from & about cosmos, by the great witold gombrowicz


‘Cosmos,’ by Witold Gombrowicz

 The Plotlessness Thickens

By Neil Gordon

November 20, 2005

 A Polish student, seeking peace and quiet to study for his exams, and his friend, desperately needing a vacation from his oppressive office job, leave the city to board for a time with a rural family. Afflicted with anomie and a strange laziness, Witold and Fuks don’t suspect what’s ahead. Little by little, they find themselves drawn into a mystery hidden deep in the boarding house and the pretty summer countryside. But it is a mystery – and they are detectives – unlike any others.

The first sign of trouble is real enough: a sparrow is found hanging by the neck on a wire in a tree, "its little head to one side, its beak wide open." The second, while more troubling, is less clearly the work of a malefactor: wandering alone in the garden that evening, Witold begins to think there’s a troubling connection between the sparrow and the "slithering," "slippery" lips of two of the women in the house. "A tiresome game of tennis evolved, for the sparrow sent me to the mouth, the mouth back to the sparrow, and I found myself between the sparrow and the mouth, one hiding behind the other." The third sign is even more tenuous: there is a line on the ceiling of Witold and Fuks’s room that may or may not resemble an arrow, pointing at something. Who put it there? What might it mean? The two young men, increasingly worried, venture outside to confer. "Did one of the windowpanes look at me with a human eye?" Witold wonders. "It was conceivable that the one watching us was the same person who sneaked into our room, most likely during the morning hours, and gouged the line that created the arrow."

Lips, lines, arrows, sparrows. With the addition of these elements, the plot – although it may be about absolutely nothing – seems to thicken. There is a broken farm tool lying on a pile of rubbish in the door of the garden shed. Is it pointing somewhere deliberately, like the arrow? Fuks finds the evidence overwhelming: "There is a track where the wood scraps have been moved, as if the whiffletree lay in a different position before."

So progresses the investigation in Witold Gombrowicz’s sly, funny, absorbing fourth novel, published in Polish in 1965 and lovingly translated by Danuta Borchardt. The two neurotic detectives single-mindedly interrogate the meaning of their surroundings, seeking in the most mundane objects and events the solution to a mystery only they can see, their suspicions growing and growing until we begin to fear for their sanity – or ours.

Writing in the online magazine Words Without Borders, Benjamin Paloff calls Gombrowicz "probably the most important 20th-century novelist most Western readers have never heard of." Praised by Sontag, Updike, Kundera, Sartre and Milosz, he is the underdog in late modernism’s literary competition – perhaps, in part, because he left Poland in 1939, just before the German invasion, and remained in exile in Argentina for the next 25 years. He died in France in 1969, but since then his fiction and plays and his renowned three-volume diary have stubbornly refused to be forgotten, not only in Poland but throughout the world.

Critics have tended to treat "Cosmos" as a fictional reflection on the nature of meaning: a novel that asks whether we impose meaning on reality or discover it there. Is something truly amiss in the lips, the tree, the sparrow? Or is their portentous symbolism just a product of the nervous, erotic imagination of the characters? But if Gombrowicz’s 1937 novel, "Ferdydurke," can be called a philosophical novel, then "Cosmos," published roughly 30 years later, strikes me as a novel about language . . .


Witold Gombrowicz
chapter 1


I’ll tell you about another adventure that’s even more strange . . .


Sweat, Fuks is walking, I’m behind him, pant legs, heels,

sand, we’re plodding on, plodding on, ruts, clods of dirt,

glassy pebbles flashing, the glare, the heat humming, quivering,

everything is black in the sunlight, cottages, fences, fields, woods,

the road, this march, from where, what for, a lot could be said, actually

I was worn out by my father and mother, by my family in

general, I wanted to prepare for at least one of my exams and also

to breathe in change, break loose, spend time someplace far away.

I went to Zakopane, I’m walking along the Krupowki, thinking

about finding a cheap little boarding house, when I run into Fuks,

his faded-blond, carroty mug, bug-eyed, his gaze smeared with

apathy, but he’s glad, and I’m glad, how are you, what are you

doing here, I’m looking for a room, me too, I have an address—

he says—of a small country place where it’s cheaper because it’s

far away, out in the sticks somewhere. So we go on, pant legs, heels

in the sand, the road and the heat, I look down, the earth and the

sand, pebbles sparkling, one two, one two, pant legs, heels, sweat,

eyelids heavy from a sleepless night on the train, nothing but a

rank-and-file trudging along. He stopped.


“Let’s rest.”


“How far is it?”


“Not far.”


I looked around and saw whatever there was to see, and it was

precisely what I didn’t want to see because I had seen it so many

times before: pines and fences, firs and cottages, weeds and grass,

a ditch, footpaths and cabbage patches, fields and a chimney . . .

the air . . . all glistening in the sun, yet black, the blackness of trees,

the grayness of the soil, the earthy green of plants, everything

rather black. A dog barked, Fuks turned into a thicket.


“It’s cooler here.”


“Let’s go on.”


“Wait a minute. Let’s sit down a while.”


He ventured deeper into the bushes where recesses and hollows

were opening up, darkened from above by a canopy of intertwining

hazel branches and boughs of spruce, I ventured with

my gaze into the disarray of leaves, twigs, blotches of light, thickets,

recesses, thrusts, slants, bends, curves, devil knows what, into

a mottled space that was charging and receding, first growing

quiet, then, I don’t know, swelling, displacing everything, opening

wide . . . lost and drenched in sweat, I felt the ground below,

black and bare. There was something stuck between the trees—

something was protruding that was different and strange, though

indistinct . . . and this is what my companion was also watching.


“A sparrow.”




It was a sparrow. A sparrow hanging on a piece of wire. Hanged.

Its little head to one side, its beak wide open. It was hanging on a

thin wire hooked over a branch.


Remarkable. A hanged bird. A hanged sparrow. The eccentricity

of it clamored with a loud voice and pointed to a human hand

that had torn into the thicket—but who?


Who hanged it, why, for what reason? . . . my thoughts were

entangled in this overgrowth abounding in a million combinations,

the jolting train ride, the night filled with the rumble of the

train, lack of sleep, the air, the sun, the march here with this Fuks,

there was Jasia and my mother, the mess with the letter, the way

I had “cold-shouldered” my father, there was Roman, and also

Fuks’s problem with his boss in the office (that he’s been telling

me about), ruts, clods of dirt, heels, pant legs, pebbles, leaves, all

of it suddenly fell down before the bird, like a crowd on its knees,

and the bird, the eccentric, seized the reign . . . and reigned in

this nook.


“Who could have hanged it?”


“Some kid.”


“No. It’s too high up.”


“Let’s go.”


But he didn’t stir. The sparrow was hanging. The ground was

bare but in some places short, sparse grass was encroaching on it,

many things lay about, a piece of bent sheet metal, a stick, another

stick, some torn cardboard, a smaller stick, there was also a beetle,

an ant, another ant, some unfamiliar bug, a wood chip, and so on

and on, all the way to the scrub at the roots of the bushes—he

watched as I did. “Let’s go.” But he went on standing, looking, the

sparrow was hanging, I was standing, looking. “Let’s go.” “Let’s

go.” But we didn’t budge, perhaps because we had already stood

here too long and the right moment for departure had passed . . .

and now it was all becoming heavier, more awkward . . . the two

of us with the hanging sparrow in the bushes . . . and something

like a violation of balance, or tactlessness, an impropriety on our

part loomed in my mind . . . I was sleepy.


“Well, let’s get going!” I said, and we left . . . leaving the sparrow

in the bushes, all alone.


Further march down the road in the sun scorched and wearied

us, so we stopped, disgruntled, and again I asked “is it far?” Fuks

answered by pointing to a notice posted on a fence: “They’ve got

rooms for rent here too.” I looked. A little garden. In the garden

there was a house behind a hedge, no ornaments or balconies,

boring and shabby, low budget, with a skimpy porch sticking

out, wooden, Zakopane-style, with two rows of windows, five

each on the first and second floors, while in the little garden—a

few stunted trees, pansies withering in the flower beds, a couple

of gravel footpaths. But he thought we should check it out, why

not, sometimes in a dingy place like this the food could be finger-licking

good, cheap too. I was ready to walk in and look, though

we had passed a few similar notices and hadn’t paid any attention,

and besides, I was dripping with sweat. He opened the gate, and

we walked along the gravel path toward the glittering windowpanes.

He rang the bell, we stood a while on the porch until the

door opened and a woman, no longer young, about forty, came

out, maybe a housekeeper, bosomy and slightly plump.


“We’d like to see the rooms.”


“One moment please, I’ll get the lady of the house.”


We waited on the porch, the din of the train still in my head, the

journey, the previous day’s events, the swarm, the haze, the roar.


Cascading, overwhelming roar.What intrigued me in this woman

was a strange deformity of the mouth in the face of a bright-eyed,

decent little housekeeper—her mouth was as if incised on one

side, and its lengthening, just by a bit, by a fraction of an inch,

made her upper lip curl upward, leap aside, or slither away, almost

like a reptile, and that sideways slipperiness slipping away repelled

me by its reptilian, frog-like coldness, and, like a dark passage, it

instantly warmed and aroused me, leading me to a sin with her,

sexual, slippery, and lubricious. And her voice came as a surprise—

I don’t know what kind of voice I had expected from such a

mouth—but she sounded like an ordinary housekeeper, middleaged

and corpulent. I now heard her call from inside the house:

“Auntie! A couple of gentlemen are here about the room!”


After a few moments the aunt trundled out on her short little

legs as if on a rolling pin, she was rotund—we exchanged a few remarks,

yes indeed, there is a room for two, with board, please

come this way! A whiff of ground coffee, a narrow hallway, a small

alcove, wooden stairs, you’re here for a while, ah, yes, studying, it’s

peaceful here, quiet . . . at the top there was another hallway and

several doors, the house was cramped. She opened the door to the

last room off the hallway, I only glanced at it, because it was like

all rooms for rent, dark, shades drawn, two beds and a wardrobe,

one clothes hanger, a water pitcher on a saucer, two small lamps

by the beds, no bulbs, a mirror in a grimy frame, ugly. From under

the window shade a little sunlight settled in a spot on the floor, the

scent of ivy floated in and with it the buzzing of a gadfly. And

yet . . . and yet there was a surprise, because one of the beds was

occupied and someone lay on it, a woman, lying, it seemed, not

quite as she should have been, though I don’t know what gave me

the sense of this being, let’s say, so out of place—whether it was

that the bed was without sheets, with only a mattress—or that her

leg lay partially on the metal mesh of the bed (because the mattress

had moved a little), or was it the combination of the leg and

the metal that surprised me on this hot, buzzing, exhausting day.

Was she asleep? When she saw us she sat up and tidied her hair.

“Lena, what are you doing, honey? Really! Gentlemen—my



In response to our bows she nodded her head, rose, and left

silently—her silence put to rest the thought of anything out of the



We were shown another room next door, exactly the same but

slightly cheaper because it wasn’t connected directly to a bathroom.

Fuks sat on the bed, Mrs.Wojtys, a bank manager’s wife, sat

on a little chair, and the final upshot was that we rented the

cheaper room, with board, of which she said: “You’ll see for yourselves.”


We were to have breakfast and lunch in our room and supper

downstairs with the family.


“Go back for your luggage, gentlemen, Katasia and I will get

everything ready.”


We returned to town for our luggage.


We came back with our luggage.


We unpacked while Fuks was explaining how lucky we were, the

room was inexpensive, the other one, the one that had been recommended

to him would surely have been more expensive . . .

and also farther away . . . “The grub will be good, you’ll see!” I

grew more and more weary of his fish-face, and . . . to sleep . . .

sleep . . . I went to the window, looked out, that wretched little

garden was scorching in the sun, farther on there was the fence

and the road, and beyond that two spruce trees marked the spot

in the thicket where the sparrow was hanging. I threw myself on

the bed, spun around, fell asleep, mouth slipping from mouth, lips

more like lips because they were less like lips . . . but I was no

longer asleep. Something had awakened me. The housekeeper was

standing over me. It was morning, yet dark, like night. Because it

wasn’t morning. She was waking me: “The Mr. and Mrs. Wojtys

would like you to come down for supper.” I got up. Fuks was already

putting on his shoes. Supper. In the dining room, a tight

cubbyhole, a sideboard with a mirror, yogurt, radishes, and the

eloquence of Mr.Wojtys, the ex–bank manager,who wore a signet

ring and gold cufflinks:


“Mark you, dear fellow, I have now designated myself to be at

the beck and call of my better half, and I am to render specific services,

namely, when the faucet goes on the fritz, or the radio . . .

I would recommend more sweetie butter with the radishes, the

butter is tip-top . . . ”


“Thank you.”


“This heat, there’s bound to be a thunderstorm, I swear on the

holiest of holies, bless me and my grenadiers!”


“Did you hear the thunder, Daddy, beyond the forest, far

away?” (This was Lena, I hadn’t seen much of her yet, I hadn’t seen

much of anything, in any case the ex-manager or the ex-director

was expressing himself with a flourish.) “May I suggest a teensy-weensy

helping of curdled milk, my wife is a very special specialist

when it comes to curdled milkie, and what is it that makes hers

the crème de la crème, my dear fellow? It’s the pot! The quality of

milk fermentation depends on the lactic attributes of the pot.”

“What do you know, Leon!” (The ex-manager’s wife interjected

this.) “I’m a bridge player, my dears, an ex-banker, now a bridge

player in the afternoons as well as Sunday nights, by special wifely

dispensation! So, gentlemen, you are here to study? Quite so, perfect,

peace and quiet, the intellect can wallow like fruit in a compote

. . . ” But I wasn’t really listening, Mr. Leon’s head was like a

dome, elf-like, its baldness riding over the table, accentuated by the

sarcastic flashing of his pince-nez, next to him Lena, a lake, and the

polite Mrs. Leon sitting on her rotundity and rising from it to preside

over supper with self-sacrifice, the nature of which I had not

yet grasped, Fuks saying something pallid, white, phlegmatic—I

ate a piece of meat pie, still feeling sleepy, they talked about the

dust in the air, that the season had not yet begun, I asked if it was

cool at night, we finished the meat pie, then the fruit compote

made its appearance, and, after the compote, Katasia pushed an

ashtray toward Lena, the ashtray had a wire mesh—as if an echo,

a faint echo of the other net (on the bed), on which a leg, a foot, a

calf lay on the wire netting of the bed when I had walked into the

room etc., etc. Katasia’s lip, slithering, found itself near Lena’s little





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adam thirlwell’s favourite books & authors populate a novel set of narratives

Buy Miss Herbert 


Mind your language

By A.S. Byatt


November 24 2007

Miss Herbert (The Delighted States in the U.S.)
By Adam Thirlwell

Miss Herbert is a thoughtful, and frequently hilarious, study of the nature of literary translation. It is also a work of art, a new form. Juliet Herbert was the English governess of Flaubert’s niece, Caroline. She wrote a translation of Madame Bovary, which Flaubert approved, and which has disappeared, unread. This ghost is a central character in a tale of conversations between writers, languages and forms.


Flaubert’s carefully wrought style, his “mania for sentences”, makes him in one sense untranslatable. The same could be argued of James Joyce’s layered wordplay, local detail and complicated rhythms. Novelist Adam Thirlwell, the author of Politics, discusses the tension between literal translation of words and attempts to translate a “style”. He argues that — always with some slippage or accidents — styles can be translated and transmitted. He has a cosmopolitan taste in novels, and describes his own canon, ranging from Cervantes to Machado de Assis, from Italo Svevo who was taught English by Joyce, to Witold Gombrowicz and Bohumil Hrabal.


A good example of the way he proceeds is his discussion of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, in an intricate rhyming stanzaic form. Pushkin read Tristram Shandy in a less-than-adequate French translation. Thirlwell remarks: “The first great Russian novel was a rewrite of a French travesty of an English avant-garde novel.” Later he discusses Nabokov’s ideas of translation. Nabokov came to the conclusion that a verse translation of Pushkin’s novel was theoretically impossible. He published his own literal word-by-word translation in four volumes with notes and commentary. Thirlwell decides he prefers the idea behind Nabokov’s earlier translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which changed names and references freely into Russian ones.


What does Thirlwell think makes a style, and what does he admire? A style must convey “real life”, a phrase that is constantly defined and redefined in this book. He quotes Diderot on the necessity for detail — a pox-mark on a perfect face — and gives splendid examples of precise recording, from Chekhov to Nabokov. He says: “Good novelists (or maybe more honestly the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are morally avant-garde as well. They are disrespectful (for one definition of cosmopolitan after all is the refusal to know one’s place).” I like this definition, partly at least because it does not use that meaningless word “subversive”. “Disrespectful” is a good word. Thirlwell also does not praise “authenticity”, sticking to more solid words such as “real” and “true”. The novelists he admires are, he says, “libertines” using that word to mean writers who record awkward or complicated truths. They are all, apart from Gertrude Stein, male and ironic. Thirlwell says somewhere that reality is ironic. I’m not sure of the meaning of that.


John Hawkes wrote that the enemies of the novel were “plot, character, setting and theme”. The novelists who are the “characters” of this novel about novels seem to believe that the true enemies are sentimentality, Romanticism, lazy derivativeness and high-mindedness. There is also a tendency to be hostile to plot as a form of unreality. Thirlwell quotes Gogol, Flaubert, Austen and Nabokov in one paragraph, which appears to end with the assertion that “life itself is plotless”. This is as untrue as it is true. Life, in my experience, is full of plots. But further down the same page Thirlwell produces another epigram: “The art of the novel centres not on authenticity but truth. And truth is a fabrication.” It is novelists, precisely, who understand that – and in a world where truth is a fabrication, there is room for plots and stories.

So what is a style? It is more than the sum of its parts — the choice of words, the speed of telling, the angle of vision. One of the pleasures of this elegantly produced book is a series of squiggles — many of them from Tristram Shandy, including Trim’s flourish with his stick which Balzac reproduced in La Peau de Chagrin — but also Hogarth’s “line of beauty”, and some twirls by Paul Klee. These flourishes, handed on from writer to writer and changed, are like musical notation. At the end of the book’s third part Thirlwell writes: “A style is not just a prose style. Sometimes it is not even a form of composition. Style is a quality of vision; a soul. This word soul is not my favourite word, it is not one I would use if I could help it, but I am not sure I have any choice.” And that kind of seriousness is very much Thirlwell’s own style.



The Delighted States

By Adam Thirwell


Chapter 1


Normandy, 1852: Two Letters from Gustave Flaubert About Style


This all begins in private, with Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence.


On 24 April 1852, Gustave Flaubert — an unpublished novelist, who had abandoned one novel, and recently begun another — wrote a hopeful letter to his mistress, Louise Colet.


‘I’ve imagined a style for myself,’ he told her, ‘a beautiful style that someone will write some day, in ten years’ time maybe, or in ten centuries. It will be as rhythmical as verse and as precise as science, with the booming rise and fall of a cello and plumes of fire’. And five years later, on 12 December 1857, after his first novel, Madame Bovary, had finally been published, Flaubert was writing to a fan, whose name was Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, and still saying roughly the same thing: ‘You say that I pay too much attention to form. Alas! it is like body and soul: form and content to me are one; I don’t know what either is without the other.’

Ever since Gustave Flaubert finally published his first novel, some novels have been explicitly as well written as poetry; they have shown the same care as poetry for style, and form. Every word in these novels has the same weight and poise as a word in a poem. And this is not without its problems.


The novel is an international art form. As soon as a novel becomes as well written as poetry, therefore, as soon as style is everything, then the translation of a novel becomes not a peripheral problem, but a central one. Or, as Milan Kundera wrote in the introduction to the fourth, but still only penultimate, English-language translation of his first novel, The Joke: ‘Once prose makes such a claim, the translation of a novel becomes a true art.’


This book — which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters — is about the art of the novel.It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.


Chapter 2


Warsaw, 1937: Witold Gombrowicz Writes a Review


In 1937, the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz wrote a piece for a Warsaw magazine — Kurier Poranny — on the French translation of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Sorrowfully, he did not think that Ulysses was really translatable. Meditating wistfully on the happier position of the English-speaking reader, he offered his own paradoxical and contrasting position, that while the ‘perfection and power of this complex style’ made it obvious how good — even in translation — Ulysses was, the dual language gap still prevented ‘more intimate contact’. And Gombrowicz ended his piece with an irritable flourish: ‘It is annoying to know that somewhere over there, abroad, a previously unknown method of feeling, of thinking and of writing has been born whose existence renders our methods completely anachronistic, and to tell oneself that only purely technical obstacles prevent us from having a deep knowledge of so many new inventions.’


Ulysses had made Polish novelists outdated: Gombrowicz could see that: but in French, his second language, he could not precisely see how. The technical details, he argued, escaped him.


But I am not sure that this is true. If style were purely a matter of technique — if form and content, as Flaubert sometimes thought, were the same thing — then perhaps Gombrowicz might be right. But style is not purely a matter of technique, which is why translation is still possible.


That is the subject of this book.


Often, I wonder if the idea of the untranslatable is really hiding a secret wish for translation to be a perfect fit, and this wish conceals a corresponding wish for style to be absolute. Whereas there are no perfect translations, just as there are no perfect styles. Something is still translatable, even if its translation is not perfect.

Like the example of Witold Gombrowicz himself.


About ten years later, Gombrowicz would be in exile — from the Nazis, and then the Communists — in Buenos Aires. In 1945, his friend Cecilia Benedit de Benedetti gave him an allowance to translate his novel Ferdydurke into Spanish. Ferdydurke, which had come out in 1937, the same year as his essay on Ulysses, had made him famous in Poland. This translation eventually became the preserve of a dedicated group, led by the Cuban novelist Virgilio Piñera and the Cuban writer Humberto Rodríguez Tomeu, as well as Gombrowicz, over eighteen months. The translation took place during sessions in the chess room on the second floor of the Café Rex, Gombrowicz’s favourite café in Buenos Aires. According to one of his early collaborators, Adolfo de Obieta, the translation was therefore inherently amusing: it was charmingly amateur — ‘transposing from Polish into Spanish the book of a Polish author who barely knew Spanish, assisted by five or six Latino-Americans who scarcely knew two words of Polish’.


No Polish-Spanish dictionary existed at the time. ‘It was an experimental translation in macaronic Spanish,’ recalled Tomeu. ‘At that time, he already knew some Spanish. Later, he spoke it well but always with a very strong accent. We therefore discussed each sentence under every one of its aspects: choice of words, their euphony, their cadence and their rhythm. Witold’s observations were always pertinent.’ The translation came out in April 1947, accompanied by a defensive note from Piñera, who worried that the unwarned Spanish reader might impute the language’s oddness to a lack of competence on the part of the translators. No no, he argued. It was all a matter of Gombrowicz’s new and different manner of envisaging language in the original Polish. (Which Piñera, of course, could not read.)


But he did not convince the public: Ferdydurke was not a success. It bemused its new Latin-American public.


The history of the novel is, simultaneously, a history of an elaborate and intricate international art form — and also a history of errors, a history of waste.



Chapter 3


Paris, 1930: James Joyce in Paul Léon’s Living Room


While Witold Gombrowicz, in Warsaw, was fretting at the French translation of Ulysses, James Joyce was making things even harder. In Paris, Joyce was completing the novel which was being serialised in the small magazine transition as Work in Progress, but which would finally be called Finnegans Wake. Famously, this novel is hardly even written in English: itself a description of a dream, Joyce wanted the English of his novel to mimic, in its language, the operations of a dream. Just as the images in dreams are dense with over-determination, so the language in Finnegans Wake, therefore, Joyce hoped, was unstable, impacted, polyglot. So that the reader of its first instalment would have been unpleasantly surprised to discover a style that made puns with more than one language, and had a sentence like this: ‘What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods!’


Maybe, with Finnegans Wake, Joyce had reached a point of stylistic density which could not survive any transition to another language – a realm of pure poetry, a nonsense style. Perhaps Gombrowicz was right. Maybe translation was finally impossible.


But maybe not.


In 1930, Joyce agreed to supervise a translation into French of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Work in Progress: the translation had been begun by Samuel Beckett and his French friend Alfred Péron. Beckett, however, had gone back to Ireland after completing a first version of the opening pages. His work was then revised by a group of Joyce’s friends: Eugene Jolas, the editor of transition; Ivan Goll, a poet; and Paul Léon.


Léon (whose wife, Lucie, was a family friend of Vladimir Nabokov) was a Russian émigré, who had left Russia in 1918: he had first gone to London, and then, in 1921, had arrived in Paris. He was a lawyer by training, and literary in his tastes. He soon became a kind of secretary to Joyce.


At the end of November 1930, after the first draft of the French translation had been completed, the French Surrealist writer Philippe Soupault was instructed to meet Joyce and Léon in Léon’s flat. At Léon’s round table, they would sit for three hours, starting at 2.30 every Thursday, and go through the translation.


(And I hope that the Léons kept this table for a while, because then it would be the same table at which, eight years later, in 1938, Nabokov would sit with Lucie — as she helped him with the English of his first novel written directly in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.)


Joyce smoked in an armchair; Léon read the English text and Soupault read the French, at the same time, breaking off to consider any problems. After fifteen of these meetings, they reached a final draft. This was sent to Jolas and Adrienne Monnier — Joyce’s friend, who had published the French translation of Ulysses — who suggested further changes. The finished translation of Anna Livia Plurabelle was published in the Nouvelle Revue Française on 1 May 1931.


There is no need to understand French to hear how talented this translation was. A lack of French is fine. Joyce shocked everyone with his care for sound over sense. In its new language, he was more concerned to preserve the form than the content.


Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep


Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Tellmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!


Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep, this time in French


N’entend pas cause les ondes de. Le bébé babil des ondes de. Souris chance, trotinette cause pause. Hein! Tu n’est past rentré? Quel père André? N’entend pas cause les fuisouris, les liffeyantes ondes de, Eh! Bruit nous aide! Mon pied à pied se lie lierré. Je me sens vieille comme mon orme même. Un conte conté de Shaun ou Shem? De Livie tous les fillefils. Sombre faucons écoutent l’ombre. Nuit. Nuit. Ma taute tête tombe. Je me sens lourde comme ma pierrestone. Conte moi de John ou Shaun. Qui furent Shem et Shaun en vie les fils ou filles de. Là-dessus nuit. Dis-mor, dis-mor, dis-mor, orme. Nuit, Nuit! Contemoiconte soit tronc ou pierre. Tant riviérantes ondes de, courtecourantes ondes de. Nuit.


Occasionally, the sense, and its connotations, has to alter. But this is so that the rhythm of the words, the sentences’ musicality, can still remain. The style, even of this work in progress, is still there.


Yes, the history of the novel is a history of an elaborate but international art form.


—from Adam Thirwell, The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes

deleuze says le clézio’s act of becoming via fabulation reveals his pedigree—melville, kafka, céline

Gilles Deleuze, "Literature and Life"  


Translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco

Critical Inquiry 23 (Winter 1997)


To write is certainly not to impose a form (of expression) on the matter of lived experience. Literature rather moves in the direction of the ill- formed or the incomplete, as Witold Gombrowicz said as well as practiced. Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience. It is a process, that is, a passage of Life that traverses both the livable and the lived. Writing is inseparable from becoming: in writing, one becomes-woman, becomes-animal or -vegetable, becomes-molecule, to the point of becoming-imperceptible. These becomings may be linked to each other by a particular line, as in J. M. G. Le Clézio’s novels; or they may coexist at every level, following the doorways, thresh- olds, and zones that make up the entire universe, as in H. P. Lovecraft’s powerful oeuvre. Becoming does not move in the other direction, and one does not become Man, insofar as man presents himself as a dominant form of expression that claims to impose itself on all matter, whereas woman, animal, or molecule always has a component of flight that escapes its own formalization. The shame of being a man—is there any better reason to write? Even when it is a woman who is becoming, she has to become-woman, and this becoming has nothing to do with a state she could claim as her own. To become is not to attain a form (identification, imitation, Mimesis) but to find the zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or undifferentiation where one can no longer be distinguished from a woman, an animal, or a molecule—neither imprecise nor general, but unforeseen and non-preexistent, singularized out of a population rather than determined in a form. One can institute a zone of proximity with anything, on the condition that one creates the literary means for doing so. André Dhôtel, for instance, makes use of the aster: something passes between the sexes, the genera, or the kingdoms.1 Becoming is always "between" or "among": a woman between women, or an animal among others. But the power of the indefinite article is effected only if the term in becoming is stripped of the formal characteristics that make it say the ("the animal in front of you .. ."). When Le Clézio becomes-Indian, it is always as an incomplete Indian who does not know "how to cultivate corn, or carve a dugout canoe"; rather than acquiring formal characteristics, he enters a zone of proximity.2 It is the same, in Kafka, with the swimming champion who does not know how to swim. All writing involves an athleticism, but far from reconciling literature with sports or turning writing into an Olympic event, this athleticism is exercised in flight and in the breakdown of the organic body—an athlete in bed, as Henri Michaux put it. One becomes animal all the more when the animal dies; and contrary to the spiritualist prejudice, it is the animal who knows how to die, who has a sense or premonition of death. Literature begins with a porcupine’s death according to Lawrence or with the death of a mole in Kafka: "our poor little red feet outstretched for tender sympathy."3 As Karl-Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) said, one writes for dying calves.4 Language must devote itself to reaching these feminine, animal, molecular detours, and every detour is a becoming mortal. There are no straight lines, neither in things nor in language. Syntax is the set of necessary detours that are created in each case to reveal the life in things.


To write is not to recount one’s memories and voyages, one’s loves and griefs, one’s dreams and phantasms. It is the same thing to sin through an excess of reality as through an excess of the imagination. In both cases it is the eternal daddy-mommy, an Oedipal structure that is projected onto the real or introjected into the imaginary. In this infantile conception of literature, what we seek at the end of the voyage, or at the heart of a dream, is a father. One writes for one’s father-mother. Marthe Robert has pushed this infantilization or "psychoanalization" of literature to an extreme, leaving the novelist no other choice than that of the Bastard or the Foundling.5 Even becoming-animal is not safe from an Oedipal reduction of the type "my cat, my dog." As Lawrence says, "if I am a giraffe, and the ordinary Englishmen who write about me … are nice, well-behaved dogs, there it is, the animals are different…. The animal I am you instinctively dislike."6 As a general rule, fantasies simply treat the indefinite as a mask for a personal or a possessive: "a child is being beaten" is quickly transformed into "my father beat me." But literature takes the opposite path and exists only when it discovers beneath appar- ent persons the power of an impersonal-which is not a generality but a singularity at the highest point: a man, a woman, a beast, a stomach, a child…. It is not the first two persons that function as the condition for literary enunciation; literature begins only when a third person is born in us that strips us of the power to say "I" (Blanchot’s "neuter").7 Of course, literary characters are perfectly individuated and are neither vague nor general, but all their individual traits elevate them to a vision that carries them off in an indefinite, like a becoming that is too powerful for them: Ahab and the vision of Moby Dick. The Miser is not a type, but on the contrary his individual traits (to love a young woman, and so on) make him accede to a vision: he sees gold in such a way that he is sent racing along a witch’s line where he gains the power of the indefinite—a miser…, some gold, more gold…. There is no literature without fabulation, but, as Henri Bergson was able to see, fabulation—the fabulating function—does not consist in imagining or projecting an ego. Rather, it attains these visions, it raises itself to these becomings and powers.


One does not write with one’s neuroses. Neuroses or psychoses are not passages of life but states into which we fall when the process is interrupted, blocked, or plugged up. Illness is not a process but a stopping of the process, as in the "Nietzsche case." Moreover, the writer as such is not a patient but rather a physician, the physician of himself and of the world. The world is the set of symptoms whose illness merges with man. Literature then appears as an enterprise of health; not that the writer would necessarily be in good health (there would be the same ambiguity here as with athleticism), but he possesses irresistible and delicate health that stems from what he has seen and heard of things too big for him, too strong for him, suffocating things whose passage exhausts him while nonetheless giving him the becomings that dominant and substantial health would render impossible.8 The writer returns from what he has seen and heard with red eyes and pierced eardrums. What health would be sufficient to liberate life wherever it is imprisoned by and within man, by and within organisms and genera? It is like Spinoza’s delicate health, while it lasted, bearing witness until the end to a new vision whose passage it remains open to.


Health as literature, as writing, consists in inventing a people that is missing. It is the task of the fabulating function to invent a people. We do not write with memories, unless it is to make them the origin and collective destination of a people to come still ensconced in its betrayals and repudiations. American literature has an exceptional power to produce writers who can recount their own memories, but as those of a universal people composed of immigrants from all countries. Thomas Wolfe "inscribes all of America in writing insofar as it can be found in the experience of a single man."9 This is not exactly a people called upon to dominate the world. It is a minor people, eternally minor, taken up in a becoming-revolutionary. Perhaps it only exists in the atoms of the writer, a bastard people, inferior, dominated, always in becoming, always incomplete. Bastard no longer designates a familial state, but the process or drift of the races. I am a beast, a Negro of an inferior race for all eternity. This is the becoming of the writer. Kafka (for central Europe) and Melville (for America) present literature as the collective enunciation of a minor people, or of all minor peoples, who find their expression only in and through the writer.10 Though it always refers to singular agents [agents], literature is a collective assemblage [agencement] of enunciation. Literature is delirium, but delirium is not a father-mother affair; there is no delirium that does not pass through peoples, races, and tribes and that does not haunt universal history. All delirium is world historical, "a displacement of races and continents."11 Literature is delirium, and as such its destiny is played out between the two poles of delirium. Delirium is a disease, the disease par excellence, whenever it erects a race it claims is pure and dominant. But it is the measure of health when it invokes this oppressed bastard race that ceaselessly stirs beneath dominations, resisting everything that crushes and imprisons, a race that is outlined in relief in literature as process. Here again, there is always the risk that a diseased state will interrupt the process or becoming; health and athleticism both confront the same ambiguity, the constant risk that a delirium of domination will be mixed with a bastard delirium, pushing literature toward a larval fascism, the disease against which it fights—even if this means diagnosing the fascism within itself and fighting against itself. The ultimate aim of literature is to release this creation of a health or this invention of a people—that is, a possibility of life-in the delirium. To write for this people that is missing … (for means less "in the place of" than "for the benefit of").


We can see more clearly the effect of literature on language: as Proust says, it opens up a kind of foreign language within language, which is neither another language nor a rediscovered patois but a becoming-other of language, a "minorization" of this major language, a delirium that carries it off, a witch’s line that escapes the dominant system. Kafka makes the swimming champion say, I speak the same language as you, and yet I don’t understand a single word you’re saying. Syntactic creation or style—this is the becoming of language. The creation of words or neologisms is worth nothing apart from the effects of syntax in which they are developed. So literature already presents two aspects: through the creation of syntax, it not only brings about a decomposition or destruction of the maternal language but also the invention of a new language within language. "The only way to defend language is to attack it." "Every writer is obliged to create his or her own language."12 Language seems to be seized by a delirium, which forces it out of its usual furrows. As for the third aspect, it stems from the fact that a foreign language cannot be hollowed outin one language without language as a whole in turn being toppled or pushed to a limit, to an outside or reverse side that consists of Visions and Auditions that no longer belong to any language. These visions are not fantasies, but veritable Ideas that the writer sees and hears in the interstices of language, in its intervals. They are not interruptions of the process but breaks that form part of it, like an eternity that can only be revealed in a becoming, or a landscape that only appears in movement. They are not outside language, but the outside of language. The writer as seer and hearer, the aim of literature: it is the passage of life within language that constitutes Ideas.


These three aspects, which are in perpetual movement, can be seen clearly in Antonin Artaud: the fall of letters in the decomposition of the maternal language (R, T, . . .); their incorporation into a new syntax or in new names with a syntactic import, creators of a language ("eTReTé"); and, finally, breath words, the asyntactical limit toward which all language tends.13 And even in Céline—we cannot avoid saying it, so acutely do we feel it: Journey to the End of the Night, or the decomposition of the maternal language; Death on the Installment Plan, with its new syntax as a language within language; and Guignol’s Band, with its suspended exclamations as the limit of language, as explosive visions and sonorities. In order to write, it may perhaps be necessary for the maternal language to be odious, but only so that a syntactic creation can open up a kind of foreign language in it, and language as a whole can reveal its outside, beyond all syntax. We sometimes congratulate writers, but they know that they are far from having achieved their becoming, far from having attained the limit they set for themselves, which ceaselessly slips away from them. To write is also to become something other than a writer. To those who ask what literature is, Virginia Woolf responds, To whom are you speaking of writing? The writer does not speak about it, but is concerned with something else.


If we consider these criteria, we can see that, among all those who make books with a literary intent, even among the mad, there are very few who can call themselves writers.