Saturday, October 27, 2012

Louise Michel as a Fiction Writer / The Claque-Dents

One of the results of my continuing research on anarchism is that I occasionally find whole new genres of anarchist writing opening up in front of me. And recently, between my work on radical feminist writing and my work on the intersection of science fiction and fantasy and radicalism, I've been spending a lot of time reading, researching and translating fiction. A work like Jean Grave's The Adventures of Nono is relatively unique as a children's story, but the number of adult novels—including some that are very adult—written by anarchists is very large. One of the prolific novel-writers was Louise Michel, but none of those novels have been available in English until quite recently, when Brian Stableford translated The Human Microbes and The New World (both of which are now available from Black Coat Press.) I had actually started to work on a translation of The Human Microbes, when I learned of the forthcoming edition, because it is such a striking, over-the-top bit of writing. In his introduction, Stableford talks about Sade, and he might also have talked about Fourier. These two novels were supposed to be part of a six-novel series which led from the worst conditions on the streets of Paris to utopia, and finally to the stars, and Michel's prose soars and dives accordingly. Stableford has done a good job of rendering a confusing (and apparently poorly-edited) story into intelligible English. The translation seems rough in a few places, but I can sympathize with the difficulties of rendering Michel's French into English. Her narrative voice is strange, her influences diverse, and her choice of subject matter fearless.

Just go order the books. You won't be disappointed, even if you are occasionally shocked.

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My hope, ultimately, is that the service that Stableford has done for us will leave readers hungry for more, because there is certainly more to be translated, and some of it is, in its way, just as striking as the recently translated novels. Having translated The New Era, which has its moments of futurist vision, I found myself looking for another translation to work on, and began to read Le Claque-Dents, another convoluted tale with some adventure-story elements in it. The title phrase is difficult to translate. It refers to the clacking or chattering of teeth, and has been used to designate beggars, or the sort of poorly heated spaces where the poor might congregate, including brothels or workers' cafes, and to evoke the action of teeth snapping after flesh. Michel starts her novel by saying that "the claque-dents is the death throes of the old world," and perhaps the phrase simply refers to a sort of insane malaise which seems to have captured all the characters of the novel. The opening chapters barrage the readers with words suggesting madness and "distraction," and we gradually learn that we're dealing with a world full of the beaten-down, sleep-walkers, grifters, imposters, and the like. Here's a taste of the opening chapters:

THE CLAQUE-DENTS

The claque-dents is the death throes of the old world.
It dreams of decking itself out again in purple and ermine, and of giving drink to the swords. But the purple and ermine are soiled, and the rusty swords want no more blood. The orgy is over.
This old world has the chattering teeth of the death throes; Shylock and Satyr at once, its chipped teeth seek living flesh; its demented claws search, deepen all the keen miseries. This is the delirium of the end.
In vain its wants to rejuvenate, to drink the blood of the crowds in long drafts; its sops rise in its throat to suffocate it. The debacle begins at the little clink of the gold, the danse macabre of the banks waltzes around a few last Bastilles.
The bell tolls for all tyrannies. But they do not want to die, feeling the sap of the new spring.
We saw there, in Caledonia, old paperbark trees whose age no one knew, crumble suddenly, still having some green twigs on their dead branches.
A dull thud, a cloud of dust, and all was finished; the great tree was no longer anything but a little heap of dust, in which bustled desperately some insects from another age, enormous millipedes, hairy spiders, brightly colored bugs.
Thus will disappear the society where might makes right.
In Germinal, the breezes sing, troubling with their sweet breath the grass full of flowers.
At times, a last icy breath passes through the air like a leaf that passes.
Soon the nests in the woods will fill with life.
Thus we come to Germinal, to the end of our age-old winter.

I

The whole unhinged world jostled, for one dizzy day, at the division of spoils, made at the Hôtel des Ventes, of the furniture of Lucrèce Milot, a madwoman of the best class, tragically dead.
The distracted, daft, and jaded vied for the smallest of trinkets. A blood-soaked rag was sold for the price of an objet d’art.
The things on which the crime lingered were worth the weight of human folly.
Little Muscadet had spent the last bits of his wife’s dowry there; young Madulphe had taken “an enormous toll” on his expectations, his parents not being very advanced in age; old Griffus had stolen.
Some defendant waited at the Roquette for the hour of the abattoir, charged with overwhelming proofs and unimpeachable testimonies, while the killer, a big, young blond man with the eyes of a dove, against whom no charge had been made, remaining perfectly tranquil, attended the sale, keeping an eye on the trinkets that would have been dangerous for him to let escape.
He had found enough gold and banknotes in his victim’s drawers to ensure its safety.
His appearance, since that time, was even more immaculate than usual; he inspired a perfect confidence in those who judge infallibly if men have an honest face or a sinister mien.
Several items for personal use had been purchased by him; as he was a jack of all trades and consequently had a future, it was prudent to not leave behind him things smelling like the corpse. He was named Sylvestre, a name as sweet as his face.
One of the most rabid buyers was an old musician known as Old Hermann; he had never been to the Hôtel des Ventes.
It was quite simple: Old Hermann had never had the cash; this time, chance or fate had brought him some waves from the River Pactolus.[1] The old man, resembling by chance another musician, a famous one, who played first violin in the orchestra of a new opera, that resemblance, as known as his talent, led him to replace, in name and in fact, the famous man, who had fallen sick, and, for a change, he was extremely well paid.
Old Hermann was applauded wildly, especially since, instead of following the score, it allowed him to pursue the whims of his frenzied imagination.
His nerves vibrated like strings, and the violin became one with him, body and soul. He had played as no one had played in a long time; the harmony took hold of him, carrying the bow in an instinctive movement.
The great musician that Old Herman replaced died on the next day, and, as no one would believe that he rose each evening to come and take his place in the orchestra, it was necessary to end the new opera for a few days.
Old Hermann, that much better paid for having hushed up the affair, not knowing what to do with the gold jingling in his pockets, had by chance entered the Hôtel des Ventes.
Having spotted a piano among the furniture, he rushed to it, rejuvenated, handsome from the strange harmony that he had conjured up, he sat down to play, to play, sometimes softly, sometimes in a furious manner, a sort of death song for those whose parties this piano had enlivened. There was a moment with the assassin grew pale, thinking he heard the moans of his victim; he vowed not to lose sight of Old Hermann.
When the stewards and the buyers, terrified by the mad music, were finally able to make Old Hermann stop, he rose unsteadily as if he were drunk, and throwing down two handfuls of gold as a final offer for an old veil of white gauze, he left carrying his purchase, without anyone standing of the way of that peculiar course of action.
Nothing remained but the bed, awarded with the last of the dead woman’s jewelry to a pale young man with drooping eyelids who was named Stéphane.
Sylvestre, anxious, followed Old Hermann.

II

At the home of young Stéphane’s mistress there occurred a scène at once burlesque and sinister.
Thirty thousand francs, won at the tables when chance was on his side, had allowed him to buy the bed and the jewels; he tried Lucrèce’s coral necklace on Marguerite. The red line made, on her marble neck, the mark of the scaffold.
Marguerite was vaguely aware of this thought of Stéphane’s. He saw her put her hand to her neck, as if to a wound. An intuition of the crime passed through him, at the same time that a sudden fear invaded the unfortunate.
Fear gripped him to remain alone with her.
“I would really like,” she said, “to go to the theatre. Tonight at the Comic Opera they’re performing The Woman in the Red Necklace.
Stéphane glaucous eyes were filled with a rapid gleam.
“Ah!” he said, “it is the role of the ghost; a costume all of black crêpe, that makes the illusion of a cloud with a red line at the neck. It is the murdered woman!”
He blushed saying this: it was then, no doubt, that he had had a first impression. Marguerite blushed equally, as their thoughts met.
The square of the Roquette Prison where, soon, he would see the condemned man who waited, appeared to Stéphane, sending a bit of blood to his pale face.
“It is too late! he responded, “to go to the theater.”
“We will see the fifth act.”
He did not respond—both had become pale again. He had just considered killing her. She, thought of the fate that had made her, on this night, grant a leave to her maid.
They were absolutely alone—all the noises outside were extinguished.
The hallucination held them, the one like the serpent, and the other like the bird. He began to watch her. The idiot had evolved into a monster.
Seated on the bed, in a white peignoir, the coral necklace on her neck, she already appeared to him as a ghost. The crime was accomplished before the victim was struck.
Some empty words escaped their lips. Marguerite felt lost; Stéphane explained the scene, which would be relentlessly repeated, and touched her neck.
“You see! It is here that Gaspard struck.” (This was the name of the presumed murderer.) “An axe-blow on the name of the neck. The blood spurted like a shower. The robe was soaked in it!”
Marguerite that thought there was no axe there; he regretted not being able to have Lucrèce’s tunic, which remained with the pieces of evidence. “I will have Marguerite’s,” he said to himself, and his idea stopped there, suddenly, brutally.
There was silence for a few minutes.
Stéphane broke it suddenly.
“We will reconstruct the scene.”
The obsession enveloped them; on her part, Marguerite felt faint; she only wondered if it would be over soon; her mind was already failing.
In the dark night outside, the silence was interrupted by a loud cry rending the air; the wail of a man or beast whose throat is being slit.
At that cry, like a plea, Marguerite dashed towards the door: death gave warning.
That flight was the signal for Stéphane, he launched himself in pursuit.
Perhaps, if she had not moved, he would have watched her until daylight without killing her; now that she wanted to escape, the man became a wild beast pursuing its prey.
Crossing the room, Stéphane snatched from a display of weapons a hatchet embellished with arabesques. Its steel edge made stars in the shadows. He threw a hand on the shoulder of his victim, and drew her back towards the bed, where he slaughtered her, and on the red line of the necklace his neurotic arm struck a terrible blow.
There was one single cry, to which no one responded: they heard some much of that sort of thing from that apartment!
Then, quietly, with the calm of cataleptic sleep, Stéphane washed his hands, collected the jewelry, took the gold in the drawer, and walked toward the door.
On the threshold, he turned back toward Marguerite, and looked at her for a long time, filling his eyes with that horrible sight, nourishing his imbecile being on the odor of the blood, and setting a lighted candle at the foot of the bed, he descended the stairs, returned home, and slept soundly. The light was still burning in Marguerite’s apartment, in the morning when the bookseller’s shop opened, across from her windows.
“There is one,” he said, “who passes some merry nights.”

III

Old Hermann went straight ahead, hardly knowing where he would stop.
His house had long since been passed, when he began to notice fatigue. So, regardless of eyes fixed on him, the old man made himself at home on a heap of stones piled up by workers at a street corner.
The veil hung in the old man's hands as he had entirely forgotten all that had happened, he wiped his brow with it, taking it for his handkerchief.
Sylvestre followed constantly—Old Hermann’s appearance gave him the shudders and he was quite wrong, for the old man hardly thought of him, his mind floated uncertainly, his open eyes did not see.
A policemen, struck by the strange look of the musician, approached him.
“Are you waiting for something there, my good man?”
“Yes,” he said, without knowing.
At that moment, a terrible explosion spread terror up and down the street
It was a box, harmless a short time later, with which some practical joker had made the attempt. It was January, and at that time those sorts of toys are very easy to purchase.
The alarm was so great that the police stopped everyone, thinking they saw dynamiters everywhere.
A youngster being caught making a reproduction of the explosion with the aid of a paper sack, all the shops closed and the street was swept by a swarm of guardians of the peace whose little cloaks fluttered like wings and whose tall boots gave the appearance of birds’ feet, one would have said a flock of crows.
There were a few arrests; Old Hermann, without knowing what he did, followed those arrested, and equally without knowing why he was swallowed up with the others at the station.
Sylvestre had left him there, not caring to risk an inquiry; although they are usually against the truth, he could have bad luck.
“This old man,” he thought,gives me the impression of being a clever one. I will keep an eye on him from my side.” Sylvestre, the man with the soft eyes, with the angelic face, waiting for the opportune time to slay his victims and the right time to cover his tracks, did not hurry in the present circumstances, although he had to ward off two dangers, the one that seemed to come from Old Hermann, and the other, coming from the circumstances; he had felt obliged, in order to follow the old man, to abandon to the care of the Hôtel des Ventes the purchases he had made.
But on these occasions, the fewer obvious precautions one takes, the better—papers left in plain view, attached to a nail in the wall with notes for the milkman or baker, folded as bookmarks in novels, escape police searches. Sylvestre, moreover, was above these simple principles, he had an enormous experience with all the procedures, not engaging in any act before making a reconnaissance, after which he followed or ignored the tracks.
Sometimes he became lost, and he wandered still, but he found himself in the twists and turns of his lies, and thought that he would always find himself. Sylvestre went peacefully in his circle; those who saw him pass followed him with a trusting regard, and he, from time to time, before the grim face of some rebel dreaming of egalitarian justice, before the blazing eye of one dying of hunger, said to himself: There is a rogue’s mien! a sinister face! Perhaps he even thought so.
After a night passed in the cells, jumbled up with the vermin and the extraordinary gossip of the starving, desperate and miserable of all sorts, some delirious, and the others glazed over.
The good Hermann was completely delirious.
It is under this impression that he confessed to the investigating judge Mancastel to being the author of the second explosion (that of the paper bag), whose real author still ran around laughing at the fright caused by his childish prank.
This is why the father Hermann, accused of plotting against the security of the state, was held in the utmost secrecy.
In the end, he identified so strongly with a character from the Opéra for which he had played the harmonic part, that he began, by way of response, to recite the role of conspirator in the piece, a man named Noirel who planned the death of tyrants.
Mancastel, having a tinge of literature was sometimes surprised to find a rhythm in the revelations by Old Hermann of his black intrigues, but as this rhythm was disfigured by the cock and bull stories and the orthographic fantasies of the clerk, he paid no heed, already thinking of the glory and the profit that could come from him from his skill at uncovering all that he was told by the old musician.


[1] Which, according to legend, contained gold dust from Midas.

[working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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