By permission of Book/Mark, a Quarterly Small Press Review
Review by Martin Abramson
Paths to Contemporary French Literature, Vols. 1,2.
By John Taylor
Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey
Vol 1 $44.95, 358 pp, Cloth (2005)
Vol 2 $39.95, 381 pp, Cloth (2007)
(Both available in Paperback and eBook format.)
John Taylor’s recent study, Into the Heart of European Poetry, was reviewed to enthusiastic applause in these pages (Fall/Winter 08-09) so it is with great pleasure that the same critic turns to Mr. Taylor’s earlier publication, the two volume guide: Paths to Contemporary French Literature. And let me state at the outset that while Mr. Taylors’s work will be used as a research tool, a reference source and a classroom text, it can be equally well approached as a vast, non-fiction novel. Having been originally penned as a series of feature articles for various reviews and periodicals, these essays were not authored to the exclusive demands of academia, but always kept the general reader in mind. Mr. Taylor surveys his subjects, knitting their lives together within networks of literary influences and personal relationships so that every piece is a sort of holographic mirror of the whole. While for scholars, these volumes will be a source of information and enlightenment, for some general readers they will be closer to page-turners (all 638 pages!) affording them entrée into panoramic vistas they might never otherwise get to view.
Between the two volumes, over 100 authors are introduced and I won’t have to remind readers of Into the Heart of European Poetry how thoroughly each one is researched and presented. The subjects’ lives, souls and places in French literature are fully revealed. Mr. Taylor reads, relates and explains their major (and many minor) works. The degree of reading and analysis that goes into any one of these studies could comprise a decade’s labor for an ordinary scholar, but Mr. Taylor takes it in stride. However, fear not; everything cited in the original French is also translated into English.
As this reader experienced the books, Volume 1 was more methodical, disciplined and densely knit than its successor. Volume 2 seemed more relaxed and adventuresome, subject to wider swings of imagination and stylistic liberty. While both are powerful experiences, one feels a heightened sense of plaisire du texte in Vol. II.
Having been an indifferent student of high school French (pace Miss Sebrée, Mr. Fried), I obviously can’t presume to second-guess anything asserted by the likes of John Taylor where textual interpretation is concerned. What I can do is to quote those places where his comments are particularly moving or informative. All the examples from the books, whether enclosed in quotations or not, are derived from Mr. Taylor’s comments.
On Jacques Rćda: His work “tenders friendship to all sorts of past poets (as well as to modest craftsmen, erudite wine merchants and passing girls with sea-gray eyes)”. He will “pun discreetly, lifting a weary expression from the colloquial idiom and setting it down in a context that makes it burst open with significance, rather like the ‘bubbling cool milk’ he imagines emanating from’ acacia blossoms’”. As do most chapters, the Réda essay comes with an excellent summary of the author’s critical reception.
Taylor tells us that Charles-Albert Cingria “spent much of his life in France, especially in Paris, where he led an impecunious existence in a garret on the rue Bonaparte”. “…the details of his prose can be savored like a buffet of rare delicacies.” “His disregard for classical storytelling turns many short pieces into rambling personal essays, a genre that has lately come into fashion in American literature.”
Henri Calet coined popular phrases used by people who had never heard of him e.g. “Don’t shake me, I’m full of tears”.
George L. Godeau penned enthralling vignettes of everyday life. Réda called it the poetry of “what happens when nothing happens”. His subjects remind us of Doisneau’s photographs of average citizens.
Gil Jouanard yokes poetry and science together in crafted pieces that can resemble prose poems or personal essays. Concentrating on the presence of ordinary things, he states that “any instant” is suitable for experiencing the “inexhaustible savor of the world”. Taylor praises Jouanard as a meticulous literary stylist.
The minimalist, Zen-like meditations of Gérard Macé are validated, but so is his short novel entirely structured around a minor detail in the life of the man who deciphered the Rosetta stone.
Illustrating his contention that modern French literature tends to be like diary or journal-writing, Taylor turns to Pierre Autin-Grenier: “From his earliest collections, Jours anciens (1986) Chroniques des faits (1992) and Histoires Secrèts (1982), Autin-Grenier began exploring the lassitude that overwhelms the soul when one has comprehended too precociously man’s ultimate destination: the grave”. He is a master of gallows humor whose marvelously constructed sentences beg to be read aloud”.
Jean Reverzy, a medical doctor who became a best-selling author, and whose autobiographical prose evokes Conrad and Proust, died young, at forty-five.
“An entire dictionary of quotations,” Taylor observes, “could be compiled from (Nicolas) Bouvier’s striking phrases. ‘The bedrock of existence,’ he concludes after a final blissful moment in Turkey, “is made up…of moments…when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love’.
The prose of Patrick Drevet is “hauntingly melodious and vertiginously precise”. His “butterfly hunting thus forms an intricate metaphor involving the ephemerality of beauty, the fleetingness of time, the omnipresence death” and “the solitude of childhood”.
(Pierre) Bergounioux has been “acutely attentive to the destruction”, by the modern era, “of the archaic rural lifestyles that persisted in parts of France…” He has devoted, in Proustian detail, “some thirty-five literary works to (depicting) his hometown and native region”. He “investigates”… “the sociological, psychological, geographical, even ontological ‘ruptures’ wrought by the 20th century, especially with regards to the”…”rural civilization of Limousin”. Like Joyce, Bergounioux strives to forge the uncreated conscience of his race.
In his “multi-layered, maze-like writing”… “(Louis-René) des Forêts introduces a stunning author-within-a-character-within-a-character” complexity into a story called, “The Children’s Dormitory”. p.96) His novel Le Bavard portrays a blabbermouth who cannot stop talking “about his drunken attempts to win the favors of a prostitute at a dance hall”.
Jean-Philippe Salabreuil’s style is described as having “syntax so intricately constructed that lines or sentences can often be construed in alternate ways, depending on the breathing stops made by the reader”. In his “astonished language”… “every poem…forms a slowly turning kaleidoscope of stunning images and complex meanings”.
Mr. Taylor describes Hélène Cixous’ literary obsession with her father; Nathalie Sarraute’s debt to Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Flaubert; Jouve whose subtle colorations challenge the translator; Marguerite Duras author of the international best seller, The Lover; Albert Cohen who “sets language ablaze” in the timeless masterpiece, Belle du Seigneur; Pierre Guyotat whose intensely sexual and physical subconscious collages reach unbearable limits of language; Jacques Roubaud the algebraist whose writing entwines “experienced feelings, memory and perceived reality” with vertiginous mathematical and logical constructs; the elegiac ultimately tragic deliberations of Claude Esteban; the Kafkaesque visions of Louis Calaferte who dares to explore the sexual passions of females in The Way It Works with Women; the puzzles, palindromes and cryptography of George Perec; Patrick Modiano whose “enigmatic, interconnected series of novels chart original paths between fiction and autobiography”; Sarah Kofman’s tragic history of loss during WWII and ultimate suicide; Marcel Cohen whose memories of the Holocaust “revives, with force and subtlety, notions of the writer as witness”; the evolution of Marie Redonnet, associated with the New Novelists, whose typical heroine is a woman “who must come to grips with her destiny and heal her relationship to life in a devastated world’; Roland Barthes whose popularity and huge influence cannot be ignored any more than can his contradictions, errors and pontificating; Julien Gracq, whose reputation was huge in France but had not made it across the Atlantic when this book was published, (they have since been recognized through many English translations); “protean poet and artist Henri Michaux”; Yves Bonnefoy whose life’s work “centered on the elusive concept of ‘presence’”; Philippe Jaccottet whose Paysages avec figures absentes “offers keys to one of the deepest, most scrupulous poetic oeuvres of our time”; Silvia Baron Supervielle who, in her adopted tongue of French, “focused on that key twentieth-century question: exile”.
Independent sections of this volume take time out to explore major literary movements such as the New Novel and the New Fiction. P.218-228. The interested reader is referred to Jean-Luc Moreau’s “manifesto-cum-anthology, La Nouvelle Fiction” for …”the most ambitious theoretical attempt since Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Pour un nouveau roman (1963) to define the affinities and literary aspirations of a group of French writers”. Many foreign writers who gained recognition creating literature in the French language are also discussed. Volume I concludes with a lengthy chapter on the problems Americans encounter in reading contemporary French poetry. Taylor cites the pervasive influence of French literature on writers like Eliot and Pound but regrets the fact that subsequent to WW II, the two schools of poetry have drifted so far apart as to be of little interest to one another. While Americans tended to follow W.C.William’s dictum: no ideas but in things; the French took a wider more associative view and given Europe’s metaphysical heritage, reached more often for the ineffable than the concrete.
Eyeing the limits of this periodical and the patience of its always benevolent editor, Ms. Kronenberg, I perforce turn now to Volume 2.
The second volume, which is more candid and personalized than the first, begins with a sentimental visit-cum-interview with the ninety-seven year old Nathalie Serraute, who would pass away two years later. The descriptions of her home, her warmth and her idiosyncrasies are sketched with great tenderness. Taylor’s discussion with Mme Serraute ranged from publications to French pronunciations to problems of foreign-born citizens as well as to literary influences and opinions. We are grateful that Mr. Taylor has shared this moving experience with us.
In the next chapter, “The Pilgrimage to Saint-Florent-le-Vieil”, Mr. Taylor repeats the visit-interview experience, this time with Julien Gracq. Again, personal observations and biographical detail are woven into discussion of the author’s writings and opinions. Only reading the accounts of these extended visits can convey the multi-dimensional portraits they disclose.
The next chapter, which treats of humor and fantasy, introduces Jean Tardieu’s whimsical series concerning Dr. Froeppel in which the reader is unable to decide whether the speaker is Froeppel or Tardieu because the author has deliberately muddied the waters. Pierre Autin-Grenier is revisited in Vol.II for a particular analysis of black humor illustrated in a trilogy beginning with L’Éternité est inutile which I assume means eternity (or philosophizing about eternity) is useless. Other humorous portraits include the “dead-serious double-entendres” of Ghérasim Luca; the farce of Cordebard which depicts “darker elements of French history”; the slashing anti-establishment attacks by Louis Aragon; the bubbling-over humor of Raymond Queneau and the theatre of the absurd slapstick of Christian Gailly and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. All in the ribald spirit of Rabelais and Molière. Taylor sees an analogy with Musil’s Man Without Qualities in Toussaint’s Monsieur, an everyman to whom ridiculous things just happen as in the works of Sartre, Kafka and Camus, among others. Philippe Delerm’s modest collection of articles, The First Gulp of Beer and Other Miniscule Essays rocketed to the top of the best seller list with topics like shelling peas, pocket knives, spending evenings at home, gathering blackberries and wearing a pullover in autumn.
In another sentimental digression, Mr. Taylor along with his family traverse the national highways and thread the Massif Central on their way to La Chapelle-d’Angillon, birthplace of Alain-Fournier, author of the legendary fable of coming-of-age and first love, Le Grand Meaulnes, a French classic. Their pilgrimage uncovers both the atmosphere of Alain-Fournier’s native soil and many insights into his work
Like the poets he admires, Mr. Taylor has a deeply felt love of everything French. He always takes the trouble to explain to non-speakers the endless nuances of meaning in common expressions. He even points out some variants in W.S. Merwin’s translation of Jean Follain’s poems.
In another chapter, Mr. Taylor’s spotlight focuses on François Bon who writes about the “anonymous not-quite-down-and-out” city dwellers who inhabit the high-rise, low rent apartment complexes of Paris’ outlying suburbs. Many of his stories take a theatrical approach to the depiction of crime. His novel, Daewoo, describes the effect of a Japanese TV factory on the local French community with Zola-esque realism.
In another informative intermezzo, Mt. Taylor discusses the differences between Shakespeare and Racine by way of Yves Bonnefoy’s translations. And still another section treats of French poets from the Caribbean including Aimé Césaire, Léon Demas, Léopold Sédar Senghor and others of the so-called “Négritude” movement. Also…the volume’s final chapter offers an in-depth comparison of French and American poetry which, while it supplies a wealth of information, is too dense and detailed for this writer even to attempt to summarize.
Others covered in this volume include Louis Calaferte who interweaves biblical exegesis and morality with prose and poetry whose self-excavation “reminds one of seers, shamans and other prophets of divine lunacy”; Pascal Quignard the contents of whose series of novels beginning with Les Ombres errants (Wandering Shades) are intricately analyzed in a long paragraph on page 200 which deserves the attention of any student; Michèle Desbordes author of historical-biographical novels; Catherine Pozzi, remembered more for her liaison with Valéry than for her passionate stories and poetry;
Pierre Klossowski who claimed to fabricate simulacra and was influenced by classical antiquity in The Baphomet; Claude Louis-Combet a lapsed seminarian who imagines the ultimate in sacrilegious pornography; Guy Debord, student revolutionary and founder of the International Situationist Movement; autobiographer and essayist, Marguerite Yourcenar; Emmanuel Bove, translated by Handke and admired by Beckett and Rilke; Irène Némirovsky who wrote about occupied France and whose novel, Suite français won the Renaudot Prize sixty years after she perished in Auschwitz; Pierre Guyotat whose topics of slavery, prostitution and torture stuns, shocks and disgusts; and finally, an essay on Samuel Beckett which treats the subject’s contradictions, character and biography rather than providing an analysis of his works.
In conclusion, I can only repeat in essence what I observed about Into the Heart of European Poetry. For the student of modern French literature, and for those not fluent in the language, there exists no better general introduction, than John Taylor’s Paths to Contemporary French Literature. These two volumes (soon to be joined by a third) provide all the orientation, compass-references, and landmarks required to begin a personal expedition into the forests, valleys and mountain ranges of modern French literature.