Rimbaud the Son by Pierre Michon (trans. Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays). Yale University Press, Margellos World Republic of Letters. $39.95, 1024pp.
Just this year, The Margellos World Republic of Letters imprint of Yale University Press has begun bringing out English-language translations of the fiction of widely acclaimed French author Pierre Michon: The Origin of the World (his 1996 novella La Grande Beune) and Masters and Servants (his 1990 novel Maitres et serviteurs), both translated by Wyatt Mason, and the 1991 novella Rimbaud le fils, translated by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays under the title Rimbaud the Son (Deshays also translated, for Archipelago, Michon’s exuberantly praised 1984 debut novel Small Lives).
These scattered editions represent roughly a quarter of Michon’s published work—how happy readers should be to make his acquaintance! Michon is a literary institution in France, regularly achieving both sales and critical plaudits, and his appearance in these stylish new Yale editions is to be applauded. That Michon is also a sharply intelligent author, a profusely allusive one, and an often unclassifiedly surreal one will just be extra coulibiac in the brioche.
Especially exquisite is this new translation of Rimbaud the Son, whose conception of the famed young poet Arthur Rimbaud is decidedly Copernican: just as his Masters and Servants views five great artists from the perspectives of those in their orbits, so Rimbaud the Son describes not so much the poet as the gravitational effects he has on the lesser figures who revolve around him. The real-life Rimbaud was the quintessential enfant terrible, a clod-hopper from backwoods Charleville who cut a swath through Parisian literary society, permanently altered the landscape of modern poetry with wild masterpieces like 1873′s Une Saison en Enfer and 1874′s Illuminations, and then abruptly turned his back on verse and lived the last fifteen years of his life as a businessman nobody would ever have suspected of ejaculating into his hostess’s morning glass of milk.
As a historical ventriloquist, Michon is almost too reverential to approach this diminutive titan directly. Instead, in Rimbaud the Son (the title has little to do with Rimbaud’s hectoring mother Marie back in Charleville; its full meaning is only gradually—and wonderfully—fleshed out in the book’s closing pages) he uses the full flood of his inimitable prose style to bring to life Rimbaud’s early and uncomprehending teachers like George Izambard (here regarded by the author from the poet’s viewpoint):
You would have granted him the discipline of rhymes; as for the rest, no doubt you would have had your reservations and kept them to yourself, but if you found yourself impassioned by this young man’s impromptu speech, your legs stretched uncomfortably under the small desk and your heart nevertheless exalted by the high blossoms in the leaves almost discernible through the window, if thus you had objected that poetry cannot be wholly on the side of good, since our first parents in the Garden of Eden did not speak, communicated in the way of flowers through bees, winged messengers, and would feel their tongues loosen only after the angel had shown them the door; if you had argued that language comes to humans after the Fall, when matter no longer sings; that poetry, which is the language of language, also falls into the universal well and perhaps twice as quickly, unless in its frenzied duplication it ceaselessly climbs back up using all its strength, is almost at the coping, calls back deeper, and so makes use of its free freedom – and if you yourself were indecisive then, searching for words, blurting them out wit audacity and panic – then he would have carefully folded the teachers college handkerchief, replaced his prince-nez, and looking you up and down, clearing his throat, would have asked you coldly to which sect you belonged.
Or another early formative figure, the poet Theodore de Banville, scarcely read these days. One of his few remaining readers is the grumpy Michon stand-in who appears at odd intervals throughout the book; he is perhaps joined by another slim readership, the quiet dreamers who are so persistently and beautifully evoked by the author:
. . . except perhaps some old autodidact, a Leautaud from Douai or Confolens who, leaving the library, curses the Walkmen and the motorbikes, or more optimistically, a very young country girl who climbed up to the attic in June, when school is closed and the heart wide open to the infinite freedom of objectless loves, and in the attic she found among old dresses Les Cariatides by Theodore de Banville, an old book of poems that she reads alone under the linden tree until dark.
The full flood of that Michonesque prose is almost impossible to pin down in limited quotations (Gladding and Deshays are to be commended for capturing so perfectly its strange combination of breathless headlong motion and steely control). This is apt, since the Rimbaud in Rimbaud the Son is likewise impossible to grasp. Time and again, Michon manages to summon him almost completely—before he slips away again:
He is before us, the same size or almost, on his two feet; he comes from afar, there he no longer knows that he has created what we call a work; he has no more anger; greatly astonished he regards in our hanging hands the endless, futile Rimbaudian gloss. A thousand times he reads his name, then the word genius, then the odd word archangel, then the words: absolutely modern, then illegible numbers, then again his name. He lifts his eyes to ours, and we remain there face to face, unmoving, dumbstruck, old-fashioned, the Italian pines behind us suspended in a breath of air, he is about to speak, we are about to speak, we are going to pose our question, we are going to reply, we are there – the pines rustle in a sudden wind, Rimbaud once again has leapt into his dance, there we all are alone, pen in hand.
“We are annotating the Vulgate” Michon concludes with typical hangdog pessimism, but Rimbaud the Son is doing far more than that. Readers who surrender to the strange whorls and swirls of this book will be lifted out of themselves and thrilled and sometimes richly, lastingly disoriented. This was precisely the reason why earlier generations of readers eagerly sought out the literature of other lands, exposing themselves to what the great Boston scholar George Ticknor used to refer to as “our other selves, whom we have not met.” If the Margellos World Republic of Letters seeks to revive that healthy old curiosity, they could scarcely have picked a better author for it than Michon—and more power to them.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and Kirkus. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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