A Certain Plume

Henri Michaux
Translated by Richard Sieburth
New York Review Books ($16)

by M. Kasper

Like his comic book compatriot Tintin, the writer and visual artist Henri Michaux (1899-1984) grew up in Belgium, traveled the world, and finally settled in France. In 1930, when he’d already published an experimental memoir and an unconventional account of a trip to Ecuador, Michaux’s gallimaufry of poems, prose poetry, and drama entitled A Certain Plume came out from the Parisian avant-garde publisher Éditions de Carrefour and ensured his reputation. Plume is the collection’s Chaplinesque main character, a self-portrait of the author perhaps, though, as Michaux says in a “Postface:”  “There is no single self. There are not ten selves. There is no self.

In the years that followed the publication of A Certain Plume, Michaux slowly but successfully pursued careers in both writing and painting, often melding the two. His visual art was Klee-like, proto-Lettrist. Much of his writing took the form of short prose, and trips—touristic, spiritual, and drug-induced—were a favored theme. His work is sometimes associated with the Surrealists (about whom he said in a March 1961 ArtNews interview with John Ashbery, “One values [them] less for what they wrote than for the permission they gave everybody to write whatever comes into their heads”), though he remained aloof from literary groups.

Michaux has been widely read and influential in American literary circles since 1951, when New Directions published Selected Writings: The Space Within, a compilation (including ten pieces from Plume) translated by Richard Ellmann. In the ’50s and ’60s, the Beats were also fascinated by Michaux’s psychedelic writing, translations of which were issued by City Lights, and New York School poets cherished his witty concision and visual sensibility; unaffiliated pioneers of latter-day American short prose like Marvin Cohen, Carol Bergé, and Russell Edson all acknowledged the impact, in particular, of the Plume stories. Since then, Michaux’s inclusion in major anthologies of French writing in English translation, as well as a couple of substantial selections from his prolific output, have made his offbeat, funny takes on everyday events and relationships—and what Ashbery called his “oozy metaphysical terrain”—familiar to many English-language readers.

Now, with Richard Sieburth’s excellent contemporary and colloquial translation of the entirety of the 1930 publication, with facing-page French, we finally have an opportunity to read all thirty-four texts of this 20th-century classic in their original order and setting—and indeed, to read quite a few that were previously untranslated. Part One is comprised of the anecdotes explicitly featuring Plume, many familiar from frequent translation (see below); Part Two is a playlet; Three and Four include mostly miscellaneous short prose; Five, the final part, is made up of half a dozen free-verse poems, the last of which poignantly portrays the author’s mother’s death; and then, for this book, there’s an appendix with several extra Plume stories, written later, and the extended and important “Postface” that Michaux added to the collection for its bestselling second edition in 1938. Thanks are due to the publisher and to translator Richard Sieburth for this well designed and thoughtfully edited version. A Certain Plume is the fourth full-length work by Michaux that Sieburth has rendered into English; his experience with the author and long academic and translating career has made his afterword particularly worth attending to. It eruditely situates the book in its literary surround, provides close readings of some pieces, and sketches the biographical backstory that accounts, in part, for the collection’s abundance of death and mayhem.

Over decades, some of our finest translators from French have had a go at Michaux, giving us a wonderful opportunity for comparison. Here, to conclude this review, are six examples of “Un homme paisable,” the first work in the Plume sequence, and one of the most often translated. Sieburth titles it and translates the celebrated first two paragraphs (of eight) as follows:

A Peaceable Man
Extending his hands from his bed, Plume was astonished not to feel the wall: “Well, he concluded, the ants must have eaten it away . . .” And he went back to sleep.
Shortly thereafter, his wife shook him awake: “Take a good look, lazybones! While you were so busy sleeping, someone went and stole our house!” And indeed, stretching out on every side there was nothing but solid sky. “So it goes,” he thought.

Ellmann’s 1951 translation:

A Tractable Man
Stretching his hands out beyond the bed, Plume was surprised at not meeting the wall. « Imagine that, » he thought, « the ants must have eaten it up . . . » and he went back to sleep.
A little later his wife grabbed hold of him and shook him: « Look, » she said, « you slug! While you were busy sleeping somebody has stolen our house. » It was true, an unbroken sky stretched on all sides above them. « Oh well! the thing is done » he thought.

From Mid-century French Poets (Grove, 1955), edited and translated by Wallace Fowlie:

A Peaceful Man
Stretching his hands out of the bed, Plume was amazed at not touching the wall. “Well,” he thought, “the ants must have eaten it . . .” and he went back to sleep.
Soon after, his wife took hold of him and shook him: “Good-for-nothing,” she said, “Look! while you were busy sleeping, they stole our house from us.” It was true. Wherever he looked, he saw the sky. “Bah! it’s done now,” he thought.

From Darkness Moves, An Henri Michaux Anthology (University of California, 1994), edited and translated by David Ball:

A Peaceful Man
Stretching his hands out from the bed, Plume was surprised not to encounter the wall. “Hmm,” he thought, “the ants must have eaten it . . .” and he went back to sleep.
A bit later his wife caught him by the arm and shook him: “Look,” she said, “you good-for-nothing! While you were busy sleeping, they stole our house from us.” And in fact, sky stretched out uninterrupted on every side. “Oh well, it’s over and done with,” he thought.

From Someone Wants to Steal My Name and Other Poems by Henri Michaux, edited by Nin Andrews (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2003), translated by Richard Howard:

A Manageable Man
Stretching his hands beyond the bed, Plume was surprised not to touch the wall. “Think of that!” he thought, “the ants have eaten I . . ..” and he went back to sleep.
Later his wife shook him awake: “Look, lazybones!” she said, “while you were busy sleeping, our house has been stolen.” In fact, an unbroken sky stretched in all directions. “Oh well,” Plume thought, “what’s done is done . . .”

From Storms Under the Skin, Selected Poems 1927-1954 by Henri Michaux, translated by Jane Draycott (Two Rivers Press, 2017):

A Peaceable Man
Stretching out his hands beyond the bed, Plume was surprised not to encounter the wall. “Goodness” he thought, “the ants must have been eating at it.” And he went back to sleep.
Not long after, his wife grabbed him and shook him, “Look at that, you useless lump!” While you were so busy sleeping, our whole house has been stolen.” And in truth, a perfect sky stretched out in every direction around them. “Ah well,” he thought, “what’s done is done.”

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