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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

In Memory of Ernst Wiechert

Jean Rouaud
Traduction de Dagmar Rohde

Texte intégral

La poésie est ce que jadis on appelait la grâce, et ce
que les romantiques appelaient l’expression du génie,
elle est aujourd’hui, depuis que nous rejetons avec
mépris l’inspiration, ce que nous n’osons plus appeler,
mais que nous ressentons comme un impérieux besoin
de chanter.

1First of all, I would like to make use of this gathering to confess my debt of gratitude toward a German writer. He is not one of the big literary names of this country, his work has practically fallen into oblivion. When I happened to refer to him here, people were surprised to find me interested in an author who is usually ranked in the highly dangerous category of regional writers preoccupied with earth and blood. He is just a little shy of being considered a propagandist of the Third Reich, all the worse for a man who, in his capacity as university professor, denounced the conquering spirit of the Hitler régime, an act for which he was forced to suffer internment in Nazi concentration camps long before the beginning of the war. The camp experience provides the catharsis of his ultimate novel Missa sine nomine. I have chosen to honor the memory of Ernst Wiechert because my reading of his books at the age of fifteen marked my first encounter with literature, that is with the rosy-fingered Dawn, with tales that are not limited to the sum of incidents that keep you in suspense. I see clearly now that my interest did not arise from the rare poetry of the text alone. It was the result of an encounter passing through time, space, and the border between two languages. In Die kleine Passion, which tells the story of Hans, a fatherless child living in this marshy and wooded part of East Prussia, where invasive religion presses with all Heaven’s weight on the consciences and behavior of its inhabitants, someone whispered something about an almost-me into my ear for the first time. Today I can see that I was not then aware of these similarities. That universe was readily familiar to me, requiring no big effort on my part to imagine it. A humid country, a rural society that can no longer claim autonomy, ignorance of the city lights and deafness to the rumble of the world (in Jedermann, the sequel of Die kleine Passion, the same young people find themselves on the front lines of the first slaughter of the century), the imprint of religion leaving such a narrow scope for individual action that destiny appears to be all traced out. Between this universe and mine there lay not those thousands of kilometers that separate Lutheran East Prussia from Catholic Brittany, tempted by Jansenism for a time and deeply marked by the severe prescriptions of the Counter Reformation. Without feeling the necessity to express it in words, it appeared to me immediately that Wiechert’s fictional characters and I belonged to the same geographical and mental region.

2There have been other, more esteemed, readings since this first literary fascination and I have felt flattered when, in the context of my work, Proust or Claude Simon were mentioned, to whom I could add those who have been essential to me — Chateaubriand and Flaubert, as well as Malcolm Lowry and Kerouac; but to tell the truth, as far as the basic elements of my literary endeavors are concerned, I would not really have needed them: I had already encountered everything in the work of Wiechert. Yet, beyond personal reminiscences, the one thing in his books that seduced me above all, that was important to me, that enticed me toward this high idea of literature, was the biblical tone of his writing, which one understood to carry a higher mission than just simply telling a story. What it said, in sentences interspersing the text like gold veins and sounding as if they had been borrowed from Psalms or the proverbs of Solomon, I remember vividly, like this one, for instance, which I still cite now and then: one only humiliates oneself is what it said in this lyrical, conjuring language, which did not allow any word to be careless at the risk of becoming sententious and that all history expressed in quasi-liturgical language would inevitably tell the story of a chosen people, whichever, wherever it may come from and however humble it may be. The writing was the poetic tongue-of-fire of the Day of Pentecost, lowering onto the characters of the text and transforming them into universal advocates of the human condition. The writing was this act of choosing. And every book was a small piece of the great book of the world, like a shadow, transferred through the centuries, of the novel of the Hebrew people, where this man of divine descent came to announce the death of death. And we all know how deeply the spreading of this good news has influenced our vision of the world. We practically owe everything to it. Therefore, through the grace of the writing, it became possible to make a lost corner of northwestern France a promised land.

3This biblical, prophetic, evangelic tone accompanied me during my entire childhood. I heard it every Sunday in mass, uttered from the top of this small space capsule symbolizing the Ascension and the celebrant’s intermediate position between God and his flock, this powerful sentence constantly recurring like a leitmotif — and at that moment it was as if a piece of Heaven had settled down upon the believers assembled in church: verily, I tell you. And since it was the self-proclaimed Son of God who spoke, it was quite impossible to doubt his words, for it was clearly affirmed at the beginning of St John’s Gospel that this Man born of a woman was the word come flesh. Out of which followed that the word, the body, and the truth were one. All this was Him.

4One can well imagine what operations were necessary in order to get fictional characters to go on their way unhindered and spreading their small pieces of truth, a truth no longer absolute, but temporary, occasional, transitory, human. The sum of the truths bound to the firm desire to persevere when the victory over death is no longer certain at all. The last one to believe in texts literally was this poor old fool Don Quixote, who is a fool first of all for thinking the romance of chivalry to be the word of Gospel and that it would be sufficient to rely on it to create the character of a knight errant, a miles Christi as he was called in the twelfth century. The first hero abandoned by God. The rupture between fiction and the real, that is between Heaven and Earth, is accomplished from the beginning of the novel through the charge against the windmills. Therefore, fiction is just a machine to mill the winds. The word becomes flatus vocis again. He is crazy who believes in what is written. And off with the formidable semantic gymnastics of the Council of Nicaea, which resolved the old dispute about the divinity of Christ by imposing this idea of double nature, to be imagined as opposing forces inside an atomic nucleus, all God, that is word, and all man, that is the suffering, demanding, aging, dying body. As doubt was rising and man began to recognize himself in the human part of the Savior, in the decaying temple of his corpse and not in his glory, rejection was spreading, leading finally to the inevitable separation. The word regained Heaven and the body was left to itself to satisfy its desires as its only means of resisting unavoidable death. The late invention of the realistic novel, in this part of the world that had awaited the end of time with terror and hope, was made at this price. At the price of this disincarnation. The lights of reason having replaced those of the Spirit, the illumination they brought into the world showed it in its crudeness and cruelty, Pascal’s vision of men in chains who were to be liberated by all means available. The hero of the novel, last representative of the knight errant for whom the romance of chivalry, or the novel, had been invented, telling him that by saving the humiliated he would obtain his salvation, with nothing to rely on other than his own resources, who had nothing to expect from Heaven any more, he undertook it to save himself without assistance. He intrigued — sometimes that passed, sometimes not. In this one discovered that intrigue, if methodical, implacable, is something of a physio-chemical experiment reproduced in a laboratory. Thus Zola had only to get inspired by the theories of biologist Claude Bernard and literature would not wait to claim scientific status. Which Roland Barthes was determined to prove in displaying all the seductions of his sparkling intelligence before retracing his steps during his last years and admitting the vanity of his project, confessing that, until then, he had merely been producing attempts, “rugged form where analysis contests with romance and method with phantasm.”

5For poetry, this repressed part of the realistic novel, the divine part of the double nature — fiction and representation of the real — which the latter often eliminated within itself to radiograph the colloquial of humanity, cannot be reduced to science. It is what once was called grace and what the Romantics called the expression of genius, where we contemptuously reject inspiration, that which we no longer dare to name, but feel as an imperial need to sing. It is this restrained, broken song, this irrepressible song coming from an earthly and, at the same time, heavenly body like a fossil wave, which I heard with pleasure coming up from Ernst Wiechert’s pages. It is for catching his echo that I place my sentences to the listening post.


Further Reading:
Fields of Glory. Arcade Books, 1993.
Of Illustrious Men. Harvill Press, 1995.
World More or Less. Arcade Books, 1998.

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 165k


Born in Campbon (near Nantes) in 1952, Jean Rouaud studied literature before becoming a seller of newspapers at a newspaper stand. Les champs d’honneur, his first novel, appeared in 1990. He became famous overnight and was awarded the Prix Goncourt. Jean Rouaud lives and writes in Brittany.

Dagmar Rohde (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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