When the novelist is suspected of autobiography, what is left for memoir?
Marcel Proust said so much in his book that by the time accounts of the man himself were published, most delightfully by his maid, Céleste Albaret, they were concerned largely with what he had already written, and how. In his nine short novels and three miscellaneous prose texts, the Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s unnamed, first-person narrator sits in a bathroom, escapes to Venice, visits Japan and China, and fails to write a book in Berlin, but time is short, and little is confessed outside the bounds of the odd, spare narratives. English-speaking admirers of Toussaint’s jaunty, limpid prose might thus warm to the news of Edward Gauvin’s translation of 11 short essays by Toussaint on style, influence, and where he wrote his books.
Recently released as Urgency and Patience: Essays by Dalkey Archive Press, one of the most cosmopolitan publishers of fiction in America, the essays were first collected in 2012 by the venerable Éditions de Minuit. As in his elliptical fictions, Toussaint’s recollections of the writer’s life tend to insinuate rather than disclose. We learn of his offices, of his first day of writing, and of how he met his publisher, Jérôme Lindon, and his hero, Samuel Beckett. It is a memoir only in the sense that the Essais are. Indeed, particularly in L’Urgence et la Patience, the prose is pure anti-Ciceronian. The signature long sentences — irregular, disjoint, apparently spontaneous — capture thought in action; quick, steely aphorisms underline the point. If Toussaint is often held up against Alain Robbe-Grillet, then Michel de Montaigne, Pierre Charron, and François La Mothe Le Vayer are not far behind.
While the French of Toussaint’s L’Urgence et la Patience fairly glitters and flies, the English of Gauvin’s translation tends to normalize, even clot. To some extent the disappointment flows from Toussaint’s fastidious attention to sound. Toussaint relates in the eponymous “Urgency and Patience” (essay three) that he once went so far as to excise a description of a commode from The Truth About Marie because it added nothing to the “charming sonorities” of the word (“le bahut”) itself. Toussaint insists that readers “hear the word, not see the object”; translation has chiefly objects to give.
On the other hand, it would not have been difficult to reproduce Toussaint’s striking syntax in English, but like those meddlesome editors of the great Senecan stylists of the 16th century, Gauvin cannot leave Toussaint’s brilliant execution of the loose style alone. In the “Urgency” half of “Urgency and Patience,” the fast, fleeting, almost Damascene flood of sudden illumination–
Ici—au cœur même de l’urgence—, tout vient aisément, tout se libère et se lâche, la vision réelle ne nous est plus d’aucune utilité, mais l’œil interne se dilate et un monde fictif et merveilleux nous apparaît mentalement, nos perceptions sont à l’affût, les sens sont aiguisés, la sensibilité exacerbée, et le basculement s’opère, c’est un jaillissement, tout vient, les phrases naissent, coulent, se bousculent, et tout est juste, tout s’emboîte, se combine et s’assemble dans ces ténèbres intimes, qui sont l’intérieur même de notre esprit.
—is straitened into the neat, clipped clauses and even sentences of Gauvin:
Here, at the very heart of urgency, everything comes easily, floats free and lets go; actual sight is of no more use to us, but the inner eye widens, and a fictive, fabulous world appears in our minds. Our senses are alert, our perceptions heightened, our sensitivity intensified; a tipping takes place, a gushing, and out it all comes, sentences are born, flow, fall over each other, and everything is right, everything works out, everything gathers and fits together in this intimate darkness that is the inside of our very minds.
Apparently there was too much falling over of sentences for this translator. The deadening is hardly unique. Ironically, in “Patience,” when Toussaint sets the stage slowly, “At the table, a bit embarrassed,” his translator now wants it all at once, “A bit embarrassed at the table.” A perfect example of the période coupée, “Tout importe, la condition physique, l’alimentation, les lectures” (essay three), becomes more conventionally, “Everything matters: physical fitness, diet, reading.” Toussaint tells us in “The Ravanastron” that it is the form of a sentence, not its meaning, that concerns him, but the translator seems not to notice.
Gauvin’s ear for English idiom is likewise imperfect. What should plainly be “how the devil” (“comment diable,” essay six) is given, bizarrely, as “sweet Christ.” Subjects and objects come and go, as when “that I can attest” (“que je peux certifier,” essay 10) becomes “can attest,” and “which allowed one to picture the furniture” (“qui permettait de se représentait le meuble,” essay three) becomes “which allowed readers to picture it,” though not the “it” that concludes the sentence — one antecedent the word, the other its referent. In general, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the translator’s English isn’t quite up to Toussaint’s French.
Toussaint is an author from whom to pick and choose, and it is the third part of Running Away, with its inimitable evocation of unspoiled Elba, that forms an ideal companion to the essays in Urgency and Patience. Unlike his oddly unmentioned master Thomas Bernhard, whose typical scenarios recur repeatedly in Toussaint’s novels — the academic who cannot finish his book, middle-aged men taking refuge in houses and routines, or again escaping family in restorative Mediterranean locales — Toussaint’s essays suggest a markedly more sensuous tone than his often austere fictions. Whereas Bernhard’s forays into autobiography get no sunnier than recollections of bureaucratic prize-giving ceremonies and a five-volume memoir of incontinence, Nazism, and chronic intractable tuberculosis, Toussaint plants radishes, enjoys hotels, reads Proust, and extols the virtues of armchairs and private libraries. Toussaint has fun. He rarely seems far from the Tuscan archipelago, reading Proust in Barcaggio, Corsica, making up a hotel in Venice, thinking of one in Portoferraio, writing on his MacBook Pro in a large room, in Erbalunga, Prunete, Cervione, Corte. Wandering in Italy near the end of his life, Friedrich Nietzsche once urged, lapsing into French, “Il faut méditerraniser la musique,” and while there are warm northern interiors and dark comfortable apartments in Toussaint’s reminiscence, it is the suggestion of the Mediterranean that lingers here, fertile in dry soil yet, the orchards of Médéa, deep blue Corsican rosemary, hills of fragrant maquis, far from Brussels and Berlin.