Posts in category: French literature

The Princess Collated (1/2)

This post is continued in “The Princess Collated (2/2),” in which I compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves as alternately translated by Robin Buss and Nancy Mitford.

Today an article at Steve Donoghue’s blog led me to whip out my New Directions edition of La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette, translated by Nancy Mitford, and to compare its first lines to those of the Penguin Classics translation, by translator Robin Buss (who has, apparently, done a good two handfuls of French translations for Penguin Classics). This is an extraordinary book, not only because it’s a seventeenth-century novel, written by a woman, beautifully told, and very entertaining. Some context from Wikipedia:

La Princesse de Clèves is a French novel which was published anonymously in March 1678. It is regarded by many as the beginning of the modern tradition of the psychological novel. […] The action takes place between October 1558 and November 1559 at the royal court of Henry II of France. The novel recreates that era with remarkable precision. Nearly every character – except the heroine – is a historical figure. Events and intrigues unfold with great faithfulness to documentary record. 

Alright! If you haven’t read it, it has my highest recommendation. It clocks in at a short 150 pages, so there’s some incentive — you won’t get stuck at page 220.

Now, let’s do a little comparison of the original with the various English translations I’ve tracked down. For some I’m sure, nothing could be more tedious or sleep-inducing, but not for this guy…

Here’s the original French-language opening (and here is the novel’s full French text, with modernised spelling):

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. 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.

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 ; les couleurs et les chiffres de madame de Valentinois paraissaient partout, et elle paraissait elle-même avec tous les ajustements que pouvait avoir mademoiselle de La Marck, sa petite-fille, qui était alors à marier.

And here are the first lines of the Robin Buss translation (Penguin Classics, 1992):

At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for above twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite. 

Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation. Every day there was hunting and tennis, dancing, tilting at rings or similar pastimes. The colours and ciphers of Mme de Valentinois were everywhere to be seen, as she was herself, attired in a manner that might have befitted her grand-daughter, Mlle de la Marck, who was then of marriageable age.

Here’s the first lines from an anonymous translation hosted at Project Gutenberg:

Grandeur and gallantry never appeared with more lustre in France, than in the last years of Henry the Second’s reign. 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.

As he was happily turned to excel in bodily exercises, he took a particular delight in them, such as hunting, tennis, running at the ring, and the like diversions. Madam de Valentinois gave spirit to all entertainments of this sort, and appeared at them with grace and beauty equal to that of her grand-daughter, Madam de la Marke, who was then unmarried; the Queen’s presence seemed to authorise hers.

And here is Thomas Sergeant Perry’s version, (Little Brown, 1891):

There never was in France so brilliant a display of magnificence and gallantry as during the last years of the reign of Henri II. This monarch was gallant, handsome, and susceptible; although his love for Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinois, had lasted twenty years, its ardor had not diminished, as his conduct testified.

He was remarkably skilful in physical exercises, and devoted much attention to them; every day was filled with hunting and tennis, dancing, running at the ring, and sports of that kind. The favorite colors and the initials of Madame de Valentinois were to be seen everywhere, and she herself used to appear dressed as richly as Mademoiselle de la Marck, her granddaughter, who was then about to be married.

Lastly, we have Nancy Mitford’s translation:

The last years of Henri II’s reign saw a display of opulence and gallantry such as has never been equalled in France. 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. 

He excelled at all forms of sport and much of his time was given up to it; every day there was tilting at the ring, hunting, tennis, ballets and the like. Madame de Valentinois’s colors and cyphers were very much in evidence, and so was she herself, dressed in a style which would have been more suitable for Mlle. de la Marck, her own grand-daughter, who was then just growing up.

This post is continued in “The Princess Collated (2/2),” in which I compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves as alternately translated by Robin Buss and Nancy Mitford.

A Beautiful Province

Two recent online articles draw attention to the situation of Québecois literature in translation. These two articles have a lot of overlap, and they both share the position that Québecois and/or Francophone Canadian literature are too often ignored, due to either the language/culture barrier, lack of interest from publishers and readers, and/or the resulting paucity of English translations. I’m glad these articles are out there and bringing attention to the issue, but if an outsider reads them, one might, I think, get the wrong impression.

Let’s start with the article which was published first, “Too Different and Too Familiar: The Challenge of French-Canadian Literature” by Pasha Malla, in The New Yorker. It is partly a review of Raymond Bock’s Atavisms, translated by Pablo Strauss for Dalkey Archive Press. This is a book that, when it was published in 2010, earned its author a reputation for being one of the most promising young authors in Quebec literature.

Malla remarks that, “Dialogue between Quebec and the rest of North America […] is practically nonexistent. This is partly a language issue, as few Canadians outside Quebec—save some enclaves in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba—are fluent in French.”

I’m not sure what few Canadians is meant to imply here, but the overall numbers are considerable. For example, according to Statistics Canada, in 2011, about 1.1 million people outside Quebec in Canada reported French as their mother tongue in Canada. And nearly 2.6 million people reported being fluent enough to conduct a conversation in French — 11% of Canada’s population outside Quebec (source). Furthermore, 2011 at least 81,085 Albertans speak French as their first language, giving Alberta the fourth largest francophone population in Canada (source). One should also note that the French language appears to be slowly rising in Alberta and British Columbia (source).

If I’m touchy about this, it’s because Malla does a disservice to French-Canadians, and I would even say to francophones in Canada generally — including me, whose first language is not French. He appears to be ignorant of Canada’s formidable Franco-Albertan demographic. (Nor am I Franco-Albertan.)

Let’s move on to “Why the Book I’m About to Publish Will Be Ignored” by Carmine Starnino, an accomplished poet and editor. This is a good article, discussing the state of Quebec poetry in translation in particular; but it seems either to demand that the reader of the article be fluent in French, or to insist on the principle of untranslatability. Why else would you cite French verses without interpreting them for an audience that, by default, one must assume reads only English?

[Pierre Nepveu] is a master of the perfect opening, of lines that seem electric and inevitable (“rien ne tient lieu de retour, / tout est étrange comme si c’était hier”). Craft aside, an almost primal awe for mortality holds together his most memorable passages (“Les verbes majeurs nous obsèdent,” he writes, “naître, grandir, aimer, / penser, croire, mourir”). At his best, he belongs in the company of masters like Gaston Miron. And he’s as good as anyone English Canada has produced.

For an article about French literature in translation, why not at least tell us what’s at stake? Again:

What impressed me most was how their poems never seemed static, tidy, or vapid. Saint-Denys Garneau’s line has always stayed with me: “Je ne suis pas bien du tout assis sur cette chaise.” He loathed being stuck in one place. […] His hope was to find “l’équilibre impondérable entre les deux” because “C’est là sans appui que je me repose.”

I’m certainly glad that attention is being brought to the literature of Québec by these two essayists, but my gripes stand. Who wants to fight? Just kidding.

May I refer you, in closing, to two excellent reviews of the aforementioned Atavisms translation by P Strauss (which I have not read): by J.M. Schreiber and P.T. Smith

Update: Partisan Magazine recently announced that the bilingual Canadian journal of literature in translation Ellipse will relaunch after a brief hiatus. Ellipse was founded in 1969.

Pierre Senges in Hyperion

Two more of my translations of Pierre Senges’s work were published last week, along with an annotated bibliography of his 14 or so books (“A Library of Imposture; or, a Short Annotated Bibliography of Pierre Senges’s Books”). All this can be found in the latest issue of Hyperion, the biannually published journal of Contra Mundum Press. The two translations are

* “The Last Judgment (detail),” a short text on the subject of Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566) and his commission to paint loincloths over numerous of Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine Chapel, after the Council of Trent deemed that nudity offensive.

* chapter 6 of La réfutation majeure (2004; The Major Refutation).

This is all quite noteworthy, it involved a lot of work on behalf of myself and the editors, and I’m very proud of these publications.

For the interested, another of my Senges translations is forthcoming in Gorse Journal #4 this September, a short story entitled “Making, Faking” (or rather, “Façons, Contrefaçons”); and there is also the excerpt of Geometry in the Dust that appeared earlier this month at The Brooklyn Rail; not to mention my previous article at this blog, “A Pierre Senges Miscellany.”

Also, Dalkey Archive has announced the publication date for Fragments of Lichtenberg: August 17, 2015. I just received a copy of it the other day in the mail…

All posts at this blog discussing Pierre Senges’s work are archived here.

The Frajerman-Volodine Collaborations

Leading up to the release of their sixth issue, the editors of Music and Literature ran a series of three Volodine-related articles online last week: a review of the recently-published-in-English Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven; excerpts from Les Aigles Puent / The Eagles Reek; and an article by the musician and composer Denis Frajerman on his collaborations with Volodine over the years.

I mention this for two reasons: Volodine has occasionally been a subject of discussion at this blog before, and because I translated the latter of these articles from French. I recommend it as a good introduction to Frajerman’s (experimental) music, which I had the good fortune of discovering through the small translation assignment. You might enjoy it for similar (or different) reasons: there are a number of audio excerpts embedded in the article worth listening to.

Senges’ Geometry in the Dust (Trans.)

In the newest issue of The Brooklyn Rail‘s InTranslation series, you’ll find a translation I did of the first chapter of Geometry in the Dust (Géométrie dans la poussière, Éditions Verticales, 2004), a remarkable short work of fiction written by Pierre Senges, illustrated by Killoffer.

From my introductory note to the excerpt:

How to describe a city to a person who has no concept of one? Very slowly and carefully, perhaps. The city takes on uncanny, conspiratorial hues: every trash can, every busker, and every alley cat appears, through a paranoid sort of logic, to be the result of a monumental effort of planning and coordination. Metaphysical ramifications and urban myths lurk in every manhole. The city’s jagged, broken geometries, its sewers and subways, doves and streetlamps, cul-de-sacs and dumpsters–all must be accounted for.

I’ve written about Senges at this blog previously (see “A Pierre Senges Miscellany,” which compiles a number of remarks he’s made in the course of various interviews), and am continuing to translate his work, and publish those translations. More to come later this month.

In the same issue, there are new translations of poetry by Apollinaire, Alain Suied, Haji Khavari, Petr Bezruc, Paco Urondo, and Liliane Atlan. The InTranslation series is really quite remarkable, as you’ll find there translations of work by Paul Valéry, Stéphane Mallarmé, Anne Garréta, Pierre Mac Orlan, Hans Christian Andersen, Jáchym Topol, Josef Winkler, Alfred Döblin, Julio Cortazar, and Lope de Vega. (As well as the work of many very accomplished translators, including Susan Bernofsky, Anthea Bell, Clayton Eshleman, Donald Nicholson-Smith, Alex Zucker, Edward Gauvin, Alyson Waters, Pierre Joris, Alex Cigale, Damion Searls, William Hutchins, and Harry Morales.)

That’s some company to be in. Hats off to the editors, Jen Zoble and Donald Breckenridge for letting me in.

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All posts at this blog discussing Pierre Senges’s work are archived here.

Roll the Die

Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard (c. 1898) is often referenced as if it were the mother of all neglected and obscure works. This may have been true in decades or centuries past, but in the 2010s it’s a claim that no longer holds water. Witness the following:

Mark Amerika’s CRAPSHOOT, which went live in 2015, a a generative, interactive hypertextual remix that mimics the form of Mallarmé’s poem.

Published in 2015 by Wave Books, Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno’s translation of the poem, supplemented by photographic images. They discuss their work on the translation and presentation here, at PoetrySociety.org. (At Amazon, a portion of the book is available for preview.)

My own 2015 translation of the poem and its preface, soon to be published in Vestiges, the print publication of Black Sun Lit.

At a Center for the Art of Translation event in 2012, Richard Howard read his translation of “Afternoon of a Fawn” and discussed why he declined —  even for +$20,000 — to translate Un Coup de dés.

Lastly, though, if you really want to understand this work’s full significance, look to Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren (originally published by Fayard, 2011; brilliantly — and I don’t mean that lightly — translated by Robin Mackay, 2012, available from Urbanomic). Text from the publisher’s website:

Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry: the fractured lines spanning the double page, the typographical play borrowed from the poster form, the multiplication of interpolations disrupting reading. But the intrigue of this poem is still stranger, always resistant to full elucidation. We encounter a shipwreck, and a Master, himself almost submerged, who clasps in his hand the dice that, confronted by the furious waves, he hesitates to throw. The hero expects this throw, if it takes place, to be extraordinarily important: a Number said to be ‘unique’ and which ‘can be no other’.

The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child’s game. All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but one sole condition: that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de dés like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of that siren, emerging for a lightning-flash amongst the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.

Lastly, and somewhat unrelatedly, but why the hell not, an ocean of links to drown in (– shipwreck that –)

Earlier this year (2015, magic year, magic number), soprano Marisol Montalvo sang Pierre Boulez’s “Pli selon pli” live with L’Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Matthias Pintscher. (“Pli selon Pli” is a set of five songs based on poems by Stéphane Mallarmé.)

Hurrah!

Poetry as currency, life on the moon, etc.

On World Poetry Day 2015 (I’m skeptical), in certain coffeeshops it is said, poetry counted for currency. Yet in 1650 Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac posited that on the moon, poetry is the only money there is.

After the meal, we got ready to leave; and with a thousand grimaces, which the inhabitants of the Moon use when they want to show affection, the host took a paper from my Demon. I asked my Demon if it was an IOU. He replied that, no, he didn’t owe him anything, that it amounted to some verses.

— Verses, what do you mean? I answered back, the innkeepers on the Moon are curious about rhymes?

— It’s the country’s currency, he told me, and the total we just paid amounts to a sixain, that’s what I just gave him. I wasn’t worried that I’d come up short; because, while we feast here a week, we won’t ever have to pay a sonnet in a sitting; and I’ve got four of those on my person now, along with two epigrams, two odes, and an eclogue. (my translation)

Etc. It goes on. This book has been translated into English sporadically, time and time again, but it’s hard to find a copy, if not currently out of print. I have a peculiar relationship to the book, having read it at a most turbulent time in my life a decade ago, and again recently, but only in its censored form, which meant that the part I wanted to re-read most, and which had burned itself in my mind, was absent, leading me to refer to another edition, where I learned, yes, definitively, from the editors, of the book’s censorship, because Cyrano had died, the book was published posthumously, and he was, in literature at least, let’s say, a libertine, and he had a friend, a Max Brod-type, who was most in touch with moral matters, morality, etc.

Mallarmé

But did we really need another translation of that typographically radical turn-of-the-century experiment in verse? Pourquoi pas, right? For now, check out CRAPSHOOT, Mark Amerika’s “generative remix that mimics the form of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous 1897 poem,” which recently went live at the website of the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art (coded by Will Luers). It’s radical, alright. If you’re an absolute maniac like myself, also obtain a copy of Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren: a Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Dés (trans. Robin Mackay, from Urbanomic, 2011). Don’t forget to sleep, every now and then.

Marie NDiaye reviewed

For 3AM magazine I reviewed Marie NDiaye’s latest two books to be translated into English, All My Friends (2013, orig. Tous mes amis, 2004) and Self-Portrait in Green (2014, orig. Autoportrait en vert, 2005). It was hard, and the review is lengthy, approaching 4000 words. I kind of wish I had been able to get my hands on some of the original French texts, but alas, it was not easy. It’s very hard to review a translation as a translation if you can’t consult the original text. A learning experience nonetheless.

December reading log

The Book of Marvels and Travels (c. 1360) – John Mandeville

Cane (1923) – Jean Toomer

The Killer Inside Me (1952) – Jim Thompson

Savage Night (1953) – Jim Thompson

The Grifters (1965) – Jim Thompson

Blind Man with a Pistol (1969)- Chester Himes

Ciels liquides (1990) – Anne Garréta

Pas Un Jour (2002) – Anne Garréta (blog post on this in January)

Dept. of Speculation (2014) – Jenny Offil

Music & Literature #5

I also tried to read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Montesquieu’s Persian Letters but was unsuccessful. Are they too boring, or was I too impatient? What difference does it make? (Not one iota.)

Anne Garréta’s Liquid Skies

This is the first in a series of posts where I do a write-up of a French book that is not yet translated into English. – JS

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What drew me to read Anne Garréta’s Ciels liquides (Grasset, 1990) was its interesting premise: it is (according to the Oulipo Compendium) “the paradoxical view of a narrator’s loss of language.”

It’s also beautifully unsettling and hallucinatory. The hallucinations start in the barn of the narrator’s ancestral farm.

I was sinking down.

My shadow was still floating up at the surface, breathing, looking around, uttering sounds in reaction to the thousand stimuli around it. Down below, I was slowly sinking, pulled down by the whirlpool, the slow spiral, always lower. The barn had come to rest on the bottom, swallowed up under many miles of intensely churning fluid, the rumor of the word, endlessly stirred. (p. 20, my translation)

After an accident in the barn and a stay in the hospital, the narrator lives for a while in a dark closet, having lost all capability for speech or writing. Later, he takes up residence in a cemetery, living inside a crypt, and goes to work at night in a morgue. In one scene, he dissects a corpse that appears to be his twin or döppelganger. There are countless beautiful descriptions of experiences that are beyond words, dissociative states.

I was without language. There was no language to account for the state I was in. The strangest thing seems now to me not to have been the amnesia that made it impossible for me to recognize and use words, whether spoken or written, but to have lived constantly suspended at the edge of another translation of a meaning which I felt screaming inside me, fugitive, whose force remained incommunicable, beneath the orbit of words. (p. 120, my translation)

It would be great to see this wonderfully weird book translated and published in English. I’m also looking forward to reading Garréta’s Pas Un Jour (2002).

Next spring (2015), Deep Vellum will publish Garréta’s first book, Sphinx (Grasset, 1986) in a translation by Emma Ramadan. Over at Deep Vellum’s website, there are some English excerpts of Garréta’s work with some good links.

David Bellos on becoming a translator

In a brief interview, accomplished translator David Bellos is asked “How did you get started as a translator? Any advice to aspiring translators?” He says:

I read Perec’s “Life A User’s Manual” in French in 1981 and was entranced by it. Even before I’d finished reading I felt it needed to be a book in English so I could share my enthusiasm with others. That’s how I began. I think many other translation careers have begun with something of the same kind—a  passion or strong engagement with a book or a writer or a school of thought that made translation a natural and necessary consequence.

I am kind of going down that road. I’ll let you know how it pans out.

Good news this week, too: my translation of Mallarmé’s typographically radical long poem (Un Coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard, or in English A Roll of Dice Will Never Abolish Chance) — it seems to have finally found the right editors and will appear in a print journal, in winter or spring 2015 I would guess.

Volodine promises to quit post-exoticism

The post-exotic project is, among others, to realize a literary object composed of forty-nine works (forty volumes have already appeared in French) in which the very last sentence is: “I remain silent.” I have heralded this numerous times. I hope to live long enough to lay down that last sentence on the post-exotic edifice, which will then be closed, complete.

– Antoine Volodine, in the “Interview with the Author” which serves as a preface to the advance uncorrected galley of Writers (Dalkey Archive, 2014)

I’m not inclined to believe this is anything but a bluff, but two facts:

* the title of his latest book, just out in France, is Terminus radieux ; Nov. 2014 – it has been awarded the Goncourt Prize, perhaps France’s most prestigious prize) ;

* the number of his published works, if you count the eight translations Volodine has done from the Russian, now totals 49 (or 41 without the translations).

This guy is a master of hype, full of interesting bluffs. That’s why I don’t think Volodine would give it up Philip Roth-style. If your curiosity is piqued read that essay of mine, “An Ism of One’s Own,” or one of the other two recent reviews of Writers (“After Revolution” and this one at FullStop).

Afterthoughts on Volodine

Antoine Volodine first came onto my radar in 2008, when several of his books were assigned reading for a graduate course in French literature that I was taking. We read Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) and Le Post-Exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze (1998), and I also read a little of Des Anges mineurs. So when I saw that Volodine had another book forthcoming in English translation (Writers, trans. Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014; originally Écrivains, Editions du Seuil, 2010), I jumped at the opportunity to review it for The Quarterly Conversation.

There’s something about the essay I didn’t get quite right, but it’s nevertheless informative and fairly broad about Volodine’s project (although he has written over 40 books in thirty years! who can cope with that!). I discuss paratexts, pseudonyms/heteronyms, and why I think Writers is not Volodine’s best work. As I was finishing the essay, I began to think that the style pioneered by the great Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis serves as a rough model for some of what Volodine is trying to do. In particular, Volodine and Kis both seem to approach their protagonists using a tone near to that of the encyclopedist or the biographer in order to describe individuals who struggle against a totalitarian state, often incarcerated, vehemently resisting to the bitter end.

It’s very hard to distinguish though, without doing some heavy comparative readings and research, to what extent Volodine’s style shares in common with Kis’s style a Soviet, totalitarian cultural milieu (you know, the kind of thing you get in Solzenhitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and the Granat Encyclopedia), and to what extent Volodine is really standing on Kis’s shoulders. For my part, I far prefer Kis’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich to Volodine’s Writers. That, at least, is what I struggled to say in the essay.

And do be sure to check out the other articles in issue 37 of The Quarterly Conversation

Review: N. Arcan’s Hysteric

At the Winnipeg Review you can read a review I wrote of Nelly Arcan’s Hysteric — recently published by Anvil Press. The book was originally published in France in 2004 by Editions du Seuil. Its translators are Jacob Homel and David Homel.

Césaire at Mid-Century

I’m quite proud of a long essay I wrote on Aimé Césaire’s poetry (specifically, the collection Solar Throat Slashed (1948) and the long poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” (1939, 1947, 1956)).

The essay is featured in Issue 36 of The Quarterly Conversation, alongside writing by Laura Sims, Steve Donoghue, Scott Esposito, Daniel Green and several others. Check it out. Free as the breeze.

Larousse for kids

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Jeepers creepers these are great little books! They fell into my hands, given to my family by long-time family friends who are selling a house and still in the middle of a massive purge and sale of furniture, books, etc.

My two-year-old daughter has a lovely way of throwing books at her parents, and before I knew it I was looking at the words Alfred Jarry, at which point I was jolted into alertness. What’s the notoriously reckless, amoral, and blasphemous Jarry doing in book for kids?! No sooner was I taking in this surprise than I saw quotations from Arthur Rimbaud, Madame de Sévigné, Jacques Prévert, Pierre Reverdy, Guillaume Apollinaire, Valéry Larbaud, Jules Renard, Joachim du Bellay, Jacques Roubaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Colette, Henri Michaux, and on and on and on….

The Charterhouse of Parma

I felt I had to read The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), but as a duty, an obligation; — I failed to foresee the abundance of pleasure and delight it would bring me, how fully I would be absorbed by this lovely, capacious, courtly romance that Stendhal (1783-1842) dictated — if you can believe it — in just fifty-two days in the fall of 1838. It is not dense, it is sprawling and magnificent though, an intrepid work with a bit of everything. Love and nobility of the soul are its two great themes, but it is also packed with action, architectural musings, political intrigue, psychological interiority, cruelty, wit and humour, and one fantastic escape. It is Stendhal’s last novel, and it was brought into the world seemingly fully-formed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It will enlarge your heart and your soul, to say nothing of your attention. Fabrizio del Dongo is the book’s hero, a noble and naive young man, a prisoner and ecclesiastic, a fugitive lover, of whom his aunt rightly remarks, “If he hadn’t been so lovable, he would be dead”!

Richard Howard’s translation, published by the Modern Library in 1999, reads in a fluidly and flawlessly, and also includes an afterword by Howard; Honoré de Balzac’s 1840 review of the book; Stendhal’s letter to Balzac; and Daniel Mendelsohn’s 1999 review of Howard’s translation, which appeared initially in The New York Times Book Review. From these supporting documents I glean the following: Stendhal wrote to Balzac that, “Whilst writing the Chartreuse, in order to acquire the correct tone I read every morning two or three pages of the Civil Code.” – ! Also: Henri Beyle (Stendhal) used over 200 pseudonyms in his lifetime. (Certainly makes me feel like less of a nut for occasionally assuming an alias…)

Put this one on your reading lists.

A Sentimental Education

I finished Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education (1869) last week, and boy is it good. I found it hard going at the start, mostly because the author seemed to treating his protagonist with such derision, but after a few hours with the book there was no turning back. For the oceans of ink that have already been spilled over this book, I need add nothing but another hearty endorsement. What a wicked wit was Gustave Flaubert… I can’t recall ever having such a shock in reading a novel as the marriage proposal that materializes in part III, and Frédéric Moreau’s hilarious response. Were one to judge from this classic, one might well believe Robert Burton’s claim in The Anatomy of Melancholy that, “in France, upon small acquaintance, it is usual to court other men’s wives, to come to their houses, and accompany them arm in arm in the streets, without imputation.” Pair this one with Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” (1888).

Now that’s a party

“The band had left. They dragged the piano out of the hall into the drawing-room, Vatnaz sat down at it, and to the accompaniment of the Choirboy’s Basque drum, launched into a wild country dance, hitting the keys like a horse stamping its hooves and lurching to and fro in time with the music. The Marshal carried Frédéric off, Hussonet turned a cartwheel, the Stevedore was twisting and jerking like a clown, while the Clown pretended to be an orang-utan and the Native Woman held her arms out sideways and imitated the pitching and tossing of a ship. In the end, everyone stopped, exhausted. Somebody opened a window.

Daylight streamed in and the cool of the morning. There was an exclamation of surprise and then silence.”

– Gustave Flaubert, A Sentimental Education (1869; p. 138), trans. Douglas Parmée

Continuing the French literature kick I’m on (Huysman, Gide, Flaubert, Simenon…), and in time for the centennial of Proust’s Du Côté de chez Swann (1913), here’s a photo of a couple of street signs in my ‘hood. Gratuitous, almost.

"Swan's Way"

Not quite Swann’s Way; but good enough for this francophile.

Review: M. Segura’s Eucalyptus in the mRb

My review of Mauricio Segura’s novel Eucalyptus is online (and in print!) in the Montreal Review of Books fall 2013 issue. Segura’s short novel is translated by Donald Winkler and available from the excellent Biblioasis.

From the review:

The story’s protagonist, Alberto Ventura, has returned to Temuco in Araucania for the funeral of his father, Roberto. Over several packed days, he tries to understand his father’s life story and mysterious death, gradually piecing together a composite narrative from contradictory accounts offered up by those who knew him. Assembling the pieces isn’t easy, as Alberto’s father’s life is structured around a handful of discontinuities. We see him in elliptical vignettes, alternately as a leftist activist in the early seventies, as a political prisoner under Pinochet, later as a Canadian immigrant and family man, soon as a philandering, abusive husband, and, ultimately, as the owner of a Chilean plantation when he returns to his homeland at the end of the dictatorship in 1990.

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Gide’s Lafcadio on readership

“Poor Julius! So many writers and so few readers! It’s a fact. People read less and less nowadays…. to judge by myself, as they say. It’ll end by some catastrophe–some stupendous catastrophe, reeking with horror. Printing will be chucked overboard altogether; and it’ll be a miracle if the best doesn’t sink to the bottom with the worst.”

– Lafcadio’s Adventures (Les Caves du Vatican, 1914), André Gide, trans. Dorothy Bussy, p. 178-179

Notes on Gide’s The Counterfeiters

Slowly I am making my way through André Gide’s amazing novel The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-monnayeurs, 1926). When I was in high school I read and enjoyed Gide’s The Immoralist on the strong recommendation of a sharp and very literary fellow barista named Crystal. But The Immoralist is a much more simple tale than the complex assembly of parts that is The Counterfeiters. You should read The Counterfeiters. Although it should be, it is not widely read today. This masterpiece of a fiction shows Gide in virtuosic control of his craft. Emotional depth, mystery, intrigue, scandal, plot complexity, economy of language, suspense, universality–all are there in abundance. And I am only a third of the way through the book’s 350 pages.

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W.G. Sebald’s exoticisms

I’ve held on to this post so long, held on for so long to these ideas, I am letting this post go, rough as it is. It will never be finished. It is the story of a kind of failure, itself evidence of failure, a quest for understanding that remains forever incomplete. As more fragments will follow, I finally let go of these. Sebald’s work is, I have found, very difficult to talk about.

We have a habit of writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or how you had the wrong idea at first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to do the work. – Richard Feynman

Reluctant to enclose Gide in a system I knew would never content me, I was vainly trying to find some connection among these notes. Finally I decided it would be better to offer them as such–notes–and not try to disguise their lack of continuity. Incoherence seems to me preferable to a distorting order. – Roland Barthes, ‘On Gide and His Journal’

I knew the research paper would be about W.G. Sebald’s novels, but that was all I knew. I had fallen under Sebald’s spell, not on first reading The Emigrants in a ‘Continental Modernism’ course taught by the ribald WW II vet Robert Ganz, but in 2009 on reading The Rings of Saturn after seeing a poster for a lecture by Ross Posnock on Austerlitz, a poster prominently displaying Sebald’s provocative juxtaposition of Wittgenstein’s gaze with that of perhaps a rhesus monkey.

It was only a short time before I had read After Nature, the long poem Sebald published in the late eighties before his arrival as a published novelist; Vertigo, his first novel; and, of course, Austerlitz, his last. I was hypnotized and hooked on Sebald’s writing, fallen under the intense spell cast by Sebald’s long sentences and his visual materials.

Through work in a graduate seminar in contemporary French literature–La Fabrication de l’irréelle dans la littérature française contemporaine–I became familiar with a strange new term which would prove to be for me a challenge and a source of anxiety, later, to explain. Le post-exotisme en dix lecons by Antoine Volodine is not a difficult book, but it is, like Volodine’s other works, strange, however much it is consistent with Volodine’s conception of a mythological future-past of ruins, internment camps, political resistance. He expresses his vision through hybrid literary forms.

Volodine, Detue, & Ouellet

Post-exoticism resonated with what I found compelling in Sebald. Volodine’s vision, realized in his novels and elucidated in theoretical terms, amounts to:

  • Une littérature de l’ailleurs, venue d’aileurs, allant vers l’ailleurs
  • Une littérature internationaliste, cosmopolite, dont la mémoire plonge les racines dans les tragédies du XXe siecle, les guerres, les révolutions, les génocides et les défaites du XXe siecle
  • Une littérature étrangere écrite en francais
  • Une littérature qui mêle indissolublement l’onirique et le politique
  • Une littérature des poubelles, en rupture avec la littérature officielle
  • Une littérature carcérale de la rumination, de la déviance mental et de l’échec
  • Un édifice romanesque qui a surtout a voir avec le chamanisme, avec une variante bolchevique de chamanisme (387)

From Volodine, Antoine. ‘A la frange du réel.’ In Défense et illustration du post-exotisme en vingt lecons (vlb, 2008).

Translation: post-exoticism is:

  • a literature of elsewhere, arriving from, departing from elsewhere;
  • an internationalist, cosmopolitan literature whose memory is rooted in 20th-century tragedies, wars, revolutions, genocides, defeats;
  • a foreign literature written in French;
  • a literature where  the dream-like and the political are seamlessly joined
  • trashcan literature, opposed to ‘official’ literature(s)
  • an imprisoned, ruminatory literature, of pyschopathology and failure
  • a novelistic structure closely tied to shamanism, especially a Bolshevik variant of shamanism.

Elsewhere: a cabal of prisoners secretly circulating texts, working to overcome the isolation imposed on them.

The proposal I wrote in anticipation of my research paper was lucid, engaged, clear, direct, promising. But as I researched and wrote my paper, and continued to over-research it, my focus was exploded and irreversibly lost. In the end I tried to stay close to Sebald’s text. But at times, for whole months, I felt I needed to write lengthy theoretical contextualizations and justifications for why I was talking about post-exoticism, a term that I was never comfortable with, because its sense was split.

On the one hand, Volodine and his elucidation of post-exoticism; on the other hand, a non-literary but totally contemporary post-exoticism, related to the breaking up of empires, the acceleration of travel, and the end of an era during which romantics like Pierre Loti, Paul Gauguin, Victor Segalen, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and a whole host of other European artists, were able to see in other cultures a difference which they found attractive, sometimes repelling, and that they patronized and acted condescendingly towards. (Edward Said’s historical work on Orientalism is what I’m talking about here; in a post-exotic era, Orientalism and exoticism are not done away with, but their historical contours are entirely changed.) I’d also read exoticists like Loti and was aware of Victor Segalen (his law regarding the attractions of human diversity, expounded in his posthumously published Essai sur l’exotisme (1978)) from having reading Baudrillard’s books, where he  refers repeatedly to Segalen and exoticism.

The first problem, which I could not circumvent must have been establishing a stable relation between exoticism and post-exoticism.

Ambros Adelwarth in Sebald's The Emigrants

An antique photo-studio portrait included in the German edition of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992), depicting the narrator’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth.

I couldn’t even define the type of exoticism that I was seeing in Sebald, it was too variegated and broad and heterogeneous.

Even now I can read in my notebook the organisational sketches I was making in 2009, but I can’t create true order out of them:

KINDS OF SEBALDIAN EXOTICISM

a) the collection (museum)

b) monumental architecture (inadvertent; neglect, disuse, decay…) (cf. The Eyes of the Skin; The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler)

c) tourist narrators

d) Jews, gypsies, circus performers

e) resort culture

f) ‘overheated, deterritorialized animals’ (cf. On Creaturely Life, Eric Santner)

g) formal syntax (syntactical)

h) Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)

The problem was, I couldn’t describe the exoticist tropology at work in Sebald’s prose, because I wanted to read all five of his books–his entire ‘creative’ output– as if it were a single thing. This would have left no time for ‘close reading’ and it would have been abstracted from the individual context of any single book. But I felt a coherent exoticist strategy, complete with post-exoticist gesturing, was there; a coherent preoccupation with and nostalgic yearning for the historical ‘exotic,’ itself complicated by the knowledge that this was at best an impossible fantasy. Perhaps I ought to have chosen just one (or two) types of exoticism and pursued it as far as I could. But I could not relinquish my commitment to some larger, more elusive totality that always remained just beyond my conceptual, organisational grasp.

It was almost ironic that I discovered such excellent books on exoticism just as the time I had left to trim up my drafts was drawing to a close:

‘The phenomenon of the human zoo illuminates an interdependence, similar to that discussed and popularized by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), between science, spectacle and colonial power’ (Forsdick 378).

‘Populations put on display were depicted in a variety of forms, ranging from posters t illustrated programmes, from postcards (reproduced and translated into several languages to early films, from amateur photographs to the front pages of newspapers. Visitors, readers and spectators would be fascinated by these human subjects, while at the same time being convinced by them of the ‘racial hierarchies’ central to the contemporary context of colonial expansion.’ (‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West,’ illustration pages).

Some Sources:

Barthes, Roland. 1982. A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. Hill and Wang.

Baudrillard, Jean. ‘Radical Exoticism.’ Transparency of Evil. Verso.

Blanchard, Pascal, Bancel, Nicolas, Boëtsch, Gilles,  Deroo, Éric, and Lemaire, Sandrine . ‘Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West.’ By 1-49.

Camus, Audrey. Her winter 2008 graduate seminar on the work of Volodine, Eric Chevillard and Pierre Senges.

Feynman, Richard. 1966. ‘The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics.’ Science 153 (3737): 699-708.

Loti, Pierre. Aziyadé. 1880s?

Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures. (Yale P, 2006.)

Segalen, Victor. ‘Essay on Diversity.’