“Small Lives: Translating Pierre Michon” by Elizabeth Deshays

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“Small Lives: Translating Pierre Michon”
by Elizabeth Deshays
published in Cahier de l’Herne, 2017
translated from French to English by Jody Gladding

We met every week for French lessons which, because of our friendship, took the form of extended, intimate conversations. The expression of these confidences proved to be sharpened, paradoxically, by the fact that we were exchanging them in French, a “foreign” language for us both; we wanted to convey our thoughts as precisely as possible, which demanded much more conscious attention to the language than if we were conversing in our shared mother tongue, English.

My friend Jody Gladding, poet and translator, entered my sitting room one day somewhat distraught, waving a Folio paperback she was translating. On the cover was a rustic figure wrapped in a heavy cloak and clutching a thick volume, his mouth open in mute distress; it was Vies minuscules by Pierre Michon. After two other translators had abandoned the project, the American publisher, caught short, had asked Jody to come to the rescue. In turn, realizing the scope of the challenge, Jody thought that my thirty years spent in France, teaching and translating both French and English, might help her see a clearer path through Michon’s labyrinthine prose. We decided to do the translation together, and so it was that Pierre Michon entered our lives.

After Vies minuscules, we translated Les Onze, followed by Rimbaud le fils. As Michon’s translator, I was asked to contribute to this Cahier de l’Herne.

I think that what would be the most interesting for readers, the most original contribution I could make, would be an account of our work, daunting as it seemed at first, disconcerting and difficult throughout, but so very exciting and, in the end, gratifying as only a practice requiring that kind of effort and questioning can be.

But for such an account to be really interesting, generalities wouldn’t suffice, the almost physical nature of our struggle with Michon’s language, for example, the struggle to extract from it all the layers of meaning, images, and echoes; and then the struggle to rebuild in English a construction that, to the greatest degree possible, would produce the same rich, subtle resonances. No, you’d have to start with the concrete, with one sentence, and then try to retrace the path that sometimes—rarely—seemed obvious but more often proved long and tortuous. Sadly, it’s impossible to follow a trail gone cold. Our translations of these works now date back several years and however often I scrutinize the versions, first, second, third, with their palimpsest of cross-outs, additions, and comments, in my mind I can’t find the way again, steep and treacherous, nearly invisible beneath rocks and undergrowth, yet often opening onto clearings whose light trembled with emotion and truth. So it is as a reader, albeit a somewhat singular one, that I’m going to approach this article.

Emotion and truth! That’s what I want to talk about, because despite all the time I spent, hours sometimes, reading and rereading, to myself and out loud, examining, dissecting, disentangling a sentence or even a part of a sentence, I never felt weary or overwhelmed or intellectually drained. On the contrary, the more I grew accustomed to Michon’s demanding writing, the more I returned to his work, the more it wrung my heart, sometimes almost unbearably so. He does not disavow this: he wanted “to be pathetic,” “to drench the story” with tears.

But his goal was first, quite simply, to write. His ambition had been to write a “great novel.” He had not been able to and the account of those painfully unproductive years underlies Vies minuscules, running parallel to it from beginning to end. Then came the discovery of Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner—“the father of everything I’ve written”—which provided Michon with the key to his own work. The many contrasts between them, stylistic, but also between the flagrant presence of Michon the man, in his stories, and the just as flagrant absence of Faulkner in his, may make Michon’s claimed lineage surprising. But Faulkner also speaks of the common people, similar to those comprising the soil out of which Michon grew, and in doing so, Faulkner clearly showed Michon the path to follow: to write, one had to return to what one knew, to “what had really happened while I had been trying in vain to playact my life.”

For “pathetic,” the dictionary gives this definition: “That which is intensely and deeply moving, especially through the display or evocation of suffering.” There is no better description of Vies minuscules. From André Dufourneau’s humbled ambitions to Toussaint Peluchet’s endless wait; from Clara’s infinite love in its infinite modesty to Marianne’s tender patience; from the fierce fraternal rivalry of the Bakroots to the downfall of the braggart Georges Bandy; and above all, the utterly heroic martyrdom—the book’s apotheosis for me—of Father Foucault, dignified, illiterate, and absolute defender of letters: the book vibrates with emotion from beginning to end. These are its heroes and heroines, but the stories are filled with secondary characters who touch us just as deeply. To mention just a few, there is the ineffable Fiéfié; Elise, the other grandmother and source of “la Belle Langue;” the residents of the psychiatric hospital, those “backwoods cretins”: inconsolable Jean, the pyromaniac Thomas who suffers the agonies of the trees he sets on fire, and foul Jojo; Achilles, pitiful and loving. The dead little sister, glimpsed in the figure of a ten-year-old stranger who would leave us indifferent were it not that she represents the dead, all the dead, “the poor dead,” the poor Baudelairian dead, “more penniless than beggars and more perplexed than idiots,” “forever the least of the least, the humblest of the humble,” and thus all the more worthy of our pity, love, and celebration. Finally, Michon himself, abhorrent, as he mercilessly describes himself, redeeming himself through his suffering, his lack of indulgence for his indulgent past, dragging us along with him through his trials.

Emotion and truth. Truth, not realism. For realism, or rather, for the illusion of certainty and omniscience, that slight of hand that is realism in art, Michon substitutes evocation: light, floating visual images, like pages in a picture book one leafs through at random, showing what could perhaps have existed. “I would like to think that…” he repeats constantly, hoping that through this “uncertain operation,” he might capture “a bit of truth.” As always in art, and often in life, there’s no limit to the power of the message conveyed by suggestion, the unsaid, the indefinite. And with consummate skill, Michon exploits this art of the possible, planting in the soft soil of our imagination those trees that are his Vies, henceforth impossible to uproot. On how he achieves this feat, this subtle, beautiful, complex magic, I will say nothing. Others may try to explain it. In relation to Michon’s art, I feel like André Dufourneau who didn’t talk about certain things “since the linguistic resources at his command were too limited to express the essential, and his pride too intractable to allow the essential to be embodied in roughly approximate words.” Is there really any point in attempting to analyze Michon’s writing? Let us marvel at it instead! The important thing is that these humble folk move us, and to move us they must convince us, we must believe in them. I absolutely believe in them, even if the privilege of penetrating Michon’s world and contemplating its vistas and wonders requires effort, attention, and perseverance, and enough trust in Michon to follow the apparent dissonance of his sentences to their miraculous resolution. Because Michon waited in vain for years for Grace to grant him his Voice. And when the Muses, in the guise of the common folk who were his kindred, finally did open the door of creation to him, he was still not spared the considerable labor that enabled him at last to give birth, a birth that seemed to him an “absolute deliverance.”

So it is that in convincing us, Michon moves us. He moves us, and finally becomes an artist. Vies minuscules’s duality is noted by all the commentators. The first level evokes, celebrates, and avenges those who have no words: the dead, those forgotten by history, those for whom reading Racine or Hugo in school is like reading a foreign language; it brings them to life by resurrecting them. A second level tells of the writer’s vocation and what prevents that vocation from being realized, obstacles he overcomes by driving into the heart of them. His modest origins are both what prevented him from writing and and permitted him to write. That is the paradox of the work, perfectly summarized by Pierre Bergounioux: “Vies minuscules accomplishes the impossible by portraying the impossibility of accomplishment.”

We might imagine for a moment two books. The first would deal only with those less-than-nothings from Creuse. There would be no narrator for these portraits done in the old style, created by an invisible author, who was nonetheless present to see young André Dufourneau go off hunting with Félix in the morning mist, who watched from outside the kitchen, “in the scent of the great elder tree,” when the fatal argument between Antoine and his father took place, and who later saw Toussaint and Fiéfié growing old in that same kitchen, surviving on the poor leftovers a few old women brought them. There are long passages written this way, especially early on in the book. The second book, told in first person, would have as its subject only Michon himself, around whom all the other characters revolve, who exist only in so far as they influence the author’s life. That is the case with Claudette, whose story leaves me unsatisfied. But Vies minuscules is, magnificently, more than the sum of these two ways of writing. They run parallel and then, like railway lines, merge into great networks, extending, intersecting, overlapping until they become inextricable and, through the magic of the word, culminate in this slim volume, simultaneously an evocation of a disinherited world and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a work of overwhelming poetry.

Michon wrote. He was published and consecrated. Does he believe in this consecration? The first sentence of the book, “Let us explore a genesis for my pretensions,” makes us suspect that he does: he has “pretensions.” The last two sentences seem an affirmation: Michon believes “that in my fictive summers, their winter hesitates. That in Les Cards, in the winged conclave that stands over the ruins of what could have been, they exist.” Yes, the miracle occurred. He made these common folk exist, these saints, these angels, and having taken all their sins upon himself, through them, he exists as well. So he proves himself wrong when, contemplating the orphaned child André Dufourneau who is learning his letters, he writes with disillusioned pity, “He does not know yet that for those of his class and condition, born close to the earth and quick to fall back to it once again, la Belle Langue does not lead to grandeur, but to nostalgia and the desire for grandeur.” Pierre Michon has undoubtedly achieved grandeur in the eyes of others; this Cahier itself is proof. But we can’t ignore the remaining unresolved paradox. After long years lost in the wilderness, Michon found his voice, a lyric voice, that is, one that sings, rooted, he says, “in the fibers of the heart.” Yes, but an exacting, erudite voice, rife with cultural references; a voice “from Versailles,” highly trained, very far from a so-called “natural” voice. And if Michon found that voice by studying his kind with clear-sighted tenderness, and if it allowed him to bring them back into being, that rebirth—or even that birth, so tenuous was their passage on this earth—could only take place without their knowledge. There lies the uncomfortable contradiction. Because if Michon writes through his kind, he doesn’t write for them. The recognition he awaits is not theirs but that of “Difficult Readers,” those for whom la Belle Langue is a familiar, mapped country, not a distant Africa, dreamt of and out of reach; only such readers can understand him. “My rustic relatives could only laugh at me or remain uncomfortably silent when I spoke.” As Pierre Michon’s consummate art enriches the bourgeois, does it not reinforce the exclusion of the peasant? No doubt, and no doubt Michon is well aware that each proof of his success is also proof of his betrayal.

But let us not complain. Michon’s task is to write, and he does so, phenomenally. Let us leave it to others to open the gates of Literature to the “unlettered.” Sometimes, from regions as remote and unpromising as Creuse, with the patient help of an Élise, a magician of language arises to render beautiful even the smallest of lives.