Harper’s Magazine, juin 2002, par Roger Shattuck (en anglais)

Notes from underground. The future, and deep past, of French writing

Over the past twenty-five years, a team of French historians have been reclaiming their allegedly lost national past. In its ambition, their enterprise is comparable to that of the Dutch engineers who, in the early twentieth century, reclaimed the Zuider Zee for human habitation and agriculture. In seven enormous illustrated volumes of essays, averaging around 800 pages, more than a hundred eminent historians examine a panoply of symbolic “memory sites”, from the obvious (La Marseillaise) to the obscure (the year of special training, called la khâgne, for a few elite students competing to enter the Ecole Normale). Les Lieux de mémoire, the French title of the series, is translated as Realms of Memory for the recently published three-volume, English-language version.

In the second sentence of the opening “Présentation” (a sentence that does not appear in the English-language edition), co-editor Pierre Nora declares: “The rapid disappearance of our national memory seemed to me to call for an inventory of the sites where it has chosen to manifest itself.” Is France, then, losing a sense of its own past? If so, one would expect limited support for such a historybased series. Consequently, the cordial intellectual and commercial welcome accorded this state-subsidized blockbuster would appear to refute its own thesis. Pierre Nora, while planning and executing this reclamation project for the disappearing past, has also been engaged in undermining the Third Republic’s patient restoring of history. Nora’s preface to the English-language edition makes no effort to hide his subversive goals. “The originality of Realms of Memory consists in the effort to decompose that unity [of the French nation and of French history], to dismantle its chronological and teleological continuity.”

In other words, one finds a serious contradiction at the heart of this enormous publishing project. Do Nora and his colleagues wish to reclaim a coherent history for the beleaguered entity called the French nation? Or have they become a set of highly placed, institutionalized sappers resolved to deconstruct any unified view of the French past in favor of a set of microspecialties and local perspectives? I regard both Les Lieux de mémoire and the recast English-language version (fluently translated by Arthur Goldhammer) as evidence of professional ambivalence toward the discipline and the scope of history. These authors demonstrate their devotion to rediscovering and redescribing “what really happened” in the past – but only in small chunks, in case histories. They avoid unity and continuity. Analysis, for them, trumps synthesis.

One of Pierre Nora’s bluntest statements about his project appears in his preliminary essay, “Between Memory and History”: “Les lieux de mémoire, ce sont d’abord des restes.” Goldhammer translates: “Lieux de mémoire are fundamentally vestiges.” Nora writes a beautifully modulated pulpit prose. In this sentence, however, he puckishly picks up the term restes, familiar to any reader of cookbooks. Let me propose a different translation: “Memory sites are first of all leftovers.” Nora has allowed himself a flicker of self-mockery before he regains his accustomed solemnity. Restes, or leftovers, hardly suggest a concern with the big picture that emerges from the events of history. These seven volumes of leftovers offer us many feasts of knowledge, but in separate booths, as at a fair.

I have begun this review with what may appear to be an extended digression. Realms of Memory deserves a review of its own. I include it here because The Origin of the World, a new short novel by the contemporary French author Pierre Michon, embodies so powerful a sense of the past, a past contained precisely in sites and customs and in ordinary people’s behavior and attitudes, that it challenges Nora’s initial presupposition of “the rapid disappearance of our national memory.” Writers such as Michon cannot stop remembering; he lives through memory. In his historical narratives, the past is summoned up as a pervasive presence that shapes even his prose style and vocabulary. In Michon’s stories about contemporary life, the past lurks in every detail of landscape, architecture, language, and convention. He, like the rest of us, would be absorbed by the essay-length monographs Nora has collected about the 1931 Colonial Exposition and the notion of “a generation” in cultural history. But Michon would laugh at the thought that the historical imagination in France has sunk so low that it needs to be pumped up again by a seven-volume public-works project for deserving historians. History has other ways of showing its vitality.

The uncertainties of a career just beginning had brought me to the Lipari Islands. I was young and headstrong, the world was the arena where I could parade my insolence; I snorted at everything; my untried freedoom seemed to have no limits I could not brush aside. I am the son of Gaudentius, commanding general of all cavalry in Scythian territory; to my father’s lofty office I owe a childhood of gilded imprisonment like a perpetual vacation, molding my character by both overindulgence and by the constant danger or death. My father dealt with borderland Barbarians, no longer satisfied by armed combat alone; he turned me over as hostage to those with whom he formed an alliance, as a living token of his good faith. Son of a prince, I was raised among princes, as long as my father kept his word; had he betrayed his word, I would in a moment have known the edge of a sword. My life was suspended from my father’s honor.

[My translation]

These scenes from the decline of the Roman empire do not seem to belong to any recognizable voice. Not Plutarch’s. Not Augustine’s. Not Gibbon’s. Yet the accumulated clauses seek to probe close to the era they describe. The past here takes on the immediacy of living history, archaic yet convincing.

The passage quoted above comes from Michon’s semi-legendary narrative, L’Empereur d’Occident. Now in his fifties, with nine books published, Michon lives in the provinces and appears to scorn the conventions of a Parisian literary career. He writes novels that are too short, too densely written, and too personal to find a large readership. Yet a volume of admiring essays, as well as many articles and reviews, has been devoted to him, and a second title of his has now been published in English. His sense of the past as immanent in the world around us gives an unsettling tension to his best writing.

In one of Michon’s most recent collections, Mythologies d’hiver, the opening stories are set in the Dark Ages. The first tale recounts the conversion of King Leary’s three daughters in Ireland by St. Patrick. All the characters move formally, like figures in a stained-glass window brought to life. One of the daughters, Brigid, insists on seeing our Savior with her own eyes.

“No one sees Him without being baptized, said Patrick. He spoke of the river Jordan, of the angels on the bank, of the redeeming water, of John and the Master. The daughters ask to be baptized. Once again they strip off their clothes to enter the waters of the stream, utterly serious, their eyes closed. Patrick tucks up his garments and makes the necessary gestures over that stunning flesh. Brigid opens her eyes, the sun has changed place, it is almost noon. I do not see Him, she says.”

Even as the settings of the stories become more modern, Michon records only the schematic, archaic movements of men and women dedicated to a calling. In the last story, Edouard Martel, one of the founders of the science of speleology, sits under a trellis near the gorges of the Tarn River and inscribes on a map the names he will confer on the places he has discovered – underground places. For Martel and for Michon, geography and history tend to settle into the earth. The ground, the soil itself, is alive beneath our feet. More upward-aspiring authors such as Petrarch and Goethe and Stendhal seek out great heights in their imagination: If we could only fly! Michon is obsessed by the depths. Plausibly, God Himself exists underground.

In The Origin of the World, an unnamed narrator arrives by bus in the little town of Castelnau in the Dordogne region of high plateaus and deep ravines close to the prehistoric underground sites of Les Eyzies and Lascaux. The Michelin regional map number 75 locates Castelnaud (with a final d) on the Dordogne River. Michon moves Castelnau (without the d) twenty kilometers away, to the banks of the smaller Beune River, quietly opening the space for fiction and for legend.

“I arrived at night, in something close to shock, in the middle of a galloping September rain that bucked in the beams of the headlights, in the pounding of the long windshield wipers; I couldn’t see the village at all, the rain was black. I took a room Chez Hélène, Castelnau’s only hotel, perched on the lip of the cliff beneath which the Beune flows: that night, I couldn’t yet see the Beune, but leaning out the window of my room, I was just able to make out a hollow in the darkness behind the hotel.”

From the dusty display cases in his elementary classroom the narrator learns about the treasures found in the caves and grottoes of the region. The fishermen in the bar talk about their pale mysterious catches from deepflowing streams. And in the local tabac, where he buys cigarettes and a daily newspaper, the narrator becomes spellbound by a taciturn, statuesque shopkeeper in her thirties. Her son, Bernard, is in his class. In the narrator’s overheated imagination, Yvonne yields herself completely to him, and he guts her brutally like a fish. But reality follows a different course. At appointed times she ventures out across wet fields in high heels to visit a local lover. The narrator encounters Yvonne one evening returning to the shop. She is unable to hide a bleeding wound on her cheek and neck, evidently inflicted by a whip. They stand speechless at the edge of a wood.

“The queen was at the bottom of the field, high-heeled like a crane, naked beneath her furbelows, like a scaled fish. Her hips were moving. I thought about what had made them move even more a little while ago. I thought about her vivacity, her cruel elegance; the arrogance of beauty; the shame that crushed her high-pitched voice; the sound of her cry. I tried to imagine her as Bernard’s mother. The dry bulrushes caressed her ankles, ran her stockings, cut. I felt this in my stomach. Beneath the shadows, beneath the coat, beneath the skirt, beneath the nylons, the earrings, the pearls and the Sunday best, beneath Milady’s braids and gathers, hugging the dark stockings, lay this dazzling daylit flesh where at its whitest I imagined, twenty times over, beaten, received during intense thrusts and punctuated by sobs, the heavy, unanswerable phrase that remained forever redundant, forever jubilant, suffocating, black, the absolute authorship she wore on her face.”

Yvonne has been indelibly marked, branded by her owner. “Authorship” in the last line is an audacious translation of “écriture” (writing). The principal strand of the story comes to a standstill here, but life goes on. The narrator consoles himself with a girlfriend from a nearby town, and the action moves underground – literally. Their weekend visits to local caves inspire an evocation of our paleolithic ancestors who discovered and decorated these subterranean galleries, “the men who were the gods of these reindeer.” They explore a nearby cave that belongs to Jeanjean, Yvonne’s lover. He guides them with flashlight through endless passageways to a huge room whose walls, when flooded by installed lighting, turn out to be blank, unpainted, unclaimed. “As you can see,” Jeanjean says dramatically, “there’s nothing here.” Somehow the narrator is not disappointed but impressed by the unblemished, undecorated walls:

“It was extraordinary. It was bare. It was the cupola of Lascaux at the very moment when the old bachelors had entered it, antlers on their heads, and in the torchlight their hearts had leapt in their chests; when the impeccable expanse of white limestone had been unveiled for them alone…”

During the following days, the narrator acts severely, almost cruelly, toward Yvonne’s son, Bernard, his pupil. Toward the end, he confesses the motive behind his unfair treatment, at the same time realizing that the hopelessness of his plan is due to a failed understanding of the place that has shaped Yvonne, of its history:

“Whithout question I was waiting above all for Yvonne to ask me about these injustices, for her to come to see me. But she wasn’t one of these mothers who bothers with such conventions, who believes that the future of each of us differs according to our scores on a quiz; her love for Bernard was of a much older variety, she didn’t even need to look at my pedantic little marks in red ink, she was from the age of the old bachelors as well: she never came.”

The fishermen in the bar bring back a catch of mysterious scaleless leather carp. What is happening? No one seems to know. The waters of the Beune rise ominously. At the end, a great sleep falls over Castelnau. The River Beune flows on.

The Origin of the World is a slender book in length, but not in style and language. In a 1999 interview, Michon stated that a novelist is not bound to invent all his characters. There is already a superfluity of lives in the world, and he cites the philosopher Occam’s principle of parsimony (“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”) to justify a novelist’s using real people as characters. But this parsimony in creating characters does not apply to the use of language. In an earlier interview, Michon acknowledges the expansiveness with which he deploys words: “I cannot write without singing.” Michon’s prose tends to slow down in order to oblige you to hear its rhythms and also to see and touch and smell what is happening beneath it. He strives simultaneously for an opaqueness that calls attention to the verbal coloration of the prose and for a transparency that reveals a “real” sensuous world. In Renaissance painting, such a fusing of surface and depth emerged with the development of glazes-layers of varnish that one both sees and sees through. In his best narrative and descriptive passages, Michon gives the effect of a painter building up his glazes. Out of flatness he creates high relief.

In a book of literary essays, Trois Auteurs (1997), Michon tells us that it was William Faulkner who opened the doors of literature for him. Michon also speaks with respect of Proust, Melville, and Balzac. And from the Symbolist poet Mallarmé, Michon borrows his definition of prose: “There is no such thing as prose. There is only verse with differing degrees of rhythm.”

But for some readers familiar with the twentieth-century French novel, two additional voices will be audible through Michon’s prose: that of Alain-Fournier, in particular his Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), a schoolboy fantasy of escape to a bucolic paradise; and that of Jean Giono, in particular his early Alpine novels of farmers and shepherds whose closeness to the land and to nature gives them a corresponding closeness to the supernatural, to the transcendent. All of these authors, starting with Faulkner, use the coils of their prose style to build up a sense of palpable landscape laden with legend.

“I was in an obscene fable.” The narrator of The Origin of the World lets drop this comment just after he has spotted across a meadow four or five schoolboys who carry a dead fox tied to a pole, following local custom, and just before he encounters the disfigured Yvonne on her way home. He also links his plight to “the arrogance of beauty.” Does the title of the book help us to get to the bottom of these implied obscurities? “The origin of the world” alludes most evidently to the association of the region of France with the ancient appearance of man from the darkness of prehistory into the flickering Paleolithic Era of cave drawings, rudimentary tools, and the magic of the hunt. From these caverns emerged the affirmative impulse that would finally become recorded history.

But Michon also knows, as do visitors to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, that in 1866, late in his career, Gustave Courbet painted for a foreign patron a composition with the same imposing title, The Origin of the World. The painting appears to illustrate Michon’s epigraph for his novel, taken from the Russian novelist Andrei Platonov: “The Earth slept naked and tormented like a mother whose bedcovers have slipped away.” Courbet’s nearly lifesize painting offers a fully detailed close-up view, cut off at thighs and breasts, of a beautifully formed nude woman lying supine with legs spread. Such a depiction of sexual parts is utterly literal and in no way brutal. Because one sees no facial expression and no gesture, the picture can strike one as either natural and affectless or as brazenly lascivious.

Michon’s narrative, never affectless, is increasingly laced with real and incipient ruthlessness, malevolence, and violence. Only after the eruption of violence releasing the “black honey” of Yvonne’s blood does Michon draw down over his suffering characters the veil of sleep. Courbet implied that the origin of the world lies in the sheer copiousness of sexuality uncomplicated by darker impulses; Michon’s short fable obliges us to recognize, within and beyond sexual fantasy, strains of cruelty directed toward beauty, suggestions of dominance and violence closely associated with pleasure. The core of Michon’s universe is as dark and implacable as the caverns of Lascaux. His narrative skill consists in laying out before us haunted landscapes and high-relief characters who unheroically yet steadily push back against the blackness. They acknowledge cruelty and resist it. Not a glimmer of Rousseau’s optimism appears in Michon’s writing. He works with the uncompromising perspective of Swift – and of Faulkner – confronting evil.

Have we, then, two generations after Camus, and one generation after the minimalist tactics of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “new novel,” come upon a major new French writer? Perhaps. But Michon is unwilling or unable to take himself seriously enough to put together a full show – say, 200 pages of continuous narrative. His first, longest, and most autobiographical novel, Vies minuscules (1984), assembles convincing family portraits and a string of disastrous situations. They do not, however, redeem the book’s hackneyed theme: the trials of a young writer in search of his vocation. The author remains fascinated by Mallarmé’s image of the blank page taunting the paralyzed poet. Michon’s brief no-nonsense book on Rimbaud favors another autobiographical theme: the phantom influence of an absent father. One can find Michon’s finest work in the five semi-legendary stories about painters published in English as Masters and Servants (Mercury House, 1997). These oblique treatments of Watteau, Goya, Van Gogh, and others radiate a true magic.

The Origin of the World, Michon’s second book to be translated into English, contains much of the same magic in the form of a novel brought vividly to life and then left suspended in the suggestiveness of its sometimes subterranean setting. We shall, I am sure, be hearing more from Michon, not only because he has a remarkable and devoted American translator, Wyatt Mason, who confers on the books full citizenship in English, but also because the pressure of imagination that sustains Michon’s writing has not flagged. That imagination draws its force in great part from a sense of the past, particularly the past embedded in the mountains, plateaus, rivers, and caves of the French landscape. With Michon among us, history will not soon disappear.

Roger Shattuck is the author most recently of Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to “In Search of Lost Time.” He is University Professor Emeritus at Boston University.

Discussed in this essay:

The Origin of the World, by Pierre Michon. Translated from the French by Wyatt Alexander Mason. Mercury House, 2002. 96 pages. $18.

Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, Volumes I, II, and III, edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman and Pierre Nora. Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer. Columbia University Press, 1996, 1997, and 1998. 2,042 pages. $43.50 each.