am stricken with ennui. Thus this. Lines stolen from Antonio de Guevara’s A Looking Glass for the Court (a.k.a. A difpraife of the life of the Courtier, and a commendacion of the life of the husbandman, a second-degree translation of Menosprecio de corte y alabanza de aldea, 1539, Englished from the French translation of Anthony Alaygre by the “Vicar of Hell,” Sir Francis Bryan, 1548).
(Can some intrepid publisher publish this, please? (It would be nice to also see a translation of the never-before-Englished Arte de marear on the market, too. I’m not going to hold my breath.))
While working through successive drafts of my first book-length translation, I went back and forth at times about how to treat punctuation. There were some very long sentences containing commas, and at times I wanted to make them into semicolons. After discussing the matter with the author of the text I was translating and the publisher of my translation, I decided it was probably best to respect the original punctuation as much as possible.
It may be slightly more common in French than in English to string together independent clauses using a comma. That said, many native writers of English favor the comma over the semicolon, never or hardly ever using the latter, and also have no qualms about so-called run-on sentences. And conversely, many native writers of French make ample use of the semicolon. So, while there are some generalizations that can be made about the way native speakers of French and English use punctuation, I think nevertheless that the usage is not radically different. Individual authors may use punctuation idiosyncratically, and I think as a rule efforts should be made to respect original punctuation.
A case study: after checking out Go Figure by Réjean Ducharme (trans. Will Browning, Talonbooks, 2003) from the library today, I compared the first paragraph to that of the original.
Tu l’as dit Mamie, la vie il n’y a pas d’avenir là-dedans, il faut investir ailleurs. On le savait mais ça ne mordait pas. On avait le compteur trop enflé, les roues dentées ne s’engrenaient pas. On planait : c’est un état où on a beau n’avoir pas d’ailes on ne sent pas son poids d’enclume. On tenait à un fil. On ne tiendra plus à rien, c’est promis. Blottis dans le trou qu’on a creusé en s’écrasant, on a compris. On est plus doués pour s’ancrer. On ne risque rien à s’enfoncer un peu mieux en se serrant plus fort dans le lit du courant. Ça peut toujours s’emballer, en crue, en débâcle, on ne se fera pas avoir, ça ne nous en fera pas accroire.
You said it, Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it, but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing; the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings, we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore — that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle; we won’t let ourselves be duped; they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
The original uses no semicolons, whereas the English has three (each of them replacing a comma). He also converts a comma into an em dash, and adds in two new commas. (Actually, if you count the first sentence — “You said it, Mammie” — three.)
Right now I’m trying to gauge whether these changes are improvements for the reader. One thing is clear, which is that they weren’t necessary changes; the text would still be as comprehensible if the original punctuation had been respected.
Browning’s translation, if it followed the original punctuation to a T, would look like this:
You said it Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing, the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore, that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle, we won’t let ourselves be duped, they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
My point in writing this post isn’t to call out a noble translator, Will Browning (who has translated and continues to translate much of Ducharme’s work) for what I see as some egregious error. I don’t see the modification of the original punctuation so clearly as all that.
I understand that the fidelity of the translator is often a fidelity to the self-consistency of the translation, not just the original alone. And I also know that editors can be a little, oh, anal about punctuation. And that a translation is never just a literal transcription of a text. But I also wonder what it means to respect and stay faithful to an original.
I’m going to continue to reflect on this and, who knows, if we’re lucky I may post again soon on a related vexatious punctuation-in-translation topic: the dubious, idiosyncratic French colon.
If anyone wants to chime in as to their feelings about punctuation, I am all ears.
It’s a fact that books by women are translated and published less than books by men.
In honor of this fact, I would like to call some attention to some previous bibliomanic posts and articles I’ve written for other publications, all on the topic of books by women, written in French.
On Nelly Arcan’s Hysteric.
On Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends and Self-Portrait in Green.
On Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves.
On Anne Garréta’s Liquid Skies (not yet available in English).
On Marguerite Duras’s Ecrire.
“A Slightly Vain Exercise in Style,” by Pierre Senges, appears this month in print in Vestiges_02, in a translation by yours truly. You can purchase it now if you are so inclined at the above link. Lots of stuff in there. I haven’t seen the table of contents yet, just the list of contributors.
The anthology is themed around the topic of boredom, and it was something of a coincidence that I had a translation of “A Slightly Vain Exercise in Style” approaching completion when they announced the call for submissions. The fit is more or less perfect — when one feels bored, what better antidote than slightly vain exercises in style? Although, let me say, it is never boring to read Pierre Senges.
This piece really shows Senges at his best in short form, the freewheeling style, the impudence, the irony, the proliferation of allusions to the history of art and literature.
Sometimes, on Sundays, not having any mass to celebrate, nor to profane, no church in the vicinity to scandalize with his presence, no guests expected, no lunch to plan for Tuesday or Wednesday, nothing else to do, then, but find an outlet for his immense solitude, his eternal and majestic solitude of centuries past and the castle, Count Vlad Tepes of Romania, last name Dracula, used to give himself up to slightly vain exercises in style. Sometimes, in winter, along the coasts of the Black Sea, when the ice had frozen every river to its mouth and made even the water in the wells inaccessible, when the cold had sealed shut the door of his house, and bestowed on straw the rigidity of iron, when the snow piled waist high supposed immobility, when there was no choice but to stay in bed and revisit for the thousandth time memories of happy, sun-drenched Rome, exclusively inhabited by couples in love, Ovid used to give himself over to slightly vain exercises in style […] Every single day or nearly, after purging herself of commonplaces, of lies, confessions, jeremiads, idle gossip, repetitions, imitation, of speech, clichés, clichés of every sort, and of a certain naïve confidence in the power of her pen, Emily Dickinson used to give herself to slightly vain exercises in style.
I think Black Sun Lit has a really interesting aesthetic, and I’m glad to be in Vestiges again, alongside so many others. Last year they published my translation of Mallarmé’s long, typographically radical poem, “A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” in their inaugural issue, Vestiges_00. Check it out.
When my copy arrives in the mail I’ll post some snapshots. Looking forward to that day.
I thought of Aimé Césaire’s Solar Throat Slashed for some reason – how I love these lines:
As for me should they grab my leg
I vomit up a forest of lianas
Should they hang me by my fingernails
I piss a camel bearing a pope […]
(Lines taken from “Preliminary Question,” in Solar Throat Slashed: The Unexpurgated 1948 Edition by Aimé Césaire. Trans. A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman. Wesleyan University Press.)
Of the nouveau roman authors, I think of Michel Butor as being one of the most fascinating. Without really going into why (perhaps for another post, or who knows, maybe an eventual essay), I’d like to share some pics of the books of his I have in my library.
Not all of Butor’s books are entirely successful, they can be frustrating and strange to read, but I think they are all bold in their trying to do something that has probably never been done before. In other words, Butor is a very original writer. He never used the same method twice.
Here we see:
L’emploi du temps (1956) (translated into English as Passing Time)
La modification (1957)
Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (1967) (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape)
Let me say first of all that I have not read La modification or L’emploi du temps, though I have begun them and skimmed around a little.
Along with the steeple chase to insanity that is Degrees, Mobile is perhaps the book of Butor’s for which I have the most affection. The typographic splay and wild heterogeneity of the material incorporated into the text makes for a truly exhilarating, discombulating ride. If I’m not mistaken, the book was the product of Butor’s stay in America, during which time he toured the country extensively.
The tendency to collate disparate material, suggesting an impression of simultaneity or of parallel or tandem reading, is also present in Portrait of the Author as a Young Ape. (Before I looked at a dated bibliography, I mistakenly thought that this book predated some of the others in this collection. Not so.)
For now I also have Inventory, a collection of essays variously taken from the first 3 vols. of Répertoire, the 5-volume set of essays published by Editions de Minuit.
More on Michel Butor in another post, perhaps. Life calls.
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).
Among the translated books published in the US, French books are consistently in the lead — usually followed by German, then Spanish. There’s a lot of data there to explore in the downloadable translation database, maintained by Chad Post of Open Letter Books.
Anyways, one of the reasons French books are consistently in the lead is because the Cultural Services wing of the French Embassy does a great job of providing grants to subsidize French books into English. There exist a number of different grants, and, seeing as they were recently announced, I think it worthwhile to call attention to this round of grants. I’m happy to say that one of the books I am translating has been awarded a grant. But, beyond that, there’s certainly a lot of interesting titles here.
Click on the links to read short descriptions of each book at the FACE website.
Le crieur de nuit, by Nelly Alard, tr. Grace McQuillan
Puissance de la douceur, by Anne Dufourmantelle, tr. Katherine Payne
Travesti, by David Dumortier, tr. Ava Lehrer.
Reparateur du destin, by Cyrille Fleischman, tr. Lynn E. Palermo & Catherine Zobal Dent
Traduire comme transhumer, by Mireille Gansel, tr. Ros Schwartz
Bain de lune, by Yanick Lahens, tr. Emily Gogolak
Deleuze, les mouvements aberrants, by David Lapoujade, tr. Joshua David Jordan
Nous sommes tous des cannibales, Claude Lévi-Strauss, tr. Jane Marie Todd
Les Lumières de Pointe-Noire, Alain Mabanckou, tr. Helen Stevenson
Jean Renoir, Pascal Mérigeau, tr. Bruce Benderson
Lettre à Zohra D., by Danielle Michel-Chich, tr. Lara Vergnaud
L’Autre Portrait, by Jean-Luc Nancy, tr. Sarah Clift
Roland Barthes: Biographie, by Tiphaine Samoyault, tr. Andrew Brown
La Langue Maternelle, by Vassilis Alexakis, tr. Robert G. Margolis
La Résistance du sensible: Merleau-Ponty, critique de la transparence, by Emmanuel Alloa, tr. Jane Marie Todd
Plus loin qu’ailleurs, by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, tr. Hélène Cardona
L’Europe de Gutenberg: Le livre et l’invention de la modernité occidentale, by Frédéric Barbier, tr. Jean Birrell
Maurice Blanchot: Partenaire invisible, by Christophe Bident, tr. John McKeane
L’Événement anthropocène, by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, tr. David Fernbach
La Vocation de l’écriture, by Marc Crépon, tr. Tyler Williams & Donald Cross
La Maison Cinéma et le monde 1: Le Temps des cahiers (1962-1981), by Serge Daney, tr. Noura Wedell
Le désordre des familles, by Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault, tr. Thomas Scott-Railton
Faire semblant c’est mentir, by Dominique Goblet, tr. Sophia Yanow
Métaphilosophie, by Henri Lefebvre, tr. David Fernbach
L’énonciation impersonnelle, ou le site du film, by Christian Metz, tr. Cormac Deane
Compter et classer: Histoire des recensements américains, by Paul Schor, tr. Lys Ann Weiss
La réfutation majeure, by Pierre Senges, tr. Jacob Siefring
Carnets (1936-1947), by Victor Serge, tr. Mitchell Abidor & Richard Greeman
Esthétique du cinéma d’animation, by George Sifianos, tr. Jayne Pilling
Newly out and available for purchase: Sonofabook Magazine #2, published in Britain by CB editions! Four chapters from my translation of Pierre Senges’ Geometry in the Dust were selected for publication by Sophie Lewis, who guest edited the issue. Together we selected a good sequence of chapters that captures what the book is about. Alongside the translation a handful of Killoffer’s drawings are printed too; that’s good, because those drawings form an integral part of the book.
The issue also features work by Salim Barakat, Luke Carman, Julián Herbert, Adriana Lisboa, Emmanuelle Pagano, Taras Prokhasko, Pierre Reverdy, and Gabrielle Wittkop.
My latest published translation, Suite by Pierre Senges, is published today at The White Review. I am very grateful to Daniel Medin for including it in this third annual online translation issue. I am very happy with this publication, because I think The White Review has a wide readership, and I think that ‘Suite’ is a very powerful piece of prose.
And if you like that kind of thing, be sure to read these other translations of Senges I had published in 2014: Anything Goes by Cole Porter, Many Ways to Stuff a Watermelon, and chapters one and three of Geometry in the Dust. (And more in the oven!)
Why haven’t there been any sequels to Moby-Dick? It’s a question Paul Metcalf asked at the end of his life two decades ago:
In April 2015 it was announced that the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai was writing a novel about Melville in the aftermath of his writing Moby Dick.
A few months later in August Pierre Senges‘s latest book came out: a six hundred pager, giving us the sequels to Ahab: Achab (séquelles). Ahab (Sequels). It tracks Ahab as he makes his way back on land in New York, working small jobs and trying to sell his story of the whale to Broadway and then Hollywood.
After all these years…
Apart from having seen Hiroshima, mon amour once or twice back in the aughts (for which Duras wrote the screenplay), Ecrire (Gallimard, 1993) was my first encounter with the writing of Marguerite Duras. It’s an unusual book, not only in the way it begins without much in the way of a subject — the author/writer/narrator describing her solitude in an empty house in the Normandy countryside — but then in the way it consists of five very different and seemingly unrelated parts.
I found the first two sections by far the most interesting: “Ecrire” and “La mort du jeune aviateur anglais” (“To Write” and “The Death of the Young English Flyer”). But it was a passage of several pages in that first section, “Ecrire,” that was truly unforgettable. Duras’s narrator describes being in a house, waiting for a friend, and noticing the slow death of a fly over 20 or so minutes. The memory seems to come out of nowhere, as most all of the things she relates in those first two sections do; there is a strong sense of the haphazard and the arbitrary in the way she lets certain memories and thoughts speak, as if they were utterly foreign to her, as if they came from nowhere or from someone else. The tone is one of surprise, revelation, and discovery.
Anyways, the fly. The death of the fly. Duras imputes to the fly’s death a colossal significance. She seems sublimely aware that this verges on absurdity, if not comedy, but avows that, no, in fact, the fly’s death is death in whole, death in its totality, as present and significant as anywhere else on the globe. I read the passage with a feeling of awe and incredulity, wondering if that observation were not rich with irony. But no. It’s a staggering thought, made lucid by short, lucid sentences, a sustained reflection on solitude, and a sense of quiet patience.
The three shorter texts that come after “Ecrire” and “La mort du jeune aviateur anglais” were quite various, and not very memorable. I found it very hard to relate two of them to the rest of the book’s contents at all. This was a little frustrating, and I’m left wondering if I didn’t approach the book with the right mindset or patience. I was under the impression that the book was a unified work, and not, let’s say, an after-the-fact collection of various short pieces. At this time I’m not really inclined to even try to figure that one out.
Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was a dynamo of letters, and I look forward to reading more of her work, in particular La douleur (1985) and L’Amour (1971). Any other recommendations from readers, possibly yourself, are welcome.
In The Collagist this month is published my latest translation, “Anything Goes.” Go ahead, read it, because in this piece of writing, Pierre Senges ghostwrites for Cole Porter, some 75 years after the fact. The fun thing is that means I got to ghostwrite as Cole Porter in translating the text. The result is magnificent.
Let Cole’s sublime melody into your ears, he’s irresistible, the tune is coy and charming, it’s catchy, it’s…
The song is now finished: I could still go on talking to you about its lurching melody, folded back in upon itself, suggesting (with a little luck) the absurdity of the latest trends, but also the eternal return of stupidity, always the same; I want to tell you how this three-beat motif in a four-beat measure, gradually falling out of sync, falls back into time like Lady Mendl landing on her feet (I leave it up to you if you want to interpret these fantasies as an allegory for a period of initial liberation before a return to the fold). Time is all I lack, and it’s better to send you the lyrics: there you’ll find Puritans, mediocre novelists, cars barreling along, sudden fortunes and unjust failures, the best vintages in our glasses, patricians and female dancers, nabobs, gigolos, sex parties, fake connoisseurs, second-rate actors, and a great many hypocrites—and floating high up above this fine company, my voice installed on the highest perch (I swore a vow to irony when I gave up on my career as a crooner).
Links to many other of Senges’s short writings in English are collected at this blog’s Publications page. More coming soon. Thanks for reading.
“Many Ways to Stuff a Watermelon” is up at Numéro Cinq.
Pierre Senges explores the relationship of writers and fictional characters to libraries. It was hard to translate.
There are sections on Flaubert (Bouvard and Pécuchet), Casanova, Borges, Jean-Paul Richter, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Browne, Émile Borel, Cervantes, Sorrentino, Moby Dick, Diodorus, Réjean Ducharme, Aristotle, Miklós Szentkuthy.
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.
Some of Mallarmé’s personal library was being auctioned off at Sotheby’s, and I took this screenshot of one of the more expensive items, a manuscript version of Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.
It was sold recently for 963,000 Euros.
C’est beau, n’est-ce pas? Here’s an interesting passage:
There are a few other typographically interesting pieces appearing in the same volume, starting with the stunning cover:
And here is a rather beautiful page from M. Kitchell’s Dark Topographies:
(The typo escaped my awareness for a good long while as I admired it. That is a typo right?)
And here is a rather overwhelming shot of an excerpt from Chaulky White’s SSES SSES SSEY:
Anton Ivanov and Jared Fagen did a good job putting this together, needless to say.
I’m hoping to see more print publications like this. Print rules.
Somewhere in the ballpark of Borges, Calvino, Manganelli, and Szentkuthy, Pierre Senges writes texts that are stylistically acrobatic, audacious in their conception, and in constant conversation with countless literary-historical precursors. I was first introduced to some of his books in 2008, and I have since returned to them as a translator, starting in 2014. That blend of erudition and comedy that is so singularly present in his writings deserves a wider audience, I think.
As of yet, only a slim fraction of his work is available or known to anglophone readers. (2017 update: two of Senges’s books are recently available: Fragments de Lichtenberg from Dalkey Archive, trans. Gregory Flanders; and The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545), in my own translation.)
And it’s a little-known fact, I suppose, that technically speaking Senges’s writing has been available to read in English in book form since 2009. For The Adventures of Percival: A Phylogenetic Tale was published in two separate editions, French and English, with illustrations by Nicolas de Crécy.
As we wait to see more of Senges’s books brought into English, I have been publishing some of his work in various periodicals (with the necessary permissions, of course); excerpts from The Major Refutation and Geometry in the Dust have appeared in Hyperion and The Brooklyn Rail, respectively, and a number of short texts (ranging from 2,500-4,500 words) are up or forthcoming at Gorse Journal, Numéro Cinq Magazine, Hyperion, The Collagist, and 3:AM Magazine (links here). I also wrote an annotated bibliography of Senges’s books for curious English readers like yourself: “A Library of Imposture; or, a Short Annotated Bibliography of Pierre Senges’s Books.”
As for proper book-length publications, we’ll have to wait until next year — rights acquisitions, grants, contracts, all that is slowly falling into place. Otherwise, for now, I’ll leave you with this old miscellany I whipped together from existing sources. I think it presents a strong case for Senges’s work’s originality and why I find it so enjoyable and fascinating. Maybe you will too.
Looking for an adventure? Why not read The Major Refutation? Like no other book on this earth… Recommended for lovers of Robert Burton and Thomas Nashe.
“Ironic and rigorously autodictactic, Pierre Senges blazes a fairy-tale-like trail through the forest of erudition. A great admirer of Borges, he finds in the Great Library the sources for a multiform, savant, and joyous inspiration. He’s prolific, too: thirteen books in as many years, not to mention his numerous plays for radio, broadcast by France Culture and France Inter, in which he plays happily on the possibilities of radio.” (publisher’s bio)
“From 1994 onwards, Senges trades in his musician’s scales for those of the writer, developing paragraphs on paper, perfecting them, inventorying them, numbering them—not publishing for six years: “Technique in literature is not a bad word for me. It allows one to offer to others what would be, without technique, only obsession or madness.” […] He lived in Grenoble for many years. As for formal study, there was little to none. He was registered as a sociology student, but never set foot on campus: one of the most erudite French writers of his generation, one of the most talented in terms of composition and phrasing, is an autodidact. Maybe that’s why his encyclopedism isn’t at all pedantic: each book is an adventure that allows him to conquer all books, like a child, or a doe running through a forest.” (Philippe Lançon for Libération, 2008)
“I admit the word ‘Baroque,’ if by that you intend its broad, most common meaning: that which lets everything in, which prefers a curved line to a straight line, detour to destination, irony to distraught naïveté, and a certain inelegance in the multiplication of digressions.” (Philippe Lançon for Libération, 2008)
On Miklos Szentkuthy and the truly endless possibilities opened up through digression : “If I could imitate anyone, it would be Szentkuthy. He takes up literature in a casual, complex-free way. The writer is a satrap who is allowed to do anything, whom no one can reproach because he is a satrap and because he is doing his job.” (Philippe Lançon for Libération, 2008)
Eric Loret: By questioning fiction, you obviously question the real. Is your intention to address a certain kind of contemporary mental confusion, a schizophrenia of appearances?
Arno Bertina: I don’t think that’s specific to our time. To be contemporary means to be confronted with confusion.
Pierre Senges: Yes, as with Calderón’s Life Is a Dream. It quickly became “life is a film” or “life is a video game,” but ultimately our intelligence for this problem has hardly evolved. It’s one of literature’s fundamental interrogations. And the society of the spectacle wasn’t invented yesterday either. There’s more to be learned from Saint-Simon than from Debord concerning the agony of appearances. An injunction is often set before the writer: “Tell us about the contemporary world.” But supposedly realist novels that speak of ‘our’ time are books that tell more of a ‘here and now’ that’s commonly accepted at a given moment. An execrable consensus, with its basis only in reality’s most ostentatious signs. You could just as well say “the world is 70% water and two billion Chinese people, so write about Chinese sailors.” Art should promulgate realities. (“Figures implosées,” Libération, 2006)
On the occasion of the publication his first book, Veuves au maquillage (2000): “What I set out to do is not description or narration, but rather a commentary on that description or narration; in other words, to approach it from the outset in the second degree.” (Chronic’art)
“I sometimes have the impression that my love of stories leads me into territories that are further and further away from what stories usually look like—and, along with that, the impression that I am telling stories of stories, instead of stories of people.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)
“Literature as commentary might be one of our great, new-found pleasures (what richness!): there’s Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova to be savored, the monomaniacal commentary of the king-in-exile Kinbote in Pale Fire, the Parallel Book of Manganelli which is parasitical to Pinocchio, and more recently the Glossary of Greek Birds of D’Arcy Thompson, accompanied by the (I quote) amateurish commentaries of Dominque Meens. But parasitism or commensalism are hardly new, and literary experts know that better than anyone.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)
“The interpretation of source texts can become a novelistic genre unto itself.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)
“I especially like the idea of a literature of hypotheses: there are very strong resemblances between scientific hypothesis and comedic scenario: in both cases, one must start with a postulate, then deduce the consequences and sort out those which are viable from those which are not. That Let us suppose forms the initial point of departure for both scientific argument and the work of the librettist—scientific literature has borrowed a great deal from works of poetic and narrative literature, and poetry and the novel have for a long time been nourished by scientific literature, namely because science, through its qualitative vulgarization, necessarily has recourse to metaphor. In a Carrollian way, our modern imagination (there’s modernity again) is inhabited by Einstein twins of different ages, Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously both dead and alive, and the dactylographic chimpanzee invented by Émile Borel.
Scientists, who create the basis for part of what we know and our criteria for truth, would be well situated to write, fictionally perhaps even, a history of errors, deceptions, and ignorance. Not so much to give rise to a feeling of impotence, because the shortcomings of our knowledge don’t lead us fatally into the absurd, but—without lapsing into a dilettante-ish relativism—so that we might perceive how error and exactitude feed off of each other, how the false enriches the true, how we stand to benefit from received ideas and when it’s better to do away with them.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)
Pierre Senges: The imposture of realism in literature supports the imposture of liberalism, which tells us that the free market is reality and not an opinion about reality. Saying a writer must be a realist isn’t an answer, but a question.
Arno Bertina: But literature gladly comes along to pull the rug out from under these people, by showing that the definition of reality is not closed, that there is movement. The humor that is in our books takes into account, I think, the instability and the play inherent in representation. (“Figures implosées,” Libération, 2006)
“Generally speaking, a book is one of those rare objects that, if it succeeds, respects us. (…) Advertising doesn’t respect us, political speeches don’t respect us; sermons address us as imbeciles, literary manifestos address us as imbeciles, our neighbors might act as if we’re imbeciles. A bad book takes us for imbeciles. But a good book is one of the few places in the world where we find respect, whoever we might be.” (at remue.net)
All posts about Senges or my translations of his work are here.
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.
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.