Sunday, April 21, 2019

Unreconciled / Poems 1991-2013 by Michel Houellebecq / Review

Michel Houellebecq

Unreconciled: Poems 1991-2013 by Michel Houellebecq - review

Houellebecq the poet: who knew? 
Thursday 12 January 2017

Since the publication of his latest novel Submission, foreseeing a France submitting to Islam, on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, the stature of Michel Houellebecq as perhaps the most radical and far-sighted  novelist now writing in any language,  has been widely recognised. All six of his novels, beginning with Whatever in 1994, now look like contemporary classics.
What’s less well-known among his English-language readers is that he began his literary career as a poet, in 1991 publishing both his first collection, The Pursuit of Happiness, and a marvellous, Baudelairean poetic manifesto, Rester Vivant: méthode (Staying Alive, not yet translated). To Houellebecq, poetry remains primary. “The novel… in comparison to the poem remains a minor genre,” he told Bernard-Henri Levy in their correspondence, Public Enemies. 
His poetry has been presented in English before, in The Art of Struggle, a dual-language text of his second collection by academics Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews (Herla/Alma Books, 2010) but has previously made little impression here. Now his main British publisher Heinemann has brought out a substantial selection from all four of his books of poems, in both French and English, translated by Gavin Bowd, who has known him for 20 years and whom Houellebecq (whose English is not  bad) has amicably called “my best translator in the language of Donald Duck”.
The book is presented by the publisher as simply as possible, almost indeed as if it were a novel in short lines, doubtless in the hope of winning it the wide readership it deserves. There’s no introduction whatsoever, just the plain text, not even an index.

That seems a pity, for the collection does actually need some explanation, even for those who already know something of Houellebecq’s work. It is very much his “personal anthology”, in which he has rearranged 132 poems not chronologically but into five themed sections, moving from comic desperation with the world of heartless consumption,   through a search for love and intimacy nonetheless, to a final section of some degree of mystical acceptance, Immobile Grace. 
When published in French (Gallimard, 2014), the anthology was preceded by a long and brilliant introduction by the young academic Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, which not only explained the structure of the book but the unique qualities of Houellebecq’s poetry, the true extent to which it is an act of non-reconciliation, of “taking note, without concession, of the monstrosity of the world”, a world that is “strictly unbearable”.
And his means of confronting that world  are those of structure, as she says. “Metrical structure, rhyming structure, rhythmic structure: versification is not an adventitious pleasure, it’s the very principle of resistance to a deliquescent world.”
Just so. In his poetry Houellebecq presents the shocks and absurdities of modern life not casually but with beautiful formality, in alexandrines worthy of his beloved Lamartine, or quatrains as precise and irrefutably rhymed as those of A E Housman, charting what is not to be endured. His poetry is often not only absolutely direct  emotionally — contrary to his reputation as a misogynistic cynic, deeply romantic even — but also remarkably funny, deploying, as Novak-Lechevalier  observes, an art of montage, “the brutal juxtaposition of heterogeneities”.
And here is the rub. Of all literary forms, poetry, depending as it does on those precise verbal structures, is the least translatable. Houellebecq’s novels are pretty fully available to the English language-only reader. But the truth is that, admirably accurate as Bowd’s translations are, Houellebecq’s poems, read in English alone, unrhymed and in a completely different rhythm, are nothing like as remarkable as they are  in the original. If you are able to use this edition as a crib, it’s a treat. But if you consult only the English you’ll wonder why this poetry could possibly  be worth taking to heart.
That’s sadly true of the very simplest piece. Houellebecq: “Pourquoi ne pouvons-nous jamais/Jamais/Être aimés?” Bowd: “Why can we never/Never/Be loved?” It doesn’t rhyme the same way,  it’s not a mantra.
Or again: “Il n’y a pas d’amour/ (pas vraiment, pas assez)/ Nous vivons sans secours,/ Nous mourons délaissés.” Worthy of Baudelaire, hard to forget once read. “There is no love/ (not nearly, not enough)/ We live unaided,/ We die abandoned.” Flat as a pancake, gone in a flash.
 So, as a publication in English of a substantial part of the work of one of the greatest authors of the age, unlikely to be particularly profitable, this is an admirable endeavour.  
However, it could have been so much more helpful an edition — introducing itself, perhaps  translating Rester Vivant as an appendix, and even the fantastically raw journal Mourir that Houellebecq  wrote in 2005 as a contrary summation of his life at that point (still available online). 
A missed opportunity. For Michel Houellebecq is one of those writers who matters now, in his entirety, if any do.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Catherine Phil MacCart / The Bells of Notre-Dame

The Bells of Notre-Dame

By Catherine Phil MacCarthy

Nine bells line the main aisle,
flaxen domes echo one another,
as visitors pour in,
rocked by each
newborn colossus
stood on oak beams,
cast in bronze with
its own design
and tone.
“Marie”, “Gabriel”, “Denis”,
parade along the queue –
“Et elle a conçu du Saint-Esprit.”
Hands caress the patina,
gauge the width
of the lip, test notes
rapping the rim.
Each chime stirs
the house
with an acoustic tone
pins a celebratory hum
of pandemonium,
heralds the North tower
hung with instruments again,
that mark the flow of hours
for how long more
from earth
across the skies?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Czeslaw Milosz’s Battle for Truth

Czeslaw Milosz’s Battle for Truth

Having experienced both Nazi and Communist rule, Poland’s great exile poet arrived at a unique blend of skepticism and sincerity.

By Adam Kirsch

May 22, 2017

In July, 1950, Czeslaw Milosz, the cultural attaché at the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C., received a letter from Jerzy Putrament, the general secretary of the Polish Writers’ Union. The two men had known each other for many years—they had been contributors to the same student magazine in college, in the early nineteen-thirties—but their paths had diverged widely. Now the arch-commissar of Polish literature told the poet, “I heard that you are to be moved to Paris. . . . I am happy that you will be coming here, because I have been worried about you a little: whether the splendor of material goods in America has overshadowed poverty in other aspects of life.”

The language was polite, even confiding, but the message could not have been clearer. Milosz, who had been working as a diplomat in the United States for four years, was no longer considered trustworthy by his superiors. He was being transferred to Paris so that he would be within reach of Warsaw. Sure enough, a few days before Christmas, Milosz was summoned back to Poland, and his passport was confiscated. “He is deeply detached from us,” Putrament observed, after meeting with Milosz in person. There was “no other option” than to keep him in the country, lest he end up defecting to the West.

This scenario had played out countless times in Communist countries. In the Soviet Union, under Stalin, it often ended with the summoned party being sent to prison or shot. And the Communist regime in Poland, which had been installed by Stalin at the end of the Second World War, had reasons to be concerned about Milosz. For one thing, he had left his pregnant wife and their son in the United States, giving him a strong incentive to return. For another, he had never joined the Communist Party. He was allowed to serve the Polish government without a Party card, largely because his reputation—he had been a leading light of Polish poetry since the mid-thirties—was considered valuable to the new regime.

Far more damning evidence of Milosz’s disaffection with the regime lay in notebooks, full of poems that were not published until years later. What would Putrament have thought if he had read “Child of Europe,” written in New York in 1946?
Do not mention force, or you will be accused
Of upholding fallen doctrines in secret.
He who has power, has it by historical logic.
Respectfully bow to that logic . . .
Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision.
Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction.
These lines mocked the Communist claim to rule, which was based on the theory of history as formulated by Marx. According to the concept of dialectical materialism—“diamat,” as its adherents often abbreviated it—the triumph of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin was not a contingent event but the necessary result of an age-old process of class conflict. Milosz turned this presumption of “historical logic” upside down: if Communism now ruled Eastern Europe, it was not because of the laws of history but because the Russians had burned the house down. “Diamat is a tank,” Milosz confided to a friend in 1951. “I feel like a fly which wants to stand up against that tank.”

Andrzej Franaszek’s “Milosz: A Biography” (Harvard), edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker—a longer version appeared in Polish in 2011—tells the story of what happened next. Stuck in Warsaw, unsure if he would ever be allowed to leave or to see his family again, Milosz was despondent. A friend, Natalia Modzelewska, recalled that he “became mentally unstable [and] suffered from bouts of depression, which gradually got worse. . . . It was easy to discern that he was close to a nervous breakdown.” It wasn’t just his own fate that frightened him. Milosz had mostly been away from Poland since 1946, and had not witnessed the worsening climate of repression in the country. Now he could see. “I came across astronomical changes,” he wrote in a letter to another exile. “Peasants go mad with despair, and in the intellectual world state control is deeply entrenched and it is necessary to be a 100% Stalinist, or not at all. The so-called Marxists are highly depressed.”

It was thanks to Modzelewska that he had the chance to leave Poland and save himself. Her husband was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and she urged him to take up Milosz’s case with the President of Poland, Boleslaw Bierut. “Can you vouch that he will return?” Bierut asked. The minister could not, but replied, “I am deeply convinced that he ought to be allowed to go.” Whether this was a gesture of mercy, or of respect for a great writer, or even of contempt—if Milosz couldn’t serve the state, why should the state keep him?—it meant freedom. On January 15, 1951, Milosz was back in Paris. On February 1st, he slipped out of the Polish Embassy and headed for the offices of Kultura, an émigré publishing house, where he remained in hiding for the next three and a half months. He did not return to Poland until 1981, the year after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The summons to Warsaw in 1950 was one of many hinges of fate inMilosz’s life—moments when he could have become an entirely different person, or simply disappeared. Franaszek’s richly detailed, dramatic, and melancholy book is full of such close calls. Born in 1911 to an aristocratic Polish family in Lithuania, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time, Milosz was swept up in the maelstrom of the twentieth century from the beginning. When he was three, the First World War made him a refugee, as his family fled the advancing German Army. His father, an engineer, served first the tsarist and then the Bolshevik government, and the family spent the war years crisscrossing the region—Belarus, Russia, Latvia, Estonia. In a late poem, Milosz recalled an episode from 1918, when they were trying to get home to Lithuania during the chaos of the Russian Revolution. At one train station, he was separated from his parents:
. . . the repatriation train was starting, about to leave me behind,
Forever. As if I grasped that I would have been somebody else,
A poet of another language, of a different fate.
At the last minute, a stranger reunited them. But a sense of the caprice of fate never left Milosz. “The things that surround us in childhood need no justification, they are self-evident,” he wrote in “Native Realm,” a memoir. “If, however, they whirl about like particles in a kaleidoscope, ceaselessly changing position, it takes no small amount of energy simply to plant one’s feet on solid ground without falling.”

After the war, the family settled in Wilno—now Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, but at the time a majority-Polish city. Even as a boy, Milosz was passionate and ambitious, with an intense seriousness that made it hard for him to accept the conventional routines of church and school. A childhood friend compared him to “a tomcat, constantly tense and grumpy”; later in life he acquired the nickname Gniewosz, which blended his name with the Polish word for “anger.” In his teens, he was capable of gestures of melodramatic despair. On one occasion, edged out in a romantic rivalry, he put a single bullet into a revolver and, Franaszek writes, “spun the barrel, put it against his head and pulled the trigger.” He lost—or maybe won—this game of Russian roulette; but, in Franaszek’s telling, it’s clear that any kind of calm or satisfaction remained elusive to the end of his life.

Such a condition is hardly surprising for anyone of Milosz’s generation, in that part of the world. Millions of his contemporaries lived through, or died in, the First World War; the Lithuanian Wars of Independence; the Polish-Soviet War; the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R., in 1939; the Holocaust; the Eastern Front of the Second World War, which passed back and forth across the country from 1941 to 1945; and the postwar occupation by the Soviet Union. Milosz’s course was complicated by the fact that his class and national allegiances were anything but straightforward. He grew up speaking at least four languages, and, although his family belonged to the Polish gentry—and still owned a country estate in Lithuania, where he spent the happiest days of his childhood—they were, like most of their class at the time, quite poor. “My material existence was so primitive that it would have startled proletarians in Western countries,” Milosz reflected later.

As an aristocrat without money, and a Pole whose homeland was Lithuania, Milosz could not wholeheartedly embrace any of the political identities swirling around him. Postwar Poland, newly independent after more than a century of tsarist rule, experienced a sudden surge of chauvinist pride and annexed much of Lithuania, including Wilno. Milosz was repelled by the Poles’ religiosity and nationalism—their growing hostility to Lithuanian, Jewish, and Belarusan minorities. In 1931, Wilno University, where he was a student, was convulsed by anti-Jewish riots. Milosz, Franaszek writes, was “among the few defending the Jewish students.” (Jerzy Putrament, not yet a Communist, took part in the riots, beating Jews with a heavy cane.)

Milosz was at the university from 1929 to 1934, and he published his first collection of poems in 1933. He drew close to several left-wing student groups, but, although his anti-nationalism made the left a natural home for him, he could never bring himself to become a full-fledged Marxist, much less a member of the Communist Party. His sense of truth was too individual, too much a matter of poetic perception, to submit to the dictates of a party, even one that claimed to be acting according to the laws of history. “Reading articles by young Polish Marxists, one suspects that they really wish for this period to herald a future which sees the total demise of art and artistry,” Milosz observed in a 1936 essay. “They are preoccupied solely with sniffing out betrayal and class desertion.”

In 1937, Milosz moved to Warsaw to work for Polish Radio. There he fell in love with a colleague, Janina Cekalska. Janka, as she was known, was unhappily married to another man, a film director. She aspired to become a director herself, and had founded an organization to promote leftist filmmaking. But she soon put her ambitions aside, seeing her mission as the development of Milosz’s talent, and she became a crucial reader of his work. Milosz, who had already been through several stormy and bruising love affairs, worried that committing himself to Janka might compromise his artistic calling, but they soon started living together, and they married some years later. It proved to be a difficult marriage. “She was a rational person, but made a mistake choosing me,” he said late in life. He was, he realized, “not at all material to be a husband and father.”

By the end of the thirties, Milosz’s intellectual position was becoming intolerable. He was opposed to everything the Communists opposed, yet he suspected that a Communist takeover would be disastrous. At the same time, anyone could see that Poland’s future held war or revolution, or both. Contemplating the fate of his country, he wrote, years later, “I had a kind of horror, some basic dread.”