Andrei Makine, Gérard de Nerval, and the Language of Exile

Gabriella Safran, Stanford University

Andrei Makine’s 1995 novel Le testament français was translated into English as Dreams of My Russian Summers. Unfortunately, the English title eliminates the references to the work’s two primary themes, writing and the French language. The novel’s hero, like its author, is a Russian who eventually emigrates to Paris and writes novels in French. The narrator learns French as a child from his French grandmother, Charlotte. Given the opportunity to juxtapose two languages, he understands the arbitrary quality of words and their meanings: his recognition as an adolescent of the disjuncture between the feminine “fleur” and the masculine “cvetok” ruptures his natural, childish relationship to language (271). Anticipating that break, he gropes toward a less natural but more powerful language, “so different from those words blunted by overuse” (174); the artificality of his own French gives it a sharper point (272). Makine gives that same artificiality credit for the power of his own art. In an interview in L’Express, the author insisted that he chose to write in French because of its foreignness: “French is a tool that is not mired in routine things … a literary language, relieved of the prosaic and the vulgar. This creates a kind of room for freedom between my text and me.” His answer echoes the Russian Formalists’ assertion that only by breaking old literary or linguistic habits can writers produce significant new art. Indeed, the hero of the novel sees that the language of every day may serve for telling anecdotes, but not for communicating an epiphany. Makine’s words, then, depict exile or estrangement as the inevitable stance of the writer, at home or abroad. The specific language of exile would seem to be arbitrarily chosen—what is important is that this language be in some way foreign, new, artificial.

Against this background, I want to explore a contrary way to read Makine, as suggested by the famous poem of Gérard de Nerval, “Fantaisie”, that appears twice in the novel. Charlotte reads the first verse to her grandson at the end of one summer and the next three a year later (110, 192). This repetition structures the novel and reflects its themes of memory and its return (Nerval’s speaker describes how a certain song awakens in him the vision of a medieval castle). Nerval wrote “Fantaisie” in 1834, then inserted it in two of his later essays on French poetry and his own work. In “La Bohème galante”, he explains that he called the poem an “odelette” (a little ode) and modeled it after works by the sixteenth-century poet Ronsard. The essay describes the views of two critics: Schlegel, who counseled nineteenth-century French poets to look for inspiration to their native tradition (defined as pre-neoclassical French works), and the sixteenth-century Du Bellay, who urged the poets of his generation to abandon medieval French models for the Greek and Latin masters. Nerval sees Ronsard as somehow reconciling these two contrary suggestions in his odelettes, drawing at once on the classical ode and the French chansons of the twelfth century. His commentary suggests that his own “Fantaisie” be read as an imitation of this quality of Ronsard’s, that is, as an evocation of a beautiful, distant image produced by a careful negotiation between the urge to imitate foreign sources and the pull to a native tradition. Perhaps the erudite Makine (who holds doctorates in literature from both Moscow State University and the Sorbonne), recalling Nerval’s own commentary, placed “Fantaisie” in such a central place in his book in order to complicate his own explanation of his choice to write in French. Even while Makine, like Ronsard, makes much of his debt to foreign sources, his work gestures toward his native tradition as well. Russian words are crucial to the narrator’s new language of inspiration: “I sensed that the ‘Koukouška’ [a local name for a train near Charlotte’s town] would be from now on the first word of our new language. Of that language that will say the unsayable” (193). This image suggests a less reductionist vision of the émigré artist, as one who reconciles the universal and the local, the foreign and the familiar, in order to evoke the ineffable.