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The Hills and the Desert.

Claude Vigée and Edmond Jabès.




WHEN I WAS young, I was involved in polemics in Stand, in PNR, in MPT, in European Judaism and elsewhere. Looking back, I feel that my polemics were underpowered and exhibitionistic. I should have stuck with what I most wanted to do: write, translate, read and edit myself into a life that would honour my principles and theories. Needy for attention (an attendant lord seeking to rise above his station), thanks to deep-seated flaws in my character, I side-tracked myself to the point of self-sabotage and did not focus enough on the essential. I find myself now aged nearly eighty with too many uncompleted projects. For example, I would like to collect my Bonnefoy translations made over nearly sixty years. I want to collect my best essays on literature, politics and religion, many of which antedate the easier access of computer archive. I want to revise the latest draft of my book about Paula Rego. I want to sort out my papers and get them out of the flat. I want to complete some new essays and stories. I want then to retire from the fray and relax — but it is not possible. I have miles to go before I sleep and cannot see a clear way forward. My recent essay in Stand  is an honest and sincere but idealised account of my life, carefully curated to create pattern and meaning where in reality there was chaos. At the time, I could cope with the chaos because life was interesting and serious, and one day — if this ever occurred to me — there would be time to make sense of it, wouldn’t there? But there isn’t.

Narratives of one’s writerly readings are complicated by separating out the components. Or you could call it simplification. Or clarification.

The following account of two major figures in my life nowhere mentions “my” third great French poet: Yves Bonnefoy. I knew him even better and longer and translated him earlier and in greater quantity than Jabès and Vigée. There is, of course, no mention of my Anglophone influences: Donald Davie, George Oppen, Laura Riding, or of non-French foreign-language writers I revere: Borges, Paz, Primo Levi, Seferis. This proves that narratives of one’s writerly readings are complicated by separating out the components. Or you could call it simplification. Or clarification. Thus: where do Michel Deguy and other poets I translated or co-translated fit into the pattern? What pattern? There is no pattern. Long ago, I got on my bicycle and rode off in all directions.


I HAD THE privilege of being the friend and translator of two great French or francophone Jewish poets, perhaps the two greatest in terms of the quality and quantity of their attention to Jewishness and Judaism. I am speaking of Edmond Jabès (1912-1991) and Claude Vigée, who died on October 2, 2020, aged nearly 100. I once ventured to mention the name of each to the other and was rewarded with what felt like a lack of interest, if not hostility. But that might be my febrile imagination and a projection of my sense that I was being bigamous: translation of poetry is an intimate activity and marital metaphors spring to mind. How could I be “faithful” to both? Jabès and Vigée never met, never corresponded, never wrote about the other. And yet the psychoanalyst Steven Jaron tells me that he met Claude Vigée at a conference on Jabès in Jerusalem and that Vigée manifested curiosity about his fellow poet. I suspect too that there was interest in the other direction. But if you read both of them carefully you can easily construct a caricature of what separated them.

In general terms, and hopefully not caricatural concerning either of them, Edmond Jabès was a meta-writer, a very readable and unprecious meta-writer, but a meta-writer for whom Judaism and writing were the “same waiting, the same hope, the same wearing out”.  Jacques Derrida wrote a major essay on him, which he would never do on Vigée. Jabès was a hyper-modernist, a lineal descendent of Mallarmé but also of the kabbalists as language sophisticates.

Claude Vigée was absolutely not a meta-writer. Sophisticated and brilliant and learned in literature and Judaism, eloquent and sometimes rhapsodic, he was a completely modern but never modernist as Tel Quel and Derrida would understand the term. If Jabès hails from the Talmud (his imaginary rabbis, collectively critiquing dogma and frozen thought, are among the glories of French literature), Vigée hails from the Bible and invented the term “judan” (coined after “roman”, the word for “novel”) for the totality of his work, and in particular his descriptive prose, again a glory of French literature, which among many themes explores, as he did, the hills of Israel. For Jabès, in particular, Judaism was a kind of poetics. For Vigée too, but the poetics was less explicit.

Here is another difference between these two writers: Claude Vigée, professor of comparative literature at Brandeis and later at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, had a dual oeuvre in prose – literary and bible criticism, journals and “judans” — and verse. Often, however, we find poems and prose in the same book, the former generating the latter—La Faille du regard, for example. In Le Livre des Marges, Edmond Jabès, a stockbroker when he was younger, wrote about his intervolvement with the work of fellow writers such as Celan and Lévinas. But he wrote no other criticism and published no journals. His major poetry is the prose of Le Livre des Questions, where all genres are mixed in an unprecedented way, rather than the lyrical poetry and teasing aphorisms of Je bâtis ma demeure, which preceded his major work. Jabès became a kind of classical writer; Vigée was more romantic, as an immersion in his enormous collected poems, Jusqu’à l’aube future, reveals. Both, however, were poets of exile, and both were haunted by World War Two and the Shoah. Jabès left Egypt for Paris after Suez. Vigée, after almost a year in the Jewish Resistance based in Toulouse (he was the last survivor), left for the USA where, as a French poet, he was an exile. Even his years in Israel were exile, again as a poet who continued to write his literary works in French. He was the last living speaker of Alsatian Yiddish.

In later years, Vigée too lived in Paris, but neither Claude nor Edmond was entirely at home in the city. Claude was an authentic and latterly honoured Alsatian, from a Jewish family whose ancestors lived in the region for three hundred years. With one foot in the hills of Israel and the other in his village of Bischwiller, his true home was the French language. (He reminds me a bit of his contemporary Dannie Abse, who was Welsh, Jewish and British: Anglophone but not English). Jabès, the Cairo sophisticate, was a son of the Egyptian desert, a powerful image of emptiness and negativity, and one dimension of his books reflect this. His true home too was the French language. The two men had powerful and supportive wives, traditional in some ways but always ready to tease and criticise the great man when this was required. When I was young I tore myself in knots trying to decide which of the two poets was more important to me. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it”, says Rabbi Ben-Bag Bag in the Pirke Avoth, that much loved book of the Talmud known to both writers. Maybe I finally grew up, maybe I became my own kind of (Jewish?) writer, when I realised I could love both of them, and their two great oeuvres, juxtaposed and separately.

ANTHONY RUDOLF is the author of Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life (Seagull Books/University of Chicago Press, 2013), European Hours: Collected Poems (Carcanet Press, 2017) and the translator of Yesterday’s Wilderness Kingdom by Yves Bonnefoy (MPT Books, 2003). Odd Volumes, the Fortnightly‘s imprint, recently published Anthony Rudolf’s Pedraterra & Angleterre: Two Fables.



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