Category Archives: French Literature

Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another: Propertius 1.3

Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon. Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli.

Sextus Propertius, a Latin elegiac poet of the Augustan age, is, rather unfortunately, not as well-known as other poets of this era. He was friends with the most famous men of his day including Vergil, Maecenas and Augustus. His talent as an elegist is evident in his four books of poetry which contain 92 poems. I was fortunate enough in graduate school to be in a program that appreciated his work and I took three different classes that focused on this poet. I admit that I haven’t looked at or translated his work in many years, but he seemed like just the thing to suit my mood this week.

In Poem 1.3, he visits his lover, Cynthia, while she is fast asleep in her bedroom. In his amorous and drunken state he is tempted to wake her with a showering of kisses, but holds off for fear of angering her. He, instead, watches her sleep. I find the images of the first 20 lines, comparing her to a sleeping Ariadne and a Bacchante, simple yet sensual and intimate. I offer here my translation of lines 1-20:

Cynthia seemed to me to be breathing softly and quietly while sleeping with her head on her entwined hands; similar to weary Ariadne as she was lying on the deserted shores while Theseus sailed away on his ship; or similar to Andromeda, finally freed from the harsh cliffs, as she was resting during her first sleep; and similar to a Bacchante, exhausted from her continual dances, as she collapses on the grassy banks of the Apidanus. As the slave boys were shaking the torches late into the night, I dragged my feet, drunk with too much Wine, into her room. Not quite yet completely out of my senses, I softly attempted to lie on the bed beside her. Although two relentless gods, Love and Wine, were driving me, seized with a double passion, to disturb Cynthia while she was sleeping and to slip my arm under her and to steal drawn out kisses, I did not dare to interrupt my lover’s rest for fear of incurring the reproaches of her anger with which I am all too familiar. Instead I remained fixed to my spot with my eyes intent upon watching her—I was like Argus, the 100-eyed monster, who kept a vigil over Io with her strange horns.

Propertius’s last few lines, in particular, capture the vulnerability and sensuality of one lover watching another while asleep. It reminds me of the intimacy and trust involved in the experience of sleeping beside another person as described by Quignard in his novel Villa Amalia:

Entrusting one’s sleep to another is perhaps the only real indecency.

To let oneself be watched while sleeping, feeling hungry, dreaming, growing erect or dilated is a strange offering.

She could see his eyes quivering beneath his lids, moving beneath the pale, fragile skin. She could see everything. She could see he was dreaming. Who was he dreaming of? Curiously, she dreamt he dreamt dreams that weren’t dreams of her.

It turned out that he too sighed in his sleep—just like his little daughter.

They both of them gave enormous sighs—like sighs of relinquishment.

Stuart Shotwell’s novel Tomazina’s Folly has, for me, one of the most tender scenes in literature as a woman looks through her lover’s private sketch book in which he has drawn erotic and caring images of his ideal marriage:

As she went on through the book she discovered that a conspicuously recurring theme was that of one spouse watching the other sleep: the wife, sometimes gloriously nude, sometimes fully clothed, either in bed herself or in a chair, watched her husband as he slept; and likewise the husband watching over his wife. There was a tenderness and curiosity and protectiveness in the expression of the watchers, as if they themselves could not sleep, but wanted their spouses to dream undisturbed.

Finally, Jean-Luc Nancy in The Fall of Sleep touches upon the reasons why falling asleep beside another person is an extension of an act of intimacy:

Sleeping together opens up nothing less than the possibility of penetrating into the most intimate part of the other, namely, precisely into his or her sleep. The happy, languid sleep of lovers who sink down together prolongs their loving spasm into a long suspense, into a pause held at the limits of the dissolution and disappearance of their very harmony: intermingled, their bodies insidiously disentangle, however intertwined they can sometimes remain until the end of sleep, until the instant joy returns to them as renewed for having been forgotten, eclipsed during the time of their sleep, where their agile bodies surface again after having been drowned at the bottom of the waters they themselves poured out.

Propertius’s poem ends with his lover waking up, accusing him of being in the embrace of another woman, and complaining that he wasn’t there to fall asleep with her. Cynthia’s wish for him is that he get a taste of his own medicine and that he also experience a lonely night without her in his bed.

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Poetry

To Love is to Watch Over: Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard (trans. Chris Turner)

Anne Hidden, Quignard’s protagonist in Villa Amalia,  is a musician and composer who has made a name for herself by condensing, paring down, and reinventing scores of music.  He writes about her process:

What she did was incredibly stark.

She read the score first, far from the piano, then put it back down. She went and sat at the keyboard and—suddenly—delivered the whole thing in the form of a rapid, whirling resume. She didn’t interpret the music. She re-improvised what she had read or what she had chosen to retain of it, de-ornamenting, de-harmonizing, searching anxiously for the lost theme, seeking out the essence of the theme with minimal harmony.”

Quignard’s description of his artist is a metaphor for his own writing. One would expect from this author’s novellas, A Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings, sparse storylines;  but Villa Amalia also requires, even demands, an astute reader, who must seek out the essence of his themes amidst a minimal plot that is beautifully poetic.

Ann Hidden discovers that her boyfriend of sixteen years is seeing another woman, so she decides to jettison and erase anything that has to do with their relationship: she sells the house in Paris they were living in, gets rid of all her furniture, including her three prize pianos, and even throws away her clothes.  We are given small hints in the text that, like her father before her, she deals with grief or loss by running away.  There are few details about Ann’s life and long relationship with Thomas anywhere in the story; as she is fleeing Paris for Italy after the sale of her house, there is a brief, universal description of lovers , one of Quignard’s typical passages, that says nothing yet everything at the same time:

Those who aren’t worthy of us aren’t faithful to us.

This is what she was telling herself in the dream she was having.

It wasn’t their commitment at our sides that led to their fear or laziness, their carelessness or slackness, their regression or silliness.

Sitting in our armchairs, stretched out in our bathtubs or lying in our beds, we see absent, numb people for whom we no longer exist.

We don’t betray them by abandoning them.

Their inertia or their complaining abandoned us before we though of separating from them.

Ann settles on the island of Ischia where she falls in love with a doctor, his young daughter, and a villa by the sea.  But even at this point in Ann’s story, Quignard intervenes to remind us of his style:   “I could fill the months that followed with details.  They were busy, amorous, constructive.  But I shall skip over this.  And more.  And yet more.”

When a tragedy occurs at the villa that deeply affects her, Ann flees yet again, this time back to France to live with an old childhood friend that has helped her through her breakup with Thomas.  The artists in Quignard’s fiction are like wounded animals who, when they are hurt, run and hide and try to nurse their wounds in solitude.  But what sets Ann apart from the other eccentric and emotionally distant artists in A Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings is that Anne, no matter how many times she is hurt, is still open to love.   Time and again she takes a risk and offers her heart to new people in her life.  At the end of the novel, Quignard writes:

In the eyes of children, to love is to watch over.  To watch over sleep, allay fears, give consolation where there are tears, care where there is illness, caress the skin, wash it, wipe it, clothe it.

To love the way one loves children is to save from death.

Not dying means feeding.

I will end with one final thought–that is really more like an unanswerable question— I keep having about Quingard’s fiction.  When I translate and interpret Ovid’s Pygmalion and Daedalus and Icarus myths with my fourth year Latin students, we debate about Ovid’s commentary on role of the artist.  Ovid depicts his artists as lonely men who use their talent, in unnatural ways, to improve their lives but also to flee from others.  Does an artist have to suffer to be creative?  Would these characters be as successful in their art without grief and loss?  What would Quignard say about his artists?

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Filed under France, French Literature, Seagull Books

When One Was Without Light: All the World’s Mornings by Pascal Quignard

Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, a virtuoso viol player and teacher in seventeenth-century France, is a man of extremes: he practices his instrument for extensive, solitary hours, he rejects any attention or spotlight for his talents, and he still feels a deep, passionate love for his long-deceased wife.  When the novella begins, Colombe’s wife has died but his feelings for her have not faded in the least: “Three years after her death, her image was still before him.  After five years, her voice was still whispering in his ears.”  He becomes a recluse and music becomes the center of his life:  “Sainte Colombe henceforward kept to his house and dedicated his life to music.  Year after year he labored at the viol and became an acknowledged master.  In the two years following his wife’s death he worked up to fifteen hours a day.”

He takes his solitude and misanthropy to an extreme by having a small practice hut constructed out of an old mulberry tree and doesn’t allow anyone to intrude on his playing, not even his two young daughters.   When his daughters are of the appropriate age, he teaches them his craft and the trio offer fortnightly concerts to a small group of friends.  The extraordinary talent of Colombe eventually gains the attention of the king who sends ambassadors to invite him to play for the royal court.  But in a fit of rage Colombe violently rejects the king’s offer of wealth and fame: “You will thank his majesty for nothing,” he shouted.  “I prefer the radiance of the setting sun upon my hands to all the gold he might offer.  I prefer my plain clothes to your cumbersome bags of hair.  I prefer my hens to the violins of the kings and my pigs to you.”

What fascinated me most about this book, as well as Quignard’s other novella, A Terrace in Rome, is his commentary on the conditions that produce artistic genius.  In both of Quignard’s narratives, he imagines an artist who suffers a sudden tragedy and loses the woman that is the love of his life.  The trauma drives each man into solitude and this loneliness and craving for the person he cannot have has a profound, positive effect on his craft.  In All the World’s Mornings, Colombe’s wife begins to visit him as a ghost— he speaks to her, he drinks wine with her, he continues to feel an intense physical need for her.  And all this time he practices the viol harder and for longer hours and creates the most beautiful music.  Both novellas have all of the components that I love most in a Quignard text: beautiful and enigmatic language, compelling and provocative thoughts on art and inspiration and a didactic, historical component.

There is a temporary intrusion on Colombe’s seclusion when he accepts a young man named Marin Marais as his pupil.  But Colombe cannot seem to transfer his radical and serious ideas about music to his protégé.  When Colombe finds out that Marais has performed the viol in front of the king in the royal chapel, the master’s reaction is violent and swift.  As he smashes Marais’s viol he shouts at him: “Leave this place forever, Monsieur, you are a great circus performer, a master juggler.  The plates go flying around your head and you never lose your balance but you are a paltry musician.  You are a musician no bigger than a plum or a cockchafer.”  But on the day of his departure from Colombe’s house, Marais begins an affair with Madeleine, Colombe’s oldest daughter, whose intensity of emotion rivals that of her father’s.

Madeleine and Marais not only have a passionate love affair, but Madeleine, a talented viol player herself, continues to teach her lover her father’s musical techniques.  But when Marais’s feelings for Madeleine fade, the emotional consequences of the breakup are dire and tragic for her.  Madeleine is very similar to her father and clings to her feelings for Marais for many years but, unlike her father, she cannot turn her tragedy into inspiration for her music.

Quignard ends the novella with a surprising reunion of master and teacher.  Colombe realizes that if he continues to shut himself off from the world  then his music will be lost forever; his Le Tombeau des regrets, a composition that was a memorial to his wife, is the piece that he desires most to be heard by others.  And Marais finally learns that it is not for fame or gold that once produces music.  The purpose of music, he concludes, is: “A little drinking fountain for those abandoned by language. For the shadows of children. For the hammer blows of shoemakers.  For whatever it is that precedes childhood.  When one was without breath.  When one was without light.”

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Slightly Exhausted at the End: My Favorite Books of 2017

I received several lovely books as gifts for Christmas and tucked inside one of them was a handwritten notecard with this quote by William Styron:  “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end.  You live several lives while reading.”  I thought this sentiment was perfect for writing about my list of books this year that have provided me with rich and deep cerebral experiences;  these are the  books I have thought about on sleepless nights, these are the books that have left me figuratively and literally exhausted.

Many of the books on this list are classics, written in the 19th or 20th century.  Only a couple of titles that were published this year have made the list.  There is also a predominance of classic British and German literature.

Mrs. Dalloway,  To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Virginia Woolf.  This was the year that I finally discovered the wonder that is Virginia Woolf.  Of the three titles I read I couldn’t possibility pick a favorite, they all resonated with me for different reasons.  I’ve also enjoyed reading her essays along side the novels.

Pilgrimage, Vols. 1 and 2, Dorothy Richardson.  I started reading Richardson towards the end of the summer and was instantly captivated by her language and her strong, daring female character.  I made it about half way through Pilgrimage before taking a break.  But I will finish the last two volumes in the new year.

Map Drawn by a Spy, Guillermo Cabrera Infante.  This is another great title from Archipelago books and a chilling account of the author’s escape from his homeland of Cuba.  A unique, eye-opening read on the mindset of those living under an oppressive, totalitarian regime.

And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos and Bento’s Sketchbook,  John Berger.  I initially picked up And Our Faces when Scott Esposito pointed it out on Twitter several months back.  I just happened to be walking by one of my bookshelves one day and it caught my eye.  I haven’t stopped reading Berger since.  I also remembered that I had a copy of Bento’s Sketchbook which came recommended by someone with impeccable literary taste who said it is one of those “must read” books.  He was not wrong.

The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf.  I first discovered Wolf last year when I read her Medea and Cassandra.  Surprisingly, I think of all the Wolf  titles I’ve read so far, The Quest for Christa T. has been my favorite.  I have also gotten about half way through her memoir One Day a Year which I am hoping to finish in the new year.

Effi Briest, Theodor FontaIne.  I saw a list of Samuel Beckett’s favorite books and Effi was on the list.  I immediately picked up a copy and read it.  This is a title that is worthy of multiple reads, one that indeed left me exhausted yet eager to start all over from the beginning.

Other Men’s Daughters, Richard Stern.  It is no surprise that my list includes at least one title from NYRB Classics.  I had never heard of Stern and this book made me want to explore more of his writings.  This is a tale of a marriage and divorce, but Stern’s writing is not typical of this genre in any way whatsoever.

Penthesilea, Heinrich von Kleist.  Kleist’s story of Penthesilea and her brief yet powerful relationship with the hero Achilles was captivating.  I oftentimes avoid retellings of Ancient myths because they veer too far from the original stories, but Kleist’s rendition of these events from the Trojan War deftly incorporate his own backstory with these ancient characters.

Poetic Fragments, Karoline von Gunderrode.  This was another title that I came across on literary Twitter.  For all of the negative things that can be said about social media,  it has definitely served a great purpose for me through interacting with a community of liked minded readers.  Thanks to flowerville, in particular, who has steered me toward many a great German classic that I would otherwise not have been made aware of.

Blameless, Claudio Magris.  As with other Magris novels I have read, I was impressed with the high level of the author’s erudition mixed with poetic language and intriguing plot.  Much like Compass which is also on this list,  it is not an easy read, but for those who enjoy a literary challenge then I highly recommend Blameless

A Terrace in Rome, Pascal Quignard.  I have been slowly making my way through all of  the Quignard that is in translation.  A Terrace in Rome had  all of the elements that I love about a Quignard title; it was poetic, passionate, philosophical, enigmatic, and beautiful.  I am especially eager to get a copy of Villa Amalia which Seagull Books will soon be publishing.

Compass, Mathias Enard.  This is one of the few books actually published this year on my list.  This is a book for those who really enjoy books.  My TBR pile grew by leaps and bounds collecting just a fragment of the titles mentioned by Enard in his fascinating story of a musicologist who suffers from a sleepless night.

Now I’m exhausted just thinking about these books all over again…

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, French Literature, German Literature, History, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Poetry, Virginia Woolf

Year of the Drought by Roland Buti

Thirteen-year-old Gus Sutter vividly remembers the summer of 1976 not just for the preternaturally harsh drought, but also for the incidents leading up to the disintegration of his family.  Gus, his mother and father, his older sister Lea, and a mentally challenged worker named Rudy live on the family’s farm in the Swiss plateau.  Buti’s take on a coming-of-age story is captivating because of the impending sense of doom and ruin that he weaves throughout Gus’s narrative.  All of the nature around them foreshadows the sad fate of this family; the crops are burning in the sun, the family dog, Sheriff, keeps fainting and their chickens are dying by the dozens in the heat.  The Sutter’s ancient mare, Bagatelle, who never moves from her barn has broken free from her rope and made her way down to the local river to die.  And finally, perhaps the most eerie omen of all, is that Gus has found a dove that cannot fly because its fail feathers have been destroyed by a predator.

The arrival of a strange woman named Cecile, an employee at a neighboring post office, is the first hint that something is wrong with the Sutter family unit.  Cecile seems  oddly close to Gus’s mother and he can’t quite figure out why their relationship makes him so uncomfortable.  His mother has never shown very much affection or emotion towards her family.  Gus’s description of her, the morning after he finds the wounded dove,  is particularly sad since it comes from her thirteen-year-old son who clearly craves his mother’s affection:

I was glad that she had petted my dove, accepted its presence without argument.  Mum was always busy with a multitude of tasks that no doubt helped to keep her from feelings of despair.  I would have liked to be in the bird’s place.  I would have liked her to set down her towel and dry her hands, to come over and kiss me, stroke my hair, tickle my neck with the tips of her fingers.  When I left for school, she would give me a dry peck on the cheek, a kiss from the very tip of her lips that echoed in the cool morning.  Lingering on my skin for less than a millisecond, her mouth imparted no sense of its moistness.  She never gave me a tender pat of encouragement to send me on my way.

She is too busy playing the role of mother, housekeeper and accountant to enjoy anything else in life, but Cecile awakens something in her that Gus has never seen before—genuine happiness.  Gus slowly realizes that Cecile is a threat to his family when he discovers that since Cecile has moved in, Gus’s father is sleeping in the guest room.  When Gus questions his father about it, he is ruthlessly scolded for not minding his own business.

The character for whom I had the most sympathy was Gus’s father, Jean.  He inherits his farm from his own father and works from sun up until sunset to make barely enough of a living on which to sustain his family.  He is a man of few words, so it is through his actions that he demonstrates his unique, unconditional love for his wife, even when she abandons him, their children and the farm.   One night at dinner when Cecile encourages Gus’s mother to get a job, Jean nearly chokes Cecile to death in a fit of rage.  Later on, a group of neighbors make fun of Jean because of his wife’s indiscretions with Cecile and he punches and kicks these men until they can no longer stand.  But as revenge, those same men beat Jean with farm tools until he can’t walk and has to stay in bed for days.  Even Gus himself, who makes a disparaging comment about his mother after she leaves, is punched in the mouth and knocked out by his father.  As his wife drifts further and further away from him, he seems to be preparing himself for the inevitable.  Gus observes about his father:

He seemed to have decided that only objects and animals were worthy of his consideration.  He would carefully examine each tool he picked up, as if a pitchfork or a shovel could bring some answer to the problem of suffering.  He had taken to sitting down in front of Sheriff and staring at him, which made our dog uncomfortable, unused as he was to being treated as anything more than part of the furniture.  He would hang his head to the side quizzically, tongue hanging out, as if waiting for an explanation.  The truth was that Dad was training himself for solitude.

Gus’s father, after his wife leaves and the children are on their own, spends his days alone at the farm.  A very sad fate for a kind, honest, hardworking man who loved his wife, his family and his land.  Buti has created a memorable group of characters whom he fittingly sets among a vivid and harsh landscape.

Thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for recommending this book to me.  Please stop by his blog and read his wonderful review of this novel: https://1streading.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/year-of-the-drought/

 

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation