Sometimes I think I should find some untranslated minor French classic and translate it. With this in mind, I picked up Jacques Yonnet’s Rue des Malefices, which Raymond Queneau considered to be one of the great books about Paris. It does do that surrealist mixing thing, cutting autobiography and legend, street history and street voices, into a herky jerky narrative about being down and out and under a pseudonym in Nazi occupied Paris.
If I were really to translate the book, obviously I’d need help with those street voices (which were also dear to Queneau’s heart). Here, for instance, is la mere Georgette, naturally a “laveuse”, talking about a neighbor: Formidable qu’il est ce gniar-lá. Je vais sur soixante-dix piges et j’ai l’ai toujours connoblé. Reparouze de pendulettes et fourgueur d’oignons d’occase. Jamais de bruit.”
Jamais de bruit is the highest compliment one Parisian resident can give another, by the way. As for his repairing clocks and second hand watches – the oignons – I would have to find the street equivalent, and probably end up making Georgette speak in Brooklyn gangster lingo.
So who knows.
But the point, here, is elsewhere. Yonnet, as I said, is immersed in a life of short term flights, among a group of people who are suffering from hunger and foraging the streets in the cold winter of 1941. And he writes this: “They penetrate the hostile night with an enormous fear in their bellies, like we screw by main force a woman who refuses.”
I was brought up short here. It is as if I were walking in a city and suddenly became aware that there was a monument to something nasty – for instance, to a Confederate general.
These monuments are, in fact, scattered all through the literature of the West, and East, and North, and South. The walker in the city of books will never escape them, never find a route where there isn’t some doomladen shitty sexist thing there in the path.
This doesn’t mean that I give up on Yonnet. To do that would be to give up on Georgette as well, among other things. But it does make me think that there are enormous reckonings that we keep avoiding in this world, with as much energy as we avoid thinking about the future that we are handing to the people of fifty years from now, or twenty-five even. The Tribune in Le Monde that was signed by many other peeps than Catherine Deneuve is a reaction to the fall of these monuments, written in the elegiac tone of a lament for the end of sexual liberation. But of course sexual liberation doesn’t happen in a segregated space – it happens, if it happens, all over. And its shadow side, the exploitation of the rhetoric of sexual liberation to continue gender domination, is a familiar since the dawn of modernity. It was one of the central reactionary moments in surrealism that Bataille, in his over the top essay on Sade and the Surrealists, picked out with cruel accuracy.
It strikes me as no coincidence that the overthrow of confederate monuments and the overthrow of a few phallic monuments – shitty men from the media, firstly – are happening at the same time.