Poetry Review: Robert Desnos’s “Night of Loveless Nights” — Far From Ephemeral
By Jim Kates
A reprint from 50 years ago, this small book brings to the English-speaking world a strategic introduction to the work of a major French poet of the 20th century.
Night of Loveless Nights by Robert Desnos. Translated from the French by Lewis Warsh. Winter Editions, 80 pages, $20.
Disclosure of interest: The very first French poet I set myself seriously to translate was Robert Desnos, and I continued for more than 100 pages of his work. A reader might have expected me to be especially picky and critical of the effort of another, but I can say that I never worked on The Night of Loveless Nights. (The title of the original French text is in English, and the translator of Night of Loveless Nights here, Lewis Walsh, inexplicably dropped the definite article.)
What this small book — a reprint from 50 years ago — brings to the English-speaking world is a strategic introduction to the work of a major French poet of the 20th century at a key moment in his career.
In the 1920s, his own 20s as well, Robert Desnos wrote from the heart of the European avant-garde, which had explored such iconoclastic developments as post-World War I spiritualism, exploratory psychology, and the new technology of the cinema. In the 1930s he broke out into a more commercial and politicized artistic career; in the 1940s he was swept up in the devastation of the Third Reich. After France fell to the Nazis, he participated with other writers in the literary resistance group Agir until his arrest and deportation in 1944. During the last year of his life Desnos made an involuntary grand tour of the death camps, including Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and Theresienstadt (Terezin). When the last of these was liberated in the spring of 1945, a Czech student among the liberators recognized Desnos and tried unsuccessfully to save his life. The poet died of typhus on June 8, 1945.
First and foremost, surrealism was a reaction against realism and its ugly natural children as well as a rebuke to the crystal robots of symbolism. “The logical processes of our time,” wrote André Breton in 1924’s First Manifesto of Surrealism, “apply only to the resolution of problems of secondary interest.” Surrealists appropriated the subconscious and the unconscious.
But the unconscious is not only a locus of arrested time and unrooted imagination. It is a panorama of violent, repressed imagery. The unquestioning acceptance of that imagery — in contradistinction to the commandments of the actual world — provides surrealism with an often distasteful amorality. In the Second Surrealist Manifesto Breton was writing that “the simplest surrealist act consists of descending into the street, pistols in hand, and shooting at random as much as you like into the crowd.”
Desnos had made his break with the surrealist orthodoxy by 1930, the year he published The Night of Loveless Nights. The structure of his work became ever more formal. He rediscovered the alexandrine and the sonnet. His language became more straightforward as he espoused, on the one hand, the common simplicity and the virtues of Villon, and on the other, a political, Miltonic rhetoric. The content of his poems as well increasingly reflected the daily realities of his times. By 1942, in a “postface” to a collection, Desnos was able to write, “One thing for sure — it’s not verse which must be free; it’s the poet.” That one sentence repudiated both Breton’s dogma and the dominance of the Third Reich.
In fact, it was not Desnos who had altered radically, but Europe itself. His move away from surrealism must be seen as a relative motion. The intellectual surrealism of the ’20s had been swallowed up in the grotesque naturalism of the ’30s and ’40s. Mussolini’s monumental architecture had created a dream landscape of tiny human figures in immense, sterile spaces. Mobs gathered and were as suddenly dispersed, chaotic and irrational. This was reality. The amoral violence of the unconscious was acted out across a continent, from Guernica to Stalingrad, and ultimately realized in the institutionalized nightmare of the death-camps. Breton’s pistol-packing Dada turned out, after all, to be a problem of only secondary interest.
The Night of Loveless Nights swings on the hinge of the poet’s independence from surrealist doctrine. Stylistically, it derives most straightforwardly from the world of Rimbaud’s “Bateau Ivre” and Mallarmé’s “Cimitière Marine.” This cadence Lewis Warsh comfortably replicated in English:
His translation of “puits” — simply “wells” or “shafts” — as “pits” demonstrates his intensification of the text. His “Shades of darkness” for “ténèbres” — a key word in Desnos’s poetic vocabulary — represents an attempt to get at its complexity.
Warsh did not attempt to replicate the full formality of the original, and this was a wise evasion of a potential trap, because Desnos’s rhymed quatrains and alexandrines are more fluid than English could easily accommodate. Because Desnos’s French is provided en face, the reader who can read even rudimentary French is not deprived.
A month before his arrest, Desnos wrote that the greatest poets of his own generation were “not assured a prominent place on the third shelf of an interested scholar in the year 2000.” But, he added, “that’s not at all important. Great poetry may necessarily be of its own time and its own circumstances … it may even, therefore, be ephemeral.”
This revival of Warsh’s translation proves that his poetry, at least, is far from ephemeral.
J. Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator, and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a nonprofit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book of poetry is Places of Permanent Shade (Accents Publishing) and his newest translation is Sixty Years Selected Poems: 1957-2017, the works of the Russian poet Mikhail Yeryomin.