A Terrace in Rome by Pascal Quignard (tr. Douglas Penick and Charles Ré). Wakefield Press. 128pp, $13.95.
To say that Pascal Quignard’s words are a meditation or an exploration is too simplistic—there is a philosophical stream of consciousness in his writing that has a realism both enlightened and carnal which attempts to grasp the essence of human nature in a handful of grand themes. While these are revisited (and often together), the nuances of the subjects in which he finds connections ensure that an originality is retained: sex, whether the act itself or the analysis of its echoing effects on the psyche; art; mythology; books; and death, as found in Sex and Terror, The Sexual Night, and The Roving Shadows, among others. These are his themes, and memory is always present in what links them. Reading Quignard, one is struck by the feeling that they are witnessing someone transcribing his thoughts, pure and fresh as they form in the mind, or to use a fitting mythological connection, Athena springing from the head of Zeus.
A Terrace in Rome, his fictional tale of the engraver Meaume, once handsome until disfigured by an acid attack to the face by the fiancé of his lover Nanni, does not stray from Quignard’s singular view of people. The result is a seamless blending of real and fantasy. His signature fragmentary reflections come together to create a character so convincing that one could be excused from wondering if Meaume was in fact a real engraver of the seventeenth century.
The trinity of sex, art, and self-reflection run through the story, which itself unfolds as an elaborate engraving, each chapter carefully and precisely adding lines of life and landscape. This is a deliberate reverse, building an image while the story is one of removal: Meaume’s home is taken from by that fateful attack, as is his ability to pursue his profound desires, and he becomes a wanderer, a roving shadow of a man in a world that is defined by beauty and virility—the latter so unfortunately tied to a superficial gaze. While his face is irreversibly damaged, his mind is still the solitary, melancholic voice that it was, and his desires are a constant, aching companion, no longer free to express themselves through a body that is shunned. Such frustrations amplify his melancholy.
The term “a roving shadow” above is an example of how precisely Quignard’s thoughts from previous works fit when transferred into specific characters. While his book The Roving Shadows (where the term originates) is meant to show how reading and writing relate to sex and death, A Terrace in Rome uses art to do the same. For anyone else’s style, such a remark might well be seen as fanciful; here they are just aspects of a personality searching for a body—and they found one to house them in Meaume. For instance, this observation from The Roving Shadows fits Meaume so well: “But waking is such an unpleasant thing for those whose desire rises up in sleep on the occasion of a dream.”
Soon after the disfigurement, Meaume dreams explicitly of Nanni, descriptions of heat and light blurred with that of his sex—“thick, white, hot streams”—as erect as it had ever been when he was whole, his lover mounting him and swallowing him with a giving heat. And later on, closer to death, he notes that his dreams are where the light of desire resides: “The secret of my dreams was a body that returned to me unceasingly.” The day only holds shadows, darkness, and his art, a life resigned to being the observer-transcriber of a life he can no longer live. This fate of Meaume’s reminds a reader of his earlier Sex and Terror:“We are right to hate erotic etchings. Not because such representations are thought shocking, but because they are false. Because the never-present scene, the forever ‘un-presentable’ scene will never be able to be ‘re-presented’ to the human being who is the fruit of it.”
Quignard distances the story by referring to the works of Meaume in a historical sense: an 1882 Société de Beaux-Arts paper which remarks on an “obscene” mezzotint. Here is the first time we are presented with explicitness via the gaze of studious morality. A Terrace in Rome is ripe with emotional sexual imagery, although it is always—perhaps paradoxically—restrained in a kind of elegance that mirrors the technique of Meaume’s art. Another aspect of this can be seen in the Beaux-Arts paper, which sheds a light on his conscious or unconscious thoughts when he is creating (post-accident): “A man, his head in shadow . . . is sitting, turned from left to right, but faces us. His legs are spread. His erection stands out from the background of a curtain of Flemish tapestry. His right hand points . . . at some beautiful seashells . . . [t]he general air is sad. His head, deep in the shadows . . . is somehow hideous. All the light, whose source we do not see, is concentrated on his belly and his private parts in violent distension.” The shells through which he can only imagine the sounds of feminine desire, no longer able to plunge into that sea, but that call out, siren-like. Like Odysseus, Meaume is in his own way also bound, body still responding to the song.
Even in his art, Meaume cannot help but put himself in the company of night and shadows. To the scholar’s gaze he is weighted by “sadness,” but a reader might see it as not despair but the melancholy—specifically sexual—that Quignard is so moved by in his writings. For Meaume himself there must be the horror of his sexual fate, frozen yet destined to repeat itself in his art. He knows women cannot bear to look upon him, even though he remains full of desire. He was punished for it, and the punishment continues not just in his face but in his sex, writhing with the want of dreams. In this, it recalls Quignard’s account of Medusa in Sex and Terror: “He who sees the female sex organ in front of him, he who sees the ‘medusing one’ is cast immediately into petrification (into erection), which is the first form of statuary.” Meaume will be forever etching and etched into copper, an auto-Medusa. Beauty and desire are both gifts and punishments of the gods.
The two women of A Terrace in Rome, Nanni, who is the catalyst for the story, and later Marie Aidelle, present unfinished characters. While it may prove unsatisfactory to some, it is still in keeping with the fragmentary nature of Quignard, and indeed, they come across as a kind of shadows cast by Meaume. We know enough of them to understand how they drive him, and their actions have a cruelty, even in tenderness. While Meaume’s desire develops into an un-acted upon but lifelong obsession for Nanni, it never quite reaches the same point with Marie Aidelle—it cannot, for he is already irreparably changed. The image of Nanni is etched on his being. While his face—and naturally from there, his sex—is what draws Nanni to him, Marie Aidelle tries to dismiss her repulsion for his new face. Her desire comes from the real reflection of him in his art, and so she maintains a fragile dream-arousal. But it can always be shattered any time Meaume wishes to gaze upon himself in the same manner. True desire here is unable to fully transcend skin.
A face as currency and the women who do not think they are rich unless they possess it brings to mind Manon Lescaut. Is Manon superficial, or does she simply wish to gain wealth by offering her flesh and beauty as currency, knowing she is a female Croesus and that men wish to possess her “gold”? There is an element of wanting to show off one’s riches—this can be applied to Nanni and Marie Aidelle: to them, Meaume’s “gold” is no longer fit to be seen as wealth. But a face is fool’s gold, and he is rejected. Upon his death it is revealed that he is rich with actual gold and jewels—the profit from his creations. There is no speculation as to whether either woman would have made themselves look Meaume full in the face, forcing themselves to see only coins and virility, but the thought drifts uncomfortably. It is only at the end of his life that there is a sense that Marie Aidelle sees what is true to its full extent, but Quignard keeps this veiled. Any repentance or asking for forgiveness is for those two alone, and not the reader. We only know that she goes to him on his deathbed.
The story of Meaume is one of a man that ceases to be in the present flesh, instead becoming a specter of a life he only recalls in memories and observes from the shadows: transferring it to his copper plates, scarring them with the beauty that once belonged to his unmarked face—both are haunted. As Quignard quotes Saint Augustine in The Sexual Night, “What is a man? Eyes and ghosts.”
Tomoé Hill is reviews editor at minor literature[s]. Her reviews and essays have also featured in Numéro Cinq, 3:AM magazine, Berfrois and New Orleans Review. She lives in London.
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