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REVIEW: Wall Street Journal on "The Fiction of Pierre Michon"

The Fiction of Pierre Michon

Some historical fiction sketches ‘small’ lives at the edge of history’s grander narratives.

Feb. 14, 2014 5:51 p.m. ET


Pierre Michon is perhaps best thought of as a prose portraitist. His heart is not with the novelists but with the painters, his eye fixed not on our interior worlds but on surfaces and the depths they hide. The fictional “portraits” that the French writer produces—many of which are, in fact, about painters—might be mistaken for more conventional narratives, except that they are more stylized, digressive and speculative, fascinated with life’s mystery and with the limits of what can be known.


“We knew Francisco Goya,” opens one of the pieces in Mr. Michon’s 1990 collection “Masters and Servants.” “Our mothers, or perhaps our grandmothers, saw him arrive in Madrid. They saw him knocking on doors, on all the doors, stooped, benignly; they saw him not be named to the academies, saw him praise those who were, saw him return docilely to his province to paint more of his stiff brand of schoolboy mythologies.”


To a first-time reader, Mr. Michon’s lyrical, largely plotless novels and stories might seem intimidatingly remote. Such writing is hard to classify and probably even harder to translate; it isn’t surprising that, despite winning French prizes, the author’s work has struggled to find its way into English. The past few years, however, have seen a surge of Michon publications, allowing readers to begin to see the overall shape of his unique literary project.


The first and longest is 1984’s “Small Lives” (Archipelago, 215 pages, $15), Mr. Michon’s variation on the bildungsroman, which recounts not his own life’s story but the stories of others from his native region, spanning several generations. “In Mourioux,” he writes, “one avoids saying, ‘dead,’ ‘deceased,’ ‘departed’; even ‘late Mr. So-and-So’ is rare; no, all the dead are ‘poor,’ shivering who knows where from cold, from a vague hunger, and from great loneliness, ‘the dead, the poor dead,’ more penniless than beggars and more perplexed than idiots, all disconcerted, wordlessly entangled in an irksome web of bad dreams; in old pictures, they wear such a terrible look when, in fact, they are so gentle, kindly, lost in the dark like little Tom Thumbs, forever the least of the least, the smallest of the small folk.”


Already in this first book Mr. Michon’s style is full-grown, a lush mix of realism and impressionism. He favors long, complex sentences (“Proustian” wouldn’t be unfair) that push forward even while constantly stepping sideways, a slow-paced prose that attempts to contain life’s larger gestures and its minute sensations at once. The style of “Small Lives” is used to somewhat different effect in “Masters and Servants” (Yale, 192 pages, $13) and in the short 1991 novel “Rimbaud the Son” (Yale, 96 pages, $13). Here Mr. Michon shifts from lives that are “small” in history to lives at the edge of historically “larger” ones—including van Gogh, Goya, Watteau and (in the novel) Rimbaud. The storytelling strategies vary: The Goya story, for example, is recounted by characters living in the shadow of a famous person; other stories are told from the perspective of a historian, or simply a general “we.”


What all these works have in common is that their narrators are on the outside of the lives they are recounting, bound by the limits of their own perception. “We cannot know” becomes a refrain. Of Rimbaud’s mother, Mr. Michon writes: “It is not known if she cursed first and suffered after, or if she cursed at having to suffer and persisted in that malediction; or if, joined like the fingers on her hand, curse and suffering overlapped in her mind, switched places, reinforced one another, so that, irritated by their touch, she crushed her life, her son, her living and her dead between her dark fingers.” The fundamental struggle, in Mr. Michon’s work, takes place at the point where portraiture and history meet: Neither can ever really go beneath the surface, but both are forever attempting to.


“The Origin of the World” (Yale, 112 pages, $13), from 1996, moves away from portraiture toward something more resembling a conventional narrative—including events that progress and characters that interact—although readers would do well to hold the workings of Mr. Michon’s other books in mind. A haunting, imagistic book, somehow both lush and spare, “The Origin of the World” creates an effect much closer to a bewildering dream than to the sturdy coherence of a realist novel.


This March, Yale will publish a new translation of “Winter Mythologies and Abbots,” which unites two short books that Mr. Michon wrote in 1997 and 2002. But the most successful of the author’s translated books, as both a novel and a “portrait,” is also the most recent.”The Eleven” (Archipelago, 97 pages, $18), a novel from 2008, describes the life of the artist Corentin and his painting “The Eleven,” a portrait of the 11 members of the Committee of Public Safety, the group headed by Robespierre that brought about the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Housed in the Louvre, “The Eleven” is one of the world’s most famous paintings, capturing as it does the spirit of a major historical moment—except that neither this painting nor its painter ever existed.


Here Mr. Michon has taken his talents for speculation in a very powerful direction, by imagining a piece of history that ought to exist but doesn’t. He has created a figure as seemingly real as any of the biographical figures he draws elsewhere, and thus has brought to history a new possibility. A brilliant, surprising book, “The Eleven” is historical fiction at its best: a wholly imagined work that scrutinizes and reconceives how we construct history, time and experience.


Mr. Riker teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.