Varieties of silence, and near silence

(Jabès, Eluard, Celan, Kundera)

Edmond Jabès. Photo by Bracha L. Ettinger via Wikimedia Commons.

The aesthetic stridency of modernism was frequently accompanied by strong political stances, often with disastrous results. Among the innovative writers who managed to navigate the twentieth century without becoming entangled in its worst excesses was Francophone Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès (1912­–1991). Did Jabès’s attitude toward language offer some degree of immunity from totalitarian attitudes? An inscription in a pamphlet Jabès published in Cairo in 1953 connects to a controversy that pitted Paul Celan and Milan Kundera against Paul Eluard; retracing this historic thread leads to an appreciation of writing that embraces the neutral and the ambient, a writing that courts silence.

A little over a decade ago, on December 16, 2009, the Paris auction house Artcuriel held a sale of items from the library of French literary critic Gabriel Bounoure (1886–1969). An influential contributor to La Nouvelle Revue Française from the 1920s on, Bounoure spent much of his career serving as a teacher and French government official around the Eastern Mediterranean (Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia). Although he published only a single book during his lifetime (Marelles sur le parvis, 1959), Bounoure left his mark on several generations of writers. Etel Adnan, who studied with him in Beirut in the 1940s, credits him with instilling in her a vision of poetry as a “counter-profession” and a “perpetual rebellion”[1]; in Rabat he mentored the young Moroccan writers who, as self-described “linguistic guerillas,” founded Souffles (1966–1972), an influential literary-political quarterly that galvanized North African intellectuals until the Moroccan government shut it down and imprisoned its editor. One can sense the depth of Bounoure’s sympathy for his Arab students in his 1967 statement to Souffles: “Believe me, the France that you detest, we also detest, but happily there still remains the France of Baudelaire and Rimbaud.”[2]

The Artcuriel auction tracked the extent of Bounoure’s numerous literary friendships through manuscripts, correspondence, and inscribed volumes from a host of major figures including René Char, Jacques Derrida, Henri Michaux, and Edmond Jabès. I bid successfully on Lot 145, which included two books by Jabès, a 1953 pamphlet titled Paul Eluard (1953) and a volume of poetry, L’Écorce du monde (1955), both inscribed by the author to Bounoure. The inscription in Paul Eluard reads: “Pour Mme Gabriel Bounoure / et pour Gabriel Bounoure / ces images du poète / et d’une oeuvre qui leur est familière / Avec la pensée / fidèle et l’amité / d’ E. Jabes / Fev. 1953.” [For Madame Gabriel Bounoure and for Gabriel Bounoure, these images of a poet and of an oeuvre they know well. With faithful thoughts and friendship.]

Published in January 1953 in an edition of one hundred copies, all hors commerce, the twenty-two-page Paul Eluard preserves Jabès’s contribution to an evening of tributes to the surrealist poet that had been held on December 18, 1952 (Eluard died November 18 at the age of 57), at an event organized by Les Amitiés Françaises, a Cairo literary society dedicated to nurturing Franco-Egyptian relations. Published by Le Part du Sable, a small press and eponymous journal founded by Jabès and another francophone Cairene poet, Georges Henein (1914–1973), this plaquette contains two poems and a prose text that is described as “notes extracted from an homage to the poet delivered” at the December 18 event. Henein, who had been actively promoting an Egyptian brand of surrealism since the late 1930s, also spoke that evening, reportedly criticizing Eluard for “failing to be a great poet.”[3] This would be Jabès’s last appearance in the Part du Sable publications and the end of his collaboration with Henein; within a few years both Jabès and Henein would be driven into exile in France.

Toward the end of the “notes extracted,” Jabès evokes a scene from Vittorio De Sica’s 1951 film Miracle in Milan where a tear gas attack on a group of shantytown dwellers is whisked away by nothing more than human breath. In a turn of thought I can’t entirely follow, this leads Jabès to proclaim that the honor of the poet depends only upon the work, not the life. “Future generations will judge Eluard in light of his poems,” he predicts. Why is Jabès so anxious that Eluard’s writings take precedence over his actions? Was he thinking of Eluard’s egregious praise of Stalin? Or maybe he was saying, don’t celebrate Eluard because of his wartime heroics in the French Resistance, but only because of his achievement as a poet? Or did he have in mind a recent controversy in which Eluard was accused of fatally betraying a friend?

In Paris, another poet, whom Jabès wouldn’t meet and befriend until the following decade, was also moved to mark Eluard’s death, but in contrast to Edmond’s heartfelt tribute, this second poet, Paul Celan, chastised the dead Eluard for his failure to come to the aid of a fellow writer, Czech surrealist Záviš Kalandra, recently executed by Czechoslovakia’s communist government. In his twenty-line “In Memoriam Paul Eluard,” Celan invites us, in a tone of bitter sadness that skirts the edge of contempt, to lay words into Eluard’s grave, and onto the poet’s eyelids, the kind of words that Eluard “refused” to offer to Kalandra, even though the two men had once been friends, had once addressed each other as “thou.” In a chilly and morbid detail, Celan imagines that Eluard’s eye “still blue” for a while as he lies in his grave will acquire a “second, more alien blueness.”[4] Strikingly, a manuscript of Celan’s poem, dated November 21, 1952, four days after Eluard’s demise, is written on a sheet of stationery from Hotel Lutétia, an imposing building in the Sixth Arrondissement that served as Nazi headquarters during the occupation and in 1945 was used to welcome returning deportees.

Did Jabès know anything about Kalandra, who was hanged June 27, 1950, some two and a half years before he evoked Eluard at Les Amitiés Françaises? Did he see the open letter to Eluard from André Breton published June 13 in the French newspaper Combat? In it, Breton reminded Eluard of their visit to Prague in 1935 where they were warmly welcomed by the Czech surrealists: 

In the somewhat feverish activities of those first days there was, if you recall, a man nearby who sat with us as often as possible, who made an effort to understand us, an open man. This man wasn’t a poet but he listened to us as we listen ourselves; what we said didn’t seem to him in any way unacceptable.[5]

Breton also reminded Eluard that “it was him, in the Communist press, who offered the most penetrating analyses of our books, the most valuable reports of our conferences.” Breton continues: “I think you remember the name of this man. He’s called or was called Záviš Kalandra. I don’t dare to decide of the form of the verb because the newspapers have announced that he was condemned to death last Thursday.” Alas, Breton’s plea was in vain. Eluard haughtily replied: “I am too busy with the innocent who proclaim their innocence than to worry about the guilty who proclaim their guilt.”[6]

This exchange came at the height of Eluard’s Stalinist fervor. In 1949 he not only composed a poem praising the Soviet leader, but also wrote and recorded the narration for Staline: L’homme que nous aimons le plus [Stalin: the man we love the most], an abysmally bad film produced by the French Communist Party in celebration of Stalin’s seventieth birthday that treats its viewers to eighteen minutes of abject fawning and bloviating rhetoric.

Kalandra, who spent six years in Nazi concentration camps, including Ravensbruck, where he met and befriended Kafka’s beloved Milena Jesenská, was reportedly tortured by the Czech authorities until he confessed, and then obliged to recite his confession in court. No matter how loyal a Communist he was, Eluard must have known that those who “proclaim their guilt” don’t always do so freely.

Three months after Kalandra’s execution, Jabès sent Eluard a copy of La clef de voûte. Its inscription reads:

‘La clef de voûte ce silence
Pendant qu’elle ouvre son courage’
A Paul Eluard
en témoignage de vivre
sympathie et profonde
E. Jabès
Sept. 1950.[7]

[‘The keystone this silence / while it opens its courage’ / to Paul Eluard / In witness of lively / sympathy and deep / admiration] 

What immediately strikes me is how the lines inscribed by Jabès associate “silence” and “courage.” Possibly he was thinking about Eluard’s well-known lines “Entendez moi / Je parle pour quelques hommes qui se taisent / Les meillures” [Listen to me / I speak for those who stay quiet / the best ones] from the 1929 poem “Seconde Nature,” but it’s not immediately clear how these two qualities or conditions are related. They certainly weren’t in the case of Eluard and Kalandra. Could Jabès, through this somewhat opaque architectural metaphor, be encouraging Eluard to “open” his own “courage” like the keystone (la clef de voûte) in the poem, inviting him to disengage from Stalinist orthodoxy? Probably I’m reading far too much into what was merely a formal gesture. Over the course of his life, Jabès must have dispatched hundreds of inscribed books to authors he admired or wished to befriend. I wouldn’t be surprised if he used the same quote when inscribing other copies of La clef de voûte.

There’s a memorable passage in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting where the narrator (essentially a stand-in for Kundera himself) encounters crowds celebrating Kalandra’s execution: 

And as I walked through the streets of Prague passing rings of laughing, dancing Czechs, I knew I belonged to Kalanda, not to them, to Kalandra who had also broken away from the circular trajectory and fallen, fallen right into a convict’s coffin, but even though I did not belong to them, I could not help looking on with envy and nostalgia. I could not take my eyes off them.[8]

In another passage, Kundera makes it clear that he holds Eluard culpable for Kalandra’s fate. During a 1980 interview that originally appeared in Paris Review Philip Roth asked Kundera about this:

Roth: In your book, the great French poet Eluard soars over paradise and gulag, singing. Is this bit of history which you mention in the book authentic?

Kundera: After the war, Paul Eluard abandoned surrealism and became the greatest exponent of what I might call the “poesy of totalitarianism.” He sang for brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows, he sang for comradeship and against isolation, for joy and against gloom, for innocence and against cynicism. When in 1950 the rulers of paradise sentenced Eluard’s Prague friend, the surrealist Zálviš Kalandra, to death by hanging, Eluard suppressed his personal feelings of friendship for the sake of supra-personal ideals, and publicly declared his approval of his comrade’s execution. The hangman killed while the poet sang.[9

I’m suddenly struck by the similarities between Jabès’s title, The Book of Questions, and Kundera’s, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. A conscious echo on Kundera’s part? A mere coincidence? Jabès and Kundera, two exiles, two writers who ended up in Paris (Kundera arrived there in 1975, Jabès in 1957). Written in Czech and completed in 1978, Kundera’s book was first published not in its original language but in French — Gallimard brought it out in 1979 under the title Le livre du rire et de l’oubli. Like Jabès’s Livre des questions series, also published by Gallimard, Kundera’s book is a hybrid, shuffling together fiction and essayistic passages.

In 2008, a different controversy erupted about events in 1950 Prague after the Czech magazine Respekt published what it claimed was an authentic police document dated March 14, 1950, which reported that “a student, Milan Kundera, born 1.4.1929 in Brno” had “presented” himself to the police to inform them that a certain Iva Militka had met with an army deserter named Miroslav Dvoracek. An article in The Guardian describes what happened next:

The report said Dvoracek, who had illegally fled the country after the 1948 Soviet coup and was considered a traitor by the communist regime, was to pick up his case from Militka’s flat that afternoon. When he went back to the flat, following the tip-off, he was seized by police. He faced the death penalty but was sentenced to 22 years in jail, of which he served 14, most of them in a hard labour camp.[10]

Kundera vigorously denied the allegations, which were the subject of heated debate in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Archives and memories were mined for further evidence, either to confirm or dismiss the charge that the novelist and outspoken dissident had been a government informer. An impressive list of fellow writers came to Kundera’s defense in a public statement also published in The Guardian:

An attempt has recently been made to stir up a defamatory campaign with the aim of sullying the reputation of Milan Kundera. He is accused of having denounced a western spy to the authorities in 1950, when he was a student in communist Czechoslovakia.

We note that Kundera has issued a categorical denial of these claims, and that a witness statement by an eminent Prague scientist clears him of any guilt. Too often, the press has spread this defamatory rumour without taking care to report the evidence refuting it.

This is nothing less than an effort to tarnish the reputation of one of our greatest living novelists on grounds that are, to say the least, dubious. We wish to express our outrage at this orchestrated slander and to affirm our solidarity with Milan Kundera.

John M Coetzee (Nobel prize)
Jean Daniel
Carlos Fuentes
Gabriel García Márquez (Nobel prize)
Nadine Gordimer (Nobel prize)
Juan Goytisolo
Pierre Mertens
Orhan Pamuk (Nobel prize)
Philip Roth
Salman Rushdie
Jorge Semprún[11]

It sometimes seems as if nearly every writer who lived through the Cold War was sucked into its whirlpools of betrayal and suspicion. Even now, decades later, the ticking time bombs of government archives keep exploding onto the front page, ruining reputations, inspiring dramatic exposés.

So how was it that Jabès lived through almost the entire twentieth century without being tainted by any political misjudgment, without being haunted by any backroom betrayal? He never wrote an ode to a dictator, never penned commentary for a propaganda film, never denounced a fellow writer to the authorities, never signed his name to a false confession. It certainly wasn’t because he was nonpolitical. In the 1930s he was an ardent antifascist; during his years as a respected writer in France he spoke up about all kinds of issues, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to French prejudice against immigrants. Maybe what protected him was something in his temperament, a sense of moderation and reason, an unwillingness to pass judgment on others. Unlike so many writers around him, he didn’t engage in polemics or sign onto any political or aesthetic program. On the occasions when he did make public statements, it was never in a tone of anger or outrage. He always seemed to be listening to what someone else might think, taking into account the other side of the question. It is the same with his books, which are never strident, which never try to force their ideas on us. It’s almost as if he chose a deliberately neutral style of writing in order to inoculate himself from the temptation of self-righteousness, from the rhetoric of persuasion. Even more crucial are all those voices, all those poetically disputatious rabbis, that swirl through his books. Dialogue, real dialogue, leaves no room for stridency.

But did Jabès sometimes take his even-handedness, his distaste for drama, his love of dialogue, too far? Did it make it too easy for him to ignore the serious defects of the people around him? Despite Filippo Marinetti’s enthusiastic embrace of Mussolini, Jabès continued to send him generously inscribed copies of his books throughout the 1930s. Despite Henein’s nasty comments about Jabès’s mentor Max Jacob (“a bad clown”[12]), Jabès kept collaborating with Henein on publishing projects. If Jabès had reservations about these poets, or about anyone he encountered, he mostly kept them to himself.

There’s a quietness to his books. They are written in a low voice. His insistence on generous margins in his published works, the way he emphasized the spaces between his fragments, contributes to this effect. As Jabès so often tells us, this atmosphere of near silence derives from, and is meant to evoke, the Egyptian desert, those empty spaces to which he used to flee from Cairo society, and which he sought to regain in his exilic writing.

A provisional reading list of texts that value the unstrident: 

Roland Barthes, The Neutral

François Jullien, In Praise of Blandness

René Char, “Hymne à Voix Basse” (which is included in Char’s Le poème pulvérisé, a book whose idea of a broken-up poem seems not so distant from Jabes’s poetics of the fragment)

Francis Ponge, “Le monde muet est notre seule patrie” [The silent world is our only homeland], which suggests that poets are “the ambassadors of the silent world. As such, they stammer, they murmur, they sink into the darkness of logos”[13]

John Cage, “Erik Satie,” an “imaginary conversation” Cage concocted in 1958 (“To be interested in Satie one must be disinterested to begin with”[14])

Gianni Vattimo, Il pensiero debole

Mark Prendergast, The Ambient Century

John Ashbery, Flow Chart

Marc Spitz, Twee (particularly the chapter on the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian)

Jullien quotes two lines from the late Tang Dynasty poet Sikong Tu (837–908): “Things rich in color, run out, dry up, / While things that are bland grow gradually richer.”[15]

In The Neutral, Barthes talks about “tact” and “sidestepping assertion,” and in his discussion of the grisaille paint visible on closed altarpieces such as Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, says that in contrast to dramatic oppositions like blue/red, the monochrome (or Neutral) “substitutes for the idea of opposition that of the slight difference.”[16] Later on he quotes that great reader of Jabès, Maurice Blanchot: “The neutral does not seduce, does not attract.”[17]

A literature of ambience, then? At least for those who can afford it: those who don’t wake up to bombs, hunger, hate; those who aren’t walking targets because of the color of their skin, the name of their god, the nature of their sex.

Words as close to silence as possible, as close to kindness.

A breath made visible.

Eyes cruising the spaces between you and me.

Remembering someone else’s pain before your own.


Letting tones fade.

Voices emerge.

More space.

Lines, a music

like lace.


1. Gabriel Bounoure, quoted in Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist, eds. Lisa Suhair Majaj, Amal Amireh (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2002), 14.

2. Gabriel Bounoure, in Souffles, no. 4 (1966): 51. (It’s not clear why Bounoure’s letter dated Jan. 10, 1967 appears in an issue of Souffles dated 1966. Probably the issue only went to press in early 1967.) All translations by the author, unless otherwise indicated.

3. Georges Henein, quoted in Steven Jaron, Edmond Jabès: The Hazard of Exile (Oxford, UK: Legenda, 2003): 80.

4. Paul Celan, Paul Celan: Poems, trans. Michael Hamburger (New York: Persea, 1980), 81.

5. André Breton, “Lettre ouverte à Paul Eluard,” Combat (June 1950).

6. Paul Eluard, Action (June 1950).

7. Edmond Jabès, La clef de voûte (Paris: Editions GLM, 1950). Copy inscribed to Eluard in the collection of the author.

8. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, trans. Michael Henry Heim (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 67.

9. See Philip Roth, “Conversation in London and Connecticut with Milan Kundera,” in Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 96.

10. Kate Connolly, “Communist scourge Kundera accused of betraying western spy 58 years go,” The Guardian, October 13, 2008.

11. JM Coetzee et al., “Support Milan Kundera,” The Guardian, Nov. 4, 2008.

12. Georges Henein, lecture at Les Essayistes (February 1937), quoted in Jaron, 70. 

13. See Frances Ponge, “The silent world is our only homeland,” in The Voice of Things, trans. Beth Archer (New York: McGraw Hill, 1972), 109.

14. See John Cage, “Erik Satie,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings, 50th anniversary ed. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 76, 82.

15. Sikong Tu, quoted in François Jullien, In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics, trans. Paula M. Varsano (New York: Zone Books, 2004), 93.

16. Roland Barthes, The Neutral, trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 51.

17. Barthes, 69.