Wy­att Mason

Win­ter Mytholo­gies and Ab­bots by Pierre Mi­chon, trans­lated from the French by Ann Jef­fer­son and five other nov­els by Pierre Mi­chon

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Wy­att Mason

1.

When I was twenty and study­ing French lit­er­a­ture in Paris, I signed up for an in­de­pen­dent project in trans­la­tion. My ad­viser’s only stip­u­la­tion was that I trans­late some­thing that hadn’t made its way into English. Ig­no­rant of con­tem­po­rary French lit­er­a­ture in a pro­found way—I’d read only what had been as­signed across ten years of classes, a pre­dictable march from Vil­lon to Mon­taigne to Ra­belais to Proust—I so­licited sug­ges­tions from pro­fes­sors. They came back with the same name: Pierre Mi­chon. Why Mi­chon? Be­cause, they said, he’s one of our great­est liv­ing writ­ers.

In 1989, this was very much a mi­nor­ity opin­ion. Mi­chon’s com­plete works amounted to three slen­der books, as I dis­cov­ered in a book­store near my school. The ear­li­est, Vies mi­nus­cules (1984), ran to two hun­dred pages; Vie de Joseph Roulin (1988) was fifty­nine pages; and a third, L’em­pereur d’Oc­ci­dent (1989), was forty-nine pages. And while it would speak well of me to claim that I de­voted the re­main­der of the af­ter­noon to read­ing all three un­til the store closed, wring­ing my hands as I weighed the mer­its of each while hes­i­tat­ing over which to choose, I spent all of thirty sec­onds de­lib­er­at­ing. The slimmest, the pages of which were printed in un­cut sig­na­tures—to read them, I would need a knife—was un­ap­proach­able. The long­est, which wasn’t long, seemed by com­par­i­son huge. So I chose the mid­dle one, be­cause it was short, and be­cause I didn’t have a knife. I got the knife thir­teen years later. I was sit­ting with Mi­chon and his wife in a restau­rant down the street from their town­house in Nantes. Across the in­ter­ven­ing years, I’d trans­lated four of Mi­chon’s books into English and found them a small US pub­lisher. The pre­vi­ous af­ter­noon and that day’s morn­ing had been spent work­ing with Mi­chon in his study, cor­rect­ing my draft trans­la­tion of Vies mi­nus­cules. I’d worked with him this way on three ear­lier oc­ca­sions: in Paris in 1991, when he an­swered ques­tions about Vie de Joseph Roulin; again in Paris in 1996, when we went through Maîtres et Servi­teurs (1990) and Le Roi du bois (1996); and in Chicago a year later, work­ing on his novel La Grande Be­une (1996).1 These meet­ings had al­ways been pro­duc­tive. Mi­chon, who speaks lit­tle English, was gen­er­ous with his time and clear in his re­sponses, able to il­lu­mi­nate the many thorny pas­sages in his work that his trans­la­tor couldn’t un­pack and dic­tio­nar­ies didn’t help de­ci­pher.

The 2003 meet­ings in Nantes were dif­fer­ent. Mi­chon was curt, dis­mis­sive. In the past, my in­com­pre­hen­sion was met with pa­tience, in­struc­tion; now my per­plex­i­ties dis­pleased him. Af­ter a trun­cated sec­ond round of at­tempted ques­tion­ing on the morn­ing of the sec­ond day that yielded in­creas­ingly mono­syl­labic replies, I moved me­chan­i­cally through the re­main­ing hun­dred pages of the very com­pli­cated text in twenty ter­mi­nal min­utes, skip­ping past scores of ques­tions Mi­chon clearly wasn’t go­ing to an­swer.

And yet de­spite that morn­ing’s agon, Mi­chon pro­posed lunch out. In a booth, across from his wife, he sat be­tween me and the wall. Con­fit de ca­nard was or­dered and served, ac­com­pa­nied by large ser­rated knives. I at­tempted con­ver­sa­tion; con­ver­sa­tion did not form. Plates were cleared. Mi­chon held on to his knife. As he turned to­ward me in the booth for the first time, a tap of the tip of the knife he’d re­tained, now pointed at me, punc­tu­ated each word he spoke.

“So,” he be­gan, “you’re an ac­cept­able trans­la­tor. Ac­tu­ally, no. You’re fine. But Vies mi­nus­cules is an ex­cep­tional text. It needs an ex­cep­tional trans­la­tor. Un­der­stand?”

Mi­chon’s face was gray, grim. I made a few sounds that at­tempted to com­mu­ni­cate that I didn’t un­der­stand; that we had worked to­gether for years; that I wasn’t clear what had changed; that I’d done the same work I’d done in the past and ar­rived with, I thought, the same kinds of ques­tions but—

“But you haven’t even de­ci­phered the text,” Mi­chon said, loudly, pound­ing the ta­ble now with the fist that held the knife. The voices of the lunchtime crowd dimmed as the restau­rant reg­is­tered the dis­tur­bance. “You haven’t even de­ci­phered it.”

With a ter­mi­nal clack, Mi­chon re­leased the knife to the ta­ble.

“Let me out!” Mi­chon shouted, push­ing past me. “Let me out!”

Mi­chon and I re­main in un­com­pli­cated agree­ment that Vies mi­nus­cules is an ex­cep­tional text, one that de­mands an ex­cep­tional trans­la­tor. I dif­fer with him only in my be­lief that his ad­jec­tive should be ap­plied more lib­er­ally to his cor­pus, in keep­ing with his cur­rent rep­u­ta­tion. For in the four­teen years since I ceased and de­sisted from trans­lat­ing his work, Mi­chon has gone from be­ing a writer ad­mired in France by pro­fes­sors and ad­vo­cated for by an ar­dent few to one whose most re­cent novel, Les Onze (2009), won the Grand Prix du Ro­man of the Académie Française. He has been trans­lated into four­teen lan­guages, amass­ing a sig­nif­i­cant read­er­ship through­out Europe. Roberto Bo­laño, in 2666, puts Mi­chon atop a short list of con­ti­nen­tal au­thors (Jean Rolin, Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas) read by the most ar­dent lit­er­a­ture stu­dents in Mexico. In English, how­ever, lit­tle at­ten­tion has been paid to him by read­ers. Though nine of his ten works of fic­tion are now avail­able, this glut hasn’t sig­nif­i­cantly ex­panded his read­er­ship or prompted much com­ment. The dis­par­ity be­tween Mi­chon’s French rep­u­ta­tion and the ab­sence of one here has, for me, a straight­for­ward ex­pla­na­tion: the English trans­la­tions them­selves. Be­gin­ning with my own and con­tin­u­ing with those of my well-mean­ing suc­ces­sors, these trans­la­tions haven’t ad­e­quately con­veyed Mi­chon’s qual­i­ties.

2.

Through the thirty-four years of his ca­reer, Mi­chon has been for­mally pre­oc­cu­pied with the pro­duc­tion of “lives” in the Plutarchian sense, at­tempts at gath­er­ing what is known about a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure and con­triv­ing a sug­ges­tive nar­ra­tive ar­range­ment of the ev­i­dence. Many of Mi­chon’s sto­ries in­volve fig­ures, not in­fre­quently artists, of some renown: Van Gogh, Goya, Wat­teau, Piero della Francesca, Claude Lor­rain, Arthur Rim­baud. And yet in each case, the fo­cus of such sto­ries isn’t these no­table fig­ures but rather their satel­lites: mod­els who posed for them, fol­low­ers, stu­dents, dis­ci­ples, friends and en­e­mies whose his­to­ries haven’t been writ­ten and in­deed, ab­sent any sig­nif­i­cant data in the his­tor­i­cal record, can­not be. Mi­chon adapts the Plutarchian mode to memo­ri­al­ize ob­scure fig­ures who might, as the story re­volves, of­fer rarer views of the planet they or­bit. As a re­sult, though Mi­chon’s method orig­i­nates in and of­ten re­lies on re­search, the events of his texts are largely in­vented.2

Many writ­ers have pro­duced fic­tions in­spired by his­tory. What is no­table about Mi­chon’s use of his­tory is how wholly he has man­aged to make it sub­mit to his larger con­cern: how a par­tic­u­lar kind of vi­o­lence, a uni­formly male vi­o­lence, an an­i­mal sex­ual urge to seize the world and have it sub­mit to its will, is the source of both hu­man cru­elty and artis­tic cre­ativ­ity. “The sex-in­stinct,” as Ford Ma­dox Ford called it in The Good Soldier, is of course a com­mon­place in fic­tion, the way in which de­sire com­pli­cates our so­cial sphere. But Mi­chon’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with male de­sire, and

his doc­u­men­ta­tion of the male will to claim, take, and make, are unique in my read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Michel Houelle­becq, Mi­chon’s im­me­di­ate con­tem­po­rary, has a sim­i­lar pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with sex and male­ness, some­thing one could say of Philip Roth, too, or, in his own way, of David Foster Wal­lace.

Mi­chon’s mono­ma­ni­a­cal fo­cus on the male drive, its yields and its wastes, has a ni­hilism more like Cor­mac McCarthy’s vi­sion of male ac­tion, its rou­tine hor­rors, their bi­o­log­i­cal ba­sis, their in­evitabil­ity. But whereas McCarthy, par­tic­u­larly in his early books, doesn’t, as Guy Daven­port no­ticed, “waste a sin­gle word on his char­ac­ters’ thoughts . . . he de­scribes what they do and records their speech,” Mi­chon is in­ti­mately in­ter­ested in the psy­chol­ogy of his men. Though he does not, for the most part, ex­hibit sim­i­lar cu­rios­ity about fe­male psy­chol­ogy or ex­pe­ri­ence, in Mi­chon this al­ways feels like a tac­ti­cal choice, one that is part of the rev­e­la­tion of his male char­ac­ters’ lim­it­ed­ness, and not an ex­pres­sion of the limit of the au­thor’s imag­i­na­tive pow­ers (a limit one of­ten en­coun­ters in Houelle­becq’s fic­tion, where sim­plis­tic ideas of women pre­dom­i­nate). As such, Mi­chon’s sto­ries come out as nei­ther for nor against their depre­da­tions. Rather, like a good his­to­rian, he doc­u­ments what is, to the end that we might ac­knowl­edge our an­tecedents, our pat­ri­mony: that we are, as a cul­ture, de­scended from that vi­o­lence, not merely in the ob­vi­ous are­nas of power where a fist wields a sword but at the cul­ture’s so-called high end where hands ma­nip­u­late paint and lan­guage.

Mi­chon’s in­ter­est in this kind of vi­o­lence be­gan in a project of self-jus­ti­fy­ing self-ex­co­ri­a­tion, Vies mi­nus­cules, a col­lec­tion of eight pieces all pre­sented as “lives”—“The Life of An­dré Du­fourneau”; “The Life of An­toine Peluchet”; “The Life of Claudette”—and each of which in some way in­ter­sects with Mi­chon’s own: sto­ries about his grand­par­ents, school­friends, an el­der sis­ter who died be­fore his birth. These sto­ries all showcase the short­com­ings of their au­thor as he at­tempts to write their sto­ries. And while, in out­line, this might sound un­promis­ingly self-re­gard­ing— a first book about writ­ing one’s first book—Mi­chon is self-aware enough of the lim­its of his premise that he’s al­ways push­ing against it.3

What’s more, though the book might sound un­com­pli­cat­edly like what the An­glo­phone world calls mem­oir, and though the English trans­la­tion of the book was mar­keted as a novel, the French edi­tion bore the prom­i­nent des­ig­na­tion récit, the mean­ing of which— “a lit­er­ary work that re­counts real or imag­i­nary events”—is dis­tinct from ei­ther and typ­i­fies Mi­chon’s ap­proach: fact li­censes fic­tion via the ex­haus­tion of what is known. But récit also car­ries a sec­ond mean­ing: in mu­sic, “some­thing sung by a solo voice or played by a sin­gle in­stru­ment”—en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate given Mi­chon’s rep­u­ta­tion as one of the great­est liv­ing stylists, a writer whose voice is con­sid­ered his defin­ing fea­ture, a voice dif­fi­cult to con­vey in trans­la­tion.

Mi­chon’s prose mixes reg­is­ters from high to low, ex­hibits a spo­ken straight­for­ward­ness but main­tains a melodic pre­ci­sion and a met­ri­cal power. His vig­or­ous lines are freighted with al­lu­sions to his­tory and art, facts de­ployed to the end of build­ing char­ac­ters plau­si­bly rooted in the eras they spring from, a ground­ing that leads, in Mi­chon’s method, not merely to in­tel­lec­tual sub­stance but, more mag­i­cally, mo­ments of pro­found feel­ing.

His sen­tences tend to be long, -semi­coloned clauses ac­cu­mu­lat­ing some­times for pages, build­ing rhyth­mi­cally and tac­ti­cally: through such di­la­tion, Mi­chon of­ten de­lays one’s sense of the am­bi­tions of a sen­tence and of a story—the fuller mean­ing of the thing only emerg­ing from be­hind the mass­ing of clausal clouds with the ap­pear­ance of a fi­nal, il­lu­mi­nat­ing phrase. But in English, Mi­chon’s sen­tences too of­ten feel hap­less and pre­ten­tious and, yes, here and there ex­quis­ite. Mi­chon in English seems like pre­cisely the writer he is not: one in­con­sis­tently able to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a per­fect sen­tence and a per­fectly aw­ful one. Con­sider how Vies mi­nus­cules, and in­deed Mi­chon’s ca­reer, be­gin: “Avançons dans la genèse de mes pré­ten­tions.” We’re in the im­per­a­tive mood, in the first-per­son plu­ral, tour­ing, with the au­thor, from his first book’s first sen­tence, the ed­i­fice he has yet to build. Ex­treme self-con­scious­ness, then, but leav­ened by a gravid al­lu­sion to the first book’s first book (genèse), an irony in­sisted upon by the au­tho­rial as­crip­tion of pre­ten­sion to his own en­deav­ors. Met­ri­cally, the twelve-syl­la­ble sen­tence, alexan­drine in length if not in de­sign, be­gins and ends with tri­syl­la­bles (avançons; pre­ten­tions), an anapest to start and a dactyl to end, mir­ror rhythms (––/; /––), these six syl­la­bles sand­wiched around six more, an iamb at the very cen­ter (genèse) flanked by two pairs of flat feet (dans la; de mes), the in­tro­duc­tory and con­clud­ing words of the sen­tence rhyming their last syl­la­bles and cinch­ing the thing closed. The feel­ing of the mean­ing of this per­fectly bal­anced sen­tence in French is swash­buck­lery un­der­cut by buf­foon­ery: the un­like­li­ness that gal­lantry in prose, prose driven by the dic­tates of po­etry, might still be pos­si­ble or even de­sir­able.

In the English of Jody Gladding and El­iz­a­beth De­shays, we read the fol­low­ing: “Let us ex­plore a ge­n­e­sis for my pre­ten­sions.” We re­main in the im­per­a­tive mood; ge­n­e­sis and pre­ten­sion make ap­pear­ances; an in­ter­nal rhyme (ex­plore; for) tips a hat to terms of art: but Mi­chon’s propul­sive mu­sic be­comes, to my ear, some­thing closer to Gil­bert and Sul­li­van:

Let us ex­plore A ge­n­e­sis for My pre­ten­sions.

Which is to say there’s noth­ing in­ac­cu­rate in this trans­la­tion. It just no longer sounds like Mi­chon, his mix of high and low, of irony and ar­ro­gance. In­stead it sounds fussy, and clunky, and, as I hear it, “lit­er­ary”: rather than man­ag­ing some­thing new, it sounds like it’s try­ing to be some­thing old. The trans­la­tion is “cor­rect,” but the tone is ab­so­lutely wrong. And con­vey­ing this tone of voice, its load­ed­ness, its sense of sus­pen­sion, its bal­anc­ing of light­ness and weight, would be the es­sen­tial work of any trans­la­tion of Mi­chon.

There is, how­ever, ex­cel­lent news on the Mi­chon trans­la­tion front: an ex­cep­tional trans­la­tor has, at last, ap­peared. Ann Jef­fer­son, a for­mer pro­fes­sor of French at Ox­ford, has de­liv­ered Mi­chon’s two books of short sto­ries, Mytholo­gies d’hiver (1997) and Ab­bés (2002), in a sin­gle slim vol­ume. I read Jef­fer­son’s ver­sions in some­thing close to shock: they feel as Mi­chon feels in French. There is the ve­loc­ity, the pre­ci­sion, the mu­sic, the com­pres­sion, the sin­gu­lar­ity, the power.

As Jef­fer­son writes in her in­tro­duc­tion of Mi­chon’s style in these sto­ries: “His sen­tences are syn­tac­ti­cally sim­ple and of­ten slightly el­lip­ti­cal.” If this de­scrip­tion doesn’t quite align with my de­scrip­tions of his ear­lier work, there is cause, as Jef­fer­son notes. “Mi­chon him­self has said that this style is ac­tu­ally the re­sult of his switch from pen to com­puter for com­po­si­tion.” Although these styles are mean­ing­fully dis­tinct—and raise very dif­fer­ent sets of dif­fi­cul­ties for a trans­la­tor—the over­all prob­lem of pre­serv­ing Mi­chon’s tone re­mains the same, and one Jef­fer­son has solved. I know no trans­la­tion like hers: one that man­ages the feat of re­pro­duc­ing seem­ingly ev­ery­thing an au­thor is do­ing in his lan­guage. These lit­tle sto­ries in Jef­fer­son’s trans­la­tion are the best place to be­gin read­ing Mi­chon in English and they are, them­selves, among his most per­fect pieces of writ­ing.

As is Mi­chon’s habit, the sto­ries orig­i­nate in his­tor­i­cal ac­counts that he has claimed and adapted from var­i­ous ob­scure texts: lives of saints and monks from the Mid­dle Ages, both Ir­ish and French, as well as a his­tory of the Gé­vau­dan, a re­gion in south-cen­tral France, all sources that Mi­chon cites in the sto­ries. The first trio are set in me­dieval Ire­land, and be­gin for­mu­laically (“Muirchu the monk re­lates that Leary, king of Le­in­ster...”; “The An­nals of the Four Masters re­counts that Suib­hne, king of Kil­dare . . .”). The sec­ond of these sto­ries, “Colum­bkill’s Sad­ness,” be­gins in the for­mula and then builds from it into some­thing very much its own, very much Mi­chon’s:

Adamnan re­counts that Saint Columba of Iona, who is still called Colum­bkill, Colum­bkill the Wolf—a mem­ber of the tribe of the north­ern O’Neills through his an­ces­tor Niall of the Nine Hostages—is a bru­tal man in his youth. He loves God vi­o­lently, and war, and small pre­cious ob­jects. He was reared in a bronze cra­dle; he is a man of the sword. He serves un­der Diar­mait, and un­der God. Diar­mait the king of Tara can count on his sword for raids in the Ir­ish Sea, ma­raud­ing cat­tle, cra­pu­lous feasts which turn into mas­sacres. And God, King of this world and the next, can count on his sword to per­suade the dis­ci­ples of the monk Pe­lag­ius, who deny Grace, that Grace is dev­as­tat­ing and can be weighed in iron. The small ob­jects are also al­lies of God and the sword: they are won at sword point, and all of them—chal­ices, rings, or croziers—belong to God. The most beau­ti­ful, the rarest, the most pre­cious—those that later, when they ex­ist in plenty, the West will call books—speak of God, and God speaks in them. Colum­bkill prefers books to ci­bo­ria: for this mil­i­tary cap­tain, whom Adamnan calls the Soldier of the Isles and of God, In­su­lanus Dei miles, this wolf is also a monk in the man­ner of monks at that time, a man­ner that is in­con­ceiv­able to our way of un­der­stand­ing. When he lays down his sword, he rides from monastery to monastery, where he reads: he reads stand­ing up, tensed, mov­ing his lips and frown­ing, in the vi­o­lent man­ner of those times, which we can­not conceive of ei­ther. Colum­bkill the Wolf is a bru­tal reader.

It is win­ter in the year 559, and he is read­ing.

He has just ar­rived at the monastery of Moville, built in dry stone on the bald heath fac­ing the Ir­ish Sea. It is rain­ing the way it rains in Ire­land; you can hear the sea be­low, but it is not vis­i­ble. Finian the ab­bot has left him alone in the hut that serves as the li­brary. There are four books: Colum­bkill leafs through the large al­tar copy of the Gospels, a copy of the Ge­or­gics, and Priscian’s Gram­mar. The Gospels are a run-of-the-mill piece of work; he read the Ge­or­gics when he was in Cork. He also knows Priscian. He bends over the fourth vol­ume: it is smaller and fits in-

side a lit­tle pouch with a strap that needs un­fas­ten­ing. He opens it at ran­dom, and reads, I hate dou­ble­minded men, but I love Thy law. He does not know this text. It is a great rhyming paean di­vided into a hun­dred and fifty smaller paeans. In the pic­tures on the fac­ing pages you can see King David var­i­ously oc­cu­pied with slaugh­ter and mu­sic. The col­ors are very beau­ti­ful: an or­pi­ment yel­low and a ver­tig­i­nous lapis lazuli. The blue and the paean are the book of Psalms. It is the first psalter he has ever held in his hand, per­haps the only one that ex­ists in Ire­land. He can hear the sea be­low drop­ping with all its weight. He sinks into the text.

Mi­chon’s self-con­scious­ness is con­spic­u­ous, his nar­ra­tion ar­riv­ing over the shoul­der of his sub­ject—in this case, a monk saved from obliv­ion in Adamnan’s book, whom Mi­chon is reimag­in­ing in his fash­ion—and some­times from inside him. The story of this bel­li­cose monk, one who is “in­con­ceiv­able to our way of un­der­stand­ing,” who has a hunger for texts that “speak of God, and God speaks in,” sees him ac­quire the lit­tle psalter through vi­o­lence against Finian the ab­bot and, so gained, to dis­cover, once it is his, that “he searches the text for some­thing he has read and can­not find, and the pic­ture for some­thing he has seen and which has van­ished. He searches long and in vain, yet it was there when it wasn’t his.” What a book might grant us, a re­prieve from our soli­tari­ness, is the thing that the monk’s want­ing con­demns him to: alone­ness. It is the thing, in Mi­chon, that we see his char­ac­ters re­peat­edly seek to evade and are un­able to es­cape: them­selves.

This brief fa­ble, which runs to not quite 1,500 words, has a hoarded power typ­i­cal of Mi­chon and char­ac­ter­is­tic of the lit­tle book’s fif­teen sto­ries. In all of them, men want, take, and make oth­ers suf­fer what they take, and find no re­prieve from the ar­bi­trari­ness of suf­fer­ing, of ev­ery­thing. In the finest story in the col­lec­tion and one of the most re­mark­able sto­ries I’ve en­coun­tered, the first of three longer sto­ries all un­der the head­ing of “Ab­bots,” Mi­chon un­earths an ab­bot named Èble from a va­ri­ety of “sec­ond­hand chron­i­cles” that date to 976 when “An­cient Gaul is a hotch­potch of names.” One of these names is Poitou, which is held by Èble’s brother, the war­lord Guil­laume Tow­head. By con­trast Èble has re­tired from that ex­plicit vi­o­lence and now holds the Abbey of Saint-Michel, which sits on a lit­tle is­land, a poor out­post whose “build­ings have landed here like dice thrown from a cup:”

The mid­get is­land sits just inside the mouth, fac­ing the sea where two rivers marry, the Lay to the right and the Sèvre to the left: and as it hap­pens these nup­tials are rich with sand, mud, oys­ter shells, and all the de­bris that rivers calmly snatch up and crush: wind­fall and dead cows; the waste that men throw out in sport, from ne­ces­sity, or from weari­ness; and some­times their own hu­man bod­ies thrown like­wise in sport, from ne­ces­sity, or from weari­ness. With the re­sult that it’s nei­ther the forth­right sea nor the hon­est river that Èble has be­fore his eyes but some­thing mixed and tan­gled: a thou­sand arms of fresh water, as many arms of salt water, and as many again of water that is nei­ther fresh nor salt em­brace a thou­sand plots of naked blue mud, naked pink and gray mud, red-brown mud, worth­less sand where the devil—which is to say noth­ing—plies his trade.

So the story it­self is the space where that old ar­gu­ment be­tween the Manichaean forces is once again re­hearsed, but un­en­cum­bered by any sense that such a story can’t be told again, mean­ing­fully. Un­der Èble’s lead­er­ship, the pa­gan peas­antry is drafted into a pub­lic works project that drains the flood­prone basin and yields fields in which crops can be sown, and re­sults in be­liev­ers in the god whom Èble serves. The oxen that are drafted to such work “have gaiters of mud right up their legs”; men who serve Èble die vi­o­lently and ar­bi­trar­ily, mean­ing­lessly; the man who has put them there is no less marked by the world, has mud and blood on his hands: Èble is a man in ser­vice to God, but a man be­trayed by his own urges, avail­ing him­self of one of the peas­ants, a woman. He mis­uses her; he sins agains her, him­self, and God. He comes to see the mixed­ness of all things, all acts, all works. He ages; en­dures. The land flour­ishes; he faces the con­se­quences of his con­tra­dic­tory na­ture. Mi­chon re­ports; we sink into the text:

He walks down to the har­bor. It’s the dead sea­son of Christ­mas, when the fish­er­men bring bar­rels of her­ring and the finest fish— stur­geon and pike—for the ta­ble at Epiphany. The win­ter morn­ing will be very blue; it’s al­ready blue, but a few patches of mist are still trav­el­ing across the water. Out of the mist, head­ing straight to­ward him, a flat-bot­tomed boat emerges in which plump fish gleam. In the prow of the boat there stands a small, fair-skinned girl with a head of tow, a thou­sand densely packed sun­beams, gold that shines against the sil­ver of the pikes. She bears the torch of day­break. The sun ex­ists for this bril­liance, the blue be­longs to her. It looks like a crown. It looks like some­thing else which Èble knows well and which is not him­self or his brother Guil­laume. The ab­bot thinks very quickly, and what comes to mind is the word glory.

Glory; faith; be­lief; love; am­bi­tion; art; power; need; hurt; pur­pose; value: through­out Mi­chon’s body of work, the reader en­coun­ters these words, in texts drawn from texts, and sees him hold them up for con­sid­er­a­tion, def­i­ni­tion. The orig­i­nal­ity of his work is in his com­mit­ment to the re­con­sid­er­a­tion of such fa­mil­iar things, and his suc­cess in find­ing forms that ad­mit to the mixed­ness of the mo­tives of all sto­ry­telling. Though Mi­chon tweeted, in 2013, “If I were young, I would write a 1,000-page novel,” the dis­tilled­ness of his work, its com­pres­sion and the yields of ex­clu­sion, are fun­da­men­tal to his vi­sion, a vi­sion that ap­pears with all its French force in Ann Jef­fer­son’s ex­cep­tional trans­plan­ta­tion.

Pierre Mi­chon in the vil­lage of Châtelus-le-Marcheix, cen­tral France, 2009

‘The Beast of Gé­vau­dan’; eigh­teenth-cen­tury en­grav­ing

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