on The Straw Sandals: Selected Prose and Poetry, by Pierre-Albert Jourdan, tr. by John Taylor (Chelsea Editions)

The writer Pierre-Albert Jourdan (1924-1981) is unknown outside of France and barely recognized at home. In a concise profile of Jourdan’s work in Paths to Contemporary French Literature, John Taylor writes, “ ‘One shouldn’t seek to produce literature,’ Jourdan remarks when observing an almond tree ‘murmuring all over with bees’; instead, one should endeavor to ‘seize the lightness’ of the phenomenon.” Jourdan liked to use the imperative, and for him endeavor was everything.

JourdanCover.jpgJourdan didn’t write so much as attempt to purify the desire to write and scrub its purpose. His oeuvre is made of compressed prose texts, aphoristic notations, and pithy description. Although he wrote with the disclosing regularity of a diarist, he insisted, “One must learn to speak above oneself in the same way you can help someone climb over a wall.”

Consider these samples:

“Whenever looking ceases, haphazardness reasserts itself.”

“This silence sputtering like an old lamp is not muffled by the night. At various intervals, the night sets up responders who are the innocent echo of this silence. Just when the face of man fades, when he has nothing left.”

“Those who do not forget the incessant mutilation inflicted on this earth more willingly pay tribute to the scathing nudity of the sky. Up there the sun turns its ring on his finger and waits to bury the dead, their coins liquefied in their throats. The blue grass whispers another state of being. The path is not closed.”

“The abyss is likeable when you can find lodgings in it.”

“As parceled up as this countryside. But don’t let yourself be guided by facile images. Take stock in oblivion, the oblivion of this countryside. In this countryside your death is daily and marvelous. In oblivion there is neither sickle, nor spade, nor boundary stone. There is life. Only life. ‘Only’ is the highest wave, covering all.”

Jourdan3.jpgGiven the removed stance of his spiritual grappling, disavowal of the lyric and narrative, disinterest in the analytical first-person (his concretions are very often non-human), preference for spontaneous jottings and statements, a tendency to circle back and repeat, and a dull regard for publishing and literary clubbing, Jourdan remained obscure. Starting in 1947, he made his living until his death as a manager of insurance benefits for the employees of Societé Mutualiste des Transports Publics. He devoted his free time to living at his house and garden in the village of Caromb (famous for its Côtes du Ventoux wine), located 25 kilometers northeast of Avignon in Provence.

Some of his writings circulated among his friends during his lifetime (he befriended René Char in the late 1950’s), but only a fragment of his work was published in those years, including La Langue des fumeés (The Language of Rising Smoke) (1961). Even Taylor, his translator in English, did not discover Jourdan’s work until fifteen years after his death. By that time, Mercure de France had published two hefty 500-page volumes -- Les Sandales de paille (The Straw Sandals) (1987) collected unpublished work and the three chapbooks published toward the end of his life, and Le Bonjour et l’adieu (The Good Morning and the Farewell) (1991) included prose poetry. Yves Bonnefoy wrote the introduction to the former and Phillippe Jaccottet to the latter.

Jourdan2.jpgAmong the thousands of fragments in his notebooks from 1961-1976, he wrote, “I do not agree to live walled into my human condition. I seek other alliances.” And that was the problem – he felt confined to and oppressed by inherent depravities. The purpose of the written word was not to display one’s refined discernments but to somehow escape them. The stasis of a saint may seem either sublime or stunted. This is the poignancy of Jourdan’s life-work – both aspects of the detached searcher speak and are conjoined. As the younger French poets discovered him, they began to suspect that all they had done so far was to vent their superfluities. His was a forbidding, uncompromising accomplishment – with slippage into self-help chanting, as if he had trekked a long circle while trying not to bite his nails. He wrote, “Believe in words as shoes and not as tacks.” He hectored his own wayward self while rejecting the commonplace notion of a writer’s “development.”

More:

“The inner disaster is the only resource.”

“Weatherwaves and rising smoker from vintners’ fires always agree about the right direction to take when seeking meaning. We are the only ones who refuse the evidence.”

“Landscape, we will meet up with each other at the source.”

“Everything is out in the open. The saintliness of the place is such that you alone could sully it.”

“To go more deeply into this feeling of disarray would imply abandoning the mind for an ecstatic vision in which the entire body would participate and absorb, entering little by little into a fiery eternity that would be its assumption. The very term “defeat” would have no sense. At most, scattered smoke.”

“I concoct no proof. I cut off a few slices of time that I am given to live so that they will console me for my clumsiness, for my nicked blade. Some writers, who are called stylists, use a sharpening tool. My brevity does not consider this tool indispensable. Perhaps wrongly, for it is heartening to sense the edge between two lines of words.”

Jourdan1.jpgBut Jourdan tells the other poets that he cannot take the privileges of the lyric poet for granted. They are unseemly. He writes, “I’ll let you speak about lyric poetry. As for myself, I remain on the short side of lyricism as I speak facing a garden door that is always closed.” Again, he prescribes “a way of writing: as one prunes olive trees in order to aerate them and make sure that all their branches can be reached by ladders.” His spare reflections and assertions can be bracing or jarring. Although his sententiousness sometimes sours things, his refusal to be deterred from his project is its own impressive monument.

With The Straw Sandals, we finally have finely attuned English translations (with the originals en face) of Jourdan’s entire first book, selections of his mid-life writings, and the whole of L’approche or The Approach, his final work, begun just after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in April, 1981. He died five months later on September 13.

Nature and place in Jourdan’s work form a testing ground. Something in the man, pre-personal, tries to press its shape into what is seen in the countryside. His unattainability must have staggered him – but it also gave him something to obsessively write about. The final line of L’approche is a question: “Through great rips in the landscape?”

[Published June 1, 2011. 334 pages (including 14 pages of notes), $20.00 paperback]

Re Jourdan

A very interesting fellow...and thank you for yet another excellent review. Is it good to know that a writer this worthy can remain under the radar for so long? You indicate that his subject-matter and his approach to it made things difficult. As he wrote: "There is life. Only life. ‘Only’ is the highest wave, covering all.” Not much room to compromise the integrity there. Sure, "the path is not closed" to the abyss as long as the brave go there with their eyes open and they bring back something we can all recognize and use.