Ausiàs March

That Ausiàs March (1400-1459) is unknown to general readers in English is a serious omission to a proper conception of the breadth of the western poetic tradition. A knight and nobleman working in the shadow of Petrarch, he abandoned the conceits of the troubadours and the somewhat virginal idealism of stilnovismo for a more concrete and intimate treatment of his obsessions. In his morbidity, he recollects the Kirchhofsgedanken of the German poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius, though March is elegant and sorrowful whereas Gryphius is grotesque. I first encountered March’s name in the epigraph to Edmund White’s Farewell Symphony:

QUI no és trist, de mos dictats no cur, / o’n algun temps que sia trist estat

Only those who are sad / or have been sad at some time/ need bother with my works.

Robert Archer, Cervantes Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London, has done valuable work on Ausiàs, but there is still no rhymed translation of his work in English. I have toyed with the idea of doing one, but the difficulty I’ve had in getting easier or more patently appealing authors published is potent suasion thereagainst, particularly as even a poor rendering of the original requires a great deal of effort.

I don’t consider that there’s much room for absoluteness in translation, and whether mimicry of rhyme and meter yield the best version depends on the poet in question, the translator’s sensibility, the in-and out-languages, and the reader’s particular tolerances and proclivities. As a translator, I instinctively feel there is something lackadaisical about translations indifferent to the form of the original, but as a reader, I must admit that the singsong qualities of the many rhymed translations of, say, Pushkin or Baudelaire, is a deeply irritating distraction.

Regardless, I have stopped working crosswords because I don’t know enough about movies or sports, and attempting a rhymed translation, however questionable the result, offers a similar sort of amusement. It is not perfect: “erstwhile friends” seems very weak to me, and “Absence eats into it,” which I hear as –––UUU, is cacophonous.  I am having trouble cutting and pasting the original Catalan, but it is the first poem in this anthology, which also includes English prose versions.

Take me as one who savors dreams,
Who savor finds in frenzied thoughts:
As one whose fancies harbor naught
But vanished time, and absence deem
A solace lorn that torment feigns to flee
But falters, and falls prone before its claims.
No good do times to come proclaim:
For me, what’s best nor was nor is to be.

My heart dilates with love for time expired,
With love for what is not, for absence pure,
Until my thoughts, in reveries immured
Are rent from bliss and singed by loss’s fire:
Like one condemned to death, who waits,
Deplores his fate, but lately solace meets,
Is given word that soon he will be freed,
But rashly slain when falls the fated date.

Pray God my thoughts were rendered dead,
My life elapsed in listless sleep;
Wretched is he whose recreant musings reap
The fruits of languor in his rival’s stead;
Whose dreams, when he for succor pleads
And cries for venom’s bitter taste
Are like a foolish mother’s haste
His ruinous vagaries to heed.

Better were to suffer pain
Than add a modicum of bliss
To the anguish in my mind’s abyss.
For when the thought of cheer has fled again,
My joy perforce to torment turns,
As a sick man’s craving something sweet
Makes every meal a joyless deceit,
Short solace is by doubled sorrow spurned;

Or like the hermit long estranged
From home and from his erstwhile friends,
Convinced his plaints have met their end,
Then finds his memories unchanged
When chance brings one across his way
Who breathes new life in pleasures passed
Then leaves, and joy cannot hold fast;
For sorrow heeds the call when good abates.


Wise woman, when love is old and grey
Absence eats into it like a worm
If constancy does not hold firm,
Ignoring what the envious say.



Juan Benet

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

A tendency characteristic of much literature that might be subsumed under some awful moniker like “postmodern” has been the adoption of formal or stylistic tics that once served for the creation of written artifacts consciously destined for a canon still viewed in a positivist light, and their deviation into something resembling a form of madness. What begins as a characteristic adornment grows like a tumor, bursts the bounds of restraint and order, and makes a monster of the book in question. Beckett’s logorrhea in Not I and How It Is, Virginia Woolf’s lush synesthesia veering into catastrophe, or the stereotyped obsessions and demented aphorisms of Bernhard are good examples. The syntax of Juan Benet, the most complex and nuanced in twentieth-century Spanish prose, must be considered in a similar light: subtlety, by dint of innumerable shadings and qualifications, is rarefied into a verbal vapor lying at the very border of meaning and its absence; at the same time, the capacity of an individual phrase to shore up the semantic burdens it is freighted with is stretched to the point of collapse.

Evidence, perhaps, against the charge, frequently leveled against the author, of deliberate obscurantism, is his own apparent bafflement at the aesthetic dictated by his particular genius. In response to a critic who stated he was sure Benet was a great writer, but could not say so from experience, being himself incapable of reading past page fifteen, Benet wrote:

If my work is so entangled that the average reader needs a mentor in order to penetrate it, why didn’t I, at the time of writing it, draw upon that mentor or, better yet, with a bit more effort, embark on the path of clarifying it and making it accessible to the average reader and, at the same time, try to preserve its value as much as possible?

The effect of reading Benet is comparable, perhaps, to De Quincey at his most ornate, though whereas De Quincey’s involuted periods, with their inevitable peppering of fancy words, eventually wind their way around to an elegant and satisfying end, Benet’s have an almost aggressive aspect:

They came in exhausted, doubtlessly saddled with a sensation of futility and stagnation provoked by the indecisions of the cyclist or the mass of inhibitions imposed by decency, and in the shadows of the sitting room, thick with the scent of pavement and the aspidistras that had been watered at midday, they collapsed without gasping into the old wicker armchairs to concentrate on the child a unanimous gaze in which was distilled all the fury, the deferred hope, and the resentment of an unresolved conclusion to unite with the man for fear of losing his money: here is the ray that the child’s mind will aim forever into the horrendous negative –– a ring of mute and admonitory gazes in the depths of the summer penumbra, with the whisk of the fans and the quivering breath of the breasts rising and falling in mourning –– the indelible sign of his own formation: he will reveal it again, years later, in the moments of combat; before the gaming table, throwing himself down over a pile of nacre gambling chips, foreign, always foreign, to the face of the woman who retreats through the empty rooms while the public races to the table where his hand has been run through with the knife; on the haunches of the laggard mule, the mind (spurred onward by the vengeful and rancorous echo of the fans) concerned only with the weight of the coin that he never managed to clutch in his hand.

Juan Benet's infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Juan Benet’s infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Benet was an engineer by profession (and built the dam that would flood the birth village of writer Julio Llamazares, as recounted in this article), and his descriptions of landscape and structure reflect his formation. Nabokov has spoken eloquently of the importance of spatial imagination in the appreciation of fictional worlds, and Martin Amis, among countless others, has stressed that good writing consists in the annulment of clichés: but Benet’s descriptions of settings, often more prominent than the actions they foreground, make one wonder at which point the substitution of the precise for the approximate leads literature to stray from its vocation:

…the Hercynian efforts of the Westphalian momentum have taken form (it seems) in the Asturo-Leonese region along a geosyncline the axis of which ought to have passed through some point in Galicia, where it would terminate in a family of anticlines running parallel in an east-west direction, drawing to a close in the west of Asturias as they run up against the resistance of the massif and displaying a marked convexity on the Galician side.

For some time, I have made halfhearted attempts to convince publishers of Benet’s importance. I should have tried harder, but his writing is very difficult, translating it is slow going, and he is not the kind of author who shines in the ten-to-twenty page samples most often used to assay a writer’s suitability. This past week, I finally translated something complete: his book The Construction of the Tower of Babel. In its erudition, its refinement, its capacity to weave from the threads of history and observation a parable of doom, it seems to herald, in miniature, Sebald’s Austerlitz, which would appear almost two decades after Benet’s death. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Even when overcome by the recollection of other more troubling and dramatic paintings, what visitor to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna can forget the impression produced by Brueghel’s Construction of the Tower of Babel? In the company of such important works as The Peasant Wedding and the autumn and winter landscapes –– in the description of which art’s treatisers have spilled so much ink –– the sight of the great tower under construction surprises, no doubt by its simplicity; as it is, in appearance, the representation of an inanimate object –– and in spite of the great curiosity the tower has aroused in all eras –– there is reason to suspect that the master wished, in this case, to relinquish his talent for the dramatic to the end of arriving at, and bequeathing, a painstaking description of the building itself, in an atmosphere of frontal serenity. In this painting, there are none of the axial deviations, whether geometric or chromatic, that Wölfflin has indicated as one of the master’s great resources for forcing the attention of the spectator toward certain points; there are no severe contrasts of light and shadow; nor is there that diffusion of dynamic elements throughout the landscape that so often makes of the rectangle of vision an image bereft of linear constraints. The building is represented in conical perspective, its vertical axis coincident with the perpendicular bisector in the lower half of the canvas, while the line of the horizon is situated approximately two thirds of the way up from its base, in such a way that the vanishing point ––if the painting is hung correctly, as is the case in the museum in Vienna –– it is at eye-height for a viewer of ordinary stature, who is thereby confronted with the doubled arch, like two eyes with red sockets, with which the tower responds to his curiosity, in order, equivocally, to lay bare its unfathomable mystery. It is here, more or less in the center of the balcony under construction on the third floor, that the focal center of the painting is located. A greater degree of frontality is impossible.

The tower is shown on a calm day, the sky furrowed with the odd innocuous cloud that serves to sieve the light of morning and evade, thereby, a profusion of scattered shadows; judging by those cast, albeit timidly, by the counterforts, one may assume the hour is near to midday. At this moment, the King of Babylon casts a gaze over his works (contemplating them, like Philip II in the Escorial, from the elevation of a nearby hill), in the company of the master builder who introduces him to a number of stone masons who kneel, paying him homage. Here the incident concludes; both by its setting in the foreground, in perfect obedience to the rule of repoussoir, as well as by the size of the figures, the group composed of the royal entourage and the stone masons is employed by the artist to minimize the anecdotal and place all the emphasis on the sovereign edifice that occupies nearly the whole of the landscape, from the earth to the sky, the seaside to the ramparts.

This may be said to be the first painting in European art that takes a building in the role of protagonist. The appearance of architecture in painting, assigned customarily to the Proto-Renaissance, will certainly evolve, with the building progressing further into the foreground until what lies behind it is abandoned and it comes to occupy the center of attention. And yet this movement is not, in general, accompanied by a greater emphasis on the protagonism of the building itself, which rarely serves as more than a framing device for the scene at hand; when the painter does accord it a leading role, this is generally done through interiorization, as in the Dutch views of churches and synagogues from the XVI and XVII centuries; as if facades and apses wanted for the virtues requisite to the fulfillment of such a calling. It merits mention that for centuries, the plain and simple representation of buildings was restricted to the art of engraving, as if to evade the potential of color, and the artist had preferred to subject it to those canons governing an elevation; this is the tradition maintained from Giulio Romano to the publication of Piranesi’s famous album, the influence of which, first of all in England, will be translated into the Romantic suspension of the prohibition, beginning with the cathedral views of Constable or the fantasias of Schinkel. Only rarely –– in keeping with this thesis –– did the urban landscapes of the XVIII century Venetians, so meticulously faithful to architectural composition, for the execution of which the artists made use of artisanal camerae obscurae and a precursor technique to photographic film, focus on a single building, greatly preferring the animation procured by a group of them –– set back from the perspective of a canal, a street, a plaza, or a dock –– to the stern solitude of one standing alone, even when it presented a variety of styles and shapes, as is the case of the basilica of Saint Mark’s.

A documentary on Juan Benet, in Spanish, produced by the College of Engineers of Roads, Canals, and Ports

José Saramago and the Elephant

This morning, the Portuguese newspaper Público reported that the rights to José Saramago’s estate had been granted to the Andrew Wylie agency, a company known for negotiating exorbitant sums for its clients and for transforming allegedly progressive cultural figures into the kind of money-grubbing upper-crusters they publicly claim to despise. In the documentary José y Pilar, Saramago digresses prophetically about the inspiration for his novel A viagem do Elefante. Having seen, in a European country, the foot of an elephant in an antique shop refashioned as an umbrella stand, he thought of the animal’s birthplace in faraway India and the travails it must have suffered through before arriving at its ridiculous destiny.

FullSizeRenderIt is difficult to see what distinguishes the treatment of the writings of  the lifelong communist Saramago, offspring of a peasant family in Ribatejo, from the indignities suffered by this mysterious animal for the amusement of the wealthy.

In their imaginative sensitivity, Saramago’s meditations on the elephant’s vanished life recollect those of Flaubert concerning the twin of an obelisk at Luxor, stolen away and shipped to France to be erected in the center of Paris:

Perched on its pedestal, how bored it must be in the Place de la Concorde! How it must miss its Nile! What does it think as it watches all the cabs drive by, instead of the chariots it saw at its feet in the old days?

Paris obelisk  - sketch of the capstan used to raise it in Paris - from The Architectural magazine

The Translator Martin Chalmers

I met the translator Martin Chalmers in the fall of 2013 in Berlin. I had written him in advance of my coming, in case he might have time for a coffee; I had left my previous employment only a few months before, with the possibly quixotic but at least up to this point practicable notion of translating professionally, and I was eager for whatever counsel I might glean from more seasoned practitioners. Martin had translated one of my favorite short stories, Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy? by Thomas Bernhard, as well as several novels by Elfriede Jelinek, a writer I pretend to like, because there does seem to be something meritorious in her project, though in fact her books exasperate me. That said, I have never forgotten the part in Women as Lovers, Martin’s translation of Die Liebhaberinnen:

they sew. they sew foundations, brassieres, sometimes corsets and panties too. often these women marry or they are ruined some other way.

I had a certain curiosity to ask Martin about an unkind review of Greed, his translation of Jelinek’s novel Gier, by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books. Toward the end of what is actually one of the better essays on her work in English, the author devotes a paragraph to lambasting Chalmers’s version:

With its constant shifts of tone and register, the slippery sideways movement of thought through wordplay and punning, the frequent allusions to other German texts, the idiom of Greed poses almost insuperable obstacles to good translation. Jelinek herself took years to translate Gravity’s Rainbow and it would take a comparable labour of love to translate Gier adequately. As it is, doubtless under tight economic constraints, the publishers have paid for a hit-and-miss, standard, ‘by the page’ translation and the result is a disaster. It’s hard to imagine that Jelinek’s reputation in the English-speaking world will ever recover. It would have been better to have left the novel untranslated.

When we touched on the topic, though, Martin said he would have liked more time to work on the book. He did not seem uncomfortable with the topic, but I saw no point in pursuing it. I have the translation open on my desktop now; I do not see what is so contemptible about it, though I am not comparing it to the original. In any case, six years after the essay in the London Review of Books, it seems clear the book did no damage whatsoever to Jelinek’s standing, which is more secure in the Anglophone world now than in the opprobrious aftermath of her reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.

(In passing: how often, in reviews of translation, does cursory allusion to the original text or to some often trifling solecism serve mainly as a surreptitious allusion to the writer’s own linguistic facility? And is not such dysphemism over allegedly bad translations perhaps misplaced? It is fashionable now to kick the corpses of Constance Garnett, Helen Lowe-Porter, and C.K. Scott Moncrieff, but I would not care to imagine the impoverished state of twentieth-century English-language letters, let alone my own intellectual development, had their work not existed. Even a less than ideal translation is often a bridge to the original. No translation of Dante renders the complex sonority of the end of Canto V, “E caddi come corpo morto cade.” And yet I knew no Italian when I first noticed this line in the bilingual edition of the Divine Comedy translated by John D. Sinclair. Because it was an en-face version, I could manage a fumbling approximation to the original. Probably many are spurred to learn a language by the insight into such discrepancies afforded by what are often decried as inferior translations.)

When I first wrote Martin, he replied he was in Oregon visiting his daughter, and I answered something about the wine there –– a perennial point of interest for me. He said he had just read the curiously titled Die Realität, so sagen, als ob sie nicht wäre, oder die Wutausbrüche der Engel. We met in Berlin shortly after he had left the hospital. He lived near the Hermannstraße metro stop. Like most Americans, I have a poor sense of geography, in the abstract sense of locating Tajikistan on a map and the concrete one of finding a destination and then finding my way back from it. From the days when our cities were founded as grids of numbered avenues and streets marking off blocks of uniform size to the present, where an application guides us between two points and we navigate by looking into the palm of our hand rather than at our surroundings, the American relationship to space has consisted rather of imposition than of interrelation, and European cities, with their curving roads responding not to the needs of the incoming stranger but to historical circumstances of which I am normally quite ignorant, always leave me perplexed; particularly Berlin, where the avenues are so long and their curves so gentle that they often delude you into thinking they run straight. As soon as I left the station I got lost and I arrived to Martin’s building several minutes late

His apartment had a bohemian aspect that reminded me of the communal houses where a close friend of mine had lived in West Philadelphia. His office had a large television beside which was a box of DVDs for a television series –– The Wire? –– and floor-to-ceiling shelves. He explained he had been in the hospital and wasn’t feeling well, although his doctor had advised him to move around. He mentioned how much he paid for his health insurance –– it seemed staggeringly costly; I believed the cliché, widespread among Americans that residents of Europe enjoy unlimited free healthcare.

We met twice: once we went for an ice cream and a coffee, and another time for a beer and a retsina. I cannot separate the meetings clearly in my mind, though I believe one was in the early afternoon and one a bit later. He talked to me about the resort town in the Crimea where he’d been, I believe because his partner, a translator, was to attend a conference there; about a house the two of them either had owned or continued to own in Hungary, possibly his partner’s country of origin. We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of life in continental Europe and the differences between Spain, where my wife is from, and Germany. He went to a market to buy some cheeses; it took an inordinately long time before we were served, and I was bothered by the everpresent yellowjackets. He pointed to a long series of elegant homes, which he explained had belonged to the managers of the railways in the early twentieth century, and he talked about the many buildings that had housed both workshops and the workers employed there. We went to a wine shop where he bought a Riesling and something else, one of the lesser German varieties, a Sylvaner or Kerner maybe –– he found white wines more agreeable, he said –– and I decided against a good but expensive bottle, a Ribera del Duero, Bodegas Alión, I think, either for reasons of economy or not to appear extravagant.

He had little advice to offer, beyond the inducement to demand fair payment. I have heard the same numerous times. It is a delicate matter: established translators are no doubt correct in fearing that a crop of eager upstarts, willing to work for little or nothing, is likely to chip away at their income in the long term; if, however, an inexperienced translator demands the same sort of contract terms as a highly sought-after one, publishers have little incentive to take a gamble on the former. There has to be some flexibility. A translator cannot hope to succeed without attracting some sort of notice, and this is often impossible without a period of working for free or for a pittance; however, many publishers, particularly certain small ones who consider the nobility of their artistic mission to exempt them from the responsibility of establishing themselves as a fair and viable enterprise, are more than happy to let idealistic writers and translators work for nothing or for royalties that never actually materialize.

We talked a bit about Sebald, Chalmers said he had tried to convince Serpent’s Tail to publish Sebald in the early nineties, he said he admired Sebald but that Sebald’s borrowings were far more obvious in German than in English, and that prejudiced his reception in the German-speaking world; he also felt he had been unnecessarily cruel in his essay on Alfred Andersch.

He expressed great enthusiasm for cinema, but I could not follow much of what he said, I don’t have my own opinion about films, which I almost never see, I depend on those of my wife, who watches everything.

Edmund White says it is always the minor writers who matter to us most. I think of this as I read the incidental pieces collected on Martin’s webpage. In tone, they remind me a great deal of Michael Hamburger’s little-known but quite beautiful memoirs, String of Beginnings, which in their turn have about them something of the economical clarity of the first chapter of another minor classic, Harold Nicolson’s Some People. They say nothing, and that is what is so striking about them: their irreducibility. Shklovsky says that a machine has no place in art, because it takes shortcuts. When I think if Knausgaard, who has become famous and whom I have been reading these past three weeks, it occurs to me that so capacious a work allows for a great deal of error, the shortcomings are lost in the work’s magnitude. It cannot be like this for a translator; every translator is of necessity a miniaturist, no matter how long the original text in question, the work succeeds or fails on the basis of the fine details and the harmony they establish; and this feeling for fine detail and the slowness Shklovsky deems necessary for art are evident in Martin’s casual writing.

In the era of hashtag activism translation has become much more prominent, there is the #namethetranslator campaign, and  many advocate for translators to receive what is said to be their due recognition. This is not something I can complain about, because it is to my benefit as well, and yet what attracted me to translating early on was the humility of the office, its relationship to craft in the old sense. The precedence taken by listening over speaking.

Through tortuous channels I heard that Martin was unwell and I wanted to devote a few words to him here in thanks and admiration.

The Artistic Difficulty of the Woman as Such

ImageOn Sunday, the 28th of May, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh writes to his friend Anthon Van Rappard, concerning the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik, commonly known as Sien, whom he would live with for two years and who would drown herself in the Rotterdam harbor in 1904:

het leven is er over heengegaan en smart & tegenspoed hebben haar gemerkt –– nu kan ik er iets mee doen.

(The approved English translation of the Van Gogh Museum is: Life has given her a drubbing, and sorrow and adversity have left their mark on her — now I can make use of it.)

I came across this quote in a Spanish translation of Guido Ceronetti’s essay Dolore-Tempo-Thanatos: la donna in tre immagini. The Spanish translator, who probably did not look at the Dutch, is faced with an ambiguity upon encountering the partitive clitic “ne” in the Italian. The version in Ceronetti’s original text runs: Presentemente posso estrarne qualque cosa. Just afterward, Ceronetti quotes the same phrase in French, which was presumably the language of his edition of Van Gogh’s letters and which, like Italian, has a partitive clitic (en) at its disposal: en tirer quelque chose. The Spanish translator seems not to have had access to the Dutch original, and was unable to judge from grammatical evidence alone whether the ne in the Italian text or the en in the French referred to “sorrow and adversity” or to Sien herself. Compelled by the requirements of his language to make a choice, he has written: now I can make use of her.

Error or no, this elimination of Ceronetti’s ambiguity clears the way for a very fruitful manner of thinking about the text and about Van Gogh’s perception of this woman, in whose agonies he perceived a sort of divine torment that was perhaps necessary to his idea of art. The passage continues:

It is cruel and fascinating, this en tirer quelque chose. If he had not been able to get anything out of her, what would he have done? Would he have punished that body for not being sufficiently a man of sorrows [English in original]? And yet, the secret of Sien was to be precisely the sorrow-body required to satiate Vincent’s need to make himself responsible to any possible outcry against the world’s sidereal silence.

So often, art is predicated on the exploitation of the sufferings of others. In the so-called Western tradition, the sufferings of women have been particularly rich grist for this mill. In a sense, the suffering person is a pretext for, at best, the artist’s communion with his own fixed ideas, and at worst, an opportunity to exploit the guilty conscience of the audience for renown and money. Van Gogh seems, however, to have been decent, taking Sien in despite the scorn he faced from his family and writing, concerning her, to his brother Theo:

you who set great store by manners and culture, and rightly so, provided it’s the real thing – what is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly: to forsake a woman or to take on a forsaken one?

It is true though that he left her not long after.

Klaus Theweleit, in his enormous, unfinished tetralogy Das Buch der Könige, asserts that the history of Occidental art and literature can be examined as a mode of suppressing women’s physicality to permit their re-emergence in art:

… the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the organizing paradigm of the producing couple, which is not so much about the tragic failure to call back the beloved as about a deliberate program of delivering the woman’s body to Hades. In reanimating the body of the dead woman, the man produces new possibility––in other words, “art.”


Julien Green, Diaries

It is so hard to know how complicated life is or is not, or whether its complexity is an abstraction outside of time or depends upon the vicissitudes of self-presentation. Often I have felt that only the jarring, the unassimilable, can rouse one from the spiritual torpor on which the poetic sense of life probably feeds, and present a more just account of how things really are; but then, particularly when I am exhausted or in need of consolation, so-called simple thoughts, elegantly phrased, seduce me with their meditative tenor. 

For some years now I have had the idea that I should read the diaries of Julien Green, but other things always seemed more pressing. It is only because I was so taken with the beautiful cover and shape of this recently published selection, which I could not forget about once I had seen it in LA Central close to the MACBA in Barcelona, which is my favorite bookstore, and bought it the next time I was there, that I finally got around to them. There is a quality of restraint in his writing that recalls the humility of finely crafted instruments or furnishings the beauty of which lies in an absence of excess and an appropriateness to their

8 September 1933

I ask myself often what the sense of life might be, if it does in fact have one, and above all, to what degree the external world exists. What is the meaning, for example, of the disquiet in the Europe of the present moment, the fever in Germany, the anguish of so many men and women who see tomorrow so black and so rife with threats? It is evident that no one can answer this question, but frequently, I have the fleeting impression of glimpsing a world that doesn’t exist, or that doesn’t exist in the manner we imagine. Perhaps the material world has only a symbolic value. This is an idea that has been familiar to me since I was fifteen. Thus it may be that the universal disquiet is the imaginary representation of your own disquiet. The “crisis” is, first of all, inside you. The disorder of the world corresponds to an inner disorder that you rediscover in yourself.


The liberty of dreams cannot be reconstructed in a state of wakefulness.

Alfred de Vigny, The Death of the Wolf

Someone approached me recently about doing a volume of poetry by Alfred de Vigny. My interest in the project was married to a degree of timorousness about my capacity to respect the formal constraints the abandonment of which renders the translation of a poet of this type pointless. To see if I could do it, I chose one of his classic poems, La mort du loup. The English version follows the French. [Update: this project appears dead in the water, but this poem still attracts tons of traffic, so if anyone knows a publisher that might be interested in doing a Vigny volume, please let me know.]

Alfred de Vigny, La Mort du loup (1843)


Les nuages couraient sur la lune enflammée
Comme sur l’incendie on voit fuir la fumée,
Et les bois étaient noirs jusques à l’horizon.
Nous marchions sans parler, dans l’humide gazon,
Dans la bruyère épaisse et dans les hautes brandes,
Lorsque, sous des sapins pareils à ceux des Landes,
Nous avons aperçu les grands ongles marqués
Par les loups voyageurs que nous avions traqués.
Nous avons écouté, retenant notre haleine
Et le pas suspendu. — Ni le bois, ni la plaine
Ne poussait un soupir dans les airs ; Seulement
La girouette en deuil criait au firmament ;
Car le vent élevé bien au dessus des terres,
N’effleurait de ses pieds que les tours solitaires,
Et les chênes d’en-bas, contre les rocs penchés,
Sur leurs coudes semblaient endormis et couchés.
Rien ne bruissait donc, lorsque baissant la tête,
Le plus vieux des chasseurs qui s’étaient mis en quête
A regardé le sable en s’y couchant ; Bientôt,
Lui que jamais ici on ne vit en défaut,
A déclaré tout bas que ces marques récentes
Annonçait la démarche et les griffes puissantes
De deux grands loups-cerviers et de deux louveteaux.
Nous avons tous alors préparé nos couteaux,
Et, cachant nos fusils et leurs lueurs trop blanches,
Nous allions pas à pas en écartant les branches.
Trois s’arrêtent, et moi, cherchant ce qu’ils voyaient,
J’aperçois tout à coup deux yeux qui flamboyaient,
Et je vois au delà quatre formes légères
Qui dansaient sous la lune au milieu des bruyères,
Comme font chaque jour, à grand bruit sous nos yeux,
Quand le maître revient, les lévriers joyeux.
Leur forme était semblable et semblable la danse ;
Mais les enfants du loup se jouaient en silence,
Sachant bien qu’à deux pas, ne dormant qu’à demi,
Se couche dans ses murs l’homme, leur ennemi.
Le père était debout, et plus loin, contre un arbre,
Sa louve reposait comme celle de marbre
Qu’adorait les romains, et dont les flancs velus
Couvaient les demi-dieux Rémus et Romulus.
Le Loup vient et s’assied, les deux jambes dressées
Par leurs ongles crochus dans le sable enfoncées.
Il s’est jugé perdu, puisqu’il était surpris,
Sa retraite coupée et tous ses chemins pris ;
Alors il a saisi, dans sa gueule brûlante,
Du chien le plus hardi la gorge pantelante
Et n’a pas desserré ses mâchoires de fer,
Malgré nos coups de feu qui traversaient sa chair
Et nos couteaux aigus qui, comme des tenailles,
Se croisaient en plongeant dans ses larges entrailles,
Jusqu’au dernier moment où le chien étranglé,
Mort longtemps avant lui, sous ses pieds a roulé.
Le Loup le quitte alors et puis il nous regarde.
Les couteaux lui restaient au flanc jusqu’à la garde,
Le clouaient au gazon tout baigné dans son sang ;
Nos fusils l’entouraient en sinistre croissant.
Il nous regarde encore, ensuite il se recouche,
Tout en léchant le sang répandu sur sa bouche,
Et, sans daigner savoir comment il a péri,
Refermant ses grands yeux, meurt sans jeter un cri.


J’ai reposé mon front sur mon fusil sans poudre,
Me prenant à penser, et n’ai pu me résoudre
A poursuivre sa Louve et ses fils qui, tous trois,
Avaient voulu l’attendre, et, comme je le crois,
Sans ses deux louveteaux la belle et sombre veuve
Ne l’eût pas laissé seul subir la grande épreuve ;
Mais son devoir était de les sauver, afin
De pouvoir leur apprendre à bien souffrir la faim,
A ne jamais entrer dans le pacte des villes
Que l’homme a fait avec les animaux serviles
Qui chassent devant lui, pour avoir le coucher,
Les premiers possesseurs du bois et du rocher.


Hélas ! ai-je pensé, malgré ce grand nom d’Hommes,
Que j’ai honte de nous, débiles que nous sommes !
Comment on doit quitter la vie et tous ses maux,
C’est vous qui le savez, sublimes animaux !
A voir ce que l’on fut sur terre et ce qu’on laisse
Seul le silence est grand ; tout le reste est faiblesse.
– Ah ! je t’ai bien compris, sauvage voyageur,
Et ton dernier regard m’est allé jusqu’au coeur !
Il disait : ” Si tu peux, fais que ton âme arrive,
A force de rester studieuse et pensive,
Jusqu’à ce haut degré de stoïque fierté
Où, naissant dans les bois, j’ai tout d’abord monté.
Gémir, pleurer, prier est également lâche.
Fais énergiquement ta longue et lourde tâche
Dans la voie où le Sort a voulu t’appeler,
Puis après, comme moi, souffre et meurs sans parler. ”

Alfred de Vigny, The Death of the Wolf (1843)

The clouds eloped across the moon in flames
Like smoke above the bonfire whence it came,
The woods were black, to vision’s furthest pass,
We walked in silence through the dew-damp grass,
Brambles teemed beneath the heather’s fronds,
Until, under sap trees like those of Landes,
We saw the gashes from the daunting nails
Of the wandering pack of wolves we had trailed.
We listened, standing fixed, our breath restrained,
Our bodies still, while neither wood nor plain
Was racked or heaved by breezes fulminant;
The weathervane beseeched the firmament
In grief; for the drafts in the heights respired
And only grazed the solitary spires,
While pitched against the stones, the oaks below
Seemed huddled on their elbows in repose.
No sound rang out; when lowering his head,
The oldest of the hunters knelt and said,
— That man who thereabouts had never erred —
While at the crosshatched sand he keenly stared,
Quite softly, that those tracks so freshly laid
Attested to the truculent parade
Of deer wolves with their stripling cubs in flight.
The knives were brandished in the veil of night,
The rifles hidden, with their gleam so white,
Across the brake, we strode toward the fight.
Three men stopped short, and searching what they saw
I glimpsed two flaming eyes, a famished maw,
And four lean forms distinguished there below
Frisking in heather in the moonlight’s glow,
As every day, with leaps and howling voice
At master’s return, the harriers rejoice.
Their forms were like, alike as well their dance,
Though quiet were the wolf-cubs as they pranced.
Aware that two steps nigh and half-asleep,
Their adversary, man, was poised to leap.
The father posed arrect aside a tree,
His wife, marmoreal, impassively
Stayed, like the beast by Romans praised whose breast
Nursed Romulus and Remus, men of flesh
With souls divine. The wolf steps out and stands,
His long claws sinking in the sorrel sand.
He was condemned, we trapped him unawares,
Our men had blocked the path back to his lair.
And then he seized, in fauces hot with hate
Our prize hound’s throat, his fury was so great;
His iron jaws would not forebear to thresh,
Not even when our bullets pierced his flesh;
Our knives, like pincers, made a dreadful clank,
And clashed and clanged as in his bowels they sank,
Till the moment when the choked and lifeless hound,
Now long dead, fell at his feet to the ground.
He glared at us, let fall what he had killed,
Our knives were plunged in his flanks to the hilt
And to the blood-caked dust the beast was pinned;
In crescent cruel our rifles hemmed him in.
Collapsing, still he stares, a hellish gloat,
His face bestrewn with blood heaved from his throat.
In pride he spurned all deference to his death,
He closed his eyes, and fell without a breath.


Against the smoking gun I lad my head,
My feeble will on ill-formed vigor fed,
I thought to chase the she-wolf and her brood,
Who full of rue had vanished from that wood;
Without her cubs, that widow, noble, grave
Would not have left her mate his death to brave;
But she was pledged, her progeny to keep
To teach them to bear hunger, not to weep,
To not submit to machinations vile
That bind the beast of burden to man’s wile,
At his behest to run, to hunt, to kill
The erstwhile lords of forest, rock, and hill.


Alas! I thought, despite all earthly fame,
Our cowardice redounds to our great shame.
That is your wisdom, animals sublime!
To know what you were, and what you leave behind.
Silence alone is great, all else is frail.
— O savage wanderer, well I’ve heard your tale,
Your dying gaze has set my heart afire,
It said: “Your soul by study should aspire
To that degree of stoic haughtiness
That I, though feral-born, have yet accessed:
To wait, to weep, to pray are futile all;
Instead you’d fain your weighty task recall:
To take, as I, that path that fate decrees,
To live, to suffer, and die wordlessly.”

Nicolas Bouyssi on Édouard Levé


Translated on the fly, in the morning, without coffee.

The author’s name is not an evaluative criterion. The author’s name is not a frame. The names Homer and Shakespeare include, perhaps, countless men. The distinction between the abstract and the figurative artwork has long been obsolete. Art has scarcely anything to do with reportage. Art has scarcely anything to do with journalism though it does, perhaps, have something to do with investigation. A monumental work is not more important or ambitious than one that is not so. Literary or artistic pleasure are not based on identification. The possibility of identifying or not identifying with a character cannot be an evaluative criterion. That which art wishes to say lacks any sort of importance, what rather matters is knowing what the epoch seems to be saying via art, and how to decode it. It is always possible to say the same thing through a photo or through text. The arts are symmetrical and take nourishment from one another. The symmetry of praxis is the opposite of diffuseness and of dilettantism. Monumental art, like the timeworn conservation of redundancy, is an art that is afraid of not making itself understood. Architecture is an enduring art with which nearly no one knows how to identify. Decorative art is an ephemeral art that is afraid of its own uselessness. The culture of political engagement, of sternness, has become a ghetto culture, addressing itself solely to those whose apparent searching is derived from their already having found. The bestseller is the cultural logic that dreams of transforming the world into a ghetto. In the one case as in the other, there is no room for interpretation. There is no room for the encounter with an other side, an unforeseen particularity, with alterity, in other words. One has begun to do something, and it progresses, one realizes, up to the point of stumbling over, grazing against, the limits and the interest of one’s milieu or one’s epoch.

From: Esthetique du stéréotype: essai sur Édouard Levé (2011).