‘As I read Robert Pinget’s 94-page long Passacaglia (originally published as Passacaille in 1969) I knew I was falling under the spell of one of those works of unsettling originality whose profundity was initially elusive and indescribable. Even as the story became more and more fractured, I found myself succumbing to Pinget’s writing, to his beautiful phrasing and masterful control of voice and pace.
‘The location is rural France. We have the Master of the farmhouse that serves as the main setting for the book, the local doctor, a plumber, a goat herder, and various other neighbors and villagers. A local idiot has died, a gentle youth of limited mental capacity who had been abandoned by his parents and informally “adopted” by the Master. Like a musical passacaglia, which involves the playing of a series of variations against a bass line, the narrator’s tale is recounted over and over, each time a new variation of the basic story. However, unlike the story of Rashomon, in which each character has a distinct perspective on the central event, the variations in Passacaglia do not represent a search for evidentiary truth. Here, it’s not the characters but the narrator who changes the tale each time, randomly and without fanfare reconfiguring events and relationships. Pinget himself is quoted on the back cover of the book saying “Don’t bother too much about logic: everything in Passacaglia is directed against it.”
‘Woven through Pinget’s narrative, like a thread of a different color, is a more oracular voice that issues blunt phrases or sentences, gnomic status reports that function almost like a Greek chorus.
Something broken in the mechanism.
Something broken in the engine.
Leave nothing of memory’s suggestions intact.
The time is out of joint.
Source of information deficient.
Turn, return, revert.
‘As the book stutters forward, the chronology splinters and backtracks, the facts change willy-nilly, the variations contradict each other, and the omniscience of the narrator comes and goes like uncertain cellphone coverage. Passacaglia openly resists closure and yet it plunges the reader inexorably into its own vortex. About three-quarters of the way through, the Master suddenly tells the doctor how the boy came to live with him, and in doing so he reveals his special relationship with the idiot.
There was only one thing I insisted on, that I should soap him myself in his tub every Saturday more or less, with neither calendar nor passion I sometimes made a mistake and I felt less alone at those moments, I have his skin under my hand, I soap him all over without exception from A to Z which naturally took us by way of P, and maybe even concentrating on P, to tell the truth it’s less a chore than a pleasure, or if in my haste to be less alone I soap him twice a week attributing my miscalculation to the absence of a calendar
‘After this, Passacaglia seems to spin faster and faster toward its endpoint, as the collision of images becomes nearly hallucinatory. Here’s the Master, who has decided to rewrite his will.
I the undersigned in the cold room, hemlock, clock out of action, I the undersigned in the marsh, goat or bird’s carcass, I the undersigned at the bend in the road, in the master’s garden, maleficent old woman, sentry of the dead, satyr, scarecrow, in a van on the route deviated by the evil eye, plaything of that farce that is called conscience, no one, I the undersigned midnight in full daylight, overwhelmed with boredom, old owl or crow…
‘It’s probably worth noting that Passacaglia got onto my reading list last summer when I read Gabriel Josipovici’s praise for the book in his Whatever Happened to Modernism? Here’s Josipovici:
It leaves one, as one finishes it, with the sense of having lived through a half dozen or more potential novels: Simenon-like novels about murder in the rural hinterlands of France, Mauriac-like novels about petty jealousies behind tightly shut windows, Proust-like novels about authors in search of their subjects; of having lived through them or half-lived through them, and through so much else – child murder, desperate solitude, the system by and for which one has lived collapsing round and perhaps even within one. But more than that, the book leaves one with the sense of having participated in the birth of narrative itself.
Robert Pinget Website
Robert Pinget, 78, a Master Of the Nouveau Roman, Dies
Robert Pinget 1920-1997
Obituary: Robert Pinget
Site sur Quelqu’un, roman de Robert Pinget.
Robert Pinget @ goodreads
Reading Robert Pinget
Robert Pinget @ The Modern Novel
L’Hypothèse de Robert Pinget ou la littérature émet des doutes
Beckett et Pinget : l’échange des voix
Ce que Robert Pinget, oui, en disait, hein ?
Robert Pinget, A Celebration of Reading
Interview de Robert PINGET
BAGA d’après le roman de Robert Pinget
Robert Pinget – Entretien (Nuits magnétiques)
Reading Robert Pinget
by John Taylor
In his playful and candid book-length interview with Madeleine Renouard (Robert Pinget à la letter, 1993), the author of The Inquisitory (1962) and Monsieur Songe (1982) distinguishes his writing from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s. Pinget (1919-1997) claims that, whereas Robbe-Grillet emphasizes the eye, he privileges the ear.
The quip suggests a useful way of approaching a substantial, joyfully prolific, yet meticulously unified oeuvre; and it also points to the delicate problems facing the translator of Pinget’s delightfully idiosyncratic prose based on puns, consonance, assonance, masterfully applied colloquial syntax, and numerous other “musical” qualities. Fortunately, quite a few of Pinget’s novels have been expertly translated during the past three decades, notably by Barbara Wright. First and foremost, they are pleasurable to read, even more so aloud. That Pinget also wrote numerous radio plays and several successful stage plays corroborates this oral and aural predominance.
“Musical” is no gratuitous epithet here. The author of Passacaglia (1969), which is available in the Dalkey Archive trilogy Trio, was an accomplished amateur cellist. His love of Baroque (and especially Bach’s) music surpassed the limits of a mere pastime. His ingrained musicality and acquired musical knowledge arguably affected the oral and aural, as well as monologue-like and dialogue-like orientations of his writing style; he himself admitted that his love of music induced the characteristic “variations” that occur in single novels and indeed link most of his novels together. It is true that, above all, a handful of characters (a maid, a butler, other servants, farmers, a niece, a nephew, an alter ego named “Mortin,” and above all a tyrannical “master” who owns a château, is losing his memory, and also regularly poses as a finicky old writer) reappear in many of his novels, each time in slightly different guises. These not entirely stable characterleitmotivs, as they might be called, give a remarkable and, once again, amusing unity to Pinget’s fiction. Moreover, a likewise slightly shifting geographical unity derives from his frequent use of the place names Agapa and Fantoine, which originate in his first book, Between Fantoine and Agapa (1951/1966), a collection of fantasy and metaphysical stories (also comprised in Trio). But these two dramatic unities which, along with that of time (also essential to his literary vision), reflect and sport with the notoriously constraining “three unities” of seventeenth-century French theater, are also impressively underscored by means of the stylistic “music” audible in every book. Once the reader has been tipped off about Pinget’s musical propensities, allusions to them can be spotted everywhere.
In Plough (1985), for example, which is one of the thin yet self-elucidating sequels to Monsieur Songe, Pinget attributes the following observation on the “art of saying (or telling)” to Songe: “He tried in the past to compose tales according to all sorts of rigorous rules that inspired him.
Among these rules were those concerning number, symmetry, alternation, resonance, and musical repetition.” Presumably, Pinget describes himself here, though he cautions elsewhere that Songe “says lots of truthful things and lots of stupid things.” Several other novels are sprinkled with parenthetical remarks about music. In That Voice (1975; also in Trio), which parodies ghost and graveyard stories, Pinget intermittently introduces comments such as “manque un accord” (a chord is missing), then puns with a “manque un raccord” (a join, as in painting or wallpapering). Beyond this joke can be perceived the author’s deep engagement with the problems of narrative structure, which he indeed often compared to the organization of a musical composition. Above all, he seeks to control his style by means of a carefully conceived solfège in which punctuation mostly determines breathing, not grammatical logic. Sometimes his punctuation (or lack thereof) creates a sort of Cubist prose—that is, when a narrator’s or character’s thoughts are expressed without ordinary rhetorical connecters and transitions; elsewhere, punctuation produces a collage of unfinished thoughts, a syntax of radotage or “rambling.” Commas, and especially the absence of them, create the phrasé, the musical “phrasing” so typical of his prose.
By “ear,” Pinget thus means much more than the phonetically droll words that crop up in his writing, like the olibrius (“odd or bizarre fellow”) used to describe the retired old writer who is growing senile and living with his maid at a sea resort “near Agapa” in Monsieur Songe; or the terms impétrer (a rare legal and ecclesiastical term for “solicit”) and alopécie (“alopecia”) which, in Between Fantoine and Agapa, appear on a billboard as Interdiction d’impétrer l’alopécie (“Soliciting Alopecia Prohibited”). By the way, this billboard humorously announces one of the author’s anxieties; he was growing bald when this book was written. Pinget later avowed that “a reflex of self-analysis” and “a form of veiled confession” was embodied in his writer-characters. Simultaneously, he often emphasized the preponderance of imagination in his literary work, of his rigorous remove from realism and straightforward self-chronicle.
This same dichotomy (and discretion about his personal life) applies to Pinget’s descriptions which, besides the “musical” tonalities accompanying them, can also be conspicuously pictorial, painterly—a quality noticed by more than one critic. Although Pinget had in fact studied painting at the end of the Second World War at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where his teacher was Georges Braque’s student Jean Souverbie, he would thereafter regularly refute contentions that his artistic talents fueled his descriptions. In his interview with Renouard, who also quizzed him on this topic, Pinget replies: “It would never occur to me to describe an object that I am looking at. My descriptions are purely imaginary.” In Be Brave (1990), which provides still another sequel or coda to Monsieur Songe, the narrator-writer accordingly adds in his diary-like notes: “This table, this pen, this sheet of paper. A description. But one describes only what one does not see.” This assertion notwithstanding, Pinget evidently has a painterly talent in words. Whether initially observed in situ, remembered, or—as he insists—imagined, Pinget’s word pictures are distinct and vivid. He similarly explained to Renouard that he had come into little contact with farmers, château owners, and aristocrats during his lifetime—“whence the interest that [his] imagination took in them.” These social archetypes are also sharply, sardonically, and sometimes compassionately depicted. Like the literary tool of realistic on-the-spot observation, memory as a source of inspiration also provoked Pinget’s skepticism. Many of his characters tellingly fear that they are mentally losing the past. In That Voice, he summarily declares: “Imagination for memory.” Yet other leitmotivs, like the place name Agapa, associated with Agay on the French Riviera, and like the recurrent elderly writer figure, suggest the contrary. One of the joys of reading Pinget’s novels one after the other is to perceive, time and again, how consistently and free-spiritedly he maintains inconsistencies in his writing, both in detail and overall literary philosophy. It is a literature that espouses liberty—and practices it. Even as Monsieur Songe “discovers with stupor and a feeling of helplessness that he is never where he actually is,” Pinget similarly slips, literally and literarily, away from where we think he is or want him to be.
Interview (in French)
Robert Pinget Passacaglia
Dalkey Archive Press
‘The Master ruminates on the death of an idiot who lived with him, for which he may or may not be responsible, and on his own death. He rehashes events with his friend, the doctor, and in his notebooks. His ruminations form the “passacaglia’ or recurring melody of the book. “Don’t bother too much about logic: everything in Passacaille is directed against it.”‘ — DAP
“So calm. So gray. Not a ripple in view. Something must be broken in the mechanism, but there’s nothing to be seen. The clock is on the mantelpiece, its hands tell the time.
Someone in the cold room must have just come in, the house was shut up, it was winter.
So gray. So calm. Must have sat down at the table. Numb with cold, until nightfall.
It was winter, the garden was dead, the courtyard grassy. No one would be there for months, everything is in order.
The road up to it skirts some fields lying fallow. Crows fly up, or are they magpies, you can’t see very well, night is about to fall.
The clock on the mantelpiece is made of black marble, it has a gold- rimmed face and Roman figures.
The man sitting at this table a few hours earlier, found dead on the dunghill, wouldn’t have been alone, a sentry was on guard, a trusty peasant who had seen no one but the deceased one cold, gray day, must have gone “over to the slit in the shutter and apparently distinctly saw him put the clock out of action and then sit there prostrate in his chair, elbows on the table, head in his hands.
How to rely on that murmur, the ear is deficient.
A courtyard surrounded by old buildings, paved and clean, rectangular, with on the north side, at the entrance that’s to say, a pine- wood gate and two clumps of pink hydrangeas, with on the south side between the barn and the pigsty, set back a bit, an iris bed at its best in the spring, to the west the dwelling-house, to the east a young elm wood, in the center a fountain, circular basin the worse for wear, spout the shape of a chimera.
The story would seem to have begun a long time before this, but talk about prudence, talk about vigilance, it looks as if only two or three episodes have been revealed, and that with some difficulty, the source of information being permanently deficient, that almost inaudible murmur interrupted by silences and hiccups, so that you might well have attached “no importance to it and considered that the whole thing started at the time when the clock was put out of action. Which side to take.
He had sat down at the table one spring day, he’d just come in, outside everything was blazing with sun, a bunch of irises in his hand which he dropped, a sudden fainting fit, and then after a period of insensibility picked up, put in a vase which he placed beside the clock, only a very few hours separated this season from the following one from which it was reasonable to presume that, if it was a question of irises, this particular variety was a late one, you couldn’t hear very well, perhaps orchids, a bunch of wild orchids in high summer when the fields were flowering with all sorts of plants, he’d been seen coming back with his harvest, what sort of a man was he to decorate his house with flowers like that, solitude deranges people, inexplicable passions, manias, you never know, prudence.
Strictly speaking there was probably only the neighbor whom he posted as a sentry on certain days, not giving any reason for his “mania but the neighbor being handsomely recompensed wasn’t complaining, he kept watch, smoking his pipe, relieved by his wife who used to mind the goats and knit, bending over her needles, her hands forever active, she doesn’t remember to look up and doesn’t notice …
So calm, so gray. The corpse is lying flat on its stomach on the dunghill and it seems that the neighbor’s child on his way back from school caught sight of it amongst the elms, touched the inert body lightly on the shoulder and then apparently rushed home to his mother, night was falling, the father was working in the kitchen garden, they called him, they went back to the scene, that was it all right, he was already stiff.
He stays there with his head in his hands, strictly speaking it isn’t a malaise but what you might call a fit of abstraction, for hours, numb with cold, then he gets up and walks round the garden without bothering to open the shutters because night was falling, he’s caught sight amongst the elms of the child “coming home from school, may have waved to him, apparently walked round the well trying to get rid of obtrusive memories, crossed the lucerne meadow and made his way towards the maize-fields, they’d already been harvested, it was winter, after that it was beetroot and then you came to the forest.
So the neighbor and his wife and child went to identify him, it was dark, with a torch, and when they had certified the death the man said let’s take him home, you take that arm I’ll take the other one, they dragged him to his bedroom and put him down on the bed, the woman was perspiring, the next thing was to declare it at the town hall and the man said I’ll go, we’d better lock the house up till I come back, you go back to your kitchen with the kid because he was hungry, this wasn’t the first corpse he’d had to cope with, the wife and child went off, he shut the door, the key was in the lock, he turned round, focused his torch on the front of the house where all the shutters were closed, not the slightest sign of “the accident, there’d been no witness and no one “supposed to know that the owner had come back this gray winter’s day to inspect the premises, had put the key back in the lock and opened the door again, you never know, prudence, and then went over to the village.
The road leading to it skirts some fields lying fallow. Crows fly up, or are they magpies, you can’t see very well, night is about to fall.
Something broken in the mechanism.
In the book he was leafing through there was an old-fashioned illustration, the sort he adored, queer fellow, inexplicable passions, the murmur was getting weaker, brooding over his cheerless days, the conversations with the doctor, the comings and goings in the paved courtyard, the solitude.
The difficulty for anyone who has cut across the fields is to find the road again a couple of miles further on, the paths are nothing but mud at this time of year, and then flooded meadows that you have to skirt round on the left, then the marsh on the edge of the pinewood which is a very strange place, full of birds’ carcasses and feathers among the brambles, when nature reclaims her rights in the middle of a “cultivated field she’s more awe-inspiring than she is in a primeval forest, and then turn right, and there’s an old quarry, prickly hedges and bits of soft, ploughed ground which are difficult to cross.
The neighbor was going down to the village one cold gray day, he was on his way to tell the mechanic that his tractor had got stuck in the mud in a field and that nothing happened when he pressed the self-starter, he’d been tinkering with the engine all the previous evening without the slightest success, hadn’t a clue, the mechanic would come up with his breakdown van, one more bloody expense to add to those of the summer for the same machine.
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. No, ‘Captain Eo’ got axed a long time ago. It got replaced by another 3D thingeroony called ‘Honey I Shrunk the Audience’. It got axed eventually, and I don’t what’s 3d-ing people in that space now. ** _Black_Acrylic, I so want to check out those pale imitations. I’ve been saying that for years, but next time … ** Dominik, Hi!!! Well, actually, I do have to go back for a third and supposedly last root canal thing next Tuesday because my ‘root’ is infected or something, ugh. I’m glad you understood where yesterday’s love was coming from. Ooh, a double dose of love. I’ll take them! I have friends who went to the Bats day at Disneyland. All I remember is them saying how horribly sweaty they were all day. Love going on a dream date with this slave I found yesterday who claims that he’s straight but has a secret crush on Justin Bieber and who wants to be humiliated until he’s forced to admit that crush and who, not so surprisingly, looks like a less attractive Justin Bieber, G. ** David, Sweet and disturbing, the ideal? That’s sad about the deers, yeah, sad. I know this is blasphemous to say but I’m really tired of Anohni’s voice so I’m kind of all for that squirrel making violent sonic changes to his vocal chords. In other words, your attempt to distract me worked, thank you. ** Jack Skelley, Hi, Jack! Ha, I kind of thought that if you peeked in here yesterday you might’ve gotten off. And you did! Did you know that about Doritos? I didn’t. Love, me. ** Bill, Disneyland happily can work a magic spell even if one merely strolls about window shopping if you either sneak inside on an off day or get there before the crowds do. Oh, yeah, the Sparks doc, yes! ** Billy, Hi, Billy, welcome! That is an unfortunate or fortunate timing misalignment, you are so right. Really, about Galliano? That makes him much more appealing. Huh. Thanks for the lustrous input. How are you? What’s up? ** Florian-AF, There are quite a few more deaths at Disneyland than Disneyland lets leak. In the ‘good’ old days, they could get away with that. When I was a kid, a friend’s aunt was a higher up at Disneyland, and she told us a woman died in a test viewing of the first incarnation of Haunted Mansion when it was going to be a walk-through attraction causing Disney to completely rebuild and tone down the ride afterwards. But I’ve never seen that death acknowledged publicly. I was going to be in NYC next week, but my book tour got cancelled because of, you, know, Delta. But I will let you know, yes! I’ve become quite out of it about US galleries since living over here. Hm, I’d have to ask around and think, which I will do. ** Matthew, Matthew! BrooklynSerpico! Holy moly. I haven’t seen you here since my head hair was still mostly brown. How are you? Any chance for a bit of catch up of some sort? I have yet to have my first live music experience since the reopening, but I’m eyeing something. The ultra-best wishes to you!!! ** Right. Today I’m spotlighting a great novel by one of my all-time very, very favorite writers, Robert Pinget, who seems to best known, when he’s known at all, outside of France as the only queer Nouveau Roman author. He’s fantastic. His work is eternally and very highly recommended by me. See you tomorrow.