After reading (and rereading) a number of longish, dense works recently, I felt the need for something a little lighter, and when it comes to short, entertaining works (often in translation), you can’t go wrong with The Cahiers Series. These small, pamphlet-type books, a co-production between Sylph Editions and the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris, are superb works of art, with short texts by leading authors arranged around a collection of sketches, paintings or photographs designed to complement the prose. I’ve already enjoyed efforts by Javier Marías, László Krasznahorkai and Gao Xinjiang, and today’s choice sees another interesting author providing his own view on the world – and a rather fascinating one it is, too 🙂
In QWERTY Invectives (translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty, review copy courtesy of the publisher), Éric Chevillard, the author of Prehistoric Times and The Author and Me, uses the start of the top row of his keyboard as inspiration for a series of short texts. These six vignettes each begin with a word or phrase acting as a springboard from which the writer launches himself, not always knowing where his leap will take him. The tone is very much that of a grumpy old man, and part of the pleasure of reading his rants comes from the steady build-up of (tongue-in-cheek) bile pouring onto the page.
From his starting point, a refusal to believe that he truly is a ‘Quinquagenarian‘ (despite his age qualifying him for the role), he moves on to discuss the oddities of toilets, or ‘Water Closets‘, lamenting this rather sordid side of human existence:
According to a recent study conducted by fearless statisticians who live only for their work, France produces 8,400 metric tonnes of excrement per day. The France of Voltaire, of Pasteur, of Général de Gaulle, the France of Mont-Saint-Michel and Notre-Dame, eldest daughter of the church, the nation of the Rights of Man, the France of my youth, is, therefore, not a land in which everything ends in grandeur.
p.10 (Sylph Editions, 2018)
Surely, our erudite writer suggests, we should have evolved beyond such a primitive system of waste disposal by now, claiming all the while that nothing like this ever happens in his house.
As you can see, you take Chevillard seriously here at your peril, and QWERTY Invectives is very much an exercise in short, spiky, humorous responses to the writer’s chosen words. One of my favourites was his obsession with his ‘Enemy‘, a section which quickly develops into a series of pithy one-liners:
I am so accustomed to the ruses and cowardice of my enemy that he catches me off guard by attacking me from the front, with his bare hands, at the appointed hour in the agreed-upon place. (p.14)
Of course, as the writer eventually admits, just as the Enemy is his nemesis, it’s only fair that Chevillard himself is the bane of this other man’s existence, annoying him in a very similar manner.
Most of the sections are fairly short, but the longest, ‘Return Home?‘, is perhaps the most interesting. Many of you may be aware of the French phenomenon of the rentrée, and here the writer muses on the peculiarity of the whole country collectively shaking the sand from its shoes and preparing to return to work and school. However, this is merely the lead-in to his true subject, the rentrée littéraire, and Chevillard gently mocks the idea of the nation’s authors diligently submitting their work each year in time for the big day:
Writers these days form an orderly queue. Can you imagine Verlaine and his fellow poètes maudits, French literature’s every illustrious figure, punctually delivering their manuscripts to their publishers in April or May, so as to be eligible for this glorious September tournament?
Come to think of it, why not? Writers have ever been a craven lot. (p.21)
It’s an interesting concept, throwing up images of writers clocking in at their publishing house, time cards at the ready.
The final sections return to the writer’s obsession with himself, or at least how he appears. In ‘Technician of the Darkroom‘, Chevillard discusses the power of photographers, with their uncanny ability to produce an image which in no way corresponds with how the writer sees himself. Yet ‘You, Eyes!‘ then sees the writer taking a closer look at the constituent parts of his body and not liking what he sees. The conclusion he comes to is that, taken in isolation, human body parts are strange, pitiful objects, unable to bear scrutiny when separated from the rest of our anatomy – with one, surprising, exception…
There’s nothing world-shattering or deeply profound in QWERTY Invectives, but I enjoyed the book immensely, and I’m sure I’ll be flicking through it a few more times yet. As always, the cahier text is accompanied by a series of images, this time the bizarre efforts of French artist Philippe Favier. I’m not convinced that they enhance the writing as much as is the case in some of the other cahiers, but they do help to make an eye-catching product.
Before I wrap this up, though, there’s one more aspect of the text to mention concerning what, for French speakers, will have been the elephant in the room. In his brief preface (written for this English version), Chevillard enthuses about the power of translation and the intriguing consequences for texts of a change of language:
Who would have thought that a well-worn French sentence could be a Chinese girl or a Croatian athlete. Watch now as it conquers unknown territories; it never ventures into them without benefitting from fortuitous encounters with fresh realities that are foreign to its motives and conscious ends, realities that it’s obliged to confront when leaving its native land. Look at this syntax it has suddenly adopted! Who would have known it could be so versatile! (p.4)
The reason for this bout of reflection on the subject of translation is that, of course, the French don’t actually use a QWERTY keyboard. The mere idea of bringing Chevillard’s work into English necessitates a change from AZERTY to QWERTY, meaning the difficulties of the text begin with the very title. Honestly, who’d be a translator? 😉