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Violence and Creativity

Small Lives

by Pierre Michon, translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays
Archipelago, 215 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Rimbaud the Son

by Pierre Michon, translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays
Yale University Press, 96 pp., $15.00 (paper)

The Eleven

by Pierre Michon, translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays
Archipelago, 97 pp., $18.00 (paper)

Masters and Servants

by Pierre Michon, translated from the French, illustrated, and with an introduction by Wyatt Mason
Yale University Press, 192 pp., $15.00 (paper)

The Origin of the World

by Pierre Michon, translated from the French and with an introduction by Wyatt Mason, afterword by Roger Shattuck
Yale University Press, 92 pp., $13.00 (paper)
Isolde Ohlbaum
Pierre Michon in the village of Châtelus-le-Marcheix, central France, 2009

1.

When I was twenty and studying French literature in Paris, I signed up for an independent project in translation. My adviser’s only stipulation was that I translate something that hadn’t made its way into English. Ignorant of contemporary French literature in a profound way—I’d read only what had been assigned across ten years of classes, a predictable march from Villon to Montaigne to Rabelais to Proust—I solicited suggestions from professors. They came back with the same name: Pierre Michon. Why Michon? Because, they said, he’s one of our greatest living writers.

In 1989, this was very much a minority opinion. Michon’s complete works amounted to three slender books, as I discovered in a bookstore near my school. The earliest, Vies minuscules (1984), ran to two hundred pages; Vie de Joseph Roulin (1988) was fifty-nine pages; and a third, L’empereur d’Occident (1989), was forty-nine pages. And while it would speak well of me to claim that I devoted the remainder of the afternoon to reading all three until the store closed, wringing my hands as I weighed the merits of each while hesitating over which to choose, I spent all of thirty seconds deliberating. The slimmest, the pages of which were printed in uncut signatures—to read them, I would need a knife—was unapproachable. The longest, which wasn’t long, seemed by comparison huge. So I chose the middle one, because it was short, and because I didn’t have a knife.

I got the knife thirteen years later. I was sitting with Michon and his wife in a restaurant down the street from their townhouse in Nantes. Across the intervening years, I’d translated four of Michon’s books into English and found them a small US publisher. The previous afternoon and that day’s morning had been spent working with Michon in his study, correcting my draft translation of Vies minuscules. I’d worked with him this way on three earlier occasions: in Paris in 1991, when he answered questions about Vie de Joseph Roulin; again in Paris in 1996, when we went through Maîtres et Serviteurs (1990) and Le Roi du bois (1996); and in Chicago a year later, working on his novel La Grande Beune (1996).1 These meetings had always been productive. Michon, who speaks little English, was generous with his time and clear in his responses, able to illuminate the many thorny passages in his work that his translator couldn’t unpack and dictionaries didn’t help decipher.

The 2003 meetings in Nantes were different. Michon was curt, dismissive. In the past, my incomprehension was met with patience, instruction; now my perplexities displeased him. After a truncated second round of attempted questioning on the morning of the second day that yielded increasingly monosyllabic replies, I moved mechanically through the remaining hundred pages of the very complicated text in twenty terminal minutes, skipping past scores of questions Michon clearly wasn’t going to answer.

And yet despite that morning’s agon, Michon proposed lunch out. In a booth, across from his wife, he sat between me and the wall. Confit de canard was ordered and served, accompanied by large serrated knives. I attempted conversation; conversation did not form. Plates were cleared. Michon held on to his knife. As he turned toward me in the booth for the first time, a tap of the tip of the knife he’d retained, now pointed at me, punctuated each word he spoke.

“So,” he began, “you’re an acceptable translator. Actually, no. You’re fine. But Vies minuscules is an exceptional text. It needs an exceptional translator. Understand?”

Michon’s face was gray, grim. I made a few sounds that attempted to communicate that I didn’t understand; that we had worked together for years; that I wasn’t clear what had changed; that I’d done the same work I’d done in the past and arrived with, I thought, the same kinds of questions but—

“But you haven’t even deciphered the text,” Michon said, loudly, pounding the table now with the fist that held the knife. The voices of the lunchtime crowd dimmed as the restaurant registered the disturbance. “You haven’t even deciphered it.”

With a terminal clack, Michon released the knife to the table.

“Let me out!” Michon shouted, pushing past me. “Let me out!”

Michon and I remain in uncomplicated agreement that Vies minuscules is an exceptional text, one that demands an exceptional translator. I differ with him only in my belief that his adjective should be applied more liberally to his corpus, in keeping with his current reputation. For in the fourteen years since I ceased and desisted from translating his work, Michon has gone from being a writer admired in France by professors and advocated for by an ardent few to one whose most recent novel, Les Onze (2009), won the Grand Prix du Roman of the Académie Française. He has been translated into fourteen languages, amassing a significant readership throughout Europe. Roberto Bolaño, in 2666, puts Michon atop a short list of continental authors (Jean Rolin, Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas) read by the most ardent literature students in Mexico.

In English, however, little attention has been paid to him by readers. Though nine of his ten works of fiction are now available, this glut hasn’t significantly expanded his readership or prompted much comment. The disparity between Michon’s French reputation and the absence of one here has, for me, a straightforward explanation: the English translations themselves. Beginning with my own and continuing with those of my well-meaning successors, these translations haven’t adequately conveyed Michon’s qualities.

2.

Through the thirty-four years of his career, Michon has been formally preoccupied with the production of “lives” in the Plutarchian sense, attempts at gathering what is known about a historical figure and contriving a suggestive narrative arrangement of the evidence. Many of Michon’s stories involve figures, not infrequently artists, of some renown: Van Gogh, Goya, Watteau, Piero della Francesca, Claude Lorrain, Arthur Rimbaud. And yet in each case, the focus of such stories isn’t these notable figures but rather their satellites: models who posed for them, followers, students, disciples, friends and enemies whose histories haven’t been written and indeed, absent any significant data in the historical record, cannot be. Michon adapts the Plutarchian mode to memorialize obscure figures who might, as the story revolves, offer rarer views of the planet they orbit. As a result, though Michon’s method originates in and often relies on research, the events of his texts are largely invented.2

Many writers have produced fictions inspired by history. What is notable about Michon’s use of history is how wholly he has managed to make it submit to his larger concern: how a particular kind of violence, a uniformly male violence, an animal sexual urge to seize the world and have it submit to its will, is the source of both human cruelty and artistic creativity. “The sex-instinct,” as Ford Madox Ford called it in The Good Soldier, is of course a commonplace in fiction, the way in which desire complicates our social sphere. But Michon’s preoccupation with male desire, and his documentation of the male will to claim, take, and make, are unique in my reading experience. Michel Houellebecq, Michon’s immediate contemporary, has a similar preoccupation with sex and maleness, something one could say of Philip Roth, too, or, in his own way, of David Foster Wallace.

Michon’s monomaniacal focus on the male drive, its yields and its wastes, has a nihilism more like Cormac McCarthy’s vision of male action, its routine horrors, their biological basis, their inevitability. But whereas McCarthy, particularly in his early books, doesn’t, as Guy Davenport noticed, “waste a single word on his characters’ thoughts…he describes what they do and records their speech,” Michon is intimately interested in the psychology of his men. Though he does not, for the most part, exhibit similar curiosity about female psychology or experience, in Michon this always feels like a tactical choice, one that is part of the revelation of his male characters’ limitedness, and not an expression of the limit of the author’s imaginative powers (a limit one often encounters in Houellebecq’s fiction, where simplistic ideas of women predominate). As such, Michon’s stories come out as neither for nor against their depredations. Rather, like a good historian, he documents what is, to the end that we might acknowledge our antecedents, our patrimony: that we are, as a culture, descended from that violence, not merely in the obvious arenas of power where a fist wields a sword but at the culture’s so-called high end where hands manipulate paint and language.

Michon’s interest in this kind of violence began in a project of self-justifying self-excoriation, Vies minuscules, a collection of eight pieces all presented as “lives”—“The Life of André Dufourneau”; “The Life of Antoine Peluchet”; “The Life of Claudette”—and each of which in some way intersects with Michon’s own: stories about his grandparents, schoolfriends, an elder sister who died before his birth. These stories all showcase the shortcomings of their author as he attempts to write their stories. And while, in outline, this might sound unpromisingly self-regarding—a first book about writing one’s first book—Michon is self-aware enough of the limits of his premise that he’s always pushing against it.3

What’s more, though the book might sound uncomplicatedly like what the Anglophone world calls memoir, and though the English translation of the book was marketed as a novel, the French edition bore the prominent designation récit, the meaning of which—“a literary work that recounts real or imaginary events”—is distinct from either and typifies Michon’s approach: fact licenses fiction via the exhaustion of what is known. But récit also carries a second meaning: in music, “something sung by a solo voice or played by a single instrument”—entirely appropriate given Michon’s reputation as one of the greatest living stylists, a writer whose voice is considered his defining feature, a voice difficult to convey in translation.

Michon’s prose mixes registers from high to low, exhibits a spoken straightforwardness but maintains a melodic precision and a metrical power. His vigorous lines are freighted with allusions to history and art, facts deployed to the end of building characters plausibly rooted in the eras they spring from, a grounding that leads, in Michon’s method, not merely to intellectual substance but, more magically, moments of profound feeling.

His sentences tend to be long, semicoloned clauses accumulating sometimes for pages, building rhythmically and tactically: through such dilation, Michon often delays one’s sense of the ambitions of a sentence and of a story—the fuller meaning of the thing only emerging from behind the massing of clausal clouds with the appearance of a final, illuminating phrase. But in English, Michon’s sentences too often feel hapless and pretentious and, yes, here and there exquisite. Michon in English seems like precisely the writer he is not: one inconsistently able to tell the difference between a perfect sentence and a perfectly awful one.

BnF/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource
‘The Beast of Gévaudan’; eighteenth-century engraving

Consider how Vies minuscules, and indeed Michon’s career, begin: “Avançons dans la genèse de mes prétentions.” We’re in the imperative mood, in the first-person plural, touring, with the author, from his first book’s first sentence, the edifice he has yet to build. Extreme self-consciousness, then, but leavened by a gravid allusion to the first book’s first book (genèse), an irony insisted upon by the authorial ascription of pretension to his own endeavors. Metrically, the twelve-syllable sentence, alexandrine in length if not in design, begins and ends with trisyllables (avançons; pretentions), an anapest to start and a dactyl to end, mirror rhythms (––/; /––), these six syllables sandwiched around six more, an iamb at the very center (genèse) flanked by two pairs of flat feet (dans la; de mes), the introductory and concluding words of the sentence rhyming their last syllables and cinching the thing closed. The feeling of the meaning of this perfectly balanced sentence in French is swashbucklery undercut by buffoonery: the unlikeliness that gallantry in prose, prose driven by the dictates of poetry, might still be possible or even desirable.

In the English of Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays, we read the following: “Let us explore a genesis for my pretensions.” We remain in the imperative mood; genesis and pretension make appearances; an internal rhyme (explore; for) tips a hat to terms of art: but Michon’s propulsive music becomes, to my ear, something closer to Gilbert and Sullivan:

Let us explore
A genesis for
My pretensions.

Which is to say there’s nothing inaccurate in this translation. It just no longer sounds like Michon, his mix of high and low, of irony and arrogance. Instead it sounds fussy, and clunky, and, as I hear it, “literary”: rather than managing something new, it sounds like it’s trying to be something old. The translation is “correct,” but the tone is absolutely wrong. And conveying this tone of voice, its loadedness, its sense of suspension, its balancing of lightness and weight, would be the essential work of any translation of Michon.

There is, however, excellent news on the Michon translation front: an exceptional translator has, at last, appeared. Ann Jefferson, a former professor of French at Oxford, has delivered Michon’s two books of short stories, Mythologies d’hiver (1997) and Abbés (2002), in a single slim volume. I read Jefferson’s versions in something close to shock: they feel as Michon feels in French. There is the velocity, the precision, the music, the compression, the singularity, the power.

As Jefferson writes in her introduction of Michon’s style in these stories: “His sentences are syntactically simple and often slightly elliptical.” If this description doesn’t quite align with my descriptions of his earlier work, there is cause, as Jefferson notes. “Michon himself has said that this style is actually the result of his switch from pen to computer for composition.” Although these styles are meaningfully distinct—and raise very different sets of difficulties for a translator—the overall problem of preserving Michon’s tone remains the same, and one Jefferson has solved. I know no translation like hers: one that manages the feat of reproducing seemingly everything an author is doing in his language. These little stories in Jefferson’s translation are the best place to begin reading Michon in English and they are, themselves, among his most perfect pieces of writing.

As is Michon’s habit, the stories originate in historical accounts that he has claimed and adapted from various obscure texts: lives of saints and monks from the Middle Ages, both Irish and French, as well as a history of the Gévaudan, a region in south-central France, all sources that Michon cites in the stories. The first trio are set in medieval Ireland, and begin formulaically (“Muirchu the monk relates that Leary, king of Leinster…”; “The Annals of the Four Masters recounts that Suibhne, king of Kildare…”). The second of these stories, “Columbkill’s Sadness,” begins in the formula and then builds from it into something very much its own, very much Michon’s:

Adamnan recounts that Saint Columba of Iona, who is still called Columbkill, Columbkill the Wolf—a member of the tribe of the northern O’Neills through his ancestor Niall of the Nine Hostages—is a brutal man in his youth. He loves God violently, and war, and small precious objects. He was reared in a bronze cradle; he is a man of the sword. He serves under Diarmait, and under God. Diarmait the king of Tara can count on his sword for raids in the Irish Sea, marauding cattle, crapulous feasts which turn into massacres. And God, King of this world and the next, can count on his sword to persuade the disciples of the monk Pelagius, who deny Grace, that Grace is devastating and can be weighed in iron. The small objects are also allies of God and the sword: they are won at sword point, and all of them—chalices, rings, or croziers—belong to God. The most beautiful, the rarest, the most precious—those that later, when they exist in plenty, the West will call books—speak of God, and God speaks in them. Columbkill prefers books to ciboria: for this military captain, whom Adamnan calls the Soldier of the Isles and of God, Insulanus Dei miles, this wolf is also a monk in the manner of monks at that time, a manner that is inconceivable to our way of understanding. When he lays down his sword, he rides from monastery to monastery, where he reads: he reads standing up, tensed, moving his lips and frowning, in the violent manner of those times, which we cannot conceive of either. Columbkill the Wolf is a brutal reader.

It is winter in the year 559, and he is reading.

He has just arrived at the monastery of Moville, built in dry stone on the bald heath facing the Irish Sea. It is raining the way it rains in Ireland; you can hear the sea below, but it is not visible. Finian the abbot has left him alone in the hut that serves as the library. There are four books: Columbkill leafs through the large altar copy of the Gospels, a copy of the Georgics, and Priscian’s Grammar. The Gospels are a run-of-the-mill piece of work; he read the Georgics when he was in Cork. He also knows Priscian. He bends over the fourth volume: it is smaller and fits inside a little pouch with a strap that needs unfastening. He opens it at random, and reads, I hate double-minded men, but I love Thy law. He does not know this text. It is a great rhyming paean divided into a hundred and fifty smaller paeans. In the pictures on the facing pages you can see King David variously occupied with slaughter and music. The colors are very beautiful: an orpiment yellow and a vertiginous lapis lazuli. The blue and the paean are the book of Psalms. It is the first psalter he has ever held in his hand, perhaps the only one that exists in Ireland. He can hear the sea below dropping with all its weight. He sinks into the text.

Michon’s self-consciousness is conspicuous, his narration arriving over the shoulder of his subject—in this case, a monk saved from oblivion in Adamnan’s book, whom Michon is reimagining in his fashion—and sometimes from inside him. The story of this bellicose monk, one who is “inconceivable to our way of understanding,” who has a hunger for texts that “speak of God, and God speaks in,” sees him acquire the little psalter through violence against Finian the abbot and, so gained, to discover, once it is his, that “he searches the text for something he has read and cannot find, and the picture for something he has seen and which has vanished. He searches long and in vain, yet it was there when it wasn’t his.” What a book might grant us, a reprieve from our solitariness, is the thing that the monk’s wanting condemns him to: aloneness. It is the thing, in Michon, that we see his characters repeatedly seek to evade and are unable to escape: themselves.

This brief fable, which runs to not quite 1,500 words, has a hoarded power typical of Michon and characteristic of the little book’s fifteen stories. In all of them, men want, take, and make others suffer what they take, and find no reprieve from the arbitrariness of suffering, of everything. In the finest story in the collection and one of the most remarkable stories I’ve encountered, the first of three longer stories all under the heading of “Abbots,” Michon unearths an abbot named Èble from a variety of “secondhand chronicles” that date to 976 when “Ancient Gaul is a hotchpotch of names.” One of these names is Poitou, which is held by Èble’s brother, the warlord Guillaume Towhead. By contrast Èble has retired from that explicit violence and now holds the Abbey of Saint-Michel, which sits on a little island, a poor outpost whose “buildings have landed here like dice thrown from a cup:”

The midget island sits just inside the mouth, facing the sea where two rivers marry, the Lay to the right and the Sèvre to the left: and as it happens these nuptials are rich with sand, mud, oyster shells, and all the debris that rivers calmly snatch up and crush: windfall and dead cows; the waste that men throw out in sport, from necessity, or from weariness; and sometimes their own human bodies thrown likewise in sport, from necessity, or from weariness. With the result that it’s neither the forthright sea nor the honest river that Èble has before his eyes but something mixed and tangled: a thousand arms of fresh water, as many arms of salt water, and as many again of water that is neither fresh nor salt embrace a thousand plots of naked blue mud, naked pink and gray mud, red-brown mud, worthless sand where the devil—which is to say nothing—plies his trade.

So the story itself is the space where that old argument between the Manichaean forces is once again rehearsed, but unencumbered by any sense that such a story can’t be told again, meaningfully. Under Èble’s leadership, the pagan peasantry is drafted into a public works project that drains the flood-prone basin and yields fields in which crops can be sown, and results in believers in the god whom Èble serves. The oxen that are drafted to such work “have gaiters of mud right up their legs”; men who serve Èble die violently and arbitrarily, meaninglessly; the man who has put them there is no less marked by the world, has mud and blood on his hands: Èble is a man in service to God, but a man betrayed by his own urges, availing himself of one of the peasants, a woman. He misuses her; he sins agains her, himself, and God. He comes to see the mixedness of all things, all acts, all works. He ages; endures. The land flourishes; he faces the consequences of his contradictory nature. Michon reports; we sink into the text:

He walks down to the harbor. It’s the dead season of Christmas, when the fishermen bring barrels of herring and the finest fish—sturgeon and pike—for the table at Epiphany. The winter morning will be very blue; it’s already blue, but a few patches of mist are still traveling across the water. Out of the mist, heading straight toward him, a flat-bottomed boat emerges in which plump fish gleam. In the prow of the boat there stands a small, fair-skinned girl with a head of tow, a thousand densely packed sunbeams, gold that shines against the silver of the pikes. She bears the torch of daybreak. The sun exists for this brilliance, the blue belongs to her. It looks like a crown. It looks like something else which Èble knows well and which is not himself or his brother Guillaume. The abbot thinks very quickly, and what comes to mind is the word glory.

Glory; faith; belief; love; ambition; art; power; need; hurt; purpose; value: throughout Michon’s body of work, the reader encounters these words, in texts drawn from texts, and sees him hold them up for consideration, definition. The originality of his work is in his commitment to the reconsideration of such familiar things, and his success in finding forms that admit to the mixedness of the motives of all storytelling. Though Michon tweeted, in 2013, “If I were young, I would write a 1,000-page novel,” the distilledness of his work, its compression and the yields of exclusion, are fundamental to his vision, a vision that appears with all its French force in Ann Jefferson’s exceptional transplantation.

  1. 1

    My translations of three of Michon’s books—Vie de Joseph Roulin, Maîtres et Serviteurs, and Le Roi du bois—were published together as Masters and Servants, originally by Mercury House (1997); La Grande Beune appeared as The Origin of the World, also originally from Mercury House (2002). 

  2. 2

    There are two outliers in his body of work, insofar as they are wholesale inventions, or are at least not instigated by history in the way I describe. The Origin of the World is a brief, extraordinary, perfect novel about a nameless primary schoolteacher’s first job teaching in a rural French town. The Eleven, Michon’s longest sustained narrative, is the story of the creation of a huge history painting, The Eleven, of the most infamous figures in the French Revolution, a painting that springs entirely from Michon’s imagination, as does the story of that painting’s creator, François-Élie Corentin. 

  3. 3

    Roger Shattuck, a great admirer of Michon’s Masters and Servants and The Origin of the World, found that Michon’s prose, in the case of Vies minuscules, did not “redeem the book’s hackneyed theme: the trials of a young writer in search of his vocation” (Harper’s, June 2002). I wonder what Shattuck would have thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,600-page novel that may be summed up similarly.