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Literary Pilgrimage: Maurice Pons
A guest post by writer and translator Edward Gauvin.
Since 1958, Maurice Pons has lived in Normandy’s Eure department at the Moulin d’Andé, an artist’s colony founded and run by the indefatigable Suzanne Lipinska, and soon to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. The property, which spreads its 15 hectares over an apron of land beside the river and the hill behind, is dotted with glassed-in gazebos that offer at once diligent sequestration and scenic distraction. Here a deserted desk beckons a writer; there a solitary chair tempts a cellist. Over the decades, the complex has grown to include a wi-fi café, meeting rooms, and in a neoclassical building atop the hill, a theatre with a video projector, the better to host seminars and colloquia throughout the year. But the heart of the place remains the 12th century watermill for which it is named. When renovations began in the ‘60s, the Moulin was largely untouched, settling into the bowed stonework and wayward half-timbering of picturesque dilapidation that is still the source of its charm. The cowshed, stables, and other outbuildings were converted into rooms for work and sleep (with modern plumbing, of course).
The mill itself straddles a brief bow in the river, one foundation on the shore and the other on an island of poplars and two dwarf goats. Joan of Arc is said to have slept here. For four years, Georges Perec lived in a room named after her. Now there is a room named for him too. To this day, Perec’s handwritten manuscript for La Disparition, his famous “e”-less lipogram (translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void), resides at the Moulin d’Andé. It was at the Moulin that François Truffaut shot part of The 400 Blows and the end of Jules and Jim.
“It started out very informally,” Suzanne Lipinska explains. “Maurice was having his friends over all the time.”
When Pons’ fiction first began to appear, the conservative Catholic Nobel Prize winner François Mauriac objected to sharing space with him in the pages of a literary journal: “It’s bad enough his characters play doctor; do we need a urine sample?” These early works, ingenuous explorations of pre-adolescent sexuality, were championed by Mauriac’s son Claude, collected in 1955 as Virginales, and accorded the Grand Prix de la Nouvelle. (Truffaut made one of his first movies, “Les Mistons,” from a story in that collection.) Pons, like Perec—the two were fast friends from their first meeting—soon came to shun the Parisian literary milieu, with its backbiting and gossip, in favor of a retiring country life.
“Did you ever see François Mauriac again, after that?”
“No,” said Pons. Then after a while, “Yes. I was invited to a gala dinner in Paris. He and Paul Claudel were there.
“You have to understand—I was a young writer then, and very intimidated. I don’t think I spoke a word all night. I remember something Paul Claudel said, which struck me at the time. The elder statesmen were talking about the houses they’d bought with the money they now had. Claudel turned to Mauriac and said he had a house with a hundred rooms—unmanageable, really.
“‘A hundred rooms. Can you imagine? Poor Madame Claudel!’” Even now, Paul Claudel’s words make Pons chuckle.
The millhouse, with its suspended wheel, anchors one end of an L enclosing a broad courtyard; at the other end are Maurice Pons’ apartments. His single room beside the TV lounge and library gives onto a patio where a small palisade affords him some privacy when, in the evenings, he feeds a few stray cats—like him, longtime residents. Tables are scattered under trees in the courtyard. Colored bulbs hang low in the boughs like festive fruit, seeming as daylight dwindles to ripen with brightness.
According to Pons, I am the first of his English translators (which include the illustrious Richard Howard) to look him up.
“I never met most of the authors I translated either,” Pons admits. “Though I did have a protracted exchange with Jerzy Kosinski. I wanted to translate The Painted Bird as L’oiseau bariolé [The Motley Bird]. He insisted on the literal ‘L’oiseau peint.’
“Ce n’est pas beau.” Pons shook his head. “It doesn’t sound nice.”
In the end, Pons won out, and Flammarion published the book in 1965. He went on to translate works by Arthur Miller (A Memory of Two Mondays), Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, with Andrée and Sophie Mayoux), Norman Mailer (Why Are We in Vietnam? with Anne-Marie Le Gall), and Tennessee Williams (the play Sweet Bird of Youth; his story collection One-Arm, retitled The One-Armed Boxer; and his Memoirs, retitled Memoirs of an Old Crocodile in French).
Spry of mind and spirit, Pons wears his eighty-four years remarkably well. Hearing loss seems to have only lent him an excuse to inhabit his native reticence more fully. At one point during dinner, he turns to me with a mischievous grin.
“I learned something while reading your translation,” he confides. “I learned that the word for pain au chocolat in English is pain au chocolat.”
I tell him a story I once heard from Lawrence Venuti, about Italo Calvino’s “The Distance of the Moon.” In the 1968 English publication, William Weaver rendered it “ricotta” (from which Calvino claimed the moon was made) as cream cheese. Hard as it is for our foodie minds to imagine, “ricotta” was not then a word widely known to supermarket shoppers, and Weaver thought best to replace it with something American readers might be able to picture (the actual Italian for cream cheese is “Philadelphia”). When, in 6th grade, my French class celebrated the end of the year by bringing in baked goods, pain au chocolat were called chocolate croissants. But that was the ‘80s, and “The Baker’s Son” takes place in provincial France, where no one would dream of calling a pastry so obviously not crescent-shaped a croissant. Which leads us back to Venuti’s theories on the translator’s often political and aesthetic reasons for “foreignizing” a text.
After dinner, Pons volunteers to show me his favorite spot on the grounds—to which, he says, he makes a pilgrimage every evening. We descend through the woods on a path much narrower than the one earlier taken to dinner, in fact crossing over it at several points. Pons precedes me, humming to himself, stopping to point out the rocaille railing along the trail: cement on a metal armature, made to resemble wood with its knots and bark and grain.
“On the conservation register. Only here and at the Butte de Chaumont, but this is better.” He pats the ersatz rustic banister, then moves on.
“My girlfriend and I have different readings of ‘The Baker’s Son,’” I say. “She thinks all the father sightings are the narrator’s way of coping with his suspicion that Frédéric killed the father to marry the mother.”
“That’s very interesting!” Pons nods. “Very interesting indeed!”
“I think the narrator needed to hear the words ‘I have no son!’ from the homeless man. This rejection releases him from need, and gives him the peace to move on with his life.”
Pons is quiet. For a long while, he walks with his head down, hands folded behind his back.
“I don’t know,” he says at last, still studying the ground. “I just like to… fashion things.”
He makes a movement with his hands, as though handling a music box.
“You’re a very patient storyteller.”
“I keep working at it till it’s just right.”
We reach the river just as a barge is passing. The broad, smooth billows of wake take a moment to reach us. On the far shore, what seems a small monastery with a turret and walls is actually Port Joie, a town of sixty. The mayor’s office is open, I am told, from 4:15 to 4:45 on Tuesday afternoons.
“Do you know why it’s called Port Joie?” Pons asks.
The answer seems obvious to me from its beauty in the sunset. “Because it’s a joyous place?”
“It used to be a stop for bargemen on their way to Paris. They would take their leisure there with filles de joie,” Pons replies. He lets out a cackle. Daughters of joy, or ladies of the evening.
At that moment, I am reminded of a scene from dinner: a private moment, accidentally glimpsed. There is Pons, unmindful of the conversation and intent over his spaghetti. A wasp lands on his plate. I am taken aback when that wisp of an old man, twinkling and benevolent, sets vengefully about the insect, sluggish in the sauce, with fork and knife. He misses a few times, the blade striking the plate. Finally he manages to trap the wasp and drag it, trapped under tines, onto the table, where he vanishes it with his napkin. Someone has just set down a fresh carafe of rosé, and it gleams in the twilight. The laughter, the chatter, the clink of glasses, seem at once near and far away. I think of Pons’ tales then, with their quietly beguiling beginnings and cruel, inscrutable twists. No beauty without mystery, no bliss without mischief.