Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror and The Imagination Thief
I should confess there is a little fact about The Imagination Thief that you don’t need to know while reading it, but that’s subtly central to it. This is simply that it was written, among other aims, as my reply to Lautréamont’s only novel, that icon of dark delight entitled Les Chants de Maldoror, written in mysterious circumstances at the end of the 1860s.
I first encountered Maldoror when I chanced on a copy in a second-hand bookshop. Standing there, I started reading it (not so very fast, as the publication was in the original French, being rich and complex French), and I can still remember the sense of magic that seeped across the inches of space between the page and my eyes, like a subtle heat hitting my face, with a sense of grandeur and hidden echoes, as if I were first becoming aware of that huge unseen cavern just the other side of the air beside us, which we spend our everyday lives pretending isn’t there. Strange to say, it was a couple more years before I had time to read the book, in French and then English; but when I got there, it carried on dishing up what I’d felt from that half-page in the bookshop, becoming my oldest literary friend and shooting with ease into the number-one position, where it’s remained ever since. I haven’t dipped into it for a few years now, but its spine is over there on the shelf, bleeding its gorgeous poison across the room at me.
My replying to Lautréamont was a serious intention, in the sense that I was aiming to play at his level in terms of language, to create something linguistically explosive and unique, fantastical in a new way but true on a deep level, a dark howl in some respects, retaining genuine monstrousness from the pits beneath—but most of all a howl whose damage is civilised or refined upwards into something as smooth and fluently readable as possible, packing in the most jagged extremes and the highest voltages but all minutely hammered into a metal I’ve aimed to make as mirror-smooth as he achieved. (This page here is not about whether I’ve succeeded!) So the aim was grand and serious, but as part of those civilisation processes there was also playful dark humour involved, just as his book plays many a game with itself and us. And again, I aimed to prioritise fluent readability throughout: in fact, the denser the mini-chapter of The Imagination Thief, the more this smoothness was prioritised; so it does require focus from the reader, but it takes very seriously its obligation to repay all that focus plus accrued interest. With a nod to the echoes of evil/dawn/gold in the name “Maldoror”, I also make one tiny reference in The Imagination Thief to this very mission of mine, when my narrator Jaymi peeks into the mind of the character named Kim in mini-chapter 96 and addresses him gently, unheard by Kim himself: “You regain consciousness of Liberty Square for a moment, then return to your book. Curious, I read it too; and so we read together for a couple more hours, you and I, on this your last full day in Asbury Park. This strangest of books is bewitching you, I see, Kim, and making you resolve that you’ll answer it in writing yourself one day, across the decades and the languages: head to head, toe to toe and mouth to mouth, your own chants will meet these and dance with them, somewhere in an evil dawn of gold. What better use could there be for your hours?” (Mini-chapter 96 appears here, if you scroll down a bit.)
This being my fan-boy page for Lautréamont, I’d be remiss not to add that if anyone’s in the market for an English version of Les Chants de Maldoror, then the translation that I read is the one by Alexis Lykiard published by Exact Change (often said to be significantly better than Paul Knight’s translation published by Penguin):
Lykiard’s translation is also the source of my tale’s third and slenderest epigraph (and its deadliest, in the context of Pippa’s wedding gift to Angel, revealed in my final mini-chapter 120 “A ring, two spires and a wedding gift”): Epigraphs to The Imagination Thief.