Reading Louis Calaferte

Context N°12

by John Taylor

Scotch-taped to a bookcase near my writing desk is a small piece of paper on which the following bold words appear: “Quant à vous—écrivez!” This imperative essentially means:”As for yourself—take courage, get back to your writing!”; and I copied it from a characteristic- ally frank and encouraging letter that I received from Louis Calaferte in late 1990. (He died three and a half years later, at the age of 66.) During his last, pain-ridden years, Calaferte necessarily applied this same stern advice to himself, several times daily, for despite the rampages of a long-unidentified illness, he kept working hard—the expression is feeble—until his last breath. Dylan Thomas’s now-proverbial line, “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” could not be illustrated more starkly.

As the nine (to date) published volumes of his rich and absorbing Carnets (or Notebooks) amply reveal, the author of Septentrion (1963)—the most impressive French erotic novel of the post-war period—always wrote with a sense of urgency. Creative bursts followed tense fallow periods; and during his prolific seasons, Calaferte exploded with poems (in a variety of experimental forms), full-length burlesque comedies and “intimate dramas” (the Hesse edition of his collected theatrical works numbers six volumes), incisive diary passages (on all sorts of personal, literary, political, theological, and metaphysical matters), as well as—and ever more frequently—unsettling short prose texts exhibiting mankind in abject, ludicrous or lascivious postures. When one learns a little about the man’s background (as an Italian immigrant who was raised, before the Second World War, in one of the roughest “zones” of Lyons and who was apprenticed to a factory job by the age of thirteen), one suspects that a substantial part of what initially appears to be “fiction”—with its cold focus on lewd and sordid behavior—was actually studied meticulously, even “clinically” (as he put it).

Intensifying eye-witnessed events by means of fictional additives constitutes, of course, a common act of literary artifice. In Calaferte’s case, however, persistent doubts trouble the mind of any reader cognizant of the writer’s sharp diaristic commentary and of his avowals, to interviewers, that his own imaginative life was “practically non-existent.” A realist, then? A cryptic autobiographer? Calaferte adamantly espoused the “personal” and the “intimate” as the most appropriate subjects for literature. As one of his titles (Ébauche d’un autoportrait, 1983) in fact makes explicit, he moreover declared that he was “sketching” or “making a rough draft of” an ongoing “self-portrait,” suggesting in the process that there was no fictional adjunction whatsoever. He frequently remarked (in his Carnets and elsewhere) that he had little patience for “novels” and “short stories”—at any rate, as “fictions”—and that only other writers’ journals or blatantly autobiographical writings genuinely solicited his attention.

So the age-old question of autobiographical inspiration and fictional transposition—a trite, even misleading line of inquiry for solving the riddles raised by the work of many authors—must nonetheless be pursued for Calaferte. In what direct or indirect ways was his “fiction” autobiographical, indeed uniquely so? Perhaps a fundamental, fascinating ambiguity pervades his writing; that is, his entire life’s work. For instance, the striking, often poignant vignettes of Portrait de l’enfant (1969) and the slightly longer prose pieces of Ébauche d’un autoportrait, both of whose titles suggest a strict autobiographical orientation, strangely at times depict someone else (indeed several other people). To cite just one example, Ébauche d’un autoportrait includes a piece alluding to the first-person narrator’s “three daughters”; yet Calaferte had no daughters. Calaferte’s successive book-length “self-portraits”—the self-excavating trilogy formed by L’Incarnation (1987), Promenade dans un parc (1987), and Memento mori (1988) especially comes to mind—delve into a multitude of heterogeneous significant experiences, which may well involve disparate periods of the narrator’s life; yet they also bring in other main characters and first-person narrators. Is the author thereby suggesting that, as a variation on Rimbaud’s famous quip might formulate it, “je est les autres“?

Tellingly, Calaferte increasingly eschewed the simplifications of a single memorializing realist narrator, although he had movingly adopted this narrative position in his first novel, Requiem des innocents (1952), which recalls his Lyons upbringing and announces his liberation from it, through the discovery of books and writing. More generally, as the years go by, he abandons most of the trappings of conventional “long” fiction. He no longer elaborates plots. Settings and characters are now sharply evoked, in a phrase or two, and thus no longer “described,” as if Calaferte were struggling to bring words as close as possible to the immediacy of perception. He even begins to play with words, with phonemes, with letters, in the manner of concrete poetry. Calaferte’s masterful brevity should be examined with the utmost seriousness.

Of course, some sections in some of his books spin off variations on a salient image or word—a narrative technique linking texts that are otherwise quite different in subject matter and thereby creating a sense of amplification. In L’Incarnation, for instance, the narrator evokes his chi, a rag that he had carried around with him when he was an infant. These childhood memories are extremely powerful. But chi is also the root-word behind the French verb chier (“to shit”). This latter coincidence leads to scenes with adult characters, to recordings of their brief verbal exchanges, and each time the verb crops up in all its psychoanalytical resonance. Admired for his syntactically rigorous classical prose style, Calaferte could also, and as memorably as Nathalie Sarraute, draw out the unsettling significance behind or “beneath” everyday parlance.

With the possible exception of Requiem des innocents, this paradox—confessional writings which remain, at the same time, mysteriously distinct, even aloof, from straightforward realist memorializing—characterizes much of his mature oeuvre. Perhaps it should be deduced that the demons that Calaferte brought forth so graphically—those multifarious “main characters” or “narrators,” many of whom were trenchantly or sardonically portrayed—did not really “spring from his imagination” (in the traditional way that this myth about writerly creativity is understood), but rather truly teemed inside his inner self. Bringing them onto the blank sheet of paper was not a brilliant inventive act, but rather the result of painstaking self-dissection—a “conscious exploration of the unconscious,” as he termed it.

Be this as it may, in Calaferte’s frenetic periods a hundred-odd texts of this sort would flow from his pen. Marked by a variety of forms—concise dialogues, minimalist narratives, sharp single perceptions, disturbing aphorisms, phonetic word-games, oneiric visions or modern-day fables—these disquieting pieces would subsequently compose—herein lies another paradox—a coherent, even suspenseful “book” that nonetheless resembled neither a “novel” nor a “short-story collection” nor, for that matter, any readily classifiable genre.

Nothing in contemporary American literature resembles such work. Spurred by the torrential prose of Septentrion, his mature writing really takes off in 1968, with the simultaneous publication of Rosa mystica, still unaudaciously classified as a “novel” by its publisher, and Satori, a sequence of numbered chapters that were, rather more accurately, simply called “texts.” A book like Rosa mystica—Limitrophe (1972) and the bizarrely-typeset “essay,” La Vie parallèle (1974) can likewise be cited—displays Calaferte’s increasing search, through kaleidoscopic effects, for an ever more faithful representation of contemporary man’s disunited experiences of the outside world and especially of his own tormented inner world. Because of the evil or moral turpitude that is pinpointed in some passages, it seems that Calaferte himself was seeking—through writing—to emerge from persistent inner and outer Hells (ranging from his childhood and his struggle with suicidal impulses to his disgust at contemporary society). Scrutinizing the self within as intensely as he did the society without, he knew that he had to make ritualistic journeys (as in the Dantesque paradigm of an Inferno, a Purgatory, a Paradise), pen in hand, through all sorts of “back country.” (One of his finest books, published in 1971, was in fact entitled Hinterland.) He needed to experience fully every moment of these “inner,” but also “outer,” adventures.

Finding “death” everywhere, both within and without, Calaferte strove to attain what he came to designate as simply “life.” Yet “life” for him, in this sense, was an elusive ontological quality. What’s more, this reaching out for “life,” this yearning to cherish and extol it in all its aspects (even the most extreme), cannot be isolated from his increasing interest—as his Carnets reveal—in the purest and most radical Christian conceptions of a”God-filled life.” The “life” that Calaferte envisioned was “divinely-infused.” Such was his faith, and his writings or declarations about his beliefs were not always easily digestible by otherwise admiring readers who much preferred the anarchist to the Christian. (At the end of his life, Tolstoy also combined the two ideologies.) For a man who could evoke matter—and above all, the perishable body—with stunning vividness, Calaferte was no materialist; never, for him, could “life” be reduced to its strictly material configurations. “Dying is an acceptable necessity,” he indeed comments in L’Homme vivant (1994), a litanylike spiritual harangue that was put together during his last days. “What is not acceptable is to live like a dead man.” The title of this posthumously published book speaks for itself.

From his ferocious final period also dates a collection of vivid perceptions of the outside world, Le Monologue (1996), a notebooklike gathering of passing thoughts, arresting dialogues, erotic hallucinations and experimental wordplay, Le Sang violet de l’améthyste (1998), and a dramatic reworking of the Faust motif, Maître Faust (2000). As if this prolificacy were not enough, Calaferte also managed to write the best-selling, much-debated La Mécanique des femmes (1992), later published in the United States as The Way it Works with Women, as well as C’est la guerre (1993—given the same title in its English version), a many-angled recollection of his own grim adolescent experiences of the German Occupation.

It should be clear by now that these two translations, however welcome, represent barely the rim of the Calaferte volcano. His bibliography includes more than ninety titles. Yet his much too slight presence in English can be compensated for by perusing The Inner Adventure (first brought out in France in 1994), a probing book-length interview made—during Calaferte’s last year—by the French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Pauty (who also produced an impressive documentary film about the author, An Island of Resistance). This exceptionally well-prepared interview, which explores Calaferte’s engagement with philosophical and spiritual questions, is an excellent starting place from which to approach a tentacular oeuvre of Goethean proportions. The man even wrote gentle-hearted nursery rhymes.

Until more of his work is translated, American readers will, above all, have to face up to The Way it Works with Women, a series of crude evocations of female sexuality. But are they, in fact, “crude”? And does a male writer have the right, moral or simply literary, to describe an eroticism that he cannot, by definition, experience? Can he speak for “all women,” as the title suggests? Can he claim to outline the “mechanics” of female sexuality? (In the French title, La Mécanique des femmes, “mécanique” refers to the term as it is used in mathematical physics.) Finally, to return to the enigma haunting Calaferte’s entire oeuvre, in what ways is this book “personal,” “autobiographical”? And even if this particular book is not autobiographical, in what unexpected manner might these ostensibly objective, “obscene” depictions be related to an “inner world”?

With characteristic vigor, Calaferte responds to some of these questions in The Inner Adventure. Yet the long-meditated project underlying The Way it Works with Women cannot fully be accepted, or rejected, unless the epigraph by Paul Valéry, which is left untranslated in the American edition, is taken into account. In one of his own Carnets, Valéry notably muses somewhat obscurely, but ultimately pointedly enough:

It’s not women, but rather sex. It’s not sex, but rather the instant—the madness of dividing the instant—or rather the madness of attaining . . . what? It’s not pleasure, but rather the movement to which pleasure gives impulse, the change which pleasure seeks, which it harasses, and in front of which it collapses once again, broken, worn-out, albeit crowned with a sensation of sexual delight [couronné d’une jouissance], yet exhausted, dead-tired—however blissful. Still, voluptuousness conceals its defeat.

As elsewhere, Calaferte acknowledges that “defeat” in The Way it Works with Women; but he also, and especially, celebrates “life” as it emerges—once again, paradoxically—through the darkest and most licentious forms of passion. Fervent sexual desires do not exactly lead the anonymous women protagonists (and their sometimes passive male counterparts) to the threshold of the sublime, but an enigmatic atmosphere of spiritual aspiration nevertheless informs the terse uninhibited dialogues and acid-etched scenes, many of which are set in squalid hôtels de passe or other depressing meeting-places.

The notorious “provocation” of Calaferte’s erotic writings can be comprehended only if one considers what he termed “the transcendence of the carnal.” In the context of The Way it Works with Women, the expression of course refers to sexuality; but in at least one passage of his diaristic meditations he associates it with the music of Bach. This being said, Calaferte sought, no less, to make the barriers between body and mind (or the soul) disappear; and with this as his goal, he indeed invoked spoken words or depicted acts in which that same formidable “separation” no longer held true; or more precisely, in which human beings sought (even vainly) to overcome the “separation.” Composed in simple, brutal sentences that nonetheless provoke lasting meditation (achieving this intellectually resonant succinctness represents, in itself, a stylistic tour de force), the defiant texts of The Way it Works with Women actually eschew the pornographic, even as they violently refuse the romantic and the sentimental, and ultimately bring to the fore, once again, every human being’s secret, desperate pursuit of that ever-fleeting quality: transcendent “life.”


C’est La Guerre. Northwestern University Press, $14.95.
The Inner Adventure: Conversations with Louis Calaferte. Marlboro Press, $19.95.
The Way it Works with Women. Marlboro Press, $33.00.

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