‘Suite’ was born of an invitation Pierre Senges received to contribute to an anthology on the future of the novel (Devenirs du roman, published by Inculte/Naïf in 2007). That impetus goes some way to expain the essay’s programmatic aspects: ‘Suite’ is an ars poetica, a droll demonstration of its author’s daringly agile imagination. If one were looking for a prickly rejoinder to the calculating candor of autobiographical fictions, or a riposte to the purveyors of a narrowly conceived realism, these 4,500 words of ludic vitriol might do the trick in spades.
The bookstore overrun by the charming singers: here they come, they are superb, they’ve crystal-clear eyes and faces chiseled by experience, twenty years old almost; they’re not glabrous, only a baby would be so naïve, they are not bearded, but rather endowed with the elegance of some Greek aristo-platonic ancestor, or with some elusive trait by which two old readers of Proudhon recognise one another — neither glabrous nor bearded, but in an intermediate state of charming singer, of beautiful abandon, disheveled hair, and virility, to which are added, if you can believe it, veritable pearls of sweat. The face of the lover, perfect the morning after his exploits, rolling out of bed, wild and natural, still feeling the effects of his efforts, not more vain for that though, seeming to confer the status of exception upon the ordinariness of routine, but languid with a handsome, manly languor (we see there his abandonment to the forces of nature): the charming singer should appear to have been pulled from his bed at noon, and appear before his admirers in pyjamas, which grants him the right to take his breakfast in public, like the Sun King. He is suave, he’s a crooner, a crooner without coffers but a crooner all the same, a tenor of songs that susurrate near the microwave since he is unable to project his voice to the other side of the proscenium; and since his couplets are of the intimate sort (stories of flings, of regrets following the fling, of regret’s end and of resumption of the fling — and stories of oversensitive, engaged couples living in apartments of so many square meters with the cat, the bed, the tea, the turntable, and art books attesting to their exquisite taste (exhibition catalogs)). The charming singer is there (there are some of both sexes, as many girls as boys) in an undershirt, his heart broken, he is telling his public about the world; when he is not fully living his life, he signs contracts with editors: because he visits talent show podiums less often than bookstores, at present, this is a strategic move: an opportunity to dust off the confidence the little songs lacked. So there he is: supple as a flower’s stem, with the hint of having soaked too long in tepid water, but nevertheless respectable because he presides at the head of a pile of books: that’s some literature right there, thus gravity, pain, seriousness, labor, and behind that, an entire tradition made up of Flaubert’s drafts, Balzac’s caffeine, nouveau roman austerity, and self-sacrifice through the martyrdom of autobiography.
Don’t laugh at the charming singer, since he fills the bookshelves in the bookstore from front to back: salute his fluidity, admire it, imitate it, follow his cigarette’s volute all the way to page 76 of a 110-page novel, where there’s an interesting plot twist — and remove your hat, pay tribute to this Beckettian Adonis, male and female Sagans, open their books, close them, follow the charming singers in their journey around the world from afar, first to Montceau-les-Mines, soon to Valparaíso — and learn, learn the little ditties, for they’ll come in handy when it comes time to make friends.
A miscreant’s métier: six hundred pages of a novel, tempting as a six-hundred-slice sandwich, can be metaphysical, unfurling above them a sky full of constellations from which neither gods nor magnificent beasts have been banished, they can be kept in the temple to serve as an elbow rest, a footrest, to provide a little relief, or to gloss the gloss of the gloss of canon law, but they’ll still be unable to serve as a hymn-book: if by chance there is a God up above them, they don’t expect any help from Him, not even a clove borne by four angel-pharmacists from on high to soothe a toothache. Six hundred pages of a novel will inevitably be written by mortals, miscreants (they’re even better), miscreants clamoring to see what a God might actually look like, which is to say, eager to tug on his goatee, and from up close as well as from far away agog at anything resembling a crucifix or exegesis: that sort of miscreant who dies from the sexual excitement he gets while wending his way through the tiny, single-corridor labyrinths of Anselm of Canterbury’s arguments. (Six hundred pages of Sodom’s decline under the weight of Yahweh’s sulfurous wrath could never have been composed by the sole, righteous survivor of the destruction: not because his diaphanous hands are unable to hold the pen’s thick barrel, but because, as one of the elect, he reaches the Good Lord’s domain, he takes his place at His side, whereas six hundred pages of a novel are a corrupt creature’s affair.) (To be a miscreant: a pretty good disposition for a roman fleuve: the miscreant is sublunary, terrestrial down to the bone, he straps cast-iron scuba shoes to his feet as a sign of his sometimes libidinal attachment to the earth — the phenomena of metaphysics draw his gaze like the reds and yellows of stained glass windows in sunlight; the alternation of damnation and redemption excites him, because he sees it as a caricature of the human condition; his faith torments him, he presumes it to be a gift or a hereditary defect, either an unhealthy obsession or hypochondria; the resurrection is a matter of complete indifference to him if it corresponds to priestly passion, it charms him if it corresponds to the body’s stubbornness and the possible return of God’s creatures to the world; he shrugs his shoulders at the idea of Mary’s virginity, but would like to inspect the miracle from close up, to have the pleasure of handling paradoxes without resolving them, and of delving deep into the workings of the human organism; the feuds of the councils bore him, but he would be the first in line to play the role of heretic, so to further embroil dogma: in short, the miscreant knows how to extract from theology the material for his romans fleuves — their characters are traffickers of relics and fornicators.)
Six hundred pages are not a manifesto either: put them in the flames, these small hand-sewn notebooks, into the flames of Nikolai Gogol’s stove, so weary of his Dead Souls, so that they can at least serve to heat up a cup: six hundred pages of novel brimming over with cavalcades, stews, traitor’s kisses, barber’s basins, hair bracelets, elephants, combustion engines, carbon fibers, zeros and ones are incapable of striking that trenchant tone manifestos have, written on a single page, front-and-back — a manifesto leaves no room for stew. If they want to send a Lancelot riding off on horseback towards the equivalent of the Grail, the six hundred pages can’t be assertoric: shutting the world up is their ultimate purpose, they would show penitence for having done it over so many chapters and with so many countless reversals and plot twists. A manifesto advocates, it affirms, it raises high the fist that just struck the table to signal its hurt; it condemns, it sends forth enemies who are as mild as sparrows and annihilates them with a single blow; in a general way it prefers to have enemies, because having enemies helps to kill time; it’s the partisan of an aesthetic, which does not necessarily make its author into a man of taste: he uses it for wallpaper, it helps him to feel he’s king of the castle. Six hundred pages of a novel don’t advocate for anything or anyone, nor can they: forced to select their heroes from a pool of petty thieves and snake oil peddlers, they’ve cultivated an at times dubious passion for low-grade fraud that definitively rules out any notion of adjudicated truth. In such circumstances, it’s necessary to forgo assertions — unless one wants to be an assassin or run for public office — : which always makes the period’s arrival at the end of the sentence, always, a delicate matter.
Shakespeare: six or seven portraits, hardly more, of a certain resemblance, the portraits resemble each other I mean — nothing is certain in the end: a face in the shape of an egg set atop a lace fraise: that will have to suffice. It’d be futile to exhume Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe to make Shakespeare exist, after all that’s what Hamlet’s there for, to prove his existence while miraculously renouncing his eternal hesitations: and if Hamlet isn’t a sufficient witness, Iago will come before us and swear with hand on heart that he knew him very well. If there’s a lesson in that, it would probably not be to bring back the craze for the Elizabethan ruff (however much that might lend sour mugs the allure of profiteroles set out on doilies), but to put an end to the me, and get rid of it once and for all, if we haven’t already. To get rid of the show-off me, such a poor successor to the humoristic vanity and certain megalomanias of the first dandys: the me who worries about delivering himself over not only to legitimate admiration, but above all to the buyer’s voracity; a kind of showing off that corresponds to the anxiety around one’s position, one’s status in a world of supply and demand. And once we’ll have finally gotten rid of the show-off me, we’ll be able to consider sending back to the changing rooms the when-I-was-a-little-boy me, the my-first-tooth-and-my-little-village me, and the me who looks on the past as though it were a patrimony, even though it was only memory, forgetting, and separation: that insufferable me-and-my-childhood going over to the cupboards to get out the family photo album and show off his round, child prodigy physique, the pen already in his hand, and secret, hidden wounds. Next we’ll need to open up the trapdoor by tapping on the latch underneath the feet of the me-and-my-love-affairs, so that he’s gone with the sound of a saddlebag dropped to the bottom of a well — then with a wave of our magician’s hand we’ll void out the me-and-my-aches-and-pains, the me-and-my-sleepless-nights, the me-my-suicide-and-my-resurrection, and rid ourselves of the me-my-battles-and-my-victories and the me in all its metamorphoses, from the heavens of adolescence until the exhaustion of old age, cleverly disguised as serenity. With a little luck we’ll be able to exorcise the me-and-my-epoch, the me-and-the-world-seen-out-my-window, the me-and-my-opinions, the me who is a victim of indignation at the hands of everything and everyone (proof of its plasticity there), the me-and-my-fate-and-my-style, the me-and-my-book-currently-being-written, the me-and-my-heroically-smashed-noodle-conserved-in–eau-de-vie, brought out and uncorked on special occasions.
And yet there are those sublime me-I’s here and there, in the libraries: Pessoa’s lyrical, distraught me, the tragedian me we find in Kafka’s journal, Casanova’s delicious toy-of-destiny me in the hands of gods and goddesses — and many others, including Pascal’s, who drove holy spikes into it. It was without a doubt a question of a me branded by the epic or by lyricism, sometimes by both, a milestone on the road of narration: and Gogol in search of a subject to excite society with could have chosen Nikolai Gogol to make him into a character every bit as tangible as Akaky Akakievitch: Gogol and his nose like a door knocker and his neurasthenia schlepped from one city to the next, from hotel to hotel. There are stage curtains available, plaster skulls of Yorick, invented love affairs, colossal lies, pastry chefs passing themselves off as spies passing themselves off as pastry chefs, and all the fictions contained in autobiography: there are a thousand ways to promote an I that would not be the bibelot-me or the my-burden-and-my-career-me, and these thousand ways are a thousand different modalities of narrative fiction, the coup de théâtre included.
How did we go from the I of prosody to the show-off me? In tiny, imperceptible, sliding increments, by taking advantage of inattention instead of beatitude: that’s not a figure of style, that’s a seizure of power: the replacement of the I of literature with the me of literary career. To form an idea of what an I of fiction used to be capable of, it’s always still possible to open the pages of the mystics of the Rhine valley, or of St. John of the Cross, or to go back to Rome to find in the erotic elegies of Propertius and Catullus that romantic I of every manner and aspect, suffering sometimes from a broken heart, or from the onset of a venereal infection. We must go and draw instruction from Rome’s erotic elegies in order to learn how to use the I as a skeleton key to be slid in the keyhole of so many bedroom chambers, or like a shoehorn with which to slip on Mercury’s kicks, or like a boathook to lift down the delicious prize at the top of the greasy pole, or like the oar of a gondolier, or like a pole to be shimmied up to reach Juliette’s balcony, or like a cane to scare killjoys off with, or like an orchestra conductor’s baton, or like a mechanical pencil, or a question mark, or a comma, anything, so long as the bittersweet elegy doesn’t stop.
There you have the I of elegy — by contrast [sic] the show-off me, in our day when one’s personal life is patrimony and identity is a precious commodity, has no business in a six-hundred-page novel full of reversals and surprises, and it can’t abide the presence of the me: a humoral incompatibility between a more or less narrative fiction and a more or less majestic me’s authority, but surmounted in any case with the help of a pen. Six hundred pages thrive on farce; the me-oh-my-gaping-wound presides with utmost, quasi-papal seriousness, where he is enthroned and contemplates who knows what — six hundred pages of roman fleuve are design, preoccupation with form; the me-in-my-heart-of-hearts is lived experience, or at least he thinks he is, he believes in transparency, he preaches against the wearing of masks during Lent, and extols the offering of one’s innermost self to those who have already paid not to have to put up with it — six hundred pages of a novel are hospitality, a hospitality without end such as you find in a Spanish inn or a Carpathian castle in the time of Count Vlad Tepes: on one single page, but six hundred times over, the hospitality shown to the world as the sum of its parts: nutshell, ten-cent coin, and all the breasts catalogued by Ramón Gómez de la Serna. The me-my-epoch-and-my-generation, whenever he says he’s going off to discover the world, invariably comes crawling back to the me, because he doesn’t want to leave the other behind, as if his very life depended on him, the equivalency being set out once and for all between existing and being me: the me shows no hospitality, he waits for everything to come to him, and thinks he will me-ify the landscape without sacrificing a single ounce of his greatness: his mantra might as well be: the world is everything that happens to me.
(What else? six hundred pages of a roman fleuve accept defeat, for example that of Hamlet, who absentmindedly leads a tragedy of total loss; six hundred pages always prove whoever is totally right a little bit wrong, they never triumph, they hobble along and have nothing whatsoever to do with glory — the me establishes himself as the me through victory upon victory; in the name of pride, he declines to acknowledge weakness, he prefers the idea of tribulations, but must incessantly reap his share of both; since he can no longer take the soul for his subject (too Sulpician) nor the psyche (too fraught with Freudian references), the me defines himself through his successes and titles, he views his life as his destiny: how impossible in these circumstances, then, to take into account Lisbon at the time of the earthquake, adventitious Lisbon stirring countless thousands of individuals higgledy-piggledy in a cauldron, individuals without destinies, without vocations, with only a vague idea of the near future and, should luck be on their side, enough humor to laugh about it.
Saint Thomas and Albert the Great both had the cosmos, it was divine manifestation, the art of the great dial-master, people could only rejoice at it, the sphere was its perfect shape and nothing was truly absurd. Honest men in the time of Ficino discovered the world under the guise of universe; they circled the entire globe but had enough imagination to wonder where the Earth juts out in the form of a breast so that they might locate Paradise there. And certain encyclopedic romantics had nature instead of the universe, where an original truth might be revealed by the lifting up of great boulders: something naïve and meticulous for sure, but within that naïveté, the origin of our own artlessness in regards to the real. Because here we are in our day, without a cosmos, hardly enchanted by the idea of a sphere, without that ready-to-grasp, discoverable universe filled with signs delivered over to our usage, but instead fallen at best into a too narrow universe, a universe of penury where the golden age is inconceivable except in terms of rationing and waste, a universe which we ruin as we breathe, with our very breath. No solutions are available to us other than to temporarily occupy this earth and call it real, which might account for its cold, greyish, watery appearance, that look of a puddle we respect for a puddle, and no more: neither the harmony of the cosmos, nor the estimable universe, but the real, forever disenchanted fifty times anew, at least: sometimes by atomists, sometimes by bankers.
In the days of Chrétien de Troyes, knights could go out trotting around in implausible forests, chasing after chalices, just after having crossed paths with sorceresses: no one went to Chrétien in his gentility, asking him to please pardon the interruption, but insisting all the same on knowing what in God’s name prevents him from writing about the real world instead of pursuing such farandoles. He would have to understand, Chrétien would, in that scenario, that taking the real world into account is not an aesthetic imperative (technical and lyrical), it concerns neither form, nor emotion (the spine’s spasms): it is a moral imperative, proof of morality’s persistence in secular times: whoever fails to act with it in view is not an incompetent artist, nor a lame duck, but a miscreant, a delinquent: the debt incurred is that of the sinner, his shame is the idler’s shame before the workers, his penitence is eternal.
In the age of pragmatism, ours, it’s critical to be on one’s guard against efficacy and scabies alike: the chain of causes leading to effects should serve as the pretext for play in narration, and not become the last mailman of truth: as such, the free man, the free object, the book let’s say, must abstain from being efficient, or at least from wanting to be so. Of course, there’s the legend of the rats who ate biscuits and bread, the bread of the bard Seanchan Torpesta, in Ireland: a single poem, accompanied by the harp on occasion, was enough to massacre ten at a time, ten rats upset by rhyme — in another country, centuries later, the verses of Osip Mandelstam were enough to save the lives of five men condemned to death: which, in one thousand years of history, amounts to at least two examples, sufficiently epic, of the power the verb has over the world. Aside from ten asphyxiated rats and five wretches’ salvation, the written page hardly stands to gain from its being performed: when it is performed, malaise is perceptible, some will speak of the psychology of crowds — and as for the text’s author, curiously decorated, he has to wonder what he did do to deserve this.
Good news: six hundred pages of epic, lyrical roman fleuve spangled with elegies mark their difference from doctor’s arguments and assembly debates: it’s that, before beginning long conversations, sometimes soliloquies, on the subject of reality, six hundred pages and their readers safeguard against placing themselves in agreement about the terms to be used: misunderstandings are preferred, and whosoever has literary pretentions, whether they be an author or a reader, must deny themselves the right to speak frankly and without complications: this without complications being as much the domain of bumpkins, as of formal logic’s perfect precision. And that is why six hundred pages are on the stormiest of terms with reality, made up of conflicts, bad blood, sudden splits, jealousy, irreducible complexes, immemorial disputes, mistrust (mistrust is in fact a knitting needle) and passion that succeeds mistrust, grudges, deception, curiosities healthy and unhealthy alike, greed, and persistent unspoken utterances, as incredible as all that might seem after so many years and so many conversations. It would be a mistake to know at the beginning what it’s going to be about: if such knowledge were necessary, and if the adventure ahead depended on it, the real dully exhibited in each chapter with the fake enthusiasm of a smut dealer would be real by virtue of metonymy, one little part standing in for the whole, the totality of reality’s outward symbols, shields and heraldry, road signs, and whatever else it takes to convince, as if to convince instead of intrigue were the vocation of six hundred pages: one beside the other, a cellular telephone, a travel agency, a pink slip, a transaction going from the Caiman Islands to the Crocodile Islands, one single micrometre of latex, and lampshades in nightclubs where sexual liberty appears as an expression of the herd instinct.
No one is more intensely realist than I am (said Aretino, effectively): I am realism’s champion, in thundering tones, with my authoritative decrees I am: inanimate objects, I grab hold of them: I requisition them if I want to play lords, at worst I break into their homes — and once I’ve received everything as so much stolen goods, I make it all out to be the proof of the contemporary world’s existence: no one will be able to reproach me for shirking realism when they see my war chests, into which it all goes, the sublime and the sordid alike, like so many objects piled up on Savonarola’s pyre. Show me a poet of this country who is more attached than I am to the density of objects — someone will show me the way to, you can be certain of this, young prose writers disgusted above all by the increasingly large frames around baroque masterpieces; they will talk about realism as if they were describing a newspaper column on the emotional sterility of home appliance stores; they will purport to take stock of the world, and turn out their palms to show their stigmata and, if possible, the hole through which the world itself can be glimpsed; they will want to furnish proof of their belonging to the present day and age, as if I doubted it for a single second. Other groups of these young prose writers will be sent to me, young writers who incessantly want to ride the subway so as to steep long in its essence, who would visit drunks in makeshift hovels along guardrails by the roadside, the essence of their wine trickling down their wide corduroy pants to their shoes, imagining themselves like Walt Whitman — I will be weary, and I will look it too, and before sending these pretenders back, I will give them my own definition of what realism is, realism as I see it, as I practice it in my solitude.
Here is how I pretend to follow orders: one must speak of one’s time? I’ll talk about the crack of dawn if that exists, every morning I will stand on my roof and rehearse, my fingers a Homeric pink, like Saint Bonaventure I’ll compare morning faith, afternoon contemplation, and evening speculation; I will lie in wait for my neighbours to awaken, before seizing that very moment as the first act of my opera (thirty-three violins, fifteen trombones), it will be the advent of grouchy man, grey and groggy, naked, out of bed. One must be current? I’ll be still more opportunistic then, more up-to-date: I’ll be attentive up to the minute, the second even: I will know as photographers know (just as they do, or better still) how to catch my peers at the exact instant their opponent’s fist plows into them: that gives rise to clichés of gratifying anamorphosis. One must talk about one’s contemporaries? I’ll become an entomologist, I’ll dip my subjects in honey and vinegar, I’ll know how to find each one’s blade of grass and I’ll specify, in a denunciatory tone, by exactly what law of mimesis my neighbour is endowed with that sexy half-slip allure she seems to have. People want me to be genuine? I’ll embark on a career in mythography, and this is how I will describe my contemporaries, after having described their copulatory members: I will elevate them to the status of myth, I will objectify them in allegory after having objectified them in my insectarium, that will be my favour to them; I will use myth since it is numerous and contradictory, since it doesn’t even purport to state the false but presents itself as a corrupt report, the report of a truth that has already started to slip away, one hard to verify: I’ve often given false testimony, and I’m well acquainted with the tribunals: this job’s cut out for me. People even want me to talk about corpses? I will declare myself (slipping into a white coat) a coroner, I’ll have very good reasons to search for the meaning of life and the solution to enigmas as I collect tiny particles from under the fingernails of Edgar Allan Poe’s young dead girls, and I’ll be most precise when the time comes to describe the wood out of which my marionettes are made.
As long as the storyteller keeps on telling his story, God doesn’t exist (said one storyteller, who had enough wisdom to precede God in his disappearance) — in other words: for the entire duration of his reading, a reader is no longer a prey to priests, nor to advertisements, nor to appeals directed at the public: because during that time, only when he is reading, he consecrates the better part of his credulity, his most cunning credulity, to the story, and the subtle mechanics of its logic: insofar as he gives himself over to reading, he immunises himself, facetiously.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Jacob Siefring studied French literature in Montreal and at the Université de Nantes. His translations of Pierre Senges’s writing appear in The Collagist, Gorse Journal, Numéro Cinq, Hyperion, The Brooklyn Rail, and 3:AM. His translation of Mallarmé’s long typographical poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard is in the inaugural issue of Vestiges. He resides in Ottawa and blogs at bibliomanic.com.