Reading: La fausse morte by Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry (1971-1945)

I found a short poem in a remarkable translation by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody:

The Faux Death
Humble, tender, against the charming tomb,
______Unfeeling monument
That out of shadows, leavings, offered love
______Conjures your weary grace,
I fall, dying against you, dying — Yet,

No sooner fallen across the low grave
Whose lawn littered with ashes summons me,
Life reawakens in her seeming death;
She shakes, reopens lambent eyes, and bites,
And wrenches from my chest still other deaths
……….Dearer than life.

The chaining of adjectives doesn’t work as well musically as in French, where we hear a mantra of -ment. A charming tomb, well the tone of the poem is set. Is the poète visiting a graveyard in the night-time? The tomb has its grace because of all the drama of abandonment and the love that lavished, and the protagonist is dying too and lies down. What the translation misses is the ambiguity of the word ‘abats’, which also means offal or giblets in French.

So, our tombsleeper lies there, summoned by his surroundings where ashes are spread, and what happens next will blow your mind. It’s a ‘seeming death’, in which life returns. La vie – frémit: Eyes are opened, I am lightened and life bites me in a forceful inverse of vampire fantasy affirmed by the awkward full rhyme with ‘mort’. The translation with lambent eyes and wrenching from the chest is well done and makes this Valéry seem part of a Keatsian canon.

By lying down and playing dead at graves, life rears its beautiful head and purges all those morbid fantasies (nouvelles mortes) that he holds dearer than life. Perhaps at the end he reaffirms life itself? (But thank heavens the poem doesn’t think it needs to say that, or other lines that dissolve it into marketable kitsch.

Here is the original French, that I quote because the translation takes some liberties:

Humblement, tendrement, sur le tombeau charmant
Sur l’insensible monument,
Que d’ombres, d’abandons, et d’amour prodiguée,
Forme ta grâce fatiguée,
Je meurs, je meurs sur toi, je tombe et je m’abats,

Mais à peine abattu sur le sépulcre bas,
Dont la close étendue aux cendres me convie,
Cette morte apparente, en qui revient la vie,
Frémit, rouvre les yeux, m’illumine et me mord,
Et m’arrache toujours une nouvelle mort
Plus précieuse que la vie.

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