In the Air of Towering Beeches

Pascal Quignard's INTER.

That title is my favourite of the three translations I made of the title of Pascal Quignard’s poem Inter Aerias FagosAmong Aerial Beeches, or In the Canopy of Beeches — republished in 2011 in the beautiful volume INTER, and slipped to me recently by poet Chantal Neveu. “You should write about this,” she said. Its title opens up to air, the partage or sharing of air and branch, for in Latin the word Aerias includes not just towering branches but the air in and between the branches.

This poem by Quignard (one of Chus Pato’s favourite writers, by the way) was composed in Paris in 1976-77, in Latin, when Q was, as he recounts in the introduction, combatting a depression following his departure from a publishing job. The work was published by Emmanuel Hocquard at Orange Export Ltd in 1979, along with Hocquard’s own translation, Dans l’air entre les branches des hêtres. In both cases, French and Latin, it was a poem of beeches, that tree which in early Germanic culture was used to create tablets for writing, before paper existed. Beech and book are related words in many northern languages to this day. Hocquard, too, in his French, doubled the Latin “aerias” into “air” and “branches” to catch its spirit more fully.

The book then disappeared from view, a rarity.

In 1988, poet and editor Bénédicte Gorrillot proposed a book to Quignard that would republish not only Inter aerias fagos, but seven translations from Latin into French by seven French poets, including Gorrillot, along with Hocquard, Pierre Alferi, Christian Prigent, Michel Deguy, Éric Clemens and Jude Stéfan.

With its introductory epistle by Quignard and its concluding essay by Gorrillot, the new volume is a magnificent proof of the rupture and slippage that occurs in even one language—French—while translating. The translations are like different Latin poems, says Gorrillot. The Latin both slips, is present, and escapes any settled mode of inscription in French. The original work is vertical, airy, seems to ascend and descend the page. As if its translators had to climb the vertical face of the poem with ropes, crampons, chalked toes. And as each translator is different in body and fears, each translator finds different holds and crevices, and the wall crumbles under the weight of each climber differently.

It is a poem of anxiety and sadness about the book and the air of the book, about what compels us to writing and what sends us to despair: the “savage word and sombre treasure.”  What is it that words hold that is not like words and not in words but is between them, as air is in the high canopy of the beeches? How do books offer us words? They release their readers (us!) into the spaces between the words and pages, of course.

As Gorillot says in her essay (good thoughts on translation here)… “INTER privileges the human subject over what is translated, in other words, the translating consciousness and the act of enunciation over the translated enunciation.” The reign of Babel, she says, affects not only national languages but also reigns within a single national language because of the individuality of its speakers.

Translation is the kind of work that teaches us so much about the very possibilities of communicating sounds that coalesce into meanings, not in and of us, but between us: inter aerias fagos.

INTER is a book to look up to. It is a small — to use an expression of Chus Pato’s — republic of trees.