A bell in the distance: ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ and ‘The Last Book of the Madrigals’ by Philippe Jaccottet

When Swiss Francophone writer Philippe Jaccottet died in 2021 at the age of ninety-five, he left two final manuscripts, finished in the final year of his life with the assistance of his friend, poet José-Flore Tappy. These two works, La Clarté Notre-Dame, a sequence of prose pieces, and The Last Book of the Madrigals, a selection of verses, have now been published together in John Taylor’s translation and, in them, we see the poet looking back over certain past experiences, ever asking questions of himself and the world he observes, even as his age weighs heavily on his thoughts.

The first work opens with a remembered outing with friends, when, as they walked down a gentle slope under grey skies, the silence or “deep absence” of the vast open space surrounded them:

Until the little vesper bell of La Clarté Notre-Dame Convent, which we still couldn’t see at the bottom of the valley, began to ring far below us, at the heart of all this almost-dull greyness. I then said to myself, reacting in a way that was both intense and confusing (and so many times in similar moments I’d been forced to bring together the two epithets), that I’d never heard a tinkling—prolonged, almost persistent, repeated several times—as pure in its weightlessness, in its extreme fragility, as genuinely crystalline . . . Yet which I couldn’t listen to as if it were a kind of speech—emerging from some mouth . . . A tinkling so crystalline that it seemed, as it appeared, oddly, almost tender . . .

This bell is the initiation and the subtle motif that binds a series of reflections that carry Jaccottet back to childhood, to earlier travels and, along the way, to inspirations and writings from his past. There is an element of reassessment to this sequence, a restless questioning of the poetic and the political, with frequent parenthetical asides. And though many of the passages date back to 2012, the image of being “at the very end of my life’s path” is ever present. Doubt, not of his accomplishments, but of their faithfulness to some kind of truth and ethical value, creeps into his musings.

There is a slowness, a patience, and willingness to set aside reflections for a time, to let them rest, that lends La Clarté Notre-Dame an organic wholeness in its final form, even if its genesis was more fragmentary. The vesper bells seem to effortlessly feed Jaccottet’s ongoing concerns about the situation in Syria, thoughts about his own poetic influences, memories of subtle details and interconnections arising from his long life of experiences and human interactions, and uncertainty about what lies beyond but, in the end, he is willing to close on an open, unfinished note. This is true to form. When asked what Jaccottet’s writing has to offer to a new generation of readers, John Taylor, one of his long-time translators suggests:

We have entered an age of unequivocal partisan discourse, of linguistic robotization, of tiny symbols standing for complex emotions. In total contrast to this, Jaccottet’s writing constantly shows nuance, attentiveness, perseverance, circumspection, and a genuine quest for essential truths. His hesitations and doubts are salutary because they bring us to a halt and help us to observe and ponder anew, sometimes against our own preconceptions and wishful thinking, as we learn to cast away chimeras but also not to abandon all hopes.

The Last Book of the Madrigals, Jaccottet’s final poetic offering is a return to verse, a form he had moved away from in favour of prose poetry in the 1990s. The dual language text opens with a piece entitled “While Listening to Claudio Monteverdi” which imagines an encounter with the most influential madrigalist of the early 17th century. It opens:

When singing he seems to call to a shade
whom he glimpsed one day in the woods
and needs to hold on to, be his soul at stake:
the urgency makes his voice catch fire.

Then by its own blazing light, we spot a moist
night-time meadow and the woods beyond
where had come across that tender shade
or much better and more tender than a shade:

now there’s nothing but oaks and violets.

The voice that has brightened the distance fades.

I don’t know if he has crossed the meadow.

Their long summer night together continues under the starry sky, becoming a transformative  experience for the speaker.

The poems that follow in this sequence draw on mythic, celestial and natural interactions. Other voices are invited into conversation with the poet on his journey, but an image of a writer nearing the end of his time recur—these are the last madrigals, an allusion to Monteverdi, perhaps—invoking the same sense of solemn awareness haunting La Clarté Notre Dame. After an encounter with an old blacksmith he asks:

Was he delirious when I heard him murmur:

‘If this lamp that is like a beehive
is removed from me,
if this perfume drifts away, companions,
you can carry off these quills and bundles of paper:
where I’m being led, I’ll have no more use for them . . .’

Later in another madrigal, as a summer evening falls, the poet again recalls the “blacksmith of volutes and flames,” whom imagines wishing away temptation only to then wonder of himself:

And he who still writes on the last staffs,
perhaps, of his life:

‘That unknown woman fishing in her lightweight skiff
has struck me as well.

I first thought it sweet to be her prey,
but now the hook tugs at my heart
and I don’t know if it’s the daylight or me
bleeding in these pearly waters.’

These poems are filled with beauty and longing, calling on the stars in the heavens for silent answers and anticipating the turning of the seasons toward autumn and winter. One can well imagine a chorus of voices carrying the final songs of a poet who looked at the world closely, listened to silences and distant bells, and sought the meanings in it all on the page. This volume with his two final works is not only a fitting literary addition to a life of great accomplishments, but can serve as an introduction for those who wish to read more.

‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ andThe Last Book of the Madrigals’ by Philippe Jaccottet is translated from the French by John Taylor, with an Afterword by José-Flore Tappy, and published by Seagull Books.