Emilien Bernard: Aside from Antoine Volodine, whose work I know you appreciate, are there other contemporary French writers you’re passionate about?
Eric Chévillard: The list would be too long and I would have to cite some friends. But I was recently impressed by Fragments de Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges. A remarkable book, masterful from start to end and yet totally backwards, full of digressions and glissades. I’m afraid it didn’t receive the welcome it deserved, which says a lot about the state of criticism and the incuriosity of readers. Such a book illustrates, though, what literature can be when it is fully comprehended. It seems to me that such a high ambition would have sooner been recognized in former eras. But the enormous contemporary laziness before this ample and generous book will have once again only noted its weight and size.
— from a 2008 interview with Eric Chévillard (my translation)
I have no doubt also been remiss in failing to observe here the English-language publication of Fragments of Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges, translated by Gregory Flanders. Here is a book teeming with intellectual farce and madcap encyclopedism that, in the year since its English-language publication in January 2017, has eluded the notice of every traditional outlet for bookish criticism.
Part of my own hesitation to herald the book’s publication was due to my expectation that said heralding would occur elsewhere. I imagined that, once Senges had effectively made his English-language debut with such an ambitious work, six hundred pages of zany erudition and irreverent jokes (and this just one month after the publication of my translation of Senges’s The Major Refutation) — well, I imagined that some publication or publications with a considerable readership would herald, yes, herald Senges as the next brilliant French writer in a long line of brilliant French writers. (In 2009, François Monti had insinuated that Senges was French literature’s “best-kept secret,” for instance.) But this has not come to pass. Neglect has been the fate of many brilliant writers, no doubt.
Only a few independent bloggers and a handful of adventurous readers seem to have noticed the book’s publication, either at their blogs or at GoodReads. Reviewing the book from galleys, the Complete Review called the book “dizzyingly entertaining, very funny […] the best sort of literary fantasy, and an entertaining satire of (so-called) literary scholarship.” Likewise, The Modern Novel appreciated and recommended the book, as “a brilliant pastiche of both literary researchers and of Lichtenberg himself. It is is thoroughly original, incredibly inventive, very learned and very funny.”
I was tempted at times to don my reviewer’s cap and proselytize for the book myself, but I demurred, and I still demur: having translated many of Senges’s words, and two of his books, I know that I’m far from impartial. Nor do I think myself capable in this instance of impassioned advocacy, perhaps veering into rant territory. Anyways, the season of the book’s publication — as well as of that of The Major Refutation‘s first appearance — has long passed.
And so I will leave the reader with just the following eyebrow-lifting passage from the book, one of my favorites. Perhaps it will incite some of you to track down this nonpareil tome.
P.S. In no way would I wish to downplay the power of blogs and bloggers to register and influence literary reception; but I do make a distinction between one-person venues (writer, editor, and publisher being the same individual) and venues where the indulgence and efforts of at least two people are required to publish an article. But why do I? I suppose I cling to the belief, or the hope, that the literary ‘establishment’ will take note of good work. Perhaps a little more cynicism is called for.
The audio of Pierre Senges discussing The Major Refutation at Shakespeare and Company is at Soundcloud. The event was in November. A few readers of this blog may be interested in that discussion, with Shakespeare & Co’s astute commentator.
The Major Refutation is a nonpareil book that I came to translate. It was published in late 2016 by Contra Mundum Press. It’s a fake Renaissance treatise arguing that the newly discovered Americas don’t exist. Pierre Senges is brilliant.
Should’ve posted this link a while back; I really wish that I could embed the file to display here tidily, but no dice, it plays havoc with the CSS layout.
It’s an amazing coincidence I guess, but a member of the audience seems to accuse Senges of being complicit in the mythologization of America at the very end of this recording. It’s like he stepped right out of the book, Guevara’s shadow.
This Thursday, November 2, 7:00 pm, Pierre Senges will be at Shakespeare and Company (the famous Paris English-language bookshop) discussing and reading from The Major Refutation, English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara, 1480-1545.
Full details here. I believe the book’s publisher, Rainer Hanshe of Contra Mundum Press, will be attending & in conversation with Senges. Should be interesting. I, the book’s translator, would most certainly be going if not for the wee duck pond separating the New World from the Old.
A description of the book here, taken from the Shakespeare and Company website:
Written in the form of a long letter addressed to Antonio de Guevara on behalf of Charles V, under cover of anonymity, The Major Refutation refutes the existence of a new continent with arguments ranging from the most serious to the most extravagant. In a postface, the narrator raises doubts about the author of The Major Refutation. Is the letter from Amerigo Vespucci, Jeanne la Folle, or others? The text closes with a coda where various theses are evoked: for example, doubts about the sex of Homer, or about the true identity of the author of the plays signed Moliere. Infused with wit and irony, The Major Refutation reminds us of the passion of men for ignorance and the eternal opposition between dupes and non-dupes, or those who believe themselves such.
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?!)
“This is a difficult book to describe: it is 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, of questionable authorship, that methodically and systemically argues against the existence of the ‘New World.'”
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 in the bath. Read it for fun.
“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.
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).
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…
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.
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 year my reading is tending towards several niche areas, to the exclusion of almost all contemporary writing. Soon, though, I hope to pick up a few authors’ books that I’ve been hearing a lot about — Per Petterson’s, for one. Meanwhile, I wanted to write a post on some of this season’s books that have my curiosity and interest.
First, a couple of reprints of note: Coffee House Press, who has previously issued the entirety of Paul Metcalf’s work in a three-volume collected works, has published one of Metcalf’s earliest works, Genoa, in paperback with an introduction by Rick Moody. I first read this after I discovered it through Larry McCaffrey’s megabooklist, called “The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction.” McCaffrey’s entry reads:
Genoa, Paul Metcalf, 1965 : Metcalf invents a narrative structure–part mosaic, part history, part genealogy, part invention–which appropriates generous selections of materials drawn from the Christopher Columbus myth, Moby Dick, a myriad other sources to develop a narrative that reveals a whole host of connections between the greed and blood-lust of our founding fathers and contemporary Americans.
All of Metcalf is so sublime, I would suggest if your curiosity is piqued that you consider acquiring a volume or 2 or 3 of Metcalf’s Collected Works, because they sell for peanuts after being remaindered by publishers and booksellers, or deaccessioned from the libraries that used to house them (alas, you pay for shipping). You won’t regret it.
I also notice that David Gates’s Jernigan (1990) has been re-issued by Serpent’s Tail. I read this last year after I came across a recommendation somewhere. (Online excerpt.) This is a novel about a self-pitying, sophisticated alcoholic and his decline, told with acid wit and self-pitying humor. The pacing and voice are unforgettable. Gates has a new short story collection out too, by the way.
Pierre Senges’s latest book to be published in French, Achab (séquelles), is out from Éditions Verticales in the middle of this month. It imagines the afterlives of Captain Ahab and the white whale from Melville’s Moby-Dick subsequent to their mutual pursuit. You can listen to him read its beginning pages at France Culture (20 mins.). This book is a whopper, over 600 pages including a robust table of contents — not unlike Fragments de Lichtenberg (2007). That one is forthcoming in English (trans. Gregory Flanders, Dalkey Archive, 2016), and was reviewed recently by M.A. Orthofer of The Complete Review. This book has been pushed back and pushed back, and last I heard it will be available from Dalkey for sale in January 2016. I had the privilege of reading it in the advance reading copy earlier this summer, and it is stunning.
What else? In my reading queue are Dispraise of the Courtier’s Life by Antonio de Guevara, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, and (eventually) Per Petterson.
But maybe what I really ought to be doing is rereading. I recently read A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) by George Saintsbury, and I shall return to it. I’ve long wanted to reread Michael Kohlhaas by Kleist and Hind’s Kidnap by Joseph McElroy, but I don’t know how easy it will be to ignore my appetite for novelty. Soon, perhaps. But first, this translation I am working on, this roofing website, and these books…
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.
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.
All posts at this blog discussing Pierre Senges’s work are archived here.