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INTRODUCING PIERRE SENGES
& HIS
ÉTUDES DE SILHOUETTES



PIERRE SENGES & JACOB SIEFRING




IN HIS BOOKS, PIERRE SENGES IS BORGESIAN. I won’t be the first to say it — there are many glaring differences, I’ll admit (Senges is a master of the long sentence, as graceful of a clown as Buster Keaton, whereas Borges’s style always strikes me as cool and measured), but nevertheless, from its earliest appearance (Veuves au maquillage, 2000), Senges’s work seems to proceed from two distinctly Borgesian principles. Let’s identify them; they might make a fair introduction to the translated selection you are about to read. To wit —  

i. Senges tells stories of stories, narrating tales in the second degree. In “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain,” Borges showed how it was possible to achieve a never-before-seen economy by offering a short précis of a fictional work, or even a body of work. By a stroke of genius or laziness (if not both), an author might bring novels into the world without ever writing them: he might simply describe them as though they were already fully formed. “What I set out to do was not a description, a narration, but rather a commentary on a description or narration; in other words, to approach it from the outset in the second degree,” Senges told an interviewer in 2000 apropos of Veuves au maquillage. Using this approach, narration can be endowed with a kind of lightness or agility it could not otherwise have. We find this quickness or lightness almost everywhere in Senges’s writing.

ii. It supposes imposture, if not coauthorship. Whereas Borges’s Pierre Menard is content to reproduce but some small portions of Don Quixote, in a dozen years Pierre Senges composed almost as many books in the vein of as many other authors. Perhaps the most impressive example is La réfutation majeure, recently published in English by Contra Mundum Press; a treatise systematically refuting the existence of the Americas, it is attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480-1545), a popular Renaissance author and confessor to Charles V. According to the Refutation, the new world would be as insubstantial and illusory as a string of flyaway islands, or a band of wyverns: a colossal hoax, perpetrated for mercantile ends. It is a book such as Jorge Luis Borges might have described, but never written, and it enlists on its behalf an astonishing amount of erudition concerning the Spanish Baroque period and myths of antiquity. What Italo Calvino said of Borges might as well sum up the intertextual nature of Senges:

Each of his texts doubles or multiplies its own space through the medium of other books belonging to a real or imagined library, whether they be classical, erudite, or merely invented.”
Thus in his bibliography you will find: a book-length monologue delivered by an actor who once played Macbeth (or by Macbeth himself, perhaps; Entre l’assassin sort le spectre, 2007); a 630-page novel that finds Captain Ahab going on Broadway then to Hollywood to sell his whale-tale to the highest bidder (Achab (séquelles), 2015); another novel, of equal heft, tracking a century’s progress of a learned society of Lichtenbergians as they attempt to piece together Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s countless aphorisms into a coherent narrative (Fragments de Lichtenberg, 2008); a tale in the mock form of a botanical encyclopedia, recounting a Biblical apocalypse fomented by a cadastral clerk on the verge of retirement by means of his guerilla gardening (Ruines-de-Rome, 2002); a rewriting of the Persian Letters of Montesquieu, setting its sights on life in the modern metropolis (Géométrie dans la poussière, 2004); and — last but not least, for it concerns us presently — a book reprising Franz Kafka’s ill-begotten fragments (Études de silhouettes, 2010).

The diaries and notebooks Max Brod took custody of after Kafka’s death happened to contain a number of very brief texts that were presumably abandoned or incomplete at conception. Some of these have appeared in English translation, either in The Blue Octavo Notebooks (trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, Exact Change, 1991) or Abandoned Works: Unedited Works 1897-1917 (trans. Edna Pfitzner, Sun Vision Press, 2012). Still more, I believe, may be read in French translation in volume two of the Pléiade edition of Kafka’s Œuvres complètes, or in German in Tagebücher 1910-1923 (Fischer Verlag, 1951) and Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande und andere Prosa aus dem Nachlass (Fischer Verlag, 1953).

Taking these stillborn incipits as points of departure, Senges teases out unclassifiable texts from them. While they vary in length from just six lines to six pages, their tenor is hard to categorize, for in this motley assembly we find neighbouring each other outlines of tales, madcap soliloquies, riffs on fairy tales, outré anecdotes, dubious textual commentaries, deranged monologues, perverse parables, et cetera. In some instances a single fragment of Kafka’s is reprised multiple times, yielding multiple versions, parallel texts suggesting the possibility of infinite variation. Other times, a unique fragment is driven to its logical extreme, or gives way to a dizzying cascade of ab absurdum speculation, and we marvel how things might have unspooled differently. As one might expect, all of Kafka’s familiar obsessions — the night and its terrors, the law, justice and its lack, bureaucracy, animals, et cetera — are here in force. Each passage begins in boldface to indicate the hand of the Prague lawyer, before giving way to Senges’s liberties.

The book from which our selection is drawn, Études de silhouettes, was published in 2010 by Éditions Verticales. The editors and the translator would especially like to thank Éditions Gallimard and the author for their support in publishing this original selection.


Jacob Siefring






A cry rises up from the river — the cry is that of a drowned person: logically (a bit of ethics combined with the impossibility of doing otherwise), it is my duty to dive in, without knowing whether doing so will save the drowned person from drowning, or add a second corpse to the first, just as heavy, adrift with its boots on in the swirls of the treacherous river, and send up to the shore a two-voiced cry, tenor and countertenor, not so lovely as to claim a part in the choir of sirens but persuasive enough, I hope, to draw towards us another rescuer: whether he can swim matters little: just so long as he comes to join us.




Were we deranged? We were running at night through the park, brandishing branches. To run is no sign of derangement, after all, a great number of athletes receive gold medals and hefty bonuses for it; nor is running in itself a bad omen, it’s a natural way of moving, it must come down to us from our hunter ancestors, or a deliquent great-grand-uncle, going on the lamb with every patrol of the police: at worst, it is a symptom of diarrhea, and draws its justification from questions of decency and hygiene, the exact opposite of insanity: that race leads the patient away from the asylums to bring him nearer to the bathroom. To run at night is perhaps the preoccupation of father abbots and mother superiors, night guards and dormitory wardens; anything that walks at night being for them a sign of either derangement or deviltry, like an escapee’s attempt or the gymnastics of an insomniac: running at night would at best be a sign of adulterous love, when the lovers slip clandestinely from one room to another, out windows, to the song of the nightingale — and if the moon lights the scene, their precipitations might give the appearance from afar of a dance of fauns. But nevertheless, between ourselves, running at night does not make a man into a lunatic, night changes nothing to the day, the race remains a legitimate act and the proof of the mastery of mind over body: that this night race should or shouldn’t go through a park is in no way alarming, unless some bygone bacchic hordes are discovered, the forest full of mysteries, or savage life, or animality, or symbols interweaving bushy sexuality with brutality. Unless we devote ourselves to interpretation, and wait for the runners at the park’s exit to welcome them with open arms whilst helping them into a straitjacket, nothing obliges us to see in the nocturnal race from one end of the park to the other a sign of madness: the park is a place particularly suited to races, even the night race: to run on a sloped roof would be to comport oneself much less discriminately. We were brandishing branches? alright, we were brandishing branches, why not? — probably elm or ash branches, probably branches found at the foot of trees, what could be more logical than the presence of branches on a park path, what could be further from madness than that logic of a detective gardener? All things considered, it appears clear to me at present (if I calmly think back to those famous night races through the woods, covered with leaves — without nostalgia nor shame, with the lucidity necessary for memoirs, let’s say for the case history, but without growing weak either, reason hunting down madness in its every last hiding place), it appears clear to me that to run through a park while brandishing branches is precisely what, in the natural order of things, leads us farthest away from madness, the madness of clinics or of poets and mystics: not to run like that, by night, amongst the trees, while raising up a linden bough over one’s head would on the contrary be a first step in the direction of lunacy — so long as the race continues, the night, the park, the foliage, we remain on the side of human reason.




During my grade school years, it was my custom to go and see a certain Joseph Mack from time to time, a friend of my late father. When after having left the school I wanted to see what this Joseph Mack had been up to, little by little I had to face reality (little by little is my habitual way: I have always been too slow, like Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus, who was slow to understand and engendered a race of cozened men to which I belong). To face reality: not only did Joseph Mack no longer live on Prinz-Albrecht Straße, but he now wanted to be called Bernstein, and had switched the first name Joseph for Ulrich (more melodious to his ears perhaps). Of course, such changes of address and name had had a notable influence on his way of life (to content himself with a quiet life in the country, he had had to renounce the delights of the Zimmermann café), but it seemed his very countenance had been affected by it, as though by some accident or a skin disease, or a period of war followed by an infinite chagrin: how many have we seen returning from abroad, their faces metamorphosed as if they had lived through their own death, sojourned underground, and returned to the surface, by scraping away the sand, back to the living, to henceforth air their Lazarus face among them, so piteous as to have washed up. Poor Joseph Mack, I mean poor Ulrich Bernstein, so far from the city, in his funeral attire, his face long and thin like those we see in the paintings of el Greco, whereas it used to be round and red, a veritable face of a sanguine wine drinker, a lover of fruits in summer and winter both, and of Dutch brioches — poor Ulrich: no memory of my father, he no longer knew his name, and as for myself, he hardly wished to receive me, standing straight and still at the door of his country house without those marks of friendship so agreeable during my grade school years: not a word, formulas of politeness that one usually reserves for the traveling salesman, and in his gaze foreignness itself, which is to say indifference and, I have to say it, sufficiently bad faith to pretend not to recognize me — when we said our adieux, he wished me safe travels under the name of Hermann Klein, even though my name is Leopold Hilbig, it always has been, just like my late father, and before him my father’s father, and before him distant ancestors in the time of the Defenestration of Prague — ever since then, in the streets of this small country village and in the middle of Prinz-Albrecht Straße, it is Hermann Klein who follows me, it is by this name that the Göttinger sausage merchants and Swiss cheese vendors salute me, it is by this name that my fiancée insults me, I should say my ex-fiancée, and it is this name, Hermann Klein, that a judge saw fit to inscribe at the top of an arrest warrant.




A watchman! a watchman! What are you watching for? Who hired you? One thing alone, the disgust you feel for yourself, makes you richer than the wood louse, who is lying under the old stone, and watching. What am I watching for? for you and yours, not for the queen’s jewels, nor for the king’s sleep: I’m watching for you, for your siesta, your readings and these meditations that make you into a wise philosopher, to wit, this great smooth talker as capable of giving lessons in disgust as he is of appraising the intrinsic value of beings, of wood lice and watchmen. No one hired me, no one other than you, with the loose change you get from your rents, to get me to march day and night along these circular paths, around your house and your bedroom, so that you can study the life and times of Cicero without fear of seeing a thief intruding into your foyer, your stable, and doing what thieves do everywhere; I march and I swing the lantern till dawn in order to deepen your night and give you whatever you need to talk about riches to anyone who will listen the next morning — and you say that my disgust elevates me above a wood louse? oh but hardly, scarcely higher, only so high that my shame releases me, as the cord that binds me to life one day will, or expends itself as momentum expends itself, so that I fall back down again, rejoin the wood louse, become him again or his brother, now divested of that disgust, my sole awareness, my sole illusion of intelligence, while leaving you, the sleeper, the placid sleeper, watchman of nothing and no one, so much higher than the wood louse, higher than myself, too, as far from us as the length of your talk comparing Disgust to Old Stones.




Pierre Senges is the author of fourteen books and over sixty plays for radio. Many of his books and short texts are composed as variations and inversions on existing texts or historical figures. He is the recipient of prizes for Veuves au maquillage (2000), Ruines-de-Rome (2002), Achab (séquelles) (2015), and his radio work. Two of his novels, The Major Refutation and Fragments of Lichtenberg, are recently published in English translation, by Contra Mundum and Dalkey Archive Press, respectively. The selections from Etudes de silhouettes by Pierre Senges appear courtesy of © Editions Gallimard, 2010 in Jacob Siefring’s translation. 


Jacob Siefring is a Canadian-American translator and writer. His translations of Pierre Senges’s writing have appeared in gorse, The Collagist, Sonofabook, The White Review, Brooklyn Rail, 3am Magazine, Numéro Cinq Magazine, Hyperion, and Music and Literature. His translation of The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges - a book refuting the existence of the Americas - is newly available from Contra Mundum Press.



The excerpts above from Senges’ text Études de Silhouettes introduce an extended run of fragments published in Hotel #3. 

The magazine can be purchased here.




2017.