The Book of Questions
by Edmond Jabès, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop
Wesleyan University Press, 175 pp., $4.95 (paper)
During the past few years, no French poet has received more serious critical attention and praise than Edmond Jabès. Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Jean Starobinski, and others have written extensively and enthusiastically about his work, and as time goes on the list continues to grow. Beginning with the first volume of Le Livre des Questions, which was published in 1963, and continuing on through the other seven volumes in the series, Jabès has created a new and mysterious kind of literary work—as dazzling as it is difficult to define. Already his writings have been given such a central place in France that Derrida has been able to state, flatly and without self-consciousness, that “in the last ten years nothing has been written in France that does not have its precedent somewhere in the texts of Jabès.” Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation of The Book of Questions can therefore be taken as an event of considerable importance.
Nevertheless, there are inevitably certain difficulties. For The Book of Questions is bound to seem a strange and baffling work to Americans, and a reader who does not have a solid grounding in contemporary French poetry and criticism might find himself at a loss.
The very design of the book in English suggests the problem of cultural transference. The publisher has cleverly chosen to use a cover that imitates the classic Gallimard design: the author’s name in black, the title in red, bordered by one black and two red rectangles. One cannot look at the book without being reminded that its origins are French—as if this were an excuse for its strangeness. At the same time, the American printer has botched the imitation. It is all a question of millimeters, of course, but in the American paperback edition the black and red rectangles, which are always perfectly balanced on every Gallimard book, are askew. There is too much white showing on the left and not enough on the right, too little on the top and not enough on the bottom. This failure to respect the geometric precision of the French edition throws the design off, and the result is disconcerting.
Something similar happens to Jabès’s style in English. This is not through any fault of Mrs. Waldrop’s: her translation is careful and intelligent. In many passages, however, the elevated tone of Jabès’s French comes across as bombastic in translation, partly because the mode in which he writes has all but disappeared in English. We have become so accustomed to irony and understatement that the rhetorical flourishes and poetical excesses of The Book of Questions are occasionally off-putting. At times, Jabès comes out sounding like bad Whitman.
Yet the power of the book remains intact. Jabès is a bold writer, and his lapses into overstatement are more than compensated by his firm control over the structure of the book. Like René Char, the dominant French poet since the war, Jabès writes in an epigrammatic, metaphorical, and elusive manner—a stylistic …