Roving Shadows, trans. Chris Turner (London: Seagull Books, 2011), 240 pp.;
Les Désarçonneés, Dernier royaume VII (Paris: Grasset, 2012), 337 pp.;
Mourir de penser, Dernier royaume IX (Paris: Grasset, 2014), 221 pp.
When Pascal Quignard won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for fiction in 2002, it was awarded not for a novel but for The Roving Shadows, the first of what are now nine volumes of his generically indeterminate, and distinctly nonfictional, Dernier royaume (Last Kingdom). It proved to be a prescient choice on the part of the Goncourt judges, since the Last Kingdom has become a major literary project, whereas the novels—of which Les solidarités mystérieuses is the latest—appear increasingly slight. The novels are the product of Quignard’s fictional invention; the Last Kingdom, of his nonfictional reading. Each of its volumes is a compendium of fragmentary renarration and reflection, loosely gathered around a given theme—shadows, horses, and thinking in volumes 1, 7, and 9, respectively. By these means and in his characteristically assertive idiom, Quignard’s aim is to defend his self-chosen “last kingdom”—a bookish retreat from the world on the banks of the Loire and the asocial values it stands for. His material is anecdote (often drawn from the lives of figures belonging to a more or less distant past, sometimes from his own) and etymology (he is clearly a fine classicist). But for all the assertiveness of his manner, this is the work of a man who portrays himself both as already knowing how to live and as still seeking to discover how best to live.
It is not easy to convey what is so compelling about these books: Quignard is unremittingly serious, habitually sententious, formidably learned. But his material, which derives from a lifetime’s reading and frequently portrays historically alien worlds, is always arresting and sometimes disturbing. For instance, the opening anecdote in Les désarçonnés (The unseated) recounts the enforced imposition of the Eucharist on a Jewish youth and his subsequent decapitation at the deathbed of Charles IX, who then kisses the dead convert’s lips in the hopes of a direct passage to heaven. The narratives may be disturbing, but they are also mysterious in a way that the “solidarités” of his latest novel are not. Indeed, they read like the prenovelistic tales that Walter Benjamin describes in “The Storyteller”: they arouse “astonishment and thoughtfulness” in their listeners, and their narrator emerges as “the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.”
It certainly makes sense to think of Quignard as a righteous man, and he is obviously a skilled storyteller, but he is also a writer. The imagination that seems to serve him so ill in the novels works in Last Kingdom to energize his sententiousness. A disquisition that defines time and narrative as the consequence of hunting and predation in Les désarçonnés concludes with an assertion that “travel [End Page 349] means travel stories.” Quignard then illustrates his claim with a curiously striking image, as he continues: “Bees recount their travels: and this is how, as they dance, flowers have been able to address a queen who remains in the shadows and cannot see them.” We all knew about the language of bees, but it never occurred to us that the flowers were the real source of the bees’ message, or the queen its intended recipient. [End Page 350]
Ann Jefferson, professor of French at Oxford University and a fellow of the British Academy, is the author of Genius in France: An Idea and Its Uses, Biography and the Question of Literature in France, and books on literary theory, the nouveau roman, Stendhal, and Nathalie Sarraute.