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Two visits to Paris.

YVES BONNEFOY REMEMBERED

By ANTHONY RUDOLF.

May 22, 2016.

1.

I ARRANGED ONE of my regular trips to Paris some time before anyone — including Yves himself — knew how ill he was. But things moved fast. A few days before I left London, Yves had been admitted to hospital. It was agreed with his daughter Mathilde that I would meet him at the hospital at five o’clock on May 22.

YVES BONNEFOY:
A Memorial Tribute.

ESSAYS & TRANSLATIONS By Hoyt Rogers: Introductory Note | Sonnets of Music and Memory | Paths to Speech | Three Poems from Together Still.
By Anthony Rudolf:
Devotions | Two Visits to Paris.

That morning I left my regular hotel near Place de la République and went to the Musée d’Art moderne de la ville de Paris to see the first major show of Paula Modersohn-Becker, an artist who fascinates me. After a couple of hours, I went into the other big show in the museum, the fauviste Albert Marquet. My mobile phone rang. It was Yves: “Come now, later I’ll be too tired”. Immediately I took the metro to Port Royal – the nearest one to Cochin Hospital – across the river. Mathilde greeted me on arrival and left me with her father for, she said, about two hours.

2.

THIS WAS OUR final meeting, fifty-two years after my first visit to 63 rue Lepic (across the road from their apartment at 72), about which I have written elsewhere. Nothing and everything needed to be said. We jumped from topic to topic, both conscious of his destiny.

First, he wanted to be brought up to date about progress on the two anthologies of his work which John Naughton, Stephen Romer and I have been editing for Carcanet: poetry and poetic prose, and critical essays. I mentioned rival versions of some of the poems and who is translating which essay for the second book.

Then we discussed scornfully and in full agreement political issues such as the forthcoming referendum on Brexit, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. Reassure me, I said, that she cannot win the next election. “She will lose on the second ballot”.

3.

ITALY FOR PAINTING and England for literature, I said, referring to two of Yves’s greatest passions. Bringing the two countries together, he said “Oxford Uccello” and recalled our conversation in front of ‘The Hunt in the Forest’ at the Ashmolean almost thirty years ago when I spoke in Balzacian code (referring to the character in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, ‘la belle noiseuse’) about my personal life at that time, and he picked up on my reticence (what the French in these circumstances call ‘pudeur’), replying with appropriate indirection.

We talked about his two final books, Ensemble encore and L’Echarpe rouge, which had just come out, thanks to his extraordinary effort (even by his standards) in completing them, as well as devotion on the part of his main publisher, Mercure de France. My copies had not arrived before I left London; he told me to go to Mercure’s office at 26 rue de Condé, and collect them, which I did in a sort of daze after leaving the hospital.

I reminded him that a few weeks earlier I had told him about Jean Daive’s remarkable second book on Paul Celan and that he intended to buy it. “Overtaken by events”, he replied. We talked, not for the first time, about his friendship with Paul Celan and the complex issue of Celan’s relationship with Yvan and Claire Goll, as discussed by Daive, and then moved on to the magazine Bonnefoy co-founded, L’Ephémère, and how the group of friends who edited it from 1967 till 1972 (Bonnefoy, du Bouchet, des Forêts, Picon, Dupin, Leiris, Celan) — with their collective energy and genius (my phrase not Yves’s) — brought to mind the poets of the Romantic circle in England.

Wordsworth and the others: we both knew that it was too late for our pilgrimage to the Lake District, long wished for, which would have been Yves’s first visit. We talked about our companions, Lucille Vines and Paula Rego, painters both. Then about my good friends — dating back to London in the late nineteen-sixties — Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie Albiach and Michel Couturier, another group of French poets strongly associated with the English language. I had introduced them to him and he, typically, supported the work of these younger and brilliant figures, notwithstanding their poetics, radically different from his. I mentioned Jean Starobinski, so that Yves would recall his visit with Staro to see Borges, terminally ill in hospital in Geneva: “N’oubliez pas Verlaine”, insisted the old poet as they left.

I recalled to Yves one of the high memories of my life: at his ninetieth birthday gathering in the Maison de l’Amérique-Latine on Boulevard Saint-Germain (scene too of Mathilde’s wedding), while we were talking in the garden slightly apart from the other guests, he gestured towards them and quoted the conclusion of one of Yeats’ greatest poems (which can be found in Yves’s volume of Yeats translations): “And say my glory was I had such friends”. He smiled at this recollection. Friendship was one of his great gifts. Teaching was another. And both involved learning, even from his juniors, especially from his juniors. That he was my teacher has always been self-evident but, for example, he regularly asked whom he should read in English. The first recommendation I made was back in the sixties when I said he must pay attention to Geoffrey Hill, which he did, Geoffrey who died one day before him. Later, I insisted he read a French classic he had missed, accidentally or on purpose: La Vie de Henry Brulard, my favourite book by Stendhal, a foundational text of modern autobiography.

I asked him about unfinished work. He said he had hoped to complete a final essay for a big book on Poussin but he didn’t have the strength. However, he was content: “mon oeuvre est bouclée”, my work is done. And what work! He told me again about his inclusion in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. This, for those who do not know France, is the ultimate consecration, especially for a living writer. Concurrently, volumes of correspondence, including letters to his translators into thirty languages, are being prepared. There are not only the letters in that distinctive and authoritative handwriting, what about the enormous number of emails, including the very first email he ever sent (with advance notice on the phone) and which did not arrive because he forgot the dot between his two names?: “It’s the editors’ problem, not mine”, and he laughed.

4.

HE WAS BEGINNING to tire. I looked at my watch. I had been there for an hour and a half. I took his hand. I told him he had been my inspiration ever since I wrote to him from Cambridge in 1964. I told him I loved him; he looked at me firmly and affectionately, thanked me for my work on his behalf and told me he loved me. It was time to go.

As I left the room, intending to wait outside until Mathilde returned, he raised one hand in farewell, and then the other, presumably to emphasise the gesture of farewell, but to me it felt like a benediction, for raising both hands is what the Cohens do in the synagogue on certain festivals when they fulfil almost their only ritual obligation as hereditary priests following the destruction of the second Temple in 70 AD and thus the end of many priestly rituals: blessing the congregation.

It was an extraordinary privilege to participate in the final scene of the fifth or should that be seventh act of a great writer and close friend, whose dying was a lesson in life to someone twenty years his junior.

Outside the door, I realised that Yves was treating his last days (as he thought, but in fact his last weeks) as something natural for a man of his age in full possession of his faculties. He was contemplating the end without fear, with curiosity. It was an extraordinary privilege to participate in the final scene of the fifth or should that be seventh act of a great writer and close friend, whose dying was a lesson in life to someone twenty years his junior. One of his favourite passages from what was perhaps his favourite Shakespeare play The Winter’s Tale comes to mind, a prose passage which contains the epigraph to his book Pierre écrite: “Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn”.

I waited, sad but strangely calm, taking my cue from him; I was ready to stand guard in the corridor for half an hour until the return of Mathilde, whom I had known since she was a baby, and who has grown into a magnificent person: among other things, she is a profoundly serious film editor and director, winning an Oscar with her husband Dirk Wilutsky and Laura Poitras for Citizenfour. In fact, she returned within a moment or two. Full of emotion, we embraced and I left.

5.

THE NEXT DAY, on the train going back to London, I started reading L’Echarpe rouge, one of the two books I had collected from his publisher’s office. This is one of his great prose works, a profound exploration of the father who died when Yves was thirteen, the father whose very silence and melancholy and alienation created, by reaction, the world of language which the boy and man would explore for the rest of his long life.

Yves left the hospital for a hospice. He fought on, if that is the right metaphor, for another five weeks. A group of friends received email bulletins and messages from Mathilde, sometimes dictated by Yves, sometimes containing her own thoughts, radiantly intelligent, totally objective, intimate and deeply personal reports from the front line. As the end approached, there were farewell messages signalling reconciliation with his imminent death.

Ferociously curious as always, he had asked the consultant what would happen to him, and the consultant told him he would fall into a deep sleep and then into a coma. I could not help thinking of his lines in one of the books I have translated, Hier régnant désert: “For you, it is enough / to take a long time dying as in sleep”.

Back in London, when I finished reading L’Echarpe rouge (now being translated by Stephen Romer) and his final book of poems, Ensemble encore (ditto by Hoyt Rogers), I wrote Yves an email which I know Mathilde read out to him and which included the following words: “I think of Homer’s gates of horn and ivory, and how we spend our lives negotiating the two opposing worlds of dream, and how the greatest poets, Yeats and Leopardi and Keats and Seferis [all translated by Yves] and Bonnefoy, clarify (both complicating and simplifying) this negotiation for their faithful readers”.

July 11, 2016.

1.

THE PRIVATE FUNERAL was at Père Lachaise on July 11. Intentionally, I arrived very early, but I had a bad fall as I entered the cemetery, which somehow felt significant but curtailed my planned visit to the graves of Balzac, Proust, Chopin and others. The invited guests gathered outside the chapel, close to the one where the funeral of Edmond Jabès took place in 1991, at which Yves had been present, and where I met Celan’s widow Gisèle for the last time, as well as other friends.

I embraced Yves’s wife Lucy for a long time; I gave her a message of love and condolence from Paula, as well as – painter to painter — the injunction to work, Lucie being a visual artist of distinction whose work Paula honours. I spoke to several friends and acquaintances from Yves’s concentrically overlapping circles of painters, poets, scholars, editors, translators, musicians, art historians, film makers and so on.

Inside the chapel, we heard recordings of Yves reading a poem and music. No speeches, no homages. I sat next to an old friend, the poet Michel Deguy, himself no youngster, but then, I have belatedly understood, the same goes for me.

2.

THAT EVENING, I had dinner with another old friend, the painter Dominique Gutherz, at Le Luxembourg, the restaurant where our and Yves’s friend Raymond Mason often used to dine, close by his apartment on rue Monsieur-le-Prince. I asked a waiter if we could sit at the table of Monsieur Mason, a request which in the past had always been answered with “mais bien sûr”. This time, however, there was silence and incomprehension. I was being sentimental. Too many years had passed.

Notwithstanding, we went to the table and toasted the great English sculptor, and shared anecdotes about this colourful figure, one of them mildly shocking. It was a way of escaping from the deep image of Yves for a few moments, Yves whose presence as man and artist had marked both of us for decades and will continue to do so.

The conversation returned to Yves. I told Dominique about the meeting in the hospital seven weeks earlier: a dialogue but also a younger person seeking wisdom, perhaps the “mournful melodies” sought by Yeats in another great poem, ‘Lapis Lazuli’ (not translated by Bonnefoy). I then reminded Dominique of the occasion at the Gulbenkian Centre in Paris when the two of us interviewed each other about models in painting: Dominique the painter of a model, I the model of a painter. Yves was sitting in the front row making notes, and intervened with a well-timed serious question in order to rescue us from an unhelpful self-regarding bore in the audience. Silent at last, in no hurry to return to our hotels, we sat at Raymond’s table for a long time, drinking red wine, probably Côte du Rhône.

3.

ON OUR WAY to the metro we walked past the small hotel in rue Monsieur-le-Prince where, it is believed, Rimbaud stayed. We saluted the poet, one of a select group Yves Bonnefoy returned to as reader and writer throughout his life. Baudelaire, Nerval, Mallarmé, Rimbaud: those are the poets you must read, he told me on my first visit back in 1964. Not Verlaine, pace Borges.

Yves Bonnefoy is of their company. And like them, he will always be read. Rimbaud wrote “L’amour est à réinventer”. During these final weeks, Yves Bonnefoy reinvented death.

4.

EVERYTHING IN HIS life became him like the leaving of it.

—July 29/30, 2016 (revised several times, finally June 12, 2017)


Anthony Rudolf, whose European Hours: Collected Poems was recently published by Carcanet, was associated with Bonnefoy for more than fifty years (see “Dialogical: 50 Years” in  The Fortnightly Review).

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