Réflexions poétiques, par Augustus Young
28 septembre 2008
When I told the venerable poet that I was learning Baudelaire off by heart to tone my French pronunciation, he did not laugh.
‘Baudelaire’s rhymes are true so it should help, but the lines are often slowed down by his ideas, ‘archibondées de saletés de toutes sortes’, as Beckett says in Godot, and translates as ‘a pocket full of nothing but turnips’. The words are made to carry an unnatural load. Don’t expect to talk them in a natural voice. Baudelaire is Baudelaire. But there is one exception, ‘Je n’ai pas oublié’ (Les Fleurs du Mal).
‘It is a poem like no other. Baudelaire wrote ‘I have not forgotten’ in memory of his mother’s house. But the words are so lowercase that e e cummings could have written it. The verses speak on behalf of his half-English mother, Caroline Archimbaut-Dufays. A small world is seen through her eyes. Her mind has been entered, one that keeps its troubles to itself (Charles’s step-father was a quarter Irish and rarely at home), except when it was a matter of money. Her French (learned in a London nursery) is so domesticated it seems like baby talk, only intended for her little ones. The secret language remains within the family and you, the reader, are like the sun’s eye, in the fourth last line, looking in, contemplating the dinner table, one maman has set. Baudelaire’s inscape into his mother’s world is generously visual. What you see inside is absolutely clear. But you cannot quite hear what is being said, or thought. Since the poem is an early work, Baudelaire was still close enough to the family to ‘j’ai n’ai pas oublié’ its patois. It can’t be translated into any other language.
‘The poem could be adapted for dance. A sardane, perhaps, without music. The dancers moving to the promptings of the inner ear. In mime the secret language would be demonstrated rather than revealed, and safe with the family. And that’s right and proper, for it is Baudelaire’s mother and not yours or mine. But I would strongly recommend that you learn this not so simple poem off by heart, not to understand it, but to gain a French that is unique.’
My dream is a daydream. I am talking to myself, drawing on conversations I had with my friend Tony about Yves Bonnefoy. Since my memory is partial, I plug the gaps with my own personal polyfilla. This is how I like to tell a story to myself when it does not matter whether others consider it true or not. But it is true enough for me, faute de mieux. I am putting together a jigsaw puzzle and, despite missing pieces, a picture materialises, one with holes in it. I hang it on the wall of my mind. When I pass it, I think, ‘I’m glad I have that to look at. Something achieved in my life, just for myself, flaws and all’. I don’t have to show it to other people.
Of course, I started to translate ‘Je n’ai pas’, failing many times. Joab said, ‘You’re scraping the bottom. It’s so twee and banal. Not Baudelaire or you, let alone his mother. Give it up’. I tried my various attempts on as many people as I could bear to hear pronounce, ‘It’s very nice, but…’. ‘The poet in my daydream is right’, I thought. But I did not give in. A Russian translator said, ‘Look at Pushkin. It’s in his uxorious vein’. A German counseled Goethe, a Finn James Joyce. The best suggestion, I thought. JJ was a great man for drawing room décor. So I revisited Chamber Music and, apart from ‘Lean out the window, goldenhair’, the verbal music in it is more for chamber pots, and there is none of his mother in it. I gave up when someone suggested Emily Dickinson. e e cummings I had already dismissed.
The leaf containing ‘Je n’ai pas’ in my Les Fleurs du Mal was loose from violent thumbing. So I tore it out and took it on a walk to memorise. I also brought along a volume of Sartre. ‘Je n’ai pas’ is short and Being and Nothingness is long. The genêt d’or was in full bloom in the vineyards. And the yellow broom must have aided my memory because in no time I was able to recite ‘Je n’ai pas’ back to myself. I was making myself comfortable on a blasted vine plant to get started on the Sartre when, taken with a fit of sneezing, and searching my pocket for a handkerchief, a gust from the tramontane caught ‘Je n’ai pas’ and sent it kiting up the hill. The page hadn’t strings so it was soon lost in the vines. On the journey home I completed my translation.
Translating ‘Je n’ai pas oublié’
‘On ne peut pas traduire ce poème’
This poem by Baudelaire,
which I have learned by heart,
is whipped into the air
(my mind being lost in Sartre).
The thieving tramontane
that snatched it from my hand
sings ‘catch me if you can’,
and wouldn’t let it land.
I watch the leaf flying
up the vines, out of sight.
It will return as wine
all ready to recite.
‘Je n’ai pas’ has been successfully translated into a poème by Yves Bonnefoy, ‘Qu’une place soit faite’ (‘Let a place be made’), with some exprès infidelité, which Baudelaire and his mother deserve, I think. Bonnefoy offers the mother’s house as a shelter for homeless people. The motherless peer in and are welcomed. The inside is furnished with words of tender loving care. On a cold night a meal of comforting mots de guérison, words that heal, can be shared at the table. They describe a glass of water, a loaf of bread, and some olives. The poor won’t go hungry.
I mishear words in the wind and on the airwaves. It is like listening to seashells. Suggestion says it’s the ocean, when it’s merely the echo of air trapped in your inner ear (cockle on cochea). On Radio France Culture I wanted to believe I was hearing a programme about Yves Bonnefoy, whom my friend Tony translates into English. But it was really about bonne fois (a good time) or bonne foi (good faith). I am not sure. Did the broadcast come from Paris where the last syllable of words is breathed rather than pronounced, or from the border with Spain ? In the difference resides language’s uncertainty. Is it where you are coming from rather than what you are saying that counts ? Even then you could be subjected by a goonish broadcaster to the Alice in Wonderland Humpty Dumpty principle of semantics (‘When I use a word it means what I choose it to be, neither more or less’).
My mishearing amused Tony, who told me that when Sartre met Yves Bonnefoy as a young man in Paris he said, ‘The poet has a good name anyway’, meaning the opposite to mauvaise foi (bad faith). Afterwards I wondered could J-P have meant the opposite to mauvaise fois (bad time). I saw the portrait of a youngish Yves in Montauban, a serious tweedy teacher. No doubt in the eyes of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir he would have seemed a frumpy provincial, and the chances of him having a good time in the Deux Magots, or wherever they were hanging out, was slim or grim, depending on your pronunciation or hearing. I rather think that Bonnefoy would have preferred to spend his time sleeping at the feet of Breton, the emperor of Surrealism.
Tony rendered Bonnefoy’s ‘Qu’une place’ into English for ‘Poems on the Underground’ (the London Tube). I think it works because I now have both the French and English poems off by heart, and am not sure of the difference. I daydream of sharing my translation of ‘Je n’ai pas’ with Bonnefoy, but I don’t know if he likes vintages from the wilds of Roussillon. We could drink it together at one of my Sunday nights with Tony in my Hendon house, and contemplate the world and its imperfections in a kindly light. If only for old time’s sake. Of course this will not be possible. I sold the house in Hendon and moved to Bras de Vendres. But it is the thought that counts. As with my translation. And the venerable poet’s (‘it couldn’t be done’). Though he hadn’t thought of transubstantiation by tramontane. I know Tony prefers a whisky (alas, not Irish). Yet I think he will be happy with a poem changed into what is bound to be - given it’s Madame Baudelaire’s nappe frugale - a tolerable table wine.
I haven’t forgotten our little bungalow
in the quiet neighbourhood and its warm white glow,
the plaster figures of love and fruitfulness
lurking in the shrubbery to keep modest .
The late sunlight that’s spilling through the window
splits into all the colours of the rainbow.
The eye of the universe observes as we dine
nonchalantly, blinking dapples of benign
shadow, until candlelight reflects the twill
curtains and graces the cloth on the table.