AN INTERVIEW WITH JEAN-MARIE GLEIZE—PART
Conducted on April 25, 2002 by Lionel Cuillé and Benoît
Born in 1946, Jean-Marie Gleize is a professor of French literature
at the École Normale Supérieure of Letters and Social
Sciences. Writer, Series Director ("Niok,” Al Dante),
Founder and Director of the review Nioque, from Al Dante Editions,
he has published many books of poetry, including Etats de la main
mémoire (1979), Donnant lieu (Lettres de casse, 1982),
Instances (Collodion, 1985), Léman, Le principe de nudité
intégrale, and Les chiens noirs de la prose (Seuil, “Fiction
et Cie,” 1990, 1995 and 1999 respectively). He is also the
author of several essays, including Poésie et Figuration
(Seuil, 1983) and A noir: Poésie et littéralité
Lionel Cuillé and
Benoît Auclerc: Your work is often referred to
in terms of its privileged expressions: “the bay-trees are
cut,” “the poetry, not.” Do you worry that these
expressions might conceal the inspiration behind them?
The risk is only at the level of reception, that the reception
might stop evolving with the expression itself. For me, these
expressions are only springboards to other expressions: they are
conduits or ties. There are also simply more of them than the
expressions we’re used to remembering, those whose meanings
are relatively transparent and whose status as metapoetic slogans
is immediately recognizable. Some of the expressions have core
meanings that are still developing and could easily explode and
scatter in thousands of directions. For example: “I ate
a fish from the spring” [J’ai mangé un
poisson de source]. It’s considerably more enigmatic
and indecipherable than some, but I consider it to be just as
obvious and metapoetic.
This phenomenon affects all writers. In the tetralogy of Claude
Royet-Journoud, why does everyone always quote, “Will we
escape the analogy?” as if it were the key to the whole
text? “Poetry is inadmissible” worked that way for
Denis Roche, and he never denied it, ultimately giving this title
to his complete works.
The work of many writers may consist of trying to evoke such
constructs—but there are many constructs, and they are not
all alike. Some seem immediately intelligible, whereas others
are much more enigmatic, so much so that they are completely irreducible.
This is the biggest concern for the writer who uses and manipulates
L.C and B.A: In
Instances, you mention a hand that brought “formulas
to bear on each individual object.” Does this sense of the
“formula” come directly from Rimbaud?
J-M. G: Yes. Even if I do not know exactly what “the place”
or “the formula” means, or if there is a connection
between the two. If either is ever found, do we stop, or do we
In any case, these words have considerable importance for me.
Place has always been crucial to my work.
L.C and B.A: Indeed.
Your first book is entitled, Donnant lieu. Might you
be referring to Mallarmé here?
J-M. G: Lieu
is a double reference: it refers back to Mallarmé and also
to Rimbaud. But personally, I have always felt much closer to
Rimbaud. Mallarmé remains, in spite of everything, much
more abstract. Rimbaud has a more immediate sensitivity to things
and is more inspiring.
L.C and B.A: But
what of the polemical aspect of these constructs? Your books are
hauntingly invested with a sense of “place,” but at
the same time, they always return to “s’évaluer-situer”
(Poésie et Figuration).
J-M. G: Ah, yes, the old idea of situation—but not in the
Sartrian sense, even if political self-situation interests me.
Quite simply, in life, I have this feeling about myself, as many
of us have: I think I have no sense of direction. I never really
know where I am. I take a very long time to get my bearings when
I’m in a building or city. I don’t know how it all
works. For me, writing is intimately linked to questions of orientation.
I always consider myself a little lost—from this comes the
idea of “being situated.” “To be situated,”
in a social context, is also to be situated politically, poetically.
I always thought of literature as a more or less violent assertion,
a perpetually inappropriate proposal. This proposal must be asserted.
Within the framework of art, to propose is to impose. Both constructively
and as a means of counteraction. To my mind, any artistic project
is megalomaniacal: it is exorbitantly ambitious to believe that
one can propose something wholly individual and singular. Regardless
of this, every artist thinks that his work decisively cancels
or completes all that came before it. How ludicrous it is to assume
that daring to do something persistently is to act in opposition
to all other gestures. There is an inherent element of opposition,
of imposition, in the act of attempting creation.
As far as polemics are concerned, I was raised at the beginning
of the last avant-garde movement of the seventies and was given
the impression that literature was a battlefield. Afterwards,
considering literary history—be it the Romantic or Surrealist
period—I saw that literary modes or theories always clash.
The writer, who is crucially alone, is also part of a group. He
must work to create a space for his own work, wherein lie alliances,
conflicts, wars, and strategies for occupation of territory. All
of that is deeply polemical; that’s the way I see it, and
that’s how I experience it in my daily life. In the constructs
we mentioned before, I claim that there can be a polemical dimension
of assertion. The “phrase” is a productive core for
the writing, deeply poetic. At the same time, it is directed outward,
it is polemical, it excludes certain things and presupposes others,
L.C. and B.A: You
have used the word “riot” [émeute].
In one of your first pieces, you write, “Each line its own
riot ... ”
J-M. G: The word “riot” [émeute]
has a subversive and revolutionary dimension. It embodies the
emotion, the moment, and the fact that the construct intends to
disrupt order, make things move, break them apart, make them burst,
cause them to rearrange themselves differently. There is a “riotous”
dimension in all writing.
L.C and B.A: How
do you see the progression from Donnant lieu (1982) to
Non (Al Dante, 1990)? How do you see these works, looking
back on them?
J-M. G: I do not see them. I never re-read my books. I do not
wish to re-read them.
I forget the past, thus allowing another kind of memory, one
that sanctions a certain number of repetitions or reprises with
slightly shifted meanings, because a particular question has not
been sufficiently answered. What I do is fairly simple: I work
outward from cores of incomprehension, enigmas, dark nodes. The
word “enigma,” which I don’t use often, is as
significant for me as the word “riot.”
You could examine or reconsider these nodes forever: I write
the same book over and over again, each time taking different
paths, changing its form, bringing different sides of the experiment
into play. But I often return to the same initial experiments.
They remain unelucidated, unsettling, and always likely to be
reworked by the writing itself.
L.C. and B.A: If
the repetitions and reprises are visible to the reader, there
is also, notably in the triptych (Léman, Le Principe
de nudité intégrale, Les chiens noirs de la prose),
a sort of path. This path was seen in Les chiens noirs: the body
put to sleep, the body exposed, the body that burns.
J-M. G: Part of
what I write about is how life is a succession of losses. If life
is a succession of such losses, there is a certain positioning,
a moment when you have nothing left to lose because you have exhausted
the capacity to lose anything. Then you arrive at the final loss.
From Léman to Les chiens noirs de la prose,
this dynamic of loss is implicit in the work. There is something
in the work that we cannot see and cannot identify, the concept
of slowing down, ce ralenti c’est la guerre. This
works within us and will have the last word.
That’s the reason I chose
this title: Quelque chose contraint quelqu’un (Al
Dante, 2000). The writing is linked to constraint; it has nothing
to do with the work of OULIPO or with the journal Formules—that
has no relevance for me. By contrast, an indefinable but extremely
present constraint weighs on my writing. This obliges me to write
one thing and not another. And this quelqu’ un
signifies that in terms of constraint, the subject can no longer
define himself in a stable or simple manner. In fact, he barely
For example: in Léman,
a character has progressive paralysis. It attacks someone close
to me. I do not know then that the disease has settled in his
body. In the years that follow, this disease works upon him, showing
itself only slightly at first but gradually more aggressively.
This process takes a long time, proceeding as if in slow motion.
I was a party to something, invisible at first and unnamed for
many years. But once named, the problem did not become clearer,
nor did its progress become any more predictable. This is what
I mean by an invisible constraint.
Another example: Ce ralenti
c’est la guerre. I’m referring to the war of
1940. It has personal significance for me because my father was
a prisoner. He was married right before the war and then spent
five years in a prison camp. He returned five years later, completely
transformed, almost mute, a different man. He had two children
very soon thereafter. These children obviously carried within
them “the Bavarian night,” which found its way into
their bodies without their knowing, shrouded in silence. The father
did not speak, and then he left, and then he died. Although it
took him a long time to die, he had already died in his heart
before his children were born. Death’s work is, in a sense,
anticipatory. Prior, interior and invisible, it is transmitted,
The last example is that of “the square” on which
I continue to work obsessively. This square is the garden (the
screen). In this square lies the axis of time. Nobody sees it;
it escapes time but can be simultaneously reconceived by the last
person there, who is often the youngest person. Three generations
coexist here: at the right bottom corner lies “the father’s
father, motionless and reading,” then there is the father,
who is painting, and his son, in the center of the garden. Only
a synthetic square remains, with the child in the middle of the
garden, staring into the darkness under the terraces.
Something passes invisibly, silently,
slowly, from the “father’s father” to the father
to the son, and beyond the son the axis continues. In fact, the
“father’s father” reads the Bible, which is
essential for his religious nature. He passes on this text effortlessly;
he passes on this word, the Word, to those after him who are unaware
that he is giving it to them. The father does not become a priest,
against the wishes of his father. The son is even more atheistic,
even more distant from the text read by the “father’s
father,” which is a type of Urtext. But perhaps
the child’s son, separated from the square, finds this text
a long time afterwards, as if text and belief had passed invisibly
through this Bavarian night. Something invisible happens as the
Rhône passes under Léman to reappear on the other
side: the river runs within the seemingly motionless lake.
Translated by Lisa Lubasch and Max