Translation Tuesdays: H, by Philippe Sollers
A series dedicated to literature in translation whether classic or contemporary.
At the most elementary level, language behaves like gears and teeth locking and moving forward. A word has meaning, the reader decodes the word’s meaning, and then reads the next word. Other elements like punctuation, capitalization, paragraph breaks, and quotation marks further assist the reader in how the text will be interpreted. H by Philippe Sollers has none of these prompts.
In standard reading practice, words become sentences, sentences become paragraphs, and ink on the page becomes narrative. It is such a common practice, we think nothing of it when reading the daily newspaper, a bestseller, or a website. H throws this relationship into flux. The text flows, the words flooding the page, with no period or paragraph break in sight. Written in 1973, Sollers wrote this avant-garde text in the middle of a personal ideological crisis. The former Maoist and founder of Tel Quel abandoned his Leftist ideology and converted to Catholicism. This crisis took place after he witnessed the violent excesses of Mao’s Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The challenge for the reader is parsing this ideological conversion story amid the word-flood that fills page after page. H reads like an amalgamation of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses, Lucky’s nonsensical monologue from Waiting for Godot, and the disintegration of identity from the last pages of The Unnameable. Sollers thrusts the reader into a strange linguistic borderland, straddling sense and nonsense.
During this literary engagement, the reader and the author toggle between collaboration and antagonism. In the non-blurb blurb on the back cover, Sollers explains that
Beyond the automatism, a calculation is at play, keeping watch, criticising, departing at once from all the points of history. This calculation is uttered by masses in the discontinuous unity of its sections. It adjusts, strikes, whispers, shouts, marks, deletes, tallies, signals the moving absence which is nevertheless addressed, talked to, with all the background language.He goes on, saying, “That’s it, then, relax, it’s clear. Stay with the meaning, it’s simple. They are two, here, in the night. Tempo.” The two being author and reader.
Part of the joy and the challenge presented by H is finding one’s groove with the text. The “discontinuous unity” will at first confront the reader, attacking her sensibilities in the vain attempt to discover a linear narrative or intellectual through-line. But as more and more words get consumed by the reader, a relaxation sets in. A kind of numbness or hypnosis pacifies the reader. Then, as if by some alchemical reaction, sentences and phrases start appearing. These phantom sentences begin to create fragments of narrative.
But even these nebulous narrative fragments appear and disappear with a frustrating randomness. The text will build into an extended set-piece and the, just as suddenly, evaporate in a mishmash of random words or nonsense terms.
The ephemeral narratives take on different forms, different tonal registers. Everything from high- to low-culture is evoked. A confessional narrative as Sollers struggles with the empty promises of Maoism. This might become a more formal meditation, a historical genealogy of the Left since Karl Marx, only to turn into a nonsensical dadaist inventory of words. The inventory might mutate into a long pornographic tableau, penetrations and vulgarity. And so on. For 172 pages.
Regular notions of reading practice become moot when confronting a text like this. I myself began reading it, had other reviewing duties, and then returned to the text after a long absence. It felt like dipping into a lake after a long winter. At first it was strange and alienating, then I got back into the groove of things. Because of the text’s avant-garde nature, I didn’t need to remember characters or plot. The verbal static began to take on new forms.
Sollers also created a text that avoid a uniform interpretation. Because there are no paragraph breaks or punctuation, any reader can separate where a sentence or phrase begins or ends. As with Finnegans Wake or The Cantos, despite any authorial premeditation in execution, a certain amount of ambiguity develops. The way I read H will differ than how another person reads H. Equus Press kept academic machinery to a minimum, only italicizing words that were in English in the original French version. Sollers drops in Chinese, German, Italian, Latin, and other languages. Citations explaining these foreign phrases would slow down the reader and impose an interpretive framework. I just went with the flow, letting the sight and sounds of those foreign tongues echo off the unending textual flood. If you really want to know what these words mean, there’s always Google Translate. For me, it didn’t seem necessary.
An example or two should suffice in what the reader confronts. To take a random passage:
[…] since 1784 founding of the société asiatique from kolkata what on earth’re we still doing in there that’s exactly what I’m asking you oh these ebbs nietzsche’s walking stick again sister’s bang right stop thinking about it relax you know well it drives you crazy go back go back to the flowers here you go take this daffodil lean against the vault in the moss do they keep on singing no-one’d say it’s all over there i catch sight of red flags […]
The passage feels like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, but like Beckett’s The Unnameable, the narrative referents keep changing. In some cases, we can surmise that Sollers is speaking, at other time we don’t know who is speaking. The lack of punctuation makes it more of a challenge to divine whether the writing is an original thought or a quotation or a parody.
While David Vichnar offers a comprehensive introduction, I would also recommend a cold reading. Devoid of literary, political, and personal context, it becomes easier to let the text flow over you. Along with Ulysses and Beckett’s Three Novels, H can take its place in the permanent avant-garde.