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Review: Surrealist, Lover, Resistant, by Robert Desnos

acumen, January 2018

Ades' large volume, Robert Desnos: Surrealist, Lover, Resistant (Arc Publications, Nanholme (M)ill, Shaw Wood (R)oad, OL14 6DA. 519 pp.; £19.99 (pbck)/ £29.99 (hbck).
(It is) devoted entirely to the work of one poet, Robert Desnos (1900-1945). This is, by some way, the most substantial collection of Desnos' work yet published in English translation - it is published with facing-page French originals.
In setting out to represent Desnos so completely, Timothy Ades was undertaking a prodigiously difficult task; he has brought the undertaking to fruition with a remarkable degree of success. The verse translator who chooses to translate a poet 'whole' has to have a dedication quite different from that of the translator free to produce versions of the poems (s)he most admires - or, for that manner, deems most translatable. Desnos poses particular difficulties; alongside his consummate skill in traditional metres and rhyme schemes, he has a wild and (sometimes) playful imagination and a love of elaborate puns and word games. To a translator as committed to the ideal of fidelity as Ades is, the challenge is immense. Even in a text without the formal constraints of verse - such as Rose Selavy - Desnos' "witty super-spoonerisms" (as Ades calls them) are, in full sense, untranslatable. Yet there are no more than a few moments when Ades finds language to match Desnos' dizzyingly brilliant French. Compare, for example, these spooneristic tongue-twisters in the original and in Ades translation:

Les lois de nos desirs sont des des sans loisir
The laws of our desires are leisureless dice.
Amoureux voyageur sur la carte du tendre, pourquoi nourrir vos nuits d'une tarte de cendre?
Amourous voyager on the tender chart, why nourish your nights on a cinder tart?

In the very different territory of Desnos' war-time poems (Desnos was an active member of the French resistance; he was arrested in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz, later being transferred to Buchenwald and Flossenburg, before dying after a long forced-march to Terezin)Ades produces powerful, dignified, well-formed 'equivalents' of Desnos' two stanzas of 'Vaincre le jour, vaincre la nuit':

To conquer day, to conquer night,
To conquer time's insistent hold,
This world of tumult and of quiet,
My thirst, my fate, my depth of cold.

To rule this heart and lay it bare,
To crush this body stuffed with fable,
To plunge it in the void, somewhere
Unknowable, impenetrable.

Above and beyond even the skill that has gone into the making of this outstanding book, of more than 500 pages, I am in awe of, and deeply grateful for, the sheer hard work which Timothy Ades has put into this impressive achievement. I haven't, in my earlier attempts to read Desnos, found him quite as significant a poet as Ades does ("the most exciting French poet of the last century" he calls him). This volume has (very pleasurably) forced a reassessment upon me. I can see and appreciate more in Desnos than I could hitherto, thanks to Ades and to Arc.