Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
If you aren’t yet familiar with Seagull Books, it is high time to become so. Distributed by University of Chicago Press, Seagull is publishing absolutely beautiful books, both in content and format. Two of Seagull’s latest, The Arrière-pays and December, are each printed on bright white glossy paper, cloth bound, and feature many full color images. They are, in other words, exactly what book lovers should be drooling over.
Paul Auster has said that Yves Bonnefoy “is one of the rare poets in the history of literature to have sustained the highest level of artistic excellence throughout an entire lifetime.” Jonathan Galassi says that Yves Bonnefoy “is the last figure standing in a monumental tradition that has shaped modern European literature.” Bonnefoy is known for his poetry, but The Arrière-pays is a look into the poet’s talent with memoir and essay. Published in French forty years ago, the unclassifiable nature of work’s hybridity in genre is partly why the book is only now being published in English. The use of illustrations has also been a hold-up, as has been the title itself. Roughly translated, “arrière-pays” means “back-country,” “hinterland,” or “interior.”
As Bonnefoy begins his book by speaking of geographical locations—the Gobi Desert or the Tibetan Plateau—it at first appears that he is speaking of a physical interior—mysterious places of the earth untouched by modern civilization, and thus uncorrupted by modernity’s loss of spirituality. However, as Bonnefoy continues to write, it becomes clear that arrière-pays actually refers to a mental interior, to an inner space. The arrière-pays is a psychological back-country. It is the deeper place of our mind that can still connect to myth, and is disconnected from developed language and conscious, rational thought. The arrière-pays is “quite another country and society but not because of geography or language or civilization.”
From his childhood, Bonnefoy has detected hints of the arrière-pays, whiffs of “an elsewhere” brought on by a static-drenched chant he hears on a shortwave dial radio, or in the blue of the sky in Poussin’s Bacchanalia with Guitar Player. In order to illustrate what Bonnefoy is talking about, there is a reproduction of Poussin’s painting in full color on glossy paper, so that we, too, can lose ourselves in his blue, and perhaps also experience “when the passage of time is broken,” and “the fragrance of eternity” that is sometimes released when we look at art. By paring painting and philosophy on the same page, Bonnefoy reminds readers how to look at art, and the power that art can have on transforming the mind; when contemplating the affect of chiaroscuro, a “radical revolution” discovered by Domenico Venezoiano, Piero, and a few others, Bonnefoy writes that “here all was made plain, and resolved in a single irradiation both inward and gentle—it was in truth a new degree of consciousness achieved; and a freedom that a few spirits had released, directly from felt experience.”
Due to his infatuation with Italian painting, and the mystical consciousness the art work inspired in his mind, Bonnefoy journeys to central Italy, to closely study Italian painting and architecture, searching for “the here and now” through the dynamic beauty of ancient and classical art. In the Italian countryside, he experiences that “awakened societies” existed in small towns and villages, not cities, and that ruins show that “former civilizations were more substantial than our own.” Though he finds more glimpses of the inner territory of “absolute elsewhere,” Bonnefoy later writes in one of the additional three essays included in the book that his journey to Italy “had resolved nothing” and that he had not achieved any “real coming of wisdom.” Thousands of places promised the existence of that arrière-pays, but all led to disappointment.
In the last essay of the book, Bonnefoy writes that he should have originally focused his attention on Armenia, not Italy. Upon seeing black and white photographs of Armenian churches taken in the 1940s, the author detected that the images created “a cosa mentale, an experience in the mind, at the heart of which aspirations of a metaphysical nature begin to stir.” It is these stone churches, dating from the earliest periods in Christianity and standing alone in front of dramatic snowy mountain and desert scenes, where Bonnefoy believes one can enter the arrière-pays, because, as he explains, the master builders of the churches “shared some of that hyper-consciousness” which allows access to the psychological backcountry where myth still lives. Though Bonnefoy might have hit another dead-end by pursuing wisdom through art and thought rather than spiritual practices like yoga and meditation, the journey of The Arrière-pays ends with a warning: Beauty is truth, he writes, specifying that this axiom must not be forgotten, for if it is, “darkness would come down upon our words.” Bonnefoy’s warning might have come too late.
December consists of thirty-nine “stories” by celebrated German writer Alexander Kluge, and thirty-nine photographs by German artist Gerhard Richter. The stories are not necessarily fictions, but read like log-entries in a diary in which every month is December. With wit and insight, Kluge takes on incidents that occurred in December and gives them a narrative structure. Most entries deal with December dates falling in the early 1930s and 40s, when Hitler was almost killed in a car accident and there was scientific research into the biological origin of evil. In December 1942, the Germans needlessly surrendered in the battle of Stalingrad—the turning point in the war—like a bird surrenders to a cat. Kluge also focuses much of his December stories in 2009, tossing around accounts of the global financial collapse, climate conferences, and the rise of American evangelical churches.
Accompanying each story is a photograph taken in December. Most photos are of bare brown tree branches clumped with piles of snow, some are nearly white-outs of clouds and fog and ice. In one moving photograph, a deer climbs a slope in the middle of a snow-filled forest, and in another, a lodge is seen through the snow-laden trees. Richter’s photographs are mesmerizing, all the more so in the middle of a hot summer; cold is felt just by looking at them. At the same time, the photographs create a psychological space appropriate for reading Kluge’s stories.
The combined affect of writing and photography in December produces a mental state of contemplation, similar to the mind frame in which Bonnefoy searches for in The Arrière-pays. Seagull Books has done English readers a great service by translating these two powerful works into English, and publishing the books in such beautiful, high quality formats. Now, the only question is who in America is still capable of reading and appreciating them?
The Arrière-pays is translated from the French by Stephen Romer
Seagull Books, August 2012
December is translated from the German by Martin Chalmers
Seagull Books, July 2012