The Eleven by Pierre Michon (trans. Elizabeth Deshays and Jody Gladding). Archipelago Books. 97 pp., $18.00.
The measure of the decline in France’s cultural influence may be that fame in French literary circles no longer translates into automatic international renown. Frenchness and globalization have declared themselves implacable foes: not even the Nobel Prize was able to make the globetrotting novelist J.M.G. Le Clézio into an international celebrity. In contrast to writers of the generations between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus on the one hand, and Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes on the other, Pierre Michon, in spite of having won an array of French literary prizes, has remained little known in English. His Small Lives (1984) is one of the few undisputed masterpieces of modern French literature. A series of sketches of the inhabitants of a village, distantly reminiscent of the rural sketches of Ivan Turgenev or William Faulkner, yet hemmed by a style both precise and elaborate, the pieces in Small Lives address the forging of an artistic consciousness in a rural milieu. This tension returns in the more concise prose of The Eleven, awarded the Prize of the French Academy on its publication in 2009, and now published in English by Archipelago.
François-Élie Corentin is an 18th-century painter from a rural background whose masterpiece, “The Eleven,” hangs behind thick glass in the Louvre. As the Mona Lisa epitomizes the Renaissance, so Corentin’s “The Eleven” embodies the transition to modernity. The French Revolution, the event that thrust France into the forefront of international cultural debate for nearly two centuries, finds its most authentic artistic expression in Corentin’s work. Michon’s novel is a conspicuous case of literature that plugs the holes left by history. Neither Corentin nor his painting existed, yet by the end of The Eleven the reader feels that this imaginary canvas captures the cultural watershed between the 18th and the 19th centuries with a completeness achieved by no actual work of visual art. A product of the hierarchical culture of 18th-century rural Europe, Corentin exemplifies the stirrings that will culminate in the French Revolution and the ensuing upheavals of the 19th century when he moves to Paris and becomes a respected, if secondary, member of the workshop of the painter Jacques-Louis David.
A proponent of the artistic aesthetic of the Ancien Régime, David is a pivotal historical figure whose presence in the novel demonstrates Michon’s mingling of history and fiction. In fact, the role of bridging two historical epochs, which the novel dramatizes through Corentin, was embodied by David. A neo-classicist prior to the French Revolution, David became a friend of Robespierre and a revolutionary enthusiast. It is telling that Michon felt the need to invent a painter from the countryside rather than attributing “The Eleven” to the Parisian-born David. The essence of the painting’s significance is inscribed in David’s artistic trajectory: the rupture with the neo-classical tradition of painting Mediterranean landscapes and characters from mythology, the venture into portraits of contemporary figures, the glorification of revolutionary power, the artist’s slippery slide into serving as the court jester of a brutal dictatorship. These themes, which would grow in importance in the 19th and 20th centuries, resonate in David’s career; yet in Michon’s novel it is Corentin, the fictional rural artist abandoned by his father, who internalizes such tensions.
The narrator, who leads the reader through Corentin’s life, is a tour-guide, first in a palace in southern Germany, where a portrait of Corentin is displayed, and finally in the Louvre, where the reader approaches the painter’s masterpiece. A know-it-all motor-mouth of a peculiarly French variety, the narrator refutes others’ theories about the painter with disdain and admits one truth only. Pandering to the viewer of these paintings while also hectoring him, he is a harsher, more linguistically extravagant cousin of the narrator of Albert Camus’s The Fall. The narrator addresses the viewer of the paintings as “Sir” as he expounds his views with a Cartesian logic that repels any postmodern concert of conflicting truths or competing versions of the same event. The narrator, like the remarkable prose in which he speaks, is a descendant of the French Revolution; Corentin, by contrast, who paints the leaders of the revolution in old age, is a survivor of the downtrodden peasant life of an earlier historical period. Michon’s rejection of the overlapping truths so popular in contemporary novels of historical reconstruction, and even of basic conventions of the novel, such as dialogue, hints at an overlap of a different sort: that between prose fiction and the essay. Speaking of the history he relates, the narrator tells the viewer:
I know you, Sir, you and your kind; in your reading you go immediately to what shines and what you crave. . . . The drab history and theory, the class struggle and the infighting, you tell yourself you will read all that tomorrow. And I know very well that you do not need to hear it, but I need to tell you.
The telling occurs in a prose that is both dense and transparent, summarizing great sweeps of history in generalizations that feel exacting rather than fuzzy, such as this description of the revolution:
The social classes were also parties, you could say: what remained of the aristocrats, in hiding or active; the greater and lesser bourgeoisie, and the proletariat, that is, the Limousins, all these blew with the wind from one party to another; and on top of all that, pulling in every direction and disorienting everyone the other Limousin contingent, the mother of monsters, the packs of misfortune, the shrews of both sexes, the oil on the fire, the salt in the wound—the complaining, murdering packs of the eternal, barking plebeians: and through all that barking, no one heard anything anymore.
The shorthand concision of Michon’s prose does not translate easily. Elizabeth Deshays and Jody Gladding, who also translated Small Lives, solve the difficult problems in inventive ways, though equivalences between French and English verb tenses remain endlessly debatable. The novel’s denouement is the painting itself, in which Corentin, blending neo-classical reverence for mythological deities with the glorification of the individual that will later come to the fore in Romanticism, paints the eleven men who make up the Committee of Public Safety, the administrators of the revolutionary Terror. The monstrosity that Michon perceives in these men stems not only from their role as harbingers of the overseers of future revolutionary purges, but also from their resonance as figures who combine the ruthlessness of the artist’s drive for glory with the ways in which past patriarchies are reproduced by revolutionary regimes that set out to overthrow them. It is the figure of the male artist, particularly his fascination with power, that concentrates Michon’s attention. Most of the eleven men who oversaw the slaughter of Year II of the French Revolution were writers as well as revolutionaries; Corentin portrays three of the eleven with feather pens in their hands. The narrator posits that in garbing these would-be writers in the robes of omnipotence Corentin is grappling with the legacy of his absent father, a rural intellectual who added a fake title to his surname to promote his mediocre literary career. The artist’s attraction to power is only relevant, though, because his work possesses the force to cut through historical interpretation and transmit to the viewer the palpable experience of a distant time. The novel’s final pages contain a rebuttal of an imaginary interpretation of “The Eleven” by the very real 19th-century historian Jules Michelet, whose (fictitious) attempts to explain the painting overlook the fact that Corentin’s work “is not a painting of History, it is History.” The narrator asserts that: “the eleven living men are History in action, at the height of the act of terror and of glory that is the basis of History—the real presence of History.”
The Romanticism that underlies Michon’s vision is evident in the novel’s insistence on the awe inspired by great art. If, as one character repeats, “God is a dog,” and the French Revolution confirms God’s death, then the great artist is the deicide-in-chief, who supplants scripture with art’s creation of the “real presence” of historical events. The novel concludes with a reiteration of this primordial role: the narrator equates “The Eleven” with the pre-lapsarian harmony between experience and its artistic representation found in the cave paintings at Lascaux. The rural heritage may be a burden, but it also provides a point of contact with a more remote past where the sublime role that Michon seeks for the artist thrived unquestioned.
Stephen Henighan is the author of six books of fiction and four books of journalism and criticism. His translation of Ondjaki’s Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret will be published by Biblioasis in 2014.
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