Puck and Mid Summer Moltings

Puck and Mid Summer Moltings

It is the summer after the great lockdown and hot down here in the south of France. As usual at this time of year I am assailed by mental and physical torpor. But maybe even more so than usual.  Lockdown or getting older, I wonder. Something oily wavers at the distant edges of my mind. The mirage of work?  But I am not yet inclined to shift my heavy, idle bones. Instead, I adopt an abandoned kitten and call her Perdita.  But a visit to the vet’s reveals tiny testicules.  The family settles upon the new name Puck and Puck settles into bullying our old tom cat Valentino as I settle down to write a book review.  Of a book that arrived in a brown paper envelope the day after the French fête nationale was celebrated without fireworks – at least in the small town where I live.

I unwrap and hold the book. The cover is a black and white photograph of gorse and rock and coarse grass. I turn the book over in sweaty hands, my fingers smearing its glossiness. On the blank page after the cover is a hand-written dedication written by my friend Lily who has translated the text from French to American English. Lily describes the text as a ‘weird and heady romp’ and invites reading with ‘a light but lingering eye’. Hmmh. Never as easy as it sounds. The book’s title is Moltings. Cats or snakes? Shedding or sloughing their skin. Keat’s Lamia springs to mind. (Mine was a very traditional literary education).  A book about transformation. Metamorphoses.  A translation to boot. The book’s author is Claude Ber about whom I know nothing, except that in a sense he’s a friend of a friend.

After lunch and coffee, as the cats snooze, I sit in the shade. A light-fingered breeze shifts the fringe of bamboo that borders the garden.  A green and supple whispering sway. I wiggle my painted toes and open Moltings.

There are seven chapters (molts) plus a postface (questions for Claude Ber), the author’s biography and list of other publications. I turn to the back of the book and discover that Claude is a woman. I feel a fool. She is a teacher who writes poetry and plays and has been awarded the French Legion of Honour. Impressive but not encouraging. I think elderly, pompous, ribbons, ceremonies, President Macron, the Establishment. But Claude Ber has been translated by Lily. And Lily is from San Francisco. She is young and fiercely smart and wholly anti-Establishment. And one of the most creative people I know. I trust her.

After the contents comes a short paragraph on a page all of its own. It explains that the text is composed in three voices. These three voices are located in the present of the narration (text in regular type), the writer/narrator’s journal kept during a writing residency in a monastery (text in italics) and retrospective expression ‘molded, moved, molted by writing’ (text in a third typeface). It transpires there are a multitude of voices in the text including that of a young girl, a godmother, the ‘lung speech’ of a sleeping female, ‘the besotted babbling’ of beasts, ‘the sparrow hawk’s song of wing shadow’, ‘the speech at the leg of the tree’ and the ever present voice or spirit of the wind. Of life itself. This is without mentioning Lily’s voice and, in a short section, the voices of her third-year translation students. If you are reading this review you also have to listen to my voice. This is clearly going to demand some concentration from us all.  

I turn to the first molt or molting: ‘Told with words, wind, and grass’.

The chapter begins and ends with retrospective expression in verse and contains poetry written in the present of the narration and taken from the notebooks. I flick forward. The author refers to the ‘ghosts of sonnets’ in her text: ‘dismantled relics of a form amidst the tide of memory and forgetting like a sketch or an other emerging’. The experimental combination of poetry and prose is intended as a refashioning that requires patient rewriting until ‘it will be presentable, ironed fresh in all humbleness of household metaphors spun in counterpoint to the suspicion of self-importance that can weigh writing down’.  Writing about writing.

The first word of the text proper is ‘[Hospitable]’. What is hospitable and for whom? The parenthesis around the word makes me nervous. This nervousness is not misplaced for the text(s) abounds with obstacles and impediments and is strewn with hindrances to reading, interpretation and understanding. At moments it groans under the weight of obscure imagery and (to me) esoteric references to concepts such as haecceity (thisness in Medieval scholastic philosophy) or the figure of Adam Kadmon (Primordial Man in Kabbalah). Not to mention the koan:  a story, dialogue or question in Zen practice intended to prove ‘the great doubt’ a literary form that makes full use of word games, allusions, indirect references and hidden connections. Towards the end of Moltings I read that these hindrances are intended as trials ‘tried and true, trials tried and trials felt, trial run of fresh ink printed off marble, put to the proof, tell the proof, raise the proofs: proofs of life, proof of living’. If proof were needed. But it no longer is, for somewhere along the way this reader has slipped under the spell of Claude Ber’s hypnotic writing experiment.

The old woman in the text, writing on the 17th August in a monastery cell, is waiting to be ‘relieved’ from life and the reader is party to her reminiscing, her memories, her sensations, her feelings, her thoughts, her desires. The ‘mute vowel’ of death prowls and pervades her work. Her notebooks, capture not only stray moments from the past, but are also filled with lists of the dead: writers and random people and words. These lists are the writer’s ‘palette… tonal indications raw material or language vine tangled up in (her)self’ and the words themselves  ‘ghosts of things and beings, whose e-vocation, in-vocation, and con- vocation (the voice still summoning…) speak both presence and absence’. The ferocity of the writing (she refers to ‘the scalpel of the sentence’) gradually forces text and nature, human and inhuman, to shriek with life until ‘The howling ow bellows gory below the muttered mold of muting muzzle of molting words’ and becomes irresistible.   

The text constantly conflates the interior and external world, past and present. The narrator visualises herself as a young girl sitting cross legged at the edge of a prairie where ‘Among the coat of grass’ she  ‘discovered the breath of an earth covered with vigorous and sensual writing, inviting her to enigmatic deciphering.’ She captures the song of the wind which blows down from the mountain summits of her childhood to the sea in a merged landscape of ‘mountains of foaming waves, waves bristling their cliffs, water quivering with undulations across the grass and limestone crests emerging from the backwash.’ The wind airs the writing like ‘a gulp of air’, infusing the reader and the writer with breath and life, proof of indomitable spirit.

For Claude Ber’s creative vision is muscularly lyrical. The text strums with strange and beautiful cadences.  Birdsong is thus described:

‘Yet blackbirds peck

With potent verve.

Still surge, tail and wingtips,

Trembling, promise

flight. Dove

coo, shrill

whistles, twitterings

behind sparrows in ruffled leaves and feathers in the decorated air, sonorous arabesques springing from a single gullet. Shaken patterned lace of hybridities and metamorphoses. Its ancient babbling in life’s confusion’.

Keats, Emily Dickenson, Claude Ber, Lily Robert-Foley…

Elsewhere we can read the poetry of  ‘rain-feeling’, the ‘intermittent tinkling dash dot dash raining’ before the words appear ‘aslant’ on the page and break down into single letters mirroring tiny drops of moisture that eventually solidify into ‘stalactites and gmites’.

Here, I hear Lily, the authoress of the conceptual novel Jiji and member of the creative translation collective Outranspo.

Lily who has proved most worthy of trust. Her feisty and playful translation manages to convey the sense of the writer’s ‘strange foreigness of (her) own language’ and succeeds in opening up access for the uninitiated reader to Claude Ber’s challenging, intriguing, invigorating Moltings.

So take a deep breathe.  And dive down deep. Do not resist. You will surface refreshed.

Moltings by Claude Ber, translated by Lily Robert-Folery (2019).

Flowers from fig_tart

4 Replies to “Puck and Mid Summer Moltings”

  1. And so now I need to get this book and maybe a cat or two to settle down for a busy afternoon…………:

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