A phase of Beckett’s writing career that is not touched upon in the smattering of criticism or scholarship that I have encountered is his time spent doing what one could call literary ‘hack work’ in translating the work of French poets for the literary journal Transition in the thirties.
This is not to belittle the quality of the work produced. From my own readings of the translated poems, I can attest to their quality. However, being not adept enough in French to judge the quality of a translation of a work of, let’s be honest, avant-garde high literary art I would have to seek the opinion of an expert. Luckily for me and Beckett’s legacy, the editor of the magazine This Quarter, Edward Titus described Beckett’s work on translations of the surrealist French poet Paul Éluard as definable ‘only by superlatives.’ John Pilling and Seán Lawlor in their exhaustive 2012 edition of Beckett’s Collected Poems assure us that the numerous re-printings of Beckett’s version demonstrate the validity of this claim.
Éluard’s original, entitled Le travail du peintre is difficult to find online and so this post will be less about the work of translation and more about the merit of the poem itself, in the context of Beckett’s work.
The poem was written by Éluard as a tribute to one of his best friends, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. As such, the poem negotiates the relationship between the painter, or the artist in a general sense, the world that they occupy and the way that they see it. The first section of the poem, ‘I,’ has the artist as a kind of warrior, running naked, Lear-like into a storm, determining to understand the world as it is really is:
“Like a blind man like a madman
Raise a high sword towards the void”
I find this formulation of the artist as a priapic hero slightly tedious and more open to parody than po-faced contemplation. Luckily Éluard, or Beckett, refuse to allow the simile. The third section, aptly named ‘III’ will do much to undermine this ludicrous warrior image:
“On the cloth the trite
Image of the sword
Raised towards the void note of exclamation”
The tension here turns rather neatly on the pun on the word ‘void.’ Does this Picasso analogue face down the fundamental vacuity of his existence bravely and refuse to let it conquer his resolve? Or is it a ‘void note’ of exclamation, sounded when we consider the ‘trite/Image of the sword(?)”
I want to emphasise the sceptical Éluard, for the sake of my own interest in a subversive understanding of the macho man artist image, but judging from the tenor of the remaining sections, reflecting on an idyllic friendship between two men, Éluard is fairly keen that Picasso comes out of this poem well however much I might want to read the following lines from ‘V’ cynically:
“I like to say so I like to say
That all your gestures are signed
For it is thence that men
Bring the warrant of their stature”
Éluard’s speaker is obviously keen to get these four lines out, judging by the unpunctuated and excited gushing of the first line. I would also hope that Éluard would hold people who a higher standard than merely wishing those around him to bring a self-important signature to their mannerisms, signing themselves off like cheques.
Though there is one line that does appeal as regards Éluard’s thesis as to what an artist should be and should do from ‘III:’
“You are a ray of the star of shadow
That determines light”
While drawing on celestial imagery is no less grandiose than casting Picasso as bearing his ‘sword’ aloft against the elements, Éluard’s vision is now abstracted in a sequence of apparently irresolvable oxymora. It also recalls, oddly, a lyric from a Leonard Cohen song, widely spread across websites that carry inspirational slogans over the face of a youngster looking pensive:
“There is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.”
The artist’s role is to modulate reality in sometimes barely perceptible ways in order to alter one’s perspective, to cast light or, more appropriately for the work of a writer with an aesthetic as moribund and austere as Beckett, darkness.