Theatres of the Catastrophal: A Conversation with Nathanaël

By Geneviève Robichaud

On the occasion of the release of her most recent book, Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal (Nightboat Books, 2012), Nathanaël and I shared a conversation.

Lemon Hound

Geneviève Robichaud: It is the impact of the fragment, the assemblage, the collaborative element of your new book, Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal, that interests me at this juncture and that compels me to gesture to certain parts of my traversée (not fully articulated as a réplique, per se, but as an experience nonetheless). I will begin with your own beginning, the one after the epigraphs, before the first series of tableaux begin. Je suis au seuil de la porte. It is the place where, in Sisyphus, “Someone carries a door through a door. | This is demonstrable.” Is there such a place as an in between space?

Nathanaël: It is unclear to me that one can speak of beginnings with Sisyphus. It seems to me that with this work’s concern with belatedness, there is a refutation (possibly) of anything resembling an advent. To be perhaps too literal with it, the epigraphs are wrested from the midsts of works, the equation included with the epigraphs is extracted from a much more complex calculus, itself tied to an undisclosed conversation, and even the frontispiece, with its mathematical deliberations, is only part of a much larger problem. Sispyhus itself, by which I mean the book, is residual at its very beginnings. One could, I suppose, make this claim of any text, since it is organised with elements of language that are themselves, of necessity, and by design, belated: they come after. Here, however, there is no assurance given that any beginning is without suspicion as to its instigation. Does the text begin where you have indicated (with, what might be treated as a further epigraph, or else a mathematical problem), or with the lone word “Still” with its semantic instabilities. If I am placing so much emphasis on the question of beginning, it is because of its eventual relationship to the between you have chosen to question. In Sisyphus, I think the question is quickly dispensed with; this work is concerned with reiterative endings, moments just past the last, as it were, too late. As for me, if I granted as much attention as I did to a so-called between space, in prior works, it was, I think, in error; a temporal error that allowed for bracketings. Here, everything is at once gaping and violently contained.

GR: The idea of “the gaping and violently contained” is provocative, as is your method of culling citations from a large repertoire of works and authors, meticulously re-staging them to create a conversation between passages. I use the word “passage” here deliberately – not only to gesture to the textual fragments that are assembled in Sisyphus but also in regards to my own experience reading the work as a kind of traversée. What is the connection, if any, between the idea of a “passage” (especially if we consider the work of the passage or fragment as an invitation to move from one site to another) and the catastrophal, or is it the arrangement of the fragments, like a musical score, that results in the feeling that one is passing through something that re-emerges as the same, yet-not-quite-the-same? Another manner of posing the question would be to ask: to what extent has the idea of a false in-between, “a temporal error that allowed for bracketings” in your older works, made possible a kind of reification of time and perhaps even of space in Sisyphus?

N: I might hazard, in return, that the traversals in question with their temporal inclination toward desuetude – the passager, who is both, in French, passenger, and passing (transitory), substantive and epithet, which is to say, outdone, or overstepped, convokes the very threshold which is surmised at the outset of Sisyphus, with the figure of the double door; though this is imprecise, it is two doors, most likely, one inside another, evidently a material impossibility, because this would imply the simultaneous occupation of a single point in space of more than one door. And here, I have elided the figure of the someone carrying the door. What you identify as “the same, yet-not-quite-the-same” may already be indicative of the movement you ask after. I could say, for example, that for a time, I imagined translation as a movement between texts; in this case, the traversals are many; only the boundary across which the text must be carried, if we are to follow the by now much-abused etymology of the term translate, reveals itself to be disintegrative, friable. Which amounts to the destruction of all identifiable coordinates – temporal or otherwise. In translation, I have come to understand that what is most ignored, in conversations about translation, is the moment at which the texts come to pieces; the boundary, amplified, is extenuated, it ceases to exist. The catastrophal, in this sense, disallows the convenience, the privilege, of an interimary moment, because the reprisals are all driven into one another, with equal vigor and violence. I have no interest in making a theory out of this, but of thinking it through its own thinking – the most telling indicator for me, is in the misapprehension of language, and in its misconstrual of the mind, the body, whichever and however they contraverse one another. The various instances of this which arrive at Sisyphus are already broken in the ways they reveal themselves to be. In a sense, this evidences the destruction of pasts, which are active in the time of the work as it is alluded to. An example of this might be Shostakovich’s decision to dedicate a quartet to himself (not incidentally the eighth). The composer anticipates the pall which has already fallen upon his work. To imagine himself dead, thus, and without a reciprocal text, compels him to determine it, to determine, in effect, his own post-mortem, a posteriori, from out of his vital course. What happens, in language, and with this decision, is the confounding of times, and the belying, precisely, of Sisyphus’s traversals. But it would be an error to place excessive emphasis on the citations collected into Sisyphus. They arrive, fragmentary, and punctual, in the midst of a text that is otherwise concerned with its own indeterminate elaboration: which is to say it is a written thing.

GR: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “the moment [in translation] at which the texts come to pieces” (I love that idea) and what Sisyphus or the orchestration of the “theatres of the catastrophal” has illuminated for you?

N: Translation’s disintegrative states have become something of a preoccupation; what I mean – and I’m still thinking this through – is that the instabilities instigated by translational acts are written into the text. Photographic processes have proven very instructive in relation to this. For example, Antonioni writes of the endless inscription onto photographic film of visual, material information that escapes the eye’s scrutiny. Prolonged development processes will reveal the ostensibly endless latent images contained in a single frame of film. In theory, one could expose an image ad infinitum, culling from the celluloid more and more infinite detail. But we know from a photographer such a Josef Koudelka, who practices a very sensitive relationship to time, that excessive development will produce a pitch black photograph – one could imagine this as the absolute, the most complete photograph, in which the intricate detail produces a solid, impenetrable mesh of opacity. In which everything is inscribed and nothing is legible. A corollary exists in translation, and it is the moment at which the texts – foregoing the bilateral language of source and target texts (with its tidy between, and problematic direction) – the texts, with their languages, enter into disintegrative states. It has something to do with proximities and loss of intelligibility. It has something also to do with vigilation. The moment at which one is most focused might be the moment one must close one’s eyes out of sheer intensity. Something is, of necessity, eradicated, in one’s apprehension of — disaster, say. Absolute vigil does not, can not, exist. The senses cannot abide such demand.

A friend recently directed me to a photograph of the Chernobyl disaster – this photograph of ejected graphite from the Chernobyl core – literalises the exact problem I am referring to. The radioactivity is visible as a disturbance in the photographic field. And the photographer, uncredited, though likely a Soviet authority, died as the photograph was taken; the cause of his (?) death is both the photograph and the radiation. The two become indistinct and determining for one another. In this, it might be useful to return to several of the acceptions of catastrophe, which are crucial to Sisyphus, namely, a “final event,” “a sudden and violent change in the physical order of things” (in Sisyphus, it is the seism, or earthquake, which functions as principle exemplar), and “the change […] which produces the conclusion of a dramatic piece,” all of which with their connotations of calamity. As I was writing Sisyphus, I had in mind Genet’s text “L’étrange mot d’…” in which the morbid necessity for a particular kind of architecture of the theatre is argued. Fixity, the very phantasm of photography, becomes an ethical injunction – against the unsituatable fantasy of post-modern subjectivity. To respond to both fixity and disintegration as equally incumbent forces, rewrites ethics against a different acception of time. In my thinking, it has something to do with a way of thinking anteriority. Catastrophe theory is interested in precisely this sort of discontinuity; its apprehensions of imminent material change, for example, are predicated on an already foregone anterior state of flux.

GR: I am thinking about something you said earlier about not wanting to create a theory but instead thinking through the writing. Looking at your list of publications, I cannot help but notice how prolific you are, but also the degree to which a set of recurring preoccupations is worked out in each text. While I do not get the sense that these concerns are reiterated (in fact, I think your work is characteristic of movement and redefinition), I wonder to what extent each work opens up the possibility of another (or is it perhaps too simplistic to say that each work creates channels into the next)? Where has the process of thinking through the writing brought you this time? What’s next?

N: It’s very possible (in fact arguable) that these channels exist, though they tend to reveal themselves (to me) after the fact. I can think of several prior, perhaps more determined examples of this, though they’re likely too tedious to narrate. Certainly the channels are not necessarily linear, in that there has been increasing enmeshment from one project to another, and the relays between works is rarely unilateral; one of the more complex examples of this might be the concurrent writing of Carnet de désaccords, against an unfinished manuscript in French, and at least two other pieces of writing, one of which was the talk, ALEA, on Algerian rooftops, as well as extracts from my end of various correspondences; the textual contaminations were multifarious and at this point, likely untraceable to an origin. In the case of Sisyphus, Outdone., the conduit is made explicit in the epilogue to We Press Ourselves Plainly, the last line of which is: “Sisyphus, outdone.” And for some time, while I imagined Sisyphus, Outdone. as a translation of the Press text, that consideration disappeared into other more immediate concerns tied to the actual writing of the piece. It’s probably safe to say that to recover that conduit would require a fair bit of excavation, and by that time it will have assumed another shape, bitten as it will have been by forms of decay. In the sense that the Press text is concerned with a voice in a room, Sisyphus, Outdone. is equally concerned with the parameters of a (the) room; or perhaps with the impossible autopsying of the destruction(s) evident in the Press text (impossible for the exact reasons rendered in Morendo, in which a body, on the verge of autopsy, and presumed to be dead, then discovered not to be, though already in a state of decomposition, is then subjected to the injunction to carry through with the morbid operation – in keeping with the portentous photographs on the wall). I would caution against too great a literalisation of this intention, though, since it is by now subsumed into something which, I hope, exceeds this aspiration (by now somewhat banal, and certainly of little interest if carried out with exactitude). If I make rules for myself, or if my work presents me with rules, as is often the case, I have no loyalty to them, nor to following them à la lettre. There is thus a necessity of disloyalty to myself in all of this – this being that which escapes me in text. I wish to underscore this because of the dismaying conceptual fervor which seems to have taken hold of the century – not out of disdain for conceptualism per se, but for its limitations and the self-congratulatory effort that accompanies what amounts at times (and at its worse) to the simple carrying out of orders (one’s own or otherwise) with martial rigidity. There’s an ethical complaint in what I’m saying, but I won’t go into it here, though it may have something to do with the problem of vigilation which I discussed earlier.

”By now it is considered a truism that translation is the closest form of reading. I’d like to dispute this claim; not merely as a provocation, but precisely for reasons pertaining to the problem of vigilation, in which exacerbated attention provokes a kind of (I would say, necessary, however devastating) capsize, and what reveals itself at that moment of misalignment is of greater interest to me than the obvious concordances.”

As for what’s next, if you are asking after chronology, last year and the year before I reinscribed the triptych of French language Carnets into English, the most recent of which is Carnet de somme. It became imperative out of a concern for concordance (of place, time, nomination, language…); these will comprise a single volume in English, under the title The Middle Notebookes. If you are asking after questions I haven’t quite been able to formulate for myself, they are induced by some of what I was alluding to above, that is, elements of film, the photographic inflection of translation, and an irritable impasse vis-à-vis anteriority.

GR: This morning, while on the bus and reading from Sisyphus, Outdone, at random, a passage stuck out to me, which I read over and over: “what gives way is given away…this is what I understand of translatability…The point at which there is nothing left, nothing to motion over, nothing to speak for” (28). To me, this passage not only illuminates something about translation, it also points to something inherent in the reading act. How or where do the task of the translator and the reader align?

N: I wonder whether they do. I’ve given some thought to this of late, and am still sorting through it. By now it is considered a truism that translation is the closest form of reading. I’d like to dispute this claim; not merely as a provocation, but precisely for reasons pertaining to the problem of vigilation, in which exacerbated attention provokes a kind of (I would say, necessary, however devastating) capsize, and what reveals itself at that moment of misalignment is of greater interest to me than the obvious concordances. I’ve written about this elsewhere – in relation to intimacy and more recently to extinction – the ‘this’ being the lack of reciprocity that occurs in the midst of what might be idealized as absolute reciprocity (with the ‘absolute’ ever called into question). The first failed reciprocal relationship is that of the translated version of a text and the text being translated. Each bears the mark of that catastrophe. To take an example from Sisyphus, with its preoccupation with doors, Paul Virilio’s “trap doors open in a cement floor” translates the French “des trappes s’ouvrent dans le sol de ciment”. In French the doors disappear. But this is incorrect. It is in English that the door is made explicit; it appears, arguably, from nothing in the French sentence. The English makes manifest what is subsumed into the French trappes at the moment of repetition (bearing in mind the French acception of répétition which means to rehearse). The practised implications, then, for Sisyphus are many, not the least of which the derailment of the text – without the doors, the sense is thwarted, the thinking cannot take place as before. One can also look away from the so-called original to concurrent versions of a work, for evidence of further forms of disjunction. The implications, for example, in Buber’s Ich und Du (the very title of which incriminates the determined disjunction between the familiar Du in German to the officialised formal Thou in English), for an English reader of Kaufmann’s translation is radically altered in Bianqui’s French translation of a single line from the same text: Kaufmann’s ‘it does not help you to survive’ contradicts the intent of Bianqui’s ‘il ne fait rien pour te conserver en vie’. In my desire to come closer to German, I rerouted my thinking through French translations of the German; the multiplication of versions, rather than elucidating my reading of the text, further complicated it, interrupting the imagined proximities I might have written into my lecture. These are hazards, accidents of translation that inhibit reading. But what a formidable inhibition.

GR: “Formidable inhibition,” the title of a future project perhaps?   Speaking of projects, you recently received a PEN Translation Fund fellowship for your translation of Hervé Guibert’s journals, Le mausolée des amants, which is due in 2014 as The Mausoleum of Lovers (Nightboat Books). So far, we’ve talked about translation in terms of transience (like photography’s misleading truth claim, especially as it pertains to fixity), disintegration and even the act of reading. But what about the incommunicable? (I am moved every time I reread the passage in Sisyphus where you cite Guibert: “j’ai besoin de catastrophes, de coups de théâtre”). Has translating Guibert’s Le mausolée des amants revealed or given you access to otherwise incommunicable realms of experience? Much has been written on the subject of haunted media, but what about the idea of a haunted sentence? What have you learned about Hervé Guibert that you didn’t know before you embarked on this project? What have your experiences as his translator revealed to you?

N: The haunted sentence seems particularly fitting in light of an earlier work of Guibert’s, L’image fantôme, in which the text bears the trace of absent photographs which form the armature of the work (a failed photograph of his mother, without which, according to the author, the book would not have existed). Guibert calls this le désespoir de l’image. Transposed, one might speak, in effect of le désespoir de la phrase; this may be the very plight a translator is beset with. The scale of Le mausolée des amants (560 pages in the Folio edition) demanded, that at a practical level, I alter the way I usually work with a text – scoring the pace of translation versus revision differently – employing alternation rather than relying on momentum (this is aided also by the fact that the work is divided into a series of separate entries). But perhaps more strikingly, the intimacies that, as a reader, Le mausolée des amants afforded me, all but disappear in the course of translation. “For if the sentence is the wall”, writes Benjamin – and in this instance, Guibert’s language is not visceral to me, in the way, for example, Collobert’s is – I translated a first feverish draft of Meurtre in less than a week, and this has everything to do with the proximities that exist for me in relation to Collobert’s language – translating her, she is, in a sense, writing me, and perhaps even, with all due modesty, there is something of my own language that I find in hers; her language is intimate, visceral, her topographies familiar, and in that instance the boundaries tended to want to disappear – that was one of the dangers posed by that particular task: a willingness to go. With Guibert, it is otherwise, the distances are steadfastly maintained; there is never a moment at which Guibert ceases to be manifest in his own work, which is reflective of the kind of control he waged over himself, his photographs and his texts, even his film, during his lifetime. Translating Catherine Mavrikakis opened the way, not only to Guibert, but to this kind of demand, which requires the concurrent porosity (vulnerability) necessary for being thus penetrated by a text, and the vigilance necessary to resist conflating oneself with it. The violences committed by a text, even in such convivial circumstances, can be terrible. It is humbling to be so altered.

GR: Nathanaël, it has been a true pleasure and a privilege exchanging words, thoughts, ideas with you. You have been so generous. There is one more thing…with two new books out, (Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal. Nigthboat, 2012. and Carnet de somme. Le Quartanier, 2012) are there readings that we (or our lucky friends across the border) should look out for? In Montreal?

N: I thank you for your very engaging – and demanding – questions, Geneviève.

As for events, in the immediate, I am scheduled to give a couple of readings and a talk at SUNY Buffalo’s Poetics program (February 7 and 8). And the following month, in New York (March 10), I’ll contribute to a panel hosted by Nightboat Books at Poets House with Rob Halpern, Martha Ronk and Susan Gevirtz. As for Montréal, the city left me with its key. I would welcome the occasion.


Nathanaël (formerly Nathalie Stephens) is the author, (self) translator and essayist of over twenty books written in French in English. Her most recent publications include Carnet de somme (2012) – a book that concludes the notebook triptych begun in 2009 with Carnet de désaccords, a finalist for the Prix Spirale-Éva-le-Grand, and followed by Carnet de délibérations (2011) – We Press Ourselves Plainly (2010), The Sorrow And The Fast Of It (2007) and …s’arrête? Je (2007), for which she was awarded the Prix Alain-Grandbois by the Académie des Lettres du Québec in 2008. Nathanaël’s work has been translated into Basque, Slovene, and Spanish (Mexico) and there are book-length translations in Bulgarian and Portuguese (Brasil). Beyond translating her own work, Nathanaël has translated works by Catherine Mavrikakis, Édouard Glissant, Danielle Collobert, and Hilda Hilst (with collaborator Rachel Gontijo Araujo), among others. A recipient of a Chalmers Arts Fellowship (2002) and a residential bursary from the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia (UK, 2003), she was Distinguished Visitor at the University of Alberta in 2008. In 2012, Nathanaël earned a PEN Translation Fund fellowship for her translation of Hervé Guibert’s Le mausolée des amants, which is due in 2014 (Nightboat Books) as The Mausoleum of Lovers. She lives in Chicago.