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A Mysterious Man?

In response to:

Ego, Prince of Id from the February 21, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Thank you for publishing an extensive review of St.-John Perse: Letters [NYR, February 21]. As translator and “editor” of the book (“editor” is an approximation, as I am responsible for the introductory material and footnotes, but not for the choice of letters or establishing of the text), may I point out a few factual errors?

Your reviewer quotes, in French, from a very interesting letter that Alexis Leger wrote to Paul Claudel, remarking that it is “unaccountably missing from the American volume.” If Mr. Weightman took the trouble to read all the translated letters, it is hard to understand how he overlooked that particular one to Claudel, which is Letter No. 61 on pp. 129-131.

Elsewhere in the review he states that Leger “left instructions for his unpublished papers to be destroyed.” Leger did leave instructions for the destruction of any unfinished poems, and he himself destroyed a number of family letters and other documents shortly before his death, but there are many papers he did not destroy. A large portion of them are deposited in the Fondation Saint-John Perse in Aix-en-Provence, which was established with Leger’s express approval. I have had occasion to consult some of these papers. They contain much interesting material which, I imagine, will be revealed in due time.

Mr. Weightman rightly says of Leger that, “By nature he was exceptionally reserved.” He was not, however, quite as reserved and impersonal as Mr. Weightman goes on to say. Many of the poems in the early Eloges are pure autobiography, and there are plenty of explicit personal references in the later poems such as Poème à l’Etrangère, Neiges, and Chronique. The review also states that Leger had almost nothing to say “on the subject of sex and love” and that there is only “one reference to his wife, again formal, in a late poem.” The reference, I think, is to “Chanté par celle qui fut là,” though there is an allusion to his wife in the even later “Chant pour un équinoxe.” But long before that, Saint-John Perse had composed the thirty-five-page section of Amers (Seamarks) usually referred to as “Etroits sont les vaisseaux,” which is now considered the Song of Songs of French poetry. Sex and love are very much present.

Mr. Weightman understandably regrets the omission of the “political” letters from the American volume. I hope that omission may eventually be remedied, perhaps by the publication of those letters in a separate volume in English, along with additional political material. Such a book would throw much light on Leger’s very important diplomatic activities during the entre-deux-guerres.

Arthur J. Knodel

University of Southern California

Los Angeles, California

John Weightman replies:

I must apologize for saying that the Claudel letter was missing. I read the English and French texts alternately, and I missed the translation because it is not in the same place as the original letter in the French edition. I did not pursue the search, since some letters are definitely missing—for reasons which remain unexplained.

In spite of Mr. Knodel’s remarks, Leger still strikes me as mysterious. The “explicit personal references” are usually of a very general nature and tell us little or nothing about the inner man. The so-called Song of Songs is a splendid piece of rhetoric, but it is without the particularity of the biblical text, even if the latter is taken as an allegory. My point was that Leger does not write what one would normally call love poetry. His sensibility seems always to tend toward the cosmic rather than the individual, and this, for me, produces a puzzling effect of blankness.

It is interesting to learn that there are, after all, papers which may eventually tell us more. But why do the postwar letters about his relationship to France, which he himself put together, give such an impression of reticence and even of disingenuousness? There may be some simple explanation, but it is not obvious from the published texts.

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