Category: France

Antoine de Lévis Mirepoix Interviewed by David Garyan


Antoine de Lévis Mirepoix

An Interview with Antoine de Lévis Mirepoix

With David Garyan

 

DG: What inspired you to become a writer?

ADLM: I think that no one becomes a writer. One simply is a writer or is not. Writing is my essence. The necessity to write appeared naturally, but it was directly linked to my passion for reading. As far as I remember, I wanted to be a writer. All the other boys had other dreams: explorer, pilot, architect, film maker, astronomer, ethnologist, and so on. I started writing at the age of fourteen. Short stories mainly. Poetry. Thoughts. Phrases. Feelings. What I was observing around and inside me. Description of nature and beings. Relations between them. Stories I was told.

DG: You have a strong connection to France and Argentina. How does this influence your writing?

ADLM: I have a very strong connection to France on my father’s side, as my most distant French ancestor lived in the 12th century. And with Argentina because of my mother’s family—they immigrated there in 1784 and 1810. Regarding the influence of this double connection to my writing I will define it this way: On one hand, I feel close to the imaginary world of Echeverría (La Cautiva), Ricardo Guïraldes (Don Segundo Sombra), Adolfo Bioy Casares (La Invención de Morel), Ernesto Sábato, Julio Cortázar, but also to the reality shown and created by other authors from Latin America as Gabriel García Marquez, Juan Rulfo, Huidobro, Isabel Allende, Francisco Coloane, Luis Sepúlveda, Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima (Paradiso) … On the other hand, I am close to the sensibilities of many French novelists as Le Clézio (Désert), Joseph Kessel, Albert Camus, Maurice Genevoix, Jean Giono, Julien Gracq, Jean de La Varende, Amin Maalouf, Roger Nimier, Raymond Queneau, Jean Raspail, Jean Rostand, Nicolas Vanier, Gilbert Sinoué, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Jules Supervielle, François Cheng, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Rabelais, etc … they are too many! And I left aside all poets! May I add that Italian, English, Japanese literature seduces me too. The crossroads of culture are mainly about one thing: the multiplicity of reality.

DG: It would be interesting to hear about your past career—how has it shaped the writing you’ve done?

ADLM: My past “career” was varied. I happened to be teacher, diplomat, in charge of international relations in the French National Space Center and in a pharmaceutical company, located in many different countries. All that gave me the opportunity to deal with a wide range of situations and experiences. They provided an interesting amount of material that I’ve been drawing from over the years. The different jobs I have done have expanded my vision and perception of the world.

DG: Much of your writing contains deeply personal themes. How do you transfer that into literature?

ADLM: Personal themes are present in my literature even when the story itself is totally invented, which means that they are part of my moral composition, part of my convictions, part of my style. In writing or speech, I cannot express anything I don’t believe. I think that sincerity is one of the most important ethical obligations for an author. You can be wrong, you can be right, but you cannot lie in literature. To agree or disagree is our human liberty. It is part of our diversity which I consider marvelous. A writer must make himself vulnerable to his audience. It’s one’s responsibility. Because writing is a serious affair. On the contrary, presenting objective facts is reporting not writing. Marguerite Yourcenar once said to Matthieu Galey that none of the characters created by a novelist are similar to him, but all of them belong to his own essence.

DG: You’ve written novels and also poetry. For you, in terms of creative approach, how are they similar and how are they different?

ADLM: Creative approaches to poetry are based on emotions. The poet transfers his emotional state to the reader, establishing within him an intimate and deep connection through the meaning of words, and through the musicality of those words. The link between poet an reader is personal and unique. A novel is a story. It can be poetically written, or contain poetical descriptions, etc … but it his always a story with a beginning and end. Some novels are “open” with no formal end, but that doesn’t mean the novelist isn’t a story teller. To immerse one’s self in the creative process of poetry or novel writing, one has to consider the individuality of the artist. That’s why similarities can exist across the board, but also differences, depending on the author personality.

DG: In terms of theme, how has your writing changed over the years?

ADLM: Regarding the evolution of my themes throughout the years, I should say they are in accordance with my own emotional state—living in the moment. In a way they are an expression of my internal and external composition. I believe the kernel of writing doesn’t lie in the theme. A theme is a vehicle, not the heart of the message one wants to deliver. So the evolution of a writer’s message follows his own evolution. It gets deeper, more accurate, more generous, or on the contrary it repeats itself on and on, loosing strength, perhaps falling into commercial territory, or ultimate superficiality. My literary themes (and perhaps the themes of all writers) are not that original. For me personally, they are not that different from the interests I have, and most of the things I’m interested in have changed very little through time: destiny, life and death, encounters, humanity and the universe, music, philosophy, nature, horses, beauty, truth, love.

DG: Do you write more now, or were you more prolific in the past?

ADLM: I write whenever I have a moment. I started to write seriously—my first novel—at fifty six, because I never could dedicate before enough space time to my work. Although naturally sporadic, my writing never stopped. Sentences, literary ideas, plans of novels, human characters, poetry, descriptions, feelings into words, etc … all this constantly crosses my mind. Nevertheless I suffer from what I call “empty” literary periods. I do not consider myself as a prolific writer. Being sporadic is part of my style, linked with intensity. My novels are short, 80 to 200 pages, and my short stories can be half a page. I hope to dedicate now a third part of the day to literature creativity.

DG: How has the pandemic affected your writing?

ADLM: The pandemic has affected my writing, first because covid has stopped my work almost a year, secondly because it generated a crisis of credibility. Lies everywhere all the time. But on top of everything, the pandemic has changed my perception of humanity—the planet and it’s future. Still, at this point, I would like to avoid the issue of how this historical moment might have and will change my work.

DG: Who’s one French writer you couldn’t live without, and one Argentine writer?

ADLM: Very difficult question! I’ll choose Antoine de Saint Exupéry … but I must add Victor Hugo. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. And I must add my Colombian favorite, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

DG: What’s one book or poem you wish you had written?

ADLM: I would love to have written Alessandro Barrico’s novel Ocean Sea. Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees, Victor Hugo’s poem “Les Djinns,” and all Baudelaire’s poems. I must admit that I am jealous of J.M.G Le Clézio as a writer and as a man who lived a life in accordance with his intimate essence.

Un extrait: L’échappée du désert, par Antoine de Lévis Mirepoix

L’échappée du désert

Ils abandonnèrent lEuphrate avant laube, avant le jour. S’élevèrent vers un premier cordon de dunes, laissant derrière eux les dernières sibât*. La piste, davantage devinée quaperçue, filait plein sud.

Jamil les guidait. Il parlait un peu français et le comprenait bien. Dans les années vingt, au début du mandat de la France, sous les ordres du général Henri Gouraud nommé par Clémenceau, il avait été jeune méhariste dans les troupes françaises. Corpulent, moustache fournie poivre et sel, les yeux rieurs, il était content. Content de voyager, content de parler français. Connaissait-il vraiment la piste ?

Les traces multiples sentrecroisaient, sarrondissaient à droite ou à gauche du fil principal, légèrement plus creusé. Le sol devenait plus foncé, le sable faisait place à une surface durcie, parfois lisse, parfois craquelée. Une file de points sombres au loin sur la droite : rochers ? Jamil pointa du doigt :

« Les restes de la ville forte de el-Kôm. »

La chaleur se faisait sentir. Certains passagers somnolaient. Gaï restait attentif, en alerte, observait le chauffeur et lhorizon.

Une chaîne de collines, « djebel el-Bisri » nomma Jamil.

              

*Cabanes en bois de réglisse, quatre piliers, traverses du toit couvertes dune natte, deux demi-parois de tissu dans un angle.

 

__________________________

 

Insensiblement le rythme du paysage, de leur progression, de la vibration de lair, de la respiration du guide et du chauffeur changeait. Un flottement. Des failles et leurs ombres de chaque côté. Des ravines les obligèrent à ralentir, à presque s’arrêter par moments. Les deux hommes se regardèrent. Un doute s’immisça dans leur pensée.

Gaï se tendit. Il perçut l’hésitation, linquiétude. Était-on toujours sur la bonne piste ? Avaient-ils vu des traces suspectes ? Les deux hommes se regardèrent encore. Gaï voyait cette fois des empreintes de larges pneus crénelés, profondément marqués à gauche de la piste. Il se tourna vers Jamil en montrant du doigt les lignes parallèles. Lequel haussa les épaules avec une moue de « je ne sais pas ». Depuis combien de temps navait-il pas traversé le désert ?

Surgit alors le caravansérail, immense et brun sombre, ruines posées dans une large cuvette, carcasse abandonnée, imputrescible, que survolaient des nuées de corbeaux criards. Voilà plus de mille ans que ce khan omeyyade était brûlé par le soleil, et que les briques des murailles, des deux portes principales, des tours, des ar- cades de la grande cour, du premier étage en partie écroulé, cuisaient dans ce four sous une lumière de feu. Combien de caravanes, combien dhommes, de femmes, denfants, danimaux, de denrées et de marchandises avaient foulé cette immense cour intérieure, y avaient dormi à l’abri des tribus insoumises, nomades bédouins, druzes, kurdes.

Ils ne sattardèrent pas. Jamil quitta la piste principale bordée par le double sillage cranté, pour infléchir leur route vers lest. Ils voyaient au loin sur leur gauche le château de Kasr el-Heir al Sharqi et son puits d’eau amère puis une haute colonne, Al-Kuwayr, la frontière indiqua Jamil. Le sable était dur. Comme une roche lisse. La piste seffaça.

Des heures quils avaient quitté la Jazira. La chaleur était intense. Ce n’était plus de linquiétude mais de la peur que Gaï percevait

maintenant. Peur de s’être égarés. Peur de tourner en boucle. Peur de navoir pas assez de combustible.

Là, une tente. Longue, noire, elle semblait plaquée au sol, une source plus loin, et la ligne verte qui suivait le ruisseau, s’élargissait, buissons et maigre pâturage. Trois chameaux, des chèvres, des moutons, des femmes et des enfants, un homme âgé. Les autres étaient partis travailler à Soukhné. Ils indiquèrent le chemin à Jamil, qui, soulagé, sourit de nouveau. Ils échangèrent des biscuits contre du fromage.

« Ce sont des bédouins Anaza, des sunnites comme moi. »

Le chauffeur était détendu. Pas de piste visible, aucune trace … quimporte, les indications suffisaient. La beauté des Anaza était surprenante. Le vieux, les femmes, même âgées, avaient un port, une allure, une dignité. Manger peu, marcher beaucoup, le
silence … comment imaginer le cours des pensées dans le désert, chez les hommes et les femmes du désert ? Le moindre fait était un événement, mais entre les faits ? L’espace nu ne désertifiait pas l’être humain, il lamplifiait comme l’océan ; loin d’être vides, déserts et océans sont infiniment renouvelés, infiniment mobiles, changeants … les nuages, la lumière et les ombres … la fonction du désert : lesprit partait, s’élançait, senvolait non … l’âme plutôt.

Dans cette splendeur de l’air brûlant qui tremblait, la souffrance était là, la mort les poumons incendiés, la torture de la soif, la glace de la nuit dans les os, livresse folle de s’arrêter, fermer les yeux, dormir … dormir ? Aborder un autre rivage, voler enfin.

Un cahot le secoua. Pas de piste visible, aucune trace … Cette femme Anaza longue et mince, droite, les yeux presque turquoise, surgie de la tente noire tapie sur le sable, — étalée, aplatie, scarabée immobile à l’affût — cette femme avait sans nul doute du sang tcherkesse. Son regard s’était planté dans ses yeux, Gaï n’oublierait pas.

Jamil se détendit.

La première oasis, As-Sukhna — Soukhné sur la carte survenait comme un soulagement, un relâchement du corps, une mollesse des membres, le vert, les arbres, leau. Ici croisement des pistes reliant Alep à Bagdad, Hama à Mossoul, Damas à l’Euphrate. Pâturages, cultures dorge. Des ouvriers et des machines : la fu- ture route Damas Deir-Es-Zôr en chantier.

Ces pistes : des milliers, des millions de pas danimaux et dhumains avaient façonné ces lignes, ces diagonales du désert. Des armées, des batailles avaient aussi chargé les lieux de l’énergie des combats et du sang, énergie que le sol a bue et le vent purifiée.

Le soleil avait basculé vers le soir quand se profilèrent les constructions de la vaste oasis. Apparue au détour dune grande dune, elle s’étalait sur lhorizon entier. Gaï était stupéfait, subjugué, hypnotisé. Palmyre ! La légendaire, la somptueuse Palmyre, les fastes de la reine Zénobie. Il avait lu, imaginé. Là, il voyait. Songeait à ces caravanes qui enfin arrivaient. Arriver : à la fois essentiel et éphémère, vital et illusoire.

Arrivait-on jamais quelque part ?

___________________________

 

Antoine de Lévis Mirepoix, de mère argentine et de père français, est né en 1942 aux Etats Unis, a vécu une partie de son enfance en Argentine puis en France, principalement à Paris.

A l’adolescence il a été élève de l’école des Roches, collège de Normandie, sous la direction d’André Charlier. Après maths sup et maths spé, études de sciences économiques puis de lettres à lla Sorbonne. Coopérant à l’Université du Nord à Antofagasta, Chili, il entre aux Affaires Etrangères pour occuper divers postes culturels et pédagogiques à Mexico, Barcelone, Beyrouth et Nairobi.

Puis il enseigne deux ans dans un CES de Moulins, Allier, France. Il entre ensuite au Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales à Toulouse dans le cadre du Satellite Spot, chargé à Spot Image du développement commercialpour l’Amérique, puis des relations avec les organisations internationales.

En 1991 il rejoint la Girection Générale des Laboratoires Pierre Fabre à Castres comme responsable des relations internationales du Président. Il réside à Buernos-Aires depuis 1997 où il ouvre un bureau de consultancepour guider des entreprises françaises désireuses de s’implanter au Brésil ou en Argentine. Bureau qu’il fermera début 2002.

Membre de l’Académie des Jeux Floraux de Toulouse depuis 2000, Antoine de Lévis Mirepoix partage son temps aujourd’hui entre la France et l’Argentine où il cultive sa passion pour les chevaux.

Il publie en 2008 son premier roman aux Editions du Rocher, « Le Passeur ». En 2011 « Le Crabe et l’Aube » est édité chez Atlantica qui décide de mettre fin à ses activités le jour même de la publication du récit. Trois autres romans non encore édités : « Quartetti e Sonata a Tre » et « Fortuit », “Contes Véridiques”, un sixième en voie d’achèvement et un septième en cours d’écriture. Antoine de Lévis Mirepoix a écrit égalementquelques récits courts sur les voyages, les chevaux, Venise, etc … et des poèmes.

Conférencier à ses heures autour de thèmes divers comme « les bibliothèques », « Gérard de Nerval », « l’Amérique du Sud », « Antoine de Saint Exupéry », il s’interroge sur le destin, le sens des mots et de la parole, la signification du voyage, la création artistique, la juste place de l’homme.

Ant by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, an Anthology Collected and Edited by the Author’s Great-Great Niece, Jean Findlay, revi...

C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Translator, Poet, Critic, WWI War Hero 

Best known for bringing Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time) into English for the first time.

 

Ant by C.K. Scott Moncrieff

An anthology of Moncrieff’s work, compiled and edited by Jean Findlay (the author’s great-great niece) written in his youth, during the war, and afterwards.

Reviewed by David Garyan

 

Price Beyond Rubies: On Writing “The Hat Jewel,” an article by Jean Findlay, published by Interlitq
Read Jean Findlay’s Interview with David Garyan, published by Interlitq
Read David Garyan’s review of Jean Findlay’s biography on C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Chasing Lost Time
Read David Garyan’s review of Jean Findlay’s novel The Queen’s Lender

 

The Review

It has become an indisputable maxim, at least in the Western literary tradition, to separate the author from the work he or she has written. Unlike Chinese culture, which views the writer as inextricably linked to the literature he has produced, our own academies treat the text as the sole “living” entity—in that sense, the single credible source from which readers should derive literary meaning. “The author is dead,” remarked the French literary critic, Roland Barthes, a man only born into this world when C.K. Scott Moncrieff was already twenty-six years old, and had, by that time, seen action in France as a commissioned officer. Moncrieff, however, though severely injured, died neither as a person nor as an author, and along with the work he managed to publish during his military service, he later went on to have a flourishing literary career as a translator of French and Italian literature, along with establishing himself as a trusted critic.

The poems and short stories, collected and edited in Ant by Jean Findlay (the great-great niece of Moncrieff) are a testament, firstly, not just to the author’s vitality, life, and perseverance, but secondly, and more importantly, the assembled literature also proves a more general point: It’s futile and perhaps also impossible to separate the author from his own creation. C.K. Scott Moncrieff was a man both of his time and likewise a man out of time, an individual of paradoxes and contradictions—a devout Catholic and unrepentant homosexual, a steadfast war hero and also the most tender love poet, an open individual unafraid to show emotion but also a spy who both preferred and also had to keep many secrets to himself. Suffice it to say, there was no one else better equipped to write the philosophical insights, vivid descriptions of humanity, and observations about the natural world we find in Ant than C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

While the majority of the work collected here has been published in various prestigious literary magazines of Moncrieff’s time, including T.S. Eliot’s New Criterion, it’s ultimately the job of the editor to assemble them in such a way that does justice to Moncrieff’s artistic vision, and this is something Jean Findlay has certainly done. It’s a great relief to know that the collection isn’t organized chronologically, but rather thematically. We enter the author’s literary world through his short stories, and the first one, in this respect, is “Evensonge and Morwesong,” a piece Moncrieff wrote while studying at Winchester, the most prestigious boarding school in the UK. In this work, he decries the hypocrisy of the master, deals with homosexual themes, and exposes the snobbery of such institutions. Moncrieff writes: “As he was transcribing the address this most consummate of headmasters received an unpleasant shock … a picture of two boys in a thicket; of the one’s charming nonchalance; of terror sickening the other, a child that had just lost its soul.” Here, Carruthers, the school master, has punished two boys for essentially the same act he himself committed; he’s reminded of this by a photo he’d long forgotten, and we find out that one of the pupils being punished is, in fact, the son of the boy he himself seduced.

As we reach the end, Jean Findlay reminds us that Moncrieff published this story in 1908, and the fact that the book opens with one of the first things Moncrieff ever wrote is only a coincidence. It’s a larger testament to the courage and openness that would make the author in question not only an excellent solider, but also a sharp, observant translator and critic. The story, in a sense, both defines the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff, as it reveals to readers his uncompromising, brave search for truth, and yet it also doesn’t define him, precisely because his failure to get into Oxford as a result of the story’s publication doesn’t go on to stop him from becoming one of the foremost literary figures of not only his generation, but also ours.

We subsequently jump fourteen years in time to the story “Mortmain,” published by G.K. Chesterton’s The New Witness in 1922. The main character, a soldier named Farleigh Bennett, has been seriously wounded and is preparing to undergo surgery. The injuries are so bad “as to make amputation the one possible remedy,” and it’s further unfortunate that he “had not been wounded in any glorious encounter; a bomb badly thrown by a man of his own Company had fallen back at his feet from the parapet and, while he groped for it in the dark trench, had exploded actually under his right hand.” This work is a prime example of how the author is so intimately connected to his work. Moncrieff himself, according to Jean Findlay’s biography, Chasing Lost Time, was wounded by a “British shell aimed at the German trench [which] fell short and exploded in front of him.” The brave officer was nominated for a medal, but as Findlay writes: “Charles initially refused the award because he was injured by his own barrage, and because he did not think himself more deserving than anyone else.” We hence see—and this very clearly—how the author’s life and experiences are at once present in “Mortmain.” While Moncrieff, unlike his character Bennett, never lost his own limb, his own injuries were nevertheless permanently disfiguring, and it’s not difficult to imagine how he, similarly to Bennett, may have perceived his own leg to be a separate, independent entity from the rest of his body, unable to find coordination with the whole. Thus, the story’s supernatural element of the limb having its own life serves as a parallel for the author’s private struggle to “start” a new life after the war, while simultaneously having to bear the burden of the old one as well.

After “Mortmain,” we jump four more years ahead in time to “Cousin Fanny and Cousin Annie.” Published in 1926 by T.S. Eliot’s New Criterion, this story is perhaps the most touching, yet bittersweet in the entire collection. Crafted with Proustian-like memories of childhood that influence the future, we follow Alec, who spends many of his days with Cousin Fanny and Cousin Annie, mainly because his parents travel to India. Recollections of Cousin Annie’s generosity towards him, and Cousin Fanny’s mother dying on the Queen’s birthday, along with memories of his own birthday, serve to emphasize the borders between life and death.

Alec grows up and joins the war effort, and except for one visit during this period, he gradually loses touch with both Fanny and Annie. Memories, however, of the generosity they had shown before his leave for school—how Cousin Fanny had given him “a pound, which he didn’t quite like to take if she was so poor, except that he needed it, really, more than she did,” and how Annie had given him “a huge cake which she had baked for him”—trigger a desire to visit them once more. When he does, however, it’s already too late, as Annie has died, and this leaves Alec feeling incredibly upset: “Every single day since her childhood Annie had had to prepare all her own meals, and, until extreme old age, other people’s as well. He thought of all the services that had been rendered him every day of his life, at school and in the army, and how easily he had taken it. What had he ever given Annie? Kisses, when he was little; and a china dog—and she had spent every moment when she was not in her kitchen by his bedside when he was ill. Why this was the bed he had been ill in.” When he meets Fanny and tells her that Annie has passed away, he’s surprised at her heartlessness: “Well, we must all die some time, I suppose.” The story is fascinating because while it does closely resemble the sentiments and nature which formed the author’s own character, the resemblance is exactly the opposite. In other words, the author, during his own life, was completely devoted to taking care of his family, relatives, and friends.

In her biography, Findlay recalls a time when Moncrieff’s brother, John, accidentally killed himself while cleaning a gun; upon receiving the news, the grief-stricken man promised to do everything in his power to support his family, and he wrote the following to his brother’s widow, Anna: “I swear to you that as long as I live I will do all I possibly can to be a father to them [the children] and a helper to you.” Indeed, we would never expect these words or actions to emanate from a character like Alec, who, in the author’s words, accepts services of support easily and without second thought, but it’s precisely this reversal which shows us the traits that Moncrieff himself admired—honor, commitment, and sacrifice for the family.

From the section “Short Stories,” the collection moves to “War Serials,” and while war does also feature in works like the aforementioned “Mortmain” and “Cousin Fanny and Cousin Annie,” the pieces in this section are assembled in a way that brings forth the potent descriptive powers Moncrieff had as a writer. We begin with “Halloween,” which is, as Findlay writes in the anthology’s introduction, “a weekly story for the New Witness,” that Moncrieff wrote “while in the trenches and on sick leave with trench foot in 1916.” The story revolves around the main character, Allison, a soldier moving with his Company through Belgium towards the city of Ypres, in preparation for battle there.

The scene is both tranquil and chaotic, which mirrored Moncrieff’s own experiences in war. He was known to raise the spirits of soldiers by reading literature to them, but was at the same time calm under fire, always demonstrating the highest level of courage in dangerous situations. As he once wrote to his mother in an October 27th, 1914, letter: “There is something rather stimulating in being under fire.” As the war dragged on, however, this “stimulation” naturally turned into contempt, and finally into weariness; through it all, however, courageous Moncrieff remained, and, in fact, so does his main character, Allison, who states how he’d “grown savage now after a whack on the head from some passing projective, drove the scattered troopers—they were calmly sitting here and there among his own Jocks—like sheep before him on to the road—where they fell in and duly disappeared.” With the same courage our author demonstrated during the war, Alison goes on to describe his situation: “And now we ourselves were neatly sandwiched: for our guns had begun to shell an outlying row of houses just behind us while the enemy plastered the town and the fields in front. But we got out somehow, and by midday were spread out in front of the Steenebeek, and digging ourselves in for dear life with our entrenching tools.” Indeed, Moncrieff himself would’ve been no stranger to such experiences, and neither would the men under his command; the story, thus, brings to life not only the individual who was C.K. Scott Moncrieff, but also paints—and that precisely—a vivid account of the war; this is another instance where the author can be said to be inextricably linked to the work he has produced.

Moncrieff’s insights about people and his understanding of human nature are further highlighted in the war serial, “On Being Wounded,” which starts this way: “It is extremely interesting to have seen the business of being wounded from the point of view of a casualty. For those who only know the wounded soldier as a carefully washed individual ministered to by efficient nurses and seen against the staged background of a ward filled with sunlight and bright flowers, the reality of the thing cannot exist.” Many subtle things are happening here, and perhaps there are also aspects of his personality that Moncrieff himself would become aware of only later. It’s important to understand that our author, especially in his later years—but not only then—lived a life which was incredibly transparent and emotionally open, yet at the same time that life was also one of secrecy and necessary evasion: He was a poet, comfortable enough to reveal his own thoughts and feelings—to publish them as well; yet, he had to keep his homosexuality private. Later, he slowly began to be more comfortable with his own identity, revealing also that aspect of himself, but there was now something even more compromising than his sexual orientation—he’d become a spy, and truly, no one could know about that.

Moncrieff became aware of the difference between appearance and reality quite early—indeed much earlier than anyone else his age. Hence, reading “On Being Wounded,” the reader will by no means be surprised to see him ponder the difference between the world we see on the surface and what exists underneath it, all at the young age of twenty-eight. Already then, Moncrieff understood there’s a distinction between how the wounded man “presents” himself to others and how he “exists” by himself; the former implies happiness while the latter embodies the suffering only victims themselves can understand.

In addition, Moncrieff speculates about the relative nature of time, in the sense that we can’t pinpoint exactly when something happens—more specifically when a man has recovered from his wound: “But it is doubtful whether the man himself can make any more accurate an estimation of his condition. There is a continuous, insensible shifting of the perspective from the moment that he feels the thud made by the arrival of the bullet to that when he realizes one day at the end of his convalescence, that he is well again. The gradual changes are so subtle, the inability to reproduce any one state of consciousness when in the next is so complete that the most introspective must hope for nothing better than confused reminiscence.” Moncrieff, here, as an intellectual, is utterly ahead of any contemporary and even those who came after him: He’s realized something psychologists are only now starting to understand about human memory—that it’s malleable, open to suggestion, and rarely ever fixed. What we remember not only changes with time, it’s also influenced by the future—what we hear and see around us, what we’re told, and most of all our recollections, change by listening to what others want us to believe.

From the section “War Serials,” we move right back to Moncrieff’s earliest days, to the final part of the collection, which is the author’s poetry, divided into “Early Poems,” “War Poems,” “Love and Dedicatory Poems,” and “Satirical Verse.” One curious thing that may jolt readers is having to move from the early verse directly into the war poetry, and then finding themselves among stanzas of love. Upon closer inspection, however, the editorial decision seems sound: Even if Moncrieff, at a young age, did find out what it’s like to feel strongly about someone, it was ultimately war that made him see the fragility of human life, allowing him to gaze, truly, into the limitless depths of love. While his romantic poems before the war, such as “The Beechwood,” and even the earliest poem handwritten in pencil at university are certainly strong, it’s ultimately his poems written in the most terrifying states of despair which really capture love in its most naked, unforgiving forms—it’s in those works written after the deaths of his closest companions, Wilfred Owen and Philip Bainbridge, where Moncrieff’s creative power is at its highest. And would the reader expect anything else? I will quote the poem written after Owen’s death in full:

When in the centuries of time to come,
Men shall be happy and rehearse thy fame,
Shall I be spoken of then, or they grow dumb,
Recall these numbers and forget this name?
Part of thy praise, shall my dull verse live
In thee, themselves—as life without thee—vain?
So should I halt, oblivion’s fugitive,
Turn, stand, smile know myself a man again.
I care not: not the glorious boasts of men
Could wake my pride, were I in Heaven with thee;
Nor any breath of envy touch me, when,
Swept from the embrace of mortal memory
Beyond the stars’ light, in the eternal day,
Our contended ghosts stay together.

It’s truly unfortunate that life had to drag men like C.K. Scott Moncrieff to the deepest depths of despair in order to lead them up their creative mountains, but that’s often the burden geniuses must bear. This collection, skillfully edited by Jean Findlay, proves, finally and conclusively, what we’ve probably suspected but have yet to express—had Marcel Proust not written À la recherche du temps perdu and brought it to life for Moncrieff to discover and translate, the latter would’ve become an accomplished poet in his own right.

 

About C.K. Scott Moncrieff

Charles Scott Moncrieff was born in Scotland in 1889 and died in Rome in 1930. He published poetry in literary journals from the age of sixteen and after studying at Edinburgh University, went into the First World War as a Captain in the KOSB. From the trenches he wrote trenchant literary criticism, war poetry and war serials. Wounded out, working at the War Office he contributed short stories for T.S. Eliot’s New Criterion, G.K. Chesterton’s New Witness and J.C. Squire’s London Mercury. Later as an editor at The Times he translated The Song of Roland and Beowulf and started on Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a work that was to make him famous. Leaving London in 1923 to work as an undercover agent in Mussolini’s Italy, he settled there. As well as continuing work on Proust’s lengthy novel, he translated much of Stendhal, Eloise and Abelard and some of Pirandello.

Spleen, by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Willis Barnstone


Charles Baudelaire and Skull*
Artist: Édouard Chimot (1890-1959)

Spleen

When the sunken sky weighs like a lid
On spirits torn by long ennuis and frights,
While the round horizon traps us in a grid,
It pours a black day sadder than those nights,

When Earth is changed into a sweating cell
Where Hope like a bat goes battling pot
And wall with timid wings, it starts to swell
And smash its head on ceilings crude with rot.

When raindrops trinkle down an immense train
From a vast prison copying prison bars’ blur,
And a silent mass of a flaming spiders
Spins its threads profoundly into our brain,

When suddenly bells erupt in broad fury
And launch toward a disgusting scream
Like wandering ghosts with no country,
Who call out complaints like hollow steam

—And lengthy hearses with no music or drum
Parade slowly in my soul while Hope. dull,
Vanquished, sobs, and despot Anguish is glum,
Yet pastes it black flag on my drooping skull.

*A note on the painting: In 1948, a 20-year old graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine, I was in the doctoral program at the Sorbonne. A red-headed American or English student was seated near me, but I didn’t know her name. One day at a café on la rue Jacob, the young lady passed by, had the Complete Poems by Baudelaire illustrated by Chimot, handed it to me as a gift and left. I didn’t know her name and she had dropped out of the class, and I never saw here again. But I read this correct copy of last version of Baudelaire’s poems again and again. I wonder where she is. I’m 94 in good health, 2 years younger than most students at 20 from college. If she sees this book, I’m sure she will get in touch with me. I have to say “if,” because at my age, 94, most of my student and university colleagues are helping the daisies flourish.
—Willis Barnstone

 

Spleen

Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle
Sur l’esprit gémissant en proie aux longs ennuis,
Et que de l’horizon embrassant tout le cercle
Il nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;

Quand la terre est changée en un cachot humide,
Où l’Espérance, comme une chauve-souris,
S’en va battant les murs de son aile timide
Et se cognant la tête à des plafonds pourris;

Quand la pluie, étalant ses immenses traînées,
D’une vaste prison imite les barreaux,
Et qu’un peuple muet d’infâmes araignées
Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux,

Des cloches tout à coup sautent avec furie
Et lancent vers le ciel un affreux hurlement,
Ainsi que des esprits errants et sans patrie
Qui se mettent à geindre opiniâtrement.

—Et de longs corbillards, sans tambour ni musique,
Défilent lentement dans mon âme; l’Espoir,
Vaincu, pleure et l’Angoisse atroce, despotique,
Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.

 

About Willis Barnstone

Poet, religious scholar, and translator Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine, and earned a BA from Bowdoin College, an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Yale University. An intrepid traveler, he taught in Greece at the end of that country’s civil war and in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” and was in China during the Cultural Revolution. He later returned to China as a Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The author of nearly 50 books, Barnstone has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including From This White Island (1959), China Poems (1977), The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (1996), Algebra of Night: New & Selected Poems 1948–1998, and Life Watch (2003).

He has also published numerous translations from Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and biblical Hebrew, including a complete translation of the New Testament (which he translates as the New Covenant), as well as memoirs, religious studies, children’s literature, and songs.