FLIGHT(S): In Conversation With Chantal Neveu + Nathanaël

Que serait un entretien ou un polylogue sans interruption et sans quelque juxtaposition, sans un enchaînement un peu arbitraire ou aléatoire, sans une «association d’idées» que seule l’insignificance d’un «et» viendrait dire ou sous-entendre?

—Jacques Derrida[1]

From Montreal poet Chantal Neveu comes A Spectacular Influence, translated by Nathanaël. 

Drawing from philosophy (including Pre-Socratic materialists, Nietzsche, and Spinoza), A Spectacular Influence by Chantal Neveu offers readers an exercise in extreme perception. With clear lines and minimalist language, A Spectacular Influence solicits movement in melancholy as a way of celebrating the intimate role that each of us plays in the human collective experience.

This is Neveu’s “materialist poetry manifesto” in all its paradoxical joy through tragedy. It holds a linguistic magnifying glass up to core subjects at the foundation of our very humanness, dwelling in the Spinozan questions, Is consciousness an illusion? How do metamorphoses arise within the collective?

In this graceful, rich translation by acclaimed author and translator Nathanaël, Neveu’s poetic perspective invites us to consider that, in our inevitable connection with the world, “I am a human, and nothing human is foreign to me” (after Terence).


Despite the distance between their respective homes of Chicago and Montreal, Nathanaël  and Chantal Neveu discussed Chantal’s latest book of poetry. This conversation was translated from the French by Nathanaël.

Nathanaël: Here we are, having been invited to a conversation in honour of your Spectacular, and me, in a spirit no doubt of contradiction, but also out of an irrepressible desire to open here an anterior breach (and thus annunciatory) of your oeuvre, I want to speak of Èdres, of the sometimes destructive and carnal push that propels, if you will, the books to come; whether it be mentale, Coït or Une spectaculaire influence. Not out of a concern for origins, but rather an apocalyptic sensibility, the secret kept by the small transparent and black sticker that seals the book, which prevents one from opening it, just as it demands exactly that, the tear upon which writing is itself initiated. So, and by some obstinacy, the second èdre insists upon a “digression to my reason an instant,” a titular line buried in the text, and which contains everything: photography, desire and its abrogation (thus: extension)—the bed. The beat, of spaces and words, which take flight, and capitulate in their arrangement, breaks and convocations; relays between the interior and the exterior (for is èdres not followed by èdres | dehors ?èdres | outside — as though to mark precisely its acoustic flight?)

So, I wonder, to myself and to you : what flight is that?

Chantal Neveu: Thank you for asking this question, for opening this breach. Instead of flight[2], I had the impression of an immersion. You are right, there is also flight—I am in fact grateful to Henri Laborit for his Éloge de la fuite which impressed and motivated me—, a flight, a suite, several advances as well as a haptic plunge or an atmospheric surge. The intricacies of scales interests me, they enable the interrogation of what we call the real—what gives us our perceptions. There are aberrations, anamorphoses—numerous regimes of intelligibility and of sensibility. Similar to the states of fusion and confusion in the emotion of erotic abandon. This flight is perhaps also an expansion, a bursting, a disposition toward entropy and an availability to a new arrangement. Because we are alive, we are incessantly self-regulating, and because we are in relation, we must be attentive and creative: motivated by intuitions and desires, we expose ourselves to new situations and we are then invited to displace our a priori, to displace ourselves outside of rational surpluses, watching for and favouring alliances. Flight, here, certainly is a permissive “yes”.

With regard to the multidimensional layering of scales, am tempted to illuminate the welcome chronological displacement of writing and publications. The chronological appearance of the publication of books isn’t necessarily that of the writing of texts: for example, èdres was written after Une spectaculaire influence and was nonetheless published before. This inverts the logic of origins and suites, liberates (us) from time’s arrow. Literature favours sequences of improbable and delicious experiences and metamorphoses. This potential—and that power—is similar in my eyes to the figure of Pythia: is the pythic word annunciatory? Or descriptive of a past? A present? The strata of interpretations telescope, accumulate; what do we make of what we don’t understand? Fault lines? Flights? These breaches—and expansions—seem to me to be among your sources and motors for writing, dear Nathanaël.

N: It was in effect Laborit I had in mind when I pronounced—inscribed—the word flight, and this passage in particular, drawn from the same book you name (my translation): “To revolt is to take the road of one’s ruin, for revolt, if it is realized in a group, immediately retrieves a hierarchical scale of submission within the group, and revolt, alone, amounts quickly to the submission of the one in revolt… All that remains is flight.” Removed from their context, these words have something terrible about them, and terribly just given the present moment in what calls itself world, where the markers have rapidly organized themselves around a logic of ostentatious war, which would then no longer be latent (was it ever outside of the discourses that proclaimed it to be so ?), and whose arrogance says much about human baseness in this ignited era. Flight, in this case, it seems to me is the only possible (non-)response to fascisms—democratic or otherwise.

But beyond political truths, or at very least in their proximity, and close to a word which slides with such ease outside of itself, this geology, that of the water that runs through the lexical strata by tracing furrows that are immediately erased, proposes itself, it seems to me, as the mot juste (and thus an impossible word) of translation, of die Übersetzung, of a tradução. For while setting the text in an adoptive tongue, one is confronted both with its refusal—adaptation, installation, arrangement, etc.—and its malleability (its plasticity, you might say), in other words with its capacity to reformulate itself, against its uncommon language. No theory of translation will spare us the exigency of loss or recognition, nor of insinuation; I can therefore not help but wonder what it is we have in fact been invited to, you and I, if not to recognize a disappearance, that of the text (yours, your Spectaculaire), once it has been displaced. Is it mourning, a burial, a sublimation, a commandment? I wonder. Because to draw up the narrative of this work is also to fail it. How are we to say what it is, what has become of your text, once it has taken this form, of a book, its gilt, which can be held in the hand. In the end are we not leaning over a pit that we prefer not to name?

CN: Yes, we are near a pit. The orchestra pit. Let’s dance ! We do not want to nor can we write the narrative of the translation of Une spectaculaire influence—nor of any book. In this way we preserve the intimacy of every dyad which risks mutuality and secrecy into the outside of language. I am nonetheless happy and very grateful for this opportunity—another breach—which allows me to valourize and celebrate here “disappearance as a mode of appearance”. (I am borrowing this conceptual expression freely from Jean-Paul Curnier—in his essay La Tentation du paysage – l’avenir d’une origine l’Éternel Retour, Sens & Tonka, éditeurs, Paris, 2000). The disappearance of a text in favour of the appearance of its translation illuminates the experience of a privileged and consensual—extremely engaged—relay between reading and writing. The author-translator reads the text as close as possible to the words, as close as possible to the sub-texts, its richness and faults, carries, transports the text into another language, induces new lines of flight of understanding and non-understanding—a new immersion. There are displacements of semantic and/or acoustic resonances, rhythmic, etymological and others, the erasure of one language in favour of another, there is the appearance of a new interpretation—a respectful and augmented reading. Another livery, a deliverance. There is proof of a human action—in relation—through language, an election and trust. In the case of our collaboration, I can also say with joy how the title A Spectacular Influence intrinsically evoked the experience of what is the action-creation of your translation: a spectacular influence. The literary usage of your English language—and your breath as a poet—affect and influence the reading of my text written and published in French. One by one, the books are displaced, and they influence the cultures in which we move—and migrate. The action of translating and publishing translated texts contributes, it seems to me, to encourage the experience of an attentive and accompanied metamorphosis. They are decisions and acts which contribute to an induction of peace between humans. To hear, and attempt to understand by including the share of non-understanding. The books carry their share of invariance and their distances. As author-translator(s) of poetry, you expose courage of expression in particular and assume the vibration of distances, that is the expression of a power that eludes the totalitarizing powers that seek to silence (differences).

N: Spoliated. This is the word that comes as I pick the line up here, the text between us. That Denmark is in the process of ratifying a law, a regulation, a dictatorship allowing the spoliation of refugees, after their having been duly searched, of any goods in their possession exceeding a value of 400€. So of course I think of the cops under Papon during the Algerian War in which Algerians arrested in October 1961 were privy to the destruction—the shattering—of their watches under the hammer blows of this or that police officer (or perhaps it had been going on all along). In Denmark the task of confiscation will be assumed by: the police. But why not call this an inverted round-up ? And why deviate our correspondence to enliven this excedent, in other words, our experience by proxy, which is delivered to us by newspapers without journalists, photo-essays without photographers, writers without writing, the dead without a sepulture. Perhaps is it out of a concern for points of reference or nomination; or worse yet for lack of gravity. The bodies are still floating on the surface of the rivers of Europe; the corpse is anticipated by a whole filiation of commandments; the graves are dug, and remain open, to the same musical accompaniment as that of a danse macabre, which speaks most powerfully of its vitality: time stops on the immaculate dial. So if one advances by a notch, one falls headlong into your text, between the decapitated sculptures and the headless bodies of Albanians. Whatever the nationalities of the murderers, it hardly matters. Do you see, Chantal, it is difficult for me not to speak of the form of the human hand at the moment at which we are discussing translation. Or the author-translator. In the end it is a matter of the meticulous attention granted to limits, to bodies denied their corporeality, a diverted free-fall. Something is rotten in the State of Denmark. I don’t know what courage is after all, nor what speaking is, or not speaking. It seems to me on the other hand that disappearance, this is what is no doubt insufferable, is sometimes absolute; a destruction has the capacity to be total; and no theology of matter will succeed in erasing that which is destined never to carry a name, nor to have its voice heard, not even the breath of oysters whose respiration stirs an extinct estuary. Translation’s lure is no doubt to have forgotten what memory is capable of.

CN: This evening I am rereading pages from your Mein abendes N. in Asclepias : The Milkweeds, here is a spacious sentence, rewritten by hand, an adequation for my lungs : “∞ I stop here, in the infraction of evening”.

phrase de Nathanaël

[1] What would a conversation or a polylogue be without interruption and without some juxtaposition, without a somewhat arbitrary or aleatory linking, without an ‘association of ideas’ that only the insignificance of the ‘and’ would come to say or imply? (tr. Geoffrey Bennington)

[2] It was no doubt foolhardy on our part to have structured our conversation around such an untranslatable term as fuites; it is at once flight, escape, leakage, puncture and drain, and none of the available equivalencies in English carries the same degree of polysemic, never mind acoustic resonance. (N)

Photo credit: Pascal Dufaux

Photo credit: Pascal Dufaux

Chantal Neveu is a writer and an interdisciplinary artist. She is the author of the books Une Spectaculaire influence(2010), Coït (2010; translated into English by Angela Carr and published by BookThug in 2012), and mentale (2008). Her interdisciplinary textual projects include Èdresfollowed by Èdres | Dehors (2005) and Je suis venue faire l’amour, among others. A Spectacular Influence, translated by Nathanaël, is Neveu’s second book to be published by BookThug. She lives in Montreal.

Sorbonne photo

Photo Credit: Nathaniel Feis

The (self-)translating author of more than twenty books, Nathanaël writes in English and in French. Her recent works include Sotto l’immagine(2014), Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal(2012) and Asclepias: The Milkweeds (2015). Nathanaël’s extrinsic translations include works by Danielle Collobert, Édouard Glissant, Hervé Guibert, Catherine Mavrikakis, and Hilda Hilst (the latter in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araújo). Nathanaël lives in Chicago.

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