Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
From the cover art and the title, we know Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows is a mysterious book. Since it won France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 2002, we know it’s a good book. And because The Roving Shadows is the first non-novel to win the award in over sixty years, we know it’s an interesting book. You might not know that Pascal Quignard is the author of over sixty books, and is considered one of the most important forces of contemporary French literature. The Roving Shadows seems to be a mix of every literary genre. On one hand, it appears to be a book of poetic philosophy. On the other, it seems a work of history and myth. Or, maybe it’s historical philosophy, and poetic myth. Either way, The Roving Shadows is for people who love to think, because over anything else, it’s a book of thought.
Some chapters have nothing to do with the rest of the book and are only four lines long:
As the black clouds in the sky were rent apart, the
blue dome of the heavens emerged suddenly in a state
of nudity I find difficult to convey in words. It was a
fresh, gleaming blue, deep in the dark sky.
From such punctuation, it’s clear Quignard meant the chapter to be read as poetry. But don’t think this a book of pastoral imagery, for The Roving Shadows is also a scathing indictment of Western Civilization, a testament to the importance of literature, as well as an exploration of mystical reality. Not only is it a difficult book to review, it is also a book that should not go unread.
Writers will appreciate the many lines analyzing the ancient art: “The writer is language devouring itself within the man devoured by the lying that constitutes his core.” Or, “To experience, through thinking, something that is striving for expression, before one even knows it—this is doubtless what the movement of writing is.”
Readers will appreciate clarifications of the pastime: “In reading, there is an expectancy that does not seek to come to anything. To read is to wander. Reading is errantry.”
Or even better:
That ocean knows no shores.
Everything is immersed in it.
Fish that still rise to the surface. A gulp to stave off death.
That gulp: reading.
Those interested in politics will be amused by Quignard’s implication that America destroyed the world. Or more specifically, Quignard dates “the globalization of warfare on the earth’s crust from the year 1853,” when the American Commodore Perry forced free trade on Japan by firing on Edo harbor. This is what triggered the two world wars, Quignard claims. The author goes further in specifying that “money is a subtler means of domination than weapons, because it has all the time in the world to menace us in the depths of our souls, with debt as its instrument.” Like any good Frenchman, Quignard does not think highly of the American way of life and the financial system that supports it.
For readers unconcerned with literature or politics, Quignard dives into various spiritual traditions, quoting Vedic verses (“I am an echo standing before a mirror”), ancient philosophers such as Plotonius, and touches upon the concepts of karma and reincarnation. Quignard is fascinated with Clovis, the “Last King of the Romans,” and how Clovis transformed the Franks into a Christian society, thereby losing its people’s authentic spirituality.
Fans of history will appreciate Quignard’s take on the transformation of civilization:
In days gone by, they read, they listened, they touched, they spoke. They didn’t say, ‘I go along, I buy, I cheer, I stamp my feet.’ They said, ‘That enlightens me.’ Or, ‘That moves me.’ They had in mind to embellish the world, to make time more fertile, not to promote day-to-day sales in the here and now, in order to hasten obsolescence.
But beyond literature, or politics, or money, or religion, Quignard’s cyclical motif is shadow, and shade. What lies in Darkness, and what have we lost with the Light? These are the questions that Quignard really wants to address. Our life exists before we are born, and we know the answers to all questions before we ask. Our actual life exists in shadow, and truth is found in shadow.
If you don’t know what Quignard is talking about then don’t worry; if you like to think and like to read, you’ll still love this book.
It’s impossible not to when Quignard writes lines like this: “A wife who cannot have children handles the dolls that are for sale on the stall tenderly.”
Translated from the French by Chris Turner
Seagull Books, July 2012