In case you missed it over the holidays, Words Without Borders, the online magazine of international literature, ran an issue whose theme was “The Fantastic” for the final month of 2011, featuring work from Slovenia, Japan, Turkey, Malta, India (Urdu), Spain, China, and France. Highlights include a Scottish castle haunted by the Bosnian conflict, a bus with its own itinerary, and a cookbook for sprites. In other stories, a dreamy child creates her own universe, and a man witnesses his own death. If you haven’t visited yet, you should check it out!
My contribution to that December issue was André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ story “The Red Loaf”. It’s honestly one of the more difficult translations I’ve done, due largely to the baroque prose style for which Mandiargues is justly celebrated. Over at my blog, I briefly recount the story’s publication history. The following sketch is meant as a brief introduction to the life and work of one of France’s great midcentury fabulists, working in the vein of a Surrealism-tinged fantastic.
Who was André Pieyre de Mandiargues? Born in Paris in 1909, he lost his father to the First World War. His childhood memories of his mother were of a widow in black. A stammer crippled his social development. Close friends from an early age with Henri Cartier-Bresson, the pair explored first the pleasure houses of Pigalle and then all of Europe, on road trips where the would-be painter Bresson converted to the religion of the lens. (Bresson often made his friend backtrack for the perfect vantage, glimpsed in passing, which Bresson would then disdain.) Cartier-Bresson, with his penchant for geometry, preferred Florence, but Venice was the love of Mandiargues the dandy (who threatened to throw his friend’s camera into the canal). Later, he drove alone from Paris to Constantinople in a Buick with a revolver in the glove compartment. One thinks of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Ford Mustang”, whose lyrics, a litany of the car’s contents, include “a Browning” and “a collection of Edgar Poe.” On his way back, he met the twenty year old Leonora Carrington, who had just left England to move in with Max Ernst.
Mandiargues’ personal divinities were André Breton, the founder of Surrealism; Jean Paulhan, the legendary Gallimard editor (of Mandiargues and many other fantasists); and Belgian Henri Michaux, poet, painter, and LSD dilettante. Mandiargues met the first by chance at the flea market in St. Ouen. When the second introduced him to the third, Mandiargues called Michaux “the most intimidating of all living men.” Mandiargues was a friend to Julien Gracq, Francis Ponge, and Octavio Paz. He translated Paz’s retelling of Hawthorne, La hija de Rappacini, and Paz called him “one of the truly original writers to have appeared in France since World War II.” At a Caribbean-themed ball, Jean Genet introduced Mandiargues to Sartre, whose path he never crossed again.
George Steiner has opposed the figures of Voltaire and de Sade as representative of their era: Enlightenment hope and its dark, subterranean twin. It is perhaps a stretch to similarly oppose Sartre and Mandiargues, but while the philosopher pursued his moral quest in the vacuum of reality, the fantasist devised, in realms purely imagined and ever more baroquely articulated, myths of unbridled sexual decadence. Of his novel Portrait of an Englishman in his Château (Dedalus, 1999; trans. Jerome Fletcher), first published pseudonymously in 1953, Mandiargues said:
“I have always regarded sadomasochism as one of the best literary instruments, and one of the most powerful generators of emotion at a writer’s disposal, as in Balzac and Flaubert. Does it not have the added advantage of removing or, rather, confusing gender? It seems to me that the answer is yes, and that my greatest happiness, the proof of whether what I’ve written is successful, is when I no longer know who or what I am while writing. Man and woman at once, perhaps neither woman nor man—such is the pure androgyny writing allows me to attain, especially in the erotic tale.”
Some writers use fantasy wistfully, to evoke lost worlds, whether of childhood or paradise. For others, the imaginative journey only reveals the ever more outlandish and terrifying sights beyond. Mandiargues’ is a body of work that knowingly cultivates artifice and excess, recounting rituals of initiation and sacrifice, impossible encounters, pervasive malaise, ingenious cruelty, abrupt doom, and the arduous extremities of ecstasy. His characters were usually, as Belgian fantasy scholar Jean-Baptiste Baronian notes, “in a state of oneiric intoxication against bizarre and grandiose settings, led by the urge to love and death.” His intricately wrought stories could seem static, sacrificing immediacy for daunting formal beauty, but they nevertheless arrested with the power of their horror or strangeness, the dazzle at the mad edges of extravagance.
And yet he was scrupulous in describing, even itemizing, the props and settings of his worlds, no matter how bizarre those worlds became. However exuberant, violent, or frenetic his tales, they staked claim to plausibility through minute detail. With his unapologetically aristocratic and decadent sensibility, his fetishistic embrace of materiality, he earned the title André Gascht bestowed on him in Livres de France: “a realist of the imaginary”. “What is admirable about the fantastic is that there is no more fantastic: there is only the real,” wrote Breton in the first Surrealist Manifesto.
From these exhaustive object catalogues opened a dimension of further suggestiveness. Mandiargues employed a shimmering, even iridescent prose full of color and surprise to conscript the full panoply of the reader’s senses into perceiving, into piercing the curtain of perception. His style, with its elegance and exactness, its classical cadence, its glories and labors of language, could be mannered and forbidding, but it imposed on his chaotic imaginings dream a sort of order, a degree of absolute coherence. He explored the impossible with maniacal precision and implacable rigor. “When one looks at the real world with great attention, when one fixes one’s gaze on reality, well! Reality is transformed into a kind of marvelous dream.”
Above all, notes Gérard Macé, Mandiargues’ work was a reaction to reading. Mandiargues wrote in an attempt to recreate for other readers his own tortured and rapturous experience of reading, his own suffering and dizzying exaltation at the hands of literature. “It is one of my favorite ideas,” he wrote in his essay collection The Moondial, “that a book, essay, poem, or story is, all in all, a reverie, a meditation, more or less directed, prolonged (at times during an entire life), sustained by a verbal rhythm.”
In 1963, Mandiargues’ bestselling short novel La Motocyclette abruptly made him a public figure. Its conjunction of sex, death, and trashiness was perhaps timely. Twice translated—by poet Richard Howard in 1965, for Grove, as The Motorcycle, and Alexander ‘Lord of Junk’ Trocchi in 1966, for Calder and Boyars, as The Girl on the Motorcycle—the novel took something like the latter for a 1968 movie adaptation alternately title Naked Under Leather, perhaps because it starred Marianne Faithfull, in a “fleece-lined, zippered leather jump suit, with nothing underneath”, speeding across Germany toward her lover Alain Delon. In the same review, Renata Adler called it “a collector’s item for motorsex-leather-rose petal fans… D. H. Lawrence of the Harley-Davidson” (but then Adler is famous for calling Pauline Kael “worthless”).
In 1959, he divorced the love of his life, the painter Bona Tibertelli, with whom he had fallen in love at first sight in 1947. The separation lasted seven years. The following year, the couple had a daughter, and Mandiargues won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, for his novel The Margin (Gallimard, 1967). Translated by Richard Howard as The Margin (Calder & Boyars, 1969), it tells the story of how Sigismond Pons, warding off the intuition of his wife’s death, loses himself in of Barcelona’s garish Barrio Chino and attempts with the help of the prostitute Juanita to live a moment outside time, “in the margin” of his real life. In 1976, the Polish expatriate Walerian Borowczyk, known for his work in cinematic erotica, made the novel into a film of the same name, with Sylvia “Emmanuelle” Kristel and Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro.
Among Mandiargues’ translations are Yeats’ The Wind Among the Reeds, and in collaboration, Mishima’s plays Madame de Sade and Tropical Tree (the latter, inspired by a tale of incest and murder among the French aristocracy, a curious case of translation coming full circle). In 1985, France awarded him the Grand Prix National des Arts et des Lettres. Ever fond of octopi and reptiles, he raised two chameleons in his Paris apartment and later adopted a python. He died at the age of 82, on Friday the 13th, in Paris.
Who was André Pieyre de Mandiargues? “Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures,” Fitzgerald famously opined—but identity? “It is well known,” wrote Mandiargues, “that one way to attain self-knowledge is to construct a labyrinth in your own likeness.”