Book Reviews

Saint-John Perse : The Nobel winner, 1960?

John Holten


To read poetry for me (Saint-John Perse) is like going for a walk in the woods (here it’s a jungle), breath good air (here it’s a little smelly and sweaty) take a bath in the sea (while here it’s greasy and hot and infested).
—183, La Mausolée des Amants, Journal 1976 - 1998
          Hervé Guibert

With the announcement of the Nobel Price for Literature comes the usual cries of surprise, accusations of bias or diagnoses of the Swedish Academy being but purblind, all from commentators whom today, like everyone else, are all so very familiar with the strange, slightly inane, culture of prize-giving. 2008 will be remembered for, amongst other things, Horace Engdahl’s (permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury) statement that US literature is "too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ...That ignorance is restraining." And that just one week later, France and Europe – ‘still the centre of the literary world’ according to Engdahl – took the coveted prize with Jean Marie La Clézio being awarded winner.
It had been a while for the French, the last time in 1985 with the novelist Clause Simon, a writer of concrete novels, total in their literariness and without doubt a deserved winner.

It was always the same I suspect: the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world hubristically wrong-footed whenever a writer working in a language other than English wins; for with the paltry, pathetic amount of translations into English each year there are inevitably few Nobel writers in tongues foreign whose entire oeuvres will have been satisfactorily translated prior to the announcement to give us a proper sense of their work.  Of course winning the prize can help this, as it did recently for Saramago, Pamuk, Jelinek, and as it will undoubtedly do for La Clézio. But not always, it didn’t unfortunately for Simon, whose wide range of novels remain badly represented in translation – our loss.
It was a day or two after the announcement and at a loose end in my rented apartment in Berlin, that I took down off the bookshelf some volumes of poetry left behind by the previous occupant. Two were by a man called Saint-John Perse, whose dark visage, rather sever with sargeant-major moustache, stared out grimly from the nrf-Gallimard paperback cover. They were ‘Amers suivi de Oiseaux’ and ‘Vents suivi de Chronique’. Perusing them their versification struck me immediately, as did the almost prose-like length of the lines and, after some reading, the continuous, epic-length engagement with their subject matter. Then I fell upon, in Amers, toward the anterior: “Poesie, Allucution au banquet Nobel du 10 décembre, 1960.
J’ai accepté, it begins, pour la poésie l’hommage qui lui est ici rendu, et que j’ai hâte de lui restituer.

It is unusual I will admit to detail the haphazard manner literary education advances – but I don’t really care about that. Here was a random old volume of poetry, in a language my grasp of which is in perpetual danger of slipping, whose author had won the Nobel almost fifty years before. And I had never heard of the man. Born five years after Joyce in 1887, Perse died in 1975. A French poet of renown in his lifetime, he was also a diplomat and interestingly, like La Clézio, spent a great deal of his life living in the US, at one stage as a political exile, Vichy France having stripped him of his citizenship. His poetry, so French in this regard, is loft, elemental, rapt in the pure phenomenology things, of the material and natural world. The two volumes in my flat deal, with among other things, the sea, the wind, birds and old age. His poetry seemed epic in its scale, the shortness of the lyric poem lacking from these two volumes from the 50s and 60s.

It all put things in perspective – and showed me what the Nobel strives to do, if it does anything at all. Perhaps his political difficulties and his opposition, as a diplomat at the Conference of Munich in 1938, to the ceding of Czechoslovakia to Germany, and all the difficulties that gave him politically, helped his cause. Or perhaps not. The fickle debates the decision throw up each year ultimately disperse through the years, and all one is left with is the poetry. Perse had accepted the prize for the honour it gives to poetry, he stated on 10 December 1960, and which he wanted to fight to restore and maintain. He continued:

Without you [the Swedish Academy] poetry would not often be held in esteem, for there appears to be an increasing dissociation between poetic activity and a society enslaved by materialism.

To be a poet or writer, one works hard with the tradition, the wellspring of the native language, the heritage and extended family stretching back through time. As Elliot described early in the last century, it is a strange, symbiotic relation to the past that can make the poet’s work shine, whilst simultaneously effacing a little part of him or herself at the same time. And then there is the world-family, the great dialogue of literatures Engdahl and Co. think the Americans are losing out on, the banter between languages that is struck up when the shining poets of one tradition, one language, shuffle out of the paddock and stand next to those of other languages, other cultures. While some writers would seem to work in this sphere from the get-go: one can think of a Borges, a Joyce.

And in a way what the 2008 prize has shown is that the danger remains of thinking that the Anglo-Saxon world is, like it may well be in other cultural domains, the dominate one. The ‘big dialogue of literature’ lies in that difficult, obscure field outside of any one writer’s own cultural tradition, one’s own ready to hand language; it lies in hard work, diligence, learning, and above all, openness and respect.


John Holten is a poet, fiction writer and translator currently based in Berlin. For further information, click here to visit his website.

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