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Maurice Roche
Maurice Roche signature

Page from Circus, 1972
Page from Circus, 1972
Page from Circus, 1972

Pages from Circus, 1972

Corrections for the English translation of Compact

Corrections for the English translation of Compact

Mark Polizzotti



The setting: Maurice Roche’s apartment on Rue Berthollet in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, February 10, 1983.

          The protagonists: Maurice Roche (1924 [though he claimed 1925]-1997), novelist, composer, musicologist, author of a monograph on Monteverdi and of eight of the most challenging novels ever written, even for a period that saw more than its share of them. Maurice was fiftyeight at the time of this interview, an established figure in the world of French experimental literature. His first novel, Compact, which comes up several times in this conversation, had caused a stir when it was published in 1966. It, and most of Maurice’s subsequent books to this point, had been published by Editions du Seuil under the imprint of the Tel Quel movement. By the time of the interview, however, Tel Quel had disbanded and Maurice had moved away from it and its founder, Philippe Sollers—as evidenced here by his outburst when one of us made a joking reference to Maurice’s Tel Quel affiliations. Still, and despite the rather extreme stance he takes in this conversation, Maurice continued to frequent Sollers on and off over the following years, though the two men’s friendship was never lacking in barbs. At the time, Maurice was engaged in writing his new novel, referred to here by its working title, Amouroir, and eventually published as Je ne vais pas bien, mais il faut que j’y aille (1987). The other three participants were Jean-Louis Bouttes, professor of literature at the Université de Paris X (Nanterre), who had recently published his first book, a philosophical treatise on stupidity and intensity; Jean-Luc Giribone, a friend of Maurice and an editor at Editions du Seuil; and finally myself, at a crossroads between the end of university studies and the start of a career (which perhaps explains the tone of self-seriousness). I had met Maurice eight years before, introduced by Bouttes, and had ended up translating Compact (Dalkey Archive Press, 1988), as well as his third novel, CodeX, which translation has mercifully remained on the shelf.

          The excuse: A questionnaire Maurice had received from an American academic, a kind of survey about the notion of decadence in literature. Although the questionnaire itself is now lost, enough of it is quoted in this conversation to give a sense of its overall inanity. Suffice it to say that Maurice was rather annoyed to be lumped in with the other writers solicited (mostly Tel Quel and Structuralists) and with the entire concept of decadence, with which he felt he had no truck. This interview started as an attempt at a collective rebuttal, but most often veered off—through numerous hesitations, self-contradictions, and dead ends—onto entirely different, and altogether more evocative, byways.

ornamental divider

Jean-Luc Giribone: I have a question. Having written Compact, Circus, CodeX, and so on, how does that weigh on you, how does it affect the way you write today? Is your relationship to writing the same as when you wrote CodeX or has it changed?

Maurice Roche: The same. Exactly the same. Except that I don’t… I don’t have to rewrite what I’ve already written. I could have amused myself by doing Compact 1, Compact 2, Compact 3, Compact 4… But each time, I look for something different. As Claude Bonnefoy put it, I’m an inventor of forms. But that doesn’t make me a formalist! When I have a story to tell, I like to find the form that corresponds to that story.

JLG: So you still pay attention to plot, that’s what I find surprising.

MR: Of course! Of course I do! Compact has a plot. Circus has a thousand of them, including the main one, about alcohol. That’s nothing new, just look at Under the Volcano—I even put in some references to a volcano. Circus is the story of an alcoholic who is driven to drink by everything happening around him. And CodeX is the code of illness, the story of a guy who’s waiting for death.

JLG: And how would you describe Amouroir, using the same criteria?

MR: The principle of Amouroir is that there’s a continuing text, the skeleton of the book, so to speak, with other songs modulating around it. There’s also a story, it’s even a love story. But with all kinds of other things, characters who are more or less interchangeable. That’s a pretty title, “amouroir.” There are several levels: it plays on amour and mouroir,1 plus there’s the privative a. It’s the antechamber of death. And the love here is not… It’s not love in the sense of love of women—there’s that, too, of course, as in every novel, but that’s not really it—it’s a kind of transcendent love. It’s not love of oneself, either, but rather love of… I was going to say love of life, you see what I mean? Everything one would have liked to be and never became, which becomes part of life. It’s not so much a catalogue of everything one has received—forms, stories, and so on—but more the end point, if you will, where you find yourself facing your life, my life… I don’t know, I’m trying as much as possible to avoid lapsing into psychology.

JLG: It’s internal but it’s not psychological. Perhaps because the interior is viewed in terms of oscillation, lines, points, stops, levels, and such. But there’s emotion in it, too.

MR: Yes, there’s emotion. Whenever there’s humor, there’s emotion.

JLG: You said something I find very interesting, which is, “It’s not that I’m trying to be a formalist, but that, when I want to tell a story, I ask myself what form best corresponds to that story.” That’s a very seductive formula.

MR: It’s the opposite. First I come up with the form, and then I ask myself what story I’m going to stuff in it. That might sound strange, but that’s how it works.

Mark Polizzotti: But in that case, can you explain how it isn’t formalist?

MR: It’s not formalist because I’m inventing a form for, let’s say, artistic reasons. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard—I think that’s where it comes from—but I’ve composed a lot of music. When you compose music, the first thing you think of is form. You have a fugue to write, for instance, so you start with a form. The form is pre-established. It’s your starting-point. Of course, form alone isn’t enough: you have to do something with it. But I’ve never worried about that—once I’ve settled on a form, it always leads me somewhere. For instance, my idea for Compact was that there would be several intertwined plot lines, which together would form another plot. Every plot line would have its own pronoun, tense, etc. And once that was set, the ideas for a story, an adventure—because if you read closely, the story of Compact is very banal, it’s basically a crime novel. And the whole plot attached itself to that. That’s not formalism. Or if it is, then everything is formalism.

Another thing: in order to write, I need a first sentence. For Compact, it was: “You shall be made sleepless even as you are left sightless.” That came to me as soon as I’d chosen the second person future as my startingpoint. (And just as an aside, I’d like to point out that when I wrote Compact, in the 1950s, Butor’s Modification, the second-person narrative, hadn’t come out yet.) That was the key sentence, and it traced the path for the rest of the book—all I had to do was follow it. Now, to follow it, you still have to write. And not write junk or something false. I can write a bad line as much as the next fellow, but there’s not a single word in Compact that isn’t essential. I cut a lot out, a lot that maybe wasn’t bad, but that didn’t fit. On top of which, as you read through the book the form changes. Your form becomes deformed. Things happen along the way—it’s not written by a computer, after all. If you get to page 20, for instance, and you learn that a friend has died or your mother is in the hospital, believe me, the sentence you were writing is left hanging, and if you come back to it later it’s going to move off in a different direction. So one way of looking at it is like improvisation on a canvas, or like a jazz improvisation. You never know exactly where it’s going to take you.

Jean-Louis Bouttes: So what kinds of things are on this canvas? Images?

MR: The canvas naturally starts with a sentence. I surprised someone one day who asked me why I write, and I said I write so that I can learn to write. And it’s true, we’ll never master this goddamned language! When I see colleagues of mine using it poorly, it bothers me.

JLG: That’s just it, you talk about language, but you’re really talking about the French language in particular.

MR: Of course I am, it’s my language! And I’m very attached to it. That said, let’s be clear: I think every language is beautiful, and the proof is that I use them in my writing. But when I use them it’s usually to show that no one knows them, or knows them well, and that ultimately we’re all deaf. The French look at other languages as foreign, but you know that French is made up of a whole host of languages. There are a ton of words from English, Arabic, and so on. That’s what makes a language rich. I’m very happy when I’m in the bus and I hear people speaking Arabic, or Portuguese, or Vietnamese, or English, or Swedish—I think that’s great. And it’s strange, because when I incorporate a phrase of English or German in my texts, people take me to task for it. And those same people spend their days surrounded by every language in the world—without hearing a thing. It’s very beautiful, all those languages, they sound wonderful. The extreme limit is Finnegans Wake, which you can’t even translate. The new translation strikes me as completely…

JLG: I have to admit I was impressed—that was some piece of work.2 But what struck me about it—and I don’t know if you’ll agree with this—is that when you play on that use of language and languages, in French, you inevitably come across like Rabelais.

MR: Oh, absolutely! But for God’s sake, Joyce was nothing if not a huge fan of Rabelais. Of course the translation comes across like Rabelais! But it comes across as flat Rabelais. No, listen, there’s the story, if you want to talk about foreign languages in a novel, when Pantagruel meets Panurge “whom he loved his whole life long,” etc., etc. He begins by asking him a question, and the other answers in—he goes through everything, made-up languages, Hebrew, Danish, Pig Latin, until they finally get to, “Ah! You speak French too! But that’s marvelous, why didn’t you say so…!” The point is that the use of foreign languages in literature is a commonplace. And when you talk about Joyce, of course Joyce was inspired by all that, by Rabelais’s invented languages, the words he made up from bits of Greek, student lingo, medical terms…

MP: Yes, but if you’re talking about actual translation, it’s not the same thing. In the translation of CodeX, and even Compact, the hardest part wasn’t the play of words, but the play of cultures. You were talking about the richness of languages before, well, that’s what makes a language rich, not only the words it’s borrowed from foreign languages but also slang, archaisms, neologisms, the whole lot. And especially what it all means within the language itself. American slang is just as rich as French slang, but it doesn’t have the same resonance and it isn’t used the same way. There are passages in the original where slang sounds perfectly natural, and in the translation, even if you come up with an exact equivalent—and that’s a big if—often you notice that it’s not the same, that you end up being more faithful, as it were, by using a word from everyday language. So your choice is either to flatten the text by translating the slang term with something less colorful—producing “flat Maurice Roche”—or changing the original, adapting it to preserve the flavor. And when you’re dealing with a text like yours that represents a certain internal process, with all that implies in cultural baggage, you inevitably end up with something different from the source text.

MR: Here, let me read you something:

from Amouroir

Death is close in at all times. It’s as if I came into the world getting it through my thick skull. This is surely the result of my genotype, and might also be due to the influence of my environment: from time immemorial, my family has given up the ghost so often it ended up becoming hereditary.


“I become the very meaning of the music I’m listening to,” he said. For now, eyes shut tight, he observes a pronounced silence.


Day after day I dreamed of shadows; through restless nights I imagined the Big Sleep—the Reaper always getting the last and final word. The term (culmination outcome catastrophe conclusion); the term: dreaded period ( ? ), exclamation of surprise ( . ), harrowing question mark ( ! ), fermata on the future: the silence of the void is infini— ( … )


Now he awaits his hour—his last. No chance, before his last gasp, of pleading his innocence or begging for mercy (in any case, he has no voice in the matter), any more than of appealing or advancing a delayed sentence (time’s up, and he’s lacking in vision). Afflicted—so his doctors say—with an illness both incurable and inscrutable, the very name of which tortures him, he can’t suffer suffering.


If he is visibly blind;
if it’s clear as a bell that he’s deaf;
if it reeks of the fact that he can’t smell
if his tactile sense touches fingers with numbness;
and if, to top it off, he has lost a taste for his native tongue;
then we can say things have gotten pretty ugly.


Having crossed a thousand hells in the wake of a long succession (no heirs) of unendurable ailments, and more specifically “subject by nature to that malady of which they used to say: lack of money is pain without recompense”—an atavistic flaw that must be inscribed in my horoscope as well as my chromosomes (the time and money spent trying to save . . . it costs to be destitute; it’s expensive to be poor; one gets further in debt by deferring payment)—I saw death close in.


The older one gets, the less one feels like dying.
I hurt, therefore I am.
At times, unable to feel my drug-addled carcass, I strain my little remaining energy in an attempt to stay awake, knowing all too well that if I black out,

In my sleep, her dreamy body
Told me, “I only have VISE
For you.” And, waking, how eluSIVE
You are—having loved nobody.
never again will I see the light.

And so, the moment the pain returns, I feel calmer ( ! )—reassured . . . But I cling to this presence “which resembles grace in that it is a random selection . . .”

I hold my breath (dangerous?)

I close my eyes (risky!)

I savor it.

I want to cry out. But the cry is—deeply embedded—screwed tight; every fiber of a vague whimper closes in, closes up, until nothing remains but the stifled desire of a cry strangled by itself.

I strain to listen.
The music, in the time I’m hearing it, passes through me and blends with my own torment—which I patiently sit through, imagining successes… part failures.

Where are you, my brothers?
The past obsesses me…
Memories of brothels,
Doors closed: open sesame.

I’m not getting on very well, so this is where I get off.

JLB: It gives the impression of a kind of living object—and it’s very curious, because on the one hand you follow it exactly as a, well, a kind of comedy… completely crystallized, or vitrified, but then you follow it in two registers: the comic register, and also a gaze that is almost the gaze of death, from the viewpoint of death, of absolute otherness. And it’s not the dying person who’s singing or even death singing, but the abyss that comes after the comic, that is letting itself be heard here, and so you follow it like a song of mourning intertwined with the other one, and their overall relationship is contained by thought. So there’s a kind of… of funeral elegy, and also comedy, and the whole thing is enveloped in an aerolitic language.

MR: It’s not just shit, is it?

JLB: No!

MP: I have a question: is it possible to write from the viewpoint of death, is it possible to cross that line—without actually being dead oneself, because then you won’t be writing anything at all…

MR: That’s a relief!

MP: …is it possible to write from beyond that limit? And I think the excerpt you read begins to answer that. It’s as if one had already crossed over the line of death and was looking back from the other side, and that look is all that remains.

MR: Not really, because what comes next moves onto something else entirely—you haven’t seen the rest. I wanted it to be fairly elliptical at certain points, you can feel the passage between solitude—there are flashes, flashbacks, you know? But, that said, they’re all on the same temporal level. In other words, everything is superimposed. It’s writing in a present that has several strata…

MP: Then let me put it another way: since the elegy, the funeral oration, are on the side of the living, what would writing from the side of the dead be like? And I think that what distinguishes the passage you just read from the other one, the elegy,3 is that here you get the impression of a pure gaze, and the gaze by itself is flat. The present is flat. It’s only when you introduce the past and the future that you establish strata. But when all you have is that look, that gaze—without psychology, which is a phenomenon of time, and also without any hierarchical judgment—then everything is brought back to the same level, to a perfectly flat surface—Jean-Louis called it a vitrified comedy—brought to that precise point of the present that never moves. And that’s kind of what death is, what the viewpoint of death is, in other words that instant that remains frozen in the present, in eternity, without that constant telescoping of past and future, and therefore no more judgment—no more psychology.

JLB: To me it corresponds exactly to what Lacan said about the logic of the signifying chain, which unwinds like a narrative. It’s not exactly a narrative, but something about it constantly drives you onward, and it’s truly written from the place of the Other.

JLG: That’s interesting, because it suggests a distinction between things written from the place of the Other, capital O, and things written from the place of the Self. We might say that psychology is written from the place of the Self.

MR: Yes, that’s correct. There isn’t any psychology. I’m not even sure that a description, let’s say a clinical description, as in Robbe-Grillet—it’s not written like that at all. When I said there’s always something new to discover… Well, anyway, now I’m an old fart and this is my swan song, after Amouroir there won’t be any more books—no, I mean it. It’s too hard. I don’t want to drive myself nuts and I’m tired, and besides—oh, hell, I’m an old man. There are boundaries, as Mozart said, that a man of good taste should never cross. I don’t want to start repeating myself. This book will look completely normal—no typographical effects this time.

JLG: So you’re renouncing your pleasures.

MR: Not in the slightest! I just don’t need any for this book. When I need typographical effects, I use them, end of story.

JLB: Can you say why you need them less for this book than for…?

MR: Because I set myself a different technical problem. I’ve got nothing against typographical effects, I’m all for them. But in this case, I don’t need any. When you write a string quartet you don’t need a trombone. Okay, so now I’m writing a string quartet; I’m writing a more intimate novel. For Compact I needed an entire orchestra… You know, when you’re a composer and someone asks you to write a string quartet, you have to make do with just your four instruments and make them sound as good as possible. I always think like a musician, and I think a novelist who isn’t also a musician is not a novelist.

MP: I wanted to ask about that questionnaire they sent you…

1. Pejorative term for a rest home; literally, a place where one goes to die.
2. The first complete French translation of Finnegans Wake, by Philippe Lavergne, had been published the year before.
3. This was another excerpt that Maurice had read aloud before the tape started rolling. An English translation of it was published in Fiction International 17:2 (Fall 1987) under the title “There but for Memory.”

MARK POLIZZOTTI’S writings include Lautréamont Nomad (1994), Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton (1995), a study of Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados for the British Film Institute (2006), and Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (2006), as well as articles in The New Republic, ARTnews, The Nation, Parnassus, Partisan Review, and elsewhere. He has translated over thirty books, including works by Gustave Flaubert, Marguerite Duras, André Breton, and Jean Echenoz. His version of Maurice Roche’s Compact was published in 1988 by Dalkey Archive Press, and his memoir of Roche, “Memento Maurice,” can be accessed at

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