Spurred on by Montaigne—whose philosophical essays drolly analyze (among nobler subjects) why humans are lazy, get drunk, wear clothes and have thumbs—French writers have often considered the routines and paraphernalia of everyday life to be valid literary topics in their own right. Well beyond the needs of plot, Balzac expatiated on Parisian street scenes and provincial mores. Marcel Proust took affectionate and penetrating looks at hawthorn blossoms, lime tea, madeleines and good-night kisses. These authors were ardent lovers of dailyness. There have been many others.
In recent times, poets and prose writers from Jean Follain and Henri Calet to Gil Jouanard, Pierre Autin-Grenier, Marcel Cohen and Jacques Réda have likewise scrutinized le quotidien. Their touching, witty, wacky, sarcastic or scrupulously reporter-like descriptions of common objects, urban banalities or rural humdrumness provide rare insights into the human condition, even into our search for spiritual truths. Such authors do not view ordinary details or happenstance as filler material for enticing story lines or poetic effusion. Instead, they focus on events so banal that we have forgotten how strange and mysterious they actually are. As Réda himself once quipped with respect to Georges L. Godeau’s deadpan depictions, the key question is: “What happens when nothing happens?”
This vital literary tradition has now culminated in Notions de base (Flammarion, 2005), an absorbing collection of short prose texts penned not by a Frenchman but rather by Petr Král (b. 1941), a Czech poet who immigrated to Paris in 1968 and has been writing in French since the early 1980s. His “basic notions” indeed constitute an “étrange et belle encyclopédie existentielle de la quotidienneté,” as the novelist Milan Kundera puts it in his preface. Two other forewords, by Massimo Rizzante and Yves Hersant, rightly argue for the invigorating originality of this book.
Examining “all these fabulous details among which we have been placed,” the author of Sentiment d’antichambre dans un café d’Aix (P.O.L., 1991), Quoi? Quelque chose (Obsidiane, 1995) and La Vie privée (Belin, 1997) has devoted 123 mini-essays to topics as diverse as good-byes, bathtubs, sneezing, barmen, train departures, the South, fish soup, undressing, toothpicks, suitcases and drinking wine late at night. Rather like Montaigne, Král also touches upon more general themes such as friendship, love, deception, ennui, erotic attraction, laughter and solitude. Taking on nearly anything that pertains to our daily experience of others, society and immediate natural environment, the author’s elegant and incisive meditations vary in length from a couple of pages to a mere sentence. To wit: “Going all the way to the kitchen, looking at the Jerusalem artichoke, then returning to bed in silence.”
The puzzling, tongue-in-cheek humor of Král’s writing derives partly from its roots in Czech Surrealism and, more broadly, in 20th-century Czech literature, which is arguably even more sensitive than its French counterpart to the interrelation among perceptions, emotions, intimations, musings and everyday experiences. While studying film at the Prague Faculty of Cinema and later working at a publishing company, Král participated in Surrealist groups. When Soviet tanks invaded his hometown in 1968 and crushed the political reform movement that was under way there, the poet immigrated to France. He continued to belong to Surrealist groups in Paris and in 1983 completed a major study and anthology, Le Surréalisme en Tchécoslovaquie (Gallimard).
Yet after Král began writing exclusively in French, he distanced himself somewhat from Surrealism and forged his own literary path. Surrealists yoke together heterogeneous images, symbols, emotions and ideas; some of Král’s early French poems exhibit this propensity. Even some of the prose texts in Notions de base display bold juxtapositions, such as when he equates shaving and “successfully passing once again over the abyss.” But increasingly, the author has become more subtle stylistically, more metaphysically inclined and more intent on unearthing the hidden wealth in everyday drabness.
Metaphysics leads back to the Jerusalem artichoke. The very sound of its French name, topinambour, possesses a sort of ungainly poetry all its own. Like the rutabaga, the vegetable is associated with deprivation during the Second World War, when French citizens had little to eat. Today, in a reversal of fate and reputation, it is increasingly grown by organic farmers and is a fixture of popular Saturday markets. Rather comically, it tends to provoke flatulence.
These connotations affect the reading of Král’s deceptively simple sentence. More importantly, the author characteristically places the topinambour in an everyday context that is slightly out of kilter. When associated with an individual’s insomniac walk to the kitchen, this vegetable that rarely attracts attention suddenly and bizarrely becomes visible. Its reality is heightened; we finally see the Jerusalem artichoke for what it is. From this perspective, Král sets forth a European poetic tradition going back at least to Rainer Maria Rilke (who was born and raised in Prague, by the way). According to such an approach, the goal of poetry is to bring out the “thing-in-itself” or the “thingness of the thing.” In French literature, Francis Ponge famously pursued this quest, ever tormented by the anxiety that words and concepts separate human beings from down-to-earth realities.
Now reread Král’s sentence. Why does the individual return to bed “in silence” after looking at the topinambour? Did he go to the kitchen in order to see the topinambour? Did he notice it by chance? Král’s odd perception simultaneously enables the topinambour to leave its real state, as it were. The topinambour becomes more than itself. At this symbolic, metaphysical, literally surreal level, what exactly does the vegetable represent? Král likes to hand us such questions before putting a final period at the end of his texts.
He thus offers disturbing glimpses into worlds adjacent to, or projected from, the one with which we are familiar. He seeks to show the “secret link between what is visible and invisible, how one realm seamlessly extends into the other.” He similarly suggests that going to a street corner and tipping one’s hat “in homage to the afternoon” opens up a space “between our head and the hat, in which a haggard infinity smiles briefly.” If that sounds farfetched, go outside and tip your hat. We end up agreeing with the author: Infinity, for all its weariness, does reward us with a grin. Král’s succinct texts are persuasive; they haunt the mind, thereafter influencing our perceptions, not only of hats but also of stairways, canes, voices, balconies, kitchen knives “that really cut,” the colors green and blue, and much more.
He thus teaches how to pass from matter to metaphysics, from the microscopic to the macroscopic—and back again. Pointing to the nothingness enveloping life and drawing disquieting conclusions from our interaction with common phenomena, the poet lets his eye function like a zoom lens. A text entitled “Presque” notably begins with the “very little” grated lemon rind that gives mayonnaise its “finesse,” moves on to the “almost nothing”—“a bit of slightly fragrant flesh”—that makes oysters a culinary delicacy, before adding that “it would not have taken much at all for us never to have existed.” Likewise, an ashtray on a cleared table becomes a “miniature cloister enabling us to change our solitude into a dialogue by merely focusing on the cigarette butt, sometimes on a few ashes.” Drinking a cup of coffee in a Parisian café rather late on a Saturday morning, while the street outside overflows with people, similarly enables us “to meet up with ourselves by means of the hot, suddenly precise liquid which, along with remains of the previous night, flows over the tongue and down the throat.”
Intimate with French life yet also slightly removed from it because of his Central European background, Král hints at both the individual and metaphysical ramifications of whatever he comes across. As a result, our awareness and self-awareness are considerably heightened. His “basic notions” are to be meditated on, indeed experienced.
Let’s try out one more. When we cross a street, Král contends, we always arrive “elsewhere”—not at the spot that was our original destination. This, in fact, is what reading Notions de base is all about: leaving a concrete sidewalk and arriving at wonder, stupefaction, awe, bewilderment—or at a place called “ourselves.”