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Tremendously Overrated (Both Book And Translation)
on 9 June 2011
This review is of *Maldoror*, alone.
Lautreamont's *Maldoror* is legendary for its bold and complex phrasing and imagery, for its reputation of embodying Surrealism *avant la lettre*, and for its remarkably extreme, savage imagery. Less frequently remarked is its obvious debt to the earlier literature of the *Frenetiques*, such as Petrus Borel. Given the very few English translations of the latter, one may pardon those who do not read French for overestimating the originality of *Maldoror*. Francophones such as the Surrealists and Lykiard, however, have no such excuse.
The descriptions of *Maldoror* in the various Amazon reviews describe the content and style of the work perfectly well, so I shall neither repeat them nor try to outdo them. Instead, I shall offer a slightly less breathlessly adoring view of the work, in general, and of Lykiard's translation of it, in particular.
My view of *Maldoror* is that it is primarily a parody of the extreme tendencies of the "dark side" of Romanticism, in general, and of Byron, in particular. Although Lykiard dismisses Mario Praz's view of Lautreamont and *Maldoror* rather abruptly, Praz's observations seem quite germane, to me:
"[Lautreamont/Ducasse is] a macabre humorist in whom it is impossible to distinguish where sincerity ends and mystification begins".
Those who doubt this observation should have a look at Ducasse's extant letters, many of which bear witness to his desire merely to be a successful writer, and to be judged by the literary critics of the day. In a word, Ducasse/Lautreamont appears to have been precisely the sort of careerist *litterateur* whom the Surrealists excoriated and excommunicated from their ranks with tedious regularity!
As for Lykiard's translation, it is adequate, perhaps even the best of a bad lot, but that is hardly a compliment. It is certainly far from inspired. Although, as he trumpets *ad nauseam*, his version of *Maldoror* may be in the main less error-riddled than those of his competitors, it is frequently leaden and awkward. Compare, for instance, the following tin-eared rendition to the original, and then to Paul Knight's rendering of the same passage:
The original: "[...] car, à moins qu'il n'apporte dans sa lecture une logique rigoureuse et une tension d'esprit égale au moins à sa défiance, les émanations mortelles de ce livre imbiberont son âme comme l'eau le sucre".
Lykiard: "For unless he bring to his reading a rigorous logic and mental application at least tough enough to balance his distrust, the deadly issues of this book will lap up his soul as water does sugar".
Knight: "[...] for, unless he brings to his reading a rigorous logic and tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar".
Granted, such evaluations involve much subjectivity, but there's no doubt in my mind which version reads both more accurately and more elegantly in English. Lykiard does, of course, deserve credit for demonstrating Knight's faults, as well, but that fact hardly excuses Lykiard's own errors and infelicities.
Lykiard's notes are not necessarily much better than his translations. To take but one instance, Lykiard tells us that "God is here (and *passim*) ironically addressed as *tu* rather than the more formal *vous*". If Lykiard were as clever as he'd like to appear, then he'd know that the French *always* address God as *tu*, and not as *vous*. Therefore, there is nothing ironic on its face about Lautreamont's usage, at all.
In sum, *Maldoror* is a sometimes powerful, but often puerile, *reductio ad absurdum* of *Frenetique*-era late Romanticism. Enjoy it for its over-the-top style and its infrequent passages of genuine and sincere poetic power. Do not, however, take it too seriously, because, although we shall never know for certain, my bet is that Ducasse/Lautreamont was little more than a prodigiously gifted adolescent who sought, as most adolescents do, simultaneously to shock and to impress the grown-ups.
June 25, 2011--update re. translations: Could the brand-new R. J. Dent translation of *Maldoror* finally be the one that many of us--minus the Lykiard camp followers-- have been awaiting? Stay tuned....