Reading Robert Pinget

Context N°20

by John Taylor

In his playful and candid book-length interview with Madeleine Renouard (Robert Pinget à la letter, 1993), the author of The Inquisitory (1962) and Monsieur Songe (1982) distinguishes his writing from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s. Pinget (1919-1997) claims that, whereas Robbe-Grillet emphasizes the eye, he privileges the ear.

The quip suggests a useful way of approaching a substantial, joyfully prolific, yet meticulously unified oeuvre; and it also points to the delicate problems facing the translator of Pinget’s delightfully idiosyncratic prose based on puns, consonance, assonance, masterfully applied colloquial syntax, and numerous other “musical” qualities. Fortunately, quite a few of Pinget’s novels have been expertly translated during the past three decades, notably by Barbara Wright. First and foremost, they are pleasurable to read, even more so aloud. That Pinget also wrote numerous radio plays and several successful stage plays corroborates this oral and aural predominance.

“Musical” is no gratuitous epithet here. The author of Passacaglia (1969), which is available in the Dalkey Archive trilogy Trio, was an accomplished amateur cellist. His love of Baroque (and especially Bach’s) music surpassed the limits of a mere pastime. His ingrained musicality and acquired musical knowledge arguably affected the oral and aural, as well as monologue-like and dialogue-like orientations of his writing style; he himself admitted that his love of music induced the characteristic “variations” that occur in single novels and indeed link most of his novels together. It is true that, above all, a handful of characters (a maid, a butler, other servants, farmers, a niece, a nephew, an alter ego named “Mortin,” and above all a tyrannical “master” who owns a château, is losing his memory, and also regularly poses as a finicky old writer) reappear in many of his novels, each time in slightly different guises. These not entirely stable characterleitmotivs, as they might be called, give a remarkable and, once again, amusing unity to Pinget’s fiction. Moreover, a likewise slightly shifting geographical unity derives from his frequent use of the place names Agapa and Fantoine, which originate in his first book, Between Fantoine and Agapa (1951/1966), a collection of fantasy and metaphysical stories (also comprised in Trio). But these two dramatic unities which, along with that of time (also essential to his literary vision), reflect and sport with the notoriously constraining “three unities” of seventeenth-century French theater, are also impressively underscored by means of the stylistic “music” audible in every book. Once the reader has been tipped off about Pinget’s musical propensities, allusions to them can be spotted everywhere.

In Plough (1985), for example, which is one of the thin yet self-elucidating sequels to Monsieur Songe, Pinget attributes the following observation on the “art of saying (or telling)” to Songe: “He tried in the past to compose tales according to all sorts of rigorous rules that inspired him.

Among these rules were those concerning number, symmetry, alternation, resonance, and musical repetition.” Presumably, Pinget describes himself here, though he cautions elsewhere that Songe “says lots of truthful things and lots of stupid things.” Several other novels are sprinkled with parenthetical remarks about music. In That Voice (1975; also in Trio), which parodies ghost and graveyard stories, Pinget intermittently introduces comments such as “manque un accord” (a chord is missing), then puns with a “manque un raccord” (a join, as in painting or wallpapering). Beyond this joke can be perceived the author’s deep engagement with the problems of narrative structure, which he indeed often compared to the organization of a musical composition. Above all, he seeks to control his style by means of a carefully conceived solfège in which punctuation mostly determines breathing, not grammatical logic. Sometimes his punctuation (or lack thereof) creates a sort of Cubist prose—that is, when a narrator’s or character’s thoughts are expressed without ordinary rhetorical connecters and transitions; elsewhere, punctuation produces a collage of unfinished thoughts, a syntax of radotage or “rambling.” Commas, and especially the absence of them, create the phrasé, the musical “phrasing” so typical of his prose.

By “ear,” Pinget thus means much more than the phonetically droll words that crop up in his writing, like the olibrius (“odd or bizarre fellow”) used to describe the retired old writer who is growing senile and living with his maid at a sea resort “near Agapa” in Monsieur Songe; or the terms impétrer (a rare legal and ecclesiastical term for “solicit”) and alopécie (“alopecia”) which, in Between Fantoine and Agapa, appear on a billboard as Interdiction d’impétrer l’alopécie (“Soliciting Alopecia Prohibited”). By the way, this billboard humorously announces one of the author’s anxieties; he was growing bald when this book was written. Pinget later avowed that “a reflex of self-analysis” and “a form of veiled confession” was embodied in his writer-characters. Simultaneously, he often emphasized the preponderance of imagination in his literary work, of his rigorous remove from realism and straightforward self-chronicle.

This same dichotomy (and discretion about his personal life) applies to Pinget’s descriptions which, besides the “musical” tonalities accompanying them, can also be conspicuously pictorial, painterly—a quality noticed by more than one critic. Although Pinget had in fact studied painting at the end of the Second World War at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where his teacher was Georges Braque’s student Jean Souverbie, he would thereafter regularly refute contentions that his artistic talents fueled his descriptions. In his interview with Renouard, who also quizzed him on this topic, Pinget replies: “It would never occur to me to describe an object that I am looking at. My descriptions are purely imaginary.” In Be Brave (1990), which provides still another sequel or coda to Monsieur Songe, the narrator-writer accordingly adds in his diary-like notes: “This table, this pen, this sheet of paper. A description. But one describes only what one does not see.” This assertion notwithstanding, Pinget evidently has a painterly talent in words. Whether initially observed in situ, remembered, or—as he insists—imagined, Pinget’s word pictures are distinct and vivid. He similarly explained to Renouard that he had come into little contact with farmers, château owners, and aristocrats during his lifetime—“whence the interest that [his] imagination took in them.” These social archetypes are also sharply, sardonically, and sometimes compassionately depicted. Like the literary tool of realistic on-the-spot observation, memory as a source of inspiration also provoked Pinget’s skepticism. Many of his characters tellingly fear that they are mentally losing the past. In That Voice, he summarily declares: “Imagination for memory.” Yet other leitmotivs, like the place name Agapa, associated with Agay on the French Riviera, and like the recurrent elderly writer figure, suggest the contrary. One of the joys of reading Pinget’s novels one after the other is to perceive, time and again, how consistently and free-spiritedly he maintains inconsistencies in his writing, both in detail and overall literary philosophy. It is a literature that espouses liberty—and practices it. Even as Monsieur Songe “discovers with stupor and a feeling of helplessness that he is never where he actually is,” Pinget similarly slips, literally and literarily, away from where we think he is or want him to be.

He also asserted that literature was “a synonym of poetry.” This equation reflects similar statements made by other contemporary French writers and poets of varying, even mutually antagonistic, aesthetic persuasions. The consequences of this critical position are crucial. In Plough, Pinget (or rather, Monsieur Songe) notes: “How to make them [readers, but more likely academic scholars] understand that a text is well written only when it is dewritten (désécrit).” It is an incisive remark that recalls Maurice Blanchot’s defense of Julien Gracq’s mellifluous yet boldly adjectival early prose, which had been impugned by the influential academic critic, René Étiemble. Blanchot argued that “writing well means writing badly,” an insight immediately situating Gracq’s modernity on the stylistic level, not just on those concerning plot, viewpoint, characterization, and the like. American literary historians looking at French literature, and the New Novel in particular, tend to emphasize formal experimentation, neglecting in the process the stylistic labors that are extremely important for understanding a writer like Pinget. (Claude Simon is obviously another.) His style, in its highly conscious, learned, significant yet not always radical departure from classical stylistic norms, is an essential ingredient in his accomplishment. Questions of colloquial syntax, elision, punctuation, and, once again, “breathing,” are all important. He was a particularly subtle and artful stylist because, for all his delight in creating narrative contradiction and confusion—these cognitive entanglements posited as emblematic of “truth”—his books remain eminently “readable,” to cite the touchstone so often flouted in the faces of “difficult” French authors.

Of course, Pinget also subverted conventional storytelling techniques in a manner similar to that associated, often too narrowly and ahistorically, with the novelists standing in front of the offices of the Éditions de Minuit in a famous photograph: Pinget, Robbe-Grillet, Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Samuel Beckett, Claude Mauriac, Claude Ollier, and the instigator of this publicity stunt, the publisher Jérôme Lindon. Pinget’s sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes more whimsical assault on narrative logic represents one break from the trappings of the traditional novel. Yet the key term “contradiction” must be kept at hand whenever Pinget’s fiction is “theorized”— a term and a critical activity for which he possessed little patience. Pinget at once relishes and abhors irrationality; he doubts that there can be ultimate meaning or essence, yet he seeks them, at times rejects them, then seeks them again. The narrator of That Voice wonders if there is “anything else to note besides this accumulation of drifting trivialities.” Monsieur Songe is no less than “horrified by anything that creates disorder.” Sometimes Pinget even sidesteps this scuffling of thesis against antithesis and conjures up an emotion that we are not expecting. Plough notably comprises sensitive, lucid, testimony about aging, mixing up things, and losing confidence in one’s memory. Pinget’s humor is not always biting; he can also be tender.

His mentor was Cervantes, who instructed him in the art of telling a story that is essentially about how the story is being put together and told (or written). This narrative circularity can best be studied in The Inquisitory, Pinget’s longest novel and, for this author inclined to brevity, terse concision, and oblique understatement, the weighty outcome of a bet with Lindon that he could write a five-hundred-page novel in six months. The book is composed in such a way that the reader sits in on an interrogation of a servant who is a probable witness to a crime. The questions of the invisible interrogator enable the reader to imagine, through the servant’s replies, the setting, the other characters, and various stories associated with them. But all this information is delivered as a mass of confusing and contradictory realist detail; the details and descriptions are not worked into any plot whatsoever. This is the point. The reader must sift through the facts and assertions, as if he were the writer constructing the novel. What emerges from the reader’s imaginative and creative toiling is a vast Human Comedy that Balzac himself would have appreciated. Yet this Human Comedy of course remains unwritten; it cannot be read, reread; it exists only in the (fading) imagination and memory of the reader. After perusing this novel, Pinget’s close friend, Samuel Beckett, warned him about the necessity of taking off or prying himself away from realism. (“Attention de décoller du réalisme,” Pinget reports him as saying.)

The Inquisitory pokes passing fun at the New Novel. Pinget cites “Lorpailleur’s articles on the New Novel, as she calls it, theories that interest no one.” On the next page, he alludes to Beckett, Beckett’s wife Suzanne, and Lindon: “We arrive almost across the street on the rue des Irlandais which we go up, coming to the rue Sam then the rue Suzanne on the left the rue du Coucou on the right and the short rue du Triet we continue on until we reach the rue Jérôme.”

Beckett adapted Pinget’s radio play La Manivelle (1961) in English as The Old Tune (1963). Pinget had already rendered Beckett’s radio play All that Fall as Tous ceux qui tombent in 1957. He often paid homage to the Irishman, noting how the Molloy / Malone Dies / The Unnamable trilogy and plays such as Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Happy Days had impressed him. In Monsieur Songe, which Pinget modestly dismisses in his preface as a “divertissement” (meaning not only “diversion” or “light entertainment,” but also a musical “divertimento”), one senses the possible influence of Watt when the narrator lists ad absurdum all the logical ways of sequencing his habit of drinking coffee, dozing off, and examining bills that he needs to pay. To be sure, in several respects the two writers shared a common literary, philosophical, and indeed musical sensibility. A striking instance is their simultaneous aversion and attraction to metaphysics, even to some aspects of Christian thought that tormented the Protestant Beckett and intrigued the believing Catholic Pinget. Allusions to Beckett’s writings crop up in several places in Pinget’s novels. The famous final words of The Unnamable are paralleled in this phrase from That Voice: “impossible to finish impossible not to finish impossible to continue to stop to start again.” Similarly, Pinget often expresses a desire “to develop,” that is, fill in details and expand his prose, an intention soon offset by the admission that he cannot do so. This struggle of reduction against amplification, which may well have been tensely experienced by the writer as he was writing, obviously relates to Pinget’s affection—yearning?—for poetry. (He recounted that writing the expansive The Inquisitory was a “nightmare.”) The same tense, even paralyzing, focus on concision and amplitude increasingly characterized Beckett after Comment c’est (1961) and its English version, How It Is (1964). The Greco-Roman rhetoricians believed that literary works could be profoundly analyzed by appealing to these two critical touchstones: the intention or need to amplify, the intention or need to reduce. Their vantage point is well worth reconsidering.

The still unanswered question of Beckett’s fundamental pessimism or fundamental optimism leads to a final juxtaposition of the two friends. In another of Pinget’s enlightening sequels to Monsieur Songe, The Harness (1984), the novelist reports on Monsieur Songe’s literary introspections: “Joyously take up once again the hideous harness writes Monsieur Songe. And then he crosses out hideous. And then he crosses out harness. Remains joyously take up.” This is not the only passage or book in which Pinget associates “joy” with both living and writing. The word opens up another possibility of reading him. In Théo or the New Era, which Pinget considered a potential gateway to all his writing, he notably observes: “May this pen be a chisel and engrave the word yes, the word joy, the word elsewhere.” In the same book, the narrator repeatedly enjoins himself to “fonder le temps neuf,” that is to found or set up a “new era” in the sense of a pure, virginal period of personal and perhaps collective history; in other words, to create or imagine a new future. He adds: “As a final task, fill this emptiness (combler ce vide). Found the new era. May misfortune (Malheur) not get a grasp.” Ultimately optimistic? Pessimistic but nonetheless hopeful? Pessimistic because only the imagination can perform this final task and situate it “elsewhere”? In any event, it is a moving affirmation.

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