By Art Beck
Pierre Michon, born 1945, won the Prix France Culture award in 1984 for his first book, a memoir of sorts, Vies Minuscules. In 2008, an English version, under the title Small Lives, was published by Archipelago Books with partial sponsorship of the French Ministry of Culture. Its translators, Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays, were awarded the prestigious French American Foundation translation prize in 2009.
Small Lives had good critical success, and in 2013 Yale University Press issued four new Michon titles, including Masters and Servants and The Origin of the World. Those two were translated by Wyatt Mason. Winter Mythologies and Abbots was translated by Ann Jefferson. Rimbaud the Son, by the aforementioned Gladding-Deshays team. I’ve chosen to discuss Winter Mythologies and Abbots and Rimbaud the Son because these two volumes seem to represent opposite poles (or perhaps the best and worst aspects) of Michon’s writing.
I. Real and Fabulist Biographies
The Significance of Insignificance
Perhaps, since Yale’s commissioning and publication of these four translations seems to have its roots in the favorable U.S. reception of Michon’s Small Lives, it may be helpful to begin by talking a bit about that book. And as well, the Winter and Rimbaud volumes also seem to develop themes begun in Small Lives. It’s a coming-of-age sequence, obliquely told in narratives of the “minuscule lives” of the socially insignificant people who interacted with the author as he grew up in a backwater French farm town. While the protagonist and his troubles and progress are presented, it’s almost as counterpoint to the life around him.
And ultimately, for all his budding and frustrated literary foment, the Small Lives narrator is no more significant than the other nobodies who populate his rustic youth. Essentially, he comes of age only by surrendering his urgent need to be unique to their unremarkable lives. What distinguishes Michon, here, from the usual practitioners of the “ordinary folks” genre is what seems an utter lack of kitsch. His tales are dark, quizzical, Faulknerian. (Michon, in fact, cites Faulkner as a major influence.) Here’s an excerpt from the “lives” of the protagonist’s paternal grandparents, Eugène and Clara:
Eugène died in the late sixties. I do not know exactly when or how it took place, but I lean toward the spring of 1968. I had other concerns, more urgent or noble than an old drunk’s final round. … Alone, with just a few neighbors, Clara bore the buffoon’s body to the grave. He died like a dog; and I take comfort in the thought that I will not die any differently.
In this aspect the original French minuscule seems more fitting for these often miserable life stories than the softer, English-title mutation, Small Lives.
Winter and Abbots
Two original French volumes, Mythologies d’hiver, published in 1997, and Abbés, 1992, are combined in the Yale Winter Mythologies and Abbots. They continue the theme of “small” lives, but in this case the subjects are far removed from the author. And they seem more evocative of Borges (another noted Michon influence) than Faulkner. Three mythic figures from the dark ages in Ireland—Brigid, Columbkill, and Suibhne—begin the sequence. But the events recounted aren’t those found in their legends. Instead the tales are a reinvention of the “lives of the saints” with little in common but their names.
I was immediately reminded of an odd, minor French classic I hadn’t looked at for some 20 years, Marcel Schwob’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century Imaginary Lives. Schwob, in 22 short pseudo-biographies, systematically casts himself as a sort of anti-Plutarch, choosing mostly insignificant historic subjects, and recounting made up or peripheral details. Schwob’s preface concludes, “If the art in which Boswell and Aubrey excelled is to be continued, minute records of great men or epochs or events of the past are not especially needed. With equal care must be recounted the unique experience of men—priests, criminals or nobodies.”
Winter Mythologies and Abbots definitely reflects this approach and, as in Schwob, the lives recounted are imagined rather than researched. But while Schwob’s little stories can be as cynical as Ambrose Bierce, Michon’s medieval tales are more akin to the mood of, say, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. St. Brigid poisons herself, along with her two sisters, in order to die at their first communion—taken from the hallowed hands of St. Patrick. Columbkill (St. Columba) “loves God violently, and war, and small precious objects,” the most precious of which are books. He defies his king and goes to war, killing a thousand men to obtain a psalter in the library of a rival. Victorious, he begins to again read the songs of King David in the precious volume that captivated him and stirred him to war. But the psalms are suddenly empty of significance to him, mean as little as they might have come to no longer mean to the old, self-ruined David.
For Columbkill, now,
The book is not in the book. Heaven is just an old blue place beneath which we stand naked … He throws down the book … and his sword. He takes the habit, he takes to the sea … finds a desert in the loathsome Irish Sea: on the bald island of Iona he sits down, free and stripped of everything, beneath a sky which is sometimes blue.
From Ireland, Michon’s myths shift their focus to France and a cavernous rural area known as the Causses. The first “Passage on the Causses” recounts the death of a 19th-century anthropologist from pneumonia contracted while digging up prehistoric troglodyte bones “bleached white by the rain, the dew, and the snow.” Then the tales revert in time to somewhere around 1000 A.D. In one, we’re given the brief life of Énimie, a princess who wheedles the absentee sinecure of Abbess of a rich nunnery from Gondevald, a retainer of her father’s. The clerical title inflames her sexual imagination as she plays the role of Mother Superior in her remunerative lovemaking with Gondevald. Alas, she soon contracts leprosy and dies.
A few generations later, the monks of a dilapidated abbey in financial need of an important saint and relics exhume her body from its grave beneath the choir. A Brother Simon is tasked with inventing the life of “St. Énime.” He’s enlightened by a vision in which the virgin Énime is divinely blessed with disfiguring leprosy after praying to Christ to be spared a forced marriage to Gondevald. Full of doubts and self conflicted, conscious of the pride of invention, Brother Simon writes a life of “Sancta Enimia,” ultimately consoled by his own imagination.
She is beautiful for God—for no one, perhaps for nothing: to remember, to hope, to talk within herself to that other person who is the angel, to rejoice that she scarcely exists, to tremble, to be long in dying. Life is leprosy. The present hour is leprous. … When she dies, her angel carries her adorably away.
Is the religious fable any less real than the “real” Énime? Both are, in fact, products of Michon’s fancy. More significantly, both are believable portrayals of coexistant aspects of the same medieval world.
A Monastery in Three Generations
The tales in this 115-page volume jump around in time and end with the “lives” of three succeeding generations of medieval abbots, the last story again revolving around a false relic—the skull of John the Baptist. Reminiscent of Columbkill, the Abbot Theodelin is envious of the priceless relic being exhibited by the Archbishop on a display tour. But, rather than going to war, he deftly fingers a loose tooth out of its socket and secrets it in his own mouth. It isn’t noticed or missed and for years the relic, hidden in a leather pouch, works its hermetic magic on Theodelin’s monastery, the secret shared only with the abbot’s successor-designate (and the scribe Pierre who witnessed the theft). Years later, the deathbed confession of the trader in relics who sold the skull to the Archbishop reveals the relic is entirely bogus. The skull is evicted from its reliquary and buried in the section of the churchyard reserved for the excommunicated.
For the old, retired Abbot Theodelin and his successor Abbot Hugues, it’s the end of their spiritual and monastic inner lives. The formerly eloquent Hugues
stops short on Sunday in the middle of his sermon. He stares at the bare flagstone in front of him. His words are once more suspended in the void—they finally fall into it, they abandon him, he breaks them off. They lie on the flagstone. He stutters out a few more words in which some of the monks think they recognize the verse from Ecclesiastes about words and wind. It’s over. He sets down his stole and goes up to his cell. He will never speak again.
On that same Sunday, the frail, now ancient Theodelin embarks with Pierre for the river island where the once-precious tooth that now “belongs not to John the Baptist, but to no one” is hidden. They dig up the leather pouch and Theobald walks to the edge of a sheer cliff. “With an oath the abbot hurls the tooth into the water the way an angry child hurls a toy.” Or alternately, Michon opines, maybe it was Pierre the, now also old, scribe who hurled the tooth away.
In any case, it was Pierre who then ended his Chronicle of the monastery with, “As all things are mutable and close to uncertain.”
As fitting a commentary on the passing of the medieval as an ending to a volume of fables centered on that world.
II: The Father, the Son, and a Hellish Read
Rimbaud le fils was published in France in 1991, some six years after Vies Minuscules. I usually feel that (as in speaking of the dead) silence is the proper negative commentary on a work that just doesn’t seem to work for me. But in the case of something as universally endorsed by the reviewers and blurbers that the publisher reached out to, some impropriety may be in order. Especially with an author as good as Michon, who seems to otherwise connect in so many ways. It’s like finding a new restaurant that re-introduces you to your own palate, and you’re wowed. But, on your third visit, the waiter’s a lout, the chef’s throwing a tantrum, they refuse to seat you except at the bar … Do you just never go back, or do you say something?
Photos and Portraits
After reading Small Lives, the theme of Rimbaud seems a natural for, something deeply inbred in, Michon. His character in that memoir is haunted by the shadow of a father who deserted the family early on. An absent father who, he notes in the story of his paternal grandparents, drank and used drugs and abandoned the grandparents as well. As, in turn, does “Pierrot,” the son. The Michon character, in fact, systematically drives himself to commitment in an insane asylum with a combination of drink, drugs, sexual misadventure—all in the cause of courting and inducing an elusive creativity. He mentions Rimbaud more than once.
And the first story in Small Lives deals with André Dufourneau, an orphan boy who comes to live and work on the farm of Michon’s maternal grandparents. Finally grown up in the years between the wars, and with no particular future in store, André Dufourneau goes to the colonies, the African Ivory Coast, vowing to “come back rich or die there.”
Tales of André, oft repeated and embellished by his grandmother, but always with the pronouncement, “over there, he would become rich or die,” enthrall the young Pierre, “These words were, to me, an Annunciation, and like the Blessed Virgin, I trembled … my future incarnate and I did not recognize it. I did not know that writing was so dark a continent, more enticing and disappointing than Africa, the writer a species more bent on getting lost than the explorer …”
And ultimately, the barely literate farmhand gone to make his fortune in Africa becomes a writer in Michon’s young mind. He describes an old family photo of Dufourneau which evokes Faulkner, but with the subject’s underlying “haughty yet drowsy air” Michon could as well be conjuring the Rimbaud of the 1871 photo.
His thumbs are hooked … chin raised, chest out. His proud posture is the one often favored by small men. Come now, admit it, he really resembles a writer. There is a portrait of the young Faulkner, a small man like him, in which I recognize the same haughty yet drowsy air …
So, as Alyson Waters asks on the back cover blurb, “Who better than Pierre Michon … to offer a striking portrait of Rimbaud … ?”
Well, maybe not.
In Rimbaud the Son, discussing the ubiquitous December 1871 Rimbaud studio photograph and Rimbaud’s parents, Michon writes,
And that too has no doubt been said, because with regard to that childish pout before the photographer, and with regard to Vitalie Rimbaud’s pout which is not known because no photographer captured it once and for all under his black hood, everything has been said. And nearly everything has been said as well with regard to the other one who must not have been very much fun either, the shade who attended those verbal jousts in the dining room in absentia, the Captain, of whom for now we have no photograph either, and yet sometimes we have no doubt that he posed in Purgatory before a camera, among some noncommissioned officers in distant garrisons, smoothing his imperial beard with two fingers or playing cards or with his hand on his sword—and maybe at the precise moment when he remembered young Arthur.
Noting thrice that nearly everything has already been said, does Michon say or describe anything new here, or elsewhere in these dense 70 pages? Does he say what’s already been said any better than it’s been said before? My take, in both cases, is: I don’t think so.
In an afterword to The Origin of the World, Roger Shattuck quotes Michon as saying, “I cannot write without singing.” For some perhaps, the passage above is “song,” and if so, Rimbaud the Son is for you. But be warned that this clotted passage actually reads infinitely better extracted here from the larger text, where it directly follows a single paragraph that goes on for some three pages. Sampling Rimbaud the Son at any but minimal length, Michon’s stylistic exertions began to resemble a PT coach doing endless subordinate clause pull-ups. He’s tireless, but are his readers?
(I don’t, by the way, think much or any of this awkwardness is a translation smudge. Judging by their facile rendering of Small Lives, Gladding and Deshays write wonderful English. My guess is they probably had to make a conscious effort not to “improve” Michon’s opacities in this work.)
Us or Me?
A Michon chapter about the 16-year-old Rimbaud’s correspondence with the middle-aged, established poet, Banville begins, “That poet, who no longer casts a shadow, thus received two letters from the very young Rimbaud, who casts upon us as great a shadow as Dante’s little bonnet casts upon the Italian language, and Virgil’s laurels cast upon Dante …” The core problem, I think here, is the word us.
If Michon had said “casts as great a shadow on me” and then went on to explicate, it might have led somewhere interesting. But as it stands, Michon’s presumptive “us” will no doubt give pause to anyone but hardcore aficionados. Sure, Rimbaud casts a shadow on French and world poetry, similar, say, to what the Impressionists cast in painting. And yes, who reads Banville now? And didn’t Rimbaud like Dante spend a Season in Hell? But—rolling out Dante, the cornerstone of an entire emerging language and era, and Virgil, who served as the defacto manual of Latin style for a thousand years … ? Michon’s hyperbole, regally enshrined in “us,” somehow rings as pedantic as an Izambard or Banville pronouncement might have seemed to Rimbaud.
And in fact, Henry Miller, whose Time of the Assassins is no less a paean to Rimbaud than Michon’s, very successfully takes the “me,” rather than “us,” approach. Whether you agree with Miller or not about Rimbaud makes little difference; you’re fascinated by what Rimbaud brings out in Miller. You’d think, given Michon’s own apparent Rimbaudesque adolescence, that he’d be able to do something similar.
Instead, in order to connect with his meditation, Michon requires you to first share his vision. And that gets tough when you find Michon extolling not only the son of the absconding father and bitch of a mother, but Rimbaud as a son of God who gave us a “Vulgate.” Or the “little Jeremiah” who wrote the Saison. Earlier in the text, Michon even manages to draw a parallel to the iconic French image of the boy Napoleon being dressed down by dolts at the Brienne military school. Along the lines of WWJD: what would Rimbaud—who, as far as he was concerned, outgrew his immortality around the age of 21—say?
Taste is of course personal, and for some Rimbaud the Son may well be a treasure. For me, despite its serious ambition, it sometimes feels more Hollywood than literary. In the genre, say, of Amadeus or The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Films not so much about Mozart or Vermeer, but about “the greatest composer” or “the greatest painter.” A concept inherently sentimental rather than inspired, and deadly to lit-crit.
Michon’s deep, humble tale of the negligible lives of his sad paternal grandparents, Eugène and Clara, is rendered so richly that it begs to be read accompanied by Chopin and Montrachet. But demigod Arthur evokes no such complement. More meditation than story, Rimbaud the Son lacks the narrative thrust and dialogue that Michon seems to need to redeem the often imperious purple of his prose. And as desperately as he courts him in this short volume, Rimbaud, that sullen genius-lout, never seems to really agree to sing with him.
But perhaps, given what Michon’s done in works like Small Lives and Winter Mythologies and Abbots, he’s earned some indulgence as he indulges himself with this kind of stuff. The kind of across-the-board Plenary Indulgence that the Borgia-era popes used to sell, that absolves all future as well as past sins. We could all use some of that.
Winter Mythologies and Abbots
By Pierre Michon
Translated by Ann Jefferson
Yale University Press (March 2014)
Rimbaud the Son
By Pierre Michon
Translated by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays
Yale University Press (October 2013)
By Pierre Michon
Translated by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays
Archipelago Books (May 2008)