Cemeteries by the Sea

A few days ago I finished translating Paul Valéry’s Le Cimetière Marin. I was pleased to finish, considering that it must have taken me a little over two years. It’s easy enough to lose track of time, but I know that I can’t have started more than three years ago. When I picked up my copy of Valéry’s poems from an Oxfam bookshop, I noted the date inside the front cover. It’s not something I normally do. I have a private ritual of writing my name in all the books I buy, but I don’t date them. I assume I did so only because a previous owner had – with the enigmatic timespan ‘82-83’. I can’t think what relation existed between Pamela Sneddon’s ownership of the Poésies and that particular year, unless she had decided to circumscribe her interest in Valéry to a set twelvemonth. If I come across her copies of du Bellay and Éluard, marked ‘83-84’ and ‘84-85’, I’ll know that she was engaged in a carefully timetabled programme of self-improvement. It seems unlikely, but we shall see.

I dated my Valéry, though, and so, in February 2012, I know that I may have taken as long as three years to finish my version of the Cimetière. The work wasn’t constant. I had, and still have, projects more pressing and less redundant than trying to translate a symbolist meditation on death in the high noon of a Mediterranean cemetery. But it still amounts to a considerable chunk of time and effort. And if the task didn’t obsess me from day one, I certainly stepped up my hours towards the end. As the final stanza came into view, and it seemed like I might actually complete what I’d started, I spent full days – and weeks – concentrating on reaching the finish-line. Which, finally, I have.

Toward the end, I thought more and more about the experience of translation, how it feels to try and alter something so fundamentally while not altering it at all. First of all, I wanted to explain and justify the decisions I had made. This is natural enough: a mixture of pride and defensiveness comes with the territory. I remembered an exercise I went through several times at university, comparing and contrasting an Italian poem with an English translation. The examiners chose poetic translations that, necessarily, departed from their originals in one way or another. This game of spot the difference had a predatory edge; it was difficult not to take pleasure in the translator’s weaknesses. First resorts were pointing out the untranslatability of a word or phrase; failure to replicate the secondary connotations of a line; an elevation of connotation over denotation; a strangeness of syntax flattened; a metaphor unnecessarily tautened. More fairly, more rarely, we would note where the translator had been successful: a phrase turned into a perfect English equivalent, pitched and placed as in the original tongue; a musical effect miraculously reproduced. Looking over my own translation with the same eye, the more I wanted to defend and the more I wanted to explain. Sometimes I wanted simply to throw up my hands and make clear that something was just impossible to translate, other times I wanted to point out the deftness with which I’d managed to deal with an expression or line. And of course, I wanted to make sure that English readers would understand just how hard Valéry is in the first place.

All of this is as petty as it is understandable. And it’s unnecessary. Translations are odd, hybrid things, but they need to get by on their own. It shouldn’t – doesn’t – matter that certain stanzas took as long as six weeks for me to crack, others only a few hours. Nor does the experience of what I think of as a linguistic synaesthesia that comes with reading as a translator. This is important to me: the strange and dynamic intermingling and superposition of French and English; the experience of a rhythm or rhyme momentarily appearing bright in the sidereal gap between two languages. But that is a private and fleeting thing. If I were to try and pull the reader into that space I would be defeating the point of the exercise. Though that experience and the processes stemming from it are the fabric of my English Cemetery, I’m content to leave them latent in it.

What has begun to seem more interesting to me, as I go over them again, are my reasons for starting the translation – my reasons for coming to, and coming back to the Cimetière Marin in the first place. This too is a private experience, but not, I think, such a specialised one. Though perhaps they have the occasion to feel it particularly strongly, it’s not reserved for translators. It has something to do with the idea of reading tout court; with the way that certain texts and pieces accrue significance in our lives.

I didn’t embark on the translation because the Cimetière Marin is an important piece by an important writer. It is, of course. Valéry was one of France’s most lauded and laurelled men of letters, and the Cimetière Marin is a defining piece of twentieth-century literature. But important poems and important writers, rare as they may be in any one era, have accumulated over the years; Valéry is not the only one. Nor did I embark on the translation out of personal affection for the poem, or for Valéry. What affection I have for Valéry is cut through with a sort of reflexive and Protestant scepticism for his navel-gazing. He cuts a quintessentially French figure of the intellectual, whose interests extend to all fields except the practical. And he represents a version of culture of which I am, more than anything else, suspicious: a form of establishment in which high-culture is crafted by statute, rather than by the unreliable graces of friendship or public and academic interest. This is not a world with which I’m particularly comfortable, and Valéry’s writings exist at its centre: the work of a uniquely incisive mind happy to live in the ivory tower built and protected by such cultural conditions. The Cimetière is symptomatic of this protected distance from the world. It transforms a graveyard in the killing heat of a Mediterranean noon into a theatre of classicism, music and metaphysics: gods keep troves of light, marble tombs guard shadows, doves and sails exchange presences above miraging waves. Even as larvae burrow through the tear ducts of the dead, it is not dying that worries Valéry but – more abstract altogether – death. And all this across twenty-four stanzas of dense and classical French. Shaping a world where Zeno’s paradoxes can be made to bear the burden of mortality’s pain, Valéry’s language  is seductively smooth; the poem orchestrates its gathering resources until a point of near resolve and returns to its beginning, brooding on a bright void. It is an astonishingly beautiful thing; for me, almost problematically so.

I did not, then, start translating the Cimetière because I like it – though I do – or because it is important – though it is. I translated the Cimetière because of the way in which it came to stand for the relationship that I have ended up having with Valéry over the past eight years or so. That relationship is a strange sort of aleatoric acquaintance that has grown at hazard since I first came across an essay he wrote. I was nineteen perhaps, possibly younger. The text was in a collection of twentieth-century literary essays and came with a note on Valéry’s career and major works, where the Cimetière Marin took top billing. The essay is on poetry and prose as analogues, respectively, of dancing and walking. Prose is going somewhere: it’s all about destination. Poetry scorns destination: it’s rhythmic movement; a concatenation of measured, aimless beauties calculated to stir the soul into something just beyond itself. I know why this appealed to me so much at the time, when I found it: I would have welcomed anything that exalted poetry over her plain sister. But I didn’t get round to reading any more Valéry for a while after that. I didn’t have the French, for a start, and my intellectual curiosity wasn’t piqued enough to go looking too far. That one essay seemed like enough to be getting on with.

Some time later, though, I ended up buying a copy of his collected writings on poetry. I found it by chance in a cavernous second-hand bookshop, in a corner with a persistent leak in the roof. The collection, and T.S. Eliot’s introduction to it, aroused my interest a little further, but, again, not far enough. I slotted it on my shelf, between same-sized hardbacks. A good year later still, in the same bookshop, beneath the same leak, I found another Valéry: his dialogues, introduced by Wallace Stevens. Like Eliot, Stevens professed Valéry’s influence on his work. I read one of the dialogues, but other reading projects pressed; I slotted the book next to the first Valéry, between the same same-sized hardbacks.

Slowly, though I kept not getting round to him, Valéry became the person I was going to read as soon as I had time. When I left university, I moved to Paris in an attempt to learn French. I failed to fall in love with the city. I was broke and lonely, despite the presence and generosity of three good friends. Paris – whatever anyone says – is not a fun city to be even temporarily poor in. Despite having no money and only tattered remnants of GCSE French, I took refuge in the bookstalls that line the Seine. From walking these over a few months, I began to realise just how much Valéry had written. In the course of the year I picked up copies of excerpts from his notebooks (Tel Quel, one and two), a treatise on Leonardo da Vinci, and the dialogues. I found Tel Quel alternately enthralling and infuriating. I still have difficulty with the idea that someone could say, with a straight face, ‘Syntax is a faculty of the soul’. Then I worked my way through the dialogues. They are extraordinary, strange and beautiful. For positive and negative reasons they continue to strike me as something that no one else could have written. At one point in The Soul and Dance, Socrates turns towards a doctor with whom he is sitting and asks him if he knows a cure for the poison of all poisons, venom of venoms, the evil that calls itself l’ennui de vivre. Well, says the doctor, that is a good question; life blackens on contact with truth the same way a dubious mushroom blackens on contact with air. Their conversation moves on. I return to the passage occasionally, when I feel in need of cheer. 

A more sensible person would have stocked up on cheap copies of Verne, or Camus, even, who has the benefit of being readable for someone with relatively basic French. But I stuck to Valéry. His name was an island of familiarity in a sea of French authors I’d never heard of, and his books were cheap, too, by dint of ubiquity. Besides, when I wasn’t reading Valéry himself, he never seemed to be far away. I caught up on Borges that year; in his famous story ‘Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote’ the eponymous author is credited with a list of publications that include a transposition of the Cimetière Marin from decasyllables into alexandrines, and an invective against Valéry, representing the precise opposite of his true opinion of the great man. During the same six months, I also read Jorge Semprun’s Le Grand Voyage. Sadly little known in England, Le Grand Voyage is one of the great testaments of World War Two, a fictionalised memoir of Semprun’s time in Buchenwald. Among the horrors, Semprun recounts how the camp’s French inmates held secret assemblies in which they tried to hold on to what remains of their culture they could. On instruments contrived from scraps or obtained through theft and corruption, they played chansons and a few classics, and those who knew poems recited them. Semprun’s narrator gives the Cimetière Marin by heart.

Semprun’s recitation represents the moment when Valéry’s poem became one of those texts that I had, sooner or later, to read. There is a parallel scene to the Buchenwald gathering in Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. Levi was in Auschwitz, and, as a Jew, in an altogether different world than that of the French resistants in the Grand Voyage. No stolen instruments or hours without work to use them in; no recitations before fellow intellectuals. But one day, walking to collect his workgroup’s soup ration, Levi finds himself attempting to recite to his French companion a passage in the Inferno where Dante meets Ulysses. He attempts to translate it line by line for the young Frenchman, but has to skip holes in his memory to reach the key moment, when the sea, finally, closes itself unmarked over Ulysses’ head. The canto is one I come back to time and again. Ulysses among the false counsellors – not Homer’s Ulysses, but Dante’s, who refuses to remain at home when first he returns to Penelope and Telemachus. Bored, he sets out on another voyage. Determined to go beyond the limits of the known world he persuades his men to row through the Pillars of Hercules. God has other ideas: three times the boat is spun round and doused in the sea, and finally it sinks; Ulysses the last to go under, catching a distant glimpse of the peak of Purgatory before the waves press him down for good.

The two scenes, coming together in my mind, fused, in a certain sense into one scene: Levi unaccountably impelled to share his Dante with another man destined to be one of the drowned; Semprun clinging to the broken spars of an intellectual’s vanishing Europe. Both attempting not to let the sea close over their own heads, and thinking that, somehow, it might be held back by culture. The distance between the two camps – between a resistant’s experience of them and a Jew’s – cannot be effaced, of course; the two scenes are not one scene. But together they pulled Valéry’s poem into alignment with the horrors of war and the grandeur of the Commedia, and inserted it into my consciousness of these things for good. This, finally, was when the Cimetière Marin it took up its place in the mentally-constructed landscape of cultural monuments that I’ve acquired over the years.

This is the sort of landscape that I assume all broad-readers have: an ever-growing and shifting system of half-located buildings waiting to be explored, built from and linked by paths of association that are half real and half drawn from chance personal experience. A vague map where we place the things that we feel are important. There is a concrete reality to the importance of the Cimetière Marin, and there is a personal reality, as there is with any text. This landscape is a product of the two. That personal reality is less about love or enthusiasm, than about the way in which the things I know have pulled more things to themselves. The Cimetière’s presence in this mental landscape of mine has less to do with my feelings about the poem itself than my feelings about the way in which it has worked itself into my experience of life. It has to do with the manner in which, at some point, things so aligned that the Cimetière became part of the grand European sweep of high culture and base history at once shared and strange to me, and which seems to constitute at the same time an invitation and an exclusion. An invitation, that is, to enter and consider a world that can only ever remain beyond me and my abilities. A world that permeates historical and geographical fact but doesn’t quite coincide with it. 

In a way that is difficult – but I think important – to explain, the Cimetière became one of those texts that is always being spoken to by other texts, and which is always speaking back; and one of those texts that is always being spoken to by history, and which cannot help but in some way reply. It is part of the world of sheltered offices, lodgings and intellectual chatter that belonged so completely to Eliot and Borges, but it is also part of the invasions, resistances and camps that closed over the heads of Levi and Semprun before, somehow, they resurfaced on wreckage, heaving for air.

I’m aware of the fact that this may seem a circuitous way of restating the most commonplace of sentiments: the Cimetière means, or came to mean, something to me. I am also aware of the fact that this kind of meaning – the gradual accretion of secondary associations – is not the actual significance of the poem in the sense a modern academic would use. The significance I am talking about here is something larger; though it partakes of things that the close reader, biographer and cultural historian would hold central, it exceeds them all, individually and collectively. It is not about what I have done to the poem, but what has occurred to the poem through me, and to me through the poem, and to both through what is probably best called accident: the falling out of things over time, long and short term. The Cimetière Marin exemplifies this form of meaning – this form of coming-to-mean – for me. It draws its coming-to-mean across a wide and fraught portion of history, ties it to a portion of my life particularly full of learning and discoveries, and pools it in a text which even now, after two years of translation, I am still grappling to understand. But, in doing so, the Cimetière is, I think, only throwing these things into relief: it holds up to the light the processes by which all texts, if they stay with us, accumulate their meanings.  And if, in doing so, it has taught me something about this mental landscape of mine, and assured its presence there, it has not fixed its location: it has not become a thing understood, a place known and solid; I will continue to make my way through its multiplying rooms; the paths to and from it will shift and proliferate; its meanings will continue to accrue.