King of a Hundred Horsemen
Marie Étienne, born in Menton in the Alpes-Maritimes, spent her childhood in Indochina, in what is now Vietnam, during the Second World War and the beginning of the Viet Minh struggle for independence: her father was a French military officer who survived capture by the Japanese. These origins (as well as her father’s prison journals) are the basis of her 2002 novel Sensō: La guerre, a kaleidoscopic impression of the war and the multiple displacements of a child between cultures, and of her 2007 memoir/fiction L’Enfant et le soldat. Her own education continued in France and in Dakar, and she has remained a traveler and an ambassador between literary cultures all her life.
Many prominent French poets, young, less young, “experimental” and “established,” have in common, in the shadow of Mallarmé, not merely the aim of extreme concision but a conscious thrust to banish narrativity from their work: these seem to be the poets who have come to represent French poetry to Anglophones. But there are other currents and countermeasures. There is a certain lyricism unabashedly claiming Verlaine’s heritage; there is the virtuoso use of invented or inherited constraints by the Oulipo poets, constraints that paradoxically induce narrative or its semblance; there are the variously broad strokes and wide linguistic horizons of vastly different Francophone poets of African, Arabic, French Canadian, or West Indian heritage whose work is more and more appreciated in France; there are poets incorporating argot, quotidian speech, and street speech with gusto into their work. Marie Étienne, omnivorous reader though she is, cannot easily be placed in any “movement”: her work seems sui generis, and this perhaps has to do with the hybridity of her literary origins, both her expatriate childhood and what followed.
From 1979 to 1988, Marie Étienne worked as assistant to the innovative French theater director Antoine Vitez, whose courses on the theater she had followed as part of her doctoral thesis research, at the Théâtre d’Ivry and the Théâtre National de Chaillot. Commuting to Paris from a different life in Orléans with a husband and young daughter, her responsibilities included the organization of Monday evening poetry readings that took place on the sets of the theater pieces performed on the other evenings of the week. Étienne was then a well-published “emerging” writer and a frequent contributor to the lively, long-lived, and politically engaged quarterly Action Poétique, well placed to integrate poetry-off-the-page into the life of the theater. It was a heady period in French literary life, as it was in the poet’s own development, during which Action Poétique enjoyed the collaboration of such varied figures as the poet/novelist/mathematician Jacques Roubaud and the Lacanian historian-journalist Elizabeth Roudinesco. The contributions of aesthetic and political radicals in the arts seemed to be welcome. Vitez, as befits a director of Racine and Molière (and as another artist seeking further integration of disciplines), saw poetry and theater on a continuum. But Étienne was also a chronicler of the daily life of the theater troupe: interactions among actors, stage managers, and the director; the challenges posed by the troupe’s physical settings; the pauses and separations (holidays, departures to perform in repertory) which brought the participants back together with renewed energy, increased impatience, or both. More than Vitez’s amanuensis, she was one of his privileged interlocutors, his Boswell and dramaturge. She recorded in a series of notebooks different aspects of their multiform collaboration: Vitez’s written and spoken reflections, her own reactions to the plays and their mise-en-scène, the momentous shift from a bare-bones community theater in Ivry to the monumental Théâtre de Chaillot at the Trocadéro. Vitez’s work combined a commitment to the classics with a passionate engagement in socially progressive causes during the years of the student uprisings in France and the Algerian independence movement that put an end to the French colonial presence. Vitez reinterpreted the classics—Greek tragedy in particular, but also the French classics—in the light of current events, and his vision extended to his instruction and direction of young actors at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique and the École de Chaillot.
Marie Étienne’s collaboration with Vitez followed a five-year period in her life when theater and poetry were the joint subjects of her concentration. Her theatrical engagement was coeval with her attaining greater notice, indeed, with her growing confident self-definition as a writer, which the director—known in a different discipline but actively interested in contemporary poetry—was one of many established figures to encourage. Like plants burgeoning in another part of a garden, her own early books were beginning to appear at this time. Étienne’s engagement with poetry (and narrative prose), in part because of the interactive and theatrical context of its development, encompassed from the start the possibility of a polyvocal text, of language as a cue in a choreography of real or imagined motion, of writing that engages in dialogue with other texts, other cultures, other disciplines, incorporating “spoken” dialogue itself into poetry in a way most contemporary French poets have eschewed. The synthesis of the contemporary and the classical, of the tragic and the mundane, of the quotidian transformed by the prisms of myth and history, is present in Marie Étienne’s poetry. So is a theatrical framework of invented fixed forms for snatches of narrative that veer from the seemingly ordinary to the surreal, from the urban present to an oneiric time-beyond-time. Several of the sequences in the present book draw on the theater, play with its rituals, utilize dialogue in place of or superseding narration, put the stage itself on stage. The ludic and the surreal have always played an important part in Étienne’s work, from her debut as a writer. She has kept a lively if distanced or bemused interest in the Oulipo movement, in which her Action Poétique colleague Jacques Roubaud remains a signal figure. She herself is interested more in a philosophical reflection on the direction taken by written texts as they develop than in a “submission,” however playful or arbitrary, to form or formula. For her the writer is the “coachman driving the team of horses pulling the carriage,” exercising a control kept by awareness of a constant and fruitful tension between the conscious and the unconscious, as well as between content and form.
Marie Étienne now lives in Paris, where she is a frequent contributor to literary and book review journals, in particular the literary critical journal La Quinzaine littéraire, for which she has written regularly since 1985, reviewing fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. For several years, she wrote a monthly page for the journal Aujourd’hui Poème, which she often used to present contemporary foreign poetry in translation to its readership. She has been especially instrumental in bringing the work of Vietnamese and Japanese poets to a French audience.
Étienne is at present the author of eleven books of poems and nine books of prose, which could be variously classed as fiction, memoir, and cultural history, some partaking of all three. She has edited and introduced two anthologies of contemporary poetry. Her work with Vitez, including transcriptions of her notebooks of the era, resulted in Antoine Vitez: Ie roman du théâtre, a book in a genre Americans would call literary memoir, published in 2000, a decade after the director’s death and almost twenty years after their collaboration. It offers an invaluable aperçu of a collaborative artistic endeavor and a signal era in contemporary French theater. Other recent books include the novel L’Inconnue de la Loire (2004); Les Passants intérieurs, an experimental prose work (2004); Les Soupirants (2005), short narratives which upend and parody the expectations of literary pornography; Dormans, a book of poetry (2006); and L’Enfant et le soldat, an autobiographical novel also published in 2006.
The “condition of women,” and a subversion of received thought on that subject, is a subtext in more than one of Marie Étienne’s books, though rarely is it presented in the context of autobiographical material. Rather, it is implied in the account of a soldier’s wife’s life in Indochina in the 1940s, or of the narrow horizons facing a young girl in the prewar French provinces in the novels drawing on her family history. The troublesome connection of a credible woman’s persona with the erotics of a Bataille, a Breton, or a Jouve is indicated in the surreal fiction of Les Soupirants. An early sequence drawing directly on the poet’s theatrical experience is a series of prose-poem letters in the spirit of Ovid’s Héroides, written in the persona of Racine’s Bérénice exiled in Iduméa to the imperial Roman lover who banished her. The lyric “I” in Marie Étienne’s poetry is a protean, not to say unreliable narrator, an inveterate storyteller, a speaker constantly subverting the very expectations of the poem in its contemporary guises, yet it (or “she”) reasserts just as persistently the possibility of such an “I” having a voice marked as a woman’s while engaged in quests and exploration rather than self-examination: the explorer’s/travel narrative is one of the many “forms” borrowed and transfigured by the poet.
Although the consideration of women’s poetry/women’s writing as such is somewhat alien to many French women writers (at least those not associated with the “Psychanalyse et politique” movement, who themselves disavow the term “feminist”), Étienne did a considerable study of twentieth-century French women poets for a chapter on the subject in the 2003 anthology Beyond French Feminisms. One of her discoveries perusing anthologies was exactly that of the American feminist writer Joanna Russ in her own assessment of canonical English anthologies published before 1980: there was a uniform, modest percentage of women poets included, but, while the presence of individual male poets was constant from one anthology to the next, those women included would disappear and be replaced within the persistent 5 to 10 percent. Women poets’ place in contemporary French poetry is still an uneasy one, as compared with Anglophone poetry, and also with Francophone Canadian poetry, where their highly significant role in the creation of a specifically Canadian modernism is universally acknowledged. Fourteen women, Canadians and other non-French Francophones included, figure in the 2000 edition of the 670-page Gallimard pocket anthology of French poetry of the second half of the twentieth-century, containing work by 150 poets born between 1907 and 1950 (with only two women born in the last decade of this time span). This can be contrasted with a considerable presence of women fiction writers and literary essayists in every register from the detective novel to all flavors of avant-garde. Given the exaggerated care with which the editorial borders seem to be guarded, it is paradoxical that in France, poetry itself has suffered even greater critical segregation and exclusion—in the literary press, on bookshop and library shelves—than it has in the United States. Nor is it alternatively propagated and disseminated by well-attended public readings. This might well constitute an additional reason for a writer, a woman writer in particular, to prefer not to confine or define herself by a single literary genre.
Marie Étienne has always composed poetry and prose alternately or simultaneously, seeing the genre barrier as arbitrary in many instances. In an extended essay in a recent issue of the journal Formes poétiques contemporaines, she examined the prose poem as genre, with its attractions and pitfalls, and scrutinized its uses by a variety of contemporaries. She resists the idea of a “collection” of poems, seeing in each book of her poetry as much unity as in a work of fiction, and concomitantly regards some of her fiction as approaching the long poem in prose. Indeed, “fiction” is as limiting a definition of her work in prose as “collection” might be of her carefully constructed poetic works. Some of these books could more properly be called extended memoir than novels: extended, that is, into an individual or familial past, but with an elaboration that has more to do with acknowledged imagination and linguistic invention than with documentary reconstruction. This is a genre that readers of contemporary French writing will associate with (for example) Marguerite Duras, who shared, albeit in a different generation, Marie Étienne’s experience of a Southeast Asian childhood, and with Marguerite Yourcenar’s nonfiction re-creations of her maternal and paternal family histories, which partake necessarily of the fictional; but also with the contemporary work of writers as divergent as Patrick Modiano, Richard Millet, Hervé Guibert, Leïla Sebbar, and Hélène Cixous. Other books of Étienne’s make use of formal experimentation in a stylized and elegant manner that has little to do with the depiction of a presumed reality. Both the Prix Mallarmé—winning Anatolie and the recent Dormans, unified hooks labeled “poetry,” alternate verse, including rhymed short-lined quatrains and decasyllabic dixains (a form associated with the metaphysical-erotic “blasons” of Maurice Scève), with pages of prose narrative and prose poems. Exploration in the most classic and adventurous sense, contemporary urban life, the myths, tales, and customs of real and invented peoples, alternate as in a fugue in both books.
Roi des cent cavaliers (published in France by Flammarion in 2002) exists in the territory Étienne has created between poetry and prose, with all the poem’s compression and making full use of its fertile paradoxes. It is a unified book consisting of nine sequences that enigmatically consider war, human relations, sex, nature, the contemporary world and its intersecting cultures, and the poet’s own (international) history. Structurally, the book pivots on two numbers: fourteen, since each individual poem is a “prose (or prose-poem) sonnet,” each of whose lines is a discrete sentence; and ten, along with its multiple, one hundred, as each sequence or “chapter” is composed of ten such sonnets, and the book as a whole, with its (numbered) titles and annotations included, comprises a hundred sections. The text is porous: there are collagings or interpolations of Marina Tsvetaeva, T. S. Eliot, Tristan Tzara, and others. Tsvetaeva’s voice, or Étienne’s re-creation of it, alternates with the narrator’s in one sequence. Two of the most seemingly “surreal” sequences, each of which begins with the evocation of a painter and his surroundings, are, in fact, also descriptive “fugues” on themes in the work of two contemporary French graphic artists, Gaston Planet and François Dilasser. Who are the two protagonists, female and male, with vaguely Southeast Asian names, venturing through the jungles of fable, the architecture of dreams—or the airport in Atlanta, Georgia? Alternating with them is a first-person narrator whose “war diary” resembles most closely quotidian life in contemporary Paris, but whose experiences veer sharply away from the “possible” just when a reader begins to take her for the writer’s avatar. Linking them all is “the child,” an interlocutor, who passes in and out of all their stories. The book as a whole reflects, as in a mosaic of shattered mirrors, many of the writer’s ongoing preoccupations: the potentially theatrical nature of writing on the page; the simultaneous construction/deconstruction of narrative; gender; the juxtaposition of Orient and Occident; an eroticism that is at once physical and cerebral; the extension of the limits of genre (poetry/prose/dramatic writing); an interpenetration of the quotidian and the foreign, in which the most “exotic” journeys become ordinary, and the most ordinary displacements partake of the disquieting and the strange.