After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers. This interview focuses on Nathanaël’s translation of The Mausoleum of Lovers, by Hervé Guibert. —Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: Throughout this book, which often tracks Guibert’s fixation upon the moment when a text “detaches imperceptibly towards fiction after having taken its run-up on the ramp of veracity,” I found myself especially attentive to how your own translated prose might register such shifts, or might resist doing so. I admire your decision, for instance, to forego providing any introductory biographical supplement, and simply to launch us into the text: into our potential surprise at the poise and polish of the apparent 20-year-old we first encounter; into abrupt pivots from a professional junket in Mexico to domestic praise for how one’s great-aunt eats figs—from one notation to the next; into increased skepticism as Guibert passes first Kafka, then Genet, then Beckett on the Parisian streets. But then, beyond the desire, as you describe it, to maintain this hybridized, “androgynous literary form,” I soon wanted to ask about your own triangulated position caught between Guibert and his lover T. (often this journal’s first, intended, avowedly partial reader), amid a male-saturated (but not exclusively male) milieu immediately prior to and then during the late-twentieth-century AIDS crisis. So in lieu of, or alongside, questions of whether The Mausoleum of Lovers offers a true story, a love story (as this book sometimes characterizes itself), could you discuss if and how this particular translation project exemplifies the ever-triangulated position of the translator, and what heightened sensitivities that status offers you, both as liminal reader of this French-language text, and originary writer of this English-language text?
Nathanaël: Andy, I continue stubbornly to believe in the possibility of falling headlong into a book (not any book mind you), into the very disorientations that arise from finding oneself in an unfamiliar place, and this accounts, in part, for the decision to forego any kind of assuaging, orienting apparatus around the Guibert (as well, priorly, as the Glissant, an even more opaque proposition, and thus a much greater demand). It is not, in fact, out of keeping with Guibert’s work, in any case, which, in this instance, functions very much unlike the journal it claims to be, in that it abandons any kind of chronological markers, and is clearly a deliberate work, not a notebook found in some posthumous garret, but a body devised by the author to have a particular physiology as a corpse. Its late arrival confirms the adherence to the author’s last wishes, and the work itself was being purposefully constructed as a book (as several entries attest) during the author’s lifetime. But this is beside your question, which is so marvelously proposed as to make me want not to answer it at all, but to sit still with the idea of triangulation, something I hadn’t quite articulated to myself, since my experience of translating Le mausolée des amants in particular (and unlike almost everything else I have willingly translated to date) left me feeling reiteratively ejected, often in a rage at him, and very much outside of Guibert’s language—which is to say, at times: mute. Whatever proximities and proclivities I experienced as an initial reader were much attenuated, at times to the point of obliteration, during the work of translation. (Whatever one may say about the relationship between reading and translating, one must recognize the very different time signature attributed to each activity; a translator hasn’t the luxury to hurry over certain passages, but must submit to whatever time it takes to render each parcel of language.) It was more that I felt I had been called upon (though I initiated this movement myself) to inter a body that instead I was only ever exhuming. This is very subjective, and likely too personal, but the mortific corpse, or its advent, was almost permanently present with me through the time of translation, already the copulant stone forms of the text permanently attempting to exceed their rigidity. On the contrary, the work’s ostensible epistolary form is what makes its intimacy vital, something I could attend to without entanglement, since there was no danger of confusion—though not for reasons of gender, or express desire, or even historicity; rather it is in the language. Guibert’s language is one that in some respects strictly forbids me (unlike someone like Collobert, with whom there is a danger, always, of excessive proximity, to the point at times of complete immersion, or someone like Glissant, who, despite the complexity of the prose, meets me in a language I recognise also as my own). The distance between the first entries and T’s final sobs is only ever collapsing, the way bodies can collapse into one another (and the bodies, not all of which are tragic, are legion in this work: extending from Michel Foucault through Guibert’s parents and publishers, without forgetting T’s partner Christine and the children, or the younger lover Vincent, or his great aunts Suzanne and Louise; with the fast, calamitous deaths, burglarized lives and fantasied murders, there are also the bodies of children that a remorseless Bernard Faucon (B.F./G./Gilles) falls into (whether in Paris’s north end or in the permissive streets of Bangkok) under the spell of Guibert’s fascinated prose. What is certain, in any case, is that the translator is not able to catch them.
AF: You’ve mentioned some of the historical bodies circulating across this text. And elsewhere, you have described one primary purpose in your Mausoleum of Lovers engagement as an attempt to “perhaps correct the tendency toward too great a reliance on Barthes as the sovereign thinker” of photography. Alas, I might suffer from that same tendency. When Guibert announces an urge to photograph terry towels, but in spontaneous, accidental fashion, or when the book subsequently posits its proximity to death as pulling it towards the indexical or documentary, rather than the metaphorical or the narrative, I definitely do think of Barthes. Could you characterize Guibert’s position regarding photography both in relation and in distinction to Barthes’s?
N: I can’t imagine this as having been a primary purpose, and if I said so, I must have been lying. It was nothing that calculated. But over time (and this toil certainly extended into several, far too many, years), and through conversations with others, and my astonishment at the lack of awareness among a number of Anglophone photography scholars of Guibert’s work (written or otherwise), it seemed self-evident to me that this oversight ought to be corrected. Particularly in light of the telescopic applications of Barthes’s La chambre claire, and the seeming inability to think photography away from Barthes’s terms (the studium and the punctum having seemingly replaced any possibility of thought in this domain, despite even Barthes’ concern, unheeded by too many of his readers, that he himself may have been abusing these words, like any theory risks doing; it seems more or less to function as a surrogate for thinking, a kind of rigor mortis just as Barthes himself warns in Le degré zéro de l’écriture, and as Derrida very concisely sums up when he writes “Dès qu’il est saisi par l’écriture, le concept est cuit”).[i] Guibert is at the antipodes of Barthes, whatever their affinities, or in another register altogether, in that he doesn’t seek to formulate a theory at all (which Barthes, despite his stated “résistance éperdue à tout système réducteur,” persistently attempts, even as he undermines his own effort), unless one insists on interpreting his desires for vanishment (photography without a subject, writing without a story, death without a body) as such[ii]. It is precisely in the absence of a photograph (its actual, material loss) that he is able to enter into the problem of photography, just as the journal functions in the place of a novel that has yet to be written. The importance is as much in the thinking as it is in the writing itself (the two being indissociable for me: one writes thinking; one thinks writing). Of Barthes, Duras proffers: “Roland Barthes était un homme pour lequel j’avais de l’amitié mais que je n’ai jamais pu admirer. Il me semblait qu’il avait toujours la même démarche professorale, très surveillée, rigoureusement partisane.”[iii] She describes his writing after Mythologies, including especially Fragments d’un discours amoureux, as unreadable; and despite her friendship for him, and the recognition that he was indeed a writer (something she justifiably denies Sartre), she nonetheless taxes his textuality with “immobility, regularity,” an inability to open to “l’impie, à l’interdit pour que l’inconnu des choses entre et se montre”—something Guibert excels at, and which transpierces even the most mild characterizations of his work in English.[iv] One would need, for example, to loosen oneself from the strict categories to which English-language publishing is so beholden and hear the author himself: who describes both L’image fantôme and Le mausolée des amants as novels (and not as a memoir as the former is characterized, presumably for the misguided sake of marketability), but who also applies this designation to Le seul visage, what would usually be described as an exhibition catalogue. These may seem to be quibbles, but they land us squarely within the bounds of your question, which is to say that they nullify the customary categories; if readers of Barthes have placed such emphasis on the theoretical aspects of La chambre claire, it is at the expense of the narrative, questioning aspect of this work. One can only regret the subjugation of decades of thought to terms that were perhaps intended to be experimental and not definitive at all; one would have had, for example, to linger at greater length on the ambiguity of the French aimer, which as Barthes indicates is split along the verbs “to like” and “to love,” before so readily deploying this work’s perceived theory. Guibert allows one to not know what a photograph is (he calls it an “event of light”), to live inside le désespoir de l’image, which, in the end, is indefinable: “One day, all the photos will have dissolved, the photographic paper will no longer impress, react, will be a dead thing.”
AF: Because this text (Guibert’s, your own) gave me such pleasure as a reader, I would love to hear more about your experiences reading Guibert, your theory of the reader as prompted by this one particular book, even amid the experience of “ejection” that you have described above. For instance, do certain especially captivating moments still stand out as essential to holding this nearly 600-page assemblage together? Does this book’s dispersive form seem to preclude any such isolated, exemplary extractions? For me, I particularly love the non-ejaculatory cruising on trains and busses, the purportedly impersonal, unconsummated desire that really does take place (or seems to, from this protagonist’s charismatic vantage) between two commuters; or lines such as “It’s snowing (absurdity of such an isolated notation, hardly dated, suspended like the snowflake in immense time),” or, even better, “A very old man in a pressed black suit, a cane in his left hand, a newspaper in the crook of his right arm, crosses the square with a bunch of onions in his hand,” or “A late rise, Sunday morning, the voice of a friend (M.), a day of great clear heat outside, and inside the preservation of a shadow that makes me want to curl back into sleepiness,” and then, perhaps best of all, the horny phone caller with the wrong number, at 2 AM, amid a violent altercation, who seizes the moment to ask “And you, are you looking for something?” Do you have your own chain of equivalent, perhaps non-epiphanic but book-making moments within Guibert, and did pursuing such a train of moments prompt in any way this book’s translation?
N: There is a danger with translation, one I have too often encountered, despite the enthusiasm with which I have undertaken, with rare exception, the books I have chosen to translate, and that is the obliteration of my experience as a reader. However much the impetus behind this endeavour has almost always arisen from a sense of impassioned necessity, the desire to transmit or share what falls into a vacuum of sorts (I do, after all, live for the most part in a principally Anglophone milieu despite spending most of my inward time, whether reading, or writing, in French, and in concert with other languages), the truth of it is that the act of translation alters the work so dramatically as to become near unrecognisable. The Mausoleum of Lovers, which is now close to two years in existence as a book, is only now beginning to return to me in its unaltered form (a fantasy, of course), as Le mausolée des amants, which had initially been so captivating: urgent, raw, desolate, sensuous, provocative, macabre, indiscreet, unbearably sorrowful though not without humour, and full of such thinking as to render intimacy seemingly inviolable despite its repeated exposures. It accompanied me in my thinking through Sisyphus, Outdone. and was present in the work of the three Carnets published in French that eventually became The Middle Notebookes. I am loath, nonetheless, to trace these itineraries, because they are not causal, and it is too simple to interpret them thus. Rather the work presents itself as an instance of encounter, and it is in this way that Guibert’s language, the language of Le mausolée des amants, becomes inescapable, and thus in need of exceeding itself in another language—English, for example (the stupefaction, truly, that none had yet attended to this work, which is unanimously Guibert’s most admired, and potentially accomplished: a friend has conveyed to me the decision, many years ago, to learn French in order to read this work, convinced it would never arrive in English). There are of course passages that retained my attention so fervently at the initial time of reading as to have prompted me to translate and convey them immediately to friends, including Stephen, as manifestation of a desire to translate, as well as a recognition of the lack in English of such a literature. But these epistolary gestures, including the textual moments embedded in them, feel deeply personal, despite the very striking awareness that The Mausoleum of Lovers is anything but “mine”; this is not an attempt to evade responsibility for my decisions, but rather the recognition, in this instance, perhaps more than in any other to date, that the transmission that occurred through this work owes as much to the historical moment that failed it, as it does to any contribution I have made. Guibert is not me, and being not for me is always for someone else; its scope is of an emotional calibre that one may only surrender to, but never without some degree of resistance: “It would then be necessary to be quiet, and for each to endeavor to go towards the violence of the other while dissipating his own.”
[i] As soon as it is seized by writing, the concept is cooked, crocked, finished. (Tr. Peggy Kamuf)
[ii] …desperate resistance to any reductive system. (Tr. Richard Howard)
[iii] Roland Barthes was a man toward whom I felt friendship but whom I was never able to admire. It seemed to me that he always had the same professorial approach, very vigilant, rigorously partisan. (Tr. N.)
[iv] …the impious, the interdict, so that the unknown in things may enter and show itself. (Tr. N.)
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Talks, Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Wlaks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. With Cristiana Baik, he recently has assembled the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.
Nathanaël is the author of more than a score of books written in English or in French, including FEDER (2016), L’heure limicole (2016), Laisse (rejet apparent) (2016) and The Middle Notebookes (2015). She lives in Chicago.