Chris Miller In Conversation with Yves Bonnefoy
Republished by kind permission of Carcanet Press Ltd and PN Review
CHRIS MILLER: What kind of relationship have you had with your translators?
YVES BONNEFOY: Chris, if there is one thing that I regret, it is my inability to form closer relationships with those who do me the honour of translating me into their own languages. Very few readers are in such close contact with a work as the translator, who has to track its every word and thought, and could therefore become an interlocutor as helpful as the most discerning critic – but almost by definition lives half a world away. And it is not easy for an author to further this relationship when he doesn’t know the language into which he is being ushered. To that extent, I am bound to distinguish between my translators into English and Italian – and even Spanish and Catalan, languages that I can if not read at least make something of – and the others.
And the relationships in these two cases are obviously very different. I have to say that I have somewhat contradictory thoughts about translation and the effect of these contradictions varies with my knowledge of the language. On the one hand, I firmly believe that the translator must assert her freedom and can only authentically encounter a work by bringing it into the world of her own reflexive relationship. This is bound to produce extremely bold and entirely legitimate displacements of the signifiers of the original. For example, the translator must trust to her own music and never sacrifice her own rhythms. This is no less true of timbre. The pianist shouldn’t imitate the violin on his keyboard but dialogue with it and by means of this duo salvage the central intuition of the work, which fortunately transcends these different approaches. Let me put that another way. When I translate, I don’t model my prosody or metrics on what I perceive of the source text because only in my own prosody am I sufficiently at my ease and only in my own metrics am I sufficiently free for my assent to the foreign author to be meaningful. And if ‘labour ’in a poem by Yeats feels to me more like ‘childbirth ’than ‘work ’I shall translate by enfantement even if the English doesn’t prove outright that this sense prevails in the ambiguity of the word.
At the same time, when I read a translation of one of my own works, I can’t help tracing through the work the new form taken by the ideas and sentiments that I felt I had expressed or suggested and I quickly come to regret it when the translator departs from them. I recognise the inconsistency of these attitudes. But this occurs only with those of my translators that I can read. And within this category, there are two kinds of relationships. With translators into Italian, English, and even Spanish, my need to ensure that the nuances of my thought can be heard in their writing leads me to read their first drafts very closely – when, that is, they allow me to see them. And so we come to discussions of points of detail that might appear finicky but in which I find considerable interest from a perspective that matters to me and goes well beyond what happens to my own texts: the comparison of languages and reflection on what one might call their own particular genius.
I’m a strong supporter of the intuitions of Wilhelm de Humboldt, the linguist. I think there is a great deal to be learnt by comparing the way in which words are heard and understood by a Francophone or an Anglophone and I should love to be able to extend this investigation as far as Chinese or Japanese – though obviously this is just a dream for me – because something essential to poetry is surely revealed when one moves from the universe of alphabetical notation to one constructed by Chinese characters that originated as ideograms. So that I feel a certain frustration when I think of everything that I’m unable to share with many of my translators.
Do you experience ‘literary theory’, Deconstruction, etc., as a form of oppression? Is criticism the form of oppression undergone by writers born in democratic countries?
It’s true that I often felt a certain impatience with the thinking and methods of textual analysis that reigned for many years in France under the name of ‘structuralism’. And I don’t know if structuralism is a system of thought characteristic of democratic regimes but it may indeed have served a need to rein in the intellect and constrain the expression of personal feeling; in a democratic society these don’t easily find a space in which to flourish. Nor did I much like that technical vocabulary overburdened with concepts – which as often as not had no real scientific value: those clumsy forceps with which they sought to pick out the meaning of texts. By that stage, the exegete seemed unaware that poetry was not made to mean but to restore words to their full intensity, their integral capacity to designate fundamental things in our relationships with ourselves and others, here and now, amid those chances that one should never, as Mallarmé did, dream of abolishing. While structuralism was the reigning faction, it did indeed give rise to a sort of ideologised language [langue de bois], one that was surely less suffocating than those of the totalitarian regimes and implied no physical danger, but was nevertheless notably unhelpful in the understanding of poetry.
That way of looking at poems and poets was inimical to their maintaining a living presence in society, in particular in schools and universities, and may indeed have deterred people who, in a different climate, might have felt the call of such things in their innermost heart. But it couldn’t stop the true friends of poetry – there are never very many of these, especially in France – from preserving the need for poetry, from highlighting its difference and finally from rescuing it from interpretation that distorted its intention. The time is past when young academics would confide to me that it was safer for them, if they wanted tenure, to profess no interest in poetry other than its dissection in various laboratories linguistic, psychoanalytic and so on. For many years now there has been a great renascence in the understanding of poetics in the world of teaching, in particular in the universities. Baudelaire and Rimbaud can make themselves heard and the idolisation of Mallarmé – for reasons that he himself would never have condoned – has somewhat abated. I could name a few professors better informed about the nature of poetry, its essence and its intense seriousness, then many of those who call themselves poets. This is a point that I should like to emphasise in order to knock certain unsavoury prejudices on the head. I attempted to do this in my recent book La communauté des critiques [The Community of Critics], in which I highlight the many links that currently exist between poetry and the University: between the words of the great poets of East and West and the scruple of historians and philosophers.
And speaking of philosophers, I don’t, it is true, talk about Jacques Derrida in this book. But I might easily have done. And I should have done so with great sympathy and admiration, because I see no overlap between structuralist thought – which reduced poetic experience to the text produced by it, then further reduced that to the forms it expected to unearth – and the work of deconstruction. Derrida was aware of the constant drift affecting the concept precisely when it dreams of setting itself up as a system. He was therefore very close to poetry, which is, almost by definition, a questioning of what is conceptual in language, a transgression of the systems that words are always
tempted to construct – thereby creating for themselves a pseudo-timelessness amounting to oblivion and denial of the strictly human truth. That human truth is a knowledge of time, which is life and death: a commitment to what time expects of us.
What relations hold between politics and poetry? I’m thinking of the notion sketched out by an American philosopher, Lucy A. Alford, who seeks to base a theory of human rights on the quality of attention inherent in the reading or creation of the poem.
I don’t know anything about Lucy Alford’s works but what you say about them makes immediate sense to me and I should like to know more about them. It must be clear from what I have just said about the structuralist approach to poetry that what I call poetry is the refusal of absolute conceptual systems especially where they attempt to replace the world as it is with simple schemata – this world which is made up of existences rather than things. And since poetry takes account of and keeps alive the memory of the one great indefeasible reality that conceptual discourse fragments and would like us to forget, it goes without saying that poetry refuses to allow us to see in other men and women anything other than full, living presences free to assert their own rights and authorised in their own dignity. And this is, quite specifically, the project of democracy. I am willing to declare, as one of my great certainties, that if one has a sense of poetry – if one wants to make it burgeon in one’s outlook on the world – one cannot help but be a democrat in one’s relation to society. To be able to understand poetry is to rediscover the declaration of the rights of man at its source, to revitalise it, rescue it from the ideological interpretations that it constantly endures; it is to restore it to its future. And if that’s what Lucy Alford professes, she is quite right to do so.
This is another way of saying that poetry and politics are one and the same thing. Conceptual, analytic thought is timeless by its very nature and its statements necessarily general; it cannot therefore be reconciled with the relationship to time that is the essence of our lives, which are made up of births and deaths, chances and encounters. That being the case, how could conceptual thought help us to perceive other beings fully, even those who are close to us? If we entrust ourselves to the concept, other people disappear from our horizon, society fragments, abstraction reigns, ideology predominates – and the fundamental need of ideology is to destroy the individual that contradicts it. Poetic consciousness is there to help us struggle against this affliction, which is inherent in society; it can make of politics – our reflection on social relations – something other than the record of fragmentation and atomisation of which I spoke.
When Miłosz said ‘What is poetry that does not save / Nations or people? ’he asked this question among the ruins of Warsaw and lived to regret his question. Do you think there can be any salvation in poetry, and if so, for whom?
What have I just said, unless that poetry alone is capable of setting human society to rights? Or, to be more precise, that the intuition that seeks, in poems, ever greater depth and duration is the only one that might allow the Self and Other to rediscover each other and come to an alliance. Poetry is therefore a way forward for society. But society fails to grasp this. There is nothing to show that the poetic ambition within us will be sufficient to compete with other and more obviously destructive aspects of our being in the world; evil forces that seemed to have prevailed in Warsaw, when Miłosz made his way across that vast expanse of ruins.
But the struggle is never over and though poetry can, I fear, never conclusively prevail, it will never give up; again and again it returns to the breach. And Miłosz was wrong if, when he spoke these words, his intention was to incriminate the poetic as such, instead of simply deploring its excessive weakness at certain moments of history. He would have been wrong because he would have been taking poetry to be an illusion with no grip on reality, a reverie constantly exposed by historical events – and if people came to believe that, it would deprive us of our principal recourse.
Yes, it is all too true that poets dream, they too easily believe that their demand for a rejuvenated society restored to its proper transparency can be attained by a particular way of life that they have been convinced is the right one; they are naive, they take the things that they desire for benefits that can naturally be shared. Failure follows with all its unhappy consequences. But poetry should not be confused with the dreams to which so many poets succumb. What are these dreams, if not themselves conceptual systems shrouding the depths whose memory poetry seeks to preserve? Yes, poetry has at times allowed itself to be deceived by these dreams, but only for a moment; the memory that is the lifeblood of poetry soon enough demands that it come literally to its senses. And it is this capacity for recovery, this insistence on again ‘getting a grip ’that is its greatest resource; to see in the poetic only the capacity for illusion by which it is eroded would be a catastrophic misunderstanding.
Why is Rimbaud such a great poet? ‘Hope and Lucidity ’is the title of the introduction to my book about Notre Besoin de Rimbaud [Why We Need Rimbaud]. And what I meant by these two words was this: throughout his short career, Rimbaud allowed himself to be taken in by successive Utopias, for example, the idea of a communist revolution or a life transformed by the ‘systematic derangement of the senses’. And he failed again and again. But each time, the lucidity by which this failure was discovered became an incitement to return to his senses. This is something that he several times attempted, whence his exemplary value and the need that we should feel for his work and his words. We need such restorations of hope – a secular hope – in this new era when we no longer have access to all those supraterrestrial promises that cannot help but deceive.
If we consider the essentially religious culture of the West from the perspective of a non-believer, what do we see?
A good question after what I have just said about Rimbaud, whose lucidity ran counter to the religious teachings of his time – though he felt strongly tempted by religion and had a very profound understanding of the component of truth that there is in Christian language. It’s true that we are surrounded on every side by the language of Christianity whether dogmatic or insecure. The many thousands of monuments, painted images and extraordinary pieces of church music allow us to share – with Bach, Handel and Haydn – in events that we don’t so much as believe in, like the resurrection of the dead. And this is not confined to professions of faith, which are for the most part explicit. Below these, we encounter in our natural and social lives the still-active forms of pagan myths. And these too are beliefs that we can no longer adopt for all that we are more instinctively at home with much of their sensibility. Go to the French villages, listen to their names: under robes borrowed from the cult of the saints and the legends of the martyrs, you recognise Celtic and even pre-Celtic gods and demigods. So easy to let oneself be reabsorbed by faith as experienced in the past – the naive faith of medieval peasants, which was a part of the weave of their daily labours when we still live alongside the chapels and oratories that they built like ordinary houses with such seriousness and what seems an innate sense of simple beauty. In France we are all pagano-Christians and have somehow to reconcile the conflicts of these two truths. The second long attempted – without great success – to define the first as diabolical, thus rejecting many of its own needs. Beware! So complex an environment can be a source of confusion and even unhappiness. Rimbaud laid claim to his Gaulish ancestors but felt enslaved by his baptism and ultimately found himself forced to flee Europe, this ‘continent where madness prowls’. But an environment of this kind can also be a way of freeing and understanding ourselves.
This world that is our inheritance – these points in our society or native soil where what was once sacred still rises to the surface – is often constituted by physical places with their own paths, trees and grasses; vast meadows surrounding the village or the mountain standing almost at the threshold of the last house. And though this is less immediate, these are also places with their own colours and smells, harvested over the centuries for rituals at once renewed and essentially the same; think of the scent of basil, handed down from antiquity to Christianity. Our historical beliefs were established in such places and have in their turn imparted to them something of their own truth, a truth that transcends many of the tensions that crop up in fundamental religiosity when it has not sufficiently worked out its own relation with itself. Clouds and sunshine, the harvesting of cereal and grape are figures that restore seriousness of mind to the experience of life, restore indeed the truth of that life, which is simple and affords a kind of peace. Christ come to offer the wine? Of course, the wine from the nearby vineyard. Jesus seeking the strayed lamb? Yes, but like a shepherd making his way through the oceanic bleating of the fold. The land returns to the surface in beliefs. The past with all its experience of beliefs is now lost, not so much extinguished as transformed; it becomes a soil, a humus in whose decomposing matter new plants have grown and died. And there is a kind of truth in this fossilisation, these macerations of old dreams, a truth of almost vegetable kind: that of our fundamental needs greening in the spring beneath the dead wood of fantasy.
Think of Eliot’s Waste Land. In the last analysis, it expresses the dismay of a society that has deprived itself of the places where the evidence of the natural world can regenerate the human mind from the errors into which beliefs have led it. Whereas there is so much to receive from our environment, even (and perhaps especially) when the form that it has taken is the expression of successive forms of religion. I stand before a chapel from the eleventh or twelfth century. How does it speak to me? By the stone of which it is made, those admirably uneven blocks with their mortar of clay. And the stone asserts its own being as stone, as matter, even as it consents to the master-mason’s plans. What is it doing if not testifying to the self-evidence and good will – the contribution to truth – of a natural reality; one that we should not distrust as Christianity does but use to help us live better? And having said that, how many images by painters and sculptors have absorbed this teaching and handed it down to us! In the wooden and stone statues of the fifteenth century or the paintings of the seventeenth century – only think of the Le Nain brothers – we find an understanding of this earthly place and the simple life akin to what we find in Romanesque architecture. In these works, the language of religion is adopted, adapted and all but cured by the form of the body and the self-evidence of its emotions and desires: the body, that other aspect of the living earth, which, like the earth, takes on a face despite the ideologies that arm themselves with abstract words in order to pillage and ransack its wealth.
Have you ever been inspired by the lack or absence of a particular landscape?
Undoubtedly! If, that is, you understand ‘inspiration ’as I do: the sudden impulse that drives us toward that quest for ourselves that constitutes the writing of poetry – because we have a presentiment that a particular event or place or person under whose influence we find ourselves can blaze new trails through our words towards our own presence to ourselves. Yes, I have written under the auspices of places and landscapes that I have loved and been deprived of. And this deprivation was once the occasion of a great renewal for me. My book Dans le leurre du seuil [In the Lure of the Threshold] was written in Haute-Provence in a countryside of garrigue and loose stone with low mountains on the horizon that showed blue in the evening as they do in Poussin. And this land that I loved deeply was the locus and indeed one of the causes of my becoming aware of the illusory character of what I was then undertaking, the reconstruction – so that I could live there – of a house that was too large and too strongly marked by its original religious vocation (it was a former priory with a chapel at its centre), though abandoning this project didn’t mean that I would have to leave the region and that landscape. It was some years before I fully understood that consequence and measured its effect on me. The result was a ten-year hiatus in the writing of poetry before I returned to it with Ce qui fut sans lumière [In the Shadow’s Light].
But that collection and those that followed were very different from Dans le leurre du seuil precisely because Haute-Provence no longer featured in them as direct and daily experience but as memory. ‘Le souvenir ’[‘The Memory’] is the title of the first poem of the new book. That book began a different practice of writing, a passage from the immediate experience of tangible appearances to an obsession with memories, with all those other traces of time past that one discovers within one’s memory. And this in turn focused my research onto time past, impelling me to question its teachings and attempt to see through its ruses. Here were good reasons for entering more deeply than before into the world of dreams, which has such obvious consonances with memory. That first poem of Ce qui fut sans lumière is at once a memory and a dream, a dream genuinely experienced somewhere between sleep and writing, and it feels its way at a level of indistinction to which I have often returned, not because I like to dream, as one might ‘dream in order to avoid facing life’, but because at each of its crossroads the flux of dream affords opportunities for lucidity. An internal landscape opened before me in ‘Le Souvenir ’at the very place where a terrestrial landscape was fading from view.
The project of poetry in anybody’s life is surely, at least at certain points in one’s existence, that of clarifying the one through the other? Of finding in the most important aspects of earthly place the symbolic suggestions that allow us to analyse and be rid of our fantasies – by which I mean those symbols hermetically closed around non-being? And when that place is missing, when the horizon that we have elected, because we sense its immediate affinity with our desires and our disquiet, abruptly vanishes from the dawns and dusks of our daily life, is it not the project of poetry to return to that landscape with thoughts full of desire in order to recall its principle, which we now understand better, because we begin to take the measure of the snares in which we have been caught since that redoubtable period, our early childhood? Like a knight questing for the Grail, advancing over the Waste Land which comes back to life as he does so; and the knight dispels one after another the enchantments that had paralysed the communities on his route – communities in which we must, I am all too well aware, recognise the anxieties of a being-in-the-world from which poetry is ebbing.
The style of Raturer outre [Erase Beyond] is very austere and closer to everyday speech. Why is that?
I suppose that you ask me this because I have just spoken about the essential relationship that I see between poetry and memory. And for me Raturer outre was a lead cast into my earliest memories. I had become aware in certain poems from my previous book, La longue chaîne de l’ancre [The Anchor’s Long Chain], that if I placed my trust in a more or less invariable form, in this case the strophic structure of the sonnet, the need to comply with that structure made unexpected words appear and indeed words laden with thoughts that I habitually repressed. The sonnet turned out to be an agent of elucidation, a method of anamnesis. So I decided to place my trust in it and the result was Raturer outre, whose title explains its programme. And this work did indeed lead me to a discovery. Not so much that of the problems themselves – my childhood relationship with my father, with his sadness and his solitude – but that of the feelings clustered around it: one represses feelings no less than desires.
The return of repressed material explains what you describe as an austerity of style closer to everyday speech in this score or so of poems. For they bring back to the light moments of my childhood, whose protagonists lived in places and had occupations and ways of speaking that I could only rediscover by remaining more or less faithful to them. I see myself in houses, streets and gardens that would be lost to me all over again if I attempted to retain in them the more universal and fundamental words that poetry employs in its quest for a ‘changed ’life, for a ‘home ’land. In these sonnets I attempt to use the ordinary language of the past: not perhaps the very same words but at least words on the same level, that of everyday usage. And if the style, as you say, tends towards the oral, towards spoken language, it’s because these poems are the fruit of a great desire of mine, one that can no longer be realised, that of speaking simply and directly with a man who did not speak. I was too young to know how to speak in this way while my father was still alive. But these poems tell me that I at least desired to do so.
The omnipresence in my earlier books of an essentialist vocabulary – tree, stone, path, etc., words removed from the standard situations of one’s social existence – is perhaps partly an effect of the repression I have just spoken of: the energy that remained vacant when I finally understood that I could no longer ‘change’ one life – a life now extinct – was carried over into the project of ‘changing life’.
Why does mimesis give us such pleasure?
It is true that, in a situation like the one that I have just described, in which the child imaginatively encounters the father to whom he was unable to speak, the way in which painting represents things – more or less as we see them in our daily experience – gives an appearance of truth: it allows us to remain with what father and son might have seen together at that precise moment when they finally talked to each other. Mimesis is not merely the capture of the visible world by the network of concepts, which substitutes its definitions and figures for the internal infinite of things; it is what drives imagination back down to the present condition and situation of people as they are, and this is why it has a certain seriousness, gravity, and even aspects of warmth. By protecting it from the distortions of dream, it reconstitutes the home in the immanence of which we lived with all our aspirations and distress.
You were talking about a particular painting, a portrait of the painter Korovin by his friend Valentin Serov – in which one can see under the elbow of the model a cushion in red and white stripes. The cushion is obviously the one that the portraitist perceived and attempted to render as faithfully as possible, with an art in the relation of colours that produces beauty in its own right, that is, the sort of beauty sought in an abstract painting. But the picture in question, this portrait, is precisely not an abstraction, and you are right to say that what we like about these colours is that they are the colours of this cushion in particular, this cushion that exists outside the work whose existence the colours prolong for us. Why such interest in this cushion, why this pleasure in representation as mimesis conceives of it? Why are we so pleased at the sight of this humble thing that we might never have noticed even if we had been in the very room and in Korovin’s presence? You’ve already spotted the answer: the cushion is squashed under the model’s elbow. And I wonder if Serov did not, clearly if unconsciously, express precisely the virtue that I ascribe to the work of mimesis: it can, at least sometimes, focus the immediate reality around the relations of Self and Other, creating a place that these two can share, a place where the artist can, however little, advance (taking us with him) toward an encounter with others. Whereas the images created by an imagination left to its own devices doom the painter to solitude.
There is a kind of salutary prosaic quality to the painting of Camille Pissarro.
Yes, I agree, but let us not misinterpret this word ‘prosaic’, which is a refuge for simple things, as in any way opposed to the idea of poetry. Pissarro, the great Pissarro, evokes in the houses of a village, the form of a path, the work of the harvesters, something that is as it were the human place at its own level, the level in which our innermost relationship to the world has a chance to establish itself. Pissarro paints by gathering and concentrating the weave of the place that we experience, his prose is a kind of fidelity to the unexceptional thing – but in order to see that thing as present to our presence. And thus he is more of a poet than Cézanne who was his student. Because Cézanne, for his part, thought of nothing but his research into pure painting, the experiments of the solitary man aiming for the absolute and heedless of anyone but himself.
Sometimes the ‘minor poets ’have more to say to us than the great ones; sometimes we find them more moving.
Undoubtedly! Pissarro stands on the threshold of a different facet of our heritage; here the cries and torments of our relatively few great poets – those to whom we go for energy – are not the reigning deities. But I don’t like the expression ‘minor poets’, which might almost suggest that less poetry was present in the authors so designated. The poetic experience is an instant of intuition; it either is or is not, there is no question of degree, and it remains vivid in the mind once it has taken place: so much so that figures like Maurice de Guérin or Gilbert Lely, whose works fill so few pages, are nevertheless true poets – as true as any. The difference between them and Baudelaire or Rimbaud or Wordsworth or Goethe has to be found in some other domain than intensity of poetic feeling, for example in their notion of life, which for them remains closer to their own particular existence and is therefore devoted to things and beings that they have no desire to place under other people’s eyes. And this might seem to betray poetry’s vocation for the universal but makes sense nonetheless.
When one offers to share one’s affections, doesn’t that amount to a kind of immediate generalisation? Doesn’t it risk losing sight of the internal infinite, the secret infinite and therefore allow distraction to enter one’s writing? A poet who is considered minor is often one whose intuition is kept in check and focused on the circumstances of their own personal existence. And by visiting that existence with a degree of sympathy, we will be able to relive it and thence be brought close to things such as we no longer knew they were.
A good example of this mode of existence and poetry is the work of Pierre-Albert Jourdan, the quality – and greatness – of which are rarely understood. Jourdan focuses his relationship with the world on his little garden in Caromb, Haute-Provence, evoking its trees in blossom, its bees, things seemingly insignificant; but listen attentively to him and we find that in the interstices of this modest language major aspects of our being in the world – a Taoist sentiment of the Void, the Christian need for compassion – speak to us with compelling eloquence. We might say that there are false poets, simulators of poetry, and some of them are very famous. We might add that there are clumsy authors who come to the poetic almost unwittingly. But let’s not forget that Gérard de Nerval was long thought by almost everyone to be a ‘minor ’poet; there were very few exceptions, Baudelaire being one.
You told me about the existence of a correspondence between Bruno Tolentino and yourself. Tell us about this friendship. There are those who, placing too much faith in Tolentino’s compulsive lying, have assumed that you never knew him.
It is true that I knew Bruno Tolentino, it’s true that I was friends with him. But can I therefore suppose that I understood him well enough to talk about him today? I can’t give a coherent account of him – not least because I can’t recall sufficient traces of the events (always rather insignificant events) that marked the path of our friendship. You tell me that in the correspondence that I have deposited at IMEC, an archive of contemporary literature, there are some twenty letters from him, dating from between 1966 and 1981; and I can see these letters in my mind’s eye, with their dense, lively script sometimes extending over several pages. But I no longer know what they contained.
Was Bruno Tolentino too inclined to invent things? Even in his Parisian days he sometimes gave that impression, so astonishing were some of the things that he said, but also because he spoke as he walked, taking great big strides, and this made one wonder if he always took sufficient care about where he was putting his feet. And of course it is possible that, when he got back to Brazil, what he said about our relationship was not entirely accurate in certain respects. But as to the existence of this friendship, there can be no doubt about that. During the years in which Bruno lived in Europe, he often came to see me, he showed me what he was writing, and even handed over to me – for me to read and also with a view to its publication (but that was an area where I couldn’t really help him, since I had always refused the role of adviser to Mercure de France) – an entire manuscript written in French, excellent French: Le Vrai Le Vain. The author of such a book was a man to be taken seriously. There was a facility in those pages, a taste for form as such, that might suggest a rather passéiste notion of poetry, and at all events one not overly concerned with the desire to ‘dig deep’, the desire for the kind of stirring up of the depths of the psyche specific to the work of poetry. But Bruno was young and there was an ardour about the way he wrote and lived that could hardly do other than endear him to one. Did he imitate others in these poems that were of course invented by him in French, even though Brazilian words came to his pen at the selfsame instant? Yes, but how many young authors have done likewise before finding their own way! And this first text in French, what a beautiful opportunity it was for Bruno to visit the prosodic heritage of the French language, which he spoke very, very fluently! Let those who were born to French and have experienced since childhood the seduction of its regular prosody find out in good time what they should do in poetry!
We used to talk about all kinds of things. Painting for example. I introduced Bruno and his young wife to Jacqueline Lamba, whose pictures he liked, indeed, I believe he bought one. And through me Bruno must have met other friends of mine, Gaëtan Picon and Jean Starobinski, who may remember him. And here’s one fact that shows that he was not always lying about the friendships he enjoyed. Since I had been deeply moved by Mort et vie séverine [The Death and Life of a Severino] in a performance at the Théâtre de l’Odéon, Bruno invited me to spend a day in his company in Berne with its author, João Cabral de Melo Neto, which we did: so there at least is one memory that I haven’t lost, I greatly admired that poet and I immediately felt great warmth towards him. We had lunch together and spent the afternoon talking about poetry and painter friends, for example Tàpies; Cabral de Melo Neto seemed to have a completely sincere friendship with Bruno Tolentino and to have known him for ages. Which also gave one to think that this clearly ‘leftist ’poet did not find his friend too remote from him on the political map of his native country.
Then came the day when this admittedly slightly crazy young Brazilian left Paris and London for Oxford and thereafter made contact with me at first rarely and then not all, I don’t know why. And it was a big surprise, when once I had to deliver a lecture in Oxford, to find him sitting in the front row of the auditorium. He was exactly the same, voluble and warm. I had to leave the following day and he came to pick me up at my hotel to take me to the Cambridge coach, telling me about himself and about many other things, I no longer know what he said. But it was as if all those years had never come between us – except that thereafter there was again the most complete silence on his part. As the years went by, I had every reason to believe that I would never hear another word from him.
All this information is very imprecise, Chris, I know; I have very little memory for facts and dates, I don’t make notes about them, I don’t keep a journal, and for the moment I don’t have access to the letters Bruno Tolentino sent me. But here is something else that I can say. Once, long after the time that I have described, I received a phone call from Rio – I think it was from Rio, in any case from Brazil – a phone call from someone, perhaps someone who owned a bookshop, who wanted to know if I had known Tolentino, since Tolentino claimed that I had. ‘Yes, of course it’s true, ’I told him; then we spoke for a bit and I learned in this way that Bruno had returned to Brazil and was making waves there. And then again years went by, many years, and one afternoon the telephone rang and it was Bruno. ‘I’m in Paris, ’he said, as if we had spoken to each other the day before. That evening he came to dinner with us. What a surprise! He was no longer the lively, agitated, joyous young man I had known. But the older man that I saw before me was not at all what I had expected that earlier Bruno to become. Who was this gentleman in a dark suit, wearing a tie and showing all the signs of the most humdrum bourgeois society?
Nevertheless, under this aspect, there survived a great deal of the Bruno of those long-past years – and first and foremost a kind of feverish haste in everything he said. This ghost spoke to us pell-mell about the books that he was publishing – was it then that he mentioned little volumes of devout versification that he had written and which had sold in their thousands? – and about a crisis in his health. He had been on the point of death, he said, and given up for lost by the doctors with only a few hours to live, at which point he had resuscitated, and he considered this the work of divine grace. We listened to him in astonishment, quite willing to believe him. When the time came, he took his leave, promising, as ever, to keep in touch. But I never heard from him again.
Note This interview was conducted by email in French and first appeared in the Portuguese translation of Érico Nogueira in Dicta & Contradicta 07 (São Paulo), June 2011. Published translations of Bonnefoy titles appear in italics, suggested title translations (by Chris Miller) in Roman.
This interview is taken from PN Review 204, Volume 38 Number 4, March - April 2012.