The Thief of Talant
by Pierre Reverdy
translated by Ian Seed.
PIERRE REVERDY NEVER wanted to write a novel;1 he didn’t even want to write prose poems. He was persuaded to both of these by Max Jacob, the poet who guided his entry into the Bohemian society of the Butte de Montmartre. There, eventually, Reverdy’s urge to the kind of totalising and ecstatic dislocation possible only to the short poem, still nascent, clashed with Jacob’s distinctly prosaic vision, his rather mechanical surrealism, and his pride of intellectual property, his fear of being plagiarised. But Jacob was a senior figure, and a persuasive one, and Reverdy seems to have acceded to these prompts, discovering in the process that poetry was what he really wanted to write.
And indeed Reverdy did not write a novel. He wrote 150 pages of what he was in the process of establishing as his way of writing poetry, greatly attenuated. Under the heading of poetry Le Voleur de Talan is preceded only by 27 unpublished poems2 and the remarkable Quelques Poèmes of 1916, “Quelques” amounting to seven. This must be one of the most rousing débuts of early twentieth-century French poetry. The “roman” is also preceded by his first book, Poèmes en Prose (1915), several prose pieces identified as “contes” (tales)3 and La Lucarne Ovale (The oval dormer window) (1916), a book of poems and prose-poems which seems to weaken the distinction between the two.
The pattern, insofar as one can be identified, among all these early writings with their obvious indecision between poetry and prose, is that the various genre designations attach to writings which are not much different from each other and are all involved in the same experimentation. “Poem”, “novel” and “tale” share, to an extent, his ventures into a distinctly poetical writing marked by the total or near-total suppression of punctuation, and typographical disposition of text in different parts of the page. The textual process itself involved juxtaposition of plain-speaking phrases and details which pass beyond the experience they seem to be dealing with, figures and events which step casually from plausible to imaginary and redistribute senses of reality, dream, and invention, so that the “truth” of the experience becomes heterogeneous. The “prose poems” are generally somewhat more prosaic than the others but still participate to a greater or lesser extent in his procedures. They can be seen at a glance to be in blocks of prose with normal punctuation and they generally present clearer accounts, if semi-surrealistic, in longer periods. This must be the manner which Reverdy rejected for a “novel”, perhaps in defiance of Jacob’s expectations.
In fact the book went through several re-writings and it was only in the final draft that the leap was made from recognisable prose into a fully modernist, or rather Reverdian, poetry.
THE NOVEL’S SUBSEQUENT career was also quite strange. Published in 1918 under his own behest, as all his earliest books were, for sale at a particular Paris bookshop presumably in an unstated small quantity, it unusually failed to sell to his normal clientele, perhaps because of the subtitle. Reverdy then shelved it and neither revised it nor sought to have it published, refusing several offers, during the rest of his life. The second edition appeared posthumously in 1967. It must have been, then, a work about which he was uneasy. Indeed he referred to it as “ce livre maladroit” (this clumsy /awkward book) but spoke affectionately of it, as “perhaps the most faithful portrait of what I was at that time and it remains one of the most distinctive indications of my identity. A hidden sign, so very hidden – on the left. Look after it.”4
My guess is that the elements of rejection and failure in the reception of The Thief…, quite new to him, combined with the emotional strength with which he viewed its substance, repelled him from making any further attempt with it in public but also forbade him to change it in any way. I think this sense of an emotional document concerning a particularly heavily charged episode of his life, involving major venture and risk, is how the book should be read, and translated.
It has been said that the conventional poem centred on the narrative of the self, the univocal poem, depends on biographical information for its full effect.5 But there are certainly occasions when such information is extremely helpful with texts dubbed “modernist”. It can be the aperture through which the light of experience penetrates an otherwise closed text. I don’t think The Thief… stands in such need, but I do find that the story behind it, very well known now, and hardly concealed by Reverdy, is a good practical means of approaching the text.
THE STORY, THEN, as we get it in the book, is that Reverdy (represented shiftingly as “I”, “he”, “the poet” and “The thief of Talant”) arrives in Paris (as he did in 1910) or enters a city or a house or a room… and is involved with a senior figure called “Abel the Magus”, who represents Max Jacob, in an increasingly tense and mistrustful way, culminating in the ‘”theft” itself, which does or doesn’t actually take place. What actually did happen was that one day Reverdy, entering Jacob’s rooms, noticed an open box contain Jacob’s latest writings, and paused to look at those on top, at which the lid of the box was slammed down by Jacob on account of his neurotic fear of plagiarism.6
This act, the suddenness of it and the very bang of the lid, seems to have deeply shocked Reverdy, and it reverberates right through The Thief…, where the story is distributed and reiterated in pieces through a mass of other pieces, placed in different parts of the page like little drifting clouds. I don’t call them “fragments” because however small each is normally a complete thing in itself. Some of these read like a gloss on the story, while others extend out of it into a transformative texture which can donate a symbolic status to the effects. But still, as in any good “novel”, the story presses on in a forward movement, and all the episodes of contemplation or surrealistic theatre give way to the urgency of the narrative, which is also an urgency to understand the damaging event by repeating it in different guises. In the many hundreds of poems by Reverdy which followed these early works it is possible to sense an attempt to write the same poem over and over again, the poem which will eventually make sense of the failure of experience, and the sense of threat which seems to hang over everything from here onwards.
The uncertainty between poetry and prose in the early works makes sense when you realise that the fully poetical writing he first reached, principally in The Thief… itself, is basically in prose. That is to say that however much disjuncture there may be among the little separate pieces of language which float around the page, each piece is itself written in perfectly normal syntax, in sentences or parts thereof, in which the parts of speech maintain their proper functions. In fact any that are long enough are justified rather than lineated, in small rectangles or squares. It is mostly narrative prose, sometimes prose of statement or description. The micro-paragraphs can also be set in clear sequences, usually interrupted. Thus we can take three pages (35-37) and by quoting certain pieces and not others, and adding some punctuation for clarity, arrive at:
I am the Thief of Talant. Abel the Magus tidies the letters and papers he has just placed on the table. A man has entered from the back unseen, and the papers tremble. You could turn round abruptly and see a black bird fly away in the shape of a man with a manuscript or a book under his arm but you couldn’t catch him. In spite of his mistrust the Magus felt a great pleasure to see the Thief of Talant visit him. He who was the only one to hold the ancient secrets was afraid they would be stolen…”[etc.]
This paragraph is made up of six pieces, which is just under a third of the pieces on these pages. The pieces which are not included are by comparison diverse but not necessarily interruptive. For instance, after “And the papers tremble”: “The old beggar’s hands tremble against the sky they would like to hold up.” This is easily read as a figure of the Magus, stripped of his authority.7 Between “…visit him” and “He who was…”, in three pieces: “It was at first up there a home bright and small as a nest / Then lower down a room deep and dark as a well/ It was there / An angel came to rest every day on the window’s edge and watch.”
What Reverdy is doing is inserting on the one hand more precise and authentic terms, on the other hand wildly distant and expansive terms, for his feelings on entering Jacob’s apartment. The occurrence, replayed very many times in the course of the book, is made to seek beyond the terms of its immediate telling, but does not take the beaten path towards symbolism. If it gets there at all it does so by circuitous routes, exploiting figures which cannot necessarily be recognised as relevant, and will sometimes stop at a distant point where something important has been located such as: “Truth and madness lost their charge in us, leaving us completely responsible for our acts.” and “I need to no longer see myself and to forget, / to speak to people I don’t know / to shout without being heard…”
Here we see Reverdy forming his way of writing, and doing it at leisure by attaching elaborations and exceptions to an extended basis that he creates himself by recurrence. Probably many, if not all, of his poems could be seen to show something of this approach, as in his habit of suddenly being somewhere else in the middle of a poem but maintaining continuity by trusting a sense of echoic correspondence. Short lists which just about add up to a scene but are liable to include intrusive items (like the beggar and the angel in the passage discussed above) are also carried through his career.
Possibly these features of The Thief… make it easier to translate than a lot of modern poetry, though care is always needed when moving from French to English. The syntax is usually standard, with short and perfectly clear, even elementary, sentence structure within each small packet of language, even when the vocabulary is bizarre (“and with each step the herd flows quickly over the empty rolling stomach”). The absence of punctuation does not create ambiguity and the text is not laden with puns. The translator does not have to deal with broken syntax, coinages, concealed signification, or impossible formulations. Ian Seed does a good job, the main sign of which is that the English can be read at a good speed and without jars and halts, as I think it should be, through all the surprises of Reverdy’s imagination.8 I only complain that at times the English has a certain awkwardness to it which I don’t think the French has in any great measure—
Now the Magus happier was / elevated by the earth rising under /his feet.
Maintenant le Mage plus heureux / s’elevait parce que la terre montait /sous ses pieds
I would have tried for something more literal:
Now the happier Magus / rose up because the earth arose /under his feet
The Thief of Talant is an important and very attractive text in the history of European poetry, and it is very good to have it in a translation which does not fuss and is, importantly for this work, readable with ease.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his “Poetry Notes’ columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.
- In the original French edition, Le Voleur de Talan is tagged a “roman” (novel), though in an announcement of the edition in Reverdy’s magazine Nord-Sud it is tagged a “roman poétique”. ↩
- Collected in Main d’oevre (1949) as Calle Sèche (Dry Dock) 1913-1915. ↩
- One of these, “L’imperméable” (The rain-coat) is designated “roman” but, as Jacob protested, is too short to be anything but a short story. Later Reverdy tended to refer to all these short pieces by the non-committal term “proses”. ↩
- Text signed “P.R.” printed on the back cover of the 1967 edition. No source given. ↩
- For example, “…biographical information plays a central role in the reception of subject-centred verse, for example at readings where anecdotal introductions take up more time than the poems themselves.” Anthony Mellors, in Davis and Jenkins, editors, A History of Modernist Poetry Cambridge University Press New York 2015. The extended anecdotal introduction is certainly one of the major plagues of poetry readings in U.K. at present. ↩
- The story is given in Ian Seed’s introduction and derives from Maurice Saillet’s introduction to the 1967 French edition. Saillet got it from Reverdy in conversation. ↩
- Reverdy treats Jacob with sympathy throughout while mocking his pontifical manner of self-aggrandisement. This reaches near the end what looks like extraordinary prescience–
The next evening the Magus caught the train in the deserted station.
Far away the door of a monastery was already opening.
Jacob, who was Jewish but converted to Catholicism as a result of a vision in 1909, did not enter the monastery of St. Benoît-sur-Loire until 1936. Ironically, Reverdy converted to Catholicism and moved to a house within the domain of the monastery of Solesmes in 1926. ↩
- Seed’s biggest challenge, which I do not envy him, was the title. Le voleur de Talan translates as “The thief from Talan”, Talan being, if anything specific is meant by it, a forest near Dijon, which was not where Reverdy came from. It can be taken to signify a small provincial place as such, I suppose, but it is pronounced in French almost exactly as “talent”, same word in English. His talent as poet was of course what Jacob feared would be stolen from him to their advantage if people saw his new works. Seed has compromised with “Talant” which is a small town near Dijon, and is quite a good idea except that it leaves the question of “of” or “from” unresolved. I have no suggestions. Answers on a postcard, please, to The Fortnghtly Review. ↩