Les lettres, Monsieur – A Pierre Michon Thread

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because he's good, and because i need a place to put some thoughts, which doesn't clog up the main reading thread.

Literature, Sir. Because that was the age when faith in literature was beginning to supplant the other grand old faith to relegate it to its small historic space and time, the olive groves of the Jordan, the reign of Tiberius, and to claim that it was in its own space, the pages of romances, anacreontic rhymes, that the universal deigned to appear. God was switching nests, as it were. And François Corentin was one of the first to realize it, by which I mean that he was part of the earliest generations of men who realized it, no, not with the intellect or through cunning or calculation, but with the heart that does not believe itself to be calculating, even if in its exaltations it is more calculating than the illiterate horse sense of a thousand villainous old wine merchants. François Corentin numbered among those writers who were beginning to say, and surely to think, that the writer served some purpose, that he was not what he was believed to have been until then; that he was not that exquisite superfluity at the service of the Great, that resonant, gallant, epic frivolity to be drawn from the sleeve of a king and exhibited for scantily dressed young girls in Saint-Cyr of the Parc-aux-Cerfs; not a castrato or a juggler; not a beautiful sparkling Object set in the crown of princes: not a procuress, not a chamberlain of the word, not a steward of pleasures; not any of those things but a way of thinking - a powerful mix of sensibility and reason to throw into the universal human dough to make it rise, a multiplier of man, a force for man's growth like the retorts for gold and the stills for wine. a powerful machine to increase man's happiness. This ferment is known as the writers of the Enlightenment, as you have said, Sir.

I might perhaps have chosen 'un esprit' or 'un multiplicateur de l'homme' as the tag line for the thread title, but in fact Michon is *not* I think an Enlightenment writer according to his description. He is a writer who writers under and around the Enlightenment, interested in force, in moments of change, in hard manifestations of labour and artifice, in the transmission of history through depictions and objects with stories, not of the the actual things depicted. older, more complicated methods and modes, closer to the human heart.

In fact the passage is perhaps setting the Enlightenment and literature up against the inconvertible fact of the painting, Les Onze, of the eleven... well...

Vous les voyez, Monsieur? Tous les onze, de gauche à droite : Billaud, Carnnot, Prieur, Prieur, Couthon, Roberspierre, Collot, Barère, Lindet, Saint-Just, Saint-André. Invariables et droits. Les Commissaires. Le Grand Comité de la Grand Terreur.

The Great Committee of the Great Terror.

A painting to the exclusion of all other paintings, Michon says. Except the painting and its artist are fictional.

The Eleven (Les Onze) is tremendously complicated, and I think hamstrung somewhat in its English translation, which may be making it more obscure. Still, I have some sympathy with the translators, who are having to balance the distinctive periods and cadences of Michon, with a recondite and archaic literary voice, a somewhat garrulous narrator, and a strange, dense perspective on events, records, art and history.

Still, I need a place to put my thoughts, and here is as good as any.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 12:45 (two weeks ago) link

does one start with Small Lives or what? dude sounds very interesting.

J Edgar Noothgrush (Joan Crawford Loves Chachi), Saturday, 21 January 2023 12:47 (two weeks ago) link

Let's collect some other things here first:

And yet despite that morning’s agon, Michon proposed lunch out. In a booth, across from his wife, he sat between me and the wall. Confit de canard was ordered and served, accompanied by large serrated knives. I attempted conversation; conversation did not form. Plates were cleared. Michon held on to his knife. As he turned toward me in the booth for the first time, a tap of the tip of the knife he’d retained, now pointed at me, punctuated each word he spoke.

“So,” he began, “you’re an acceptable translator. Actually, no. You’re fine. But Vies minuscules is an exceptional text. It needs an exceptional translator. Understand?”

Michon’s face was gray, grim. I made a few sounds that attempted to communicate that I didn’t understand; that we had worked together for years; that I wasn’t clear what had changed; that I’d done the same work I’d done in the past and arrived with, I thought, the same kinds of questions but—

“But you haven’t even deciphered the text,” Michon said, loudly, pounding the table now with the fist that held the knife. The voices of the lunchtime crowd dimmed as the restaurant registered the disturbance. “You haven’t even deciphered it.”

With a terminal clack, Michon released the knife to the table.

“Let me out!” Michon shouted, pushing past me. “Let me out!”

from a very good NYRB profile by a (former) translator here ($$)

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 12:50 (two weeks ago) link

on where to start: I'm not sure it matters - Small Lives is certainly wonderful. My starting point was Ann Jefferson's superb translation of Winter Mythologies and Abbots - part of the reason I feel comfortable describing the translation of Les Onze as being a bit off is because of the quality of Jefferson's effort there, for writing from a similar period.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 12:54 (two weeks ago) link

I would note on his style, and Mason's own recommendation:

As Jefferson writes in her introduction of Michon’s style in these stories: “His sentences are syntactically simple and often slightly elliptical.” If this description doesn’t quite align with my descriptions of his earlier work, there is cause, as Jefferson notes. “Michon himself has said that this style is actually the result of his switch from pen to computer for composition.” Although these styles are meaningfully distinct—and raise very different sets of difficulties for a translator—the overall problem of preserving Michon’s tone remains the same, and one Jefferson has solved. I know no translation like hers: one that manages the feat of reproducing seemingly everything an author is doing in his language. These little stories in Jefferson’s translation are the best place to begin reading Michon in English and they are, themselves, among his most perfect pieces of writing.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 12:55 (two weeks ago) link

xyzzzz__ wrote this on thread Fall 2017 Happy Families Are Alike. What Are You Reading Now? on board I Love Books on 14-Oct-2017

Perre Michon - Winter Mythologies and Abbots. Spent most of my evening in a pub reading this, and its the first book I finished in weeks. Amazing on a sentence-by-sentence level. The way he treats myth and God reminds me a little bit of Joseph Winkler - a catholic modernism.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 12:58 (two weeks ago) link

Fizzles wrote this on thread And The Snow Fell Softly On ILB: What Are You Reading Now Winter 2017/18 on board I Love Books on 26-Dec-2017

Oh and I loved this bit on reading. It's describing Saint Columba of Iona, 'who was still called Columbkill, Columbkill the Wolf':

... this wolf is also a monk in the manner of monks at that time, a manner that is inconceivable to our way of understanding. When he lays down his sword, he rides from monastery to monastery, where he reads: he reads standing up, tensed, moving his lips and frowning, in the violent manner of those times, which we cannot conceive of either. Columbkill the Wolf is a brutal reader.

'inconceivable to our way of understanding' is something that Michon somehow manages to convey throughout this stories. Some job. And that image of the brutal reader, I never would have thought of, but it immediately brought to mind marginal illustrations of monks standing reading at lecterns, and also brought to mind that passage in St Augustine describing Ambrose Bishop of Milan, the first person to read without moving their lips. A tense unnatural (paradoxically) engagement with reading, which when Michon describes it, reflects on the reader themselves, and ties them in a bond of difference.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 12:58 (two weeks ago) link

Fizzles wrote this on thread What did you read in 2020? on board I Love Books on 05-Jan-2021

Small Lives - Pierre Michon electrified me after a period of very tedious reading, reminding me the extraordinary perception and depths imaginative writing can have, really one of the most masterly writers there is at the moment. but i was so overcome with the intensity and richness of it, liking fotheringham-thomas, i had to put it down. it was like i was on acid, i was just going 'wow, this is just wow, man, you can see *everything*, and each word and sentence was mind-blowing with the consequence i just had to put it down because it was so full. last had this experience with Leskov. will definitely return this year for a less precious reading.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 13:00 (two weeks ago) link

top cringe-posting there fizzles.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 13:00 (two weeks ago) link

Fizzles wrote this on thread And The Snow Fell Softly On ILB: What Are You Reading Now Winter 2017/18 on board I Love Books on 26-Dec-2017

Now read the Nine Passages on the Causses by Pierre Michon, and even more impressed by these than the Three Miracles in Ireland. Nine anecdotal, elliptical stories which include matter about the nature of writing, the nature of transmission of belief and understanding.

The first is about a late 19th Century anthropologist who unearths an ossuary in a Causse.

The second is about an ex-bishop who has retired to a Causse as a hermit. He ventures out of his hermitage one day and feels full of energy and pride and life and then as he reflects is not sure whether this has been something which God or Satan has encouraged.

The third is a very simple vignette about a Merovingian episode where a 15-year-old girl, Éminie, daughter of King Clotaire of Paris, who, for pragmatic reasons, gets made Abbess of a distant abbey she will never visit. At the end the story says 'it is said she died of leprosy'.

The next, the fourth, is the story of monks many years later who decide to revive a ruined abbey, but are opposed by the local barons. One of the monks tells another to go and find a name, that will allow them to create a legal fiction in latin to justify their presence in the abbey. The other monk returns with the name of Eminia, as described in the previous story. Just a name in a ledger in a distant monastery, but they concoct a life about her, much as Michon fills these very peripheral barely detailed lives with his own fictions.

One of the monks sees a leper woman and decides to make Eminia a leper. Suddenly that phrase from the previous story 'she is said to have died from leprosy' recurs to you. Is the previous story true? Or has it been tainted by later interpretation? Just because a thing is said to have occurred early doesn't mean it is true. Later interpretation can provider the truth.

The fifth shows the full story of the Vita sancta Enimia (the life of Saint Enimia). This has elements of the first story and many embellishments such that it's not clear whether the person writing this has by god's grace seen a vision of Énimie's actual life, or whether the earlier story has taken on the aspects of later retellings of it. This feels like a profound enactment of how early modern history was created.

The sixth, again many years later, finds monks once again trying to preserve the legal ownership of the abbey. The bishop decides the Vita sancta Enimia into the vernacular Occitane, so that its story (its false story?) may be used as legal evidence for the local barons and as cultural evidence for the storytellers and jongleurs in the streets, creating a saintly myth.

This tale is full of sly allusions to the nature of writing, of doing what Michon himself is doing and what you as a reader are doing. About lies, translation, truth within lies (fiction) and original creation as a writer.

The seventh is about a warlord prince called Seguin. Much of Michon's stories are about the ambiguous qualities of violence.

The eighth, in 1793, is about a innate Republican, who is got drunk on wine by Monarchists and persuaded to march against the Republic.

The ninth is about the father of speleology, who has doubts, but takes a great pleasure in being a scribe of the wonders of the Underworld. He brings back up to the date of the first story.

Together they create a remarkable analysis of belief, knowledge and the transmission of the same, as well as a sly commentary on the sort of writing that Michon is doing. They're really great.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 13:01 (two weeks ago) link

Fizzles wrote this on thread And The Snow Fell Softly On ILB: What Are You Reading Now Winter 2017/18 on board I Love Books on 26-Dec-2017

Michon's Winter Mythologies are good so far. They're very short so you want to savour each one. They're also opaque in meaning, so you want to reflect on each one. The first three were commissioned by The Alliance Française of Ireland, and describe brief anecdotal or sacred moments in the early Irish engagement with Christianity. They're also attempts on the part of the people they describe to understand where Grace resides. Patrick, not yet saint, archbishop of Armagh, 'the founder', converts many of the tribal kings with simple 'conjuring tricks' and a well-rehearsed patter:

And perhaps because he is growing old, and his ardor and his malice are becoming blunted, Patrick regrets this facility as he walks along this road. He would like a real miracle to occur, just once, and for once in his lifetime, matter in all its opacity to be converted to Grace before his eyes.

These short texts mix the style of the fable - precise language in short sentences - and mystical texts, in that they stop short of complete meaning, leaving understand and meaning just out of reach. That seems appropriate to the matter of an early uncertain engagement with Christianity. These are not btw Christian apologetics or anything like them. Michon is cynical within the mysticism. His concern is with the *pagans*, and the uncertainty of the Christians, the He manages to 'cinvert' precise detail (I was going to say realism, but it's not that, not really) into intimations of Grace (to rephrase Patrick's desire).

I was reminded of the Kierkegaard line: Mysticism has not the patience to wait for God's revelation. It seems pertinent to each of the three stories, but they *are* patient and precise in their execution. Very good. Moving on to the Vendée stories now.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 13:02 (two weeks ago) link

xyzzzz__ wrote this on thread "And sport no more seen / On the darkening green" -- What are you reading SPRING 2020? on board I Love Books on 18-Jun-2020

Pierre Michon - Masters and Servants

As for Michon I really liked it, as I love almost anything by him (one of my favourite discoveries in the last couple of years). His pieces are these fake autobiographical tales, re-tellings (a lot of them in this volume are to do with painters like Goya, or Vasari -- someone who did not succeed as an artist) that allow for a set of thought-flights. Just finished an hour ago, the three books I have read need a week's worth of re-reading and more of a think. I love the writing, but find I do wonder what he is driving at.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 13:03 (two weeks ago) link

I do wonder what he is driving at might also have been a thread title.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 13:03 (two weeks ago) link

Fizzles wrote this on thread Poetry uncovered, Fiction you never saw, All new writing delivered, Courtesy WINTER: 2019/2020 reading thread on board I Love Books on 22-Mar-2020

(On Wolf Hall)

...this paragraph is utterly wonderful, the very best writing and almost a poem in itself:

There was a moment when Anne gave him all her attention: her skewering dark glance. The king, too, knows how to look; blue eyes, their mildness deceptive. Is this how they look at each other? Or in some other way? For a second he understands it; then he doesn’t. He stands by a window. A flock of starlings settles among the tight blackbuds of a bare tree. Then, like black buds unfolding, they open their wings; they flutter and sing, stirring everything into motion, air, wings, black notes in music. He becomes aware that he is watching them with pleasure: that something almost extinct, some small gesture towards the future, is ready to welcome the spring; in some spare, desperate way, he is looking forward to Easter, the end of Lenten fasting, the end of penitence. There is a world beyond this black world. There is a world of the possible. A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell. He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.

a paragraph of pairs - anne and henry, now and just then, now and beyond. it starts with a single quite powerful observation - how do two people you know who are intimate look at each other? he sees it momentarily, instinctively, which note is then sounded at the end again. in between those two notes, the paragraph breaks out through the flocking starlings, into the future, into prescience and the beyond, before returning to that single contemplate note, but not in the same place where you started – reflecting the meaning of the paragraph.

it reminded me of a paragraph i've read a number of times - i'll quote it in the excellent translation's english, but it's really in the french that it comes alive, so i'll quote that after, and I'll also give it the context of the para before:

It is to some secondhand chronicles, to the General Statistics of the Vendée published in Fontenay-le-Comte in 1844, and to a belated happenstance in my own life that I owe the tale I am about to relate.

It is the year 976. Ancient Gaul is a hotchpotch of names bolted to lands, which are themselves names: Normandy belongs to Guillaume, Guillaume Long-Sword; Poitou belongs to Guillaume, Guillaume Towhead; France belongs to Eudes, duke of France; the crown, that trinket, belongs to Lothaire, the king, which is to say squire of Beauvais and Laon. For Anjou and the Marches it's Robert the Calf and Hugues the Abbot. Alain of the Twisted Beard controls Brittany. And the diocese of Limoges is in the hands and under the miter of Èble, brother of Guillaume, not the Long-Sword, but the fair-haired, frizzled Towhead. The towhead has two characteristics: it is too fair and too full; it blazes up in an instant. Guillaume is too fair and his anger gallops like fire. Èble has his brother's towhead but without the tow's two qualities: beneath the miter of the one and the helmet of the other you can see the same hirsute swirl of frosted locks, the same frothing fuzz, the same crushed straw with short curls, but on Èbles head the tow does not catch fire at the least impediment; on Guillaume's head it does.

Whether Èble's towhead might blaze for other reasons, this tale will tell.

I think it's the pace at which it moves from the dry context and that brief 'It is the year 976' and then it just explodes through a family tree that circles and repeats until it catches ablaze through its fantastical names and images. look how Michon gets from 'It is the year 976' to 'Whether Èble's towhead might blaze for other reasons, this tale will tell', and look at the manner in which he gets there - an exuberant chronicle, completely showing off.

The reason it's worth quoting the French is that what is added to the mix is a beautiful poetic economy and rhythm, almost lyrical. I also struggle with the word 'towhead' and while it's quite clear that's pretty much the only translation, its absence in the original is welcome. I should add before I quote that my french is execrable, and i had to pore over this with a dictionary in hand *and* the translation above to get anywhere. it is written in the literary historical tense, which is not spoken, which i imagine gives it a certain flavour all to itself. I have not got to the bottom of 'Je tiens', with which every one of the stories in Abées starts - I am holding, yes, but is this rather in the meaning we might (at a push) say 'It is held that...' etc? Not sure. For those of you whose French is even worse than mine, I think you get a perfectly decent impression of the poetic lyricism and concision by seeing the rhythm of the punctuation and the comparatively few words between the punctuation and the names, the balance of the clauses:

Je tiens de chroniques de seconde main, de la Statistique générale de la Vendée imprimée à Fontenay-le-Comte en 1844, et d'un hasard tardif de ma propre vie, le récit que je m'apprête à raconter.
L'an 976. Le vieille Gaule est un fatras de noms enclavés à des terres, qui sont elles-mêmes des noms: La Normandie est à Guillaume, Guillaume Longue-épée; le Poitou est à Guillaume, Guillaume Tête d'étoupe; la France est à Eudes, duc de France; la couronne, le colifichet, est à Lothaire, roi, c'est-à-dire sieur de Beauvais et da Laon. Sur L'Anjou, sur la Marche, c'est Robert le Veau et Hugues l'Abbé. Alain à la Barbe torte tient la Bretagne. Et l'évêché de Limoges est entre les main et sous la mitre d'Èble, frère de Guillaume, non pas la Longue-épée, mais le frisé, le blond, la Tête d'étoupe. L'étoupe a deux qualités: elle est trop blonde et volumineuse, elle flambe d'un seul coup. Guillaume est trop blond et sa colère galope comme le feu. De son frère, Èble a bien la tete d'étoupe: sous la mitre de l'un comme sous le casque de l'autre on voit le meme tourbillon hirsute de poils gelés, la mousse crêpelée, la paille concassée à boucles brèves; mais sur la tête d'Èble l'étoupe ne prend pas feu à la moindre contrariété; sur celle de Guillaume, si.

Que l'étoupe d'Èble s'enflamme peut-être pour d'autres causes, le récit le dira.

Three examples - I think all in a sense to do with positioning and balance:

'Sur L'Anjou, sur la Marche' - the gliding, rather full 'L'Anjou' followed by the strict iambic taps and heavy final word of 'sur la Marche' - it creates real momentum for the next roll of names, it's a delight to say, to read.

Same trick, extended, here, after a rather prosaic section starting 'Et l'évêché de Limoges'...

'frère de Guillaume, non pas la Longue-épée, mais le frisé, le blond, la Tête d'étoupe' <- after the 'frère', a long-ish clause, then the sharp short clauses, then the final rat-tat-tat emphasising the key image of 'la Tête d'étoupe', and look at the almost palindromic sounds in that phrase.

and immediately after the analytic, forensic: 'L'étoupe a deus qualities' - needs to be said I think with that lovely and slightly airy precision 'kali'tay' (sorry for the barbarous phonetics).

So, yes, add to the wonder present in the english translation, the cadences of the original french.

anyway both paras seem to fill you up and then deposit you back down, ready to continue, but with very much more than you had before. both are fantastic pieces of writing.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 13:06 (two weeks ago) link

and that completes the survey of existing ilx matter on michon.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 13:06 (two weeks ago) link

in chapter 1 of The Eleven the narrator conjures the artist of Les Onze out of figments, first, in the introductory paragraphs, in the image of the crown-bearing page in Tiepolo's frescoes at the Kaisersaal in Würzburg. It is not quite as simple as that though:

He is there, so they say, and you can go and see him


So he is there as well, tradition has it that he is there, and that he is the page who bears the crown of the Holy Empire on a gold-tasseled cushion


This identification is most appealing, even it is only a fantasy: this page is a type, not a portrait.

and in a line that obliquely sums up Michon's approach to history:

c'est un page, c'est le page, c n'est personne - it is a page, it is the page, it is no one. such are the figures in Michon.

The narrator then finds him forty years later in 'almost as dubious a legend' among the witnesses of David's sketch of the Tennis Courth Oath:


There is another supposed portrait of him aged and ravaged by time and vice

A 'handsome indubitable portrait' 'was lost during the Terror'.

Between the Holy Empire's page and the raging oblique old man, we possess nothing that resembles him

A late portrait of him attributed to Vivant Denon is a fake.

And that is all for appearance – for the posterity of appearance. It is little, and it is enough.

In those words 'for appearance – for the posterity of appearance' is an entire method of Michon's, which we see in his Nine Passages on the Causses.

How stories are handed down, created, forged, recovered, and create real meaning and tangible impact on the land and lives as they go through this process.

The posterity of appearance... 'It is little, and it is enough' - 'ce peut, et cela suffit bien'.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 15:22 (two weeks ago) link

Michon's paragraphs swirl up in lists, descriptions, inventories, explanations, arguments, a congeries of associated matter, and then come back down to single sentences. The effect is very appealing.

Fizzles, Saturday, 21 January 2023 15:26 (two weeks ago) link

oh that sounds very very in my zone.

J Edgar Noothgrush (Joan Crawford Loves Chachi), Monday, 23 January 2023 20:42 (two weeks ago) link

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