We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.
I write them letters.
Poet, art critic, and novelist André Pieyre de Mandiargues (March 14-December 13, 1999) was affiliated with the surrealists. He won the Prix Goncourt in 1967 for La Marge (The Margin), but for a long time, he was perhaps best known as the suspected author of The Story of O. The plot of his Le lis de mer is the heroine’s ritualistic plan for her own deflowering. His La Motocyclette (The Girl on the Motorcycle) became a film alternately titled “Naked Under Leather.” Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was his traveling companion, and he had close ties to André Breton and to the mystical poet and painter, Henri Michaux.
I have a story for you. Once upon a time, the fall of 1968 to be precise, a Golden Girl rather dismissive of her own talents thought she should take advantage of the generous doctoral fellowships she received to attend graduate school. In this "decision," as was her wont, she was following a course of (non)action determined by the men to whom she was (semi)voluntarily bound.
The recommendations that got her those fellowships used words like: “Her maturity and judgment are beyond question. Her native talents, her capacity for hard work, the suppleness of her mind, the modesty and enthusiasm that she brings to all her undertakings, all these qualities prepare her eminently for a brilliant career in graduate study. Unlike so many of the applications that will receive favorable action from the readers of my letter, this one will involve no guesswork.” But she thought she needed just to bide her time until her brilliant boyfriend of many years felt ready to marry her.
In retrospect I see that she was both like and unlike your sensual but virginal Vanina from Le lis de mer who, with great determination and imagination, planned to the last detail her own sexual initiation. Vanina selected her partner and gave the stranger elaborate instructions on just how he should bind her so that in their coupling, she would feel as if she were being penetrated by all of nature. In this pantheistic scenario that has been called a hymn to nature, the lines blur between man and beast, predator and victim, no words will be exchanged, and afterwards, he will comply with her demand that he disappear without even knowing her name.
But Grad School Girl needed to be initiated into the mysteries of the kingdom of academia. In her myopic, astigmatic eyes, her ultimate goal was to become an appendage to a Great Man. She had a modest, well-intentioned father who, watching the accumulation of her academic honors, termed her "an overachiever." She took this to mean that she wasn't as smart as her performance would suggest. Somehow, she was doing better than she deserved.
This was at a time, especially the late 60s in the South, when it was not easy for a woman interested in marriage and family to be taken seriously as a scholar. Her famous undergraduate mentor, Jules Brody, had told her to present herself as going for her doctorate even if her plan was to give it up the moment her "intended" missed her enough to crook his little finger and call her back to his side.
However, once in the very strange, foreign land of Durham, North Carolina where she had gone to study with and be subservient to another Great Man, things did not go according to plan. She started to unravel, imagining that her problem was that she was unable to do the work. Maybe her father had been right? But it was more complicated than that.
It took a lot of hard work and a new Prince Charming to set the unhinged princess on a better track. She and this new man who treated her with kindness and deference spent a blissful summer together in a duchy known as The Big Apple, where he worked in the operating room at a major hospital, while she commuted to NYU downtown to take some courses with other Great Men. One was literature scholar Roger Kempf; the other was Contemporary Literature expert, Thomas Bishop, who had happened to include in his course an electrifying slim novella (or récit, as you liked to call your stories) by an author I had never heard of--André Pieyre de Mandiargues. This was the beginning of our journey.
I know you got a kick out of being considered the author of The Story of O. In your preface, you lauded it as a sublimely spiritual, not remotely pornographic, work—“the first true novel since Proust.” The first time I visited you, as intimidated as I was, I saw the sly smile on your face when you said, “Everyone thinks I did it! I didn’t, but I know who did.” If that was supposed to be my cue to ask who the real author was, I did not take the bait. But I have to admit that I, too, got a kick out of identifying the author on whom I would be writing my doctoral thesis as the suspected author of The Story of O.
Do you remember the day I first showed up at your house when I was just starting my research on you? This was in the spring of 1972, when my husband and I spent all our wedding-gift money on a trip to Europe. Before leaving I wrote you a letter saying that I would be in Paris and asking if I might interview you. If so, you could get in touch with me by leaving me a letter at the American Express office in Paris. That was the way things were done in the pre-internet Mesozoic era. When I arrived, I felt so unprepared that I was hoping that you had not replied. I had to take a chance, though, because there was no way of knowing when or if I would have another chance to be back in France. But there was the letter, written in your inimitable crimped, spidery handwriting. Not only was your letter waiting for me, but you included your phone number for me to call and make plans for our rendez-vous. I called, desperately hoping no one would be home, but you, yourself answered. Panic was already setting in.
You offered to have me come over that afternoon. When I naively said, “Formidable!” I made my first of many missteps. You replied with outrage, explaining that “formidable” comes from the Latin and means “to inspire terror,” and did I really mean that? Sort of, I thought, but apologetic about having spouted slang to such a purist.
I want to refresh your memory about our first meeting. My husband and I arrive at your house, opposite the Musée Carnavalet. On the landing, there are two doors and two doorbells. We ring one, and the door behind us pops open. We are greeted by a French maid in the type of traditional costume one sees in old French films: White bonnet, frilly apron, black skirt, light on her feet despite the high heels. She looks us over and shushes us with her outstretched finger. I explain that we were invited to see the master of the house. She ushers us in.
I’m stupefied as we walk by walls covered with works of art that I think I recognize (Arcimboldo, Chagall, Ernst, Cartier-Bresson, De Chirico, Dali), many given to you by famous artists about whom you had written. One shocking painting features an open side of beef—surely not the Rembrandt, but maybe the one by Soutine?
In addition to your being a celebrated poet, fabulist, “a realist of the imaginary,” and master of a short novel form known as le récit, I knew about your reputation as a distinguished art critic. Our meeting that day felt as if it had the makings of a piece of surrealistic theatre. A slender, frail-looking man with elegant manners and piercing eyes that seem to take in everything, you introduce yourself, kiss my hand, and invite us into your inner sanctum, taking a route through a room filled with dozens of sewing machines. “Ah,” I say, idiotically, “your wife is a couturière?” “No,” you reply, “not a seamstress, but an artist!” This was not going well.
In only the initial stages of my research on you, I had no clue about how to approach an author on whom I was writing. Not only had I come without a tape recorder; I didn’t even have a notepad—just a scrap of paper and a less-than-sharp pencil. Noticing this, you said, “Maybe you would like something to write with?”
I didn’t know what to ask you—I was only writing about you for my doctorate at Duke because my supervisor had tried to bully me into a different topic, and I needed to come up with an alternative. Your Le lis de mer (published in English by Grove Press with the deliberately inflammatory title, The Girl Beneath the Lion) had been a revelation to my naïve self, so I proposed to write a thesis about you. I had originally wanted to write about Buñuel’s films, but this topic was nixed by my department. At the time, at Duke, it was considered too avant-garde to write a French Literature PhD thesis on film.
My illustrious supervisor, Wallace Fowlie, was willing to accept my counter-proposal to write about you, and this is how you and I ended up together. But what an unlikely match! I was born in the Midwest and raised in quiet Middletown, NY, the “Big City” in the Catskill Mountains Borscht Belt. You were the suspected pen behind the pseudonym of Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, the author of a novel Le lis de mer whose plot is the heroine’s ritualistic plan for her own deflowering, and author of The Girl on the Motorcycle (La Motocyclette) which became a film alternately titled “Naked Under Leather.” You were well known for your ties with surrealists like André Breton; with your traveling companion, Henri Cartier-Bresson; with Gallimard editor of your work Jean Paulhan, whose mistress, Anne Desclos, was revealed in a major New Yorker article as the actual Pauline Réage behind The Story of O, and with mystical poet and painter Henri Michaux.
You seemed delighted to have your name associated with eroticism and sadomasochism in literature and film. The 1976 film of your Prix Goncourt-winning novel, La Marge (The Margin, ably translated by Richard Howard) features soft-core cult actress Sylvia Kristel. I do love that work not for its eroticism, but for the psychologically sophisticated way it portrays the interval between the time one senses that a life-altering tragedy has occurred, and the terrible confirmation of the suspicion. Of course, the news will have come by means of an unread letter that one can carry around while postponing the inevitable. I had a flashback to your masterly evocation of denial in this novel when my friend sent a message about her husband’s heart attack. Even if you sense in your heart that something bad has happened, until you read a letter that confirms it, you can (sort of) blissfully go on your merry way.
You did seem to like that I was Jewish, and also that having studied in Mexico, I had some familiarity with the poetry of your friend, Octavio Paz, whose work you had translated and to whom you owe your passion for Mexico. I knew about your love of reptiles and later found out that you kept a python, but I’m happy to say that I did not see it.
In summary, against all odds, you seemed charmed by my naïveté and lack of professionalism. The whole experience of that first visit to your apartment was truly weird, but not so awkward that I was not invited back.
The dissertation topic I ended up choosing was not what you had in mind. You had wanted someone to write a stylistic study of your poetry, but I was more interested in your prose. You surely would have been happy to know there was a recent colloquium centered around that topic at l'Université de Caen. But my title was “Woman as Mediatrix in the Prose Works of André Pieyre de Mandiargues.” At least it was on the topic of your particular vision of woman as half-mortal, half-goddess, possessed of special powers.
You had asked me to send you the finished dissertation, which took another three-and-a-half more years to complete. Unlike the official black-bound version I turned in to my doctoral committee, I had yours specially bound in a pure-white cover with a blood-red border that I thought you would like. At first I didn’t know if you received it. But when I returned years later to see you, you said you had, and welcomed me back even though you were very ill and infirm at the time.
I visited your apartment once more, after you had died, and met with your wife, Bona Tibertelli de Pisis, (the one who was not a seamstress), whom you had married not once, but twice. On that third visit, your widow who had heard of Yale entrusted me with an array of clippings, articles, and files about you, hoping to promote your work through my own.
Years went by, but you appeared on my path again when, by coincidence, we visited Ferrara, home town of Count Filippo Tibertelli de Pisis, the flamboyant artist uncle who had raised your wife, Bona. De Pisis is well represented there in the local art museum named after him, and I found out from the owners of the guest house where we stayed that your filmmaker daughter, Sibylle, whom I had met as a young schoolgirl while visiting you, had spent a lot of time with them while producing a major work on her great-uncle.
Critics have noted the strong influence of Italy on your oeuvre. Of course, I never would have predicted I would have forsaken my beloved France to make my home in Italy, not far from the Monsters of Bomarzo celebrated by you. Perhaps we aren’t such an odd couple after all.
I have of course kept the original handwritten letters both to and from you. But now, after all these years, and after several decades as a professor of French Literature, I still have a lot to say to you. I need to admit that I have not yet put to good use the letters or the documents entrusted to me by your wife. This letter is part of my effort to rectify that.
But more on the Jewish issue. I should have guessed you had a special interest in Jewish women, but needed reminding via a recent article on your affair and ongoing epistolary flirtation with Nelly Kaplan, whom Wikipedia cites as “the only female film maker linked with surrealism.” As journalist Benjamin Ivry writes in the publication, “The Forward,” “Kaplan flaunted the attraction of being a bewitchingly seductive, liberated young woman who, to these bookish French poets, incarnated the well-established literary trope of the ‘beautiful Jewish woman.’” Your correspondence with her, published in 2009 under the title, André à Lady N., Lady N. à André, Correspondance Pieyre de Mandiargues/Nelly Kaplan features “fervent imaginings owing much to…the Marquis de Sade.” According to Ivry, these letters in which you call her your “pantheress” and ask her to write to you about her “lofty deeds and crimes” contain more than a tinge of “acerbic…sadistic wit.”
Your letters to me, however, were of an entirely different ilk. In a letter from April 1983, you say you are sending me a book that you hope I will like. But you feel the need to warn me that just before sending it to me, a French critic criticized the book in very harsh terms, calling it “obscene” and even “Nazi.” You add that you didn’t know what to think, but that you decided to send it anyway, and I can be the judge. You say you are sending me the book in memory of happy days in Paris, and that you hope we will again have the chance to renew our conversations about literature.
While teaching in Paris in 1984, I wrote you full of ambitious ideas for book projects to share my enthusiasm for your work which was not receiving the attention in America that I felt it deserved. Despite being justifiably confused by my rambling, and your suffering from health problems (visible in your barely legible handwriting), you said you would love to see me as soon as possible. Your invitation, “As soon as you arrive, call me,” rang some bad bells that still reverberated from the 1972 phone call during which I made one “formidable” faux-pas after the next. But I had learned some things since then and was encouraged by your addressing me as your “Very dear friend” and your affectionate sign-off, “your old friend embraces you.”
This was the last letter I have from you, but in June of 1992, I wrote to your widow, Bona, telling her that as delighted as I was to be back in France, “for me everything had changed. Indeed, this would be the first time since 1972 that I would not have the possibility of seeing again the person who had inspired me since 1969, and whose passing had completely overwhelmed me.” The most recent French family with whom I lived while teaching in Paris had sent me the sad news. “As much as I had wanted to send condolences, I wanted to wait until I was back in France where I knew I would feel the enormity of the loss.” I thanked your wife for taking the photos of you and me together during what, unknown to any of us, turned out to be my last visit. I was glad to have conquered my timidity enough to ask permission to take a photo, and Bona generously volunteered to do it. As I write this, those photos are right here beside me.
Cher Monsieur, (despite our years together, I would never feel right addressing you less formally)
Here come a few odd postscripts. Our previous correspondence mentioned above dates from 1972. This next letter to you is far more recent—August 2016. As you can see, you are still very much on my mind.
I'm here at Bomarzo to admire the immense stone “monsters” for the second time in my life. (Maybe the third if you count the time I "visited" by reading your “Les Monstres de Bomarzo.” That was when I was doing research on you for my dissertation.)
Things have changed here since my last visit, and I'm pretty sure you would not find Bomarzo's yuppified new look to your taste. By the way, these days the site is referred to by more than one name: Monsters’ Grove, Park of the Monsters (Bosco dei Mostri), Garden of Bomarzo, and Sacred Grove (Bosco Sacro). That last title notwithstanding, plenty of sacrilege has been committed in this place. Here's the story.
The last time we were here, we were free to just roam around the park among the colossal otherworldly statues that have, since the 1500s, defied explanation, and that would make a good Rorschach Test. On our previous visit there were no barriers between us and “les monstres”; no 10-euro admission charge, and definitely no snack bar, cafeteria or vending machines peddling strange stuff. One of the most prominent of these machines, called SEX TEST DELL'AMORE displayed a drawing of a topless man and woman.
From what I could tell, you're supposed to insert your money and then place your hand on the indicated spot to find out if you are sexy. Or to put it more precisely, to find out just how sexy you are. There are six labeled categories each of which corresponds to a particular number of points ranging from 0 ("frigida") to 69 ("bomba sessuale"). Each category has a light bulb next to it to reveal the truth about you. I presume that the cartoon drawing of a cavorting apple with a bite out of it, a lascivious smile on its face, and its tongue hanging out is supposed to be a further stimulant to the experience.
The human hand of the visitor/patron also figures prominently in the imposing box-shaped machine located just to the right of the Sex Test machine. This one is a replica of the Bocca della verità statue. The insertion of one euro and of your hand into the mouth will allegedly get you an answer to any burning question you ask. A germaphobe might be thinking of how many unwashed hands had gone into that mouth. A cinephile might flash to Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. Me? I'm reflecting on you (the once-suspected author of The Story of O and the actual author of a number of kinky works) and on what might be your response to all this.
But perhaps there is something here for everyone. Directly across from the two aforementioned machines are glass cases filled with multilingual books inspired by Bomarzo. I looked in vain for yours. Shame on them!
An essential feature of Bomarzo is the ongoing mystery of the place. These so-called truth-seeking machines that populate the visitors’ pavilion that now offers the only entrance to the park seem to have come from a planet different from that of its contents. The statues themselves which have remained fascinating after centuries are in no danger of losing their mystique. I have my doubts, however, about how long the SEX TEST DELL'AMORE will last.
Closer to the window where one pays the entrance fee are a number of striking black-and-white photos of the statues from many years ago. One that I'm sure would have caught your eye is that of a young woman lying in the mouth of the whale statue, arms and legs akimbo, skirt raised in a way that highlights the whiteness of her long legs. Her face is not visible, but her long, dark hair flows every which way with abandon. Her prone pose evokes erotic mystery. She made me think of your virginal heroine, Vanina, from Le Lis de Mer, whose self- orchestrated ritualized deflowering in an outdoor setting might resemble that shown in the photo.
I mention this by way of consolation for both of us that the sacred spirit of Bomarzo has not been completely despoiled.
Since my return to Bomarzo a few days ago, in recollecting my thoughts about you I’ve been doing some research on the internet, something I believe that you would have seen as a worse sacrilege than the Sex Test Machine. As one who was dragged kicking and screaming into the computer generation, I now see the extent to which I have dropped the ball on keeping up with current interest about you. At the time I wrote on you for my dissertation (completed in 1975), although you were well known in France, you were much less so in the States. I had been hoping to help remedy that, but did not have the necessary persistence to follow through, and I apologize for that.
So, I was thrilled to find an appreciation of you from 2011 in an article by Edward Gauvin, “An Introduction to a Great Mid-Century Weird Fabulist,” in, of all places, weirdfictionreview.com. Gauvin had contributed his prize-winning translation of your story, “The Red Loaf” to Words Without Borders, an online magazine of international literature that had run an issue whose theme was “The Fantastic.”
Gauvin admits how difficult it was to translate you, and mentions that Jean Genet introduced you to Sartre, with whom you were not impressed. Gauvin rightly cites your conscious cultivation of “artifice and excess…rituals of initiation and sacrifice, impossible encounters, pervasive malaise, ingenious cruelty, abrupt doom, and the arduous extremes of ecstasy.” He finds that your “intricately wrought” stories arrest “with the power of their horror or strangeness, the dazzle at the mad edges of extravagance.” Although you have been called by critic André Gascht “a realist of the imaginary,” your own daughter who now presides over colloquia in your honor said of photographs you took that many would consider failures, “He does not know how to frame what is real” (Il ne sait pas cadrer le réel”). She added that you were taught to “see” by your lifelong friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson, observing that your extensive travels with him marked for both of you your passage from adolescence to adulthood.
Gauvin’s remarks were a welcome reminder of the excitement I felt when I discovered you. I also liked his appreciation of your style as elegant and exact: “its classical cadence, its glories and labors of language could be mannered and forbidding, but it imposed on his chaotic imaginings…a sort of order, a degree of absolute coherence. He explored the impossible with maniacal precision and implacable rigor… He was scrupulous in describing, even itemizing, the props and
settings of his worlds, no mater how bizarre those worlds become. However exuberant, violent, or frenetic his tales, they staked claim to plausibility through minute detail.”
This description of your style could well apply to that of another of my letter recipients, Gustave Flaubert, someone whom you, too, admired. And on the theme of admiration, I see that you received plenty of it in 2009, the year of the hundredth anniversary of your birth. Among the celebrations was an exhibit at the Paris Maison de L’Amérique Latine organized by your daughter Sibylle and Mexican author and filmmaker, Alain-Paul Mallard, titled "André Pieyre de Mandiargues Pages Mexicaines." The cover of the accompanying book shows you as a young man seated next to a giant sculpted face that recalls the statues of Bomarzo that so fascinated you. More about that in a moment.
Where was I during all of this? How could I have been so oblivious? I was busily teaching at Yale, where I had already been ensconced in my ivory tower since 1984. That, however, is no excuse. But you know what? I’ve decided to stop beating myself over the head about what I didn't do. In looking over my collection of letters to and about you, I see one from Hélène de Saint Hippolyte, attachée de Presse at Gallimard, whose card Bona gave me along with the articles Mme. de Saint Hippolyte had sent her about you. It contains a handwritten note that says,
Here at last are some articles published after the death of your husband.
In remembrance, Hélène de SH” (followed by her phone number)
I see that after I visited Bona on July 6, 1992, I followed up immediately with efforts to gain support for a writing project about you. This was at the suggestion of Bona. I have already talked more about the humorous outcome of those efforts in my letter to author and editor Roger Grenier whom you know from Gallimard, and with whom I found out that I share some unexpected connections.
In writing about you to a friend in the French publishing business, I berated myself about not trying to do more to publish my work about you. Here were my plans. First, I wanted to seek publication in France of my own dissertation on you. Another goal was to publish in America and in France a critical edition with excerpts of your oeuvre chosen around the theme of “woman as mediatrix.” I also proposed to translate and publish in America a selection of your work aimed at a larger, non-scholarly audience that would emphasize the erotic and out–of-the-ordinary elements in your writings. In thinking about marketing issues, I would seek to have one of your stories placed in a publication that has demonstrated interest in good literature, such as the New Yorker, Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, or perhaps even Playboy.
What was different about my proposed projects? As marvelous as the translations into English by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Richard Howard are, they were of single works, whereas I wanted to select your most fascinating pieces from different collections. You and I discussed this, but although you liked the idea, because of the question of publisher’s rights, you thought it would be difficult. I was thinking that now that you are gone, your publishers might consider such a collection that would have the added advantage of offering an overview of your work. But enough about my good intentions.
I apologize for boring you with all these details. As someone who was never driven to have a large audience, and who had little interest in being a “hit” in academia, you listened politely and patiently, but probably took my ambitions with a grain of salt. It’s probably more than time for me to do the same. I see that in recent years, many of your works have been reissued along the lines of what I had proposed to do, and that is the important thing.
I want to say a few things about a recent discovery. I learned some things about you by watching an interview of your now-adult daughter Sibylle speaking about the short film she made of your apartment, and about the Pages Mexicaines exhibit. When the interviewer asks about her father, she refers to you as "André," and talks with indulgence and understanding about your attraction to the violence in Mexican art and culture. She specifies, however, that you are interested in the violence of desire, as opposed to a violence that destroys.
The only violence I observed while living and studying in Saltillo, Mexico during the summer of 1969 was the "pistola" and bullet belt that the father of the family, Señor Alfredo Valdes de la Fuente would strap on when we’d go out on our Sunday afternoon rides in the countryside to show off his car. When asked about this, he explained as he raised his pistol with a grand flourish: BANDITOS! Indeed, if there were banditos lurking about, we were not very well camouflaged in our gargantuan, arrest-me-red Chevy.
Although I'm leaving the love of violence to you, as a wordsmith and passionate teacher of writing, I share your love of the comma, and also, as we discovered, of outdoor food markets. As Sibylle says, some people like to live close to danger and excess. Others, myself included, just like to hear about it, and prefer to lead a much more measured life. Maybe you demonstrate a bit of both attitudes. Of course, given your imagination, you were always able to "travel" wherever you wanted. In your "Dangerous Liaisons"-style correspondence with daring beautiful women like artist Leonor Fini and Nelly Kaplan, you seemed to love hearing about their wild escapades.
The synopsis of your daughter Sibylle’s 2005 film as stated on the en.unifrance.org site is: “The passage of a young woman through her childhood home after the death of her parents becomes transformed into a voyage into memory. The child in her rises to the surface and brings back those she has lost until the moment when she accepts that it is time to definitively bid them adieu.” (translation mine, with apologies because it sounds so much better in French).
In her film, your daughter has made an homage to you and Bona that I feel pretty sure would please you. Sibylle's evocatively titled 19-minute "Demeure" contains a double meaning that works well in French: it can be both a noun that signifies a longtime home, and the imperative of the verb "stay" or "remain." Sibylle speaks of the now-empty, albeit richly-filled family apartment as a place of voyage for both you and Bona. This was true for her as she was growing up, but especially true for you when your scoliosis and other physical problems made it difficult for you to leave home.
I who have always loved to fill my house and spaces with touchstones can truly relate to what she is saying and showing by making this film.
It is a nice coincidence that I am learning about it during my own period of divestment and separation from my home of thirty-five-and-a-half years. Not a filmmaker, I only had my iPhone camera to ease the transition, but it helped.
Time for a weird association. I don't know why, but I am thinking about the stutter that plagued you during your youth. Did it have psychological origins? Were you just neurologically wired differently? A bit of both? I recall your referring to it during our first meeting.
In addition to the exhibition photographs of your and Bona's Mexican idyll, Sibylle included in "Pages Mexicaines" some written memorabilia: two letters you had atypically written in French to Bona. I was surprised to learn that you who took such pride in your mastery of your native French, had always written to her in Italian.
A propos of language issues, among the articles published at your death that Bona entrusted to me were several in Italian. The time has proven ripe for me to be looking at these now when, having lived in Italy for the past nine years, I am able to read them.
People who know me well but who have not read you say some version of “I can’t help but ask myself how in the world Diane got involved with this author, who makes me think of the poorly written bestseller Fifty Shades of Gray.” I never would have thought to compare your work to that, and wonder what you would make of that novel. Your own stories are dreamlike, often very strange and otherworldly, but are told in very precise, elegant, refined language. To quote Pierre Bourgeade in “Les Lettres Françaises,” “André Pieyre de Mandiarges, with his aristocratic reserve and disdain for what is in style, reminds us with each of his books that he is one of the greatest writers of our time.” Guy Dupré of “Le Figaro Littéraire” says “Mandiargues’ aphrodisiac style is the most captivating of our literature.” Italian critic, Elena Guicciardi of “La Républicca” titled her article about you “The Metaphysical Eros of Mandiargues.” Would critics be making comments like these about the author of the Fifty Shades series?
As for you and I being an unlikely match, I’ve thought about that. Why
at a certain point in our lives do we become “attached” to certain authors? I don’t have an answer, but in telling my long story, I think I was hoping to show something of interest about scholarship on the margins, and the mysterious process of attachment.
I'd like to close with a few facts. It's the 49th anniversary of my first contact with you; the 46th since our first meeting when you, at 63, were younger than I, at 71, am now. You and Bona married twice.
You and I, too, were separated for a number of years. But I am so pleased that we have once again found each other.
I confess that the above was just another false coda. It’s hard for me to ever feel I am saying adieu to you. So I want to close with some excerpts from Le lis de mer, which is where our relationship began in the summer of 1969. I’m thinking you wouldn’t mind if others were seduced by them, too. These are from page 132 of Richard Howard’s translation from the Grove Press edition of 1958, titled The Girl Beneath the Lion.
Then Vanina abandoned herself body and soul to the pain and the pleasure of knowing herself a helpless creature, conquered, seized, bound, thrown to the ground, handled without indulgence, her every intimacy rifled, every secret exposed, and she realized she was “in love’s power” (as the expression has it), and she imagined the soft muzzles of cows, the majestic trees all leaning over her together at the consummation of this inhuman and splendid sacrifice. The moonlight flooded the sand, its whiteness blinding at the level of the girl’s eyes. The sea lilies had another whiteness, aureoled with fire, on their pointed foliage that also gleamed in the moonlight over the tops of the dunes, and their perfume rolled to the floor of the area in a wave heavier and more powerful than ever. Vanina’s breasts were offered to the moon, magnificently high and naked…she saw them swollen as if they had fed on the nectar of lilies, or floated in their fragrance as on a heavy liquid, and she delighted in the unexpected revelation, not of a resemblance, but of a kind of essential analogy, a relation between her breast and these waxen flowers and the moon itself….
Vanina’s hair had worked into the sand like roots, a mouth, fishlike, grazed her thighs, her naked belly, a hard knee knocked against her forehead. “There is nothing so marvelous as love, she thought, as the limits of her selfhood dropped away, naively overwhelmed, intoxicated with pleasure, filled with a presence so enormous and superhuman that at last she felt, as she had so desired to feel, “in communication with all of nature.”
This has been the last of a fifteen-part series of essays which comprise part of the European Review’s forthcoming eBook, “Letters to Men of Letters” by Diane Joy Charney.