The Novel as Arc Lamp

The innovative fiction of a forgotten French writer

Kate Briggs
A seated Hélène Bessette with her book Lili pleure held next to her.

Hélène Bessette at the Brasserie Lipp in Paris, where she received the Prix Cazes for her book Lili pleure on March 18, 1954. © AGIP / Bridgeman Images.

The first time i read the name Hélène Bessette was in a letter from Iris Murdoch to Raymond Queneau, dated May 26, 1957. This was, I think, five years ago. I was reading Murdoch’s correspondence (Living on Paper, edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe, 2015), getting a sense, from the changing tenor of the letters that Murdoch wrote to Queneau, of their long and admiring but also complicated relationship, learning that Murdoch had undertaken to translate his novel Pierrot mon ami into English, a project she’d eventually abandon. “(Yes, translation is exciting work indeed.) But it’s not easy.” Reading and underlining, getting moved and feeling energized by Murdoch’s letter-writing style, in particular, her modes of address:

“Dear heart,” “Dear bird,” her signing off-style:

“I kiss your hands,”

her powerful articulation of the ways she lived—at a physical distance from, but in other forms of proximity to—the people she loved:

To Philippa Foot: “You are a most frequent figure in my mental world.”

To David Hicks: “I love you, and I’m conscious of you all the time.”

I can locate and pull these sentences and sentence-parts easily out from my copy now because I marked them up as I read. In soft gray pencil, sometimes in thin green pen.

I didn’t do this when I was younger. For years I never underlined sentences, wrote in the margins, or in any way marked up the books I read. This was because from somewhere I had absorbed the idea that if you take books seriously, if you care about the things-in-themselves and respect other people’s writing, it is a bad thing to do. Now, in my loopy, spiky hand, I write all over or in the margins of almost everything I read. I draw shaky, loose lines. I press in dots and make stars, feeling exactly the opposite, strongly—that it is a good thing to do. It is a way of actively responding to the books that I’ve bought expressly for the purpose of bringing them home into my work spaces and home spaces, my other spheres of activity. It’s an obvious thing, but I often marvel, looking at my own shelves or at other people’s, at how relatively own-able artworks in book form can be. Therefore, how private and how undetermined—how open—the terms of a person’s engagement with them. I can pick a block of pages up and put it down again, enter into it, any time. I can lend it my imagination, decide not to; leave it, feel involved with it, bored or diverted by it. I can fall asleep with it. I buy other people’s books, new and secondhand, because I want to live with them. Like this. In inter-animation. And to do so over time, for a long time. I now see marking up my books as an important way of recording these interactions. I do it in soft erasable pencil. Or with whatever is to hand: permanent thin green pen.

It was more recently, two years ago now, paging through Murdoch’s correspondence again, noting the green star I’d drawn in the margin next to it—a star or what looks more like a firework—that I acted on what must have been my first impulse: to look up this unfamiliar name. Hélène Bessette—who was she? The sole mention of Bessette in Murdoch’s letters is a thank-you note: the letter dated May 26, 1957, thanking Queneau for posting her a package of Bessette’s novels out of the blue. A package likely to have contained maternA (1954), the only work of experimental fiction I know of to be set in a space of early-years education; Vingt minutes de silence (1955), Bessette’s take on detective fiction, which makes you feel as if its most unsolvable mystery might be the genre of the novel itself; and her first published novel, Lili pleure (1953). Raymond Queneau was an editor at Gallimard; in 1952, when Hélène Bessette was thirty-four, he offered her a contract. Soon after it was published, Lili pleure won a literary prize. Hélène Bessette’s further novels were likewise critically acclaimed for a part of her lifetime: recognized for their experimentation, the unusual economy of their expression, strange humor, rarity (Raymond Queneau: “AT LAST, SOMETHING NEW), their aliveness, their life (Marguerite Duras: “Living literature, for me, in France today— it’s Hélène Bessette”).

But they didn’t sell. To support herself, Bessette worked off and on for twenty-four years as a schoolteacher in écoles maternelles, then for some time as a housekeeper. Following the commercial failure of Ida ou le délire in 1973, and especially after Queneau’s death in 1976, her publisher ceased to support her. She died in poverty, in poor mental health, in 2000, her body of work (thirteen novels in total) out of print, her singular articulation of what, with specific intent, she called “the poetic novel” under-recognized and, until recently, forgotten.

The translation of a novel which seems to me to propose the novel as a time-space, a duration, in and with which to ask these questions: questions about the basic conditions of being.

“The poetic novel”: in 1956, Bessette cofounded with her son Le Gang du roman poétique (G.R.P): “The Gang of the Poetic Novel.” An intergenerational gang of two. Over a decade later, in 1969 and 1970, they published a revue under the general title Le Résumé. Bessette set out their intentions for it in the first issue: the revue was “not mass culture, nor vulgarization, nor so-called ‘higher’ education (enseignement fût-il supérieur), nor propaganda, nor information.” It was “an act of intelligence.”

The revue ran for two issues: Le Résumé 1, written in numbered paragraphs, and Le Résumé 2, never printed, conceived as notes for a two-part lecture titled “Condition of the Writer” (the first part on “exterior motivations,” the second on “interior motivations”). Taken together, they form a manifesto of sorts. Not for the “new novel.” (Although Bessette was a contemporary of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, she was not interested in aligning her work with theirs, or indeed with anyone else’s). But for what she called a new “force”: a nonconformist novel-writing practice free (her term—absolutely “free”) to draw on resources typically deemed incidental (accessory) to it. Such as: typographic presentation, the disposition of words on the page, the introduction of color, the use of white space, the cover space, the thingness of the book object. Her novels are lineated. That is, intermittently lineated, enjambed and idiosyncratically punctuated, in keeping with her inquiry into the capacities of the sentence: “Sentences mislead us because language imposes on us more logic than there often is in life, and because what is the most precious in ourselves is what remains unformulated.” (Cited by Julien Doussinault in his introduction to the 2009 reprint of Le Résumé 1 and 2 together in the same volume with her novel Ida ou le délire.) Bessette worked also with capitalization, with emphasis and interjection, with ellipses, with kerning and indentation. She wrote her French-language novels, sometimes for sustained passages, in English. (In her 2012 book Indociles, Laure Limongi describes Bessette’s project to develop a “truly bilingual form of writing”—how she long defended a manuscript written in both French and English titled Paroles pour une musique on the basis that it would be “the first European novel.”)

She sought and claimed right of access to more than one language, to all the compositional resources: “All things already done by Poets.” All the resources, lifted, tapped, reactivated, remobilized for the various purposes of a novel. For the more extended, sustained, interrupted, and resumed durations of a novel—that common object: multiple, portable, comparatively affordable. (Bessette was specific on this: the eventual publication should not take the form of a “luxury object.”)

bessette's interest in the printed novel-object—the way her novels query by defaulting from the norms of page design—sends me back to an interview I often think about, with Helen DeWitt for BOMB magazine in 2014. In it, DeWitt tells interviewer Mieke Chew about how, when traveling to New York to talk with editors and publishers, she’d take “a little suitcase of books” along with her—“so I could try to talk to people in the industry about the things I’m interested in.” Books such as Edward Tufte’s self-published The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983), which speaks, says DeWitt, of a “use of the page, which is not just about putting down words on the page.…He’s talking about the rich use of the page…” DeWitt’s point—her complaint—is how attached to and constrained publishing can be “by a specific restricted idea of what text is, which is this: text is word.” She goes on: “[As a writer] you hand in your text, and then it’s handed over to the designer, but you have no contact with that person. The white space is theirs, the fonts are theirs; they just do whatever they want, and you have no discussion with them about how the presentation actually relates to what the text is about.” The purpose of the suitcase of books was to show examples of what can be possible if this relation between content and form is taken fully into account from the beginning: if it were accepted that for some writers (for Helen DeWitt) the disposition of words on the page, the manner in which pages are sequenced, the object which holds them, is writing.

But, DeWitt says, “I never succeeded in having the conversation I felt I needed—a conversation very alien to normative publishing’s idea that a book is something that starts out as a double-spaced manuscript you can easily send as an email attachment.”

mieke chew Did you consider writing the book you would have written for a literary publisher and then going to an art book publisher to produce it?

helen dewitt What that presupposes is that you can write the book first and then plug in the design after…I was trying somehow to convey what the possibilities might be if those resources were put at the disposal of the author early in the process.…

mieke chew Could you meet with a designer—find your book soul mate—and do a project together?

helen dewitt Of course. Edward Tufte took out a second mortgage on his house. It’s not like people have all worked for him for free… Sure, if I had $100,000 in the bank, of course.”

Hélène Bessette’s work is now receiving renewed attention in France. Beginning in 2006, Limongi republished seven of her novels with Éditions Léo Scheer; in 2008 Julien Doussinault published his critical biography Hélène Bessette. In 2017 the publisher Le nouvel Attila launched the project of republishing her complete works. In English, the only published translation I am aware of is by the poet and translator Keith Waldrop. In 1990, in a journal called Avec (vol. 3, no. 1): the first three pages of maternA.

From Hélène Bessette’s Le Résumé 2, a list. A “few traits of the poetic novel to be gleaned from the reading of my novels”:

Novel in the first And the last person
Novel reduced to its simplest expression

Strange drama

The novel as narrative of a crisis and
the novel as arc lamp.

on a novel "reduced to its simplest expression"
In Lili pleure, it is as if the genre of the novel has been subject to something like a process of phenomenological reduction. As if, while telling a story—the story of an intensive, troubling mother-daughter relationship and the daughter’s effort to pull somehow away—the pages were also asking a question about what minimum of elements a novel needs to be recognized as a novel and not something else. There is architecture, a setting: a ruined fort, a boardinghouse with a door and a window, a garden, a stony path running alongside it. There are proper names, invoking possible people: a shepherd, Charlotte, also known as the mother, Lili, the daughter. There are other forms of life: animals, roses, a fig tree. There are objects. There are relations, all the ways these elements are made to interact with each other. Charlotte the mother will sit on a chair, Lili the daughter will sit down beside her on the floor. There is power: close, binding, and unevenly distributed. And as part of this, there are processes. One process begins in the first sequence of the novel and then it ends. It’s an ephemeral process of the weather. Charging the atmosphere. It’s an electric storm. A thunder and lightning storm. As it ends, another, different process begins—or perhaps it had already begun. That is, while the storm was under way, directly overhead. It started, we’re not told when— and it hasn’t ended yet. It continues. It is not clear (if and) when it will stop. Lili is crying.

In English, I can write, “Lili is crying.” An action, a condition, narrated in the present continuous, or what’s sometimes called the present progressive tense, which doesn’t exist in the same way in French. Lili pleure. “Lili cries.” Or “Lili is in the process of crying.”

In other words, the novel as a space for questioning what, in life, ends and what won’t.

The crucial negotiation in the translation, I am realizing, will turn precisely on these possibilities of the present tense. The translation of a novel which seems to me to propose the novel as a time-space, a duration, in and with which to ask these questions: questions about the basic conditions of being. About the states of things and people and the forces that act upon them. About which processes are habitual: which ones can be continuously and steadily, securely or oppressively reproduced, and for that reason are felt as ongoing, inescapable, permanent. And which ones among them might be open, possibly, to stopping, interruption, diversion, a change. In other words, the novel as a space for questioning what, in life, ends and what won’t. What lasts, endures, with what consequences, and what can’t or won’t.

on "the novel as arc lamp"

I don’t know, on first reading this, what an arc lamp is.

I look it up: first invented in the early 1800s, it is an outmoded technology.

The novel, then, in Bessette’s conception, as an outmoded technology.

Also, the first practical form of electric light.

The novel as a light source. Highly luminous. (Though somewhat dangerous for unventilated, domestic use.)

As I understand it, an arc lamp, sometimes called an arc light, works like this: two carbon electrodes are suspended in free air. They are touched—pressed—together. It’s this first connection which generates energy.

Then they are slowly drawn apart.

The electric current heats, and an arc of carbon vapor—a line of bright light—is maintained across the gap.

The arc tends to flicker and hiss.

In order to maintain the arc, the distance between the electrodes needs be regularly adjusted.

What’s more, the color of the light emitted by the lamp changes as its electrical characteristics change with temperature and time.

The arc lamp is an outmoded technology, generally, but, I read, still used in applications requiring extreme brightness, such as film projections and search- and floodlights.

The novel as arc lamp: an action of touching (connection, attachment), then of slowly drawing what was pressed together apart, producing (extending, stretching out) energetic space, a space of heat and light and consequence and changeable color. A process of holding, adjusting, maintaining by consciously modulating the distance, for a duration that can’t last (the carbon rods will eventually burn out).

Humphrey Davey, who invented the technology, used graphite. On YouTube, I watched a tutorial for making one with two pencils.

Kate Briggs is the author of This Little Art. She is also the translator of two volumes of Roland Barthes’s lecture notes, The Preparation for the Novel and How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces, and co-translator of Michel Foucault’s Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology. She teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021



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