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A Passionate Lettré
Award-winning writer Pascal
Quignard's original œuvre

The 2002 Goncourt Prize for the Novel went to Pascal Quignard’s Les Ombres errantes (Grasset)—an odd choice in that the book is no novel and represents, with the simultaneously published Sur le jadis and Abîmes, only the first part of a trilogy. Peu importe! Quignard is an original, demanding and profound writer, and that’s what counts.
    He is also, as the French say, a cas d’espèce. Born in 1948, he began his writing career in the early 1970s with critical analyses of Ren-aissance poet Maurice Scève and contemporary poet Michel Deguy. Yet these and other book-length essays (like the perceptive one devoted to his mentor, the late Louis-René des Forêts) are not his only feats of pioneering writing. As he was elucidating the work of these authors, he developed an unusual kind of writing in his own right. The genre can be described as a sort of incisive mini-essay made up of intersecting, sometimes fragmentary, components. The author calls these texts “treatises.” They deal with a variety of themes, many of them recondite at first glance, such as the superstitions surrounding the letter “z” and the story of a robin using its beak to try to pull out one of the nails holding up the crucified Christ.
    This multivarious subject matter may give the impression that Quignard is a dilettante or a dusty-minded erudite, yet nothing could be farther from the truth. He is in fact a passionate lettré. The term, one of his favorites, fits him perfectly. Indeed, he manages to persuade us that the life and thought of a Christian bishop during the winter of 412 is of the utmost urgency. (The author once quipped that he himself hoped to be read in 1640.) And in Sur le jadis, he quotes the Japanese abbot Kenko’s paradox: “Art is an echo of something that has already existed and that one invents.” This strange Japanese enigma also suits Quignard, who has said that his writing strives to “invigorate formless literary forms” and to “reinvigorate forms that have been abandoned.”
    Quignard’s compelling excavations of the past—its forgotten thought patterns, sensibilities, lifestyle choices, even singular gestures and words—are themselves composed of poetic fragments, odd facts, puzzling aphorisms, exemplary tales, critical commentary and the author’s own personal memories. Even when dealing with the typographer’s sign for deleting a word, with the final wishes of one Licinius Damasippus or with the pillow of the 10th-century Japanese woman writer Sei Shonagon, Quignard knows how to pinpoint what is still vital in the obscure, the antiquarian, the abstruse. Beyond all questions of literary form, the author seeks out—and finds—traces of what he calls, simply, life.
    His first treatises, written in 1977-1980, were eventually gathered into eight volumes collectively entitled Petits Traités. Published in 1991 by Maeght and now available in a two-volume Gallimard-Folio paperback set, the Petits Traités are, in the author’s own words, “neither essays nor fiction.” “They are shreds of arguments,” he explains with characteristic imagery, “unresolved contradictions, hands seen as negative images (like those on the walls of prehistoric caves), aporias, fragments of tales, vestiges.” Indeed, striking similes better convey Quignard’s thought than do logically structured arguments. Full of oblique and unsettling perceptions, his work surprises, much like something totally unexpected encountered when rounding a corner. And because Quignard’s texts are collage-like, they offer many such corners. In Rhétorique spéculative (Calmann-Lévy, 1995), his ars poetica, he offers this food for thought: “Human life leans on language as does an arrow on the wind.”
    Although he is also well known for his classically constructed novels—Le Salon du Württemberg (1986) and Les Escaliers de Chambord (1989)—his predilection for short textual forms has persisted all the way to the trilogy Dernier Royaume, which sets forth his pursuit of archaic “thoughts that still tremble.” He deepens his investigation into artistic creativity (he is especially penetrating on music), all the while seeking to pinpoint the “nakedness” (a frequent term), passion, even violence expressed by artists, musicians and writers whom he admires. He also focuses on the human struggle with death and nothingness, the relationship between the past and the present and the foundations of love.
    This theme has often engaged the author of Le Sexe et l’effroi (Gallimard, 1994) and Vie secrète (Gallimard, 1998). Vie secrète especially compels because a seeming confession— recounted with novelistic tension—accompanies a more general examination of love and sexual ardor. In all his books, the author juxtaposes personal insights and experiences with the kind of rare and stunning material that only he knows how to unearth in libraries. In his historical novel Terrasse à Rome (Gallimard, 2000), which tells the story of a 17th-century engraver, he makes the revealing assertion that “desperate men live in angles.” That’s where Quignard hunts for them—in recesses, not in vast chandeliered rooms. In his view, one must ceaselessly recover, and hearken to, vanished voices. “Mysteriously,” he remarks, “a person who writes is a speaker who listens.”
    He is thus no academic classicist or humanist; he by no means promotes “the great books” or celebrates what are commonly passed off as civilized cultural values. On the contrary, Quignard gathers what he describes as “the charred bones in the ashen remains of the most ancient fires.” An opponent of rationalism as this term is generally understood, Quignard seeks out vibrant “relics of thoughts.” The charred bones are still bones. Not surprisingly, he increasingly emphasizes prehistory in his work, meditating on the impetuses behind cave art, on the emergence of language, on the surging forth of music. And like Louis-René des Forêts, he returns time and again to the phenomenon of silence. He speaks of “drawing out all things from the prior night.” This deep primordial darkness constitutes, for him, the perpetual fountainhead of all authentic art. Quignard espouses the idea, for example, that Baroque music, with all its ornamental trills, should be played with this stark nudity in mind.
    In Sur le jadis especially but also elsewhere, he envisions individuals as “mere living traces of a scene that is no longer,” namely, the sexual act during which they were conceived. In a day and age when anyone and everyone expatiates on sexuality, it is hard to think of a contemporary writer who has gone so seriously beyond, or deeply into, the utter physicality of sexual acts and grasped their ultimate significance in the “chain of being.” A cornucopia of provocative reading experiences, Pascal Quignard’s oeuvre guides us back to these and other “gushing sources,” as he phrases it, to the embers of life still miraculously glowing underneath so many layers of cold ashes.s


    La France est un pays hanté. Le passé y transpire.
    Son ciel est une lueur ancienne.
    Une irradiation très faible s’ajoute à la lumière liquide et franche qui baigne les clochers et les toits de ce minuscule pays.
    Les villages perdus dans les plaines vertes contiennent des traces qui se dissimulent.
    C’est une ruine de Rome dans le fossé, une pierre corso-sarde aux deux yeux contradictoires dressée près de la boulangerie, un marteau de Thor sur la rive, une tombe mérovingienne située sous l’église, une grotte peinte par les premiers hommes dont l’embouchure est masquée par des brousailles ou des petits chênes dans la colline, une amphore grecque au fond de l’eau, un vieux chant basque qui vient directement du Caucase, une chapelle romane partout.
    La France, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est le temps.


From Sur le Jadis by Pascal Quignard, © Grasset, 2002.


    Il y a bien des années que je me suis abandonné corps et biens à l’aimantation irrésistible qui attire ce qu’on fait et ce qu’on vit, qui fabrique de soi-même ce qu’on fait, qui accroît de soi-même ce qu’on vit, qui ne va nulle part, qui n’est nulle part comme un objet, qui n’est nulle part comme une proie qui se tiendrait debout, immobile, et qui se détacherait sur l’horizon, qui n’est que le terrible mouvement de l’affamé, du désirant, de cet élan qui s’emporte comme le vent s’emporte lui-même, qui s’élève comme la vague s’élève.
    Il n’y a pas d’oeuvre qui ne renvoie à une faim qui la domine et qui ne replonge dans un silence d’autant plus tumescent qu’elle le dresse en abîme plutôt qu’elle le comble. Le langage n’est pas une fenêtre qu’il faudrait offusquer, afin de mieux voir, comme les philosophes autrefois le prétendaient au début de leur méditation, ou de leur argumentation, ou de leur système déductif. La raison ne peut pas plus se connaître que la cécité ne peut se voir. Le langage ne peut que déployer son être et son indéductible violence, mais non l’exprimer. Un livre est ce langage ignorant. C’est un langage signifiant contre la langue commune. Rares sont les oeuvres. Qui aime la langue n’est pas écrivain. Celui qui écrit en silence devient le langage qui ignore.


From Rhétorique spéculative by Pascal Quignard, © calmann-Lévy, 1995 and Gallimard-Folio, 2002.

Among Quignard’s books available in English are The Salon in Württemberg (Grove Weidenfeld), Albucius (The Lapis Press), All the World’s Mornings (Graywolf), Sarx (Burning Deck), On Wooden Tablets: Aspronenia Avitia (Burning Deck). Although I have cited original editions in this article, many of Quignard’s books are now available in the Gallimard-Folio paperback series. Aficionados of music should not miss La Leçon de musique (Hachette, 1987), Tous les matins du monde (Gallimard, 1991) and La Haine de la musique (Calmann-Lévy, 1996). Another approach to his work is through several short novels reviving the Greco-Roman literary genre of the "life." Especially noteworthy are Albucius (P.O.L., 1990), about the Roman writer of the same name; La Raison (Le Promeneur / Quai Voltaire, 1990), about the Roman writer Marcus Porcius Latron; and La Nuit et le silence (Flohic, 1995), about the artist Georges de la Tour. Le Nom sur le bout de la langue (P.O.L., 1993) is an intriguing fairy tale with linguistic and philosophical resonance.


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