France, automne 2000, par John Taylor (en anglais)

Significant Moments. Gil Jouanard’s singular short prose

Writing prose “like no one else’s” does not necessarily mean that an author’s style is ostentatiously “new”. In the challenging case of Gil Jouanard (b. 1937), readers may spot Montaigne as a mentor, as well as 19th-century entomologist (and outstanding writer) Jean-Henri Fabre. Jouanard has, moreover, not just studied but absorbed Gaston Bachelard’s meditations on poetry and science—antagonistic disciplines that he too yokes together. And he never fails to pay tribute to his “elective affinities”, ranging from the Jean Follain of Tout instant and the Julien Gracq of Lettrines to Jacques Réda, Charles-Albert Cingria, Georges Perros and Pierre Reverdy. One cannot be in better company.

These influences aside, Jouanard has undeniably mastered a singular kind of short-prose text. More expansive than diary entries yet not really classifiable as stories, Jouanard’s crafted pieces can sometimes be read as prose poems; others are more like on-the-spot reports or personal essays. They are neither (strictly speaking) poetry nor fiction. “The life I have led up to now”, says Jouanard, “has kept me from making anything up at all. The world’s strangeness struck me much too early in life for me to want to add to it through my own fantasy or imaginings.”

To understand the literary consequences of this position, one must appreciate Jouanard’s notion of an “instant” of being alive. In La Mémoire de l’instant, published this fall by Verdier, he states that his “calling and credo imply taking advantage of anything in order to exist, if only with a billionth more intensity than usual.” This invigorating statement falls at the end of a passage praising a ballpoint pen that he had inadvertently pocketed after a meeting. Jouanard often commemorates the modest yet meritorious presence of such objects, going so fat as to attribute “sacredness” to “the slightest alignment of scraggly potted flowers on a well-worn window ledge of a ground-floor suburban flat.”

Even more characteristically, Jouanard examines the “interminable series of Ôbriefnessess’ making up Time.” In contrast to authors seeking out “exceptional moments,” Jouanard postulates that any instant is suitable for experiencing the “inexhaustible flavor of the world.” “The New World is everywhere,” he maintains (and proves in his books), “for a person who walks with his eyes wide open.”

Jouanard also directs the Centre Régional des Lettres in Montpellier and organizes literary happenings both in France and abroad, professional responsibilities thar require frequent travel. For most writers, such chores would drastically limit their writing time. Yet Jouanard’s philosophy enables him to draw inspiration from being on the road. “Ever a stranger, I depart again,” he quips, quoting from Schubert’s “Winterreise” song cycle. Numerous texts included in Aires de transit (Seghers, 1992), as well as in C’est la vie (Verdier, 1997) and Le jour et l’heure (Verdier, 1998), we indeed written in transit. Since Jouanard usually specifies the place and date at the bottom of his texts (in this respect, his writings do constitute a journal), one can verify how many pieces were composed while on a train. Riding between Frankfurt and Heidelberg in Aires de transit, for instance, he asks himself an essential question that in fact summarizes all his work: “Who can say what really matters?” A few pages later, we find him in Porto, expanding upon this observation: “Suddenly nothing happens, and yet everything demands your attention.” Interpreting this mysterious “everything» is Jouanard’s self-assigned task.

Although “any instant” and “any place” theoretically suffice for the kind of close observations and subsequent generalizations at which Jouanard excels, his urban strolls or country hikes often involve seeking out special “nooks” in which he feels “immersed in thick forgotten memories.” This search for a radiant lieu of course haunts other contemporary French poets, Yves Bonnefoy and Philippe Jaccottet foremost among them. For Jouanard, an Alsatian tavern chanced upon in Namur can take on this role just as well as a Montreal avenue or a desolate limestone plateau in south-central France. Sitting by the tavern window, he contemplates the wet cobblestones, identifies five different trees, then simply watches the multifarious “movements of the world.” The haphazardness and heterogeneousness of experience, observable from this seemingly unexceptional vantage point, soon take on a wholeness, almost even a “purpose” (though Jouanard, ever the sensual poetempiricist, adamantly refuses to impute any Christian teleology to nature). The author declares that any “here” resembles an intimately known N’importe où, a term that he also unironically uses when defining his “native region.”

What emerges from Jouanard’s uprootedness is a paradoxical inverted autobiography. “I have taken inventory less of the world,” he avows , “than of those nooks and crannies of myself in which the world has accumulated its debris, echoes, reflections.” In a short piece from L’Œil de la terre(Fata Morgana, 1994), devoted to a country path in Normandy, Jouanard charts a perceptual journey from the “outside world,” as it were, deep into his subjectivity then beyond into something stranger still: “You penetrate deeper and deeper into a vegetal oblivion […] After five hundred yards, you no longer know whether you are the musical score or the instrument […] As you dissolve into the symphonic matter, you cease to be a listener. What you now hear comes from deep inside you and from very far away.”

Composed of hundreds of similarly sensitive, polished jottings, Jouanard’s œuvre thus constitutes an ongoing sequence of fine perceptions, deep insights, fluctuating moods. At times, his remarks wax sarcastic. The bracing chapters of Plutôt que d’en pleurer (1995) notably form a series of’sharply etched, sometimes sardonic La Bruyère-like “characters” concealing writer-acquaintances, scrutinized from not always flattering angles.

Especially impressive are the two concluding portraits, devoted to his uncle and grandfather. Jouanard’s depictions here recall the “minuscule lives” written by Pierre Michon or the Limousin family novels produced by Pierre Bergounioux. Michon, Bergounioux and Jouanard were each raised in la France profonde; in Jouanard’s case, in a semi-rural suburb of Avignon. In La Veine ouverte(Jacques Brémond, 1982), a booklength poem perhaps influenced by Perros’ classic Une vie ordinaire (1967), Jouanard begins by describing his “poor [childhood] home / where nothing had ever happened / except ten thousand tiny inconsequential noises.”

Such accounts of horizonless boredom, quiet dignity and unheralded heroism are precious. Like those of Michon and Bergounioux, Jouanard’s evocations of his upbringing – especially as chronicled in Tout fait événement (Fata Morgana, 1998) – call for the utmost respect. Yet his deepest inclinations aim beyond the personal. He defines his goal as one of  “bearing witness to those flashes that linger in our memories, perhaps even in our gene.” Such “flashes” are rarely sparked by human relationships, however. A typical example is nothing more than “that trembling of leaves when, at six in the morning, a breeze rises.” This is the kind of banal “event” that Gil Jouanard knows how to convey in all its lasting, moving, and thereafter unavoidable, significance.