Week 418: From ‘L’Enfant de la Haute Mer’, by Jules Supervielle

This is the concluding paragraph of a very strange, visionary short story by the French poet Jules Supervielle, about a sailor who one night, by the intensity of his longing to see his dead daughter again, conjures her into a kind of being, out on the ocean. The idea itself is not entirely original – in Tibetan Buddhism, for example, we find the concept of the tulpa, a being created by the exercise of spiritual or mental powers, capable of feeling and some autonomy of action. What is original is Supervielle’s imaginative empathy for such a creature. Generally I am not a great fan of literary work that can be characterised as fey, or, less kindly, as a bit daft, but I do find that there is something haunting about this particular story. Supervielle suffered for much of his life from poor health and a consequent fear of death – this was someone who speaks of holding his hand over a candle flame to reassure himself that he was still alive – so it may be that he projected some of his own state on to this creature poised between life and death, and it is this, along with the hypnotic cadences of its prose, that gives the story its power.

The translation that follows is my own.

‘Marins qui rêvez en haute mer, les coudes appuyés sur la lisse, craignez de penser longtemps dans le noir de la nuit à un visage aimé. Vous risqueriez de donner naissance, dans des lieux essentiellement désertiques, à un être doué de toute la sensibilité humaine et qui ne peut pas vivre ni mourir, ni aimer, et souffre pourtant comme s’il vivait, aimait et se trouvait toujours sur le point de mourir, un être infiniment déshérité dans les solitudes aquatiques, comme cette enfant de l’Océan, née un jour du cerveau de Charles Liévens, de Steenvoorde, matelot de pont du quatre-mâts Le Hardi, qui avait perdu sa fille âgée de douze ans, pendant un de ses voyages, et, une nuit, par 55 degrés de latitude Nord et 35 de longitude Ouest, pensa longuement à elle, avec une force terrible, pour le grand malheur de cette enfant’.

‘Sailors who dream out on the wide ocean, your elbows propped on the rail, beware of thinking too long in the dark of the night of a face beloved. You will risk giving birth, in these wholly desert places, to a being endowed with all human feeling that can neither live nor die, but suffers as if it lived, loved and found itself always on the point of death, a being infinitely disinherited in the watery solitudes, like this child of the Ocean, born one day from the brain of Charles Lievens, of Steenvorde, sailor on the bridge of the four-masted Le Hardi, who had during one of his voyages lost his daughter of twelve years old, and one night, at latitude 55 degrees north and longitude 35 degrees west, thought long of her, with a terrible strength, to this child’s great misfortune’.

Week 224: Je me souviens, by Jules Supervielle

The French poet Jules Supervielle (1884-1960) wrote many tender love poems to his wife Pilar, whom he married in Montevideo in 1907, Uruguay (the country ‘fort au sud’ referred to in the poem) being the country of his birth. This is one of them. 

The translation that follows is my own. I confess to not quite understanding the words in the fourth line ‘lui donne son nom’ – did Supervielle think that the French words ‘coeur’ and ‘carrefour’ were etymologically connected? This does not in fact seem to be the case. 

Je me souviens

Je me souviens – lorsque je parle ainsi
Ah saura-t-on jamais qui se souvient
Dans tout ce chaud murmurant carrefour
Qui fait le coeur et lui donne son nom –
Je me souviens, c’était dans un pays
Qu’on aperçoit fort au sud sur les cartes,
Le ciel mouillait à tort et à travers
Le grand matin noir et plein d’innocence.
Je me souviens – cette fois je suis sûr
Qu c’est bien moi qui hume ce temps-là –
Je vous trouvai durant une accalmie
Vous qui deviez devenir mon amie
Pendant vingt ans, et c’est encor vrai.

Jules Supervielle

I Remember 

I remember – ah, but when I speak this way
Can we ever know for sure what memories
Meet at that warm murmuring crossroads within
We call the heart, which gives it its name? –
I remember, it was in another country
You see on maps a long way to the south.
It rained as if the rain would never cease
That great dark morning full of innocence.
I remember – and for once I am quite sure
That it is I who breathe in that time’s air –
I found you as the sky began to clear
You who would become my wife, my friend
These twenty years gone by, and are still here.

Week 44: Ce Pur Enfant, by Jules Supervielle

I confess that I find much of twentieth-century French poetry rather impenetrable – it could of course just be that my French isn’t up to it, though I suspect that the same could be said for many native Frenchmen. But I do find many of the poems of Jules Supervielle (1884-1960) both appealing and accessible. Here’s one of my favourites. I have attempted my own translation, which I append, but of course it’s no substitute for the French.

Ce Pur Enfant

Ce pur enfant, rose de chasteté,
Qu’a-t-il à voir avec la volupté?
Et fallait-il qu’en luxe d’innocence
Allât finir la fureur de nos sens?

Dorénavant en cette neuve chair
Se débattra notre amoureux mystère?
Après nous avoir pris le coeur d’assaut
L’amour se change en l’hôte d’un berceau,

En petits poings fermés, en courtes cuisses,
En ventre rond sans aucune malice
Et nous restons tous deux à regarder
Notre secret si mal, si bien gardé.

Jules Supervielle

This spotless child, this rose of chastity,
What’s he to do with our carnality?
And was our senses’ fury always meant
To find its end in such an innocent?

Henceforth in this new flesh, all turned about,
Shall our love’s mystery be acted out?
The passion that once took our hearts by storm
Finds in this cradled guest another form,

In tiny limbs, in little hands, so curled,
In belly, round and innocent of world,
While side by side we watch, for him to tell
Our secret, kept so badly, kept so well.