Contradictory equivalents

A review of Vincent Broqua’s ‘Recovery’



Vincent Broqua, trans. Cole Swensen

Pamenar Press 2023, 284 pages, £17.00 ISBN 978-1-915341-06-8

In The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (2018), Edmund White, a longtime lover of France and French literature and culture, makes en passant the following observation: “Mine was probably the last American generation that took France seriously. We wanted to learn the language, the fashions, the heritage. We learned to cook French from Julie Child, to think French from Michel Foucault, to dress French in whatever stylish Parisian way we could afford. But we knew that we were ending a long, glorious tradition of Americans in France.” Vincent Broqua’s first book in English — I hasten to specify that it would be much more appropriate to say in “expanded English,” since the work is a linguistic hybrid in more than one way — is the perfect demonstration that US and English-speaking interest in French writing is still very lively, if not intense. Not necessarily in the domain of mainstream prose fiction, but undoubtedly in the smaller but infinitely much more exciting field of cutting-edge experimental writing, of which this publication is a superb as well as extreme example.

Yet here as well a caveat is necessary: as far as avant-garde literature is concerned, the relationship between the US and France is since many decades a two-way traffic, now excellently documented and analyzed by Abigail Lang in her book La conversation transatlantique (2020; see Charles Bernstein’s review in Jacket2). This relationship constitutes a multilingual and multicultural “dispositif” that enables a collective and collaborative exploration of what it means to write today, also challenging what we currently mean by language. This transatlantic dialogue, which is fortunately strengthening, investigates what it means to perform language, and how language is changing in a multimedia environment where text in print turns into screen projections, where silent reading is shattered by sounds and voices, where hands and fingers morph into machines, and communication into totally new forms of interaction.

Recovery, translated — or, rather, adapted — by Cole Swensen, may seem a strange title for a project whose ambitions are so fiercely experimental. But one should read it as today’s equivalent of Pound’s “make it new.” In the era of conceptual and uncreative writing, the title also reminds us of the illusion of any creation ex nihilo. The building blocks of Broqua’s book are therefore always already existing: bits and pieces of language, well-known layout and presentation techniques, various types and categories of the use of words and sentences, all these elements are here dramatically cited, discussed, and eventually reshaped in ever changing combinations.

This reshaping follows a wide range of protocols, clearly explained to the reader who is invited to join the dance and all aiming to stress language’s fundamental diversity — of form, meanings, and traditions, as well as uses. More specifically, this poetics of formal and semantic variety refers first of all to the question of genre. Recovery cannot be pigeonholed in one genre category: poetry and prose, autobiography and theory, fiction and nonfiction, for instance, are labels that are not only challenged and deconstructed, but that rapidly prove utterly irrelevant. What comes instead to the fore is a kind of linguistic and performative “flicker,” with rhythm and kinetics as its key features. Moreover, this rhythm is a permanently moving one, both within and between the various sections of the book, each of them playing with its own set of questions and constraints. Yet “section” is as false a word as “genre” in Broqua’s book. Granted, the work is clearly divided in what was formerly known as “parts” and “chapters,” but the impression that is swiftly communicated to the reader is that of the foregrounding of this or that voice or linguistic problem or naïve belief, a voice temporarily selected from a kaleidoscopic of simultaneously speaking and writing textual machines. Since the overall structure of Recovery is anything but teleological, it would be absurd to think of this string of pages in terms of before and after. The author performs the work as a textual DJ choosing to highlight one after another, with all kinds of feedback effects and mashups, fragments from texts and discourses that are concurrently at his and thus at our disposal.

There is, however, another dimension of the aesthetics and politics of the plural, which is that of the generalized question mark. Diversity is not only a matter of plurality and multiplication, a twofold mechanism that is always in danger of falling prey to the simplicity of sheer accumulation, with no real dialogue or tension between successive units. What Broqua achieves throughout book is a textual regime of productive and performative suspicion. Not in order to suggest that what we say or write in everyday life or in one or more of our professional uses of language can never be fixed — that would be the strictly negative side of this healthy criticism of common discourse and common sense — but in order to make us understand that any given form, meaning, or use remains open to complementary and often contradictory equivalents and differences. The last pages on the migration of onomatopoeias and the unstable pronunciation of “universal” notions such as Coca Cola are a mini-encyclopedia of this blurring of boundaries.

Translation is obviously one of the most appropriate paths to better grasp this negative dialectics (negative in the sense of Adorno, making room for what any “positive” dialectics would block by opting in favor of this or that synthesis). Francophone readers who know the “original” of this book immediately realize that Recovery is much more than a creative rewriting. It is the next version of a text that multilingually develops as a differential text (to use the term coined by Marjorie Perloff) where the notion of “original” versus “secondary” vanishes and all versions build a moving textual mosaic. Cole Swensen’s translation does a great job in this regard, while the persistence of (sometimes quite long) fragments in French and the use of many other languages in the translated version are further proofs of Recovery’s refusal to simply shift from one language to another. This book is more than the translation of a previous French version, which in retrospect is no longer the original of its eventual transformations. Each new version gives a new turn of the screw to a work in progress that unfolds in many languages and formats and that constantly revises what it is standing for.