Gems and asses' heads

Collected French Translations: Prose
, John Ashbery, Roseanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie. eds. (400pp, £19.95, Carcanet)

This is the second of the two volumes of Ashbery's French translations that Carcanet have recently published. It's an interesting companion to the volume of poetry, with a useful introduction from the editors, although some of the material is repeated from the poetry volume. Here are twenty-eight prose pieces by seventeen different writers, some of which have been long unavailable, and several from unfamiliar voices. There are pieces of fiction along with selected essays originally published in Art and Literature and ARTnews. Unlike the volume of poetry, this is not a bilingual edition as many of the original French works are easily available. The Introduction goes through some biographical detail of Ashbery's relationship with French translation and includes the best piece of advice that a writing tutor can give a student: 'To write and not be a writer'. More on this later. There's also some detail about Ashbery's first encounter with the prose of Giorgio de Chirico's novel Hebdomeros, which greatly influenced his own prose poetry, and of which there are substantial selections here.

I have to say a great thanks for that generous inclusion of de Chirico, for two reasons: firstly, I had never read these pieces myself and they are, as Ashbery himself has said 'So amazing … I had never read anything like it before'. But, secondly, they are the stand-out pieces in a book that is really a rattle bag of material. Other than the fact that Ashbery translated it all, and that they are in French, there is very little rhyme or reason to the collection, which ranges from Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy's seventeenth century fairy tale 'The White Cat', through Odilon Redon's abstruse philosophising, to a short play by Jarry of
Ubu Roi fame. There are long excerpts from Raymond Roussel's 'Documents To Serve As An Outline', which strike me as broadly un-translatable given Roussel's arcane codification and punning, most of which is lost in translation. But the Giorgio de Chirico is fabulous, with its expansive, graceful, emergent sentences, its encompassing intelligence and its imaginative range that puts the more contrived surrealism of others in the shade:

   Of these signs the most characteristic in my opinion was
   that the shepherds had already fled into the mountains and,
   although night had not yet descended completely on the
   countryside, one could now see their bonfires burning from
   peak to peak, which reminded certain folk of the means
   used by prehistoric tribes to communicate news across
   vast deserts untrodden by human feet, wherein lions, as
   though harnessed to invisible chariots, wandered in
   perfectly symmetrical couples hunting the antelope
   with gentle eyes.
           (from 'The Engineer's Son')

The work here from Pierre Reverdy, on the other hand, reminds me of the worst excesses of surrealist technique, in which free floating signifiers float so free of any tangible meaning that they become nothing more than the pretentious play of signification in the regressive mirror of meaninglessness: ''The screw propellers of humankind sometimes trick the hypnotic surveillance of the inner lighthouse to come and beat the ashes of ennui'. What is going on here beyond the impossibility of meaning and the gauche exercise of banal juxtaposition? Such works endlessly explore what those poststructural theorists called 'the expression of non-logical truths' or, as Noam Chomsky puts it, 'Colourless green ideas sleep furiously'. Neither do I have time for the excerpts here of Antonin Artaud's self-pitying correspondence with editor Jacques Rivière, from 1923-4, in which Artaud indulges his 'frightful; illness of mind', ending with his poem 'Cry', which Rivière had rejected from the
Nouvelle Revue Franćaise. With very good reason. It's dreadful.

What I
do have time for, on the other hand, are some very interesting articles on painting by Jean Hélion; 'What is figuration then? It is looking for and keeping your path between proud, obvious Creation and the Void whose dizziness affects us all. The painter works on horseback, the reins of colour in his hand, his head in the wind of ideas, his eyes wide open on the world. Without knowing what his goal is to be.' As with Ashbery's own advice to 'Write and not be a writer', this sounds like very sound advice for a painter, or indeed a writer, and prefigures Hélion's conclusion: 'A certain brilliance in the result – that is the trap. Avoid it… Then, without regrets, and singing as loud as you can, work inside it, with broad, precise strokes, until a real work of art is born, no longer seductive, but with everything enunciated on the highest level of your mind.' My own colleague, the novelist Sam North, has a metaphor for this 'dis-enchantment' of the self that a painter or writer needs to have: he calls it 'removing the asses head', as in A Midsummer Night's Dream in which Titania is bewitched in to believing that everything she sees is beautiful, and that Bottom in the donkey's head is an Adonis. Or, in other words, and using the common bromide, a  writer/painter must 'murder their darlings'.

There are some great gems in this book but, for this reader, there are also too many asses heads.

    © Andy Brown 2014