Thursday, August 04, 2016

`A Poet of Low States of Being'

Sometimes we’re just not ready for a writer. I first read Proust at eighteen, in a non-Proustian setting, while managing a miniature-golf course in suburban Cleveland. I recall that summer with pleasure but retain little of that Proust. I was too naïve and inexperienced. When I read his novel again a decade later, I had lived enough to be seduced into his world and notice that his characters had entered mine. Last November I read Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013) and encountered for the first time (I thought), in a reader's reverie, the name of Paul Léautaud:

“. . . so much prose and poetry
that a blissful eternity would not suffice
for us to read it all, from Lucretius and Horace

“to Saint-Denys Garneau, Borges and Montale,
from Aulus Gellius to Joubert, to Cioran, to Léautaud.
One could just as well say Seneca, and Ponge, and Leopardi,

“Petrarch, Pessoa, Montaigne . . . one recites these names
and those of Sbarbaro, Erasmus, or Martineau, giddy
at having inhaled the inexhaustible catalogue.”   

In January I sampled Léautaud (1872-1956), but sensed I was missing something. Had Robert oversold him? Was the translation faulty? Can Léautaud even be translated without damage and loss? Some writers, after all, must remain forever marooned in their native language. In March, Robert wrote to me:

“About Léautaud: If you are reading him in translation, I'm sorry to say that you're missing the best: Léautaud is one of the great prose writers in French, one of the most subtle and idiomatic. I fear one has to be a native speaker of French to appreciate this. But even in translation, one can appreciate him: there is something of Pepys in him. He is absolutely honest and genuinely himself, without fuss. About twenty years ago, I read his diary twice: after more than three thousand pages, I could not part with him and started to read him again from page one to the end. This is one of my most rewarding experiences in reading.”

That sounds like my second reading of Proust. Without French, the loss of Léautaud nags at me. I’ve been rereading Adam Zagajewski’s essays, including Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination (trans. Lillian Vallee; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1995), and there I found “Reading for Bad Days,” which I must have read twenty years ago but no longer remember . “Sometimes we’re just not ready for a writer.” Zagajewski, who reads French, loves Léautaud the way we might love a difficult sibling. Our loyalty is often strained. Zagajewski writes:

“He is characterized by something I would call anti-deception. If the usual and very common deception is to be sweet in speech and disobliging in deed, then Léautaud represents the reverse configuration. He is sour and malicious in what he says and writes, but he was not incapable of noble acts.”

Zagajewski is correct and never more so than today, when unctuousness is the rule in so much casual talk. People want to impress you with their virtue by pouring on the smarminess like maple syrup on pancakes. This explains the charm of Léautaud’s eccentricity and crabbiness. Like Robert, Zagajewski compares Léautaud’s journal to Samuel Pepys’:

“He is attracted far more to the real than to the normal, the ordinary rather than the postulated. At times he reveals himself as much as Pepys or [Jan Chryzostom] Pasek. There is practically no taboo which is not broken by Léautaud. He tells about masturbation and ugliness. He is ready to admit that an unexpected guest saw a full chamber pot sitting on the floor.”

Zagajewski tells us Léautaud specialized in writing “sober descriptions of the agony, death, and facial features of the deceased.” Is this morbidity, a wish to preserve the memory of the dead, or a mingling of both? “We shouldn’t hold this against him,” Zagajewski writes. “Léautaud is the literary heir of the French moralists, inspired by Jansenism, the unbribable observers of corruption not of a concrete social setting but of human nature in general.” For an admirer of Léautaud, Zagajewski is refreshingly candid: He can be a bore. “Léautaud wrote the same thing,” he says, adding, “He wrote a wonderfully supple French.” That’s the real lesson here. Léautaud sounds like yet another proto-blogger, an unbound writer. Of how many bloggers can we say their prose is “wonderfully supple?” Two or three, by my count. Zagajewski asks why he is so fascinated by Léautaud. Why does he remain so loyal? Here is his admittedly inconclusive answer:

“I read Léautaud as a poet of low states of being. It is exactly the `trivial’ then, the modest, the everyday, and the constantly repeated, that finds a solid and not very romantic seer in him. Léautaud seems to say, `Look, after all, this exists, these little things, scorned by first-rate writers.’ I reach for Paul Léautaud to experience the goosebumps of everydayness. The disorder of the world reveals itself at both ends of the scale, in tragedy and in triviality, in ugliness.  In Racine and in Paul Léautaud. In Dido’s lament, to which Henry Purcell composed music, and in the diary of this cat lover.” 

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