No one’s immune from miracles: Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui

The destiny that now draws me far away from here is still called life, but I have to admit it’s like a leap into the void. They say that before he hits the ground a man falling from a great height sees all the moments of his existence come together and drain from him in batches of images.

And for me, it’s in batches of mingled words—that the life that brought me here is melting away.

In what unfolds as one final personal war of words, echoing against the darkness that surrounds him, the speaker at the heart of Shadow of Things to Come explains what has brought him to the edge of an uncertain future. Piece by piece he pulls together the memories that comprise his twenty-one years of life, essentially setting down the details of his past and readying himself to let go of all he has ever been and known. As he recounts his story, he chooses his words carefully, holding onto them in the shifting moonlight, for his is a society in which language has been reduced to meaningless nicknames and slogans. Through a spare and cautious narrative, the image of an Orwellian nightmare slowly takes shape.

This novella by Togolese author and playwright, Kossi Efoui, is set in an unnamed African nation which has fallen under some kind of dictatorial rule in which, during the first stage—the “Time of Annexation”—people are disappeared and forced to work at a place known as the Plantation until relieved by death or madness. Once the “commodity” (oil) is discovered, everything shifts. The disappearances stop and a new future is imagined. Now, in the service of “Mother Rebirth,” an aggressive campaign begins to bring tribal forest dwelling peoples into the “modern” world—for their own good and to secure pipeline passage for the precious resource. Although Efoui has lived in self-imposed exile in France in opposition to the Gnassingbé regime, since 1992, it would be misleading to read this dystopic work as any kind of direct analogy for his homeland or any specific historical or political condition. The origin of the society his characters live in is never explored. As a result, this tale has an  amorphous quality that makes it widely applicable in space and time. And all the more disquieting for it.

The speaker, from the room in which he is hiding, recalls that he was five years old when his father, a saxophonist, was spirited away by two shadowy figures. The removals appeared random. Agents would arrive with the common incantation: On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest, and forcibly take their chosen target or targets away. But before they left, they would take all photographic evidence of the human forms they had come to retrieve. At the time it was unknown where all these unfortunate souls had been taken, only that “temporary,” like so much of the language employed, was devoid of meaning. Appropriate language was but another regulated item in a society in which compliance to an ever changing set of rules and guidelines was inforced:

Words themselves seemed to suffer the same restrictions as the circulation of approved commodities. The word ‘annexation,’ for example, was not to be heard anywhere. The way things were in my childhood, we kept silent a lot.

That degradation…says the speaker.

The loss of the speaker’s father drove his mother mad, she was soon committed to an institution and he was left in the care of Mama Maize, an eccentric woman who cared for a large group of abandoned or orphaned children, supporting herself by whatever means possible. Her goal was to pass on to them the tools, practical and emotional, that they would need to survive. Her moto was: No one’s immune from miracles.

And one day a miracle does occur. The speaker’s father returns, one of a minority of those who managed to survive removal. The speaker is nine years old by this point, The End of the Times of Annexation has been marked by celebrations of Independence and Rebirth, and when he has long given up hope of a reunion, out of the dust and shadows a man emerges still holding a saxophone case, “barely a skeleton, almost membraneless, wholly incapable of embracing—and voiceless.” The occasion is immediately recorded by a photographer.

The condition of the speaker’s father affords him a pension and a place to live in this new world order. Father and son move into this unit along with Ikko, an abandoned boy from Mama Maize’s home who is mistakenly added to the family group and becomes the speaker’s “administrative brother.” Our hero is a bright boy and this leads to his acceptance into the Spearhead Institute several years later. He is on his way to a promising future within the country’s societal structure but the confrontational atmosphere of the school puts him off. In time he finds himself skipping classes to hang out at Antique Editions, a bookstore run by Axil Kemal, a man who becomes a big brother or surrogate father, and offers an introduction to a world that runs against the norms of the rigid dictates of the state. It will be a mind opening relationship:

That’s what he was for me, the guide for my curiosity. At an age when you learn to believe in ‘thinking masters’, Axis Kemal was my laughing master and, sheltered beneath that laughter, my mind was kept safe from the diseases of truth, he said—that acne of the soul, he said.

It will also be a vital connection when the speaker has to make a decision about his own commitment to the future that is being laid out for him in a duplicitous society where what is said cannot be trusted and what is not being said cannot be fully imagined.

Shadow of Things to Come is, above all, a story about language and communication. The narrative itself is one step removed from a straight first person account—the protagonist’s reflections are being reported by an unknown third person narrator, who is listening to him, occasionally referring to him as “the speaker.” This undefined relationship, given the circumstances, adds a layer of uncertainty and potential threat. Whether he aware of his audience or not, the speaker is attentive to the power of words. To their use and misuse. He regularly comments on his ability, learned at an early age, to read the hidden intentions of others by the slightest creases in their faces. This is a skill that allows him to decipher the truths behind words, those spoken and left unsaid. But lack of communication, as with his mute and damaged father, troubles him deeply, as do the strange markings his adopted brother Ikko makes after returning from his conscripted service in the so-called “Frontier Challenge.” The tendency of people to fall back on slogans and stock phrases undermines communication and blurs the truth, but, of course, that is the point. When you can no longer trust what anyone says, one either goes with the program or looks for a way out. And to escape you may have to leave even your words behind.

Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui is translated from the French by Chris Turner and published by Seagull Books.

At the back of the west wind: Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution by Eric Dupont

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance  in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

These words of Marx occur twice in course of Eric Dupont’s Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution: early on, underlined in the book lying open on the lap of the protagonist’s recently deceased mother, and again as the story nears an end. But between the two occurrences it’s pure farce—even the tragic bits.

One has to wonder what goes on in the imagination of Dupont, the Quebec writer whose works have won awards and garnered impressive nominations in both the original French and in English translation. With his latest release from QC Fiction, he has defied the odds of conventional storytelling to pull folktale magic, Marxist idealism, sex work, the politics of language and culture, and a curse reaching back through the centuries into one oddly contemporary tale. From the outset it is probably best allow yourself plenty of rational wiggle room, accept the premise of the proposed wild goose chase or fool’s errand at the heart of Rosa’s grand adventure, assured that however unlikely, the novel’s internal logic will be disclosed before the last page is turned. And ten to one you won’t see it coming!

Our heroine here is Rosa, named after the famous revolutionary socialist, raised by her trade unionist mother, Terese Ost, and Aunt Zenaida, an anachronistic old woman, one hundred years behind the times, who literally emerged from a large block of ice Terese and her daughter found on the shore near their village and dragged back home to thaw before the stove. Home is Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot, a tiny hamlet “forgotten by God and all of humankind” out on the Gaspé Peninsula “where the wind can be a crutch to lean on.” Until it’s not. Little Rosa is raised on a healthy diet of Marxist ideology and regular rounds of Scrabble, but things are not good in Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot. The paper mill has closed down, and the local economy has been forced to rely on a mysterious gas called Boredom which is tapped and sold to foreign interests.

And then, one day, the wind suddenly stops just as a leak occurs in one of the pipes accessing the source of the precious, albeit poisonous, gaseous commodity. Soon, people start dying of Boredom, beginning with Rosa’s mother. Without the wind to disperse the fumes, the village is doomed. Rosa tries to find solace in her socialist texts but to no avail. Instead, the potential solution comes to her when she finds a giant winkle shell on the shore, places the massive mollusc to her ear, and hears her mother’s voice advise her that the wind comes from the west—from Montreal. Immediately Rosa, who is now twenty, knows what she must do.

So off she goes. Waiting for the bus to take her into the city she meets an international troop of strippers (as one does), and much to their collective surprise, a woman pulls up in a minivan and offers to give them all a lift. This savoir is Jeanne Joyal and it just so happens that she runs a boarding house for young women where Rosa is welcome to stay. All too perfect? All too perfectly weird, I’d say. Naive and trusting, Rosa arrives in Montreal dressed like someone from a distant era and immediately finds a job in a pay-by-the-hour motel, across from a club where her new friends perform Communist infused lurid acts for an audience containing more than a few national political figures . Of course, she has no idea what she has just walked into, but her simplicity and openly accepting character inspires the strippers and hookers in her work environment to look out for her and gently educate her about the less savoury aspects of the world.

What makes this most unlikely scenario work is the central character, the fabulously innocent Rosa Ost. She evolves and hardens as time goes on, but her trust and dedication to her seemingly impossible task is endearing. At her lodgings, she learns that her landlady is tough, set in her ways and determined to educate her young charges, Rosa and three others, in the intricacies of Quebec history whether they want it or not. Our protagonist is often the one to take a risk and stand up in defense of her roommates. Like a good socialist.

There is romance, there is betrayal and there is mystery against a backdrop of political realities true to the timing of the narrative—late 2000, following the death of Pierre Elliot Trudeau—and still valid today. Language and cultural tensions are growing, the climate is an increasing concern and attitudes toward women, especially those in the sex trade, are marked by double standards that still prevail. The weakest link in this wild tale is a running gag about dialects that doesn’t necessarily translate smoothly. For it to work one has to read the Gaspé and Acadian seasoned dialogue with the correct accent. In English it risks falling flat. But it’s not a huge element within the narrative overall. Playful and irreverent this improbable farce is a fun read with a strangely satisfying, if bizarre, ending that ties up the loose ends in the wildest of knots.

Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution by Eric Dupont in translated by Peter McCambridge and published by QC Fiction.

Somewhere between night and day: Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy

Dark, endless,
lampless
behind the windowpanes

the night

Yet even it
ends up famished
can be heard fidgeting,
shrinking to better flee,
suddenly escaping
over the roofs

Spare, essential in its spirit, the voice of Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy strikes a distinctive note  from the first lines of “The Corridor,” the poem that opens Before the Night, the first part of her book Trás-os-Montes—a note that continues to rise off all the pages that follow. Born in Lausanne in 1954, Tappy is a highly respected writer, researcher and translator. The present collection of poetry, her seventh, was awarded the prestigious Swiss Prize for Literature in 2019 and is now available in a dual language French / English edition in John Taylor’s translation. (Her first six books were released in a single volume as Sheds / Hangars in 2014, again in Taylor’s translation, available from Bitter Oleander Press.)

In his Preface, Taylor provides an overview of the key poetic elements at play in the poems, linking them, where appropriate, to a continuation or development of approaches emerging in Tappy’s earlier poetry. His long association with the poet and her work allows him to contextualize the themes that arise, but a conversation between poet and translator recorded and published in translation in The Fortnightly Review, offers a valuable opportunity to hear Tappy discuss her poetic philosophy and this work in particular. In speaking about her own poetic evolution, she notes that Spanish and Latin American poets have had an abiding presence in her life and writing. Taylor wonders how this influence is reflected and she responds:

Surely natural elements in all their intensity: the Mediterranean, the arid lands, the most deserted landscapes, or the poorest landscapes. This is where my imagination goes and where I recover my roots. I have spent many moments of my life on one of the Balearic islands, and I came of age in the midst of an environment that was at once solar and maritime — and very harsh, where sunlight can be hostile, the vegetation overgrown and inhospitable, where the violence of nature demands a strong existential response from a human being. The southern European landscapes and their inhabitants, the harshness of their daily lives, have always accompanied me: Spain, but also Sicily, Greece, and Portugal.

This sensitivity to the human-natural interplay of intense landscapes is directly evident in Trás-os-Montes which is set in Portugal and Spain, along with an extended poetic epigram set in Greece. The first series of poems, Before the Night, feature a village woman, Maria, as she tends to the tasks of her daily life in “Trás-os-Montes” (which means “on the other side of the mountains”), an impoverished, isolated region of northern Portugal with an aging population clustered in small villages, almost forgotten by the rest of the country, bound to this austere lifestyle by deep ancestral roots.

Tiny and bent over
the sink, so far from us
in her blue apron, lost
in her rain boots, she’s sorting
the black cherries, setting the ripest
off to the side, separating them
from the rotten ones

She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips

behind the bare windowpane
the clouds
leave stains

We see her tending her garden, cleaning her home, straightening a fence, heading off to market, engaging in communal activities. But this is more than a quotidian cataloguing of chores or portrayal of a life shaped by the forces of nature and defined by time. The precise, economical language carries its own emotional and existential weight. Through the speaker’s observations of this woman who is at once a real person and someone who stands for a kind of “universal humanity,” Tappy is exercising a form of distanced depiction to ask questions about what life means. She says:

This book does not draw her portrait, nor address her (she will obviously never read me!). It’s actually the opposite that happens. . . Without her knowing so, this discreet hardworking woman holds out a mirror to me, and in this mirror I look at myself. This woman is a lamp for me. She illumines me and helps me to think, to think about myself.

This sequence of poems, then, lays the groundwork for those of the second section, The Blank Hour. Here the tone is more personal, while landscape—natural and man-made—becomes an even stronger feature, as trails and roads lead the speaker into an encounter with an intimate past.  Although in neither section is a location explicitly stated, these poems are ostensibly set in the Balearic Islands of Spain where Tappy has spent much time during her life. The imagery is bleak and beautiful, coloured with an atmosphere of memory and loss that grows deeper as the sequence proceeds.

But for those who go afar
with neither lamp nor landmark
under a sky of black snow,
the earth with its lighthouses,
its bits of bone, its rockets,
the earth so noisy during the day,
every evening closes up
like a wooden chest
over hope

There is, again, a real person at the centre of The Blank Hour, someone Tappy once loved who has passed away. Her speaker, the lyric “I” which she understands as “an ‘augmented I,’ as it were, composed of personal experiences but also of projections of my imagination,” addresses this individual and encounters his absence in the places they once knew together. Her language, so evocative, illuminates the experience of sorrow and grief so perfectly. Our losses always seem magnified, not only by specific locations but by the vastness of the universe itself.

Today the tamarisks
covered with dust from the trucks,
pink stars become gray
that you’ll never see again,
persist,
and the enamel-bright houses
bunch together. In silence
they stand, staving off
absence

A single fault line suffices, however,
and that look from the past returns,
slipping by mistake
into the heart, reopening
what had been locked up so well

a nearby star twinkling
and ripping

In reading Trás-os-Montes, one has a sense of journeying alongside the speaker, yet at the end we are each, poet and reader alike, left alone to understand the destinations we have reached. Tappy’s poetic process is openly existential in a way that prescribes no specific conclusion. The story she is telling, she claims, is not her own but rather a means to self-understanding: “By writing, I get myself going on a path, towards a deeper, renewed self.” As such, the story we read, is, at least to some degree, our own, shaped and coloured by our lives and experiences. And that is the true beauty and power of poetry.

Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy is translated from the French by John Taylor and published by MadHat Press.

Reading Women in Translation: Looking back over the past twelve months

For myself at least, as Women in Translation Month rolls around each August, there is, along with the intention to focus all or part of my reading to this project, a curiosity to look back and see just how many female authors in translation I’ve read since the previous year’s edition. I’ve just gone through my archives and am pleasantly surprised to find twenty titles, the majority read in 2022. Within this number are several authors I’ve read and loved before and a number of new favourites that have inspired me to seek out more of their work.

First among these is Lebanese-French writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, whose The Last Days of Mandelstam (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan) so thrilled me with its precision and economy that I bought another of her novellas and a collection of poetry, Alphabet of Sand (translated by Marilyn Hacker). I’ve just learned that another of her Russian poet inspired novels, Marina Tsvetaeva: To Die in Yelabuga, will be released by Seagull Books this fall. I can’t wait!

 

The advent of the war in Ukraine instantly drew my attention to a tiny book I had received from isolarii books. The name Yevgenia Belorusets became suddenly and tragically familiar as her daily diary entries from Kiev were published online. I read that small volume, Modern Animals (translated by Bela Shayevich), drawn from interviews with people she met in the Donbas region and as soon as it became available I bought and read her story collection Lucky Breaks (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky). Although both of these books reflect the impact of war in the east of the country, they could not be read without the context of the full scale invasion underway and still ongoing in her homeland.

Another author I encountered for the first time that inspired me to read more of her work was Czech writer Daniela Hodrová whose monumental City of Torment (translated by Elena Sokol and others) is likely the most profoundly challenging work I’ve read in along time. Upon finishing this trilogy I turned to her Prague, I See A City… (translated by David Short and reviewed with the above) which I happened to have buried on my kindle. A perfect, possibly even necessary, companion.

My personal Norwegian project introduced me to Hanne Örstavik, whom I had always meant to read. I loved her slow moving introspective novel, The Pastor (translated by Martin Aitken) and have since bought, but not read, her acclaimed novella, Love. However, lined up to read this month, I have her forthcoming release in translation, Ti Amo, a much more recent work based on her experience caring for her husband as he was dying of cancer. The only other female author I brought into this project was Ingvild H. Rishøi whose collection Winter Stories (translated by Diane Oatley) was a pure delight. I have been making note of other female Norwegian writers to fill in this imbalance in the future.

The past year also brought new work by two of my favourite poets: a book of prose pieces by Italian poet Franca Mancinelli, The Butterfly Cemetery (translated by John Taylor), and the conclusion to Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s epic experimental trilogy, My Jewel Box (translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen). In May I had the honour of speaking with Olsen and Jensen over Zoom for a special event—it was a fantastic opportunity I won’t soon forget. I also became acquainted with a new-to-me Austrian poet, Maja Haderlap, through her excellent collection distant transit (translated by Tess Lewis) and have since added her novel Angel of Oblivion to my shelves.

Among the many other wonderful women in translation I read over the past year, Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker winning Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell) needs no introduction—it is an exuberant, intelligent and wildly entertaining read. On an entirely different note, Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of Colette’s classic Cheri and the End of Cheri completely surprised me. I had no idea what a sharp and observant writer she was, in fact I didn’t know much about her at all and I discovered that she was quite the exceptional woman. Changing direction again, In the Eye of the Wild, French anthropologist Nastassja Martin’s account of her terrifying encounter with a bear in a remote region of Siberia (translated by Sophie R. Lewis) approaches the experience in an unexpected manner that I really appreciated.

Keeping with nonfiction for a moment, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Sarah Booker), a collection of essays about contemporary Mexico, was a difficult, necessary read. Annmarie Schwarzenbach’s account of her overland journey to Afghanistan with Ella Maillart in 1939, All the Roads Are Open (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) was another book I had long wanted to read that did not disappoint but which carries much more weight given the more recent history of that region. Finally, My Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi (translated from Tamil dictation by Nandini Murali) offers vital insight into the lives of hijra and trans women and trans men in India from a widely respected activist. Tilted Axis in the UK will be releasing this book to an international audience later this year.

Rounding out the year, were three fine novels. First, I after owning it for years, I finally read Seeing Red by Chilean writer Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell) and was very impressed. Last, but by no means least, I read two new releases from Istros Books who have an excellent selection of women writers in their catalogue. Special Needs by Lada Vukić (translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić) captures the slightly magical voice of child narrator with an undisclosed disability in a remarkably effective way, while Canzone di Guerra by the inimitable Daša Drndić (translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth) offers a fictionalized account of her years in Canada as a young single mother that was most enlightening for this Canadian reader.

I have, at this point, seven books selected for this year’s Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) and we’ll see how I manage—and now I also have a goal to exceed for the eleven months before August 2023! I would, by the way, recommend any of the titles listed above if you are looking for something to read this month.

You who have loved me: Chéri and The End of Chéri by Colette (A new translation by Rachel Careau)

“My poor Chéri . . . It’s strange to think that in our loss—for you of your spent old mistress, for me of my scandalous young lover—we have lost the most honorable thing that we possessed on earth . . .”

It might surprise many English speaking readers to learn that writer, journalist and actress Colette was one of the most important literary figures in twentieth-century France, second only to Proust. Beautiful, resourceful, and sexually liberated, known for her liaisons with women and younger men, her persona may seem to overshadow her talent even though her better known contemporaries held her in very high esteem. And, of course, there is the matter of her gender and the name she ultimately chose to use which, contrary to expectation is not a diminutive but rather her last name. She was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873, would be the first woman elected president of the Académie Goncourt and, upon her death in 1954, she was given a state funeral. Yet if, as Lydia Davis suggests in her Foreword to the recently released edition of Chéri and The End of Chéri, Colette has not generally been afforded the respect she enjoyed in her native country, that may begin to change thanks to Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of two of her best loved works.

In her extensive and informative Translator’s Note, Careau discusses the unique qualities of Colette’s language and exposes the challenges of preserving the taut beauty of her prose:

what becomes most apparent to the reader of her work in the original French is its extreme and seemingly effortless economy: it contains no excess, no ornament, nothing beyond the essential. Her sentences can feel skeletal, the flesh carved away to convey their meaning with the fewest possible words. A master of concision, subtraction, condensation, renunciation, she is always trying to do more with less: “You become a great writer,” she states, “as much through what you refuse your pen as through what you grant it.”

This economy is difficult to capture without the temptation to fluff the pillows a little, correct her punctuation, fill in missing conjunctions, relative pronouns and even invent adjectives so as to keep her language from appearing too stiff—a tendency that marred earlier translations. But then one risks losing the spirit that animates her work. At once ornate and lean, her sentences flow unhindered by unnecessary clutter. Fond of ellipses, she paints small details with carefully selected words, side glances and intimations allowed to just drift unfinished into the air. Her ear for dialogue, both spoken and unspoken, is finely tuned, sharp and sharpened with complex emotion and barbed intensity. Chéri and its companion novel, The End of Chéri offer, in Careau’s crystalline translation, a welcome opportunity to fully appreciate the power of Colette’s literary talent.

Chéri, originally published in 1920, famously revolves around the affair of an aging courtesan, Léa, and her lover, affectionately called Chéri, a vain and spoiled young man nearly twenty-five years her junior. Set in the final years of the Belle Epoque, amidst the acquired (and sometimes feigned) luxury of the leisured class—not the uppermost layer of society but the strata composed of courtesans, former prostitutes and dancers—hers is not a work of social commentary. Colette’s tapestry features the intricacy and dynamics of human interaction: affection, obsession, deception, hostility, even tedium. She was a keen observer, not only of people, but of plants and animals. Small dramas play out on the page, but the magic lies not so much in what is happening as in how it is depicted in her precise, spare elegant prose.

Chéri has a languid pace, despite the inevitable romantic dissolution that lies at its core. It opens with the petulant, self-absorbed Chéri, playfully donning Léa’s pearls while she observes him from the depths of her bed. They have, at this point, been together for six years although she has known him since he was a small boy as he is the son of a long-time friend and fellow courtesan. He is twenty-five, while she is nearing her fiftieth birthday. The dynamics of their relationship are dissected, dramatized in intimate detail. Colette zooms in on the hint of a smile, the arch of a brow, the subtle movement of a limb. Repeated images—the cast of light, mirrored reflections, passing aromas—serve to heighten the tensions simmering beneath the surface of every thought or interaction. Chéri is aware of his beauty, terrified of losing it, suspecting perhaps that little lies beneath the surface. Léa is also conscious of the creeping ravages of time but her confidence and security runs deep after a lifetime of carefully leveraging her charms:

She stood up, wrapped herself in a dressing gown, and opened the curtains. The midday sun entered the cheerful, overly decorated pink room whose luxury was dated, double lace panels at the windows, rosebud-pink faille on the walls, gilded woodwork, electric lights veiled in pink and white, and antiques upholstered in modern silks. Léa would not relinquish either this cozy room or her bed, a considerable, indestructible masterpiece of copper and wrought iron, severe to the eye and cruel to the shins.

It has always been inevitable that Chéri would one day be expected to take a suitable bride, but when that day arrives suddenly and sooner than either he or Léa anticipated, neither one is prepared for how it unsettles their personal and emotional  equilibrium.

The End of Chéri, conceived of separately and published six years later in 1926, is essentially a companion piece and completion of what can be understood as one work. It is now 1919, six years after the setting of Chéri, and war has changed everything and everyone except, tragically, Chéri himself in spite of his time in the trenches. Still beautiful, his beauty will no longer suffice. His young wife, Edmeé, to whom he was needlessly cruel, is now more than capable of holding her ground. The only character who insists on calling Chéri by his proper name, Fred, she is managing a hospital for wounded soldiers, clearly in love with the head doctor, and together with Chéri’s mother, managing the family fortune. Unable or unwilling to take up any meaningful labour, Chéri drifts through the days, looking for an anchor in past connections and spiraling deeper into depression.

The End of Chéri has a darker, even tighter tone. Physical descriptions can be brutal, grotesque—and often wryly funny—filtered through the thoughts of the characters, revealing more about the viewer than the viewed. Chéri is at once the central and increasingly isolated figure. New power dynamics are revealed, playing out between the many female characters who are strong, independent, even eccentric. Likewise, the fabrics, the colours, the floral displays, the household routines evoke an atmosphere that drives Chéri to become more bitter and defiant. Léa, in their shocking reunion, quickly diagnoses him:

 “You have altogether the look of someone who suffers from the sickness of the times. Let me speak! . . . You’re like all your fellow soldiers, you’re looking for paradise, eh, the paradise that’s owed to you, after the war? Your victory, your youth, your beautiful women . . . You’re owed everything, you were promised everything, well, it’s only fair . . . And you find what? A nice ordinary life. So you become nostalgic, spiritless, disappointed, depressed . . . Am I wrong?”

“No,” Chéri said.

Because he thought he would have given a finger off his hand to make her shut up.

The impact of the war is present throughout this novel, but always beneath the surface, a tribute to Colette’s impeccable restraint. The characters, their appearances, conversations and mannerisms hint at how great a shift has occurred. The world will never be the same, and, sadly, some of the most profoundly wounded victims are those who were untouched in battle.

Chéri and The End of Chéri is my first introduction to the work of Colette and I am grateful to have made my acquaintance with her through this attentive and astute translation. I came to know of Rachel Careau through her translations of another very different and yet very distinct French author, Roger Lewinter. With this release, English language readers finally have the opportunity to appreciate the economical beauty of Colette’s prose, her strong, independent female characters and her ability to expose the timeless vulnerabilities and strengths of the human condition.

Chéri and The End of Chéri  by Colette is translated by Rachel Careau with a Foreword by Lydia Davis and published by W. W. Norton.

Seven (slightly vain) exercises in style: Rabelais’s Doughnuts by Pierre Senges

French writer and playwright, Pierre Senges, is a most subtle conjuror who casts a sidelong glance and exercises a sharp pencil to bring literary, historical, and contemporary notions together in unexpected intermixtures of fact, fiction and philosophy. An erudite alchemist, he spins extravagant, satirical, richly intertextual essays and imaginings that exploit that hallowed ground between the actual, the probable and the impossible. He may be dancing in the footsteps of Borges and Calvino, but Senges is the choreographer of his own inimitable style.

I have read and reviewed several of Senges’ works—the brilliant The Major Refutation, a conspiracy theory for the ages, the collaborative Geometry of Dust, and the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis—but on the menu today is an assortment of his idiosyncratic musings, half a dozen plus one tasty treats gathered together for the first time as Rabelais’s Doughnuts. Translated, like the other works, by Jacob Siefring, a veritable Senges evangelist, this slender volume is published by Seattle-based Sublunary Editions, their third contribution to the mission to bring more of the prolific French writer’s oeuvre into English. Six of the seven titles included in Rabelais’s Doughnuts were previously published in a variety of online and print journals over the past decade, but Siefring’s translations have been revised for this collection.

It tends to be difficult to succinctly summarize a Senges story/essay without tripping over one’s words. The most straightforward pieces here are two that involve Michelangelo’s famed painting Last Judgement. The first, “Last Judgment (detail),” is one of my favourites, revolving around a real person and situation that I was unaware of and would have thought to be entirely fanciful were it not for our friend Google. (One of the great joys of reading a writer like Senges is that he inspires a reader to look up an individual or a circumstance to find out what he is referencing—for those more cultured than myself that might be unnecessary, for those to impatient to seek out the subtext it could be frustrating, but in my mind it is a bonus.) This first Michelangelo piece considers the fate of Daniele Ricciarelli (called Daniele da Volterra or “il Braghettone”) who was commissioned to add tasteful coverings to several of the unsuitably exposed figures in the great artist’s masterpiece. With a certain empathy, Senges considers the task, the betrayal of his master, to which Daniele Da Volterra is committed:

When he draws, he draws, when he paints, he paints: depending on the point of view, the veils of the Braghettone benefit from his skill as the author of a Descent from the Cross, which has since become famous (famous as a reference, not as a celebrity). Or rather, it’s quite the opposite, one hundred and fifty veils fastened like so many pairs of underwear on the men and women of Judgement Day, all stretching towards their salvation or damnation, and disregarding as they would disregard a prune a nakedness that is more or less suited to the gravity of the occasion, one hundred and fifty veils are a valuable exercise for a painter.

The other Michelangelo related piece, “Measure of All Things,” imagines its way into the mind of the influential and critical writer Pierre Aretino who wrote an open letter to the artist offering his opinion on The Last Judgment.

Other works sing the dubious praises of the six hundred page novel, riff on one of Heinrich von Kleist’s prescient anecdotes about possible long distance communication, dragging it piecemeal into our modern world of the internet and Amazon, muse about writing exercises, and take on the character of a counterfeiter baring his sorry soul, such as it is, to a client. Figures from history and literature appear throughout, sometimes even providing a framework for Senges’ wide-ranging reflections. “Many Ways to Stuff a Watermelon” is a perfect example. He wanders through the libraries of a host of real and fictional characters, from the scant collections Russian writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky granted his impoverished characters, to the actual library an aging Giacomo Casanova found refuge in, this tribute to libraries great and small will resonate with anyone who collects more books than they can ever hope to live long enough to read. In this, one English writer’s despair at the incalculable extent of available material speaks volumes (so to speak):

The reader’s tininess signifies the brevity of our lives: it follows that the impossibility of reading everything takes the measure of our mortality, provoking frustration and vertigo at the same time—to Thomas De Quincey, in any case, one hundred thousand forever unknown volumes brought forth tears which he compared to those of Xerxes countenancing the death of his soldiers: not some “fanciful case of misery”, but “as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed.”

Senges’ elaborate language and dry wit allow him to take a small idea and expand it into an intelligent, extravagant exercise, one that takes chances but always steers close to the truth, or a truth, digging freely into the past to make astute observations about the here and now. If you are new to his work (or well acquainted), this short collection is a an ideal way to meet (or spend more time with) this witty, intelligent writer.

Rabelais’s Doughnuts by Pierre Senges is translated from the French by Jacob Siefring and published by Sublunary Editions.

Suspended between human and animal: In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin

The sounds I hear are enhanced. I hear like a wild animal, I am that wild animal. I wonder for a moment whether the bear will come back to finish me off, or to be killed by me, or indeed for us both to die in a final embrace. But I already know, I sense, that this will not happen: he is far away now, he is stumbling through the high steppe, blood dripping down his pelt. As he is farther away and I look deeper into myself, we each regain our self-possession.

The opening passages of French anthropologist, Nastassja Martin’s In the Eye of the Wild are strangely surreal. She has just had a violent encounter with a bear on the Kamchatka Peninsula region of the Russian Far East, awaiting rescue. She is in a lucid state, numb, acutely aware. but her preternatural sense of connection with the animal who has wounded and disfigured her sets the tone for the account of physical and psycho/spiritual recovery that follows. Devoid of pathos, it is a tale of self-observation, ethnographic insight and the drive to understand what has happened—not from the angle of Western medical science, but from that of the Evens, the Indigenous people she had lived among and worked with in Siberia for four years.

Martin’s voice is most striking. Throughout her often quite horrific hospital ordeal, first in Russia and later in Paris, she does not hide her anger, frustration and physical agony. Her injuries are extensive, to her face and leg. Her jaw needs to be reconstructed—twice because the French doctors don’t trust the Russian work—and there are serious complications. Following a visit from the surgeon after a successful operation, she reflects on her body, her being, as an occupied territory under siege:

Recovering from this clash is not only an act of self-focused metamorphosis, it is a political act. My body has become a territory where Western surgeons parley with Siberian bears. Or rather, where they try to establish communication. The relationships being spun within the little country my body has become fragile, delicate. It’s a volcanic country, landslides can happen at any moment. Our work, hers and mine, and that of the indefinable thing the bear has left deep in my core, consists from now on of “maintaining the lines of communication.”

Existential questions drive the narrative—not why did I survive?—but a deeper examination into the intrinsic meaning of the experience. In this, dreams become essential to piecing together an understanding and acceptance of the relationship she has forged with the bear.

As soon as she is allowed, Martin retreats to the solitude of her mother’s home in Grenoble. Here she reads, speaks with her therapist on the phone, and tries to articulate the symbolism of what has occurred. She seeks precision in her choice of words—an attention that shines through in Sophie R. Lewis’ translation—but something deep has been destabilized that is not conforming to her intellectual instincts. She is not, as her therapist has advised, at peace. In truth she knows that she has not been inclined to seek to facilitate peace in her life or social interactions. “I have never known what to do with peacefulness or stability; serenity is not my strong suit,” she says. This self-evident prickliness, casts the narrative in a light not typically found in survival memoirs while her years spent among Indigenous communities, first Alaska and then Kamchatka, and her academic study of animism, have informed her encounter with the bear in a way another unfortunate hiker on a short excursion into the mountains would likely not. There is a notion of destiny and an element of suspension at the threshold of human and animal that cannot be explained by the park warden or naturalist. The anthropologist can only begin to heal by returning to the wild.

Her mother is decidedly unenthusiastic when she announces that she must go back to Russia. Barely recovered physically from her multiple surgeries, she is determined to leave. So, only a few months after the original incident, Nastassja Martin is again deep in the forests of Kamchatka, staying in a small cabin with Daria and her son Ivan who have become like family over the years, and other relatives that come by. It is the middle of winter; she joins in the necessary tasks and activities of the day, fetching water, setting traps, and gathering the wisdom and answers she needs to finally begin to process the journeys—internal and external—she and the bear have taken since their paths first crossed.

In the Eye of the Wild is an account that captures the way that the intellectual and the emotional can be at odds in the attempt to put meaning to a major trauma or loss. Martin is, by turns, angry, philosophical, and numb. The ethnographic has suddenly become profoundly personal and no amount of book knowledge can resolve it. The boundary has been blurred. This fuels her relentless determination to face down, if not the bear itself, the dreams he has bequeathed her. The result is an inspiring account that demonstrates an abiding respect for both the animal and the only people she knows can truly help her understand not what happened, but why.

In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin is translated by Sophie R. Lewis and published by New York Review of Books.

Each to his own “green truth”: Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies is more than a simple tribute to French poet and essayist Francis Ponge by fellow poet Philippe Jaccottet, it is a deeper examination of the way creative influences sift through a writer’s own process of literary development. The two men first met in 1946, when the latter was barely twenty years-old and, as Jaccottet recounts, he imagines that, though he said nothing, the older man likely had his reservations about his youthful lyric enthusiasms. Nonetheless, a friendship between them would form and continue for over forty years. When Ponge died in 1988 at the age of 89, Jaccottet was among the mourners at his funeral in a rustic graveyard in Nîmes. It is with his reflections that day—a piece intended to stand alone—that this small, special book has its origin.

The funeral was a modest affair on a bright summer day, but it was not one without qualities that seem to Jaccottet oddly fitting for his friend. The pastor arrived quietly by bicycle and chose to recite the 23rd Psalm beside the family vault, “because the deceased was a poet.” King David’s ode to his heavenly shepherd and “green pastures” was followed by a simple reading of Ponge’s “The Meadow” by actor Christian Rist:

“Carried away suddenly by a sort of peaceful enthusiasm / In favor of a truth, today, which is green. . .” This kind of albeit distorted echo, over some thirty centuries, was thus perhaps even stranger and more striking than the rest (the vast, noble, abandoned cemetery and this burial, as if for an unknown person, of a writer so legitimately famous).

This juxtaposition sets the scene for Jaccottet’s homage to Ponge—a poet whose domain was the minute examination of the everyday—calling attention to his commitment to a “green truth” and the remarkable vigour with which he defended it. A sketch of a strong character, given to both “excessive intolerance” and “most generous enthusiasms” emerges, composed in the emotion of the moment of loss. It is not surprising, then, that despite the many formal arguments he had offered in praise of his friend over the years, Jaccottet felt a personal need to articulate what essentially separated him from Ponge’s work. So he started to write a follow up.

However, the expansion of this text into its final form was not an immediate or obvious project. In his Postface, written in 2013 when he was preparing for the original French publication, Jaccottet admits that he was not inclined to work his sentiments through to a natural end. Others encouraged him to think otherwise, but still he delayed, out of laziness or, perhaps, out of fear that entertaining his reservations might be disrespectful to a man he had continued to admire and think of with great affection. But this recognition of the complex interplay of influence and divergence, explored with a perspective stretching over more than two decades lends depth to this slender volume.

Jaccottet begins with a consideration of two of Ponges’ heroes: François de Malherbe (1555-1628), the French poet and critic who insisted on strict form, restraint and purity of expression, and composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) whom Ponge proclaimed as the artist who interested him more than any other with a style “of the kind that awakens: male, energetic, and  ardent.” If these men spoke to the inspiration that charged his friend, Jaccottet takes care to look at how his own response and tendencies diverge. As he moves on to discuss the way their approaches to writing start from contrasting points of view or ways of looking—one precise and object-oriented, the other lyrical trial-and error experimentation open to the “fleeting impression.” However, even if the origin and ends differ, he can acknowledge that his thinking on questions, such as the “enigma of purity” has been influenced by Ponge’s concern with that which is “pure” or “true.” One’s questing can be furthered, after all, in discourse with those whose creative inclinations deviate from one’s own. And throughout this text, Jaccottet is careful to reiterate his respect and fondness for Ponge, a feeling that he is assured in reviewing the volume of correspondence they exchanged over the years, was returned.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies offers a tribute and a uniquely honest, yet sensitive critique. Jaccottet writes very thoughtfully, entertaining ideas about poetry, death, and the particular dynamics of the relationship between himself and Ponge in a manner that does not require a deep familiarity with the work of either man. In this regard, the extensive footnotes, based on Jaccottet’s own but expanded by translator John Taylor, are helpful and informative. I will confess that I have acquired more than a few volumes of Jaccottet’s work over the years, but until this time I’ve not seriously engaged with any, feeling, perhaps, a little intimidated or uncertain where to start. This book has ignited my interest and opened the door or, as Jacottet might say, a crack in that wall.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet is translated by John Taylor and published by Black Square Editions.

Bedtime stories for insomniacs: To See Out the Night by David Clerson

In 2016, a feisty new imprint, dedicated to introducing English speaking audiences to a new generation of young Quebecois writers, emerged with their first release. Over the past five years, this small Canadian publishing venture has maintained an annual three-title season, their books garnering nominations, awards and international attention along the way. QC Fiction has now introduced their 2021-2022 line-up with To See Out the Night, a short story collection by David Clerson, the same author whose novella Brothers closed their first season.

A work of haunting minimalism, Brothers is a stark fable about the adventures of two misshapen boys who live with their mother in a desolate world—a place that exists somewhere between epic childhood fantasy and post-apocalyptic despair. Together the siblings craft a ramshackle boat and set off in search of their father, a wild dog. The tale that unfolds is one of tragedy and resilience, played out on a stage that is spare, surreal, and yet strangely alive. With broad brush strokes Clerson creates a work of such visual energy that I cannot help but imagine it as an animated film or graphic novel.

His new work, first published in French in 2019, carries some of the same qualities or tendencies as Brothers. Although the characters and settings have greater density—they are fleshed out a little more—but there is still much left unsaid. A porous line separates the real and the unreal. The narratives, if grounded in a more recognizable world, explore the middle ground between primal and modern energies. In keeping with its title then, one could think of the dozen short fables of To See Out the Night as bedtime stories for insomniacs, those caught between waking and sleep. As it turns out, night—alternate dream realities, night shift workers, the exploration of strange nocturnal spaces—feature in many of the stories.

Clerson has a fondness for the socially awkward character, someone who tends to isolate or struggle with finding a balance between the disparate elements of their life. He typically places most of his protagonists in distinctly Quebec settings, both urban and rural, but in most cases a weirdness awaits, one that warps otherwise ordinary existences, perhaps mildly, perhaps stretched far beyond the norm. This may even involve, as with the boys’ animal/human parentage in Brothers, a crossing of boundaries between man and beast. In the opening piece, “The Ape Within,” an unemployed night watchman experiences a compelling sense of connection with an orangutan on a nature documentary and soon becomes convinced he is possessed, from inside, by the ape. On vacation, the protagonist of “Jellyfish” is entered by an aquatic creature that will completely transform his life. In “The Language of Hunters,” the narrator’s encounter with a bear carcass, killed by a hunter but abandoned to the birds and forest animals, leads into an account of the impact his father’s suicide has left on him:

I felt like I couldn’t leave, like I wanted to dig a grave for the bear or take it with me, gut it, cut through its flesh, remove its animal skin and put it on. The hunter hadn’t bothered to take the fur or the meat, and I wondered why we taxidermied animals but not humans, why we tried to preserve animals in some approximation of life but hid the bodies of our loved ones until we forgot about them, until there was nothing left.

In each tale, an oddness of motivation or intent colours the engagements between the characters and the worlds they find themselves in. Clerson’s gift lies in taking apparently ordinary actors, setting them in an environment, real or surreal or both, and twisting the circumstances to see not simply how, but if they will respond. The touch is light, the tone is matter-of-fact regardless of context, be it realistic or fabulist in nature and, beneath the surface, existential questions percolate. Quietly yet consistently off-centre, To See Out the Night offers a charismatic collection of apocryphal tales for our times.

To See Out the Night by David Clerson is translated by Katia Grubisic (who also translated Brothers) and published by QC Fiction.

The living dead man: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

The premise is very simple. It is December 1938. As the year draws to a close, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam lies on the very edge of death in a transit camp near Vladivostok. There he will die, far from his beloved Moscow, away from the friends who have either abandoned him or confronted their own tragic circumstances, and separated from his devoted wife Nadezhda. His body will be tossed into a mass grave. Yet, the final days of this man who stood by the power of the word and the primacy of poetry remain unrecorded, lost to time. This slender volume, The Last Days of Mandelstam, sets out to address this silence, to bear poetic witness.

Such a project is, by its nature, a delicate task. It calls for the right touch—the appropriate sense of drama—for it is probable that the waning conscious hours of a man as desperately diminished by typhoid fever as Mandelstam would have been occupied by memories, dreams, hallucinations and brief moments of awareness. At least that is the way that French-Lebanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata imagines them in this haunting novella, originally published in French in 2016 and now available in English, in a sensitive translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan.

Lying for months—how many?—on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.

After the first month he stopped counting.

Less ill than he, his neighbours might let him know if he is still alive.

But typhus is decimating the camp.

Three out of four deportees are stricken.

The opening passages offer a clear, unsentimental portrait of a man who knows his end is near. Unable to speak, beyond hunger, he listens to his struggling heart. His conscious thoughts are vaguely aware of the present, but more often tangled in the past. His nightmares and hallucinations are dominated by the figure of Joseph Stalin who stalks, taunts, and berates him, echoing, in the process, some of the regrets and doubts that may have plagued the dying poet himself. In our dreams, the monsters we face reflect our own fears. Two lines from (the original version of) Mandelstam’s infamous satirical poem known as the “Stalin Epigram”—All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer / The murderer and the peasant slayer—form a kind of subconscious refrain that surfaces throughout the book.

The poet on his meagre deathbed serves as the fulcrum around which the narrative turns, reaching back into his earlier life and, on occasion looking ahead, years beyond his death. As expected, the story that emerges is a sombre one, a tale of exile, poverty and disgrace into which threads drawn from the lives of Mandelstam’s fellow poets and his fellow transit camp prisoners are woven. Carefully chosen vignettes, repeated images—worn-out coat, moth-eaten blanket, boots made from old luggage—together with the choice of present tense and a strong poetic sensibility combine to create a moving tribute to a man who held to poetry and his principles in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

As the narrative moves between the dying poet’s thoughts and delusions and moments from his past, Khoury-Ghata sketches scenes punctuated by strong images. The years Mandelstam and his wife spent in Voronezh after he was banned from Moscow in 1934, are especially poignant. There they share a noisy communal apartment with several families; to find creative space Mandelstam takes to the icy streets:

The sound of the poem composed in the dark the same as that of his shoes crunching in the snow. A suctioning sound, the cold and the words are sucking his energy.

He returns exhausted from his wanderings, and joins Nadezhda under their moth-eaten blanket, reciting the poem written in his head. Nadezhda collects the words like breadcrumbs from a feast, transcribes them, waits for daylight to distribute them among the trustworthy.

Poetry is, of course, the crime that sentences Mandelstam to his fate. Poetry is his weapon against Stalin. As such, fragments from his poems and from Nadezhda’s memoir are incorporated into the text. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and, as a later admirer, Paul Celan also make poetic contributions. Countless artists and intellectuals faced similar persecution under the regime, but this is a story about the power of the poem.

The Last Days of Mandelstam is, for its difficult material, a finely rendered work. Neither morbid nor maudlin, it holds to a tight emotional course as the narrative repeatedly laps at the shore of Mandelstam’s death—imagined, dreamed and finally realized—a quiet passing likely unnoticed for a time. The dramatic energy is sustained, the sparseness of the account gives the sorrow breathing room, and, in the end, Mandelstam’s troubled life is granted the dignity it deserves. A sad, but beautiful book. One that makes you want to return to his poetry, to allow him to continue to live for you again and again.

The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata is translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan and published by Seagull Books.