The Roving Shadows – Pascal Quignard (translated by Chris Turner) – Prix Goncourt Winner 2002

How do you review a book when you know the author is clearly, significantly more intelligent than yourself? How do you do justice to a work that elicits thought trains that dwindle on for days? What if there is no clear “plot”?
Apologies in advance if this is “review” clearly misses the point, or if it doesn’t even touch upon the core of Quignard’s premise.
Every shadow that envelopes our bodies is that of the scene that never comes into view, since it is the scene that is at our origins.
We could neither hear nor see those who made us, not what made us, not how it was done, before we were. It happens that human beings forget that they are not, before being.
But we lie: we always believe we heard something in the shadows, before being subject to the atmospheric air, before our eyes were opened to the light of the sun.
We were constructed in the shadows. Passively in the shadows. We are the fruits of the lidless ear of the shadows.
This is a totally fragmentary work, a collection of snippets, part fiction, part fact, researched in detail. A work that is described by the publisher as a “long meditation on reading and writing that strived to situate these otherwise innocuous activities in a profound relationship with sex and death.” The book starts out with a memory of being read to as a two-year-old. These early fragments referring to youth, to time passing, to reverting back to a childhood state, to “adoring time”, to “detest the now.”
As the title suggests, and the quote I have used above, this book consistently refers to the shadows, what lurks in the shadows? You cannot grasp a shadow?! You cannot jump a shadow! Just like the experience of reading this book, it is a work you cannot simply grasp, understand, you cannot jump over it and move on, it lingers. A book that is difficult to describe but it is a work you experience rather than simply read. Even though the art of writing and the subsequent action of reading is part of the thread linking the fragments, the physical connection of this book to your personal time and place is hard to deny.
Consisting of fifty-five chapters, it may, on the surface, appear to be a long book, but all of the chapters are short, here’s ‘Chapter 3”;
It is a property of the structure of language that it is its own tertium.
The writer, like the thinker, knows who is the real narrator within him: formulation.
This is what I do: the work of language weighing, thinking, inclining, expending itself.
Poetic in places, with Quignard listing the “the loss of shadows and darkness”, full of Historical references with 14 pages of translator notes where you are given details of the people and paces mentioned in the text, for example “The sixth book of the Chin P’ing Mei” or Jean-Baptiste Massillon “(1663-1742) a French Catholic bishop and a famous pulpit orator”. I found myself shuffling to the back of the book at regular intervals to discover these hidden gems in the text.
The past is built up in each wave of time that advances. The past available to contemporaries is not even the same each time it comes up from the realm of shadow. Mallarmé’s past isn’t Michelet’s and Rembrandt’s isn’t Vermeer’s. Chuang-Tzu’s isn’t Heraclitus’, nor Cervantes’ that of Shakespeare.
Not Emily Bronte’s that of Charlotte.
Generally whilst I read I occasionally find a pertinent quote that is short and sharp, a quote that I can tweet, with this work I found myself thinking “I should tweet that….I should tweet that… what about that?”, a book that has revelations on every single page. A work to mull over, as the publisher says “A meditation” on shadows on writing, on reading, on art, on human existence. A deep book, full of enlightening thoughts, but, again, a book that is impossible to describe. You need to read it yourself to understand what I am attempting to say here. Needless to say I will be purchasing more of Quignard’s works.
As regular readers of translated fiction would know, the preeminent French literary award is the Prix Goncourt, which is given to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. “The Roving Shadows” (“Les Ombres errantes”) received the award in 2002 and was the first “non novel” to win in over 60 years. With a list of writers to win the award including Atiq Rahimi, MarieNDiaye, Michel Houellebecq, Mathias Énard (in recent years) and Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir on the honour roll, it is an award that always throws up gems (having said that I wasn’t a huge fan of the 2006 winner “The Kindly Ones” by Johnathan Littell).
A note on the publisher, this book came from Seagull Books and is beautifully presented, bound and typeset, a publisher whose works to date I have thoroughly enjoyed, one to keep on your list of publishers of translated works as the quality is outstanding and the subject matter enlightening.

Source – personal copy.

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