An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue

An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue
by Valère Novarina, translated by Amin Erfani
the Martin E. Segal Theater Publications, May 6, 2015.

“An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,”
followed by
“the Animal of Time”

Introduction to the book, purchasable here.

Valère Novarina is one of the most innovative and influential voices in the theater of the past forty years. His radical writing – yearning to be “dispensed with the burden of communication” – follows an unmistakably French avant-garde tradition. His idiosyncratic style bends language beyond the limits of intelligibility, incessantly reinventing lexica and syntactic structures ex nihilo. He engages in uninhibited buffoonery, paired with ritualistic, incantatory mysticism, admittedly following the centuries-old voice of François Rabelais. Novarina’s theater would have been entirely hermetic to our ears today, were he not perceived as being a direct heir to Antonin Artaud’s groundbreaking Theater of Cruelty, on which he wrote a thesis at the Sorbonne. Within the past half-century, this particular tradition of avant-garde theater – briefly branded as “post-dramatic,” mostly for academic purposes – also resonates, beyond France, with works by such authors as Sarah Kane or Heiner Müller. Although the singularity of each author remains unmistakable, they all share an intimate understanding that writing and speech are, in and of themselves, acts more than vehicles of meaning. They reclaim language, no longer as a mere medium of representation, but as an entity endowed with a life of its own, untamed by discursive practices, indistinguishable with the very fabric of “existence.” For Novarina, as for Artaud, writing is a form of living, bound neither by genre (plot, characters, verisimilitude, or what we in the U.S. call “drama” or “fiction”), nor by the loose and generic category of “literature.” Although Novarina’s transgressive work is so intertwined with the fabric of the French language, his notorious “hermeticism” has not prevented him from being acclaimed, not only in France and in Francophone countries, but worldwide. He is translated into over fifteen languages, some of widely different origins, including Greek, Hebrew, Slovak, Serb, or Hungarian. His journey as a writer has been perilous and astonishing, not the least because his voice sounds so foreign to those of playwrights and authors who define literary genres. Son to an architect father and an influential mother who made a career in theater and acting, Novarina was born in 1947 in Switzerland, spending a great part of his childhood in Thonon, alongside the French shore of Lake Geneva. He explains, in “An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” that this landscape was formative of his imaginary, defined by lakeshores, mountains and valleys. But this geography was also formative of his writing, which follows the rhythms of the ever-fluid Savoyard dialect. Manon Trolliet, Novarina’s mother, became a no less important, almost mythical figure to the author, whom he depicts as the generative source behind his writing. Novarina would often convey an anecdote, which occurred late in his life, before she passed away. Well into his career, already a well-established writer, Novarina was summoned by his mother who, out of maternal love, took it upon herself to inform him that nobody but she, in his immediate surrounding, dared to come forward and admit to him that his writings were altogether incomprehensible. Novarina confesses, in the Debate with Space (Le Débat avec l’espace 1999), that he took on writing in a serious manner at the age of eight, but showed no trace of it to anyone until he turned twenty-two. He later frequented the stage director Roger Blin, who showed interest in his work. One of his first texts, l’Atelier Volant, was produced for the stage in 1973. The director famously forbid Novarina from attending rehearsals, because of the playwright’s expressed aversion to dramatization. This rejection from the space of the theater provoked in Novarina his first “theoretical” writing, Letter to the Actors (Lettre aux acteurs, 1973), in which he pleaded with actors in a no less “theatrical” voice to resist the urge of mimicry, dramatization, and entertainment. His determination to publish his work earned him rejections by all major publishers. At least on one occasion, a publisher also took it upon himself to summon Novarina and explain to him that his writings are, quite simply put, unpublishable. In 1980, Novarina was invited to barricade himself for days in a radio studio of France Culture to record readings, improvise songs, shouts and screams, while randomly playing 14 musical instruments, most of which he knew nothing about. The celebrated recording of the Theater of the Ears (Theatre des Oreilles, 1980), is strangely reminiscent of Artaud’s notorious and censured radio recording with Roger Blin and María Casares, To Be Done With the Judgment of God (Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu, 1947). Only in 1984 did Novarina find a permanent home with Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, who first accepted to publish his Drama of Life, described as a “comic poem where 2587 characters enter and exit.” Although his theater has been staged since the 70’s, and his body of work kept growing at an almost dizzying speed, he entered the repertoire of the Comédie Française only in 2006.

Novarina’s writings are generally divided into three categories. There are first the “theatrical” texts, intended for the stage, like the Animal of Time (l’Animal du temps – 1993), which is included in this volume. It is the author’s stage adaptation of the first half of his epic Words to Animals (Discours aux animaux – 1987). The latter belongs to a second category, which Novarina calls “utopian theater:” monological or polyphonic texts, sometimes composed of thousands of voices, and therefore impossible to put on stage for practical reasons. These “theatrical” and “utopian” texts achieve in fact one and the same goal, whether in writing or on stage. They show language at work in an entirely new light, like an untamed “animal,” a “beast” driven by urges of its own, unpredictable and arborescent. The third category is generally referred to as Novarina’s “theoretical” writings. “An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” which opens the volume, belongs to the third category, where Novarina speaks with more clarity about his writing process, his singular understanding of the work of translation, and the autobiographical origins of his own work. These “theoretical” writings are not themselves deprived of “theatricality,” which makes Novarina’s style so idiosyncratic. The fundamental principle that shapes his writing also holds true for his paintings, which may look more familiar to the American public because of their similarities to works by some abstract impressionists to the likes of Jackson Pollock. Novarina often expresses his belief that the written medium has systematically and historically fallen behind the visual arts, and that it’s about time to catch up. He defines himself as an admirer and follower of Jean Dubuffet’s “Art Brut,” which may be a visual translation of Artaud’s Cruelty, as far as both denounce the limitations of the rules of representation, and call for a more incomprehensible, unpredictable agent to guide their work.

One of the recurring questions asked by Novarina’s readers is: How can such a form of writing lend itself to translation? Even more bluntly: Is it possible to translate Novarina at all? In fact, Novarina’s texts resist transparency as much in translation as on stage. His theatrical work is untranslatable, if one subscribes to established schools of translation, which equivocate the task to a transference of meanings, of syntactic structures between languages, or worse still, to a practice of clarification or linguistic embellishment across languages. Novarina addresses for the first time the question of translation in “An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” where he stresses that it must not lend itself to mimicry or duplication. Rather, he says the translator “must rejoice when we stumble upon what cannot be translated.” Untranslatability, one may argue, is the very condition of translation, one that transfers no linguistic meaning, but a certain jouissance of writing. Because of this, these translations of Novarina have been the most “joyful” experiences, as one translates the “joy” of exploring language, finding in American English a resistance, a rhythm, a beat, that resonate with the author’s original act of writing in French, rather than what he wrote. That “resonance” may in fact easily, often inevitably, come out as non-literal. English is a much more compact and malleable language than French, and I am quite certain that Novarina, were he to write in English, would find a lot of “joy” in it, although in radically different forms.

This volume opens with a short “theoretical” text by Novarina, called “The Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” which comes from a book entitled the Inverse of Spirit (L’Envers de l’esprit, 2009 ). It is important to note, while reading Novarina’s reflections on writing and translation, that the word esprit in French, as the word “spirit” in English, is etymologically related to the notion of souffle or “breath” (one of Novarina’s leimotivs), through the Greek pneuma. While the French esprit can bear a similar meaning to the English “spirit,” it may often easily be translated as “mind,” or “thought.” Over all of these, Novarina sides with the etymological inversion – “breath” – and contends, along the lines of Artaud, that translation operates a transference of “breath” between languages, rather than of “thought.” “Breath” simultaneously generates and forbids “spirit.” In “The Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” Novarina also speaks about his mother, who he says was once proposed to by a young Hungarian man who later died in Auschwitz. He explains his consequent fascination since childhood with Hungarian, which he does not understand, and how his relationship with this foreign language also shaped his relationship with his native language and with language in general. This text is followed by the long “theatrical” monologue the Animal of Time, the stage adaptation of the first part of Words to Animals. The juxtaposition of

these two texts gives the American reader a good grasp of Novarina’s various styles, reflections on language, and his unique approach to “theatrical” writing.

Amin Erfani
New York City, 2015