Posts tagged France
Pierre Bettencourt (1917 – 2006) is a merry prankster, an eccentric of French letters. If the history of the French fantastique in the 20th century has gone somewhat underground, if many of its practitioners are forgotten today, Bettencourt is even more obscure, a lifelong outsider artist despite coming from a prominent family: his younger brother André Bettencourt was the head of L’Oréal and held a senate seat for 44 years (that’s three presidents), while André’s wife Liliane was involved in one of the biggest tax evasion and campaign financing scandals in recent French history. Bettencourt was also a painter, known for his layered pieces featuring such mixed media as butterfly wings, stone, eggshells, and pine needles. [cont. reading]
Sample lines translated by Gauvin:
11. My wife and I have a way of sleeping together that might seem a bit bizarre: neither face to face nor back to back, but with the soles of our feet pressed together.
14. I just lost my head. Little by little, my neck stretched out like an hourglass, and then tied off all by itself, without any gush of blood.
22. No one has the right to cut their nails here: except priests.
29. I have pills for dreaming.
34. The spiders around here mean no harm. You fall asleep in a lawn chair and wake up trussed hand and foot.
58. A very elegant thing to do in these parts is dressing half in flesh, half in bones.
Image by Pierre Bettencourt
"The history of literature is, of course, strewn with the neglected, the misunderstood, the forgotten, the never fully realized, and minor figures more influential than renowned. If one were to draw a Venn diagram comprised of each of these categories, Marcel Schwob, along with a handful of others, would be at the heart of their intersections. But how, one despairs, can a man praised so highly during his own life fall completely by the wayside posthumously, as if it was his vitality alone that kept him from obscurity?"
No one reads Francis Poictevin (1854–1904). Alastair Brotchie, from the 1994 Atlas translation of de Gourmont’s Book of Masks:
The mysterious and gnomic works of Poictevin…record a quest which ended in disaster: his mental collapse in 1894, and confinement in an institution until his death. He continued writing even then, but he was forgotten, except by a few friends, and these manuscripts have never been published. His books, which are not novels, nor travel diaries, nor récits, but some intermediate form, appeared with perfect annual regularity between 1882 and 1894. In them Poictevin contrived to chronicle a psychological and spiritual journey by means of observations of the external world: they are perfect demonstrations of Symbolism, everything here is symbol clothed in the skin of appearance. With hindsight his obsessive and repetitive observation of detail, verging on synesthesia, can be seen to foreshadow his illness.
A Christian mystic and hyper-aesthete, Poictevin shared these characteristics with his close friend Huysmans, but applied them to his works in a unique way….He has never been translated into English.
De Gourmont (circa 1898):
The author of Tout bas and Presque would have been able, like all the rest, to arrange his meditations into dialogues, to order his sentiments into chapters cut at random into slabs of lines, to insinuate into sham-living characters a few animated gestures and have them convey, through noticeable genuflections upon the flagstones of a known church, the efficacy of an unacknowledged creed: in short to write “Mystical Novels” and to vulgarise for the “literary journals” the practice of mental prayer. By this means his books would have acquired some popularity, which he certainly lacks, because, if few writers are so esteemed, few, among those of evident talent, are less well known and less seen in the bookshops…
[Images: top, Poictevin by Vallotton; bottom: Francis Poictevin by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1887]
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You’d be forgiven for not reading Jean-Pierre Martinet, as he is only now, twenty years after his death, beginning to move from the literary fringes to cult status in his native France—and possibly beyond. With the translation of his novella The High Life (Wakefield Press, trans. Henry Vale), we now have an opportunity to discover Martinet in English.
There seems no better introduction to Martinet than the following statement he wrote for a dictionary of contemporary French literature, a sentiment that serves well as a credo for many of our unread writers:
Starting from nothing, Martinet’s career followed a perfect path: he ended up nowhere.
The High Life is a slim novella about poor, fumbling Adolphe Marlaud, a clerk in a funeral parlor who attempts to “live as little as possible so as to suffer as little as possible,” but who, like many who so defy the gods, is led directly into the kind of complications he sought to avoid: in this case, into the arms of his obese and obscene concierge, an unforgettably vile and lascivious woman. A bizarre love affair (of sorts) follows and ends with inexorable tragedy.
Martinet exists somewhere in the desolate region carved out by Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Jim Thompson, bleak and hard-bitten, but with traces of dry humor:
Madame C was very fond of reading. She often opened up the mail of the building’s residents.
The strangeness of our sexual relations had put me off a bit in the beginning, of course, but then I ended up taking some pleasure in them. You get used to anything.
The High-Life is also reminiscent of the Czech writer Hermann Ungar’s overlooked classic depiction of “sexual hell” (in Thomas Mann’s words), The Maimed.
With only a handful of novels to his almost-forgotten (or never remembered) name—including his masterpiece Jerome, which has been compared to the aforementioned Celine, as well as Samuel Beckett and Dostoevsky—we hope there’s more Martinet in store for English-language readers.
(Photo by Eugene Atget)
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No one reads Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972), a French essayist, playwright, and novelist who ended his life by swallowing a cyanide capsule and then shooting himself—an excess in keeping with his personality.
Montherlant belongs to that class of writers one is forced to recommend in apologetic tones. (Other notable figures in this canon include Hamsun, Celine, Highsmith, and Pound.) Despite being a bestselling and celebrated novelist—Les Célibataires (The Bachelors, 1934) won the Grand Prix de Littérature de l’Académie Française and his tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles (The Girls, 1936-39) was translated into a dozen languages—Montherlant presents a trying case.
Yet, if you can make it past his haughtiness, cynicism, pederasty, “black-hearted misogyny” (B.R. Myers, in an appreciation published in The Atlantic), his collaboration with the Germans during the Occupation, and the withering criticism directed at him by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, you’ll find a writer of immense talent who has seen his star eclipsed by lesser—and dimmer—lights.
When the publisher of the only Montherlant novel still in print in English translation—the political satire and reckoning, Chaos and Night (NYRB)—describes the work as ”sardonic, bemused, [and] without hint of consolation,” it’s not surprising that he remains unread. But, as is the case with writers like Emmanuel Bove, the sheer gumption of being so resolutely contrary has its merits. All readers could do with such a challenge. Montherlant may be one of the most entertaining to undertake.
Despite being praised in his lifetime by his contemporaries Rilke, Beckett, and Camus, no one reads Emmanuel Bove—“a writer for true readers,” according to Keith Botsford.
Bove (1898-1945), “an excellent example of the ‘eclipsed’ writer” (Botsford, whose afterword to Bove’s A Winter’s Journal is required reading for any student of writers no one reads), is so forgotten, in fact, that he doesn’t even have an English language Wikipedia entry. Although the Marlboro Press keeps a few of his novels in print, Bove’s work is difficult to find and, if found, difficult to bear. Novelist Peter Handke, who translated Bove into German, wrote of his hesitancy before undertaking that task:
It would take a lot of courage to translate… I couldn’t write such a book. That [Bove] was able to write such books, so black and so right, is a mystery.
Full of heroes—or, rather, antiheroes—living on the razor’s edge of poverty, loneliness, ineluctable mediocrity and misunderstandings, Bove’s novels require a certain bravery and stamina to confront. They promise no redemption, yet for all their bleakness they occasionally evince the kind of humor later perfected by Samuel Beckett.
A typical Bovean passage reads like the following, taken from the end of A Winter’s Journal:
If I do start life all over again, I’ll do so very cautiously, but will I even start? Caution, understanding, it’s all useless. There is weariness, and nothing more. What will become of me?
[Image: Vilhelm Hammershoi, The Four Rooms, 1914]
Wakefield Press is bringing out some Schwob, starting with The Book of Monelle, hallelujah.
Probably coming soon to Writers No One Reads: Fleur Jaeggy herself.
Image found at Suspicious Patterns.
Both M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft spoke highly of the weird tales of Erckmann–Chatrian, James writing (in ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’) that ‘I should feel myself ungrateful if I did not pay a tribute to the supernatural tales of Erckmann–Chatrian. The blend of French with German in them, comparable to the French–Irish blend in Le Fanu, has produced some quite first-rate romances of this kind. [Some of their stories] have for years delighted and alarmed me. It is high time that they were made more accessible than they are.’
Emile Erckmann (1822–99) and Louis Alexandre Chatrian (1826–90) began their writing partnership in the 1840s, and continued working together—producing plays, novels, and short stories—until the year before Chatrian’s death. At the height of their powers they were known as ‘the twins’, and their works proved popular in England, where they began appearing (in translation) as early as 1865. After their deaths, however, they slipped into obscurity; and apart from the odd tale reprinted in anthologies, and the ill-fated collection of their weird tales published by Millington in 1981, their work has remained difficult to find.
In The Invisible Eye, Hugh Lamb has collected together the finest weird tales by Erckmann–Chatrian, adding several stories to those which he assembled for the Millington volume (the fate of which he discusses in the appendix to the present work). The world of which Erckmann–Chatrian wrote has long since vanished; a world of noblemen and peasants, enchanted castles and mysterious woods, haunted by witches, monsters, curses, and spells. It is a world brought to life by the vivid imaginations of the authors, and presented here for the enjoyment of modern readers who wish to be transported to the middle of the nineteenth century: a time when, it seems, anything could happen—and sometimes did.
Best Tales includes these 10 stories: The Crab Spider, The Murderer’s Violin, The Invisible Eye, The Child Stealer, My Inheritance, The Mysterious Sketch, The Owl’s Ear, The Three Souls, The Wild Huntsman, The Man Wolf.
The Ash-Tree volume—I do not own one of the 500 copies printed—adds The White and the Black, The Burgomaster in Bottle, Lex Talionis, A Legend of Marseilles, Cousin Elof’s Dream, and The Citizen’s Watch.
No one reads Aloysius Bertrand (1807–1841). Bio courtesy of Gilbert Alter-Gilbert:
French writer generally acknowledged as the progenitor of the prose poem, as elaborated in his posthumously published volume Gaspard de la Nuit (Rat About Town or Fly-by-Night). Bertrand’s creative vision was shaped, to a great extent, by his admiration for painters, and he dedicated his ground-breaking Gaspard to the artists Rembrandt and Callot. Bertrand is noted for recreating medieval milieux and for vivid, highly-colored evocations of settings and scenes. A tubercular wretch, Bertrand reached the end of an existence made miserable by ill-health and impecuniousness at the age of thirty-four. His funeral expenses were borne by his friend, the sculptor David d’Angers. Bertrand was designated, in a famous essay by Paul Verlaine, as a charter member of the circle of “cursed poets,” and his influence has been emphatically acknowledged by such Symbolist poets as Charles Baudelaire, Tristan Corbiere, Jules Laforgue, and Stephane Mallarme, and by the Surrealist group as a whole.
Read Gilbert’s translations from Bertrand’s “Scarbo Suite”
Image: Jacques Callot, from the series Gobbi, circa 1621
Bio by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert:
Charles Nodier (1780–1844) was the literary “pilot of French Romanticism.” Director of the Arsenal Library and grand panjandrum of an epochal Parisian salon, he was a prominent cultural arbiter of the post-Napoleonic period. A multi-faceted author, Nodier is best remembered for his elaborate fantasies Luck of the Bean-Rows; Trilby; and Smarra, or The Demons of the Night. Nodier’s Infernaliana or Anecdotes, Histories, Tales and Accounts Concerning Revenants, Spectres, Vampires and Demons, a catalog of clichés of the supernatural, the spectral, and the chthonic which Nodier helped to make fashionable during Romanticism’s heyday, is the source from which The Bloody Nun [read it on 50 Watts] has been drawn, to be presented here for the first time in English translation.
Repeated from my 50 Watts post on The Writing of Stones:
Roger Caillois (1913–78) is a fascinating literary figure, “neither an academic nor a journalist, neither a scientist nor a researcher, nor could he ever be termed an ‘intellectual,’” in the words of Denis Hollier, though he was elected to the Académie Française in 1971. After studying with Kojève and Mauss, in the ’30s Caillois played a role in early Bataille projects like Acéphale and the College of Sociology. His first book, The Necessity of Mind—written at twenty but published posthumously—deals with the praying mantis, but contains lines like “I wanted to cross the border of my skin, live on the other side of my sense” (making me wonder how he got on with Daumal and Gilbert-Lecomte). He was responsible for salvaging from oblivion one of my favorite books, Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript (basis for the movie). A well-regarded anthologist and a protégé of Jean Paulhan, Caillois introduced Borges and Carpentier and many other Latin American writers to France (he lived in Argentina during the war). He also wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate and founded and edited Diogenes. You can sample his essays in The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader and read a little more about him on wikipedia.
Also in English:
Fénéon lived until 1944?! Somehow I can’t imagine Seurat’s first champion living straight through Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, etc. (not to mention all the fighting). I wonder what kind of car he drove.
Thanks to Luc Sante and NYRB Classics, people are reading his “Novels in Three Lines" (don’t forget Joanna Neborsky’s illustrated version), but not much of his criticism made it into English. [Steven Heller on Three Lines: “In 1906, suspected terrorist, anarchist, and literary instigator Félix Fénéon wrote more than a thousand small bits for the Paris newspaper Le Matin. Each was a bizarre yet enigmatic, fragmentary, often scandalous, report.”]
The 1940s Gallimard collection of his work seems to be out-of-print. Ditto the 2-volume 1970 “more than complete” collection from Droz, all 1088 pages of it.
Sample Three Line: “The sinister prowler seen by the mechanic Gicquel near Herblay train station has been identified: Jules Menard, snail collector.”
Bio by Michael Richardson: “The entry of Gisèle Prassinos (born 1920) into the Surrealist circle at the age of 14 has gained a legendary status. Born into what had been a wealthy and cultured Greek family which was forced to move to France to avoid persecution during hostilities between Greece and Turkey when Gisèle was only two (her father had to sell his library of 100,000 books to pay for the journey), she grew up in a difficult but stimulating environment that is reflected in her work. Aside from her novels, stories and poems, she also creates objects, particularly in fabric, and has translated Kazantzakis into French.”
Texts in English (at least the ones I could round up in my collection):
11 pages plus a 2-page bio by J. H. Matthews in his Custom House of Desire: A Half-Century of Surrealist Stories: “Blackday,” “The Three-branched Tree,” “The Maniac Fire,” “The Big Bank Check,” “The Wool Dress.”
The Dedalus Book of Surrealism: The Identity of Things, ed. Michael Richardson: “The King’s Ostlers” (2 pages) and “The Man” (7 pages)
The Myth of the World: Surrealism 2, ed. Michael Richardson: “Sondue” (16 pages)
Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, ed. Penelope Rosemont: 3 very short texts: “Arrogant Hair,” “The Ghost of Chateuabriand,” “Peppermint Tower in Praise of Greedy Little Girls” (Homage to Hans Bellmer)
A footnote in Surrealist Women: “Prassinos is represented in the ‘Double Surrealist Number’ of the English journal Contemporary Prose and Poetry in 1936 and in Julien Levy’s Surrealism (New York, 1936).”
No one reads Valery Larbaud (1881–1957).
From the back cover of The Poems of A. O. Barnabooth:
In 1908 a small volume of poetry was published in Paris by an unknown author named A. O. Barnabooth—who in fact did not exist. Only after the book received favorable reviews by major French writers and critics did its real author, Valery Larbaud, step forward to claim Barnabooth as his alter ego. The revised and expanded 1913 edition of the book, with Larbaud credited as its author, has become a classic, eventually being included in the esteemed Pleiade series of books devoted to great French writers and has remained in print in France for almost 100 years now.
In English (Amazon US links):
The Diary of A. O. Barnabooth
The Poems of A. O. Barnabooth
An Homage to Jerome: Patron Saint of Translators
Image: Alexandra Grinevsky for Larbaud’s “Deux Artistes Lyriques” (1929), more here