Robert Desnos, Surrealist, Lover, Resistant, translated and introduced by Timothy Adѐs (Arc Publications, 2018) £19.99 pbk

Others will review this sumptuous volume in the light of a knowledge of Desnos’s poetry. I can only comment on how it strikes someone almost completely new to his writing.

What you want from a translation will partly depend on how well you know the language of the original. If you know it really well, you won’t read the translation as an aid to basic understanding but almost purely as a poetic work in its own right, with an added interest in the translator’s “reading” of the original. If you only know it as well as I know French, the most valuable translation may be the kind that Penguin puts in prose at the foot of the page, something that helps basic lexical understanding, and leaves other elements of poetic expression, like patterns of sound, syntax and rhythm, to your reading of the original text. However, if you don’t know the original language well enough to form its sounds, to respond to its rhythms and speech cadences and to have a broad sense of its registers, a full scale verse translation may be your only chance of experiencing the work as poetry. I’ll mainly be talking about how Adѐs’s versions read in themselves.

For many readers things will really take off with the “Surrealist” section, starting in 1922 with “Rrose Sélavy”, which Adѐs calls “one of Surrealism’s classic texts”. Classic surrealism leaves me rather cold though. For me, the point of incandescence comes at the beginning of the next section, “Lover – Yvonne George”, with five poems from the volume À la mystérieuse of 1926 and some from Les Ténѐbres the following year. These leap off the page, both in French and in English. They’re virtually the only poems by Desnos that I’d come across before reading this book. Adѐs tells us that they were written out of hopeless love for a nightclub singer who ignored the poet and died of drink and drugs in 1930. In a way, such information is irrelevant. The poems present no story and tell us virtually nothing concrete about Yvonne George herself; their power is of a purely lyrical kind, to do with the emotions of the poet. And yet they give a powerful sense of reality. How does this work? Many years ago, in The Appreciation of Modern French Poetry (1850 – 1950), Peter Broome and Graham Chesters wrote that it was the mystery surrounding the beloved that created the tension vibrating through these poems. Their power and sense of reality come from this tension, from the drama of the poet’s subjective feelings and yearnings swinging to and fro as they grapple with the stubborn reality of the beloved’s indifference. The poems’ essential life isn’t so much in individual moments, though in some she seems almost within his grasp and the lover’s babbling joy is finely captured in depicting them –

“My laughter and joy crystallise around you. It’s your makeup, your powder, your rouge, your snakeskin bag, your silk stocking … it’s also that little fold between ear and nape, where the neck is born …”

Nor is it in passages of soaring idealism, given blood and bone by sensuality, exhilarating though these can be –

“Tell yourself one must have no regrets: Ronsard before me and Baudelaire sang the regrets of old women and dead women who spurned the purest love.
You when you are dead
Will be beautiful, still desirable.
I shall be dead already, all closed up in your immortal body, in your astounding image present forever among the perpetual wonders of life and eternity, but if I live
Your voice and its rhythm, your gaze and its radiance,
The scent of you, the scent of your hair and much more beside will live on in me ,
In myself who am neither Ronsard nor Baudelaire
Myself, Robert Desnos, who by having known and loved you
Am their equal.”

No, it’s in the swinging between poles of rapture and despair, or in individual lines that stand out because of the way they compactly encapsulate this tension within themselves:

“I’ve dreamed of you so much that you lose your reality.”

The period of hopeless love for Yvonne was followed by one of poetic conflict and apparently continuing sexual frustration when Desnos broke with Breton’s Surrealist movement. During this time he wrote “The Night of Loveless Nights”, so called in its French publication. At nearly 600 lines, full of abrupt transitions and associative leaps from image to image and scenario to scenario, it makes a powerful appeal to the imagination but I found it hard to bring its series of intense moments into coherent focus or hold steady in the mind. The tone shifts between violently-wrought abstract rhetorical apostrophe, as in the first lines (“Night of glaciation horrendous night putrescent / Night of febrile phantom rotting greenery”), everyday eroticism (“Women with tight trousers clinging to their thighs”), horror-schlock (“You who vomit serpents”) extraordinary, cinematically evocative phantamagorical scenarios (“Women swimming naked from a midnight shipwrecked hull”), scenarios like late Fellini dream sequences (“High in the rigging the seabirds were screaming, / Jack-tars in the shrouds shinned silent up and down. / All along the stowage there were dancing-girls dreaming”) and touches reminiscent of the great Gérard de Nerval, albeit replacing his reincarnated goddesses with a god (“His heart full of embers and his teeth full of ashes, / He’s the reborn Bacchus, who surges from the flames”). It’s an exciting testimony to the poet’s image-making powers, but I found that when I read it straight through it became overwhelming and hard to concentrate on in the middle. I have to reserve judgement on whether I’ll ever see it as a satisfying imaginative whole. And yet it’s very much worth sticking with for the special power in the last couple of pages, as the turmoil of the overactive insomniac imagination is penetrated by the awareness of returning day. It’s a hugely ambitious piece of writing, not only because of its length but because its subject is so difficult to dramatise, and if it’s only partially successful, as I suspect, it’s still very much worth the reader’s serious engagement.

The next section of Adѐs’s selection is called “Lover” and it covers the time of Desnos’s relationship with the woman he married. It seems to have been a happy period. Desnos’s fluency is very apparent, albeit largely in short poems, and it’s matched by Adѐs’s fluency as a translator. Though the imaginative pressure generally seems lower here than in the periods of frustration, the poems are easy to relate to and enjoy, covering a wide range of themes and tones – love poems, of course, but also absurdist games and some delightful poems for children. Darkness falls again and the poems become both more intense and more oblique in the final section, “Resistant”, written during the Nazi Occupation of France. Here, Desnos, who was a member of two Resistance networks, had to hide his meanings in plain sight to survive the censor. He does so in different ways in the short lyrical poems of Contrée, which Adѐs translates as Against the Grain, and in the powerful mythological poems of Bathing With Andromeda with its sequences about Andromeda (the princess chained to a rock in the sea for the Kraken to devour) and Calixto. If these poems gain much of their power by indirection, “This Heart Which Hated War” shows power of a different kind in the directness of its patriotism, and the way it gathers into itself the energy of Desnos’s lifelong love of liberty.

As a parallel text, this volume performs a double service, making so much of Desnos’s work available to English readers in its original French as well as in English. Of course translation on such a scale is inevitably uneven, especially given Adѐs’s decision to use strict metre and fairly strict rhyme wherever Desnos does, which is a great deal of the time. It’s one thing to write in strict forms when the poet’s meaning can evolve as he explores the metrical and phonetic possibilities for expressing it, another when he has to try to fit pre-existing meanings to a pre-determined form. Sometimes the demands of form force Adѐs into ponderous, periphrastic or simply over-emphatic expressions of what is direct and clear in the original. That’s just something one has to accept much of the time when one reads poetry in translation. However, he is gifted in the creation of varied and expressive patterns of sound and rhythm. I’ve already suggested that this makes his versions of the poems to Yvonne George superior to Caws’s as English poetry, and many of his other versions give real artistic pleasure in a similar way – sometimes, to my mind, more than the original. I’ve already quoted the line “Women swimming naked from a midnight shipwrecked hull”. In the original this goes “Celles renconrées nues dans les nuits de naufrage” (it’s part of a list of women who’ve obsessed the addressee of the poem). Making the women active, not passive, and introducing the verb “swimming”, Adѐs has given the shipwreck metaphor a new, hallucinatory vividness, beauty and mystery that to my mind improve on the original.

Altogether, this is a book I’ve greatly enjoyed reading and sometimes wrestling with, a worthy transmission of a major poet with much to offer to very different tastes.

Edmund Prestwich

Comments are closed.