According to The New York Review of Books, only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the U.S. are translations. Whether this is the result of American isolationism, or commercial practicalities is a subject for debate, but it’s hard not to wonder what literary gems we’re missing in this country.
Gwarlingo has featured a fair number of poetry translation projects: Russian poets Anzhelina Polonskaya, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Gennadi Aygi, the fascinating micrograms of Jorge Carrera Andrade, Japanese haiku master Kobayashi Issa, and Korean Zen Master Chin’gak Kuksa Hyesim.
To this diverse roster, we now add French poet, novelist, and essayist Michel Butor. This translation and introduction by Jeffrey Gross is a Gwarlingo exclusive. To the best of Gross’s knowledge, La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore (The Suburbs from Dawn to Daybreak) has never been translated into English.
Only 810 copies of La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore were printed by Fata Morgana press in 1968, so the book is exceedingly rare. As this photo shows, the design and engravings by French artist Bernard Dufour are quite exceptional. (You can see more drawings when viewing the complete text here.)
Because of the literary significance of Gross’s translation, I’m offering today’s Sunday Poem in two versions—the complete poem, as well as this excerpt. You may prefer to merely dip your toe into Butor’s impressionistic text, or you may prefer full immersion, opting instead to read The Suburbs from Dawn to Daybreak in its entirety. The choice is yours.
Also included is an extensive essay about Butor’s poem written by Gross. A special thanks to Jeffrey for sharing this work exclusively with Gwarlingo readers.
Michel Butor: An Introduction
by Jeffrey Gross
I.It might be a bit tendentious to separate poems into “the fun ones” and “the other ones” – so let’s do it. Michel Butor’s La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore (The Suburbs from Dawn to Daybreak) delivers a rich payload of aesthetic pleasure precisely, in part, because it refuses to behave like a work of consequence. Skirting notions of seriousness, it’s light on its feet. But it’s not inconsequential – more like pseudo-inconsequential. In rhetorical strokes both whimsical and bold, it creates its own poem-scape, vividly drawing for us the suburb of the title, its interface with nature, and the elements it contains: churches, policemen, soldiers, and animals, real and surreal. Given the poem’s clarity, its on-the-surface-ness, we have the luxury of going around the poem as well as into it – a circumduction as well as an introduction. So we can stop to look at the poem alongside other trends and influences, as well as other facets of the author’s career.
Banlieue was written in 1948, and was published along with the companion poem Mouvement Brownien in 1968 in an engraved edition of 810 copies, the words interspersed with fanciful drawings by Bernard Dufour, some of which are reproduced here.
Michel Butor himself is that fascinating creature, the literary shape-shifter. During his career, he has written poems, novels, essays and travelogues, as well as unclassifiable works. He has even dabbled in fashion, writing poems on one-of-a-kind silk stoles.1
Yet at the time Banlieue was published, Butor was known mainly as one of the foremost exponents of the nouveau roman – the “New Novel.” Without getting stuck in the briar-patch of French lit crit, it’s interesting to dwell a bit on this movement, since our current poem starts in the same place but ends up somewhere very different and, I think, far more pleasurable.
The nouveau roman was one of the more noteworthy literary trends under the heading of Modernism, many of which involved two components: 1) an applecart, preferably a venerable one2, and 2) someone to tip it over. The principal tippers in this movement, which flourished in the 50s and 60s, were Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon. The applecart was the pretension to transcendence and closure of the traditional novel. Put another way, the program… But wait: is there a program here? After all, Robbe-Grillet asserts that “The New Novel is not a theory, it is an exploration.” Yet it seems there is a reigning Idea: dethrone the novel’s claim to impose order on experience, and render instead the continual slipping away of solidity and certainty which is the lot of the average self. Do this by barring at the door the omniscient narrator, who among other sins had the chutzpah to relate the innermost thoughts and feelings of characters, and who generally made the world depicted in the novel “stable, coherent, continuous… [and] decipherable.”3If the goal of the nouveau roman was to a impose a lasting change on what readers expect of novelists, it might be termed a failure d’estime (like some other Modernist movements it seemed to delight in trashing toys we weren’t done playing with yet). As one wag put it, perhaps unfairly, the only people who read nouveaux romans are other nouveau romanistes and professors at large Midwestern universities. That may be a bit harsh, but as Anatole Broyard said, “When something is called experimental fiction, it generally means the experiment failed.” Now comes Donald Barthelme: “Play is one of the great possibilities of art; it is also… the Eros-principle whose repression means total calamity. The humorless practitioners of le noveau roman produce such calamities regularly, as do our native worshippers of the sovereign Fact. It is the result of a lack of seriousness.” Piling on, perhaps, but it may explain why the nouveau roman’s literary descendants are few: lack of play = lack of seriousness. Or: you can’t hoodwink the reader.
Moving from reception to roots, the nouveau roman may not be so nouveau after all, but may descend from Surrealism. In his Manifeste du surréalisme André Breton quotes the poet Paul Valéry as saying he’ll never write a novel that begins, “La marquise sortit à cinq heures” – “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” Why? Well, why a marquise, rather than an ordinary slob? And why does she go out at 5 PM anyway? Because it’s the pre-dinner hour – l’heure entre chien et loup – when one arranges a tryst with one’s lover, precisely a cinq-à-sept. Why this privileging of dramatic events over the gradual accretion of ordinariness, the mud-suck of mundanity, that constitutes daily life for most of us? So the efforts of Butor, Robbe-Grillet & Co. can be seen as branches of an anti-realist tree that flourished many decades ago.
Interestingly, the Surrealist tree sprouts a different branch that bears fruit in Banlieue. To change metaphors: when you upset an applecart, the pieces can roll in different directions. To “deconstruct” authorial consciousness is not Butor’s agenda here. Take the piquant lines, “As soon as she had realized that she was ugly / She became intolerably beautiful.” A naïve certainty is invoked. Who? “She.” What did she do? “Realized that she was ugly.” Then what? “She became intolerably beautiful.” Of course, many questions are raised – notably the identity of the poem’s “she,” hieratic as an Easter Island statue – but on its own terms the text offers us a reality, if a magical one. An afterthought: this illustrates that magical realism can be conservative; it presupposes realism – didactic realism with unicorns, one might say.Beyond Surrealism, other influences on Banlieue:
Art Naïf, the primitive-ish posters and postcards of idealized French towns one used to collect.
The tone-painting of French Impressionist music, like Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s La vallée des cloches.
I believe these influences have three things in common:
Whimsy. This is connected to the mild distortion of a reality that remains recognizable. The slightly doughy, stylized figures behind the bakery counter in an Art Naïf poster are of this sort; Dali’s melting watches are too distorted to be whimsical and pass into the domain of the uncanny.
A sense of specificity of place. With the (musical) Impressionists, this often seeks a Spanish milieu, as in Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnol. And concreteness of place is common to many of Debussy’s piano Preludes: La Cathédrale Engoutie, Des pas sur la neige, etc. In Banlieue we have a geography that’s both suburbanized and mythologized, yet gritty.
Perhaps most interestingly: an underlying emotional “coolth” or detachment.
There’s a fascinating contrast with German Romanticism. Take Caspar David Friedrich. In his paintings we have a mysticism not untinged by whimsy. Yet they have a sort of purposiveness to them: they draw you into their space and engage you emotionally – that’s their teleology. In a more modern context, one might say the same of Kandinsky or Kokoschka. Whimsy, yes; frivolity, no. These artists have designs on your soul. Whereas many of the Gallic works mentioned give us the aesthetic pleasure of beauty without soulfulness, without a surge of emotion (the epigram to Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales commended “the delicious and ageless pleasure of a useless occupation”). Of course, this sounds wrong: one is moved by beauty per se; the artists mentioned pack a punch. But one is perhaps moved less emotionally than aesthetically. One might almost say that the pleasure of this combination of playfulness and French elegance is the pleasure of being left alone to relax in one’s internal autonomy; the pleasure, quite simply, of enjoying, and being conscious of, one’s self-sufficiency in such lovely surroundings.
A story that nicely highlights the different national temperaments has Chopin4 reacting to a warm review by his German mentor Schumann: faced with the effusiveness, the French composer says, “Schumann sounds as though he’d swallowed a pot of honey.” A bit far afield, but if I must justify such a yummy anecdote: it underlines the persistence of classical restraint as a guiding principle in French culture, if one with countercurrents. And the combination of restraint and whimsy found in Banlieue offers us perhaps less revolution, but more reward.
II.As someone who’s but a gentleman farmer in the vast fields of translation, perhaps I should refrain from talking about the process, how the harvest is carefully wrested from the Urtext soil. But given the propensity of fools—and former academics—to rush in… I might have saved us time had I, in place of this intro, delivered as a bottom line the splendid Italian maxim: “Traduttore, traditore” – “Translator, traitor.” Yet there are different types of traitors. In this case, one’s treachery to the text is based on love for it, on one’s desire that more people should enjoy its favors. (Does that make the translator more a pander than a traitor? I pass over this in silence.) Yet treachery it remains, the trade’s tragedy.
It seems to me that, behind the complexity, the craft has three main aspects. The first is the literal meaning of the words; easy to invoke, a labyrinth in practice. The second is the rhyme or sonic surface of the text. This applies to the poetic aspect of language per se, though of course it’s particularly nettlesome in rhymed verse. The third is the stance the work takes towards the world; “the style” is a clumsy approximation of this. If the text were to greet you, would it say “pleased to meet you,” and if so would the intonation be sincere, arch, detached? Or would it shake your hand and give you a shoulder-squeeze in the bargain? This last aspect is in a sense the trickiest, the most elusive of the three. One may be high on the fumes of recent success with a Goethe poem (something declaimed by the enigmatic and fascinating Mignon in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship). One managed to rhyme “early” with “hurly-burly” – wunderbar! Then, peeking around the self-congratulation, one takes another glance at the language. The words. Very plain, almost workmanlike. Yet sublime. That’s genius for you. After a break (and probably a shot of whiskey), one realizes: Plenty of room for “early”; for “hurly-burly,” perhaps not so much. It stands out like a ball gown at a feed lot. One wants to cavil – it sounded great, and was hard won, dammit (also: one stole it from Macbeth). This is the Error of Insufficient Ruthlessness: a pig who’s not willing to eat her own farrow is the wrong pig for this game. Beyond those three facets, there’s just that pesky choosing-the-right-words business. Words, words, words, as far as the mind can think (Heidegger: “I am a conversation”). But if you want an I/Thou relationship with the poem, you must make the poem an “It” and separate the I from the It, your words from the poem’s. Put differently, two steps: 1) take all the words that aren’t the poem, 2) throw them out.
1 Hat tip to fiction writer Maud Casey for this intriguing find.
2 In painting, representation; in music, functional tonality.
3 Robbe-Grillet, “For a New Novel,” 1963
4 Parisian by adoption, though Polish-born
From La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore (The Suburbs from Dawn to Daybreak)
by Michel Butor with Translation by Jeffrey Gross
For Jean-François Lyotard to whom I owe the conservation of these texts
The sea is a fruit without stones
The swallows graze on the raw sky
Far off the automobiles sing
The rain takes a stroll in silk stockings
The camels in the sky
Capsize with melancholy
And long drops of rusty water
Slide slowly down the backs
Of little girls
The pines move away
Like a sad vanquished fleet
And yet they were so much lovelier than we
Your eyes are heavy like coals
And broad perfect
Like cut flints
But the fruit of the trees
Is more beautiful still
And we will never be
Like the fruit of the trees
If I cannot make you more beautiful still
Than all the fruit of the trees
What good would I be to you and you
Are you not impotence itself
If you cannot make me a tree
On which you
The flowers have spread into the underworld
A very windy day
And there is nothing left here but dead leaves
The boats themselves will disappear
As far as I may go
I won’t succeed in wearing out
My earth sandals
Huge sunflowers will ravish me
But you still more foreign to me
Than I am
What familiarity could you establish
Between things and my gestures
In the world that you bring me
Desolation has eyes as big
As in the Greek myths
The sky is as white and implacable
As on the two mountains Terror and Erebus
Who are as little as everyone
You hide the world from me
There are crows here
Beautiful crows which I prefer to you
And fires and hares
Around the marshes
Tame me and condemn me
Do you see the day
Is always formed of fishes
Rubbing their scales against each other
Must we be miserable
In the laundry-rooms
Dry our itchings
I fear the wolf
Who insinuates himself into the laundry rooms
During half-opening hours1
He has teeth in tatters
But the more effective for that believe me
I am a wolf who haunts
The places of purification and crime
I am a wolf
As soon as she had realized that she was ugly
She became intolerably beautiful
They try to smother her
They drop carpets on her in the dark
They beat them
They hurt her
They tear her stockings
They stain her dresses
They glue her sheets
They throw flaming bolsters
Right in her face
She flees along a rocky course
That climbs in switchbacks
Along ramparts of basalt and scree
She crosses mirrors
And her clothes are planted with
She is drenched with a rain of oil
She penetrates a tunnel of dust
Crosses enormous seashells
And sources of mineral water
Falls to the bottom of a well
And one can see long legs on the horizon
Which confuse the route for the sea
The echo of her voice disturbs the beasts
She tears a hole in the roof of a bank
Shatters the glass cases
And scatters the papers
In a whirlwind of rustlings
And then she disappears into the shadows
Like a cloud of flashing hair
She is distant in a desert of points
And of distant flashes
Calm and moving…
In my childhood
The town was a barque
Among leaves studded
With lively insects
We tie and untie
The strings of our old times
Our heads almost submerged
By the debris and the dust
Along the ramparts
Long shadows flower
The geraniums become exasperated
Like trepanned skulls
Abuzz with flies
The fields are a great carcass turning blue
With swollen veins
And somersaults of hairs on end
Your hair rolls
In the midst of stones and thistles
Turns back and the waves move off
While the cocks utter their cries
In the bramblebushes
There is a person blue and bread
Who opens the shutters
The street resonates
When one looks at the sky
It’s a great chariot wheel
The birches mingle
At the dooryards of the farms
The pigs dig in the roots
And snuffle at the gates
It’s a lizard bigger than a village
Who crushes the stones and drinks up the ponds
He cries a great lizard-cry
As if he were the sky
After a downpour
It’s a pigeon as big as an eagle
With a beak as cruel as a gull
And a dark tail and claws
With a fraying shadow in the form of a cross
But perhaps there is a rest with you
Although I’m too afraid of you
1The original, “aux heures d’entrouverture,” contains a play on the standard phrase “aux heures d’ouverture,” referring to a shop’s opening hours.
About Michel Butor
Michel-Marie-François Butor was born in 1926 in Mons-en-Baroeul, France. A novelist, poet, and essayist, he is one of the leading exponents of the nouveau roman (“new novel”), the avant-garde French novel that emerged in the 1950s.
Butor studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and from 1951 to 1953 was a lecturer at the University of Manchester. He was subsequently a teacher in Thessaloníki, Greece, Geneva, Switz, and numerous other cities in the United States and France. After an early experimental novel, Passage de Milan, Butor won critical acclaim with L’Emploi du temps (1956; Passing Time), a complex evocation of his gloomy season in Manchester. With his third novel, La Modification (1957; Second Thoughts, or A Change of Heart), Butor perfected his experimental technique and was considered to have arrived at his full powers. The work won the Prix Renaudot.
Butor, who regarded the novel as a blend of philosophy and poetry, owed much in his fiction to the influence of James Joyce. A feature common to all his novels is a rigid structure. Passage de Milan takes place in a single day in a tenement building, and in La Modification the setting is a journey in a compartment of the Paris-Rome express. Degrés (1960;Degrees), his fourth novel, imposes on the action the rigid pattern of a college timetable.
His subsequent fiction includes Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (1967; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape), Intervalle (1973), and Explorations (1981; with verse). Outstanding among his nonfiction works are Mobile (1962; Eng. trans. Mobile), a prose-rhapsody aiming to capture the spirit of the United States, and Description de San Marco (1963; Description of San Marco). He also published several collections of poetry and critical essays, including Répertoire, 5 vol. (1960–82), Improvisations sur Flaubert (1984), L’Utilité poétique (1995), and Octogénaire (2006). Other works include the novel Boomerang (1978) and the long essay Improvisations sur Rimbaud (1989).
About Jeffrey Gross
A former PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, Jeffrey Gross has worn several chapeaux, including software developer, CFO, and singer. He lives in the village of Brooklyn, New York, where he “does a little writing [and translating] on the side.”
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La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore © Michel Butor. Introduction to and translation of La Banlieue de l’Aube à l’Aurore © Jeffrey Gross. Drawings © Bernard Dufour. All Rights Reserved. This translation was published with permission from Jeffrey Gross. Michel Butor biography adapted from the Encyclopedia Brittanica website.