Saturday, 16 August 2014

Henri Michaux: Un Certain Plume

Henri Michaux (1899-1984). The author, of German and Spanish ancestry, was born in the Belgian town of Namur. In 1922 he discovered The Songs of Maldoror and decided he wanted to be a writer. He travelled extensively (many of his books are travelogues) and must have been one of the earliest 20th century writers to describe the effect of mind-expanding substances, thanks to his collaboration for the mystical magazine Hérmes. Known and admired in the Romance languages, beginning to show up English thanks to NYRB, I first came across his books thanks to Jorge Luis Borges’ A Personal Library that gives us a glimpse into his favourite writers. Ever since I’ve searched for and read Michaux’s books in the hopes of finding A Barbarian in Asia, Borges’ choice. The funny thing is, I don’t particularly like Michaux’s writing, but since I can’t find that book I just go on reading the others to fill the vacuum. To date I’ve read Mes propriétés and Ecuador (both from 1929), two wildly different books (one is poetry, the other a travelogue), and the author’s own favourite book, Plume (1936), a collection of short-stories about a passive man called Monsieur Plume. Plume is one of several Mrs that populate literature: Mr Cogito and Mr Palomar come to mind too. (I also noticed a strong resemblance to, or influence upon, one of Gonçalo M. Tavares’ short-story collection.)

The first Plume stories were published in 1930, were called Un Certain Plume and numbered 10 stories. Gallimard republished them in 1936: four stories were added, one was excised, years later another one was added to it, and those constitute the stories of my edition, which also contains an essay by one René Micha, no doubt to stuff the book: without it the book would be 47 pages long, thanks to the essay it reaches a whopping 76 pages, meaning it’s about the size of the stories. Sometimes I have the impression it was my favourite part of the book.

The first story is called “A Peaceful Man” and is the archetypical Plume story. “Stretching his hand outside bed, Plume was startled not to find the wall. ‘Will you look at that, he thought, it’s as if ants had eaten it,’ and he went back to sleep.” This is just the beginning. His wife shakes him up to tell him the house has been stolen, not that it bothers him, since he goes back to sleep. Next a train runs over them, killing his wife and drenching him in her blood. He goes back to sleep. He’s charged with her murder and the judge sentences him to death. “‘Sorry but I didn’t follow the trial carefully,’ said Plume. And went back to sleep.” This could be Kafkaesque, but since these stories were published in 1930, it’s doubtful Michaux knew them already. It’s better to say it’s surrealistic, absurd before Beckett. The next story is about Plume in a restaurant. By mistake he asks for something that’s not on the menu. The waiter is mad and asks explanations, but Plume fumbles and the manager gets involved, then a cop whom he tries to bribe, and in the end he’s giving explanations to the secret police. Another story is about him being pushed around while travelling. “But he didn’t say anything, he didn’t complain. He thinks about the poor bastards who can’t travel at all, while he can, he travels, he’s always travelling.” In another short-story he complains about a pain in his finger and the doctor decides to cut it off. “I still have nine fingers,” he says in consolation. In a variation of the restaurant story, there’s another where he munches a horrible dish of food without complaining.

I think this is more Alfred Jarry than Franz Kafka myself, some stories are just incomprehensible, bewildering, fragmentary, or my translation just read horribly. (I also have that suspicion.) Not all stories are about his passiveness. Some have to do with his naivety. Another shows him as a mass murderer who kills a group of Bulgarians aboard a train to make room for himself; I’m not making this up. In another one he’s the Ambassador of Denmark in an unnamed kingdom and is seduced by the Queen who uses obvious ploys to get naked in bed with him, just when the King walks in; the narrative abruptly ends before we see what happens.

Others are just plain weird. Distractedly he finds himself walking on the ceiling, like, yeah, sure. In another one he accidentally pulls a person’s head off his shoulders and tries to pin it back. Ah, yes, that’s always a nuisance when it happens. In the final story Plume is a father but the child falls inside a bear cage and is mauled to death.

Plume sometimes is married, sometimes the wife is dead, sometimes he’s married again and is a father. Often he travels. He spends a lot of time in bars and restaurants. He can be passive but also murderous. He’s cowardly and naïve but also dangerous, stupid but philosophic. He’s a restless creation always foiling a sense of identity or the notion of character altogether. Micha likens Plume to early Chaplin movies, which Michaux admired, claiming that like in these movies Plume has “neither begging nor end,” he’s just a flux of adventures and movements. According to him, Plume stories are like literary versions of Chaplin movies. I can deal with that interpretation.

The stories change a lot and are not consistent in humour, clarity, tone and quality; several just went over my head. “These adventures don’t run towards the same direction, and Plume does not always perform the same task. The work’s unity, which is real, should not impede us from seeing it as a multiple movement, or even a sort of rupture,” explains Micha. I register and acknowledge this, even so I didn’t care for much of the book, which is already slipping away from my memory as a mere entertainment between better books. But it has some fabulous moments.

Meanwhile I'm going on vacations for a few days. Bye for now.

This book was read for the 2014 European Reading Challenge.

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