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.
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.
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“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.
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.