Kate Tsurkan

Death and Forgetting

J.H. Rosny aîné, a founding author of French science fiction — whose stories featured sinister, time-traveling robots going to war with resilient cavemen — ran in the same circles as more canonical authors of the long nineteenth-century, including Émile Zola and Stéphane Mallarmé. His impressive literary output accorded him considerable success and admiration during his lifetime. He makes several appearances in the Goncourt brothers’ journals, and was even appointed head of the Académie Goncourt in 1900. In spite of this success, however, Rosny was soon forgotten: his novels and short stories are not as widely-known today as those of science fiction writers like Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. Only in recent years have scholars begun to campaign for his literary revival. 

I came across his work entirely by accident. As a first-year doctoral student, I had envisioned writing a dissertation on Émile Zola–as if there weren’t enough in the world already. One semester, during a course my advisor taught on the historical novel in nineteenth-century literature, there was a session on the prehistoric novel, namely Rosny’s La Guerre de feu (1911). It follows members of a Cro Magnon tribe as they travel across dangerous terrains to restore the fire which provides them food, safety, and warmth. The prehistoric novel, for which Rosny is also known for pioneering, is as perplexing as it is beguiling: documented exploits of a time which precedes the written word, or any notion of history, for that matter. A thrilling world of adventure where death and, in turn, oblivion dominated every waking moment. It is impossible to truly visualize all of the details of our ancestors’ way of life, yet our imaginations are inclined to do so. Perhaps this is because the prehistoric novel is in fact turned toward the present, a politically-charged genre which relies upon contemporary anxieties to propel the story forward.

Reading Rosny’s memoirs and looking through some of the national French archives which contained his letters, I developed a keen interest in his relationships with Zola and Mallarmé in particular. These two relationships—the former adversarial, the latter filled with admiration and longing—offered insight into the deeply-rooted fears many authors possess over if and how their words will outlive them. There was something striking about how Rosny–who was so insightful regarding the perils of his time–allowed complexes to devour him. 

Rosny’s early work dabbling in naturalism would earn him literary comparisons to Émile Zola. Critics and fans alike deemed Rosny to be influenced by the values outlined in Zola’s theories on the naturalistic novel and yet Rosny would reject these comparisons, writing in his memoir Torches et Lumignons: Souvenirs de la vie littéraire (1921) that: ‘Nothing could be more disagreeable to my young ego: Zola, powerful in talent, but so narrow in ideas, so paltry in taste, endlessly annoyed me with the poverty and triviality of his theories’. In Rosny’s view, Zola’s literary output sought to be all-encompassing, and he felt that Zola left himself vulnerable to obscurity. Rosny’s skepticism would lead him and others to eventually co-author the ‘Manifesto of the Five’ in Le Figaro in 1887, denouncing the famous novelist in a very public manner. Later in life, Rosny would even have a protracted battle with Zola’s children after he was appointed the head of the Académie Goncourt in 1900 and refused to release their father’s letters to Edmond Goncourt for his estate. 

Whereas Rosny’s adversarial relationship to Zola — despite being driven by questions surrounding the author’s legacy — is one decidedly centered in the moment, he reveals in his letters to the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé a mindset which occupies the past, present and future. Two letters that Rosny wrote to Mallarmé between 1891 and 1896 in particular caught my attention: they are available to view on the Sorbonne’s Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques-Doucet website. Rosny does not search for a rival in Mallarmé, as he did in Zola—it is, rather, a longing for an exchange which establishes them as equals. Contemporary scholars are likely to disregard any factor which joins these authors together, placing Rosny’s novels and short stories in the sphere of genre fiction, and Mallarmé’s poetry in that of high art. Yet Rosny attempts in his letters to transgress these distinctions by emulating Mallarmé’s voice—he is, at once, both writer and reader. By doing so, Rosny is accorded the opportunity to reinvent himself. 

Paris, 9/12/91 

Thank you, dear Master, for the exquisite pleasures
of Pages: for its melancholy and depth; for the
fervent worship of absolutes, the search for infinite impressions,
either in the tenuous phenomena of the soul, or
in sudden sensations of Time or Expanse; for
the subtle watermarks of the projection, by a more
ideal than syllabic (or both), and above all
For these impulses where the phrase hovers over
disproportionately what our poor substances contain, and which
sometimes appear to me as the condensation in us
of the sufferings of expired Universes, of the torments of Gods,
through the nebulae; finally, for the Sympathy always
present; I have tasted pure minutes of the poetic with you
and the gratitude I feel for it, please receive

Here in the highest regard
J. Henri Rosny

This first letter, written in 1891, is a celebration of Mallarmé’s work.The paper on which Rosny wrote the letter is unlined, but the sentences are perfectly straight and consistent, which suggests that Rosny wrote it with lined paper underneath. That the letter remains in good condition is not only a testament to French archives but an indication that the letter was written on high-quality material paper. Ink swells from the letters at the end of many words, which for the reader breathes life into the image of a cautious, even uncertain hand. This image of the writer becomes even clearer upon recognizing the steepness of the nines in the date, the width of the crossed t’s, or the swooping curve of the y—most noticeably, in his signature. As he writes, he is simultaneously apprehensive and resolute. Words such as ‘Maître’, ‘Temps’, ‘Étendue’, ‘Univers’, ‘Divin’, and ‘Sympathie’ are capitalized, and some are even underlined, for further emphasis. For Rosny, the presentation of the letter matters as much as its content.

In referring to Mallarmé as ‘Maître’, Rosny establishes the roles of  master and disciple. Whether Mallarmé took the first step in cultivating that dynamic between both men remains unknown. In any case, the capitalized M underlines Rosny’s longing for Mallarmé to inhabit this particular role. Additionally, the effort put into the presentation shows us that Rosny either expected a response—an acknowledgement, rather—from Mallarmé, or he wanted his letter at the very least to be memorable. 




Dear Master and friend,
I apologize to you for
not having attended Verlaine’s funeral.
 I understood that it was
  at 2 o’clock and this morning, when I got up,
as usual, around noon, I saw
that I was misinformed. I felt
a great pain, because I hold that at the moment
horrible indifference, it’s a duty
to attend the funerals of great artists
forsaken – not for the dead
themselves, but for example.
Believe, dear Master and friend, in
my very affectionate admiration.

J.H. Rosny the elder

While the second letter is not dated, Rosny does include the day of the week at the top of the page. This particular letter to Mallarmé is about Paul Verlaine’s funeral. Paul Verlaine died on January 8th, which fell on a Wednesday in 1896. His funeral took place two days later, on a Friday, and therefore the reader can discern that the letter was written on the same day. Despite its length, the letter provides a wealth of information. Mallarmé was a moral center for writers at the time, considering that Rosny chose to reach out to him upon missing Verlaine’s funeral and not, presumably, someone else. 

Mallarmé is addressed by Rosny not only as ‘Maître’—once again with a capital M, for emphasis–but also, in this particular letter, as a friend. Such is that Rosny intends not only to recognize Mallarmé’s status as a great writer, but to appeal to him on a more personal level. The paper is unlined, yet again, but the lines are written neatly enough that there was likely lined paper placed underneath it as he wrote. Rosny’s handwriting is not as neat as in the previous letter—the lines are at a slant. Towards the end of the letter, the handwriting becomes messier, and portions are crossed out. 

Most intriguing of all is Rosny’s usage of space—this short letter comprises two pages of paper when it could have easily been written on one. The left sides of the pages are completely blank. The blank space of the page is charged with meaning, expressing what Rosny himself is incapable of articulating. Its silence reveals as much as Rosny’s own words. Coupled with the deep creases of the page, Rosny seems to conceal himself from Mallarmé. Language has failed him–even the c’s curl inward as they attempt to liberate themselves from the sheets of paper.

He writes in a heightened emotional state, for he also discloses too many personal details about himself, such as how he usually sleeps until noon and was poorly informed about the time of the funeral. Rosny wants to remain in Mallarmé’s favor after missing the service for Verlaine. At the same time, Rosny is afflicted by a moment of ‘horrible indifference’—not because of Verlaine’s death, but because of the ‘example’. What could this example be? It is likely that he refers to the indifference of the public towards poetry as an art form. Verlaine’s funeral was attended by members of the prominent literary circles of Paris—a show of solidarity among fellow artists. Rosny’s absence exemplifies the fear that his recognition as a great author is not yet secured. 

In the second letter, the literal topic of discussion is the death of the author. Rosny is haunted by the inevitable, and its threat to permanently silence him. He understands that the act of writing, on its own, does not guarantee that his body of work–and, in turn, Rosny himself–will endure.

In his memoir, Rosny recounts a summer evening spent with Mallarmé, during which concerns over the longevity of his work arise:

I felt it that day, full of benevolence, resignation, almost tranquility. In the beauty of the hour, so slow, we spoke of man’s dreams and immortal things:

“If one does not want to have lived eternally before,” said Mallarmé, “I do not understand that one wishes to live eternally afterwards. Nothingness before birth should frighten or reassure as much as nothingness afterwards.

–If we have started, I said, we must finish … Immortality allows no break in eternity.

— I believe so, replied Mallarmé … I would add that immortality demands that we be, in one way or another, an abridgment of the universe. Most of the world must be within us, otherwise no immortality is possible.

–And what do you think?

–I do not know. I hope little … but I act as if I were immortal, since, in everything, I seek a synthesis … since I continue, ah! without hope of reaching them, a few symbols that would explain the infinite.

This mindset dismantles Rosny’s preconceived notion of the self. An aversion to the ephemeral, according to Mallarmé, must exist from the onset–that is, it cannot stem from the fear of death. Such fear is decidedly centered in the present. Rather than long for eternity, states Mallarmé, he lives his life as if he has already achieved it. Mallarmé’s notion of time is fluid, rather than static, and he has come to terms with his role in it–whereas Rosny, ultimately, compels his death into being.

The two letters, read in concurrence with Rosny’s memoirs, manifest the inherent longing of a writer. He surrenders his words to the page, in search of a reader. What he fails to understand, like so many authors which preceded and followed him, is that searching too fiercely for them creates a void.

Kate Tsurkan‘s previous writing and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Harpers, The New Statesman, Asymptote Journal, Literary Hub and elsewhere. She’s a PhD student in French Literature at New York University.

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