‘Shades of the Other Shore’ and ‘Ballade Nocturne’ (Review)

It’s been a while, but I’ve finally found a few hours to devote to the other two beautiful Cahiers I received from Daniel Medin at the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris.  Last time, I looked at an interesting piece from László Krasznahorkai and an alphabetical guide to the life of a translator – today’s offerings are just as interesting and varied 🙂

*****
Shades of the Other Shore, like many of the cahiers, is another mix of prose and imagery.  Writer Jeffrey Greene and artist Ralph Petty are two Americans with a new life in France, and their words and paintings provide an outsider’s view on the country.  Petty’s vivid watercolours accompany Greene’s mix of poetry and prose nicely, but (of course) I’m more focused on the literary side of the partnership…

The writing shows some interesting juxtaposition at times (e.g. Jeanne d’Arc and Steve Irwin…), but many of the pieces come back to the two constant themes of his mother, who lives with him in France, and death.  In ‘On Hoarfrost’, the writer turns cleaning his frosty windscreen into something deeper in his attempts to remove the white, equalising covering:

“My mother is already seated in the car, engine running with the defroster blowing, and as I scrape away the hoarfrost, her face and figure emerge from under the glass, looking out as if I were exhuming her from the next world into this one.”
p.8 (Sylph Editions, 2013)

‘The Silent Gardener’ treads a similar path, but in a more poetic vein:

“My mother sleeps under a fig tree
 with no leaves, only the spring sun” (p.16)

The title also seems to examine this preoccupation with ‘the other side’, although he might just be talking about France.  If I’m honest, this wasn’t really my thing, but there were some nice lines, and the pictures were very pretty 🙂

*****
The second work was one I was a little more interested in checking out as it was by a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed before, Gao Xingjian.  While all the work I’d previously read by the Nobel laureate had been prose works, the subject of this cahier is a short play, originally written in French, translated (by Claire Conceison) into English directly, but with a possible Chinese version in mind.

The play, Ballade Nocturne, is a short piece, with a focus on music, pictures and dance.  There are just four roles: a musician, two dancers and an actresss who also plays a character called ‘she’.  Anyone familiar with Gao’s prose work, especially Soul Mountain, will recognise the focus on shadowy pronouns as descriptors…

‘Elle’, the focus of the piece, is all woman:

“On dirait une femme nature,
 mais pas fatale.
 On dirait une femme perdue,
 mais sans rien de public,”
p.2 (Sylph Editions, 2010)

“One might call her a natural woman,
 but not a femme fatale.
 One might call her a lost woman,
 but not a common whore.” (p.17)

First we are introduced to her as a person, then the writer positions her as a representative of her gender in a battle of the sexes:

“Oh là là, femme contre homme,
 une dure bataille.
 Qui sera le vainqueur?
 Et qui sera conquis?” (p.4 )

“Oh la la, man versus woman
 a tough battle.
 Who will be the conqueror?
 And who will be conquered?” (p.19)

In the eternal struggle, Gao suggests that men need first to understand women to be worthy of them.

This theme of the struggle is taken up more literally as the play continues (at one point, the musician – the only male character – is trussed up and dragged off stage!).  It’s very clear that ‘she’ is protesting against a man-made world and would like to propose some alternatives:

“et s’il ya une religion en laquelle croire,
 ce sera notre propre corps.” (p.11)

“and if there is a religion worth believing in
 it will be our own bodies.” (p.29)

If women ruled the world…

There is an intense focus on what is going on around the actors, and the cahier is full of stage directions, descriptions of the background music, and the dances the two dancers are to perform.  To an uncultured novice like myself, it’s all rather arty, and Ballade Nocturne is described in the translator’s introduction as a ‘polymorphic’ work, one which can’t be pigeon-holed into ‘theatre’, ‘dance’ or ‘art’.

As always, there is an abundance of beautiful extras.  In addition to Conceison’s insightful introduction, the ‘reader’ is treated to Gao’s beautiful ink-wash illustrations, as well as the original French-language version in a pamphlet insert.  It’s a book which is a joy to read and admire – being totally honest, I’m not completely sure I’d enjoy sitting through the actual play though!

*****
The Cahiers Series produces beautiful pieces, coffee-table books for those interested in good literature and translation, and I’m very grateful to M. Medin for sending some my way.  Sadly though, with two young kids around, they’re unlikely to be sitting on my coffee table any time soon.  Perhaps some of my readers will have more luck with that idea…

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