Monday, May 07, 2007

There was a time when a serious novelist got his start, or perhaps his training, by writing poetry. Less common now than it once was, one might find someone who had already earned a solid reputation as a poet – think of Gilbert Sorrentino, Toby Olson, Michael Ondaatje, Barry Gifford – before going on to write the novels for which he would become much more well known. The theory of course is that the concentrated writing demands of poetry would offer an intensive study that would yield dividends in the more leisurely fields of full-length fiction.

Ezra Pound in turn suggested that before one write poetry, one should translate a lot of it, so as to internalize “the greats” as well as get through the learning stages without perpetually having to reinvent the wheel. One could see how Sappho or Dante or Lorca handled a particular writing problem so that, decades later, one might come to a problematic line-break (or whatever) with some sense that it had a history, that the decision one made carried with it more than the tactical need to get to the next line. The process also had two salutary side-effects: it got a lot of great work back into print in one’s own tongue in a contemporary way, and it tended to marginalize monolinguals among the wannabes, who after all were likely to be riff-raff.

One novelist who actually went with the program is Paul Auster, a writer certain to show up on any short list of the most innovative fictioneers of the past half century. Although, as it happens, I had been reading translations of his from the French for some time, it was the poetry of Paul Auster that I first happened to notice in little magazines in the 1970s. As a translator & reader of French poetry, Auster’s 1982 anthology, The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry was – and still is – the finest one-volume presentation of a foreign literature I’d ever seen. In retrospect, I find it hard to imagine that it’s been 25 years since this great collection was first published, and harder still to imagine that it’s out of print. That link above will get you to the list of 68 used copies currently available for sale. It’s one of those volumes that, to echo Pound, belongs on any poet’s five-foot bookshelf.

Auster published a collection of his translations with Marsilio, a publisher that was active in the ‘90s in New York, in 1997. Called Translations, the volume is not a gathering of all Auster’s work carrying modern French writing over into English, but rather a reprinting of four earlier booklength projects that were published separately, one by Living Hand in 1974, two by Jack Shoemaker at North Point & one by Random House, the latter three all in the 1980s. The four writers translated are Joseph Joubert, Stéphane Mallarmé, Andre du Bouchet & Philippe Petit. I’ve always loved Mallarmé, a writer who strikes me as more anticipatory of Le Style Zukofsky than Apollinaire, and similarly du Bouchet is someone whose work I seldom pass up when I find it in any passable translation. He often strikes me as the first of France’s contemporary poets. The work of Pettit’s here is The High Wire, a series of short chapters or pieces built around the conceit that the line is a kind of tightrope, in some sense a descendant of the extended prose explorations, say, of Francis Ponge (viz. Soap). But without ultimately the subtlety, indirectness or irony of Ponge.

But the real surprise for me here is Joubert, an 18th century writer of aphorisms whose work I did not know. Reading these passages, one realizes that, contra Baudelaire, Aloysius Bertrand did not come out of nowhere when he first created Gaspard in the 1820s. In fact, Joubert never published during his life and his notebooks didn’t start to come into print until over a decade after Bertrand’s work:

A century in which the body has become subtle, in which the mind has become coarse.

One fills himself only with juices, warm waters, vapors, lightnesses. The other concerns himself only with matter, animals, minerals, configurations, and weights. Bodies that receive an over-subtle nourishment and minds concerned only with objects that are too real and too hard, are equally depraved.
They have an earthly mind with airy bodies.

To live without sky . . .

To reason, to argue. It is to walk with crutches in search of the truth. We comes to it with a leap. We must use reasoning to make sure we have reached the end and that we have covered the whole path. Likewise in the stadium, the runner touches the stone with his hands and steps back to see the barrier in front of the goal.
These false rules only serve to persuade those who observe them that they have attained what they cannot attain.
We have led our minds astray. . . .

Among the three extensions, we must include time, space, and silence. Space is in time, silence is in space.

To be in one’s place, to be at one’s post, to be part of the order, to be content. Not to murmur of suffering, to be incapable of being unhappy.

Too much talk (they say). Nota bene: too much writing.

It is impossible to love the same person twice.

(ellipses in the original)

Ironically, perhaps, Auster’s Translations is itself now out of print (the link above again leads to used copies available), but New York Review Books has apparently republished the Jourbert. I don’t know if the edition is expanded from the 145 pages gathered here – the complete version in French takes two volumes – but it is surely worth the price. I would say the same for both the du Bouchet & Mallarmé.

Anyone who has read Auster’s translations, say in the Random House anthology, will know that he’s a particularly inobtrusive presence as a translator, you never sense him wrestling with the author in the same way, say, as Clayton Eshleman does Vallejo. Auster gathers a number of these translations of other French poets & runs them near the end of his own Collected Poems, with only du Bouchet showing up in both projects (Neither du Bouchet nor Pettit turn up in the Random House collection). These include versions of Éluard, Breton, Tzara, Soupault, Desnos, Char & Dupin, and are dated 1967-69. They’re the earliest work in Collected Poems save for a prose work from 1967 at the end entitled “Notes from a Composition Book” that is right out of Joubert in its tactics.

Auster’s own career as a poet in English extends from 1970 to 1979. As one might anticipate from somebody so thoroughly into the French thing, Auster’s work looks on its surface a little like New York School verse, especially of the uptown Columbia variant that looked more to Ron Padgett & John Ashbery than, say, to Ted Berrigan (who, so far as I’m aware, never published any translations¹). Where they differ, markedly, from the NY School, is in their tone, which like Auster’s austere prose is very subdued:

Picks jot the quarry – eroded marks
That could not cipher the message.
The quarrel unleashed its alphabet,
And the stones, girded by abuse,
Have memorized the defeat.

Even when Auster takes on what for him amounts to a gaudier surface, it has none of the cartoon moments that were so beloved downtown:


I breathe you.
I becalm you out of me.
I numb you in the reach
of brethren light.
I suckle you
to the dregs of disaster.

The sky pins a vagrant star
on my chest. I see the wind
as witness, the towering night
that lapsed
in a maze of oaks,
the distance.

I haunt you
to the brink of sorrow.
I milk you of strength.
I defy you,
I deify you
to nothing and
to no one.

I become
your necessary and most violent

Frankly, it takes some courage, having become famous and known as a stylist in prose, to allow this last poem back into print. It’s clearly the work of somebody who is working at figuring out what he’s going to do with writing, but certainly not doing it yet. Which is basically the story of Collected Poems, the education of Paul Auster, who even at his sharpest here still is not who he will become once he turns to prose:

In Memory of Myself

Simply to have stopped.

As if I could begin
where my voice has stopped, myself
the sound of a word

I cannot speak.

So much silence
to be brought to life
in this pensive flesh, the beating
drum of words
within, so many words

lost in the wide world
within me, and thereby to have known
that in spite of myself.

I am here.

As if this were the world.

These two books would make a great two-volume set, tho right now I believe only the Joubert and the Collected Poems are in print. I’d love for Overlook to take the initiative somewhere down the road and bring them together.


¹ This virtually is an invitation to be corrected, and I’d love to be.