Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Irony of Light


Treading Lightly by Jacques Réda

In reference to his 1975  collection of poems, La tourne (the second of three collections included in this volume), Jacques Réda speaks of “the poet in search of the town as mandala.” An exotic analogy, surely,  it is also a fitting one, as over the years he has written poem after poem inspired if not preoccupied by his own experience of wandering the streets of his beloved city, Paris, with camera and notebook in hand, every day the adventurer, every bit the citadin, every bit the poet-flâneur. Yet his range is wider than that, touching, if lightly, on history and politics, and on language—poetry—itself. A devotee and veteran writer on jazz, his poetry tends to the musical, the spontaneous, the improvisational. Writes Aaron Prevost in his essay ‘Poetry, Swing and Jacques Réda,’ “One of the great pleasures of reading French writer Jacques Réda’s work is the buoyant élan poétique that coexists with his sense of melancholy and lightens it. Réda draws much of his inspiration for integrating this pulse into his work from jazz.”


Paul Auster, in his introduction to The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, asserts that, in contrast to English writing, “French literary language has largely been a language of essences.” Indeed, unlike his predecessor, the radical poet and enfant terrible, Tristan Tzara, who’d hated the ordinary in language and vision, Réda clearly revels in it, makes of it something essential, extraordinary, sublime. He is, according to scholar John Taylor, “a dauntless explorer of the overlooked thing.”

Here, for your enjoyment, are a few of my favorite samples:

Rue Rousselet

They say the road with its old wall goes running off.
So it does, a few steps past the corner, then all grows still,
And the old wall becomes its own reflection in water
From long ago; and would you, if you walked on, change
       your life
Or your soul before reaching the opposite corner, which
By some other time, under the slow delicate light
Of leaves in a garden fenced around memories?
                                                                                            We saw
The key one day shining between forgotten books, fingers,
Clouds; all the rays of evening are looking for it
In the enigmatic symmetry of balconies
Where the sky leans over uncertain, waiting for a shadow;
—Slant against the road’s fleeting loveliness,
already it’s slipping slantwise through our hearts.

October Morning

Lev Davidovitch Bronstein ruffles his goatee, hands
Ruffles his shaggy hair; in a moment he’ll
Leap out of his waistcoat and lose his scholar’s spectacles,
This figure addressing Krondstadt sailors hewn from the
Timber or Finland and with scarcely less feeling
Than the rifle butts that let fly dirty snow.
He preaches, Lev Davidovitch, he talks himself hoarse
Over the leaden Neva the cruiser Aurora slowly
Turns its turret towards the dim façade
Of the Winter Palace.
                                      What a performer; what a yellow sky;
What a weight of history on the empty bridges where the
      Odd car
Rumbles, its wings bristling with bayonets.
Tonight, at Smolny, beards have grown; seared
By tobacco and filament bulbs, eyes
Roll, Petrograd, before you twilight, your silence
Where out there, in an earnest crowd of grim-faced
Lev Davidovitch prophesies, exhorts, threatens, trembles
Too as he feels the inert mass of centuries
Tilt irreversibly, like canons on their axles
At the edge of this October morning.
                                                                 (And already Vladimir
Ilitch is secretly back in the capital; later
He’ll sleep, with the same dotard’s make-up, in a glass
Forever unmoving below the bouquets and fanfares.
Meanwhile Lev Davidovitch shake his shock of hair,
Retrieves his eyeglasses,
                                    —where a little blood, a little Mexican
Sky will mingle on the last day, so far
From you, muddy October, raving in the flurry of red


Afternoon’s pale clarity above roofs of blue and rose.
The bell is about to strike; you want to sleep, like the tree
At the corner of the street when never a soul goes by.
But the orb of insomnia stands there, strident
As a cockerel in a deserted courtyard,
Between the shaft whose polished wood dares not shine.
And everything, even the blameless birds that’s fallen silent,
Shivers in the humbled poverty of appearances.
Sleep, or death, better your shadow than this infinite
Unveiling of dreams laid bare to the irony of light,
Than eyes than no longer have lids and can’t deny
This emptiness growing all of a sudden when the clock
        strikes two.


Jacques Réda, born in 1929, is the was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix in 1993 for a lifetime’s work. Aside from innumerable articles and essays on jazz, he is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, as well as works of fiction (including a novel) and non-fiction, perhaps the best known of which is his 1977 Les ruines de Paris.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, November 17, 2014

Noble Nobels and Otherwise

Suspended Sentences, by Patrick Modiano


It won't be much of a challenge if I ask you, dear talented reader, what this group has in common:
Claude Simon, Odysseus Elytis, Harry Matinson, Nelly Sachs, and Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill? Yes indeed, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his "defense of exalted human values." Here's young Winston, back in 1898:  

"Thus ended the Battle of Omdurman [with an astonishing 90% casualty rate for the Dervish Army and a 2% casualty rate for the British]---the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors."

Let's just say that Churchill's record on the exaltation of human values was mixed, at best. Then again, Bertrand Russell, who may never have read a novel let alone written one, earned the prize for his History of Western Philosophy (whose take on Western Philosophy is itself suspect) in 1950, and Henri Bergson, whose fanciful ideas about being and time pale in comparison to the Nazi Heidegger's, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1927--perhaps the most mysterious Nobel in the years since Sully Prudhomme carried home the first Nobel in 1901. Remember Sully?

Along the quay the great ships,
Listing silently with the surge,
Pay no heed to the cradles
Rocked by women's hands.

But the day of parting will come,
For it is decreed that women shall weep,
And that men with questing spirits
Shall seek enticing horizons.

"Listing silently with the surge." Even in '01 this award was controversial, as were prizes given to Sartre, Toni Morrison, Grazia Deledda, and Sinclair Lewis, for varying reasons. Then again, who could quarrel with this extraordinary list of geniuses? Mann, Oe, Shaw, Faulkner, Yeats, Pirandello, Kawabata, Gide, Camus, Pasternak, Perse, Andric, Steinbeck, Sholokhov, Neruda, Boll, Bellow, Milosz, I.B. Singer, Kertesz, Coetzee, Llosa, Pamuk and the great Gabby Marquez? I haven't listed the many writers who have been recipients of the Nobel whose work I haven't read, usually for reasons of access (Darius Fo or Gao Xingjian for example), or writers whose work I frankly dislike (Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott [regrettably], or William Golding [apart from Lord of the Flies, which couldn't possibly have counted]).  On the other hand, Nabokov, Proust, James Joyce, and (arguably I suppose) Philip Roth never won; nor did Borges--go figure--or Chekhov, who died just two years after Theodor Mommsen won for his History of Rome. I adore Sinclair Lewis, or I did when I was fifteen, but a Nobel Prize? And Hemingway? T.S. Eliot? Heck, Eliot even admitted that Pound was the better writer, and Pound never won--and we can't say it was because he was a vicious anti-Semite, because Eliot was at least as vicious an anti-Semite, and Gunter Grass was in the SS for goodness sake, though he had the good taste to admit to having been a Nazi only after he took home the $1 million. And that's the thing: the Prize is a great honor--to stand on the same stage as Thomas Mann should humble any writer, but then there's the money, all that cool cash allowing one to do nothing more than write for the rest of one's life. Bliss!

 I was surprised  by this year's Nobel award--not because I'd never heard of Patrick Modiano since there are plenty of European writers I've never heard of--but because I expected this year's award to go to the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, which would have pleased me immensely, or to the popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami, which would have been, frankly, a disappointment. While I like Murakami and don't hold his popularity against him (that much), he lacks "high seriousness," and if the Nobel has stood for anything, it's gravitas--though not a lack of humor (see Mo Yan's books). Amos Oz perhaps also deserves the Prize (I can't decide), but no way that will ever happen, but most of all I would have liked to see Milan Kundera honored, and hope his time will come soon. Has anyone ever written a novel like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, all things considered?

Anyway, I read Suspended Sentences this past week--three of Modiano's novellas--and I enjoyed them, but they didn't do what Mann or Kundera do--they didn't sweep me away into an entirely different world, one that is richer and more engaging than the one I'm currently occupying.  That said, the first story, which is autobiographical (and all of them are, though not Proustian, despite the reviewers' comparisons, which are inane), was quite excellent. I found his tale of the photographer Francis Jansen compelling and complex--a story about how we organize reality in order not to make sense of it but to make sense of ourselves. I know nothing about photography as an art form, though I enjoy looking at photographs by the masters (especially Dorothea Lange's Depression photos), but I was drawn into Jensen's world, into his abrogation of his art, his dismissal of his photos as trivial, but. at the same time, his compulsion to make them. The idea that touched me in this story was that of the artist who has no interest in the outward form of his art, whose "art" lies within, and is a form of self-fashioning rather than of making. This is a brilliant story, and I hope to read more of Modiano in French or English (not many of his books have been translated yet) and to be able to make a more informed judgment of his qualities as a writer. 

 George Ovitt (11/17/2014)

Suspended Sentences, trans. by Mark Polizzotti (a great translator from the French) is published by Yale University Press in its World Republic of Letters Series.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga

According to the Human Rights Council, Rwanda’s population in 1994 was composed of three ethnic groups, the Hutu, which comprised roughly 85% of the population, the Tutsi, roughly 14%, and the Twa, a little more than 1%. In the early 1990’s Hutu extremists within the country’s political elite began blaming the entire Tutsi minority population for the nation’s increasing social, economic, and political pressures. Through the protracted use of propaganda and political maneuvering the resentment and bigotry soon reached a feverish pitch, requiring but a single spark to blow it sky-high.

That spark came on April 6, 1994, out of the sky itself, when a small aircraft carrying President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. What followed was the swift and nearly wholesale destruction of the Tutsi minority. Tutsis (or suspected Tutsis) were killed on sight, whole families massacred in their sleep, their crops and villages burned to the ground. Most of the killing was done by hand, face-to-face, with machetes, axes, and hoes. Not surprisingly, Tutsi women and girls suffered the worst of it all, often systematically and brutally raped before being hacked to bits where they lay. Within a matter of weeks following April 6, 1994, 800,000 Tutsi men women and children were dead—nearly three-quarters of the total Tutsi population.

Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile tells the deceptively simple story of the students and their teachers at an elite Catholic boarding school for girls in the cloud-covered mountains of Rwanda, near the legendary source of the Nile. For all its propriety and isolation, the school proves a dramatic microcosm of the state of the country at large in the months immediately preceding the Rwandan Genocide. Attended almost exclusively by the daughters of prominent Hutus with but two Tutsi girls per class, as required by law, the tension between the students, at first subtle, even childish on its face, soon overwhelms the daily routine. Even the Hutu teachers are not above this contempt, a bigotry rooted deeply in the history of the region and cruelly exploited by the German and Belgian colonizers who cynically promoted Tutsi supremacy over the majority Hutus as a means of reinforcing their power. Says one of the teachers, Father Herménégilde, in reference to the famously fictitious tract The Protocols of Zion, which he had read with interest when he was a seminary student:

The Jews wrote that they wanted to conquer the world, that they had a secret government pulling the strings of every other government, that they had insiders across the board. Well, I’m telling you, the Tutsi are like the Jews. Some missionaries, like old Father Pintard, even say that the Tutsi are really Jews, that it’s in the Bible. They may not want to conquer the whole world, but they do want to seize this whole region. I know they plan a great Hamite empire, and that their leaders meet in secret, like the Jews…They’re hatching every plot against our social revolution. Naturally, we’ve chased them out of Rwanda, and those who’ve stayed, their accomplices, we’re keeping an eye on them, but one day we’ll maybe have to get rid of them, too, starting with those who infect our schools…

It is a hatred, a rivalry, the author herself knows well.  A Tutsi, she and her family were made to suffer greatly under Hutu rule during the ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s, humiliated daily, dispossessed of their lands and finally forced to resettle in the highly polluted district of Bugesera in southern Rwanda. She and her family were later made to flee for their lives to neighboring Burundi. In 1992 Mukasonga moved to France where she now lives—just two years before the genocidal rampage that swept through Rwanda, claiming the lives of 27 family members. When asked why she writes, she replied: “I know why I write. If I close my eyes, I’m forever walking down that path nobody takes anymore. For there are no more houses, no more coffee shrubs, no more sorghum with pestles, no more men in endless discussions around a jug of banana beer, no more little girls dragging their dolls by a string. They have all fallen to the machete, without proper graves…”

Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956. Her first novel, Our Lady of the Nile, was published in France by Éditions Gallimard and won the Renaudot Prize, the Ahamadou Kourouma Award, and the French Voices Grand Prize. Our Lady of the Nile was translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner.
Peter Adam Nash