By Jeff Bursey
In this slender book, New Directions has provided bilingual readers with English and French texts of a memoir-like fiction featuring a nameless narrator (hereafter N.), a vendor (also unnamed), and various plants and insects. At first this may not seem like an appealing literary prospect, and the last clause might bring to mind, for those of a certain age, high school examinations of literary works that featured man versus the environment. With these simple elements, Roger Lewinter (b. 1941) makes Story of Love in Solitude (1989; English translation 2016) a tangled tale that presents, with apt confusion, N.’s associative thinking. The book has three sections: “Story of Love in Solitude,” “Passion,” and “Nameless.” Stylistically, the opening of “Passion” can stand in for the rest:
A camellia with which I identified—placed, in my parents’ living room, opposite my office—, in November 1978, one week after the death of my mother, had withered on the stalk, suddenly losing its leaves—I had given it to my parents, a dozen years earlier, for their anniversary, one December 27—, while a second camellia, which was bought for the same occasion the following year and which my mother, six months later, when it wilted—I said she ought to throw it out soon—, not having a green thumb but remaining obstinate, had been able to bring back to life, flourished; from then on, having misunderstood what is beyond understanding…
For readers unused to pell-mell sentences where one subject quickly succeeds another without warning, that semi-colon is almost a relief, and serves much like a rock that an overturned white-water rafter would cling to in this torrent of prose in order to catch his breath. More common in European fiction (Thomas Bernhard used this device with fine effectiveness, and so does László Krasznahorkai), this way of presenting multiple thoughts does not attempt to convey realism as we have been instructed to think of it, but one person’s view of a world. If we become lost in that narrative, then we are led to reflect on our ways of thinking and how we present our stories to those around us. Are we any more linear or cogent?
A translator of Rainer Maria Rilke, N. had previously brought the Duino Elegies into French, and is now proceeding with the next demanding project. The effects of his labour are expressed with the excitement that any writer will recognize when inspiration and hard work co-exist. But before that can be shown it would be useful to begin with a snapshot of the camellia that lives in his office, since it and the other serve as indicators of N.’s mood, and exist as entities on their own. Treating them as characters—they carry as much significance as the letters on a page that are Anna Karenina—might bring out their narrative importance:
…it was June—, the buds of flowers destined to grow plump in October revealed themselves everywhere, nevertheless very quickly starting to swell as if, in the urgency of fecundity catching up with the leaves, they would open at any moment; while with the idea—which had been on my mind since the beginning of the year—of finally translating the Sonnets to Orpheus by Rilke… after a few starts, on the twenty-fourth of August I threw myself as if it were now a matter of life and death; only occasionally worried about the camellia, beside me, which this struggle must have been irradiating even as it invigorated me; thus hardly surprised—noticing in it the sympathy I had sensed—that it began, in the course of the month of September, to lose some leaves—the most vigorous, which, majestic opened out, crowned its leader—, not worrying at first…
More than a way of thinking is shown in those two passages. At the risk of making too much of what is, after all, a slender novella, I offer the notion that N.’s individual existence is called into question without his realizing it, though he seems far from an unintelligent man. We see what either he doesn’t register or doesn’t bother to say aloud, that the complete collapse of barriers surrounding memories, as reflected in the prose, endanger who he was, is, and could be. That requires further explanation, but first, with each exact date given I became increasingly unsettled, and suspicious of the worth of such a detail due to N.’s untethered mind. Lewinter does this in a second short work of fiction New Directions is bringing out later this autumn, The Attraction of Things, where the narrator throws—a favourite word of the author or translator in both books—himself into music, relationships, and life.
In the first passage, past, present and future merge and mingle freely, or in a terribly undisciplined and irritating fashion, depending on your taste. The narrator barely utters a phrase in one time zone, if you will, before slipping into another. Long-ago events are identified with the words “a dozen years earlier” or “one December 27,” but these temporal anchors fail to secure the vessel of thought. For instance, take the first two lines of the first quotation. Does N. mean to say he identifies with a camellia in the present, and then narrates its history from November 1978, and that the death of his mother is merely an aside? If so, what does this forecast for the remainder of “Passion”? What does it say about his relationship to his family? The same sentence carries onto the next page, and returns to the second camellia: “I had taken it home with me, in November 1982, shortly before the death of my father…” Once again the flowers take precedence over his parents. These aren’t accidents, though the import of prioritization isn’t clear. We hear much more about N.’s ongoing translation of Rilke than about his dead parents, as the second passage indicates. Yet the flowers are intimately connected to them, or were, and one can read the narrator’s repeated attempts to keep these botanical memento mori alive—despite infestations of spiders, maggots, and moths, neglect caused by N.’s frequent travels, the combination of too much sun and too much cold—as a way to cherish his mother and father or else from guilt at having outlived them. It is no accident that two of Rilke’s most significant works are brought in. Here are the opening lines of a new translation, by Allan Cooper, of “The Fourth Elegy”:
Living trees, when do you sense the coming of winter?
We’re not in touch; we don’t have that instinct
the birds feel in autumn.
How N. says what’s in his mind, the interweaving of new ideas and recollection of episodes, makes the sentences resemble the luxuriant growth of the vegetative life in his apartment. That is one similarity. But when he states, “this struggle must have been irradiating even as it invigorated me,” that isn’t a sentimental thought (or not only that). Like the tree and the birds, the camellia suffers due to its empathy, and it gets that from the narrator’s own emotions. It’s already been indicated that the flow of thoughts is preferable to a strict sense of divisions of time into periods. Without time, or an awareness of our separateness from the vegetative kingdom even though it’s what we sprang out of, are individuals anything more than part of the flow of a generalized life force?
In “Nameless” the focus of the narrator’s attention is on a seller of many products who is the object of erotic desire: “I asked myself whether he knew that he was radiant,” N. says after one encounter; “his face had made me look at his fly and the way his jeans fell to his sneakers; from that time on avoiding paying him attention…” This gaze is returned intermittently, returned with shyness, and replaced by detachment. For reasons we never learn there are only the equivalent of sighs and whispers, mostly on the part of the narrator. Yet we are set adrift on the river of time at once.
The section begins:
When I saw him that Monday morning—at the end of May, beginning of June 1986—for the first time at the Liotard Market—he had his stand, on the rue de la Poterie, about thirty feet from the farm stand where I regularly buy eggs and apples, so that I could, as I waited my turn, by placing myself at a slight angle let my eyes wander over him…
A few pages on we read that N. “attempted to find him again, he had disappeared—that Saturday, December 29, 1984,” which looks like an error. On re-reading the first page we realize that 1986 marked the first time the vendor had displayed his wares at Liotard Market. We have no grip on time, and so we follow the weaving narrator through this and that occasion for brief, mostly wordless meetings. Yet they must have talked at a date attached later to any scene we are told about: “I had looked back, not knowing that his gaze had followed me pensively…” One would think that the two men had a relationship in the hazy future, but the final lines of “Nameless” don’t lead to that: “…I no longer even thought to ask him his name: the light with which he had been invested, having touched me, had deserted him, leaving me with the call of a look, of a smile, whose warmth would exile me from the solitary loving body; though even then:” That colon ends the novella, and we hang suspended, wondering how they did talk—perhaps in one of those jumps or slides of time—and what is behind “even then.” Its meanings can be many, but grasping the most suitable is impossible.
In Story of Love in Solitude we are given shards of a broken arc as represented in the ebb and flow of memory and in the splintered sentences that resist conclusive interpretation. Aesthetically, we’re free from the dictatorial requirement that a story contain a beginning, middle, and end. Philosophically, the world each of us inhabits is shown to be one of multiple levels of impressions, desires, recollections, and interrelations that collapse into each other, and from the debris bits of time and heightened sensations extrude, only to be swallowed once more through a remorseless recycling. Except when it comes to social interaction—N. and the vendor not able to talk openly—everything is permeable and this goes both ways: N. does what he can to keep two plants alive for many reasons, while one of them is affected negatively by his impassioned labour (in art, no less, not a cruder type of commercial activity).
What I take away from this bracing novella is that it might not be possible to define ourselves, to prove our distinctness from other entities and objects, since we’re caught in a cycle of destruction and regeneration which has the additional restriction (though some might regard it as liberation) that the notion of eras has little influence. The first-person narrator of The Attraction of Things, who resembles N., has an epiphany: “At the time, connection by means of cross-invasion, where the question of knowing who is who ceases to be relevant—because one becomes the other, whom he fulfills—, was, so it seemed, alien to me…” That’s a threat to existentialist thought—and may very well be an attack on Sartre et al—and to anyone who regards himself as a unique creation. If Roger Lewinter’s fiction is truly closer to how we relate our own lives to others, maybe we need to consider that we are (only?) part of a ceaselessly active existence, where no one and nothing has the right to an ego or to consideration as special, and where we must sacrifice our quiddity.
Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter, Trans. Rachel Careau | New Directions | 64 pages | $13.95 | paper | ISBN 978-0811225199