A god breathed from my lips.

James Merrill: Days of 1964

Houses, an embassy, the hospital.
Our neighborhood sun-cured if trembling still
In pools of the night’s rain . . .
Across the street that led to the center of town
A steep hill kept one company part way
Or could be climbed in twenty minutes
For some literally breathtaking views,
Framed by umbrella pines, of city and sea.
Underfoot, cyclamen, autumn crocus grew
Spangled as with fine sweat among the relics
Of good times had by all. If not Olympus,
An out-of-earshot, year-round hillside revel.

I brought home flowers from my climbs.
Kyria Kleo who cleans for us
Put them in water, sighing Virgin, Virgin.
Her legs hurt. She wore brown, was fat, past fifty,
And looked like a Palmyra matron
Copied in lard and horsehair. How she loved
You, me, loved us all, the bird, the cat!
I think now she was love. She sighed and glistened
All day with it, or pain, or both.
(We did not notably communicate.)
She lived nearby with her pious mother
And wastrel son. She called me her real son.

I paid her generously, I dare say.
Love makes one generous. Look at us. We’d known
Each other so briefly that instead of sleeping
We lay whole nights, open, in the lamplight,
And gazed, or traded stories.

One hour comes back—you gasping in my arms
With love, or laughter, or both,
I having just remembered and told you
What I’d looked up to see on my way downtown at noon:

poor old Kleo, her aching legs,
Trudging into the pines. I called.
Called three times before she turned.
Above a tight, skyblue sweater, her face
Was painted. Yes. Her face was painted
Clown-white, white of the moon by daylight,
Lidded with pearl, mouth a poinsettia leaf.
Eat me, pay me—the erotic mask
Worn the world over by illusion
To weddings of itself and simple need.

Startled mute, we had stared—was love illusion?—
And gone our ways. Next, I was crossing a square
In which a moveable outdoor market’s
Vegetables, chickens, pottery kept materializing
Through a dream-press of hagglers each at heart
Leery lest he be taken, plucked,
The bird, the flower of that November mildness,
Self lost up soft clay paths, or found, foothold,
Where the bud throbs awake
The better to be nipped, self on its knees in mud—
Here I stopped cold, for both our sakes;

And calmer on my way home bought us fruit.

Forgive me if you read this. (And may Kyria Kleo,
Should someone ever put it into Greek
And read it aloud to her, forgive me, too.)
I had gone so long without loving,
I hardly knew what I was thinking.

Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful,
Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips.
If that was illusion I wanted it to last long;
To dwell, for its daily pittance, with us there,
Cleaning and watering, sighing with love or pain.
I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights
Even of degradation as I for one
Seemed, those days, to be always climbing

Into a world of wild
Flowers, feasting, tears— or was I falling, legs
Buckling, heights, depths,
Into a pool of each night’s rain?
But you were everywhere beside me, masked,
As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.

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Mathias Énard: Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants

Énard, Mathias (2010), Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants, Actes Sud
ISBN 978-2-7427-9362-4

This has never happened to me before : upon finishing Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants (~ talk to them about battles, kings and elephants) I was ready to toss a coin in order to decide whether this, Mathias Énard’s fifth book, was a success or not. It may often take me some time to puzzle out details of books, but I have never been as much at a loss about the basic quality of a book as I was in this case. The reason for my bewilderment is due to the highly original structure and writing of the book, and to Énard’s enormous basic skills as a prose writer. The same project and approach, in the hands of a lesser writer, could easily be chalked up as a bad failure. What Énard did was to take a little known episode in the life of the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, and develop it in a highly elliptical way. In only 155 narrow pages, the book attempts to do justice not just to a rich and sumptuous setting, but it also tries to contain clashes of civilizations, and the biographies of three of the most remarkable men of their age: Michelangelo himself, Sultan Bayezid II (also known as Bayezid the Just) and the early important Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina. Ottoman poetry, the development of a complex architectural structure and the difficulties of being an artist in a violent world that appears to be constantly at war are just a few of the themes that crowd this small book. There is no doubt that no book of this length could do any justice to as convoluted and complicated a set of topics and problems, yet Énard tries. We can see how good a writer he is by the mere fact that his method, an impressionistic, fragmented, superficial narrative that is more about the act of telling stories than about the story it purports to tell, appears to us, on finishing the book, to be the only way to convincingly work through the topics, places, biographies and ideas. Énard is highly convincing, and yet the book falls significantly short. It’s a failure, but, at the same time, it’s a valiant effort, and as far as brave failures go, the end result is, for example, a far better book than Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. To sum up: Mathias Énard’s new novel Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants is a failure, but an interesting, intriguing one. It’s certainly a book worth reading, especially given it’s extremely short length.

Born in 1972, Mathias Énard is a very young writer given the depth and volume of his work so far. Apart from two translations (of an Iranian and a Lebanese writer), he has published four other books before Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants, the first of which was published in 2003. His penultimate novel, Zone, published in 2008, could well be regarded as his breakthrough achievement, winning several prizes and being translated into English (2010, Open Letter Press, trans. Charlotte Mandell) and German (2010, Berlin Verlag, trans. Holger Focker) among other languages. Zone is a 500 page novel consisting of a single sentence, a long, sometimes rambling, exploration of war, memory and violence. The contrast to Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants, its immediate successor, following less than two years later, couldn’t be stronger. Although a second look at the book disproves the feeling, one is left with the impression of the book being constructed from a surfeit of small and smaller sentences, observations, impressions, fleeting thoughts. Part of that impression is likely due to the fact that the book consists indeed of small structures. The whole of the book is divided into tiny chapters which usually contain less than two full pages of text. And each of the chapters is well constructed, these are not continuous narratives interlaced, but small, self-sufficient prose pieces, each advancing the plot. There is barely (if any) temporal overlap, so the cut at the end of each chapter marks a jump in time. Sometimes we jump days or weeks ahead, sometimes just a few hours, but the overall effect stays the same: we are not allowed to take root in this world that Énard sketches for us, as he shoves us from event to event, from character to character. There is no authorial comment that would take us by the hand and lead us through this, but the short, elliptical chapters achieve the same thing, they bolster Énard’s authority as a storyteller, demanding we follow him, no questions asked. It may seem banal to say that the reader only sees what the author wants him to see, but it’s a relevant observation here, because Mathias Énard knows about the places and people that crowd his book, yet he does not allow us, as readers, the same knowledge.

What we know are small, labeled tidbits, just enough to understand what is happening and to have an idea of why these things are happening, but that’s all. The author’s patience with and generosity for his readers has strong, and clearly defined limits. This also explains the superficial way that places and characters are introduced. Since we are denied a deeper knowledge, Énard fills his book with flat declarations of fact, such as substituting the name Michelangelo with this description, early in the book: “le sculpteur sans égal, futur peintre de génie et immense architecte”. This tone, asking us to take it or leave it, is pervasive throughout the book. In a way, this is an invocation of the old art of oral storytelling, where the authority of the storyteller held enough weight so that simple declarative bits of information could stand without being questioned. This is buttressed by the book’s link to one of Rudyard Kipling’s books: Énard took the title of his novel from Kipling’s preface of his little known collection of stories Life’s Handicap. This preface contains a fictitious discussion with “Gobind the one-eyed”, a holy beggar, who instructs Kipling’s persona in how to tell a story; this is what he tells him:

Tell them first of those things that thou hast seen and they have seen together. Thus their knowledge will piece out thy imperfections. Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike. All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night.

In this short preface, Kipling presents us with two worlds, two kinds of storytelling. There is the cynical, critical, careful way of storytelling that is prevalent in the west, and is caused by employment of the written word, which allows critics to scour texts for mistakes, infidelities or problems. The other way is Gobind’s, the spoken word, which endows the teller of tales with a certain authority, speaking to his audience as to children (because all people “are children in the matter of tales.”). And in order to provide a spellbinding telling, you speak “of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels”. In Gobind’s assertion, this is not meant condescendingly, and Kipling doesn’t mean it that way either. His book is, after all, subtitled “being stories of mine own people”. And when he ends by saying that the most important stories are those omitted, he doesn’t aggrandize himself necessarily, he assigns a value to silence. All this is vastly different with Mathias Énard who only keeps the oral storyteller link and the ellipsis. In fact, it makes a great deal of sense to read the project of Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants as being, in part, the opposite of what Kipling intended in his book that, again, Énard references explicitly.

The contrast is most easily seen if we look at a passage roughly halfway through the book that lightly paraphrases the above Kipling quote, yet endows it with an utterly different spin:

Je sais que les hommes sont des enfants qui chassent leur désespoir par la colère, leur peur dans l’amour ; au vide, ils répondent en construisant des châteaux et des temples. Ils s’accrochent à des récits, ils les poussent devant eux comme des étendards ; chacun fait sienne une histoire pour se rattacher à la foule qui la partage. On les conquiert en leur parlant de batailles, de rois, d’éléphants et d’êtres merveilleux ; en leur racontant le bonheur qu’il y aura au-delà de la mort, la lumière vive qui a présidé à leur naissance, les anges qui leur tournent autour, les démons qui les menacent, et l’amour, l’amour, cette promesse d’oubli et de satiété. Parle-leur de tout cela, et ils t’aimeront ; ils feront de toi l’égal d’un dieu.

Kipling’s preface proposes a power of stories that goes both ways, a dependence on wisdom that includes the storyteller himself, who is asked to listen to the poor people. There is nothing of that in Énard’s novel, which talks down to its audience and eschews listening. This is not necessarily a bad trait, but it appears to be an odd and very deliberate change of gears. Given the fact that the book itself is basically constructed according to the rules not of Kipling’s preface but of the condescending note in Énard’s own book, this makes for an interesting, though slightly off-putting mixture. This aloofness that engulfs the whole novel does, however, fit into the gilded setting of the book, which does not appear to portray the Renaissance as much as it does reflect well-worn ideas of how the Renaissance has been and should be portrayed. In other words, this is not so much about the Renaissance as it is about “the Renaissance”, if understand what I mean. There is no immediacy here, and most of the central characters suffer greatly from this. There is no depth, no plausibility in the Michelangelo that we are offered, for example (despite Énard’s use of letters and suchlike, devices which usually fulfill just that kind of function) and yet it’s hard to see Énard being perturbed by this fact. Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants doesn’t need to be believed, it demands to be admired, “l’égal d’un dieu”. This intention is buttressed by the haughty poeticisms that crop up everywhere. Instead of probing for plausible emotions, or truly poetic and original images, Énard gives us tried-and-true phrases that can be extraordinarily beautiful, but in an arch, disinterested way. As the book progresses, we are presented with expressions of sadness, of love, of artistic ambition and fear, but all of them stay on the surface, none of them manages to spill over to the less-than-gullible reader. This can mean two things: either he aimed for the lazy reader, easily swayed by cheap imitations of poetic depth, or the archness is the whole point of the book.

I prefer that latter reading, in part because it has the more interesting implications. Shortly before the passage I quoted earlier, the character giving said speech says the following:

Je voudrais tant que tu conserves quelque chose. Que tu emportes une partie de moi. Que se transmette mon pays lointain, non pas un vague souvenir, une image, mais l’énergie d’une étoile, sa vibration dans le noir. Une vérité.

It’s well to remember that this book talks about an obscure historical episode. Realism, emotional truthful writing, well developed characters would certainly heighten the verisimilitude of the whole undertaking, but they would not actually add to the ‘truth’. In Énard’s historical narrative, the silences, omissions, gaps may serve a purpose in highlighting the empty spaces of written and recorded history. For the most part, he keeps to the historical record (he appends a list of sources to the book), and the superficial way of labeling and introducing characters could be read as a reflection of the paucity of these very sources. But here’s why the book is a failure: if Énard had decided to stick to his sources, to develop a narrative of gaps of knowledge, of empty spaces, his writing style might have cohered perfectly. But in a remarkable display of lack of authorial discipline, he adds sentimental inventions. He adds a tale of obsession, love and assassination, completely invented, and written in the same slick, smooth style. Thus, the main achievement of Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants appears to be an aesthetic one. Énard provides an exercise in l’art pour l’art, fin de siècle decadence. He imitates tropes and gestures from periods like that, but laced with a noncommittal arrogance. The central dismissive stance is never balanced, never subverted, or amended, as the author appears to think that artistic perfection, perfect historical miniatures, would be enough. If only they were, perfect, that is. This book has, as I’ve been trying to show, such an enormously broad scope, it’s project is so ambitious that it can be read in all manner of ways, without utterly excelling at any single one of them. It’s, after all is said and done, a valiant attempt, fueled by a strong literary vision, and as such it’s very recommended. It’s also recommended for the occasional passages of truly beautiful prose, and for the odd startling juxtaposition of art forms and cultures (topics that I have not been able to raise here). It’s not a great book, not even a very good book, but the attempt is more than laudable. Read it. If you want a different, much more positive take on the book, please read the Fric Frac Club review by Francois Monti, excellent as always, which praises the book very highly, reading Énard as “un classique moderne”.

Edit 1. Although this novel has not yet been translated, here is a very interesting interview with Charlotte Mandell, who translated Énard’s Zone into English.

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“To teach thee, I am naked first”

John Donne: To His Mistress Going to Bed

Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hills shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Received by men; thou, Angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are as Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them:
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus arrayed.
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see revealed. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife, show
Thyself: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why than,
What need’st thou have more covering than a man?

Distorted poet, speak prose

Broke stride as last of men realized their deep deceit. / This troubling advance of half-assed crews crowd these streets. / Never mind of who I am, son, just listen when I speak / Broken paragraphs hold wrath of a hundred million deep. / Bleak circumstance led masses to only want to dance / A bastard child of Reaganomics posed in a B-Boy stance / Make our leaders play minstrel, Left with none to lead our people. / How the fuck am I gonna shake your hand, when we never been seen as equals? / Deemed evil by those housed in church steeples. / False prophets read backwards from broken tablets to the feeble, / I seen you! / Regurgitate their lies. / I’ll bide my time with scrolls and ancient’s wine. / Heady brew left mark on this hazy scribe. / If stars align I suppose even the blind will see, / How they stole our last voice, corrupted culture into industry. / Few minutes remain, a tame soul wanders wild when it dreams. / Mine are filled with ill visions of soot and dope fiends. / These slit wrists won’t rest till I spill these last drops. /Tarnished skin only sin when I awoke on sidewalk. / Seen your movements through peripheral / Remain same individual. / When a man’s viewed as criminal to act animal is logical. / Audible tones honed to hold substance / Form sentence / Poor reluctant poet, speak prose / Refuse to beg repentance / Reluctant poet speak prose / Incite our peoples / We got raked through those coals / Once the truth was divulged. / Conscience calls thoughts subliminal / Actions all cyclical / Deplorable descendants of men depressed clinical. / Answers seem visible when visionless / Useless souls fold under pressure like hands pray to false Jesus. / Inadequate adversaries advance awkwardly. / Anger expressed outwardly / Causes ranks to break amongst these frail MC’s. / Your fictional tales told with conviction. / Concise concepts once written enter bloodstream / since this inks been forbidden. / Distorted poet, speak prosen / Incite our peoples / We got raked over coals / But the truth’s still untold. / Meaning lost to these zealots / Prefer bullets to ballots / Watch the rich sip from chalice / As these eyes fill with malice / Peasant hands remain callous / as our days retain darkness / I swallow razor blades to keep my vocal cords sharpened. / Morbid mixture of mistrust and anger paints picture. / Perception now blurred words slurred to form scripture. / These sullen souls misinformed / Storm gates of stronghold / Strange fate that I chose / Morbid poet speak prose. / Tattered voices arose / Red Blood written on scroll / Escapes throat an ill flow / For my violence atoned. / Modest thoughts monotone / Infant MC’s play grown / Found them hung in hallways / from cords on microphones

Frankfurt die Bleistadt.

Die Mainufer, künstlich begradigt & befestigt, kaum höher scheinend als 1 Bordsteinkante, – so bietet der korsettierte Fluß-selber den Anblick einer breiten, asfaltierten Chaussee – ohne Menschen, ohne Fahrzeuge, in Finsternis belassen u leer. – Vielleicht zweihundert Meter weiter über den Fluss sich streckend die “Friedensbrücke” – ihre Kanten leuchtend konturiert vom selben kaltglühenden Blau wie das Geschäftshochhaus mit dem zungebläkenden Firmenzeichen, als hätte 1 Schulkind dies gemalt & aus Bequemlichkeit für beides, Firmenhaus & Brücke, dasselbe Blau aus dem Tuschkasten verwendet. – Wir bleiben stehn auf dem kleinen gemauerten & umzäunten Plattformviereck am Rand des Mains, sehen die Stadt: Als stützten Metallröhren glitzernd mit winzigen Tröpfchen beschweißt im hitzigen Dunkel die tief herabgedrückte Decke Eineshimmels ohne Regen ohne Wind. Starr u verschlossen Dienacht, eine Kammer aus Blei. Frankfurt die Bleistadt.

from Reinhard Jirgl‘s most recent novel Die Stille.