Toad in the Hole

Geoffrey Wall

  • These Jaundiced Loves: A Translation of Tristan Corbière’s ‘Les Amours Jaunes’ by Christopher Pilling
    Peterloo, 395 pp, £14.95, April 1997, ISBN 1 871471 55 9

Tristan Corbière’s only book, Les Amours jaunes, has been lost and found and lost again, ignored and praised, forgotten and rediscovered, in happy rotation, ever since it first appeared in 1873. Originally published at the author’s expense, it was discouragingly overpriced and quite out of place among the colourful wares of the Paris publisher Gladys frères, which ‘specialised’ in sentimental erotic fiction. Even the title may well have been a joke at the expense of early readers who would have been expecting something more conventionally carnal for their 7.50 frs. Corbière, true to form, is missing from the Harvard New History of French Literature, but this official banishment has gone unheeded, for he is back again, almost as good as new, in a parallel-text translation by Christopher Pilling.

These translations are a labour of love: heroically complete, decorously literal and slightly awkward. So much depends, in Corbière, on a recklessness that expresses itself in the twisting and hammering of poetic form. Among recent poets, John Berryman comes to mind as the ideally mischievous, ideally anguished translator of Corbière. But Pilling has done the great service of putting back into general circulation a number of long-lost pieces. This volume represents the whole of Les Amours jaunes in translation, more of Corbière than ever before, but it still fails to answer the obvious questions: what kind of poet is this and can he still speak to us?

According to one of his early biographers, Corbière kept the flattened, desiccated, leathery little corpse of a toad nailed to the wall just above the mantelpiece of the family home in Roscoff. The toad lacked the agreeable narcissism of the emblems chosen by most of his contemporaries – swans, albatrosses, skylarks and nightingales – and it had none of the charm of Nerval’s lobster, but it contributed to Corbière’s dubious local reputation as an original. The good-for-nothing son of rich old Edouard Corbière, a popular novelist and ship-owner, Tristan occupied an odd niche in the class system of the day, a place set aside for the disreputable, unhygienic but harmlessly eccentric offspring of the energetic and successful. (Flaubert was another example.)

Tristan was not merely a disappointment to his father, however. Paternal disapproval of that conventional kind could be shrugged off, or cherished as a vindication of one’s principles. Baudelaire played that game with great poise; but Corbière’s case was rather more serious. Afflicted from the age of 15 by rheumatoid arthritis, he turned on himself with a degree of malice which far surpassed everything a mocking world could say or do. In his own eyes he was a feeble, sickly, hideous thing, a shambling caricature of his vigorous and talented father. Such a son did not belong, symbolically, with the creatures of the air. His poem ‘The Toad’ stakes out his place in the slime:

Un chant dans une nuit sans air ...
La lune plaque en métal clair
Les découpures du vert sombre.

... Un chant; comme un écho, tout vif
Enterré, là, sous le massif ...
– Ça se tait: Viens, c’est là, dans l’ombre ...

– Un crapaud! – Pourquoi cette peur,
Près de moi, ton soldat fidèle!
Vois-le, poète tondu, sans aile,
Rossignol de la boue ... – Horreur! –

... Il chante. – Horreur!! – Horreur pourquoi?
Vois-tu pas son oeil de lumière ...
Non: il s’en va, froid, sous sa pierre.

                        *

Bonsoir – ce crapaud-là, c’est moi.

Pilling’s translation serves the modest purpose of elucidating the original, though we forfeit the evocative, flirtatious, nocturnal small talk of Corbière’s lovers. Without that framing elegance, the toad-world means much less to the reader:

A song on an oppressive night ...
The moon is plating with bright
Metal the dark-green cut-outs it has made.

... A song; like an echo, so alive
Buried under bushes down the drive ...
– If’s stopped: Look, he’s there, in the shade ...

– A toad! – Why this fear and trembling
With me here, your faithful conscript!
See him, poet without wings, clipped
Nightingale of the mud ... – Revolting! –

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