Comparisons of writers call attention to common aspects of their work and in this sense Pascal Quignard and Roberto Calasso are both powerfully expressive writers that gather together tangles of old tales and myths. But the comparison quickly becomes facile. There are polar differences between the two writers despite both being intensely conscious, even philosophical.
I’ve just finished Quignard’s The Silent Crossing, another from Seagull Books, translated by Chris Turner. In French the book was titled La Barque silencieuse signifying the bark or boat in which Charon ferries damned souls across the Styx. This book is volume six in the Dernier royaume or Lost Kingdom series, which Quignard envisages as a set of reflections that will end only with his death. It is mildly irritating that these works are appearing in English translation out of order, having read The Roving Shadows and Abysses, which are volumes one and three of the series. Although each work appears to stand alone, by skipping ahead to the sixth, you get a sense of an essential core, which is perhaps no more than an immersion into the extraordinary mind of Quignard.
Common across all three books that I’ve read in this series is a preoccupation with our first life, the one we forget on the instant of birth, the life that precedes language, precedes our being named, when we live immersed in water, darkness and isolation. Quignard also reflects on the negative aspects of society and the social, arguing Freud’s case that “the opposite of society is maturity.” Common also to all Quignard’s books is his paean to the ecstasy of reading, quoting in The Silent Crossing the sentence I have framed in my library from Kafka’s letter to a friend, “We need books that affect us like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves.”
I’ll be reading and rereading Quignard’s work for years to come. Somewhere in the collaboration that takes place between reader and writer—perhaps I’d even call it a dialogic struggle in Quignard’s case as there is always the sense that if I read more attentively I might miss less of the assertive power of his work—I’ve fallen in love with the work of Pascal Quignard. It is work that deserves the sort of scrupulous reading I enjoy most.
What most gives us the sense of liberty? Forgetting that you are being watched.
No longer being either a child or an old person, neither a woman nor a man, neither a father nor a mother, neither a son nor a daughter.
Pascal Quignard, The Silent Crossing
Pindar wrote in his second Pythian ode: Genoi autos essi mathon. Become what you are. No, do not become what you are. What individualises is the proper name or, in other words, the language in which it has its place – that is to say, social control through the internalised voice or, in other word, endless servitude. Do not become the slave of your people in the patronym they gave you within the collective language they taught you. Otherwise, the name they gave you will take the place of your flesh.
Pascal Quignard, The Silent Crossing
In the morning of August 6th 1945 the American B-29 aeroplane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Reports always speak of the blinding light and fireball that formed with a surface temperature hotter than the sun. Estimates suggest that the Little Boy atomic bomb killed 80,000 people in a single day and another 140,000 of radiation poisoning and burns by the end of the year.
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows was published in 1933, an essay length reflection on a Japanese architecture and sensibility destroyed by modern (Western) illumination. Though published 12 years before the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tanizaki’s polemic is haunted with a prefiguring of the mass destruction that was to come.
As in most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head. ‘Hot’ is no word for the effect, and the closer to the ceiling the worse it is – your head and neck and spine feel as if they were being roasted.
No clairvoyance was involved in Tanizaki’s elegy. It is a privileged viewpoint. His essay is more ironic in tone, a baggy, rambling piece of writing that ranges from architecture to hygiene to jade to women to heating levels. And I use those terms as a reader that loves to read discursive, seemingly unstructured essays.
Tanizaki writes, ‘Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty’. To read his essay is to recall a lost world, liminal spaces no longer permitted in a time of of what Pascal Quignard refers to as ‘dazzling, puritanical, imperialist, American neon light.”
Quignard draws a central part of The Roving Shadows from Tanizaki’s essay, about which he writes: ‘I think these pages are among the finest ever written in any of the various societies that have arisen over time …’
Pascal Quignard’s work belongs in a no-mans-land between what is long since past and what is still to come, reeling on the edges between literature, antiquarianism and philosophy. Texts like The Roving Shadows and Abysses seem so fresh yet also inevitable in terrain carved by writers like Calasso, Sebald, John Berger and Cixous. To find Quignard’s precursors you could go further back to Montaigne, Bacon, even Erasmus.
I have such hunger for these works that find new ways of questioning and expressing knowledge. Quignard’s work demands and refuses easy interpretation in the way that older essayists used the form to test ideas, where cognition proceeds through flashes and rereading (I read The Roving Shadows once before). Structured as a mixture of fragments and lengthier, more structured essays Quignard reflects on the philosophers of Greece and Rome (mostly but not exclusively) interwoven with touches of autobiography and outrage.
I also read Sex and Terror which uses visual arts to explore the edges where Greek civilisation and Roman civilisation overlapped with seismic reverberations that are still being felt in the present day. It is less demanding than the other two, but equally enlightening.
Chris Turner’s translation of all three books (once again from the wonderful Seagull Books) is so beautiful that I intend to collect a couple in the original French to see what I am missing. Quignard’s work is important, moving and powerful in equal measure and deserves to leave a significant trace. He is one of those writers who will divide my life (not just reading) into a before discovery and after.