After having published Return to Calm, Host Publications now offers us another book by Jacques Réda, also bilingual and also in Aaron Prevots’s translation—Europes. If in an “official” way Europes could be called a “travel essay,” the book’s fluid character undermines this characterization. Recording the fleeting instants of the narrator’s peregrinations, Europes includes essays on Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia and France—one or two essays followed by one or more poems for each country. The poems are “poèmes de circonstance,” that is, topical poems, in this case, poems on the countries described in the preceding essays, written in the tradition of Raymond Queneau: playful, silly, ironically rhymed.
Réda is what the French call a flâneur, a roamer who enjoys his anonymous status in a city’s labyrinth. When a flâneur crosses a border into a new territory he becomes a tourist. The difference between a flâneur and a tourist is that a tourist usually has a destination and certain goals—“Today is Paris Disneyland, tomorrow Auschwitz.” Réda is that rare species of tourist-flâneur; more a traveler than a tourist, he doesn’t entirely belong to the first category either, since as early as the eighteenth century it was common for travelers to have a project: that of letting themselves be formed by the experience of travel. Réda wants to be neither formed nor informed by his travels, he simply has “la bougeotte,” as the French would say, i.e., he can’t stay put.
Although Réda’s style is very literary, he is no snob, and he probably wouldn’t mind being called a tourist. With complete lack of snobbery, he declares that he loves supermarkets “for themselves,” a love only natural for someone who has grown up in poverty (after all, to despise richness is a luxury only the rich can afford). But this confession is immediately followed by an unexpected critical reflection: supermarkets are “counter-museums” or “museums of the instant,” Réda says, “whose instants are accessible, consumable, nearly straightaway consumed but indefinitely renewable . . .”
As a flâneur, Réda is an heir to Baudelaire. As a true Frenchman, he doesn’t simply record what he sees, as American writers usually do, but also analyzes it; yet I wouldn’t say that he writes in the tradition of, say, Sartre, or de Beauvoir (I am thinking of their writings on their travels to the States), whose critical impulse is to seize the unknown in the Other and freeze it through their aphoristic pronouncements. Neither a lover of exotic experiences—Réda prefers to stay in his European milieu rather than look for spicy otherness through some eco-tourist agency—nor a nostalgic ruminator for the good old days, Réda is a lover of trains—that is, of rhythmic movement and chance encounters—of temporary estrangement, and strangely familiar places. The only contemporary writer I can think of who belongs to the same family is John Taylor, an American who lives in France, whose Some Sort of Joy has recently come out in a French translation.
Réda’s style is an homage to the long sentence made of complex clauses with subordinates that intricately follow each other—a perfect mastery of grammar as a logic-machine. At the end of the sentence you experience the climactic joy of a detective who has discovered the criminal. The long, complex sentence is, alas, an endangered species, at least in this country, where “economy” of style or so-called “minimalism” is synonymous with “good writing,” when in fact it is often simply laziness of thinking.
Reading Réda, the bilingual reader is also struck by something else: Réda is a very ironic writer, but you have to read him in French in order to realize that. This is not because Prevots’s translation is not good enough—it is a perfectly good translation—but because what we call irony is different in every language. The irony of French writers is more artificial than that of their American counterparts because, as in Réda’s case, it represents the tone of a persona or a mask the author has put on, and the authorial masks we use are generally grounded in voices that have preceded us. In other words: our irony is never entirely “authentic”—rather it is a mimesis of the irony of other authors that have written in our language, and the reader can experience that irony because he can recognize the tone in his cultural repertoire. Contemporary American writers practice an irony that is more colloquial and more nihilistic in the sense that the authorial voice situates itself somewhere above good and evil, and is rarely self-ironic. Réda is self-ironic, which, of course, makes him funny.
The last piece in the book, “A Paris Crossing” includes some metatextual commentary on the story’s source, namely the fact that it had been initially commissioned by a so-called geographic tourism magazine, which, having asked for a piece in ten thousand characters, ends up rejecting it because it failed to comply with the magazine’s editorial policy. We find this out both in the first paragraph and in a footnote at the end of the story. In the first paragraph, Réda lets the reader know that the magazine suggested to him to “cross Paris in ten thousand characters,” and he compares this editorial practice with the ethos of athletic competitiveness, adding: “Moreover, I’ve just squandered three or four hundred characters complaining about my fate.” I am the kind of reader who gets a lot of pleasure out of these disclosures, all the more so when I imagine the editor of said tourism magazine reading the piece that makes fun his policies.
I hate to sound didactic, but this a book that anyone who teaches French culture and literature should have.