Thirty-seven journeys from French to English: I Never Talk About It by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon

We all have our secrets; the habits, hopes, histories, and horrors that we keep to ourselves. We all hold something inside that we never talk about. It may be painful; it might be embarrassing. It can be major, it can be insignificant, but either way we all have a truth to guard.

This is the concept behind an inventive collaboration between Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon, two Quebecois writers, actors and directors who created thirty-seven short confessional monologues to be performed live, and then gathered into a book titled Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir. However, a unique and daring thing happened as this collection made its way from French into English. Thirty-seven different translators were invited along for the ride. The result, I Never Talk About It, is the latest release from QC Fiction, and further evidence of this ambitious young publisher’s determination to offer Canadian and international audiences original, exciting new work from Quebec.

The prose pieces that comprise this book demonstrate a wide range in structure and voice from unsophisticated and straightforward, to quirky stream of consciousness, to stylized and experimental. This variety creates the perfect environment in which to explore the considerations and decisions a translator faces in guiding a text from one language to another.

The translators invited into this intriguing exercise come from around the world and include seasoned professionals alongside first-timers without any specialized training or experience. Some are Francophones more accustomed to moving from English to French, while others have little or no familiarity with Quebecois usage and culture. There are teachers, students, and authors.  Each story is followed by a brief biography of the translator along with his or her comments about the challenges they faced and the approach they employed. Because, as editor and translator Peter McCambridge indicates in his introduction:

…there’s always an approach, always a slant, always a distortion or deviation from the original, however slight or well-intentioned. Often it makes for a smoother reading experience in English. But it’s nice to know it’s there, all the same…. Because there are few wrong answers. Because any translation is a question and then an answer.

And yes, there may be few wrong answers, but as a reader with a special fondness for translated and international literature, there are certainly approaches that, in the reading, seem to work better than others. However, unless we hear about the choices that are made we cannot know what we might be missing, or why some books leave us wondering: Is it the original or the translation that seems off?

 The greatest reward offered by a book like I Never Talk About It is a space to explore one’s own reaction to concise pieces, first on their own and then in the light of the translator’s reflections.

Because the original works are essentially performative, with variations in tone and flow, many translators mention the challenge of maintaining the energy of the French text. Often the chosen approach involves an intensive engagement with the text. Pablo Strauss describes translating as:

…a slow, unscientific process of writing and rewriting until you can’t look at the piece any more. Experience has taught me that translation has no rules; the translations I love are at once loose and careful.

Later on, Lori Saint-Martin admits that:

I read the piece about 786 times, a couple of times out loud, mentally thinking of avenues without writing anything down; then I did a really fast, intuitive draft as if writing it creatively myself…put it aside, and rewrote it three more times, pulling it closer to the original sometimes, sometimes a bit further away to boomerang it back closer.

It’s probably a coincidence but the stories they translated, “Nightmares” and “Constellation” were among my favourites.

One of my pet peeves when it comes to translated or even international literature originally written in English, is that decisions are sometimes made to make the work more palatable to an American or British audience. In this collection two translators chose to relocate the specifics and tone of their pieces—one to the US, the other to the UK—removing the Quebec (which were also essentially Canadian) references. To my ear, the results were out of place and disappointing. As a frequent reader of South African literature I have seen this tendency too, whether English originals or translations from Afrikaans, all the bakkies are turned into pick-up trucks and so on. For me it amounts to unfortunate accommodation and contributes to the homogenization of international literature lest any local flavour be off-putting.

In the end, I Never Talk About It is more than an enlightening glimpse into the myriad of ways that texts can be approached by a translator; it is an entertaining, and often deeply moving, look into the private anxieties, obsessions, confessions, and passions of a diverse cast of characters.

To be an outsider who is at home everywhere: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off places, toward the bright edges of the earth. It burns in the sunlight, a dusty stripe between the wheat’s dull gold on one side, and the shimmering red hills and grey-green scrub on the other. In the distance, prosperous farms, ruined mud walls, a few huts. Everything seems asleep, stricken by the heat of the day. A chanting comes up from the plain, a sound as long as the unsheltered road, or as poverty without the hope of change tomorrow, or as weeping that goes unheard. The Kabyl farmers are singing as they work. The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labor pains. (“Outside”)

For Isabelle Eberhardt, the open road was the ultimate image of freedom—a symbol of liberty that called to her again and again. As such, she had a special affinity for vagrants or wayfarers. They feature regularly in her collection of short stories and vignettes, The Oblivion Seekers. To be confined—by physical walls, by obligations, or by the restraints of fin de siècle European society—is unbearable. Her characters give up comfort, security, even love, to find a place where they belong. Quite often it is a life of solitary independence they choose. Singular in her defiance, her passion, and her determination to set her own course, it is impossible to appreciate her writing without at least a cursory look at the remarkable life from which it emerged.

Born in Geneva in 1877, the illegitimate daughter of a Russian Nihilist, Eberhardt was an unconventional free spirit who lived a charmed, if short, life filled with drama and adventure. Her father set the groundwork, insisting she labour alongside her brothers when she was young, learn to handle a horse properly, and appear regularly in public dressed in men’s clothing. He was inadvertently preparing her for the rigors of life in the deserts of North Africa, while his demanding expectations likely fueled her longing to escape. By the time she was twenty, she had already made her first trip to Algeria and converted to Islam.

Apart from a few short trips back to Europe, Africa had claimed her soul. Yet for the French colonists, her lifestyle was nothing short of scandalous. Her preference for men’s clothing—and Arab styled at that—was looked on with suspicion. She adopted a male persona, although she rarely fooled anyone with respect to her gender, and could often be found in the café, smoking hashish, perhaps inviting a soldier home for the night. The colonial officials suspected she was a spy. Meanwhile, she bought a horse and headed off to explore the desert. On her travels she befriended other Muslims in the area including a young Algerian soldier named Sliman Ehnni, who would become her one great love.

Under her male name she joined the Qadriya, a secretive Sufi brotherhood that exercised considerable power over unconquered desert tribes. She subsequently became more openly political, writing articles and stories celebrating North African Arab culture and protesting the French colonial administration. This attracted further unwanted attention, now from rival religious cults as well as the government. In 1901, only a stroke of dumb luck saved her from a would-be assassin when her attacker’s sword bounced off a wire, missing her head but nearly removing her arm. Once she recovered, Eberhardt was ordered out of French North Africa, so she was forced to head to Marseilles. With luck, Sliman was able to join her and the two were married. In 1902, the couple returned to Algeria. They were destitute, but they experienced a few months of peaceful happiness there. It would not last, more challenges, risk and adventure awaited. However, by 1904, hard living, recurring illness, and probable syphilis began to take its toll. After a near fatal bout of malaria, she left the hospital against doctor’s orders to meet up with her husband. They enjoyed one last night together before a flash flood collapsed the mud hut they were staying in. Isabelle did not survive. She was twenty-seven years old.

At heart, writing was the only career Eberhardt had ever truly desired. Sadly, much of her work was destroyed in the flood that claimed her life, but several posthumous collections of her stories were published. And her incredible, unconventional life inspired a biography by Welsh author and explorer, Cecily Mackworth, which drew the attention of Paul Bowles, an ideal translator for the adventurous young writer if there ever was one. The Oblivion Seekers gathers eleven short prose pieces, a brief travel diary, and a defiant letter to the editor in which Eberhardt defends her life among the Arab population. The stories read like parables, feature primarily Muslim characters, and sensual, vivid descriptions of the North African landscape. Yet there is very little sentimentality here; the tone is measured and controlled.

Her characters are typically independent spirits, either restless or unwilling to be bound to the life that is expected of them. “Taalith” tells the tale of a young widow who chooses death over forced marriage to an older man, while “The Rival” paints the portrait of a vagrant who abandons the wandering life to settle with his beloved only to discover that his bliss cannot withstand the pull of the road; his desire for his other mistress, “tyrannical and drunk with sun” draws him back. Under the fragrant flowers of the Judas tree in his garden he looks at his sleeping lover:

Already she was no more than a vaporous vision, something without consistence that would soon be absorbed by the clear moonlight.

Her image was indistinct, very far away, scarcely visible. Then the vagrant, who still loved her, understood that at dawn he would be leaving, and his heart grew heavy.

He took one of the big flowers of the spicy camphor tree and pressed it to his lips to stifle a sob. (The Rival)

Considering the time and her background, Eberhardt’s stories are particularly striking. They reflect her deep connection to Arab populations of North Africa and mark her early contribution to a decolonial narrative. She is not a voyeur, her affections are honest, not romanticized. This is especially powerful in the title story, “The Oblivion Seekers,” one of the few first person narratives, which describes a setting she knew well personally—a kif den in Kenadsa in the Sahara Desert. She describes the patrons, the wanderers and the regular kif-smokers and the course of a typical evening:

The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hands lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy. They are epicureans, voluptuaries; perhaps they are sages. Even in the darkest purlieu of Morocco’s underworld such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream-palaces of delight. (The Oblivion Seekers)

There is a mesmerizing quality to Eberhardt’s prose. Her life was marked hardship and poverty, mixed with turns of good fortune and great passion, but through it all she retained a self-contained humility and it is this quality that comes through in her prose. As Bowles notes in his Preface: “Her wisdom lay in knowing that what she sought was unreachable. ‘We are, all of us, poor wretches, and those who prefer not to understand this are even worse off than the rest of us.’”

Wise words still.

The Oblivion Seekers by Isabell Eberhardt is translated by Paul Bowles, and published by City Lights Books.

Pride goes before a fall: My Heart Hemmed In by Marie Ndiaye

I once had a job that entailed, as part of my regular duties, selecting an inspirational quote from a directory and changing a roadside sign, usually standing in the dark, in the beam of the headlights of my car, sliding the plastic letters onto a ridged board. The motley selection of letters on hand limited the choice of sayings, but one of my favourites was:

A person who is all wrapped up in themselves makes a very small package.

As I spent the last day or so in the head of Nadia, the narrator of My Heart Hemmed In by French author Marie NDiaye, that line kept coming back to me. Poor Nadia. So self-centred that she truly can’t see beyond the narrow reality she has constructed around herself.

And the reckoning will be harsh. We sense that from the opening pages.

Originally published in 2007, now released from Two Lines Press in a translation by Jordan Stump, My Heart Hemmed In is an exquisite exercise in narrative restraint. The tension is immediate and sustained. Nadia and her husband Ange are middle-aged school teachers in Bordeaux. Theirs is a life of smug, self-righteous isolation. They delight in their moral superiority, their cultured good taste and ostentatious frugality; they appreciate quality and reject base, popular forms of entertainment, including television. They select their few friends carefully, while judging anyone who offends their delicate sensibilities to be beneath contempt.

Their marriage is a perfect union of souls.

But something is threatening that bliss, something dark and insidious. The couple, afraid to acknowledge it, share the sensation that they have become the object of a simmering hostility in their community. Once admired, they cannot imagine what they could have done to warrant this growing contempt. And then, one day, a mysterious open wound appears on Ange’s stomach. He refuses treatment and retreats to his room. As an aura of disease and decay spreads from his bedside, threatening to overwhelm the entire apartment, Nadia fights to save him amid the waves of concern, fear, and disgust that appear to be driving a wedge between them. Aggravating the divide is the presence of a disheveled and despised angel of mercy—their downstairs neighbour, a certain Monsieur Noget. Once the object of their mutual scorn, he now arrives daily, bearing gourmet delights, insisting it his “honour” to help care for Ange and tend to the couple’s needs. Nadia is torn between her distrust of this stranger—whom everyone else seems to insist is a famous author—and the irresistible temptations of the glorious, fat-laden meals he prepares daily.

Nadia’s neatly defined world rapidly begins to shift around her. The very fabric of reality seems altered, threatening her rational self-control, but she is determined to push her anxieties aside. Ignoring the warnings of others, she attempts to return to work after Ange’s strange injury only to discover, with horror, that she too has been victimized. She arrives home in a state of shock:

My knees buckle. I collapse in the doorway. I must lie prostrate like that for some time half conscious (because I can hear all sorts of sounds from the kitchen or bedroom, the scuff of slippered feet, the whistle of a tea kettle, the clink of silverware), unable to move or speak but somehow resigned, blithely or indifferently accepting my powerlessness, as in a dream. How tedious, I think calmly, unsure what my mind means by that complaint. My weight is resting on my right hip, and it’s very painful. I desperately want to stand up, but my will seems to have parted ways with my mind, which is serenely registering the various sounds coming to it from the building or the apartment as my soul bleeds and moans.

Over the weeks that follow, Noget continues his patient vigil. He forces his luxurious fat-laden food on both husband and wife, but while Ange continues to waste away, Nadia rapidly expands beyond the capacity of her clothing. Eventually, her efforts to save her husband—and salvage her own dignity—drive her to attempt to reconnect with her estranged son. This will bring her into contact with her ex-husband and the vestiges of a life she was once desperate to escape. Was she so unhappy? she wonders, quickly burying such thoughts as soon as they arise.

As her distress at the disorienting disruption to her previously ordered existence mounts, Nadia finds little sympathy. Rather, she is confronted regularly, and from a variety of sources, with the insinuation that she is the source of Ange’s trials. She does not want to hear that. Her pride is virtually indissoluble. She clings to it as if it is the only quality that gives her being—her tortured soul—substance. Even as her surroundings seem to conspire against her, her defiance grows with her confusion and paranoia. She will not question her sanity. Nor does she accept any responsibility. After all, she insists, she has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this bizarre, brutal turn of events. She is determined to hold, in Ange, a mirror of her own soul. She cannot bear the possibility that it could be her own arrogance and stubborn self-regard that corrupted him.

However, an italicized internal monologue woven into Nadia’s measured narrative account, betrays a deeper train of thought—her bitter self-justification, her growing doubts and fears, her moments of despair, her desperate entreaties to herself: “My stolid heart, my weakening, stolid heart, keep on bravely beating in your prison of fat.” It runs at odds with what she will admit into her formal account. It is where we begin to see the fissures in her psyche that are spreading and threatening to fracture any equilibrium she is able to hold on to:

No, I’m not out of my mind. Why should I be so convinced that everything I see has some direct connection to me? I can’t rid myself of the feeling the whole city is spying on me.  And my heart is cornered, surrounded by the baying pack, and it’s hammering on the wall of my chest, wishing it could break out of its cramped cage, my poor aging heart, my poor trembling heart. I was born right here in Bordeaux, in Les Aubiers neighbourhood; I’ve spent my whole life in this city, and I love it with a fraternal tenderness, like a human soul mate. But now I find Bordeaux slipping away from me, enigmatically shunning my friendship, its streets seemingly changing their look and direction (is it only the fog? I ask myself), its citizens grown hostile over the past few months (and I’d gotten used to that and it had, over time, become bearable), seeming no longer to hate me exactly, but to be stalking me.

Nadia is a complex, troubled protagonist. She cannot fathom what it is that others see in her face, but knows she is somehow marked. It is not easy to feel sorry for her. She demonstrates a disturbing inability to distinguish between what is legally right and what is morally decent, refusing to acknowledge the extent of the heartlessness she has shown to others. And she is so completely self-absorbed, so willfully disconnected from ordinary human engagement, that the cost of the isolation she once craved comes as a cruel shock. “The trouble with you,” her ex-husband advises her, “is that you only know what you want to know.”

Half-heartedly hoping to save Ange, and weighed down by the sense that her beloved Bordeaux, now contorted and encased in terminal fog, has rejected her, Nadia sets off to visit her adult son, now a married doctor living far away. She hopes she will be able to regain some stability, but the surreal, grotesque occurrences follow her. Haunted by losses and regrets, Nadia becomes increasingly unhinged and fragile as her sense of herself, and her place in the world, slowly unravels.

NDiaye is a master of narratives that mix the magical with the real, but she leaves the line between her fantastical landscape and her narrator’s paranoia and neuroses fluid. The result is a tightly paced, psychologically claustrophobic allegorical tale, rich with elements of gothic horror. With My Heart Hemmed In, one is invited to read and through the observations and interpretations of a myopic, damaged, and yet fundamentally recognizable narrator. She is at once frustrating and tragic. There is, after all, a little Nadia in all of us.

Dream on: Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris

I am lying in bed exactly as I would in reality, except that my forehead is pressed against the white powdery wall of a large cylinder made of lime, a cistern of sorts, exactly my height, and which is nothing other than myself, actualized and exteriorized. I feel this other exterior forehead pressing against my own, and thus I imagine my head is pressing against the very substance of my mind. [Undated]

A curious thing happened as I ventured into the dream writings of French author, Michel Leiris. I expected, perhaps, a surrealist-inspired fascination with the stuff of dreams, the settings, the strangeness, and the symbolism of nocturnal (or aided hallucinogenic) adventures. And there are, among the fragments and the longer descriptive accounts he collected between 1923 and 1960, many vivid images and observations. But this is not a self-indulgent, introspective endeavour. Nights as Day, Days as Nights demonstrates a psychoanalytical restraint, and an observational interest in the quality of dream life (and its echoes in the half-awake and “real life” realms). Consequently, as I made my way through his recorded recollections, I could not help but reflect on my experience of dreamed realities. In sharing Leiris’ journey, I caught glimpses of my own.

Born in 1901, Michel Leiris is widely regarded as a pioneer of confessional literature, known for his extensive autobiographical writings. He was drawn into the sphere of the surrealists early in his literary career, and although he broke with them before long, their influence would linger. He was also an accomplished ethnographer, who participated in anthropological missions into Africa in the 1930s, and worked at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris for much of his life. Given this context, his dream writings which, remarkably, span almost four decades, were nurtured in a rich, fertile soil. But, as translator Richard Sieburth indicates in his introduction, Leiris preferred to classify these notes, collected and published in 1961, among his poetic works, casting a different light on his lifelong exploration of the self. In his essay “Dreaming, Writing,” written to accompany the original release of Nights, Maurice Blanchot remarks that the reserve that Leiris shows in his transcribing of his dreams—not attempting to dissect them—should be respected in the reading. What he offers here is literary, not autobiographical or analytical: “These were once dreams, they are now signs of poetry.”

For Leiris, language plays an important role, not only in the translation of the remnants of dreamed (or fantasized) experience, but in the very substance of dreams. At times he plays linguistic games to escape or alter the events unfolding in his sleeping imagination, at other times he may reflect on the words used to his record remembered scenarios:

 The word rêve (dream) has something cobwebby to it, as well as something akin to gossamer veil that clogs the throats of persons suffering from the croup. This is no doubt due to its sonority and to certain formal connection between the v and the circumflex accent that precedes it (this accent being nothing more than a smaller, inverted v); hence the idea of interlacing, of a finely woven veil. Dreams are spiderlike, given their instability on the one hand and their veil-like quality on the other. If dreams are like the croup, it is probably because they are linked to the notion of nocturnal disturbances (like those bouts of false croup from which I suffered during the night as a very small child). [July 27–28, 1924, Real-life]

Leiris’ dreams are, essentially, recognizable to anyone who remembers their own dreams (since some people seem to be unable to do so). We have all likely had dreams that were bizarre, where a reality we think we know is distorted or shifts, situations that are sexually tinged, or charged with anxiety, or so terrifying that we awake with a start. And what about those dreams that feature people or places that are familiar, but oddly out of time? Or the multi-layered dreams, those that seem to descend or surface to different levels of consciousness—dreaming you are awake, only to discover you are still asleep? The beauty that comes through (and it is not always beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word), is the sensitivity with which Leiris records his experiences. He is capturing the thoughts, images, memories or ideas that come to him, whether he is awake, half-asleep, or sleeping—his dream life is not confined to one realm of the day—with little intervention or commentary. He may muse about an interpretation of some aspect, but only in passing. Most offerings are presented raw, so to speak, and in vivid detail:

By a pool, a row of giant toads the size of chimpanzees, all covered with moss. They would appear to be part gorilla, and their colours range from green to gray to brown. The finest specimen—to the extreme left of the row—is bottle-green with huge eyes like frosted lightbulbs. They are all getting ready to dive into the water and crawl back into their shells (?). It occurs to me that if I dressed up in knickerbockers and wore a large green felt cap, I would look like a toad. [September, 1933]

Having a record, albeit at times sporadic, that spans a significant period of one man’s life, from roughly the age of twenty-two to sixty, offers insight into another important quality of the dream space. Figures from his “waking life,” as he puts it, appear—and for Leiris this is a fascinating cast, he knew Georges Bataille, Georges Limbour, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, and countless other well-known writers, poets and artists. But it is his wife, Louise Godon, whom he calls “Z,” who is the abiding presence throughout, whether she is out with him, waiting to meet him somewhere, or comforting him when he awakens with a scream. Other, often anonymous, women may attract his attention in his dreams, but she is never far away, so it seems, from his heart or mind.

Of course, events in the real world also infiltrate the realm of dream and fantasy. During the war years, Leiris’ accounts show a striking amplification of military imagery and themes of impending death, ranging from the allegorical to the theatrical to the disturbingly realistic. This is to be expected, but these records collected and presented, chronologically as they are, map the interior response to exterior terror, in real time. The dreamer, now in mid-life, evolves during these years. He almost seems to become a more astute listener to his own anxious imagination. The entries recorded in the post-war years feature longer, more detailed, but no less surreal, narratives.

When Michel Leiris organized and published this collection in 1961, he would still live, and continue to dream, for another twenty-nine years. Alongside his autobiographical writings, he engaged in a rigorous and formal journal keeping project that spanned seventy years (1922-1989), but Nights as Days, Days as Nights stands as a particularly engaging poetic gift. The invitation to spend time in someone else’s dreams may seem odd, after all, our own dreams are typically of less interest to others than they are to us. But Leiris has a rare ability to transmit these imagined episodes in a way that is not only interesting, but encourages us to recall the way we experience ourselves and others in our own dreams, to become alert to the recurrences, the insecurities, and the wonder that lingers. As such, this very personal project becomes universal, enriching the nights and days of those who are open to it.

Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris, translated by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot, is published by Spurl Editions.

Truth, lies and wild allegations: The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges

In an age when climate denial, an increasing distrust of immigrants, and the epithet “fake news” dominate the headlines, the eloquent arguments ventured forth in the pages of the anonymous Refutatio major (c. 1517–1525) play neatly against the public consciousness, reminding us that, even now, there are still those who hold to a view that the world is flat and the moon landings were fabricated. But none of our contemporary doubters or conspiracy theorists who peddle their “alternate facts” would deny the existence of the New World. . . However, in the decades that followed Christopher Columbus’ fated encounter with a land mass that would soon turn long held assumptions about the geographical reality of the world on their heads, what sort of skeptics might have crawled out of the woodwork?

Well, if you accept the premise French author and playwright, Pierre Senges, is prepared to offer alongside his spirited “translation” of this curious treatise claimed by no one but attributed to Antonio de Guevara, we have a Renaissance-era Latin document that purports to call into question the veracity of the reports, artefacts, and individuals ferried across the ocean from this distant new land by a steady stream of seafaring Spanish and Portuguese adventurers, colonists, and missionaries who have disappeared and reappeared over the watery western horizon since the reported discovery of the Mundus novus. And what an imaginative and persistent defense is waged in this apparent “Epistle to Charles V,” now translated into English by Jacob Siefring as The Major Refutation.

The new world, an enchantment? however when John Day, a good sailor no doubt, but a geographer of little import, announces that somewhere to the west islands have been found where “grass grows,” he is either smirking with deceit, or mocking our rulers, to whom he extends an offer of six square yards of lawn in the guise of a vast kingdom. These men go off into the horizon, where they lose their heads, exert themselves furiously, ravish Indian women, move mountains and entire populations, drown a thousand sailors in their wake, and then come back to us, swearing in magnificent syllables that grass grows on these lands and that in their environs, by the grace of God, rain falls from on high.

Senges is a prolific French writer, but to date little of his work is available in English. With a spirit akin to Borges and Calvino, Senges frequently exploits the possible, potential, and unfinished spaces that exist in history or literature. That porous line between fact and invention is blurred with a nimble oratorical style that lends itself to work with a sharp satirical, critical, and philosophical edge. Throughout the text, the personages and recorded events are real, but it’s the dogged determination to prove that the celebrated New World is an elaborate hoax that forms the heart and soul of this wildly entertaining feat of double imposture.

The magic of The Major Refutation lies in the delight the author (or his surrogate, shall we say) takes in language. The biting, sarcastic humour is infectious. One can imagine our Franciscan chronicler writing with a healthy measure of unholy abandon in this passionate entreaty to Charles V, king and Holy Roman Emperor. Antonio De Guevara (1480–1545), the imagined author of the manuscript at hand, was in truth, no stranger to writing in the voice of another—he infamously penned a text he tried to pass off as original by Marcus Aurelius. Granted free reign he openly attacks anyone, his clerical brethren notwithstanding, who comes within his sights in his effort to prove that the so-called New World is nothing more than a grandly orchestrated act of fraud and collusion. The concessions granted with respect to dominion over the distant vistas fail to impress him:

To the observer, these textual games and universal decrees sitting alongside and contradicting one another, these privileges to a single treasure granted to so many, these supposedly definitive treaties that are deprecated before the year is even up, that manner of signing at just two streets’ remove a couple of decrees that mutually refute one another, all the while perceiving that the world carries on under the weight of such numerous paradoxes, to the solitary witness all of this looks as much like naiveté, as much like a superior ruse. Because to adopt a proprietary attitude towards invisible islands is either proof of blindness, become lately a fashion of the courts & palaces, or it is a deliberate strategy, dictated by the crafty to the envious; to delude the people, it would hence be a question of acting as though the chimerical continents were so valuable they were worth the price of humiliations on their behalf, worth the aristocrats sharing trading posts and territories, like barkers sharing stalls in the marketplace.

With an 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. Queen Isabella, Columbus’ sponsor, is a favourite suspect to whom the author returns repeatedly. He imagines ingenious means by which the entire enterprise could be facilitated —insisting that once beyond the horizon ships turn south to Cape Verde to hold over before sailing back with gold smuggled out of Spanish coffers and returned again. Of course, the unspoken value of fostering belief in a far off land of untold wealth and opportunity is not lost on him:

The principal reason for the invention of the new world would surely be to send off into the ocean a portion of our great surplus of useless men, who fill our countrysides, our cities, and betwixt the twain our faubourgs, with the speed of a spreading plague. . . . The new world and the enticing advertisements which speak of it so fantastically invite all these beggars & jobless, worthless players to board dinghies, strap a sail to their torso and head due west, without demerit. A steady stream of disfigured men, ugsome-faced knaves and scrawny blackguards have thus quit terra firma, this world for its beyond, in prestigious and ruined galleons.

From the opening “Editor’s Foreword” that places the Refutation into historical context, to the scholarly “Afterword” that vigorously defends the case for Antonio de Guevara, confessor to Charles V, as the probable author while considering less likely alternate candidates, Senges is essentially presenting a carefully designed meditation on the nature of truth—on that which is credible and that which is contrived, on belief and doubt. Selecting de Guevara as his preferred composer, a historical figure with an attempted forgery to his credit, and allowing him to imply that his faith in his own argument is perhaps less than genuine, adds depth to the layers of a deception designed and executed as one thoroughly intelligent and entertaining whole.

Of course, the release of the of “English Version of Refutatio major” in late 2015, ten years after the “original” French version, is especially timely. Conspiracies abound. In saecula saeculorum.

The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges, translated by Jacob Siefring, is published by Contra Mundum Press. And, for the record, the book design and typesetting is exceptional.

For World Poetry Day, excerpts from a few books on my bedside table

In honour of World Poetry Day (which at the moment, in my time zone, is still happening), I thought I would take a moment to look at some of the poetry currently on my bedside table. I sometimes write about the poetry I read, but do not feel equipped to formally review it. That doesn’t keep me from enjoying it, of course.

I read a lot of poetry in translation. It can, perhaps, be a challenge to capture the spirit of a poem in another language, but that’s not a reason to deny its worth. Poetry opens up worlds of experience in a way prose typically cannot. And when competing (or rather, complementary) translations emerge, I like to think of that as an opportunity to re-experience a piece of literature reflected through a somewhat different prism.

I have a fondness for collections, complete or selected, that allow me to sample a poet’s work across their career, and delight in the magic of opening a book randomly, finding words that strike home. The following pieces are taken from the works I have been spending time with lately:

Water binds me to your name.
Nothings is left of me except you.
Nothing is left of you except me—
a stranger caressing the thighs of a stranger.
O stranger, what will we do with what is left
of the stillness and the brief sleep between two myths?
Nothing carries us: neither path nor home.
Was this the same path from the beginning?
Or did our dreams find a Mongolian horse on a hill
and exchange us for him?
What shall we do?
What shall we do without exile?

—Mahmoud Darwish, from “Who Am I, without Exile?”, translated from Arabic by Sinan Antoon, collected in Unfortunately, it was Paradise: Selected Poems (University of California Press)

* * *

I’m a Child of this Century

I’m a child of this dreary century
a child who never grew up
Doubts that set my tongue on fire
burned my wings
I learned to walk
then I unlearned it
I grew weary of oases
and camels eager for ruins
My head turned to the East
I lie in the middle of the road
And wait for the caravan of the mad

—Abdellatif Laâbi, from Beyond the Barbed Wire: Selected Poems, translated from French by André Naffi-Sahely (Caranet Press)

* * *

Every day wakes up to some abuse
in my monologue is
embedded the legend of my sorrow,
with thousand year-old grief
I prevailed over my dirty life,
but not over the rationality of the winter cold . . .

In taprooms you rip off
the tattered shreds of your tragedy,
no forest, no merit, no archangel . . .

Above your poetry a swarm of birds mows
mows and mows a life imploring . . .
nothing for anyone
in the proximity of this dream,
nothing for worldly lovers . . .

Fruit of rottenness,
a wicked sun . . .
Temple ruins, broken pieces gathering
on the rediscovered shore . . .
in gloomy courtyards books opening . . .
Verses on abandoned walls . . .

. . . not the perfect one,
not the dead man, who drove you into the cities . . .
Trust in your song.
You plough the earth with your fragments,
cold begot you . . .
You, left behind by your creators . . .

—Thomas Bernhard, from Collected Poems, translated from German by James Reidel (forthcoming from Seagull Books)

Experimental road trip: Mobile by Michel Butor

Freedomland prospectus:
“Excitement! Adventure! Education!
Cross the centuries from Colonial New England to the pioneer West, from the Mexican border towns to the Great Lakes ports, from Cape Canaveral to the Northwest Passage! Chug the picturesque Old West on an early iron horse, explore the Northwest in a fur trapper’s canoe, soar 70 feet above the earth in a mine oar bucket . . . tour through America’s waterways and wilderness on the most thrilling new rides ever designed!
Over forty authentic themes to make history live again at Freedomland! . . .”

freedomland

As I write this, the 45th President of the United States has been in office for just over two weeks. Watching the country of my birth from north of the 49th parallel where I have lived since I was three years old, it does feel as if one has wandered into the freak show tent at the Circus-at-the-End-of-the-World. Reading Michel Butor’s Mobile at this moment in American history, frames much of what we are currently watching unfold from an eerie perspective. When the French avant-garde writer was travelling the newly connected highways of America in 1959, he could not have known how very timely all the pieces of information he was gathering, fragmenting, and reconstructing into this ambitious experimental work would still seem more than half a century on. Or perhaps he did. In much of today’s rhetoric, it sounds as if there is a desire to return to some ideal USA, but if Mobile is any indication, that ideal never existed. It is a myth, like the many myths celebrated and reproduced at the grand, but very short-lived, Freedomland Amusement Park.

mobileSubtitled “A novel” in the Dalkey Archives edition I read, the original subtitle offers a more accurate indication of the project at hand: Study for a Representation of the United States. Butor draws from a wide range of materials to create, or allow for the creation of, a representational framework for looking at America. He incorporates substantial excerpts from the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, reports from the Salem witch trials, traditional and treaty records from Native American history, newspaper accounts of the 1893 World’s Fair and more, but one cannot emerge from this journey without an appreciation of an expansive land, rich in history, natural beauty, and diversity.

As eclectic and idiosyncratic as the nation he is attempting to capture, Mobile reads more like a poem than any manner of traditional textual prose. Even the larger textual pieces are broken up and juxtaposed against other materials including an extensive collection of place names, signs, facts, ethnic newspaper and radio programming, travel boards, catalogue descriptions, Audubon bird portraits, and Howard Johnson ice cream flavours. There is a rhythm and an awareness of pattern that binds the work together within a strict overarching structure. He follows an alphabetic rather than geographic guideline from state to state, plays up the seemingly endless recurrence of place names, and links sections across time zones:

The sea,

                    oysters,

razor clams,

                    mussels,

littleneck clams,

                    Washington clams

A white Oldsmobile driven by a young, tanned white man in a pineapple-colored shirt with coffee polka dots (55 miles), “How much longer? Two hours?”—Dead Indian and China Hat Mountains.

The sparkling snow.

SPRINGFIELD. . . . and three o’clock in

SPRINGFIELD, Mountain Time, on the desert plain of the Snake River,
near the lava fields,

WELCOME TO ILLINOIS

                     already four in
SPRINGFIELD, Central Time, where you can order black-currant ice
cream in the Howard Johnson Restaurant.

The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
“The New York World,” April 9, 1893:
“Ward McAllister has given careful attention to the question of how New York society will be treated in Chicago during the World’s Fair. He is disposed to think that fashionable persons in this city need not fear anything but the best treatments at the hands of Chicagoans . . .”
Quoted by John Szarkowski: “The Idea of Louis Sullivan.”

The trains coming from New York.
The trains leaving for San Francisco.

Dedicated to Jackson Pollock, Mobile is often described as an unclassifiable work. It is clearly not a study in the formal sense of the word, though by standing back from the flow of fragments, a picture of the country emerges in the patchwork text. There is the sense that Butor harvested this wide range of sources and arranged them to allow the rhythm and flow of language paint a colourful portrait of the United States. It feels dynamic, natural, even when it is the intentional cleverness and humour that catches your eye. But then, it is this same playfulness that makes Mobile such a wonderfully fun read. I especialy enjoyed his use of catalogue listings, as in this pairing of an advertisement for paint-by-number kits with the description of a set of panties:

 “…With this set you receive two Rembrandt water-colors. Panels in pairs, 40 oil-colors in vacuum-sealed glass jars, four superior quality, washable brushes. Net weight: six pounds. . . .”

Or, through Sears, Roebuck & Co., and assortment of seven knitted nylon or rayon panites artistically embroidered with the days of the week:

                      “. . . Choose from

– white for Sunday,

                      – The Last Supper, with The Sermon on the Mount,

– yellow for Monday,

                     – Autumn Landscape, with The End of the Day,

– blue for Tuesday,

                      – Sunset at Sea, with Homecoming,

– pink for Wednesday,

                     – Thoroughbred, with The Foxhunt,

– white for Thursday,

                     – Scenes from Swan Lake, ballet,

– green for Friday,

                     – Venus and Adonis.”

– black for Saturday,
“please include hip measurements,”

This book is not, of course, all light and fun. There are deeply disturbing passages. Segregation is still a reality in many regions (“For whites only”), and the selections from Thomas Jefferson’s writing on the intrinsic inferiority of the black and red races are uncomfortable to read. In the light of the current concern about migrants, the ethnic and cultural diversity captured on Butor’s travels are telling (The Arabs who read “As-Sameer,” The Armenians who read Gochtnag,” The Chinese who read “China Tribune.”) Yet it is all bound together through the repetition of place names from state to state, and the famed ice cream selection at that classic highway stalwart of the era, Howard Johnsons. In the end, filtered through the lens of an outsider, Mobile succeeds in tracing a fractured songline across the heartland of America.

hojo

Mobile is translated by Richard Howard and published by Dalkey Archive Press with a fascinating introduction by John D’Agata.