viernes, 24 de octubre de 2014

Abbés


Abbés (Éditions Verdier, 2002)
by Pierre Michon
France, 2002

Abbés [Abbots], a 71-page triptych of three "imaginary lives" dedicated to monastic figures from France's Vendée département around the year 1000 and hence at least outwardly concerned with colorfully antiquated things like furta sacra, the reading or misreading of portents, and the propagation of the faith in the still quasi-pagan marsh and swampland region of the old Vendée, etc., wasn't all that convincing to me from a historical fiction or a "medieval" or even a spiritual point of view even though I readily admit that it was rather satisfying from a post-Marcel Schwob/non-Sigrid Undset-like scandalous storytelling point of view.  Who needs historical fiction anyway?  In other words, the not entirely tame account of abbot Èble's struggles with the spirit and the flesh? A disappointing and played-out plot device, truth be told.  But the descriptions of abbot Èble's struggles with the spirit and the flesh?  Priceless!  Too bad my schoolboy French isn't good enough for me to know whether I was supposed to laugh out loud or be outraged whenever the talk of an adulterous liaison deteriorated into overheated lines about a proud monk's carnal enjoyment of a woman's "plaie de feu mouillé" ["wound of moist fire"] (22) or the like.  It's an odd and occasionally unsettling book in that regard.  In terms of coming to grips with Michon's rep as one of contemporary France's premier prose stylists, though, it's pretty easy to see why his fans get so geeked up over his writing.  In the matter of imagery alone, for example, the pages of Abbés are teeming with tactile audiovisual allusions to nature (cf. "Un jour de janvier, la mer pleure comme un petit enfant sous un ciel de craie" ["One day in January, the sea wails like a little baby under a chalky sky"]) (65) which did a number on me with their trimmings of poetry in prose.  Michon's also an able practitioner of the bookish practical joke, permitting his narrator to gloss on the conventional nature of the old secondhand chronicles he's supposedly borrowing his historical source material from ("La haute époque avec ses belles images, scribes appliqués et chevaux" ["The Middle Ages with its beautiful images, studious scribes and horses"]) before blindsiding you with an even more disparaging antiquarian aesthetic feint: "Je suis fatigué de ses images, de la fade Chronique de Pierre" ["I'm tired of these images, tired of Pierre's insipid History"] (50).  Of course, the practical joking gets even better--richer, more layered, more Borgesian--when you start to realize that Pierre de Maillezais the chronicler might bear more than a passing resemblance to Pierre de Châtelus-le-Marcheix the modern day "scribe" of Abbés and that a "chance" reference to medieval monk/historian/literary forger Adémar de Chabannes might have something meta to say about the underhanded creativity and inspiration at the heart of the reading, writing and rewriting processes themselves.  Like I said, who the hell needs historical fiction anyway?

Pierre Michon

Cette époque, on le sait, aime les os.  Pas tous les os, ils ont grand soin de choisir, disputent et parfois s'entretuent sur ce choix: les os seulement qu'on peut revêtir d'un texte, le Texte écrit il y a mille ans ou les textes écrits il y a cent ans, ou le texte qu'on écrit à l'instant pour eux, les os que Cluny ou Saint-Denis a nommés et scellés, ceux qui à des signes patents pour nous illisibles, firent partie d'une carcasse d'oú s'évasait la parole de Dieu, la carcasse d'un saint.  Comment ils décident que tel os sera habillé et nommé, exhibé sous les yeux des hommes dans de l'or, et tel autre anonyme et nu, bon pour la terre aveugle, nous ne le comprenons pas, seuls les mots de cynisme ou de parfaite naïveté nous viennent à l'ésprit, mais sûrement pas les mots de savoir et de vérité.  Nous béons devant ces châsses au fond d'églises froides, il faut mettre une pièce de monnaie pour qu'elles sortent de l'ombre, nous béons devant le petit cartel qui résume la vie du saint, toujours la même en somme, les nuances nous échappent comme elles ont échappé au rédacteur du cartel, nous nous ennuyons bien avant que la loupiote s'éteigne, ces carbonates de calcium noirs entrevus sous une petite lucarne crasseuse nous dégoûtent - et les châsses, l'art n'en est pas bien compliqué, en dépit de l'épaisseur des catalogues qui entendent prouver que si, c'est compliqué.  Nous avons vu les signes, qui ne signifient plus rien.  Mais en sortant sous le soleil face au parking devant l'église, pour peu que cinq heures sonnent au clocher sur nos têtes, pour peu que des oiseaux s'envolent ou qu'un rétroviseur nous éblouisse, une exaltation mélangée nous reprend, parce que sur ce même parvis sous le soleil ce que nous ne comprenons pas, c'ést-à-dire l'os et l'or et le texte mêlés, cela a eté brandi par des prélats cyniques ou savants devant des foules naïves ou véridiques, bouleversées. Dans la voiture nous feuilletons le catalogue épais des Musées nationaux, auquel nous, nous croyons, cynisme ou crédulité.  Nous partons dans octobre ensoleillé, dans octobre noyé Théodelin et ses moines arrivent à Charroux.

[The era, as we know, loves bones.  Not all bones--they're careful to choose; they argue and sometimes kill one another over these choices: only the bones that can be arrayed in a text--the Text written a thousand years ago, or the texts written a hundred years previously, or the text that was written for them the minute before--the bones that Cluny or Saint-Denis have named and sealed, those that, according to patently visible signs which are now illegible to us, were once part of a human frame from which the word of God emanated, the human frame of a saint.  How they decided that one bone was to be dressed and named, displayed in gold before the eyes of men, and that another, anonymous and naked, was fit only for the blind earth we cannot understand, and only the words cynicism or utter credulity come to mind, but certainly not the words knowledge and truth.  We gawp at these reliquaries in the depths of cold churches (you have to place a coin in a slot for them to emerge from the shadows), we gawp at the little notice that summarizes the saint's life which is always fundamentally the same one; the nuances escape us as they have escaped the writer of the notice; we are bored long before the little bulb goes out, the black calcium carbonates glimpsed through the grimy little window revolt us--and the artistry of the reliquaries is not particularly complicated, despite the thickness of the catalogues intent on proving that it is.  We've seen the signs which no longer signify.  But as we step out into the sunshine and look toward the carpark in front of the church, if five o'clock is striking in the tower above our heads, or if a few birds fly up or a wing mirror dazzles us, a mixed elation takes hold of us because on this same portico in the sunshine the thing we cannot understand--the bone and the gold and the written words all mixed together--was brandished by cynical or knowledgeable prelates before credulous or genuine crowds who were deeply affected by it.  Inside the car we leaf through the thick catalogue of national museums which we do believe in, whether out of cynicism or credulity.  We drive off in the October sunshine, and in an October downpour Theodelin and his monks arrive at Charroux.]

Thanks to Victoria for recommending Michon's Abbés to me.  The excerpt above comes from pp. 56-58 in the original, and the lovely translation accompanying it comes from pp. 103-104 of Ann Jefferson's Michon translation twofer Winter Mythologies and Abbots, which is available from Yale University Press.

8 comentarios:

  1. I'm so glad you read it! Now part of me wants to read it again so I can discuss it with you. When I was reading this (supposedly to write about it) years ago, I seemed to be the only person on the planet to have done so. I do recall my focus was very different - I got caught up in the way the meaningless is translated into meaning and from there into myth. It does something very coy and modern and complex with its signs and that historical-but-not-really dimension makes it all very knowing. I also liked the second and third story more than the first. Anyway, thank you for giving it a go - i'm so pleased you did!

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    Respuestas
    1. Victoria, I can relate to your interest in "the way the meaningless is translated into meaning and from there into myth" in Abbés even though I didn't read the text thinking along quite the same lines myself--am sure my reading was much more shallow! There are so many bits about the reception and interpretation of texts in the work, though, that I'm sure other readings are possible; I was sorry I wasn't able to work in a comment about how Èble was motivated "par la lecture violente de la Vie de saint Martin," for example, or find time to mention the descriptions of other monastic holdings mentioned in the work. Quite interesting topics! Anyway, thanks again for the push to try Michon. I'd like to read Vies miniscules or Les onze by him next time, but I may read Ann Jefferson's translation of Winter Mythologies as well since I picked that up from the library the day before I wrote my post. À plus tard!

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  2. Fakery and maedievalism, two hobby horses of mine.. hmmm.. yet another name to note.
    BTW, when are you planning to post on Mysteries?

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    Respuestas
    1. All of a sudden, Michon seems to have a fair number of titles available in English translation, Séamus. I look forward to reading more by him, in part because I don't know where he's coming from based on this odd novella! I'm still reading Hamsun's even more odd/strange Mysteries, so I don't see a post on coming before late in the week at the earliest. Are you still in for the group read? Cheers!

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    2. Yes, I'm still in. I've read Mysteries but getting posts finished is a problem at the moment. Should be ready for late in the week!

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    3. I still have a small stretch to go before I finish Mysteries, but I can identify with your finishing posts "problem": am wiped out after merely trying to write two in five days! Time to hire a writing intern...

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  3. Not an author I'm familiar with, but I enjoyed reading your review. 'Wound of moist fire,' dangerous liaisons indeed...

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    1. Jacqui, I get the impression that Michon's still somewhere between a cult author and a critics' favorite in France but I could be wrong about that. I enjoyed Abbés enough that I will seek more about by him, that dangerous liaisons "wound" line notwithstanding!

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