Thursday, September 08, 2011

To set the lost afire: The Roving Shadows by Pascal Quignard

In his essay On Reading, Proust says great writers prefer old writing, the works of the ancients, and finds two reasons: first, that they are “more easily diverted by different ideas” and second, that they recognise “the beauty which the mind that created them was able to put into them.” Both standard observations of course. But, as is Proust’s habit, he doesn’t stop there: “They receive another beauty, more affecting still, from the fact of that their substance, I mean the language in which they were written, is like a mirror of life.”

He compares the experience to walking through a 15th Century hospice that has been preserved in tact into the 20th: “its well, its wash-house, the painted panels of its wooden ceiling, the tall gabled roof, pierced by dormer windows surmounted by frail finials of beaten lead”. Walking here is like reading a tragedy by Racine or Saint-Simon’s memoirs because they “contain all the lovely suppressed forms of a language that preserve the memory of usages or ways of feeling which no longer exist, persistent traces of the past unlike anything in the present and whose colours time alone, as it passed over them, has been able further to enhance.”


In this sense Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows is the project of a great writer. In the first few chapters there is an extract from a letter written in Latin by Descartes, a passage from Chin P'ing Mei, a novel of the Ming Dynasty, and the story of Syagrius, the last king of the Romans, as told by Gregory of Tours. But this is not a waterfall to disrupt Proust’s deeper current: each chapter is a discrete approach to suppressed forms and persistent traces, the shadows of the title. “I seek only thoughts that tremble” he writes, “a flush interior to the soul”. This does not always require many pages, as short stories and poetry attest. The Roving Shadows seeks its own form – Quignard insists the book, published in 2002 as Les Ombres errantes, is not a novel or an essay but “a sequence of beginnings of novels, stories, landscapes, autobiographical fragments” – and yet yields similar rewards.

It is still a very Proustian quest, as Ombres suggests: to experience the presence of Time Past (he capitalises the phrase throughout) not as the past but as “a ceaselessly active actuality”. Our access is frustrated by the blinding light of modernity. In chapter 15, he describes Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s 1933 work In Praise of Shadows which laments, of all things, the loss of old Japanese toilets; places once hidden in near darkness now illuminated with “dazzling, puritanical, imperialist ... neon light”. He goes on to present a list of what has passed from Japanese life: peeling paint on wood, tarnished metal objects and “freer or dulled or vacillating thought that arises in the human head when it buries itself in shadow”. Suddenly a culture that seems to run ahead of modernity like sanderlings happily taking advantage of a foaming wave, diminishes and becomes more pathological as one recognises the millennia of tradition from which it has been wrenched. This is a Proustian moment of universal consciousness.

The structure of The Roving Shadows – 55 chapters in 223 pages, with the chapters themselves divided into fragments of story, aphorism, anecdote, reference and citation – plunges the reader into open water in which one can never fully breathe nor fully drown in the comforts of narrative: “Fish that still rise to the surface”, he writes. “A gulp to stave off death. That gulp: reading.” The hyperbole is a necessary misstep of the form, as David Shields’ Reality Hunger confirmed in 2010, and the two books share the goal of overcoming their book misfortune: “Books that can be said to be touched by the reflection of the sun, of which they know nothing, are even more silent than purely literary ones.”

Except Quignard’s predates Shields by eight years and is far more aware of the contradictions of writing towards such a goal: “One can't offer a visible counterweight to the domination of light”. It is thereby more literary. What this means, and as this aphorism asserts, is that The Roving Shadows is in constant battle with its own accomplishment. After all, by writing in commonly intelligible French to a contemporary audience about ways of feeling which no longer exist, translated and contextualised in notes at the end of the book, he has also endangered them; risking exposure of the pale beast to imperial neon light. Chris Turner’s translation, which has to accept the impossibility of containing the double meaning of ombre – both shadow and shade – is thus a double threat.

Alerting us to the danger, chapter 39 tells the story of the imprisonment of the Abbé de Saint-Cyran, a 17th Century Jansenist who spoke “of the vanity of books that are merely books. Of gods that are mere phantoms. Of ideas that are merely desires.” Emerging from months in darkness he wrote: “after the greed for wealth, honours and worldly pleasures has been destroyed, there arise in the soul – out of those ruins – other honours, other wealth, other pleasures that are not of this visible world, but of the invisible world.” Quignard comments: "It is dreadful to think that, after destroying within us the visible world, with all its trapping, as much as it can be destroyed on this earth, another invisible one is immediately born, a world more difficult to destroy than the first." Dreadful perhaps, and of course Quignard is contributing to our sensitivity to the invisible, yet it is why Proust loved ancient works and why reading was so important in his life:
Often, in St Luke's Gospel, when I come upon the ‘colons’ which punctuate it before each of the almost canticle-like passage with which it is strewn, I have heard the silence of the worshipper who has just stopped from reading out loud so as to intone the verses following, like a psalm reminding him of the older psalms in the Bible. This silence still filled the pause in the sentence which, having been split into two so as to enclose it, had preserved its shape; and more than once, as I was reading, it brought to me the scent of a rose which the breeze entering by the open window had spread through the upper room which the Gathering was being held and which had not evaporated in almost two thousand years.
As with Time itself, reading gives access to what habit and the violence of modernity obscures; no phantoms or mere desires here. Even if he shares Proust’s vision, he does not entirely share his optimism: “To set the lost afire with loss – this, properly speaking, is what it is to read.” Yet to accept on face value the statements and assertions peppering The Roving Shadows is to fall back into the positivism its form and content resist. The contradiction is always present; a fish rising briefly to the surface reaffirming the depths.

The Roving Shadows is the first of a sequence of books called Le Dernier Royaume, The Last Kingdom. So far, five books have been published in France and this is the first to be translated into English. Seagull Books has been admirably adventurous in its translation policy and we can only hope it continues with Quignard among others. This review hardly touches the range and richness of The Roving Shadows: the book rewards and defeats re-reading. We have more than enough to be going on with.

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