I wanted to impress you, and we’d come from that reading. You and I can be honest, between us, about the demands readings can make on the affective capacities. The good cheer. The decision, inexhaustible in its rigor, of when to leave, the lingering … Personally I always stay too long, and I hadn’t eaten; none of us had eaten. I had arrived with friends, with Rabia. I’d worked to persuade Rabia to join us despite all she had to do that week—“Come on,” I’d said, “this is a special time in our lives, graduate school”—and then, it turned out, had urgently to stop for gas, but the gas stations in Amherst were closed, and so we had to go fifteen minutes out of our way; I kept apologizing. We arrived at Amherst Coffee eating from a big bag of almonds found in a pocket of my car. My mom gave me a big bag of almonds every time I saw her though many times I’d told her that my teeth, worn down from grinding them at night, weren’t strong enough for me to enjoy this kind of nut comfortably; I think she did this because she had been so worried when, at 18, I went through my vegan phase. Minoritarian because I was a woman with eroded teeth whose mother brought her, always, bags of almonds …
I had been dozing, waking occasionally to a disturbing feeling of delinquency in duty, dozing on the bus in the hour before I was to meet Quintane. My friend Emma had made her observation gleefully the previous night, in Paris where I’d moved away from, leaving her, the previous year. You’re so busy this week that it’s great, there’s absolutely no opening for nostalgia to enter in, you’ll suffer from your trip back not at all … Unknown to Emma I had then stayed up very late, crouching at one edge of a mountainously tall air mattress that another friend, Zoey, had blown up for me; on the phone, I was trying to keep my voice down as Zoey and her boyfriend lay asleep, presumably, in the next room. I was negotiating with Malte, the German boyfriend I think I told you about, during the Malina reading group. During the pandemic, it was free to rebook. Rebooking could be done at the click of a button. Nothing could be easier. But if I was going to do that, a possibility that had originated as Malte’s idea, and move the classes I was teaching online, I wanted obviously to stay in Berlin, a city I had never visited, for more than a couple of days. He was getting cold feet. Just as I’d secured his agreement—I’d fly out of Berlin a week from then, we’d figure out what to do in between, he’d come to Paris, I’d go there, if we hated each other I’d go to a hotel—my phone, which I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed is shitty and broken, died. I had been laughing, it was funny, he’d been funny, made proof of good humor in capitulating after a long resistance. Or it was nerves, my nerves. I don’t know how I sounded. I got the phone working just to get the texts, in tenor somewhat frantic, walking his position back. He would meet me, we’d spend two days in Paris maximum. It was clear he’d inferred I’d hung up victoriously to change my booking before he could change his mind again. He thought me capable. I was interested to feel the spreading tingle of my mortification; it was 1 a.m. I may have felt resentful, also, that that card, of my extremity, had been played for me. There are times when it can really work.
I had been sensitized previously to ways in which my, let’s say, positionality contributed in France, and possibly all over Europe, to the impression that I made. I think it was in pitching you this project, David, that I evoked universal human themes, displacement, leaving home, that would be dealt with in (even better) a comic register, because the case of these themes’ application, their instantiation, would be that of an American woman in Paris. In reading Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal I had my brainstorm about the radical potential of this category of identity (as if every identity category must have one). In this novel about a woman who wakes to the knowledge she has written all the works of Baudelaire, which brings to mind for her a youth spent as a girl in Paris, promiscuity is an expansive, dandyish style with benefits beyond the release from bourgeois domesticity, though it helps with that. Robertson is Canadian, I should say. But experimentation of this nature is also central to Carole Maso’s The American Woman in the Chinese Hat (as that title perhaps suggests, by the objectifying definite article) though the setting is the South of France, not Paris. Men can make for interesting writers, too, and Harry Mathews’s My Life in CIA, which late in my Paris life was recommended to me pointedly, tells the story of a caper of this friend of Perec’s in which Mathews decides to address by siding with some rumors flying about him, an American who has been hanging around Paris for so long that it’s suspicious. This is a canon of outstanding negativity, of seediness even. It restores to the American abroad, to certain Americans, some of the complexity, some of the negative power of which their situation has been stripped in the popular imagination—which is not to mention the imagination of Nathalie Quintane. Her novel Cavale opens on the narrator’s fantasy of serving a perfectly cooked fish as a fine British lady, a fantasy abandoned as early as the second page (at the top of the page) in favor of that of being american girl (“proud and sporting, between thighs in the shape of an S”). That pair of English words is used, the lowercase Quintane’s.
It would have been unsporting, I may have felt, let’s say I felt, to put to bed that life without the full achievement of a plumbing of its depths, and in my own way, two years ago … Moving away from Paris is only in some cases a failure of imagination. In French, a Master’s thesis is an example of a mémoire de fin d’études—mémoire like “memory,” that cognate (except that the other gender is used for the thesis), which has always made me think of the game Concentration, a recitation or regurgitation “of the end of studies.” What I ended up with was something more like a mémoire de fin de vie en France, a phrase that in its clumsiness bears the imprint of my foreignness, my foreigner’s humor, and yet here I am, at my desk in the United States, working on my project just a little longer. But its black-hole aspect wasn’t the only way in which this project came to resemble an extension of projects like those of Robertson, Maso, Mathews in its exploration of some negative potential; this wasn’t even up to me, the exploration. It was chosen barely. There was that aggressive number of footnotes that I wrote, obviously.
But even this was only natural, the amplification of an oppositionality already latent in the gesture of translation—what the scholar of literature, writer, and of course translator Tiphaine Samoyault calls translation’s “violence”; her book Traduction et violence, which came out as I was drafting, was valuable to me (and notice, David, the shared root with “traduce,” visible in the French version of the word). It reassesses, argues for the reassessment of, and even advocates for this violence, a reality that writing must be de-written before rewriting it can be achieved. This reality is well documented. Artaud, quoted I forget where, puts apt words to the feeling of fiery, transgressive glee (something Artaud was good at feeling; I don’t know if you’ve ever seen, David, video of him acting), “a malicious flame” that “leapt up on” him, on translating out of English, claiming the words as his own (and that impersonation, translation, is, like all the others, mine). But Samoyault situates this aggression, as well as the need for its recall, in a highly contemporary and actually quite dire context. At stake in the rise of machine translation is the technologically mediated disappearance of disfavored languages. Samoyault is clear on what she’s up against—steamrolling, ethnocentric—in wresting an imaginary out of the hands of state and European governmental actors all too happy to hold up, to brandish translation, to praise it, as a strategy of pacification, of reducing difference to something decorative, something in need of fixing (and, in the day of Google Translate, something fixed easily), when difference is right to be political. It “breaks the reproduction of roles” (she quotes Barthes) in opening relationships to renegotiation, renewal. Samoyault is anti-defanging.
What I am getting at, or what I would like now to claim to be getting at, is that out of the findings of Project Quintane, one of the most important, not the most interesting but the most, perhaps, destructive, the discovery that risks invalidating every other, a real oppressor of a discovery that has to be risen up against, is that the arrangement of the life of this great author—a working-class author who, since passing the state’s exam, works as a schoolteacher less than full time, and can count on that state’s pension, on healthcare—just isn’t possible in the US. Not in our century, not now.
I don’t know if I’d come out and say it like that if Quintane weren’t the first to, immediately, attribute her capacity for literary industry to this situation. She was quick to do so. This attribution, characteristically humble, as if the outpouring of her production were a matter of situational luck, would be made as soon as she had me in her car; the nine-hour workweek, or whatever, was her secret, she would say, warning a young seeker against the lure of getting rich. A golden light was settling on the foothills of the Alps, brown mountains all around. This shift in Quintane’s life, the settling down to work that she managed, may have coincided with the lightening of her duties as a functionary but, I knew from my study, it began with her arrival in Digne-les-Bains, a city of sixteen thousand in southeastern France where Quintane moved when she was just about my age.
The pivotal age of early maturity, it was well adapted, I apparently thought, to a sounding of the “creepy side of translation,” as Zoey had said the night before, getting it right away.
Off I went.
I shouldn’t have been dozing because I had to think, prepare. And I had been cramming. For days I had been cramming; I had stayed up, my first night in Paris, reading La Cavalière, the most recent of some three books by Nathalie Quintane to have been published since I’d left the country a little over a year before. From time to time I’d pause in my reading to make a note in the back of that book of a line, a phrase, something that occurred to me as worthy of inclusion in the email correspondence that I’d entered into with Quintane, fishing for this invitation. Chère Nathalie, c’est depuis Paris cette fois que je vous écris … My mind kept drifting there.
La Cavalière—ostensibly about an incident in the 1970s in which a Digne schoolteacher, Nelly Cavallero, was fired for indecency (long story; she would leave her house unlocked), really a pretext for Quintane’s oral history tracing back a lineage of revolutionary thinking—was, I couldn’t help noticing, very sweet in tone. Too sweet, maybe. The narrator had some aversion to writing the story, and while this aversion was referred to often, I didn’t get it viscerally. Cavallero’s firing wasn’t investigated in its details, and the book seemed in other ways to lack the vigor I associate with independence of investigation. Subjects step in to qualify accounts they’ve given, at times correcting this investigator’s understanding: “It’s a shame … two or three years out I still remembered everything … now it’s distant.” There are some lovely descriptions of landscapes. Even the back-cover notice (which, for Quintane’s publisher P. O. L, authors are in charge of composing) was lengthy, sincere; these notices are a specialty of Quintane’s, who more typically uses them to carry off a salty, even hostile salvo, normally an acid joke, in four or fewer sentences. My reading deepened until, at last, I wrote in a margin my note, a kind of outburst, registering my sense of betrayal in response to the assertion, from this major poet of an art engaged with life, of a uniquely combative political art as Quintane’s has been characterized, that, “Writer or teacher, it was so I could be left alone.” Left the hell alone might be apter, as the idiom is somewhat impolite (foutre la paix). “She feels less free on the page in this one,” I said helplessly to the bookseller at the MK2 on the Bassin de La Villette, and I stumbled out to see a line of streetlamps that to me always resembles, reflected in that wide segment of the blue-green canal, a string of pearls.
Here I should confess I’ve been trying for ten years to fit that simile into some piece or other of my writing about Paris, and it has never worked. The streetlamps always seemed, as pearls, especially resistant to being pinned down on the page, and yet they seemed to want that, also. There is a jealousy that art has for life, something I’d always read into Quintane’s writing, which is generous in positing many options for the relationship between life and art, for a working relationship between these. For a page or so of La Cavalière, they are described as matching up exactly. It’s 1976, and Nelly has linked up with a traveling band of theater artists on the road from Avignon to Strasbourg. They’re radicals, every rule up for debate, down to the interdiction on smoking cigarettes for members of the audience. Occasionally a play would call for an actor to light up, and there seemed no good reason to apply the rule unfairly. “The troupe is a community. The theater is communal life. No difference,” Quintane writes in conclusion, “between art and life.” It was time, anyway, similarly, relatedly, for me to leave my books behind, or rather to make the selection of which ones to bring in a dedicated tote bag, and for my own project to get up onto its feet—for some fourth wall to be broken.
I would have described the voyage to you, David, as I did to other Americans. From Paris, I had to take the high-speed train to Aix-en-Provence, a journey south of nearly three hours, and catch a bus headed back up north to stay on it for nearly as long. Through light-blue curtains of a hospital-type synthetic I saw that landscape, Mediterranean with low, sparse trees, give way. Off to the right we’d passed the factory for L’Occitane en Provence. There was a green field full of tiny white flowers of which only those heads, as if floating, could be seen. Spray-painted onto the embankment of a river the road followed was the phrase MACRON TRAITRE as those mountains, as the Alps, came into view. As the bus made its stops I gave myself over to taking in the sounds of the cash register, to observing the smug and mild interest that I felt, something like pity, that onboard you feel for the people who come up to ask the driver questions about where the bus is headed, a problem you have solved. I noted down the pronunciations they made of the name that had become important to me: Dee-ña. DEEN. Quintane’s oeuvre is full of allusions to this place. And so it was a special feeling of dislocation to see that word printed not on a page but, for the first time, on a sign, and then on many signs, having seen it flash above the windshield of that bus to indicate a terminus.
I’d bought the notepad from another Nathalie, a kind of false Nathalie or a Nathalie differently rendered. At the chain stationer’s in the Aix-en-Provence station I’d overheard another worker, a man, call out to the cashier in passing as I was transacting with her and neglecting, obviously, to note down what he said, How’s it going, Nathalie, or, Catch you later, Nathalie, or, Keep up the good work … Evidently I’d been nervous, in front of the wrong Nathalie. I’d asked a lot of questions, for example about the phone charger I was buying to be sure it was the right one, and had stopped back in to buy, just in case, a second notepad identical to the first (the only kind they had). Of course I was nervous. If I look back at my notes from the days before the trip, they are more consistent, however, with a kind of mesmerized appreciation, wonder: 5:15 PM—this person whose books I’ve spent 50€ on this weekend has just warned me via email that she has 2 cats + hopes I’m not allergic.
And there she was, the poet. With a sweeter appearance than I had imagined, perhaps. I thought of the French adjective doux, which is more like “gentle,” in between “sweet” and “gentle.” Slimmer, her hair redder. I guessed she’d dyed it. I was wearing my best sweater, which I’d known was a mistake, too fussy and loud, over-the-top, and, in the full blush of this knowledge, I had pulled it on, unwilling to wear anything other than my best for the occasion, that of meeting Nathalie Quintane. I had also foregone makeup in some hope of appearing serious. But Quintane was wearing makeup. Spread over her face was a powder that would give it, in the southerly light of that city where she’d settled, a passing shimmer.
The line in question, from 2010’s Tomates, a meandering, anecdote-rich treatise—and I’m afraid I’ll have to reproduce the whole sentence, a very long one, as well as the sentence that comes before it; sorry David—is: “Being forty-five, or fifty-five or sixty-five isn’t any reason for us not to want, any longer, intense lives, or to lose the desire to write intense texts. Or to read them; I bought, especially in 2008-2009, a considerable number of historical political books, attempting perhaps to make up for my numerical minority in gorging it on these books, literature’s books having failed to suffice, the fleeting fad for Princesse de Clèves having changed nothing of the spectral, dwindling, disappearing nature of all novels and of literary efficaciousness in general, minoritarian on all fronts, minoritarian because I read books, minoritarian because they’re literature, minoritarian because, reading books and writing them, I remain the child of salarymen, born themselves of workers, minoritarian because, granting that I’ve reached the height of 1.8 meters, I am a woman, and because I have big feet, minoritarian because I live in the countryside, and because the countryside is a strange thing, as Benjamin of Tarnac suggested so strongly in describing cops of the forensics team bounding joyfully over the fields and visiting the chicken coop and saying the countryside wasn’t so bad as all that and deciding maybe, on their return, to plant tomatoes.”
There are a half-dozen things to unpack here before I can move on, but by the time they’re out there you’ll have a solid understanding, David, of some of Quintane’s major themes, saving you the trouble maybe of poking through the sections I present in French with your Duolingo and your dictionary. Even in the original (a cognate that can’t, in French, be used in that way as a noun but is only an adjective, a reminder so ingrained in me by now as to issue automatically) the passage is dense enough to warrant a footnote of its own, and what Quintane chooses, out of all that, to gloss is the reference to La Princesse de Clèves, a seventeenth-century novel that had become by 2010 oddly popular in France. The odd way in which it became popular—getting into Quintane’s notion of literary efficaciousness—was Sarkozy’s singling it out, twice, to name it, with vitriol that would have to be considered excessive, as a horror of irrelevance to civil servants whose exams contained the reference. Subsequently it was celebrated by many. Striking students put on readings.
Utility such as they found in Clèves is not, for Quintane, extra-literary, as I hazard in the more theoretical French part of all this. I give examples such as that of a page of verse in Chaussure that, while unlabeled, resembles a drinking song for workers clearly. You could tear it out, I thought, in which it reminded me of kits for making paper dolls. Un œil en moins, about participating in activism at the time of Nuit Debout, is a fat, diaristic book demanding, like the strike, a period of abstention from paid labor. It bears other formal resemblances to activism, but this thickness, unusual for Quintane, is also the object of her pun on the back cover; she calls it a pavé, colloquial for “tome” as well as, literally, “paving stone” like those that have been torn up and used as barricades in urban uprisings such as those of the Commune and May 1968. Or thrown—“Less One Eye” is a fair translation of that title; a cat of Quintane’s, in the course of the year being chronicled, loses an eye to infection. If you are on her level it’s not merely the personal that’s political but the personal life of your cat; something interesting about my thesis de fin de vie en France, or a glaring omission, is that, despite the plethora of examples given for a use-value of literature, its own highly political purpose, “to get me a visa” as I used to say, is not discussed.
My reading of these aspects of Quintane’s works hinges on a line from Un œil en moins, a provocation, about a portion of the Invisible Committee’s readers making “practical use” rather than “literary use” of the books. Speaking of things being thrown, of the projectiles of insurrectionists, Tomates is the book of Quintane’s with that committee at its center, which brings me back to my project of glossing, to “Benjamin de Tarnac.” Tarnac, a village of about three hundred in the middle of that country, on the wonderfully named Plateau de Millevaches, names that location but also—I’ll treat you like the dictionary the translator makes recourse to—a scandal. In the Affaire Tarnac, young people living on a commune there—the “Tarnac Nine”—were arrested on charges of terrorism, accused of sabotaging the railway by placing a hook of reinforcing steel on its lines. Julien Coupat, their supposed leader, was a literary man, having famously attended the EHESS (where my own thesis, the present work, was undertaken) and founded the journal Tiqqun. He was also suspected of having participated in this Invisible Committee, an anonymous collective whose L’insurrection qui vient (2007, published by Semiotexte in 2009 as The Coming Insurrection) was entered in as evidence wholesale. Literature itself was on trial, as Quintane writes in Oeil. In Tomates, which is centered on this episode, she manages an analysis of the aesthetic, the affective implications of all this, not only the terror of realpolitik, but another, subtler uncanny—the freshly bared and glinting contiguity of life and literary art. Coupat, interviewed for Le Monde from prison in May 2009, was discovered reading Foucault (Surveillance and Punishment—bien sûr). In Tomates, Quintane has herself, her speaker, claiming to be the Invisible Committee—echoing petitions of that time with many signatures.
Tomates is paradoxical, however, in this ostensible focus on events. It is more properly a book of continuity, taking continuity as its subject. Looking around, for example at a literature festival on the island of Majorca, the narrator finds she is observing, in a police line for example, a tightening of the apparatus of the security state. Out of her “flash” of fascism a bigger picture is, in the book’s course, developed. It turns out to be, in the course of her reframing, of the reframing she performs, a denial of the feasibility of revolution in Quintane’s day so widespread, so potent it amounts to mass hysteria. The Coming Insurrection followed on from, was inspired by, the 2005 riots in French suburbs, uprisings Quintane considers the chattering classes have been hasty in discounting. I remember where we were standing as she told me Tomates was about the problem of transmission of knowledge; I raced to make a note of this. Quintane’s own generation and Marine Le Pen’s has been, as she puts forth in Tomates and “Stand up,” the missing link, since 1968. But this is no excuse for inaction, poor timing isn’t; “intense” seems to be a lowkey reference (tumulte, in “Stand up,” being more obvious) to Georges Bataille’s morbidly serious claim of having lived through a surpassingly tumultuous epoch. She pokes fun at him and, for the moment being, was showing me the school where she taught. I think that we had had to cross a bridge. The light was getting low and orange. In a traffic circle the monument was decorated for Armistice Day, decked out in patriotic bunting. Because I can remember vaguely in this way as well as tracking where I was in town as each note was taken down, this notepad has a psycho-geographic function. Sprinkled in among my notes, as if to avoid drawing notice, are the ad hominem observations I couldn’t resist surreptitiously making—“long delicate fingers,” “extremely slow walk”—tucked between the lines of pages peppered all across with the abbreviation of my own devising, “Q.”
We had come, in that place, to a standstill. I had tripped her up, eager as I was to demonstrate that I had done the reading. In the changing light I thought, below the delicately layered makeup that had caught it, she was, actually, blushing. Out of consternation; we’d stopped moving. Quintane, leading us, had stopped short on that sidewalk in accommodating, suddenly, heated discussion I’d begun about some connection between Tomates and La Cavalière, a tonal similarity. Both deal with history, each a work of history or almost; they use footnotes. Tomates self-identifies as a “mute book”—prosy, cultivated, not disruptive in its language. “So I write a mute book; I take that risk. I can’t write my revolt in any other prose if I wish to be heard.” Elegiac, even. I may have said that; it’s a perfect cognate, élégiaque, but different enough from the French éloge that I can never get it. Tomates had been a turning point in her reception by the public. La Cavalière was darker, I offered, more troubling, because the problem of transmission both books consider becomes, in that book, shaky epistemologically; it might not be possible. The soixante-huitards being interviewed are dying off; there’s a lot they have forgotten. Saying this, I was, however, thinking something different, that it was a strangely satisfying feeling, new and negative, to see a favorite author frozen to the spot because of something I was doing (her reader, who had spent so many hours transfixed). That was a cheap thrill, and, like approval can be, I may have found it cheapening. In my French conclusion, I make much of an idea about a reste, a remainder of the translator’s operation, that for Derrida is the untranslatable; here was another. Does it matter if the author agrees with your reading? What difference can that make?
All over town, the revenge of the real continued. Digne was, even now (from the briefest of glances at my camera roll), blue skies. Fluffy clouds. By each chestnut tree were piled golden leaves, still dry and fresh. I had proposed to Quintane from the comfort of my home, United States, this voyage sur les traces de MLP. But the Greek restaurant was, it ensued, way over there. The angle of ten degrees was nowhere to be seen. The thesis that I’d printed off was flopping in my hands as I made reference to the text. Distinctly I remember the exercise of restraint, refraining, or so I thought, from taking notes so frequently I’d seem insane. Quintane caught on anyway and, in a hostly way, pointed out a bench, asking if I might want, before we moved on, to note “two-three” things. And before long we were seated, my notepad between us. I’d gotten coffee while Quintane ordered warm milk, like a cat. I reached for my copy of Les années 10, which wasn’t there. It was in, of course, her car. Did I want her to get it? This offer of Nathalie Quintane’s was more grounds for panicking, directions have always been my worst subject, and it was adrenaline, I think, that let me find my way back to her car where it was parked—where Nathalie Quintane had parked it. There it was. Les années 10, the object, is a brightly colored book. Orange, it is deeply dyed. Mine is well loved, and use has turned the edges of the spine white, rubbing off the color.
You were the one who said, at Amherst Coffee, said I’d have to capture in my writing what I told you there about the big car of Nathalie Quintane being one of the dirtiest I’d ever been in. No way, I said in answer. Which is how I end up in such positions of regret for all the questions that I never manage asking. Simple questions, like: Why is your car so big? Is it for hauling stuff, what stuff? Why is it so dirty, what is your relationship to cleaning out your car? What is the proper relationship of the writer to cleaning out a car?
And relatedly: is anything sacred? There was, back at that café, an unease, a flickering disappointment I felt only intermittently but accessed, felt at the alacrity with which other questions, about which parts of “Stand up” were true—questions I’d puzzled over, left to conjecture; puzzling that had seemed to open doors on hidden meanings—were cleared up by the author. The Barrière family, Jewish, had existed, for example; she wouldn’t have made that up. Regarding La Cavalière also, she was open in discussing deontology, and even as certain lines of my questioning began to seem small, mere, wasted, huge and messy ones were being opened up. There were questions that Nathalie Quintane found herself wanting to ask of those who came places to do fieldwork—questions like what right they had. To ask their questions, air publicly the details of people’s lives. Anyway, because she lived among them, all their lives made in the one place, Digne, she would not have offended her interviewees. This was a question that seemed to her “moral.”
Difficult territory, for me in that setting anyway, which makes me remember the last thing I meant to gloss from that Tomates quotation—“minoritarian” (which I’ve translated aslant; “minority” is, except for the connotation in American English about race, here inappropriate, a cognate). For a long time a highlight of Quintane’s author bio on the P. O. L website has been the showstopping sentence Je suis peu nombreuse, mais je suis décidée. Placing the author in a society of one as part of a “biography [that] reduces itself to a few malicious lines,” as the critic Anne Malaprade has termed another of that author’s of comparable length, this is as if designed to scare off those who would search the life for clues to the art, as cops search—you’ll remember that Tomates, her breakthrough, is about the juridical usage of literature and, perhaps, identity to persecute supposed authors—and even so, with my notepad, I’d shown up.
She had a schoolteacher’s sense for which directions to give, the necessary ones. So this had been, evidently, because I kept forgetting, in my negligence disregarding the rule she had set to close the door to the room where I was sleeping, and would find myself in consequence discreetly giving chase to the cats of Nathalie Quintane (how well she knew them), chasing cats to capture and remove them, activity the poet politely ignored. The room was taken up by a grand piano at the center. I chased those cats around the grand piano. There were plants, one a spindly plant, atop that grand piano. The handle of the door was offset slightly, I don’t know how to name what made it wrong. It had been set askew somehow. Repeatedly I had trouble getting it open, an instant of trouble. But it was figurative, my term when, failing to sleep, I wrote in my notes about feeling “trapped.” Quintane had given me plenty to worry about, but what I really feared by now was that the whole enterprise of a text I’d promised, David, you, would be weighted down, go flat. With me constrained, doomed from then to write another mute text, not only elegiac but, worse, loyal to the record. The burden of the real, history’s burden, would prove a lethal weight. You and I had a plan, laid in Massachusetts, for me to write something funny; it would be totally wrecked. And maybe there had been always but unacknowledged a sinking melancholy to the project, drowning it in this tsunami of nostalgia, attempt, pathetic, to make something of my life in France, get something useful out … Les bons profs savent jouer de ça : Quintane’s line was running through my head as I tried sleeping; it’s from Ultra-Proust. And connecting to Nathalie Quintane’s WiFi network, I saw, then, a message from Malte, afraid that he had COVID.
So what did I hope to get out of life that I hadn’t gotten out of art? This time, I mean. In the French you may still be struggling, David, to read, some demonstration is made of my understanding of the theory of Gérard Genette, whose contributions include a taxonomy of possible relationships between texts (e.g., intertextuality, paratextuality, architextuality, metatextuality, hypotextuality, hypertextuality); analogously I offer, as part of my conclusion, a breakdown of the operations on display in my own footnotes. Meanwhile in that French introduction, I say something about the stakes of an assertion of the scholar Alice Kaplan’s being unclear; the stakes of learning French as a foreign language having given her, as a young person, “a place to hide,” remain, in the telling of her memoir, unclear. As I suggest. But if I were to follow Kaplan, there are any number of claims like that that it would be possible to advance about this project and its relationship to yours truly, David, I mean me. About my writing in French being, for example, a translation of the self. About my journey to Digne being a translation of art into life. These raise, again, questions without answers; that French section begins on a helpful quote from George Steiner about there being, of translation, no theory properly speaking, only narratives of praxis. So this time—you know, starting off—I really did try, out of the gate, to help you out, David, by translating into English all I’d written in the French, but what I came to find was lacking, for me personally, was that sense of transgression—of fun—that enlivens translation, making something exciting out of an eye-crossing task. Where you get to put your mouth around the words of someone else, speak them as yours.
I have exaggerated, maybe. It was no disaster I was dozing, for I had at hand, I could refer to, a hard-copy version of myself that I’d prepared in Aix, waiting for the bus. The questions I’d assembled completely covered, in their groupings—Understanding/verification traduction fideleté, Interpretations de ce texte, Thèmes de l’œuvre quintanien, Questions plus larges—four sheets of paper (the questions with their brackets, headers, arrows, page references). Torn from their pad, they had come away cleanly. I warned Quintane that my questions for her would spread over four progressive levels, and I’d followed her home by the time we’d reached the last out of the lists, Questions plus larges, with its prying, personal, salacious flavor. Quintane’s friend, a filmmaker, had offered us the use of some equipment. And this presented an improvement over the digital recorder I had brought. It sat with us still and fluffy like an extra cat.
Congruous with her slow walk was—as I may well find myself considering anew, replaying that recording—the schoolteacher’s way she had of talking. As her great height had educated her gait, so too in an analogous operation had her conversation taken on its character in years spent leading classes. Nothing much was dropped, or so it seemed to me. Our discussion unfolded in a synthesizing manner. It was easy, around Nathalie Quintane, to think. Impressionability is a part of life, and yet it wasn’t until my late twenties, or thereabouts, that I realized I was going to imitate others no matter what and so, rather than attempting to stem off that impulse, would do best by it in making a careful selection. But even when I did, some of these people I ultimately chose to glom on to turned out to be modeling examples of, primarily, selflessness, tolerance—as if referring the problem, sending it someplace beyond (plus loin). And there I was, in any case, availing myself of Quintane. Coaxing out of her some maxims I might use to broaden the horizon of my thought, make myself a little larger. Autobiography leaks into Quintane’s work in a way that makes of her life a resource, epitomized maybe by the use she makes, throughout her oeuvre, of Digne itself. A typically, even prototypically mid-sized French city, she finds it representative, investigates it accordingly. For a book of hers about another city in the South of France she’d taken photos out her window as she told me, giving this as an example of the use she makes of Digne—we were walking, then, its Boulevard Gassendi—using it, in that case, for her book Saint-Tropez … She trailed off. But I knew, because I knew by heart her every title, that she was just being polite, and, perversely, I supplied it, the full title, self-identifying: Saint-Tropez – Une Américaine, “an American woman.” (When on our arrival at her house a cat appeared, I blurted out “Chemoule,” a name known to me from Un œil en moins.)
There’s imitation, study, and then there’s “diabolical possession,” you know on the other hand, a phrase offered up by Quintane in responding to one of my lower-level questions about “Stand up.” As I was embarking on my project in its original, academic framework, I had found it challenging to get the attention of the critic who was serving as the director of this Master’s thesis, which was no surprise, she had in point of fact warned me, but a side effect was that what she, the eminent critic, said by way of advice took on, for its rarity, a glittering preciousness. She had said something, I could have sworn she’d said something, about attending to the moments of this text where an ambiguity, or overlap, was present between the voices of the narrator and MLP, or the narrator’s fantasy of MLP, and while I hadn’t so much noticed those moments at the outset, I began to see them everywhere. Glossing them, performing a detangling, ascribing words to one or the other of these characters or to both, became a motif of my French footnotes, David. And then, during the defense, the critic said with finality that the division between the voices was, on second thought, assez nette. I was left to wonder if all that activity, all that glossing, had been undertaken in my, as they say, right mind, or if I had been, well … But then with me Quintane, in characterizing her relationship to MLP in writing “Stand up” as one of possession, of her being possessed, not only allowed this reading but went so far as to make reference to the film The Exorcist. (French people tend to think me knowledgeable about the films of Hollywood.) And because there would never be any way of furnishing an answer to the question of if my thesis director had possessed me diabolically, this confirmation of Quintane’s was especially satisfying. Je me laisse posséder, she had said—although, on reflection, because after all her agreement didn’t matter, I had and have no way of knowing if Quintane was just agreeing with my reading in the way a teacher does, to be supportive of my inquiry. Et quand je dis je c’est le texte.
I can say more, with your patience, about what I mean by “life” and what I mean by “art”—a little vague, I know—which will probably bring me back to the woman thing, too, if I’m not careful. Out of my Questions plus larges, the one that I kept harping on has to do with another line of resonance from Ultra-Proust. It deals with a conversion to literature that Marcel Proust is calculated to have undertaken. Such conversion à la littérature is defined, in Ultra-Proust, in terms of lifestyle. The speaker here is thinking on their feet, ellipses theirs: l’entrée dans une autre forme de vie, comme on dit aujourd’hui, c’est-à-dire une conversion… On ne peut écrire ce qu’il a écrit dans le temps qui lui était imparti, qu’il savait lui être imparti, sans conversion … une conversion à la littérature … Impossible to have written what he did, in the time that he knew left to him, without conversion, conversion, “the entry into another form of life.” So, Nathalie Quintane, des astuces, any tips? Comment faire ? In a preliminary way however I had suggested that there were at least two very fair objections to the line of questioning I’d be pursuing, first of course that Tomates, surveillance-state-y one, and second that it’d be, just, inappropriate, the personal, and yet again I didn’t think so but sometimes thought it central, even, to an understanding of the politics of literature, to approach the question of how to write by a question of how to organize one’s life. Which is maybe why a paper on the politics of literature will devolve into, find its level with, bottom out on, lifestyle journalism, as I am discovering—did you know that Nathalie Quintane enjoys a yogurt after meals? Quintane’s response to this, anyway, was gratifying, immediate; she said knowingly that Christophe Tarkos was the poet of that—even though I personally had actually considered Nathalie Quintane to be the poet of that, a strong candidate. In La Cavalière, for example, she posits three options—the remaking of institutions, leaving cities to live on communes, doing both—saying she tends, herself, to favor Number One in the morning, Two by evening, Three at noon.
Yogurt, yogurt, yogurt—and later, it occurred to me inescapably without my knowing what it meant, occurred to me as important without my knowing why, that two of the poets we’d most spoken about—Tarkos, and Jack Spicer—were men who died at forty. All around us, I mean all around you and me in Amherst, are female poets making reproaches of male poets for expecting to be cleaned up after, but I don’t, sometimes, think that that’s what’s happening. The man our professor called me just last week a “good student” and an “overachiever,” but the lesson of Quintane, who is open about what she considers her quality of obedience as well as the overarching one of being a good student, is that these crosses can be borne with style; it is its own reward to live. Meanwhile a lady professor said, and I wrote this down because it seemed so revelatory, “It’s good for me, so it must be good for my writing,” about some living arrangement of hers. Quintane dates the burgeoning of her practice to her implantation in Digne, where—after a visit, I can confirm—she considers herself to lead a vie agréable. That’s the secret. For my part I recorded Quintane’s gestures. Removing a cat from her lap, welcoming it back, all the while saying something apposite.
That line I’ve evoked has been, for me, so memorable for the reason of its setting in a conversation, I would say. It takes its special dynamism—more than tonal ambiguity, a tonal polyvalence—from this setting. (Even the title, Ultra-Proust, is sonically apt for a book about French literature and its kitsch, for the comic duplication of that vowel that is, for a foreign speaker like myself, really killer.) Conversion à la littérature—and the perfection of those cognates may have also helped the phrase stand out to this Anglophone with vividness—is not the only irresistible phrase of Quintane’s to occur in dialogue. Indeed, the depiction of disembodied speakers getting into a pitched and, from the outside, humorous argument about some aspect of the politics or philosophy of literature is something of a specialty of hers. One of the marvels of Tomates is the speaker’s doing that with Auguste Blanqui, who had a brother, Adolphe. Actually, Adolphe and Auguste, who disagreed on whether violence was an appropriate means to revolution, are the ones fighting, but they seem to be fighting about Quintane’s approach to the book that contains them. “What cowardice”! All this talk, ranging “from Franco to” her festivals, why not “roll up a couple of tracts” and stuff them under “your bike seat” … and your “Eternité par les astres, that” would be, perhaps, a “ ‘practical guide’ ”? … Ooh there it is! “But the real truth is that you don’t know how to read!” … You “want me to think, Auguste,” that “you slipped the plan of attack for the Winter Palace into your description of the Milky Way?!” … “You think I’d have” stirred myself “from my low and humid cave” in jail, “at a distance of two fingers from death itself, just to write a poem” …
They are fighting about taking things literally as well as about political utility, that use value, or not, of literature. At issue in this is how to live a life, which Quintane introduces with a phrase she says would be paralyzing if offered, offering it, and I, taking the bait, take it up, incorporating it in that French section as an ingredient of my inquiry, this phrase about the difference between a “mediocre” existence, “floating, eyeballing it in navigating between possibilities” and a “determined” one. You can really fall on your face as well as getting paralyzed and eating crow in reading literally, and at Quintane’s I brought up with her, looking around the room, something I’d read of Jean-Marie Gleize’s about her, about her sticking up poems all across her walls, something that she didn’t, however, visibly, seem to … No, she said, she had never been one for … particularly … Well, I said finally, finishing somewhat weakly, perhaps, Quintane was quick to agree, that was only a way of speaking (He was writing) that Gleize had.
Conversion was, anyway, Gleize’s word, Quintane said, and when she said that I sensed she was throwing me off the scent of something, of some trail. A relationship that art can bear to life is one of righting it, of making right, not only redirecting but apologizing, and I’m about to find myself returning, again, to what I perceived as, fleeting and possibly my own projection, a moment of discomfort for Madame. I had too much insisted, returned us one too many times to this question, as I felt. Because my mémoire de fin de vie en France had been, on the other hand, a preparation for the beginning of some other life; indeed after finishing it, a little over a year before, I had made my entry into another form of life, to use the definition from Ultra-Proust, gone through a conversion. Which of her three options had I chosen, if any? Was that what I’d come to tell her? In a demonstration of the multiplication of tactics, I had left an urban center to install myself in Northampton, Massachusetts, a city of thirty thousand (on the scale of Digne’s sixteen) where, supporting myself as a part-time teacher, I would give my days and nights to writing. In my culture this is called an MFA program; in La Cavalière we learn there is no such thing as the nation, only a progressive conquest of the countryside. So there I was. It had been done. Was that what she had meant for me to do? No, but hadn’t she given me the language? The claim is still too great, but if it weren’t, if the shoe fit, putting yourself in the author’s: to see your text, composed by a past self, come in its way (mine) to life must be like seeing a ghost. So what did you mean by that, Nathalie Quintane, your phrase about conversion? Was that a call to action, did you mean it to be active? Did you put it there for me, did my response suffice? It’s only fair for me to put you on the spot. Parce que moi, j’ai changé de vie à base de cela.
This said, obviously you can change who you are, maybe even in the direction of buttressing your contribution to whatever revolution, without moving across an ocean, and so too can you change who you are just by changing an aspect of your writing, certainly by changing the language of your writing, as I will now argue. In the conclusion, in French, acknowledgment is made of the implication of a kind of character, the translator or annotator, by all that paratext. (In French, I call this character the “lady translator” or “lady annotator.”) But there’s also that of the writer in French as, at the remove of this subsequent pass, I can consider her. Writing in French, I found it possible to bury in there, not only a few targeted readings, you could call them pugnacious, of contemporary writers in the Anglosphere, but other stuff I might not have shared in English, like musings on my past (too self-indulgent), hopes for the future like that of moving to Massachusetts as part of my own conversion to literature (embarrassing). It’s not just a matter of hiding all that out of view or, more literally, beyond the comprehension of the Anglophone acquaintance of my life; writing in French I feel, more deeply, not me, estranged or rather played, hazarded. There is, for me, a pleasurable frisson of distance that effects as when I write narratively about myself, narrating, from some other vantage, my own experience—“deciding” it for one side or the other in that way that always is to lie a little. We change so much over time.
Language changes, too; accordingly a leitmotif of those French footnotes is my turning up headline items of that time in connection with a word or phrase from “Stand up,” making sensational claims about the amazing power poetry had to anticipate and even predict politics, political life, by being out at the vanguard of language, generating it. The Nice lemon festival, an object of fixation for “Stand up”’s MLP, had been, as I was translating, closed to Italians, who in other years would cross the border to attend, Italy being where early cases had been happening. The xenophobia of an MLP always will be contextual. If I were translating today I might have saved my footnote for “slug,” my translation of limace, not a hard call, but there is an incredible resonance of limace in the French language ever since, in February of 2022, Marine Le Pen, following the departure of Nicolas Bay, her spokesman who went over to Eric Zemmour, used the word to malign practitioners of what she called “slug strategy,” saboteurs (la stratégie de la limace): “Not only because the slug is slow but because it is sticky,” as she, no poet, said, quoted in Le Monde. Mine was not only a technical matter of being precise about usage in making a selection of words for the translation so, ideally, they’d carry all the meaning they had to (for “Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it,” as Spicer writes in After Lorca). It was also, something suspect, a justification made in retrospect, my case for the decision, at a moment in history, to translate one story in particular. As Benjamin says, a translation that is more than simple transcription can occur when, in the course of its reception, a work has attained the age of its glory. Were we there? Despite the musings I’ve identified on past and future, the French sections say little about this present, lacking information about the time of writing—much of it implied, to be fair; she is just sitting at the keyboard—though there are clues, chiefly allusions to the writer’s own, too modest library, to which recourse must, all the same, be made, all the while quoting Benjamin, Je déballe ma bibliothèque, and, perhaps, the domination of this library, so like a time capsule in its frozenness, by works of Anglophone literature that had peaked in popularity shortly before the pandemic set in as such, books she has on hand by Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner.
Who was she, this writer in French? All around were clues. Some were red herrings, however; I was subletting this studio from another woman. I was making my life temporarily in her space and among her personal effects, a situation not unlike translating’s of writing another’s text, and in fact that woman’s handwriting was all over the walls. An artist, she worked as a designer, and those works on paper, her calligraphy, had tendencies to fall and droop from where she’d hung them up with putty. I remedied this, finding extra putty by her desk, where I did my writing. And my reading; in Brice Matthieussent’s Vengeance du traducteur, Revenge of the Translator, that page space below the bar for footnotes where a translator can add their notes, can at last “play at elbows” as is said in French, is figured as a lair out of Dostoevsky—you know, underground. The sudden lockdown, with police stationed everywhere to check your papers, makes me think of, pair this with, the French word contrôle, used for border control but also for an exam, for being tested. What I had down there would have to be enough to get me through.
There was a Kallax that separated living room, such as it was, from kitchen and supported stacks of plates, where they collected dust; I have invented the cabinet, I thought. There was, besides her artwork, a pair of mugs for which my host’s instructions had been to break anything but them; whenever I held either I could feel it straining floor-ward, it was all I could do not to hurry it along in its flight by dashing it to shatter on the planks of plastic made to look like wood. There were, besides my books, jars of pickles and packets of sous vide beets acquired at the recommendation of a French friend I had asked, in a friendly way, for advice on how to last; they weren’t foods I usually ate, but she had said to get them, and it was, it turned out, comforting to have these foods, preserves, on hand. My host suffered from a chronic illness and had gone to take a cure, as it might be phrased in an old novel, in India—I don’t know that she said where. “I have cats here,” she’d written in English, sending a picture. News came of a boyfriend, followed by images of a sunset backing palm trees and of beaches. A joke was easy. I was going to stay forever; she was never coming back.
And your domicile determined, throughout France, the area your life ranged over; you were forbidden to venture farther than a kilometer from home. This was being enforced seriously. Early in that lockdown, which it would be fair to call a forever in miniature, I was stopped by a policeman who let me off without a ticket and gave me to appreciate exception had been made. Out jogging, I might have thought it proof enough I’d stayed in my own neighborhood that I was wearing yoga pants, as American women can. With their sheer panels. Not so. From then on I followed everything scrupulously, limiting my grocery runs to once a week and masking up, though I didn’t know personally any babies or old people in all of France.
One neighbor I met because of the shit of her cat. In this way I got to know the neighbor with the balcony that gave onto my big, railed window—we shared an interior corner of the building. She had become, as I observed, depressed, too depressed, too something, enough of whatever it was not to clean out the box that she put, instead, out on this balcony. Well before my opportunity presented itself, I planned out how I’d make my ask. That apartment complex was large, contemporary with compost, gardens, children, washing on the line; I heard pandemonium and sounds of something rolling that turned out, when I saw it, to be a life-sized plastic car, sized to a child. Sun entered in the morning on the wrong side; the side on which my host lived was not favored. Below us the families spoke to each other with what seemed greater ease than I would have on finding words, on exchanging them with my neighbor. Willingly or not my host had adopted a certain posture in maintaining, as a single woman of a certain age, a studio in that building. A few months away from turning thirty, that was how I saw it, and I watched those families out my window, leaning on the railing and clutching occasionally, as if for respectability’s sake, a mug, any mug, of coffee. I was carrying on a kind of dry, boring romance over WhatsApp with a college classmate who had become a businessman, but it was easy, under the circumstances, to keep in my mind an earlier version of this person, lanky, vulnerable, bad at handling disappointment. He had directed a play, on opening night some mistake was made, and I had a strong memory of him actually running off into the night, crying. My boyfriend had gone after. I had tried to follow and been stopped. “He won’t want you there,” that boyfriend had said gravely, leaving me alone to ponder why that was.
One day like this, as spring was coming, I got it in me to use a bleach solution and clean out a vent that I had noticed was disgusting even as it was, I had a look around, quite alone in piping in my air, the air that filled that room where I was living. Time passed quickly in this way, too quickly. My black socks were spotted, my green T-shirt altered by the stains. It occurred to me at, perhaps, the advent of the headache, likely after, I had done myself some harm. I called, not any French service, but Poison Control, I knew to call them. The American English of the woman who answered was companionable, so soothing as I made my way over to my window with its railing. She was sympathetic, I found her so and told her everything as, in the sun-drenched courtyard I was looking down on, children picked up with their games, giving out their shrieks. She cut me off, the lady on the phone. Her tone was sharp, even frightening. Ma’am, is there a child? I had had kids, I had forgotten about them, they were coming to take them away.
The lockdown coincided with the period of year when it gets warmer; an excitement always builds, and with the effective deprivation of other social senses that one came on strong. Everywhere around my neighborhood was a sense of motion and of heating up, of movement; music carried. To my host I sent photos of flowers she had planted on their ways up in the window box. I photographed the gardens of her neighbors, gardens of those larger units sprawling at my feet. The most important texts to me during this period were, it could be argued, a ream or almost of originals and photocopies taken along by necessity on my every outing, fitted with precision into a poppy-red shoulder bag I’d bought while on vacation with my mom, the right size for my last visa, lapsed, for other proofs of my presence there in France as legitimate, a slip for my appointment with the prefecture, a document attesting to my scholarization at a French institution, statements of domiciliation with utility bills, identity cards and passport … The most important texts to me during this period were, more seriously, the works of Nathalie Quintane.
The most important text was, at that time to me, a podcast; I sent it piping in my headphones to hear another author claiming he had found it helpful, for his book, to access some abyss. I heard this walking in my circles of one kilometer in radius, summer coming on, laughing at the joke I had no one to tell. Sirens I’d associate with a nearby hospital, Robert Debré, feeling my incapacity to judge if they were much more numerous than usual. Parties gathered, illicit I thought, in an apartment across the courtyard. I watched them gather until, at last, I was seen watching. I was seen by a man in silhouette. I was sleeping with the window open by that time, getting bitten, summer almost there. The man was standing on another neighbor’s balcony, silhouetted against a lit window where the loud party was happening, shouting back at me. Seeing me this ghostly figure, shouting, asked if they were being loud. I signaled, somehow, my assent. He was unperturbed, looking back: Vous n’avez qu’à nous rejoindre.
Nathalie Quintane’s is the last house in the last town before the Alps. This happens to be true. I struggled, in the morning, to get up—behind country-style shutters, the room was dark and very calm—and when I did, she wasn’t there. She had gone off to school. But there was Nathalie Quintane’s computer, an old desktop that, had I wanted to be certain of leaving an impact of some kind on literary history with my life, I might have spilled something on. There’s an admonition familiar from the creative-writing classroom, I’ve heard it someplace anyway, to “leave space for the reader”—leaving space for the reader being a mark of the text’s achievement, sophistication. Evidently Quintane had managed this, for there I was. With everything unpacked. With, now, something to add to the project, the present project that had already contained, in the French sections, a rendering of my imagined visit to Digne, as well as containing Quintane’s descriptions, via MLP, of Digne—leaving my visit, my real visit, as another reste, remainder. As Quintane herself remains, in my telling of this visit, elusive, maybe.
We had arrived there by night, after spending the early part of the evening in the town center, and it was a real shock for me to see the mountain out her kitchen window. Her friend the filmmaker was there to say gently, even apologetically that, for several months out of the year, they went without light, though I’d meant only to express my wonder at the mountain’s beauty. To orient me, he drew sketches in pencil, a pair of diagrams that showed the mountains, how the valleys worked, their meeting and the shadow. Finding these beautiful, too, admiring their spidery lines, I tucked them away in my notepad. I didn’t consult them on the walk that I went out for subsequently, but one of the great pleasures of being a foreigner is receiving the hospitality of having something explained to you carefully and in such detail as is rarely given between adults, for fear of insulting the other’s intelligence—a shame (I tend to think). With that filmmaker I ventured shyly, before setting out, that I was concerned the method I’d default to, that of épuisement (a Perec reference), was just overdoing, a thing of being a good student (ex-bon élève, as Quintane characterizes teachers in La Cavalière, bringing to mind for readers the portrait drawn so vividly in Un hamster à l’école, her previous book; hamster is a perfect cognate). He reassured me the approach was good. Because, he said, finally you don’t exhaust it, it exhausts you.
This visit would have filled me with, obviously, inspiration, by the time that I got back to Amherst, David. I had, among others, the bright idea of inviting my students, my freshmen, on our last day to take five minutes and commit to paper some question they’d been left with about writing. I gathered up these questions to answer them, sight unseen, and was confronted by:
Before this semester comes to a close, I want to know, what makes new authors so well-liked or enjoyable, because surely their style of writing has been done before. It can be argued that you will never have an original thought: someone has already had it and someone is bound to have it after you. That being said, how can new authors even make names for themselves if what they are presenting is not truly profound? This can go for fiction and nonfiction writers. I feel as though you can only go so far with writing.
You know how suspicious they’ve been made of even the concept of knowledge being produced in the humanities, and, doing my best, I tried to say it was like science, a group effort. Originality was arrived at by recombination; even the overwhelming mass of middling-profound authors contributed to a culture in which greatness might one day obtain. Placing pieces of writing in this way between two (or more) people, or between other pieces of writing, letting your pieces of writing hang in suspension, would seem to better your chances of originality immensely, more precisely by a magnitude of, at least, two (a figure I just arrived at thanks to laws of probability from math). If translation is one mechanism of this, the intersection of a work with politics, or with reality, is perhaps another. Translation relieves literature of its solitude, makes it ‘transitive’ as Samoyault argues, a theory that brings to mind for me Quintane’s distaste, expressed in a couple of places, for the verb “to write” when used in the intransitive (écrire). A third leg, like the object, or the form, can stabilize. Original, translation, and reality; writer, reader, and how it really was. Seriously, then, I can come clean and say my curiosity for writing between French and English originated in the jokes I loved to share, in France, with bilingual friends and foreigners—puns of a certain type, feigned misunderstandings about which I hoped to overturn my original hypothesis they could occur only out loud, between two people, one of them a friend of mine, in speaking.
A very old, dun-colored dog, apparently a stray, walking in the middle of the road eyed me with a little, not too much hope as I passed him by. To my right were gravestones, was the church of Digne’s medieval section. I was headed into town where, alone now, I was ready to encounter history, my fact check. “When Jeanne Duval lived in this neighbourhood,” Robertson writes, using her Canadian spellings, of another French city, “in the late 1830s, it was home to several popular theatres frequented by students, and it was already ancient.” This had been attractive to me too as a young woman, the notion of a place so old you couldn’t break it. Jeanne Duval’s in the Parisian imaginary, for her partnership with “Monsieur Baudelaire,” as she was “always,” Robertson says, “ironically,” to call him, Baudelaire who “exoticized her hair, and skin, and scent … the mixture and distance she was constrained to express … with a grossly inevitable racism,” is Robertson’s next subject. Dionne Brand has her blue clerk, who is in the business of literary-historical accounting, search, in her diligent way, search and search “Les Fleurs du mal for Baudelaire’s tropical soul,” something Benjamin, in the papers collected as his Arcades Project, makes report of, coming up with only, hélas, “a European aesthetic category.” Exoticized, objectified, the first American girl in Paris arguably was a Black woman. This, in addition to decentering whiteness, also decenters the United States; considering Duval’s provenance in probably Haiti, like Brand’s and Robertson’s in Trinidad and Tobago and Canada, may help relieve that “American” of its heavy focus on the US, something I found that I could do in writing in French as I can’t in writing in English by referring to myself as, not American, étatsunienne—an adjective that, in the spirit of historical accuracy, I think we need. I had only ever been a Unitedstatesish girl in Paris.
All the more so as this figure, if it is to be contextualized in history, can’t, exactly, be de-whitewashed, as it can’t be extricated from the matrix of another property relation—from the entrance, made by ladies of the upper classes, into marriage. It was “Alexis de Tocqueville” who “wrote of American women in the 19th century” that their freedom, “that lone, unique freedom” in letting them marry for love “damned them to unhappy marriages” as Lynne Tillman has her apparently eponymous character, an unmarried white woman, reflecting rather dryly in the novel American Genius, A Comedy. In this archly stenographic rendering of the nobleman’s pensée one feels those cases, in their individuality, receding and receding fast—hearing, even, the whoosh of air attending their displacement—for lack of point of attachment, of identification, in the woman’s own imagination. “I think she never bothered to bite any apple at all” writes Angela Carter, by contrast, of the Jeanne Duval of her story “Black Venus” who, rather than becoming pregnant by the sex she sells, is shown to impregnate her clients (“the most privileged of the colonial administration”) with death, with “the veritable, the authentic, the true Baudelairean syphilis.” “Oh, I do hope they’ll make a revolution!” in the words of Isabel Archer, characteristically a pretty outburst. “In a revolution—after it was well begun—I think I should be a high, proud loyalist,” she adds—but the effect of that is, so mysteriously it is almost automatic, unmistakably, irreverent. She is still a kind of problem. And, because there is no evidence in the surrounding text to explain the inclusion of that clause of hers, her note on timing, I feel like pointing out that she suggests it is the revolutionaries who should be given the advantage.
Upon reaching, again, the Place du Général de Gaulle I saw it was under construction, fenced off like a joke about the unreachability of truths such as how things were exactly. I prefer to flee the sound of the drills, but I made my way over to the storefront that had been the National Front headquarters, inaugurated on the day of Le Pen’s real visit. Since election season this had been converted into, happily enough, a pottery studio and showroom, as if nature had taken it back. I jotted down some notes, joining a school group as it made a visit of its own, hanging around with clipboards taking in the framed display. “The principle of the artisanal is that each piece is unique,” I heard the teacher say. Nearby, though again not quite where a careful reader of “Stand up” would have placed it, was the bookstore. High on a wall were promo photos, publishers’, of literary lions—in black and white, Pasolini’s stare, Francis Ponge in shirtsleeves, the over-processed hair of Annie Ernaux—from which I tore myself away to look around for titles mentioned by Quintane as important in her development as a writer, unsuccessfully. Amusing myself, then, with the thought that Quintane herself had bought up every copy. Just outside was Digne’s bronze statue of Pierre Gassendi, the astronomer from there; the region is good for star-gazing, a detail that sticks in my mind for, surely, the connotation in my native language about hunting down celebrities.
There are two chocolate shops on the Boulevard Gassendi, three if you count one that’s primarily a bakery, and yet, according to the author, the store that was the inspiration for the chocolate shop in “Stand up” is, although the author referred to it a “deco” store, not even that; it is a florist. My cover was a question if they had any lavender sachets. Amazingly, David, they did not. What I call, in my translation, Madison’s Locker (“Stand up”’s Maison de Madison) has an almost perfect analogue, however; I spent stunned minutes in among asynchronously ticking clocks, the glassware, candles, aprons printed with depictions of our fellow animals, companion animals, and, prominent, as if it might be reached by breaking glass in case of some emergency of fuss, a statue of the placid Buddha, presumably for sale too. Another faithful representation “Stand up” makes is of, as I discovered just nearby, the nationalistic café, in reality as in the literature crowned by a crest in (faded) gold on red—its awning. “You’re welcome, and still water,” the server said, obnoxiously since I had spoken French to him. Beautiful, haiku-like phrase, I could think, but only after taking a warming sip of coffee. I was, after all, far from home, far enough that David, at the post office, I had to borrow a stranger’s phone to look up your Zip code. And while MLP practically falls into each of the restaurants and shops, without even trying, my efforts on my own to find my way back to that Greek restaurant led only to dead ends, led me finally to byways of an infectious tranquility, where birds could be heard singing.
“Stand up” is not the only work of Quintane’s to feature, as a key setting, the Place du Général de Gaulle—with its long, rectangular bed for a fountain; with, right there, its kiosk, which turns out to be what in English we call a gazebo, the sound system of which Quintane herself had pointed out to me so proudly. They all gather, during the period of protests in Un œil en moins, on this plaza; there is a moving passage that became important to my understanding of, and to my argument about, what, in Quintane, is so politically activated. I’ll give it a try and translate, but for me it all relies on just two words of argot that, in their affective valence, a casualness so great it implies not only solidarity but affection, are typical not only of this slang at its strongest but also, incidentally, of the way Quintane uses it. There’s no English equivalent of such a flavor for tchoul, a homeless person or bum—less derogatory than cassos (for cas social)—or parlote, talk, chatter, gab:
He has a big smile on, is a little twisted, he speaks in a sped-up fashion with brusque stops. His right hand in an aerial suspension. We talk. He wants to know what we’re carrying on about and, in contrast to the others, the non-charity cases, doesn’t leave again immediately. He stays awhile. He’s come to chat, for the gift of gab, to warm himself by it. He warms up a little and then at last, saluting us, he goes.
I think I interviewed this very tchoul; it’s possible. Happy as he and his lady were to talk, when I found out they’d arrived in town just recently, I had to find some means to extricate myself. “I was in middle school,” a young woman, approached after they were, said. Flanked by an older couple, the man oddly edgy. On jetait des pierres dessus. C’était pas rigolo. Elle n’était pas très bien accueillie. J’ai pas vu mais j’ai entendu … mais j’étais petite. Not an eyewitness, her testimony is included for the atmosphere and left in French. Merci pour ce beau souvenir, a reporter told her, and, catching up with another Dignois by speed-walking at his side, learned he’d been in attendance. He could confirm projectiles had been thrown. “You’re doing an investigation? Who for? Marine Le Pen?” Reassured by an answer in the negative, he added that he certainly hoped not. “Marine Le Pen isn’t welcome here,” the man, petit, gray, neatly dressed, then said, allowing a smile he kept to himself, looking straight ahead in the direction he’d been headed. While memory might have faded, that punch line remained, I realized, cracking the secret of some relationship between literature and life. But by that time I had to catch a bus, I had to run.
La Cavalière hadn’t been an investigation, as Quintane herself could clarify to me. Not even a mise au jour, it had been a mise à jour—teasing out connections of those events in Digne to Nathalie Quintane’s present. And here I am, essaying my own contribution to the genre. As a matter of personal history, I had, back in the time of that original composition, come across a quotation from Umberto Eco about how the Master’s thesis should be useful—useful to others, unless I am remembering another thing—and the literature of Nathalie Quintane is useful, too. In a recent English-language dissertation, the researcher Eric Lynch explores Quintane’s use of a style in narration, that of idiotie, her idiot operating maybe much like my construct of the American girl in Paris, ingenuous in just her way perhaps, opening up in some way or other anyway a space on the page where thinking happens visibly, is as if mechanically stimulated, inducted in the reader; this has political stakes. Out of the many errors I’m sure remain in my own thesis, one that leaps off the page, out of that French conclusion, is, arguably, an over-reading where I make claims about the role of therapy in Quintane’s oeuvre. Looking back, I may have just meant something like talking, discussion—but been lead astray by the seductive association of what we call a mother tongue via its other idiom of “talking cure.” For Quintane, going fast, making mistakes, showing yourself making and then correcting them, had been revelations of her study of the avant-gardes. They mean you’re working; it’s good to show your work. “It’s very good to show that you’re at work.” Here’s something I learned years ago, studying journalism: one thing you can do with a mistake, or an unverifiability, is fix it, another is put it in quotes.
I felt sleepy and happy, staring out the window of that filling bus as if someone might appear to wave me off. I knew now why I’d had such a strong reaction to that line in La Cavalière, you know about Quintane’s wanting to be left the hell alone, but I had had nothing to fear. And maybe I had been seeking reassurance; as you know, I had been writing this and that, having trouble putting out a book, and had perhaps figured that if my first book were by Nathalie Quintane then it couldn’t miss. Far be it from her to prevent anyone at all from sticking their nose in her work, as she has written, doing with it as they like, she’s written this, somewhere or other. And indeed, she’d been more lenient with me than her interview subjects for La Cavalière had been with her. She’d shared they were against her recording. Had sent interviews back to them for corrections. All this due, as she had said, to the intermingling of their experiences of living in a town where she wouldn’t be able, otherwise, to face them. So it was possible I was presenting a contrast in high-tailing it out of there, with consequences for my soul, but I preferred to think in terms, a term, of Gertrude Stein’s that appealed to me in writing my thesis. Writers must have a “second” country, as if literature were it. And even if I did have to go back to the US rather than stay on in France or, I don’t know, Germany, this framing gave me the option of thinking of Quintane as a compatriot, with all that entailed about trying to resist betrayal.
But she was so transparent anyway. I don’t know how to say it. She would, like, step through a door I hadn’t noticed to return holding a stack of books for me, that kind of thing. At the bottom was an anthology, Lettres aux jeunes poétesses. She made, then, a perfect quip about her feminism, about concerns of mine that might be laid to rest. I had the strangest intuition that it was her only copy. In fact I refer, throughout my thesis, to the poétesse, not the poète; in French, different from in English, the feminine form of this is considered, actually, more feminist, more progressive, and I had received coaching from my friend Karim whose sense for everything, not just political correctness, is exquisite. But rereading Tomates I’d seen her call herself poète. I don’t know that her essay in this volume is her best effort; it seems a little hasty (Mais tu n’es pas Milena, et je ne suis pas Kafka). Though it does deal with a change in the form of one’s life, with moving house somewhere, with an implantation, marked by a kind of radical, absurd self-sufficiency, in the Lozère … I was scandalized however to find, in black and white, an error of Quintane’s, unless the error was the English language’s: Mummy, en anglais, se prononce momie. “Mummy, in English, is pronounced momie.” It’s in service of a pun about mummification—momie is “mummy” in French—but I don’t know who told her this.
Lettres aux jeunes poétesses, a few others but, Attention, no lavender sachet, I arrived back in Paris with—What was this?—my extra notepad. I gave it to Zoey. She made a big fuss over it, said she’d bring it one day to her favorite café for a writing session while wearing a pair of shoes I had given her the previous year—another story. I had been persuaded during the winter sales by some unscrupulous boutiquier that they’d stretch out, a pair of Converse, canvas. And it was in the course of my very last days—the organization of the going-away party, so like a living funeral, under green trees; the trip to the Monoprix for cardboard boxes I would use to pack and ship my books; the leaving, at that Monoprix, of my driver’s license (American!), collateral against a shopping cart then used to haul those books to the post office—that, meeting this friend Zoey at a picnic table in the sun, I offered them. I just had a hunch; she’s so petite. I told her the story, how I’d ended up with them. “Oh my god,” she said, on seeing them. “Why are they so small?” They fit her perfectly, of course.
Now in stocking feet, at my desk in Massachusetts, I keep looking back at Quintane’s castoff. À la jeune poétesse, her letter. It’s interesting, David, but this is how it begins: “Of course, if you know me, you already know that I can’t write a letter.”
Well, there you go; that’s all for now.