Complete Fiction

Complete Fiction by Serge FauchereauSerge Fauchereau
Translated by Ron Padgett and John Ashbery
Black Square Editions ($14)

by Karl Krause

"Art is artificial, nature is natural."
—Piet Mondrian

"Do we look enough at what we'll never see twice? Space is imaginary. Only time exists, and time has no edges."
—Serge Fauchereau

An anthology of an author's entire work can be an exhausting confrontation: failures, successes, coherences, and the unresolved abound. One might expect the same from the title of Serge Fauchereau's Complete Fiction. Not to be confused as Fauchereau's complete writing, this slim book instead presents selected translations by Ron Padgett and John Ashbery—brilliant renovations on a sometimes tender work. Fauchereau's writing fluctuates between the memoirs of a solitary traveler and patently fictional landscapes and events; the setting of these prose poems is never really the place described, but the author's imagination in which they are formed. Its effect is at times macabre but beautiful:

Dig too deep and all you get is a foretaste of the earth you'll have between your teeth. When all that remains of you is a few pieces of bone that a farmer in the distant future turns over with his spade, he'll be wise enough to leave them in the ground—and you'll pass into the plants and into peace.

At its darkest here, the poems lift through whirlwinds of place and travel. Words and worlds collide—Texaco, Philadelphia, Oldsmobile, Washington—delivering a punchy, authentic specificity in the swiftly changing setting of a voyager:

I would know how to get back to Chevy Chase. After all these years, I remember its red and white houses. I'd turn on the radio full blast—maybe "Chevy Chase" would be on. Then the first left on the ring road, then the first right and, after the bank, another right.

Affectedly, beside the beauty and artifice of place exists the persistent consciousness of fiction:

...the police car that just went by, after a speeder—Chevy Chase?—has no more reality than a canvas painted a century earlier, some "Remise de chevreuils" ("Deer Shelter") by Courbet.

It is here that Fauchereau's understanding of art criticism and history informs his fiction. In both prose and figurative painting, a story can be deduced, but only after brushstrokes or words constitute the work of art in mimetic performance. By introducing his work as a "complete fiction," this faithfully translated collection of prose poems intends to operate as an absolute individuation from fact. Sometimes integrating songs or memories into his imaginative act of setting, Fauchereau's constructs often give rise to an intimate maxim concerning time, memory and art. These maxims, including "All the philosophers in the world are not worth a forgotten refrain," or "Space is imaginary. Only time exists, and time has no edges," hit and miss; they cloud the pretext of "complete fiction" by attributing intimacy to the narration, blending "truth" with an opposing, ideally total fabrication.

Padgett's translations, all selections from Complete Fiction, are made with a careful retentiveness, necessary to advocate Fauchereau's theoretical framework. They are also, not surprisingly, done with a touch of humor and an observant articulation of the sonorous differences of language. In "Gare St. Lazare," for example, beginning with a description of Manet's painting by the same name, Fauchereau writes: suis un voyageur sans habitudes : dans le train je m'assois n'importe ù, avec, peut-être, une petite préférence pour les places près du couloir afin de pouvoir déambuler ; et dans l'avoir j'aime aussi bien les places sur l'aile, quitte à avoir le paysage coupé en diagonale par l'aluminium.

Internal rhyme, prevalent in a comparatively smaller French phonetic scale, controls much of Fauchereau's attention to meter, creating here (as elsewhere) the drawn, horizontal tone of a solitary observer. The rhyme of 'habitude' and 'où' followed by five staccatoed syllables, corresponds symmetrically to the rhyme of 'l'aile' and 'diagonale,' also followed by five syllables, imparting an impression of extension as the phrase repeatedly continues beyond its resonance. This idea of a stretched phraseology—innate in French poetics—is especially valuable to enunciate a narrative loaded with time and memory, and essential to Fauchereau's poem. Padgett's translation manages to reproduce this symmetrical meter by rearranging punctuation, with an entirely unique effect:

...I'm a traveler with no particular habits: on the train I sit anywhere, with maybe a slight preference for the aisle seat so I can get up and move around; and on the plane I don't mind the seat over the wing, even if the landscape gets cut diagonally by the aluminum.

Padgett's version replaces rhymed words with a discrepancy of sound (anywhere/around and wing/aluminum), giving an American breath to his translation while still retaining the symmetry of a sentence divided in two, then four parts. Where Padgett takes the liberty to choose, he effectively develops a consistency of tone, necessary for preserving Fauchereau's paradoxical narration between fiction and maxim. Whether using the passive voice, or even reshaping the dimensions of billboards (Padgett substitutes "one meter by a meter twenty" to a more pleasant "three by four feet"), his touches are often fun. Padgett translates "let's not joke around too much with words" with a wry smirk, as humor sheds new light on some serious prose, a welcome and renewing addition.

Ashbery's selections, taken from two early Fauchereau works (Displacements and Demonstrations and Fabulations), also regenerate many of the original echoes—for example, taking "un kilogramme de pommes de terre" to "a kilo of potatoes." Still resonant, the move to English often lightens the previously stately text with a jingle, here made by the curt, cool 'kilo'. Yet these earlier poems offer a slightly different version of artifice. In Complete Fiction—the plot of which, remember, is the development of setting within the narrator's imagination—Fauchereau often attributes an indecisiveness or indifference to his narrator; this largely disappears in Ashbery's selections. Gone are the uncertain randomizing interjections of "let's say..." or "her name is Susan; no, Maria; or else Carole; it hardly matters." These works rest more comfortably in metaphor, and Fauchereau comes through Ashbery's translations with a rare splendor:

At the end of the avenue where the industrial fumes and neon signs have chased away the horses of the sun, the Marlboro cowboy lights up a cigarette while holding the reins of something one doesn't see. One expects the sky to retire, like a manuscript that is being rolled up.

The book's impressive conclusion, offering perhaps its most intimate moments, dissipates the controls of the theory of complete fiction—for in maxims, poems are both fiction and truth at once. Absolutely no writing is real, but the end effect of Fauchereau's work shows instead the idealism behind "complete fiction," as ideal as a "complete truth." The effort to attain a fiction independent of the imitated yields an impressive result: a beautiful book made of two diverse, lively interpretations.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003