Monday, April 06, 2009

A Byzantine Day

I interviewed Jacques Roubaud on Saturday for BOMB magazine—a haunting experience, on many levels, but starting with the venue itself, the French Embassy on 5th Ave. and 79th St. I had been there before, but oh, joy! This time I had the place mostly to myself. Once the people at the door let me in, I clambered up the looping velvet-covered stairs to the 4th floor (actually, I had to resort to the tiny coffin elevator on the 3rd floor), with nary a soul to be seen. Echo, echo! And I never knew that there is a little in-between floor (2nd floor and a half) with half windows, ugly grey carpeting and lots of file cabinets. I adored the contrast of faded magnificence, office clutter, and emptiness.

Anyway, Roubaud, who was waiting patiently in a sort of conference room (I was a few minutes late, as usual). I had received the English translation of his memoir/novel/history, THE LOOP, about three weeks ago (although, as Roubaud indicates, linking internal memory of time to actual time/events is a treacherous endeavor), and have been reading it frantically in order to finish it by the interview. (I made it to within 50 pages.)

Frankly, I drifted in and out of liking the work. (And I enclose all sorts of verbs within “liking,” i.e., finding it thought-provoking, beautiful, and yes, haunting.) I found it astonishing the way he established, in the face of Proust, a new mode of “remembering” within language/writing. I don’t want to give the interview away completely, but he told me he wrote/remembered in order to destroy his memories, while Proust wrote to create them. And one question, that he didn’t quite answer to my satisfaction, was what is left of the creator/author after memories are destroyed—where does Roubaud move now?

He tells the reader straight out that what he writes becomes true in that it is written as he writes it—that the chronology of “events” occurs as they are written. He tells the reader this in way of an invitation, an invitation that one can either accept, or decline. I could have put the book down right there, if I wanted. I think American memoirists tend, almost involuntarily, toward “selling” their book, trying to get the reader to “buy” the narrative—they wouldn’t invite, with such casual insouciance. To Roubaud, I don’t think it’s so important that his book is read, as that it is written.

Where I most drifted out of “liking” was in Roubaud’s images. Often, I find that he chooses an image that’s not up to carrying the weight he gives it in terms of its place in the occurring memory—and the image ends up becoming too precious, too diminutive, as does the language used around the image. Yes, we all know the strawberries tasted better when we were young (see John Steinbeck, East of Eden), but I’m not sure the strawberry (or fig) is always up to carrying the emotional/linguistic weight of a memory.

But the translation is stupendous—I only had one or two moments where the English drifted into a slight awkwardness. And, as ever, anyone who translates any Oulipean work deserves a special round of applause.

Anyway, you can read the interview in Bomb “soon.” Is that vague enough?

As for the subsequent brunch and reading, it was quite a spread, with lots of recipients of, as Trevor Winkfield calls it, that Legion of Honor “thing,” showing up, either for the food, the wine, the company, or the event (in that order?). Plenty lubricated by 3 pm on a Saturday (Charles Bernstein said, “not before 5 pm!”), the crowd became more and more festive (although Monica de la Torre said she found it quite restrained compared to events at the Mexican Consulate).

The readers—Roubaud, Hervé Le Tellier, Marcel Bénabou, Ian Monk, and Anne Garréta—gave a loose and rather goofy reading. There was just about no introduction, so any audience member (such as myself) who had missed the previous events, was left to figure out who was what from the books the authors carried up to the podium. Ian Monk read in both French and English—the French going over much better with the audience (understandably, since it was peppered with naughty language!). He seemed much happier reading in French, too, although he’s British.

I could hardly stop laughing during Anne Garréta’s reading because she looked exactly like her book cover photo. It was sort of like that scene where Groucho asks Harpo who he is, and Harpo shows him his tattoo of his own face. She wore dark aviator glasses (this is inside on a cloudy day) with a distinctive haircut, which were all reproduced to a “T” on the cover. Andrew Hultkrans at Artforum has more to say about Garréta. Anyway, Roubaud raved about her novel, the English translation of which I’m looking forward to (apparently, according to a secret source at Dalkey Archive, the wheels are in motion to get a translation done).

Afterward, I headed over to the Met, where I took a right where I usually take a left, and ended up wandering through period rooms, each of which seemed stranger than the last (I’m quite sure I never saw that totally bizarre blue poster bed before), and ended up in the new Byzantine “room” (actually the space underneath the Grand Hall Stairway). I was soon snared, as the Byzantines intended, by the 200-400 AD textiles, with intricate labyrinths woven into them, to tangle the eye and prevent it from casting evil with its glance.

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