I have been reading new English translations of Pierre Michon’s prose fiction works Winter Mythologies and Abbots, and I am struck, again, by his great talent.
Michon, as one interviewer put it, is “an odd bird.” Born in 1945 and raised by his mother when his father abandoned the family two years after his birth, he studied literature at the university in Clermont-Ferrand, wrote but abandoned a thesis on Antonin Artaud, travelled around France with a theatre group for three years, and then spent ten years working small jobs around the country—a short stint in a hotel in Paris, a period teaching French—before deciding to take up writing. He moved back to his home region near Orléans, rented out a small, bleak studio on the side of the road, and wrote what would become his first book, Small Lives, a series of portraits of eight obscure or unknown figures from Michon’s life in Limousin. It was published in 1984 and won the Prix France Culture that same year.
Michon’s prose is alternatingly expansive and constrained. In Small Lives, his sentences can be long and playful. Winter Mythologies, however, is imagistic. Portraits of the lives of ancient and medieval saints and pagans are distilled down to a few poetic paragraphs. There is Saint Columba of Iona who kills for a rare Psalter, a daughter of the king of Paris who contracts leprosy, or a French bailiff who wants to write with “God’s power.”
Michon almost never invents his characters or his plots. “To invent is to clone,” he claims. “Libraries are full of ectoplasms, and I prefer ghosts. I raise the real dead—those of the archives.” He is a poet who writes in prose; a fictioneer of non-fiction.
He is also, as it turns out, an atheist who is fascinated with faith.
One of Michon’s accomplishments is his ability to put his finger on the paradox of faith without disparaging belief in God or sharing it himself. His characters, faithful to varying degrees, are often convinced of the reality of God, but regularly allow their devotion to be saddled with a desire for wealth, pleasure, or glory.
In Abbots, for example, he retells the story of Èble in ancient Gaul, who serves his bother and king, Guillaume Towhead, for many years before retiring to a remote monastery. His two besetting sins are “glory and female flesh,” and while away from court Èble finds a way to satisfying both of these. He transforms a bog next to the monastery into a field for the first—bringing order to “the Chaos and the Void”—and stealing brief moments with the wife of one of the local fishermen for the second. When Èble discovers that one of the other priests is also sleeping with the fisherman’s wife, he arranges for him to die in accident.
A less gifted writer might make Èble into a symbol of the Church’s hypocrisy. After all, he is a man who professes faith, and does indeed believe it, but who does not live according to its precepts.
But not Michon. Instead, Èble is an everyman. He shares our inescapable desire to devote ourselves to greater than ourselves and our intractable selfishness that always leaves us wanting more. After Èble has finished work on the bog, he goes to confession, not to repent of his sin, but to share his disappointment:
Èble remains silent for a long time, then he suddenly asks Hugues what glory is. He asks if it’s power. If it’s a name that echoes for centuries in the memory of men. If it’s for God alone, brilliant and brief, like the blue lighting bolt in the hut, or interminable and lost in the air, like reading, or like signing. If it’s fixed like the stars, or wayward like the sparks. If it’s pure. He asks if it can be mixed—with matter, with ambition, with the body of a living man. He asks derisively if draining twenty acres of land taken from the Chaos and the Void is glory.
For Michon, we cannot rid ourselves of our religious sentiment—no one can, including him. In an interview, he talks about going to Easter Mass with his daughter one Sunday:
I went to Easter Mass one day, and I took my daughter. She asked me: “What are you laughing at, Daddy?” I was crying! I understood what I saw there, these were robes inherited from ancient Assyria, incense thuribles that came straight from Egypt, and it was wonderful to tell myself, in this little thing here, Corpus Christi. And yet, when I returned from the Easter Mass, I re-read Ecce Homo with the same assent, the same enthusiasm.
While not believing in God per se, Michon identifies God with the beauty of language or “the Other.” “If I happen to encounter something that resembles a God, it is in those moments when I write.”
It’s an odd decision to accept the inescapability of belief in something like God, to even identify God with language (the Gospel of John refers to God as “Logos”), but refuse to believe in God because of Nietzsche.
It is also one that occasionally allows Michon, for all his nuances, to minimize evil itself. If Sylvain Maréchal is right that the person who “believes in God is obliged to believe in the devil,” then the atheist cannot, in good faith, believe in evil. The most he can believe in is pain, and Michon at times struggles with this limitation, which can move his stories towards the merely therapeutic. For example, Èble, the adulterous murderer, is welcomed into the afterlife by the welcoming image of his illegitimate daughter shortly after he dies in “the glory of the chant for the dying.” Everything, Michon seems to suggest, will be O.K.
Still, there are few contemporary writers of prose fiction that I’d rather read than Michon, and these new Yale translations are a pleasure.