The New York Review of Books, 5 mars 1998, par Roger Shattuck

Louisiana Story

Masters and Servants assembles five narratives about painters and the life of painting by a contemporary French writer not previously translated into English. With one exception, each story approaches a celebrated artist through a peripheral, even obscure witness : for van Gogh, the postman Roulin, a neighbor and friend whom he painted ; for Piero della Francesca, the humble disciple Lorentino, mentioned by Vasari. Pierre Michon offers no introduction or frame for his tales. His supple prose, dappled with chiaroscuro effects is used in straightforward chronicles. But his writing can at any time lift or lower into semi-hallucinatory effects that recall Arthur Rimbaud’s assaults on conventional perception. A paragraph will suggest Michon’s style.

In the fifth story, a boy swineherd – probably invented – sees an elegant young woman descend from a coach and lift her voluminous skirts to urinate in the shrubbery. And he overhears her prince in the coach mutter “a word reserved for the lowliest tarts”. The boy, become a man, recalls the scene as a Visitation that opened the world to him and allowed him eventually to become almost a prince.

I don’t know if what I experienced that day may be called pleasure, I was still little. I visited the spot where she had lifted her skirts; I went to the spot where the carriage had stopped, the little consecrated place where I calculated that the prince had been; I looked at the edge of the woods, the exact tree underneath which the girl had pissed for her prince. I lowered what I could imagine of a white hand, I said aloud the word used for the lowest whores: I tapped my two fingers. In this light the trees were immense, numerous, tireless. So we are made that here, in this light, flesh takes on a greater weight. God, who sees everything with an even eye – we do not envy such even sight ; we envy the sight of those who pause patiently to consider what they will soon devour, while all around them the world explodes. Sitting there on that road in the bright sunshine, where a prince who perhaps had been only a marquis had, for a moment, smiled, I began to cry, loudly, in great sobs. I would rather have burned. An insane elation took hold of me that perhaps was pain, anger, or the disturbed laughter of those who suddenly find God along a road. It was the future, without question, this bucket of tears. Just as easily, it was God, in his curious fashion.

Michon’s characters inhabit a universe crowded with real objects, which are also powerful signs. The world revealed by this incident converts the swineherd to the understanding that life can explode and that he can devour the pieces in order to create a new life. The unnamed boy now takes up with a group of French painters accompanying Duke Charles during the French occupation of Mantua. The most frightening of them turns out to be Claude Lorrain, who tames the swineherd and starts him on a brief career as painter. He ends up a “prince” among servants and thieves.

The Watteau section is told in the voice of the curate of Nogent, who provides an “ordinary” face for the famous portrait of Pierrot as Gilles. The curate reports vividly on Watteau’s talents and crotchets and on his rages over his misfortunes, primarily concerning women he wants. Watteau’s rants match those of Rameau’s nephew in Diderot’s dialogue. Michon allows his intense fictional narrative to fill in seamlessly around known historical facts. This is a work of concentrated love, which lifts from its subjects the garments of traditional art history and recostumes them in a more palpable layer of imagined circumstances and feelings. Michon’s brevity and concentration ultimately reveal two complementary forms of vision : the transfiguration a painter works upon his materials by the spark of insight accompanied by patient work ; and the slow discovery by an underling of the marvel of that transfiguring vision in a princely painter. Particularly in sensuous scenes like the above, religious contemplation hovers behind the action like a figured bass.

I did not know Michon’s work before Masters and Servants appeared. It offers a matched and varied set of what I do not hesitate to call prose poems. They survive in English because of the nearly flawless translation by Wyatt Alexander Mason. Mason is also Michon’s dedicated champion, who persevered until he found a discerning publisher. At least two more books by Michon deserve publication in English. His writing springs from no new school or ism but from the very taproot of French language and literature.

Starting late and coming almost from nowhere, Michon demonstrates the independence of voice that marks a true writer.