The highly regarded poetry publisher Agenda has, exceptionally, produced a bilingual double-fronted hardback book of animal whimsies for children, Storysongs/Chantefables, by the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos, 1900-45, illustrated by Cat Zaza. I am the translator: my versions are rhymed and metrical, fun to read and faithful in spirit.
Thirty years ago, I had a young musician in the house and needed a quiet hobby. I had translated reams of English verse into Latin and Greek verse at school, but had abandoned those dead tongues. obit Latina lingua, obit miserrime, Romanos interfecit, nunc interficit me. (Yet I have impressed Oxford’s Public Orator!) For my new hobby, I translated several French sonnets into English sonnets. Some were from the Penguin Book, a few were from Methuen’s anthology of Resistance poems. From two of those sonnets came two bilingual books of Jean Cassou and, so far, one of Robert Desnos, with a major one to follow, from Arc in 2016: and a massive com- mitment to the craft of poetry translation.
Jean Cassou was the great art historian and critic who was to create France’s Musée National d’Art Moderne. When the Nazis occupied Paris, Agnès Humbert approached him to form a resistance cell: that of the Musée de l’Homme. It was the very first cell to be formed, and was quickly detected and broken up. In the cold midwinter of 1941-2, rightly suspected of being a resistant, Cassou was imprisoned in the antiquated La Furgole prison in Toulouse, under strict conditions: no exercise, no visitors, no correspond- ence, no books, no writing materials. However, he had a lawyer, was in due course put before a tribunal, and months later was released. In prison he had composed and held in his head his 33 Sonnets Composés au Secret, a minor classic that was the first publication of the clandestine Éditions de Minuit, with a blazing introduction by a greater poet, Louis Aragon. They used pseudonyms, Jean Noir and François La Colère. The 33 Sonnets were soon translated into German by Franz von Rexroth, and again later by Max Rieple: both versions have rhyme and metre. Decades passed before I put them into English.
On his release, Cassou went back to leading the Resistance in the south-west. De Gaulle appointed him a Commissaire de la République. When the Germans withdrew from Toulouse in August 1944, rival resistance groups raced to the Hôtel de Ville to install a new Mayor. Cassou’s group, com- plete with tricolour and Croix de Lorraine, arrived too early and encoun- tered the last departing lorry. A gun was found in their car. One man ran, and was shot dead. Cassou was left for dead in the road, his skull broken. For some weeks he was in a coma. When he woke, de Gaulle decorated him in his hospital bed.
A communist, Cassou publicly supported Tito’s withdrawal from Come- con, and was vilified by the comrades. That experience, and his brush with death at the Liberation, led him to write ‘The Madness of Amadis’, which became the title-poem of my second Cassou book, published by Agenda, the first having been in the Visible Poets series from Arc. Cassou died in 1986, almost ninety years old and loaded with honours.
In that Penguin Book of French Verse that started me off, there was a son- net by Robert Desnos, ‘Le Paysage’, the first of hundreds of his poems that I eventually translated. Desnos had been hailed by André Breton as ‘the prophet of Surrealism’ when in 1922-4 the surrealists tried to reach the subconscious by sleep and hypnotism, in the période des sommeils. Desnos had taken on the preposterous persona of Rrose Sélavy, invented by Duchamp, and had surpassed Duchamp’s six rather rude obiter dicta by creating for Rrose almost two hundred elegant super-Spoonerisms, which I have translated. ‘Words have stopped playing’, Breton declared: ‘words are making love.’ Like the other surrealists, Desnos fell out with Breton. He made it his mission to take surrealism out into the world: into radio, into the cinema, into novels… Born and raised in central Paris, the son of a licensed dealer in game and poultry at Les Halles, he died of typhus at Terezin. To me he is the most exciting French poet of the last century.
‘Le Paysage’ turned out to be from a sequence of short poems from 1944, called Contrée, and not unlike Cassou’s sequence of 33 sonnets. At that time Desnos was an active resistant, risking capture and death. My version of Contrée appeared in a learned journal, Comparative Criticism 25, from Edinburgh, the title Against the Grain being the inspired stroke of Desnos’ biographer Katharine Conley. I might alternatively have called it Back Country. These were resistance poems, each set in a different location, mostly out in the open, and published under Desnos’ own name by virtue of classical and other references that fooled the censor.
Desnos’ career as a poet falls into three convenient phases: surrealist, lover, resistant. The surrealist phase was a time of wordplay, wit and whimsy. In 1929-30 Desnos was in a double crisis: the chanteuse Yvonne George, never responsive to his devotion, was dying of drug abuse, and he had quarrelled with Breton and gone over to Georges Bataille’s more congenial group and the journal Documents. The sad poems to Yvonne, in free verse, are quite well known in English; for now, they define his reputation here; one of them, translated into Czech and back again, was taken to be a new Last Poem and is cited at the Monument to the Martyrs of the Deportation, behind Notre-Dame, where Desnos is the only writer honoured with two quotations. Very different from those are the poems that followed: poems of anger, anguish and conflict, often rhymed and metrical, some of them very long, full of shipwreck, fire, blindness… The last and longest is ‘The Night of Loveless Nights’. When my versions of these appear, his reputation here will change.
True love with Youki Foujita (Lucie Badoud) brought a new mood of childlike joy, a lighter phase, still prolific. This was the woman he later married, and it was for her sake that he would allow himself to be arrested by the Gestapo. He wrote and illustrated little sets of poems for the Deharme children, Tristan and Hyacinthe. Later there would be poems for Daniel, son of the composer Darius Milhaud, and later still the thirty Storysongs and fifty Flowersongs, neither of which he ever saw in print. The Great Ballad of Fantômas, about the miraculous bloodthirsty cat-burglar of the penny-dreadful novels and silent movies, was hilariously broadcast: a hundred artistes performed, Antonin Artaud was Fantômas, Alejo Carpentier provided the music.
In 1943 the mood darkened again. Short, sharp poems in État de Veille protested against the Occupation. Four great sequences in 1944-5 were the culmination of his poetic career: first Contrée, then Le Bain avec Andromède, in which the mythical princess, chained for the sea-monster, has obscure feelings for the brute, which are reciprocated: the sinister allure of fascism. This is Desnos at his most sensuous. Calixto is the nymph, later the she-bear in heaven, who represents the coming Liberation. À la Caille is a collection of six sonnets of highly obscene slang, directed at the Vichy regime and the occupying forces, the rude material strikingly at odds with the sonnet’s formal dignity. Desnos was arrested in February 1944 and saw none of these sequences in print.
There were, too, great individual poems. Those that saw the light at that time did so under a pseudonym. Of all the hundred or more assorted son- nets of which my own versions are in print, the sonnet ‘Le Legs’ addressing Victor Hugo is the most powerful. (‘His legacy is signed and proven here, / Witnessed by France: we call it Liberty.’), ‘The Watchman at the Pont-au- Change’, closely resembling Whitman’s poem ‘Salut au Monde’, calls out a greeting to the armies of every race and nation as they come to France’s rescue.
Even as Desnos went from Auschwitz to Buchenwald to Flossenburg to a year of labour as a brutalised slave at Flöha, followed by a death-march to Terezin, his Storysongs and Flowersongs were published by Gründ in his own liberated city.
I translated the poems years ago, and wrote to three or four published British illustrators, getting no answer. But through Will Stone and Bridget Marzo, I found the brilliant Cat Zaza, an Italian in Paris with little English and enormous flair, who has made possible a book of rare beauty. Just the Storysongs: the fifty Flowersongs are too many for our purpose; and flowers are, as Cat Zaza says, ‘moins attachantes’: less engaging. I am grateful to all of these and to Patricia McCarthy, the distinguished poet and publisher at Agenda, who has enthusiastically produced something so far removed from her normal field. It remains for us to find our way in the unfamiliar world of children’s book publishing, on both sides of the Channel.