Le Clézio, J.M.G. Entries

Ourania, or, on reading in French


J.M.G. Le Clézio's Ourania is the first full-length novel I've ever read in the original French. I'm proud of the accomplishment, since I started taking French during college in order to read Proust in the original; it feels great to be progressing toward that goal. Yay! I liked Le Clézio's writing style, and had mixed feelings about his plot: a French geologist, who as a child distracted himself from the Nazi invasion by imagining a Utopian land, travels as an adult to Mexico, where he encounters two more attempts at Utopias: an egalitarian academic Institute, and a sort of hippie commune for society's outsiders; both are doomed to failure. But more than that, it was enormously enriching (and frustrating, and empowering!) to start making this language my own on a footing of sophisticated, adult literature. Huge thanks to my friend Marie Christine for bringing me Ourania all the way from Toulouse!

The act of reading in a second language vastly colored my perception of this novel; much of my experience of it was the experience of reading French, rather than the experience of reading Ourania specifically. Reading in translation had its triumphs and frustrations for me; there were only a few passages, for example, in which I could absorb the rhythm and flow of the language, the atmosphere of the scene, in the same way I do effortlessly when reading English prose. (When I did succeed at this, I typically made the kid-learning-to-ride-a-bike mistake of realizing I was doing it, thinking to myself "Look! I'm doing it!" and then promptly losing the ability because I was distracted.) I'm not conscious of skipping over words when I read in English; in fact, I usually pride myself on being a pretty careful reader. But dealing with non-English prose really made me realize how much I take for granted when reading natively: a large vocabulary, colloquial turns of phrase, the small details of tone and cadence that create particular moods or signal different authorial styles. In French I was forced to slow WAY down, increase my levels of patience with making slow progress, and learn when to look words up and when to read for rhythm and general meaning.

Interestingly, I also found that reading in French made me hyper-sensitive to individual words - sort of like an enforced close-reading exercise. Whereas in English I am often conscious of the richness of prose overall, my reading in French currently involves more acquisition and appreciation of individual words. (I think my favorite of the words I picked up from Ourania is recroquevillé(e) - curled or shriveled up. It rolls off the tongue so nicely!) Early in the novel, I noticed the narrator's use of the adjective "vide" - empty or void, which can also be a noun and has a verb form vider - to describe a look in his grandfather's eyes. Shortly thereafter I started noticing the word cropping up all over the novel - a total of twenty-three instances, at least that I noticed.

  • "Il y avait des corbeaux dans les champs de pommes de terre, ils tenaient des sortes de réunions, leurs glapissements emplissaient le ciel vide." (15) /
    "There were ravens in the potato fields; they had kind of gatherings there, their barking filling the empty sky."
  • "Le rez-de-chaussée était composé d'une grande pièce vide qui avait servi autrefois de dépôt..." (15) /
    The ground floor consisted of a large, empty room that had at one time served as a warehouse...
  • "À part le bruit des moteurs, tout était vide. Aucun voix." (21) /
    Aside from the noise of the motors, everything was silent. Not a voice.
  • "Peut-être est-ce le vide de son regard, la pâleur de son visage qui me permettent de comprendre l'importance de l'événement que nous étions en train de vivre..." (22) /
    Perhaps is was the emptiness of his look, the pallor of his face, that allowed me to understand the importance of this event we were living through...
  • "Je me suis un peu perdu dans le quartier des Parachutistes. Un dédale de rues, de maisons sommaires, de cours vides." (48) /
    I was a bit lost in the Parachutists' neighborhood. A labyrinth of streets, of sleeping houses, of empty paths.
  • "Le jardin était quasiment vide." (82) /
    The garden [of the brothel] was almost empty.
  • "Peut-être que c'est cela qui sifflait dans mes oreilles et me donnait le vertige. Ma solitude. Le sentiment du vide, du très grand vide de mon existence." (122) /
    Maybe that's what hissed in my ears and gave me vertigo. The feeling of the void, of the great emptiness of my existence.
  • "Je me souviens qu'à cet instant j'ai ressenti un vide, et mes oreilles on tinté, parce que je venais de comprendre la folie des habitants de Campos et leur Conseiller..." (149) /
    I remember that at that instant I felt a void, and my ears rang, with having just understood the naivete of the inhabitants of Campos and their Conseiller...
  • "Je ne comprenais pas, alors il a dit: "Même se tu pouvais distinguer des milliers, des millions d'étoiles avec un télescope, ce qui est le plus grand, le plus vrai dans le ciel, c'est le noir, le vide." (188) /
    I didn't understand, so he said: "Even if you could identify thousands, millions of stars with a telescope, still, the biggest, the truest thing in the sky is the blackness, the void.
  • "...les incursions, les violations, les maladies aussi, l'avortement fait à la hâte par ls vielle curandera que tu appelles ta grand-mère, la racine très amère qui a vidé ton ventre..." (209) /
    The incursions, the violations, the illnesses too, the hurried abortion performed by the old procuress you call your grandmother, the bitter root that emptied your belly...
  • "Elle a un visage triste de fille sage, une frange au ras de son regard vide." (215) /
    She had the sad face of a wise girl, a fringe lining her empty gaze.
  • "Il répète ce qu'il m'a dit à mon arrivée, ce ne sont pas les étoiles qui importent, mais la connaissance du vide." (220) /
    He repeats what he told me when I arrived: it's not the stars that matter, but getting to know the void.
  • "Rapaël a quitté son travail à la boutique de grains du marché, dès qu'il a su l'arrêté d'expulsion. Il a vidé sa chambre au-dessus du magasin..." (249) /
    Raphael quit his job at the grain market as soon as he learned of the order of expulsion. He cleaned out his room above the shop...
  • "Les bas-côtés étaient vides, les Parachutistes étaient retournés chez eux..." (250) /
    The road shoulders were empty, the Parachutists had returned to where they came from...
  • "Elle m'a regardé, j'ai lu un vide dans ses yeux jaunes." (251) /
    She looked at me; I read a void in her yellow eyes.
  • "Je suis un peu intimidé d'entrer chez Uacas. C'est pauvre, un peu vide..." (256) /
    I was a little intimidated to enter Uacas's house. It was poor, a bit empty...
  • "Avant le départ, le Conseiller a vidé tous les comptes qu'il avait overts dans les banques de la Vallée." (272) /
    Before the departure, the Conseiller closed all the accounts he had opened with banks in the Valley.
  • "Les journées étaient longues et vides." (280) /
    The days were long and empty.
  • "En même temps, il ressentait une douleur, un vide au centre du corps." (285) /
    At the same time, he relt a sadness, a void at the center of his body...
  • "Le bâtiment est vide, sauf trois grandes croix en bois peintes en noir..." (287) /
    The buildling is empty, save for three large wooden crosses painted black...
  • "La mer est vide, frisée par le vent, d'un bleu un peu gris." (296) /
    The sea is empty, ruffled by the wind, of a slightly greyish blue.
  • "Un rêve tellement effrayant que le vieil homme était apparu tout nu sur le seuil de sa maison, le corps en sueur, les yeux grands ouverts et vides, comme s'il était devenu fou." (323) /
    A dream so terrifying that the old man had appeared completley nude on the threshold of his home, his body covered in sweat, his eyes large and empty, as if he had gone mad.
  • "[Mon père] ne me causait aucun problème, juste une légere amertume quand je pensais au vide qu'il avait laissé dans le coeur de ma mère." (324) /
    [My absent father] didn't cause me any issues, only a slight bitterness when I thought of the void he left in my mother's heart.

I don't know whether I would have noticed the predominance of an equivalent word if I had been reading a novel in English; I might have read right over it, or it might have blended in with the other words or been eclipsed by other aspects of the prose. I definitely wouldn't have had access to the repetition if I had read this novel in English, since, as you can see from my lame attempts at translation, the different senses of vide(r) become at least four English terms: empty, void, silent, cleaned out. I'm not even sure if I want to claim significance here: is it remarkable to repeat "empty" twenty-three times in a 335-page novel? I'm not sure, but I do think it's interesting that the repetitions of the word tend to cluster around passages of great emotional import: the protagonist's childhood memories of World War II, the hope (of the commune Campos) and poverty (of the Red Light slums) he encounters in Mexico, his meetings with the prostitute he falls in love with (this was my least favorite aspect of the story), and the grief he feels upon learning that Campos is being disbanded. And at least two of the above quotes are definitely a key idea in the philosophy of the novel: the Conseiller's claim that it's not the stars that matter, but the void between them. And overall, thinking back on the novel's obsession with imagining Utopian alternatives in which to live, I believe this return of the void is important: it's the thing these characters are trying to either fill or understand, the troubling, vertiginous reality of human life with which they're trying to come to terms.

I have to rant a bit about what annoyed me in the novel: namely, the admittedly realistic 1970s mentality of the characters. The social sciences department where the protagonist Daniel goes to work is full of extremely obnoxious anthropologists - characters intended by Le Clézio to be obnoxious - who form a clique that dominates department events, cracking crude jokes about the Red Light area and how they want to "conduct anthropological studies" there, if you get my drift. Daniel, understandably, gets totally fed up with them, but then he goes off the deep end in the other direction and starts idealizing a young prostitute named Lili, imagining himself in love with her and wanting her to personify the buoyancy of the human spirit to triumph against great cruelty and abuse. There are passages where he remarks on how "childlike" she still is, despite a litany of abuses, all imagined in detail by Daniel, and also ones in which he calls her "immortal." Dude, I am SO TIRED of this sensitive-bourgeois-man-fancies-himself-in-love-with-young-prostitute-and-wants-her-to-alleviate-his-cultural-guilt storyline! The man in question always thinks he's such an open-minded hero for "seeing past" her corrupted façade to the wellspring of purity beneath, but he never actually, I don't know, gets to know her at all; he just lets her function as yet another void onto which he can project his own dreams and desires. I kept wondering whether Daniel's egotistic tendency to essentialize Lili would be addressed critically at all, and honestly I could have missed some subtleties of the French prose, but as far as I could tell, the author is sympathetic to his protagonist's angsty "love" for a woman he doesn't even know, which irked me. (There is also an essentialized portrayal of the "childlike wisdom" of a Central American Indian character, although that was somewhat balanced by other, more complex Native characters such as the French-Chocktaw war veteran Conseiller of Campos.) Nevertheless, I have to admit that I found this essentializing, romaticizing tendency to be an accurate addition to Daniel's character, given his background, era, and political leanings, even if it did make him less sympathetic to me personally. So this is not exactly a complaint about Le Clézio's characterization; more a rant about supposedly liberated people who react to bigotry with "positive," romanticized stereotyping. That said, Daniel's so-called relationship with Lili is really just a detail, and overall I found a lot to love in this novel and its meditations on the flawed, transitory nature of Utopian dreams.

As an amusing little side-note, now that we're coming up on the fourth installment of the 2666 readalong: I originally started Ourania right before diving into Part I of Bolaño's novel, but I had to postpone it because there were so many eerie similarities in the subject matter that I was having a hard time keeping them straight. I had never before read a novel about self-absorbed professors visiting Mexico and getting romantically involved with poverty-stricken women there, so it was bizarre to coincidentally end up reading two of them at once!

(Ourania was my seventh book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing France.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography