The Arrière-pays by Yves Bonnefoy (trans. Stephen Romer). Seagull Books. 165 pp., $25.00.
Forty years have passed since L’Arrière-pays was published in French to nearly instant acclaim. It first appeared as part of a collection titled Les sentiers de la creation (The Paths of Creation, 1972) that included contributions by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. Now that Seagull Books has ushered the work into English, there can be no doubt that this was a book worth waiting for. The Arrière-pays is an immersion in the heady waters of a profound aesthetic consciousness.
In it, Yves Bonnefoy threads memory, thoughts on art and architecture, dreams, the plot of a favorite book, and two unfinished novels—all through an analytic lens that borrows from language philosophy, Freud, and modernism. He traces the branching of an idea that sparked to life in childhood: that of the l’arriere-pays, a not here that is radiant and transformative; a place of symmetries; an idealization with Platonic overlays. The phenomenon of this lived world, art and nature, reveal this deferment of perfection and trigger the yearning for Other that is so much a part of love. This book could be viewed as a moral tale of how infatuation with a concept, however alluring and seemingly benign becomes dangerous when it leads you out of love with this world.
Bonnefoy recognizes this temptation into delusion and grapples with it with spiritual grace and intellectual rigor. L’Arrière-pays is, as Bonnefoy says in the preface, “the great phantasm”:
I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads. At such moments it seems to me that here, or close by, a couple of steps away on the path I didn’t take and which is already receding—that just over there a more elevated kind of country would open up, where I might have gone to live and which I’ve already lost.
This book is a study of inquietude, its signs and the system of specialized knowledge, or gnosis, that they represent. Bonnefoy states, “In L’Arrière-pays—and this is what sets it apart from my other books—I took the risk of confronting head on a particular temptation I was prey to, arguing that I had to struggle with it, saying that I had struggled with it, imagining that I had triumphed over it.”
The Arrière-pays is also a sustained exploration of how art and the science of perspective affirm presence, which in Bonnefoy’s cosmology is a revelation that “lifts off the tombstone from the imagination.” Presence, he comes to affirm, exists in and through the things of this world. “In other words, I have grasped what great art was, the great art this country [Italy] has so often produced. … It consists in not forgetting the here and now in the dream of elsewhere, in not forgetting time, humble time as it is lived through here, among the illusions of the other place, that shade existing out of time.”
Originally published in 1972, this is the first time The Arrière-pays has appeared in English translation. Seagull has produced a beautifully realized edition with 42 color plate illustrations. The range of images mirrors the text’s scope, from those distant in geography, culture, or time (Mexican Tarasco Indians, a Fayum mummy portrait) to paintings from the Western canon (details from Bonnefoy’s beloved Poussin). Committing to color allows the reproductions to work effectively with the text to co-create meaning. They offer sensual pleasure and a meditative space that invites the reader to linger, absorb, and reflect.
Stephen Romer has produced a masterful translation of a complex, hybrid text that defies easy classification. In his introduction, Romer suggests that the work is a belated addition to Quest literature and that it belongs to a special category—the poet’s imaginative prose. If The Arrière-pays is indeed a quest, than it is one that seeks a reconciliation of the dialectic between gnosis and faith, alongside understanding of what art is and does in the world. But the quester here is somewhat disembodied. Who is he? From where is the book’s “he” speaking?
There are three selves present, one “real” and two created: Bonnefoy, the traveler, and the historian. The traveler and the historian are protagonists in two books that Bonnefoy conceives, but ultimately effaces. One of the most delightful aspects of The Arrière-pays is entrée to the generative process, listening in as the author describes conceiving the characters, what problems they are intended to address, the challenges of realizing them, and, finally, their abandonment. Bonnefoy’s sly humor comes through as he recounts his treatment of the traveler.
Other than glimpses of humor and tenderness, the reader does not get the sense of Bonnefoy’s personality or chronology, which distances it from traditional memoir or autobiography. He does not begin talking about his life transparently until the fourth chapter, where he analyzes how his childhood, lived between the two poles of Tours and Toirac, served as the breeding ground for his susceptibility towards the allures of the arrière-pays. When he does reveal background information, he is direct and unsentimental, but he is less interested in biography than he is in a project more intimate and abstract than that. He invites the reader to witness a process of enquiry.
The chapters that compose the body of the original text, written over a period of three months in 1971, are cogent, lucid, and self-contained. This text has been called “labyrinthine,” and that is apt in that a labyrinth is not linear, but is meticulously constructed. This work, though wide ranging, does not wander. It is controlled by long, supple sentences and extended metaphors. The text contains contradictions, counterpoints, and dialectical thinking. It is followed, in this edition, by three recent essays: “Afterward: September 2004,” “The Place of Grasses,” and “My Memories of Armenia.” Taken together, these extend the explorations begun in The Arrière-pays, adding layers and bringing new clarities gained over the intervening thirty years.
Through confronting and struggling with his particular temptation, Bonnefoy arrives at a visionary understanding that resolves the central dialectic between gnosis and faith and confirms presence as an earthly revelation. The last paragraph of the central text imagines Poussin walking in Rome, viewing a quotidian occurrence, transforming it, and redelivering it to humanity:
• He walks along the Tiber, in spring, when the waters are in flood, glinting in depth and blackness; and as there are washerwomen there, one of whom has bathed her child and holds him high in her arms, her eyes glittering as well—Poussin watches, understands and decides to paint—master of the golden bough if ever there was one—his great series of Moses Saved from the Waters.
It is an image that encapsulates, with exquisite tenderness, how art helps us participate in Eden here and now. The same could be said for this book. Bonnefoy has modeled how to conduct enquiry into an aspect of the mind, a purely subjective and intimate endeavor, bringing in the signs, symbols, and imagery that this aspect has used as vehicle. The result is an extraordinary contribution to art criticism, fresh evidence that Bonnefoy has earned his lionized reputation. The Arrière-pays is a visible manifestation of intellectual and spiritual engagement. It is a thing of surpassing beauty.
Nicole Zdeb is a poet and educational assessment designer in Portland, OR. Her most recent chapbook, The Friction of Distance (2011), was published by Bedouin Books. Find out more at nicolezdeb.com.
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