Saturday, 21 February 2009

"La poésie est semblable à l'amandier: ses fleurs sont parfumées et ses fruits sont amers." Aloysius Bertrand

"Poetry is similar to the almond tree: its flowers are fragrant and its fruits are bitter."

Having just read Jean Echenoz’s enjoyable documentary novel Ravel, I was looking up Maurice Ravel on the Internet out of curiosity, when I was reminded that he had composed a piano piece inspired by Gaspard de la nuit, a volume of prose poetry by the nineteenth-century French writer Aloysius Bertrand (1807–41).

Neglected in France nowadays and virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, Bertrand is a figure that I’ve been meaning to write a few lines about, just in case it might encourage readers to look into his work.

Interestingly, the major literary work of this provincial lieutenant’s son – originally from the Piedmont but whose home town from the age of nine was Dijon, the capital of Burgundy – remained unpublished during his life, which was tragically cut short by tuberculosis. Although he drew early praise from the likes of Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand for his efforts in Le Provincial, the journal he edited and contributed to in Dijon, and later moved to Paris, where he frequented the top literary salons, he was a relative outsider to the capital’s cultural establishment – due in part to his poverty, his attachment to his beloved Burgundy and his somewhat avant-garde aesthetic views.

In 1836, Bertrand signed a contract with the publishers Renduel for Gaspard de la nuit, but publication kept being delayed, to the dismay of the author, who in his final years had to endure constant disappointment on the literary front as well as the torments of illness. This work, a collection of fifty-one evocative prose poems, mostly focusing on the medieval city of Dijon – the landmarks, myths and people of which Bertrand knew intimately – was championed by the influential critic and friend of Bertrand’s, Sainte-Beuve, who in his note to the first edition of 1842 hailed it as a revolutionary milestone in the history of French poetry.

The critical consensus ever since has been that Gaspard de la nuit is the first work of French prose poetry, with significant consequences for the subsequent development of nineteenth-century literature. Charles Baudelaire was greatly impressed by its artistic approach, which consciously borrowed from the techniques of visual artists (its subtitle is “Fantasies in the manner of Rembrandt and Collet”), and admitted that it was his main inspiration for Le Spleen de Paris (also consisting of fifty-one pieces). Therefore, if the perseverance of Sainte-Beuve and Bertrand’s friends had not paid off, and Gaspard had not finally seen the light of day, we arguably would not have today the prose poetry of the likes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé and beyond.

Sadly, Gaspard de la nuit is currently out of print in English, although translations such as the University Press of America edition may be available second-hand and in libraries.

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