“The President of the Republic could be seen in the distance, dressed in a diving suit and accompanied by the King of Greece, who seemed so young that one had the urge to teach him how to read.” The defining traits-cum-pleasures of surrealism—hallucinatory imagery, dark humor and irreverence toward authority—are already in full bloom by the third sentence of “At 125 Boulevard Sainte-Germain,” the opening story in Marc Lowenthal’s new translation of founding Surrealist Benjamin Péret’s The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works. Each story in this collection (originally published in French in 1957, towards the end of Péret’s life) proves to be a highly saturated snapshot of Péret’s twilit poetic consciousness, wherein all manner of images bleed together in ways humorous and lyrical amidst a palpable atmosphere of derision for taboo and convention. In other words, the experience of reading one of Péret’s stories is comparable to staring at a Dalí painting; you can try to unlock its secrets, which are shrouded in the free association logic of automatic poetry, or you can simply bask in its sheer beauty and strangeness.
It is unquestionably Péret’s devotion to the automatic writing technique, mentioned above, that lends his stories a quintessentially surreal flavor. But, to view the stories in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works as simply undiluted automatism can be misleading. Péret always weaves a thread of traditional narrative structure around the dense, variegated imagery generated by his use of the automatic technique. While nothing approaching a traditional narrative ever actually unfolds in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works, the bare conventions of storytelling are always present to give a story its initial momentum. Thus, Péret’s stories never make for difficult reading (even as they consistently startle, confound and amuse), while their mixture of conventional narrative signposts with dream-like, chimerical imagery presents the reader with compelling linguistic textures that are always unique and accessible. Consider, as an example, the opening lines of “The Misfortunes of a Dollar”:
It had been a lovely morning, although all the ducks in town had suddenly died at sunrise, which had not failed to worry M. Detour, the town mayor. M. Detour was a good, if somewhat unrefined man. The sole tooth of his upper jaw made for an admirable substitute for a watch. It actually had the power to turn different colors according to the hour of the day. Red at noon, it went through all the colors of the spectrum to attain a phosphorescent green at midnight. He had a daughter, who had gone off to Paris some years before in the hope of making the acquaintance of a taxidermist. No sooner had she gotten there than the poor woman was killed by a cigarette cast from the mouth of a smoker, which hit her right in the face, penetrated her very cerebellum, and established a cancerous ulcer that carried her off three hours later.
So that morning had been lovely.
Marc Lowenthal’s ability to preserve the almost contradictory elements of Péret’s style—that tension between clarity and chaos—in his English translation is truly commendable. While a lesser translator would perhaps be apt to sacrifice Péret’s syntactical lucidity to the kaleidoscopic parade of his images and characters (or vice-versa), Lowenthal manages to keep the two in perfect balance.
Péret’s wildly imaginative stories remain largely unknown to current devotees of Surrealism in the English-speaking world, even though Péret himself founded Surrealism with André Breton in the early 1920’s and could count Octavio Paz and the aforementioned Salvador Dalí as ardent followers. This is due partly to the rather private manner in which Péret lived (unlike Breton and Dalí, he never sought out the spotlight) but also to the relative lack of Péret material that has been readily available in English translation. Until fairly recently, translations of Péret’s stories and poems have been scatter-shot at best, while a full length English language biography of the man has yet to appear. Thus, Marc Lowenthal’s excellent translation of The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works should be a cause for celebration. Not only does it offer us a sustained and pleasurable experience of Péret at his peak, but it also gives lovers of all things early twentieth century and avant-garde the opportunity to comfortably place Péret into proper historical context within Surrealism’s inverted pantheon.
So, slap a copy of Trout Mask Replica on the hi-fi, pop Un Chien Andalou into the old Betamax, settle into your favorite armchair coated with intestines and crack open The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works. You may or may not find out why “That morning little orange-colored fish circulated through the atmosphere,” but either way you will be smiling.
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