Paul Valéry was a connoisseur of self-isolation. In 1910, the French poet wrote in his Notebooks that he felt “awake and alert in the dark, amid the absence of everything else,” but “asleep and unfeeling in the sun, in the midst of all the noise and flowers.”
Valéry was no recluse. He had a lively social and romantic life, worked for two decades as private secretary to a former head of the Havas news agency, and accepted all the public honors that came his way, including the French literary establishment’s ultimate accolade: membership in the Académie française. But Valéry’s central preoccupation was the intensely private endeavor of exploring the reaches of his own mind. After his death in 1945, the full scale of that commitment to solitary introspection became clear upon publication of the Notebooks, whose first complete facsimile edition runs to over 25,000 pages.
These writings, to which Valéry would devote several hours early each morning, are not a conventional diary. They occasionally allude to contemporary historic events or developments in the author’s personal life. But Valéry more commonly combines minutious descriptions of his immediate surroundings with dense reflections on literature, philosophy, science, and the natural world. His Notebooks resemble an ever-evolving cathedral where the author’s restless consciousness seeks both inspiration and refuge from despair, which Valéry dubs “a normal, reasonable state of mind: in fact, the only one that is.”
That colossal edifice of words dwarfs the slim body of poetry—comprising fewer than one hundred poems along with several verse dramas—that the author published during his lifetime. As Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody puts it in the introduction to The Idea of Perfection, his new translations of a selection of Valéry’s work, the poems are “mere ‘exercises of literature’” when set against the “vast and fragmentary ‘exercise of thought’” represented by the Notebooks. According to his friend and publisher André Gide, Valéry himself said that he couldn’t care less about poetry.
And yet it was his poems that first established Valéry as a precocious talent during the late 19th century and then brought him literary celebrity after the First World War.
In his early verse, Valéry applied rigorous classical technique to a mythical dreamscape populated by nymphs, sleeping beauties, and moonlit swans. Such topoi abound throughout the Symbolist poetry of the period. But, like his mentor Stéphane Mallarmé, Valéry was skeptical of their contemporaries’ modish enthusiasm for free verse and remained wedded to the sonnet and French poetry’s “noble” twelve-syllable metre, the alexandrine. Unlike Mallarmé, whose final poetic masterpiece A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance (1897) transcends the opposition between tradition and modernity in a burst of typographical experimentation, the young Valéry struggled to breathe new life into those formal constraints. And for all their technical mastery, his early poems often seem rather bloodless and derivative.
Valéry thought of despair as “a normal, reasonable state of mind: in fact, the only one that is.”
Valéry quickly became disillusioned with his own work and gave up writing poetry after undergoing a spiritual crisis in the early 1890s. He then re-emerged in 1917 at the age of 45 with The Young Fate, a 512-line poem in alexandrine couplets written from the perspective of a young woman contemplating life and death as she drifts in and out of sleep by the sea. Though its rarefied themes might have seemed incongruous in the context of the ongoing war, the poem chimed with a revival of austere classical values among some artistic circles and relaunched Valéry’s critical reputation.
The Young Fate’s length, obscurities, and dearth of action make it easier to admire than love. But, in contrast to the dry formalism of his early verse, the poem is enlivened by the all-consuming search for self-knowledge that Valéry had been pursuing in the Notebooks throughout his long public silence. That quest is not without perils, yet his poetic avatar plunges ever deeper into her stormy being:
Et dans mes doux liens, à mon sang suspendue,
Je me voyais me voir, sinueuse, et dorais
De regards en regards, mes profondes forêts.
J’y suivais un serpent qui venait de me mordre.
[And in sweet bonds, suspended in my blood,
I saw me gazing on my winding self,
And gilded with my gaze my deep forests.
I followed a serpent, having felt its bite.]
As he does throughout these translations, Rudavsky-Brody here opts for lexical accuracy over preserving Valéry’s rhyme structure. Others, such as Robert Lowell, have come up with bolder, more richly idiomatic versions of individual poems. Rudavsky-Brody’s book supplies a humble complement to those precursors. By publishing his scrupulously faithful translations alongside the original texts, he offers anglophone readers with at least some grasp of French the opportunity to puzzle their way through Valéry’s formidably intricate works.
Though The Young Fate will continue to defeat many readers, the shorter poems found in Valéry’s later collection Charms (1921) are more approachable and tend to repay sustained concentration as their sensuous mysteries open up. The inclusion of three selections from different periods of the Notebooks also gives us a glimpse of Valéry’s capacious mental universe, where the poems are akin to a handful of scattered stars flickering across an infinite firmament.
Max McGuinness teaches French at the University of Limerick