Multicultural Mandarin

A.O. Barnabooth, His Diary

by Valery Larbaud, translated by Gilbert Cannan, Introduction by Alan Jenkins
Quartet Encounters, 317 pp., £6.95 (paper)

Childish Things

by Valery Larbaud, translated by Catherine Wald
Sun and Moon Press, 208 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Lettres à Adrienne Monnier et à Sylvia Beach, 1919–1933

by Valery Larbaud
IMEC Editions, 362 pp., 250 FF

Larbaud’s name is probably no longer widely known even in France, something of him certainly survives, because I recently heard a speaker on the French radio use the phrase “Ce vice impuni, la lecture” (“Reading, that unpunished vice”), as if it were an anonymous quotation that had passed into the language. It is, in fact, the title given by Larbaud to a collection of critical essays first published in 1924, and—such are the cross-currents of literary history—it was not a phrase of his own invention but a direct translation from a passage in Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith, a contemporary Anglo-American essayist, now also somewhat forgotten.

Larbaud, as it happens, was much concerned about the cruel uncertainty of literary reputations. He did a lot to relaunch old authors he considered unfairly neglected, such as Maurice Scève and Honorat de Racan, just as he defended some controversial new authors, and in particular James Joyce. He also worried about his own status; although the standard edition of his complete works, not counting translations, fills ten volumes, was he, he wondered, truly un écrivain or just un homme de lettres? As we know from his Journal, he disliked the latter term, because of its implications of amateurism, and he hoped for eventual canonization as a classic, if only a minor one.

These three books, I am afraid, will hardly establish Larbaud as such with the English-speaking public. Barnabooth, his longest piece of fiction, was quite a famous work in the late Twenties and the Thirties when it was considered as a superior example of that exotic and sentimental travel writing—sometimes referred to derisively as la littérature des wagonslits—which was also practiced on a lower level by such novelists as Paul Morand and Claude Farrère. This is a version first published in 1924; Alan Jenkins contributes a respectful but not very enthusiastic introduction and has translated some, but not all, of the free-verse poems appended by Larbaud to various French editions. Strangely enough, he omits the best poem, which displays a wry lyricism quite absent from the others: this is “Borborygmes” (“Stomach Rumblings”), about two lovers, in bed together, listening with philosophic amusement to the sighs and gurgles of that internal, organic life, which pursues its independent, nonromantic course, and is “the only human voice that never lies.” However, Barnabooth, as a whole, has perhaps not weathered as well as some other texts, for reasons I shall try to explain.

The second volume—in French Enfantines, a much more positive title than “Childish Things,” which evokes Saint Paul’s recommendation to “put away” such things—is a beautifully subtle and poetic account of how children and adults can live side by side in different imaginative worlds. The translation gives the literal meaning with a few mistakes, but it doesn’t convey the ironical lyricism of the French text. A biographical note, confusing Larbaud with his fictional hero Barnabooth, states quite wrongly that he was born and brought up in South America; how, in that case, could he have…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.