Beverley Bie Brahic on a long-awaited translation of a French masterwork
This spring, before Stephen Romer's long-awaited translation of L'Arrière-pays appeared, Yves Bonnefoy mused about the Englishing of the title: "Hinterland," he said, in his study, had to French ears, a Germanic sound; "Back Country" was no better – it might be a guide to an American wilderness. He and his translator opted to keep the French title, throwing in an English "the" in the hopes – justified, I believe – that the text's fusion of autobiography, art essay and poem (let's call it a "dream tale," a Bonnefoy term, and avoid the all-terrain vehicle of "prose poem") would define its title, maybe even give English a new term along the lines of arrière-pensée.
"The Arrière-pays", supplemented by several shorter texts, asks to be read whole, and then dipped into, as the reader sees more and sees differently. Seagull Books has accomplished what no other English publisher has dared since Skira first published L'Arrière-pays in 1972: a book that generously weds text to image. What kind of animal is "arrière-pays" then? The dictionary says it's land behind the coast, and cites a French history book about the Crusaders conquering coastal Syria, but failing to push inland to the "arrière-pays", a tactical error. Figuratively, it's the place we can't quite see from where we stand: it's around the next bend; it's what draws us onward in our travels. "Over there" (là-bas recurs in Bonnefoy poems, typically followed by est loin) we might catch up with our desires. "I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads," Bonnefoy begins, in autobiographical mode (and the music and limpidity of Romer's English translation will be apparent; its precision I beg you to take on faith). "It seems to me that here, or close by, a couple of steps away on the path I didn't take and which is already receding – that just over there a more elevated kind of country would open up, where I might have gone to live …" Stretching "from Ireland to the farthest reaches of Alexander's empire, and on into Cambodia" the arrière-pays encompasses "Egypt … the old empires of Africa … and all the Mediterranean countries … [it] is circumscribed by pride, but also by dissatisfaction, hope, credulity, departures and the fever of anticipation." It includes the closets of childhood: "We lived in a district of small, poor houses … cupboards that were forbidden me … at the evening meal, under the yellow bulb, I tried to find the mysterious point at which the crust ended and the crumb began." But if Tours, where Bonnefoy was born, was "associated with negative experiences", a vacation village to the south offered "images of plenitude", a low door on to a garden where "the fruits had begun to ripen … and I almost wept with a sense of belonging."
The cover of this richly illustrated book is a detail from Piero della Francesca; its text is interspersed with images of paintings and places, each identified with a scrap of text. Bonnefoy's search for the arrière-pays involves the study of landscapes, architecture and paintings, above all the pittura chiara of the Italian quattrocento, into which the light of day seeps, he says, and seems to disperse the opacity of symbolic colour; the poet's task, as Bonnefoy says in an "Afterword", is to turn the works of the self "into the flame that consumes them, and to love, first and foremost, the light from this flame".
Bonnefoy's own quest, over a lifetime (he will be 90 next year) of writing poems and essays and, not least, translating Shakespeare, Keats and Yeats, has been to find oneness, harmony or "presence" (a key term, as Romer explains in his own finely written introduction) in the here and now. This is, I would suggest, to TS Eliot's quest for the "still point of the turning world" in "Burnt Norton", another major work that resonates with eastern thought, although Bonnefoy has said he loves the world too much to accept Buddhism's radical void. Bonnefoy ponders language, too; he dreams of recovering a time and place, perhaps pre-Latin, when word and thing are unified, not abstracted into metaphor. As he writes in his 2011 collection, L'Heure présente (The Present Hour),
Roses exist, no rose in itself,
And yet, I can say
The word chevêche or the word safre or the word ciel
Or the word espérance,
And glancing up I see those trees along the road…
and, more despairingly,
We thrust our hands into language,
They took some words we didn't know
What to do with, being only our desires.
The translation is exemplary: faithful, it finds the English words – sometimes several different words, depending on context – to render some of the abstractions (évidence, présence, finitude) that can be off-putting to English ears; Romer has respected Bonnefoy's sentences with their hesitations and additions, phrase appended to clause as the author attempts to refine his thought; the text is subtle, lyric, analytically clear and, most important, pleasurable. Like a Piero painting, it is a layering of transparencies, with thoughts and perceptions as primary as those that concern a poet's childhood, and as poignant as the enigmas of great art.
• Beverley Bie Brahic's White Sheets is published by CB editions. To order The Arrière-pays for £16 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop