The Winter Voyage

                              by Georges Perec (1979)

     During the last week of August 1939, while rumors of war invaded
Paris, a young literature professor, Vincent Degraël, was invited to spend
several days at a property in the neighborhood of le Havre that belonged
to the parents of one of his colleagues, Denis Borrade.  The eve of his
departure, while he was exploring the library of his hosts searching for
one of the books that one has always promised oneself to read, but which
one generally only has time to flip through the pages negligently next to
the fire before going to make up the fourth at bridge, Degraël fell upon
a slim volume entitled The Winter Voyage, whose author, Hugo Vernier,
was absolutely unknown to him, but the first pages of which made such
a strong impression on him that he barely took the time to excuse himself
from his friend and his hosts before going to read it in his room.
     The Winter Voyage was a sort of first-person narrative, situated in
a semi-imaginary country where the heavy skies, somber forests, soft hills
and canals divided by greenish locks evoked with an insidious insistence
the countryside of Flanders or the Ardennes.  The book was divided into
two parts.  The first, the shortest, retraced in sibylline terms a voyage
with initiatory implications, where it seemed as if each stage was
somehow blocked, and at the end of which the anonymous hero, a man
that everything led to believe was young, arrived at the shore of a lake
drowned in a thick fog; there a guide awaited him, one who led him to a
tiny island in the middle of which arose a high and somber building; the
young man had barely set foot on the narrow gangplank that constituted
the only access to the island when a strange couple appeared: an old man
and an old woman, both draped in long black capes, who seemed to
emerge from the fog and who came and placed themselves on either side
of him, seized him by the elbows, squeezed themselves as close as
possible to his sides; almost welded one to the other, they clambered up
a rocky path, penetrated the dwelling, climbed a wooden staircase and
arrived at a room.  There, as inexplicably as they had appeared, the old
people disappeared, leaving the young man in the middle of the room.  It
was barely furnished: a bed covered with a flowered bedspread, a table,
a chair.  On the table a meal had been prepared, fava-bean soup, fish
stew.  From the room's high window the young man watched the full
moon emerge from the clouds; then he sat at the table and began to eat.
And it was on this solitary supper that the first part came to a close.
     The second part constituted in itself almost four fifths of the book
and it quickly became apparent that the short narrative which preceded it
was nothing but an anecdotal pretext.  It was a long confession of an
exacerbated lyricism, mixed up with poems, enigmatic maxims, and
blasphemous incantations.  He had barely begun to read when Vincent
Degraël experienced an unsettling sensation that was impossible for him
to define precisely, but which did nothing but grow as long as he turned
the pages of the volume with his hand trembling more and more: it was
as if the sentences that he had before his eyes had suddenly become
familiar to him, set themselves to recalling to him irresistibly something,
as if with the reading of each one came to impose itself, or rather to
superimpose itself, the memory both fluid and precise of a sentence
almost exactly the same he would have already read elsewhere; as if these
words, more tender than caresses or more perfidious than poison, these
words in turn limpid or hermetic, obscene or warm, sparkling,
labyrinthian, and endlessly oscillating like the crazy needle of a compass
between a hallucinated violence and a fabulous serenity, sketched a
confused configuration where one thought to rediscover mixed up together
Germain Nouveau and Tristan Corbière, Villiers and Banville, Rimbaud
and Verhaeren, Charles Cros and Léon Bloy.
     Vincent Degraël, the field of whose preoccupations covered
precisely these authors he had been preparing for several years a thesis
on "The Evolution of French Poetry from the Parnassians to the
Symbolists" believed at first that he had effectively already read this
book by chance during the course of his research, then, more reasonably,
that he was the victim of an illusion of déjà vu, as when the simple taste
of a mouthful of tea takes you back all of a sudden thirty years to
England, it had taken almost nothing, a sound, an odor, a gesture
maybe that instant of hesitation that he had remarked before taking the
book down from the shelf where it had been classified between Verhaeren
and Vielé-Griffin, or maybe the avid manner with which he had scanned
the first few pages so that a fallacious memory of an anterior reading
had come palimpsestically to perturb to the point of rendering impossible
the reading he was in the process of doing.  But soon doubt was no longer
possible and Degraël had to give in to the evidence: maybe his memory
was playing tricks on him, maybe it was only coincidence that Vernier
seemed to borrow from Catulle Mendès his "seul chacal hantant des
sépulcres de pierres," perhaps one could take into account fortuitous
encounters, marked influences, voluntary homages, unconscious copies,
the desire to parody, the taste for citations, happy coincidences, perhaps
one could consider that expressions such as "le vol du temps,"
"brouillards d'hiver," "obscur horizon," "grottes profondes,"
"vaporeuses fontaines," "lumières incertaines des sauvages sous-bois,"
belonged in common to all poets and it was therefore just as normal to
encounter them in a paragraph of Hugo Vernier as in the stanzas of Jean
Moréas, but it was absolutely impossible not to recognize, word for word
or almost, by the simple happenstance of reading, here a fragment of
Rimbaud ("Je voyais franchement une mosquée à la place d'une usine,
une école de tambours faite par des anges") or of Mallarmé ("l'hiver
lucide, saison de l'art serein"), there of Lautréamont ("Je regardai dans
un miroir cette bouche meurtrie par ma propre volonté"), of Gustave
Kahn ("Laisse expirer la chanson  mon c ur pleure / Un bistre rampe
autour des clartés. Solonnel / Le silence est monté lentement, il apeure /
Les bruits familiers du vague personnel") or, barely modified, of Verlaine
("dans l'interminable ennui de la plaine, la neige luisait comme du sable.
Le ciel était couleur de cuivre. Le train glissait sans un murmure "), etc.
     It was four in the morning when Degraël finished reading The
Winter Voyage.  He had located about thirty borrowings.  There were
certainly others.  The book by Hugo Vernier seemed to be nothing other
than a prodigious compilation of the poets from the end of the nineteenth
century, an infinite diorama, a mosaic wherein each piece was the work
of an other.  But at the very moment when he forced himself to imagine
this unknown author who had sought in the books of others the very
matter of his text, when he was trying to imagine to its very limits this
insane and admirable project, Degraël felt growing in him a disturbing
suspicion: he had just remembered that in taking the book from its
bookcase, he had mechanically noted the date, moved by the reflex of the
young researcher who never consults a work without taking down the
bibliographic materials.  Maybe he was wrong, but he believed he had
read: 1864.  He verified this, heart beating.  He had read well: this meant
that Vernier had "cited" a verse by Mallarmé two years in advance,
plagiarized Verlaine ten years before his "Ariettes oubliées," written lines
by Gustave Kahn almost a quarter of a century before he did!  This meant
that Lautréamont, Germain Nouveau, Rimbaud, Corbière and many
others were nothing but the copyists of a genial and neglected poet who,
in a once-in-a-lifetime work, had known how to bring together the very
substance from which three or four generations of authors would find
their nourishment!
     At least, evidently, if the publication date figuring on the work were
not false.  But Degraël refused to envisage this hypothesis: his discovery
was too beautiful, too evident, too necessary not to be true, and already
he imagined the vertiginous consequences it was going to provoke: the
prodigious scandal that would be constituted by the public revelation of
this "premonitory anthology," the amplitude of its implications, the
enormous putting into question of everything that critics and professors
of literature had imperturbably professed for years and years.  And his
impatience was such that, renouncing sleep for good, he rushed to the
library to try to learn a little more about this Vernier and about his work.
     He found nothing.  The few dictionaries and indexes present in the
Borrade library ignored the existence of Hugo Vernier.  Neither the senior
Borrades nor Denis could teach him anything more: the book had been
purchased at an auction, ten years ago already, at Honfleur; they had
glanced at it without paying much attention.
     Throughout the day, with the help of Denis, Degraël proceeded to
undertake a systematic examination of the work, going to seek scattered
fragments in dozens of anthologies and collections: they found almost
three hundred and fifty, divided among close to thirty authors: the most
celebrated as the most obscure poets of the last part of the century, and
even some prose writers (Léon Bloy, Ernest Hello), seemed to have made
of The Winter Voyage their bible, where they had sought the best of
themselves: Banville, Richepin, Huysmans, Charles Cros, Léon Valade
brushed up against Mallarmé and Verlaine and others at present fallen into
obscurity who were named Charles de Pomairols, Hippolyte Vaillant,
Maurice Rollinat (the godson of George Sand), Laprade, Albert Mérat,
Charles Morice or Antony Valabrègue.
     Degraël noted carefully in a notebook the list of authors and
references for their borrowings and regained Paris, firmly decided to
pursue his researches the very next day at the Bibliothèque nationale.  But
events did not permit him to do so.  At Paris, his draft notice awaited
him.  Mobilized at Compiègne, he found himself, without really even
having the time to know why, at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, passed over into
Spain and from there to England and didn't return to France until the end
of 1945.  During the entire war, he had carried  his notebook with him
and had miraculously succeeded in never losing it.  His researches had
evidently not progressed very much, but he had nonetheless made what
for him was an important discovery: at the British Museum he had been
able to consult the Catalogue général de la librairie française and the
Bibliographie de la France and had been able to confirm his formidable
hypothesis: The Winter Voyage (Le Voyage d'hiver), by Vernier (Hugo),
had well been published in 1864, at Valenciennes, by the Hervé Bros.,
Printers-Booksellers, and submitted to legal deposition as are all works
published in France, and been deposited at the Bibliothèque nationale
where the call number Z 87912 had been attributed to it.
     Named professor at Beauvais, Vincent Degraël devoted from then
on all his spare time to The Winter Voyage.
     His avid researches into the diaries and correspondence of the
greater part of the poets of the latter part of the nineteenth century rapidly
convinced him that Hugo Vernier had, in his time, known the celebrity
that he had merited: such notes as "received today a letter from Hugo,"
or "wrote a long letter to Hugo," "read Hugo all night," or again the
celebrated "Hugo, only Hugo" by Valentin Havercamp, didn't refer at all
to "Victor" Hugo, but rather to that bad-boy poet whose brief work had
apparently singed the hands of everyone who had touched it.  The
startling contradictions that literary criticism and history had never been
able to explain thus found their only logical solution, and it was evidently
by thinking of Hugo Vernier and his Winter Voyage, that Rimbaud had
written "Je est un autre" (I is an other) and Lautréamont "La poésie doit
être faite par tous et non par un" (Poetry should be made by everyone and
not by one alone).
     But the more he located the preponderant place that Hugo Vernier
should have occupied in the literary history of France at the end of the last
century, the less was he able to furnish tangible proofs: for he had never
again been able to place his hands on a copy of The Winter Voyage.  The
one which he had consulted had been destroyed at the same time as the
villa during the bombing of le Havre; the copy deposited at the
Bibliothèque nationale was not in its place when he asked for it and only
at the end of tedious searches was he able to learn that the book had been,
in 1926, sent to a binder who had never received it.  All of the researches
that he had others make for him, literally dozens and hundreds of
librarians, archivists, and booksellers, proved worthless, and Degraël
soon convinced himself that the five hundred copies of the edition had
been voluntarily destroyed by the very ones it had so directly inspired.
     About the life of Hugo Vernier, Vincent Degraël learned next to
nothing.  An unhoped-for footnote, unearthed in the obscure Biographie
des hommes remarquables de la France du Nord et de la Belgique
(Verviers, 1882), informed him that Vernier had been born in Vimy
(Pas-de-Calais) on September 3, 1836.  But all of the civil records of the town
of Vimy had been burned in 1916, at the same time as the copies
deposited at the hall of records in Arras.  No death certificate had ever
apparently been filed
     For almost thirty years, Vincent Degraël forced himself in vain to
reassemble the proofs of the existence of this poet and of his work.  At
the time of Degraël's death, at the psychiatric hospital in Verrières, some
of his former students undertook to classify the immense pile of
documents and manuscripts he had left behind: among these figured a
thick binder bound in black cloth and whose label read, carefully
calligraphied, The Winter Voyage: the first eight pages retraced the
history of these vain researches; the three hundred and ninety-two others
were blank.
 

translated by
Peter Baker
Baltimore, October 1, 1997