All the King’s Horses, Michèle Bernstein. Trans. John Kelsey. Semiotext(e), 2008.
The Night, Michèle Bernstein. Trans. Clodagh Kinsella, Ed. by Everyone Agrees. Book Works, 2013.
After the Night, Everyone Agrees. Book Works, 2013.
By Alan Reed
1. All the King’s Horses and The Night
Michèle Bernstein is one of the founding members of the Situationist International, an avant garde group formed in the late 50s and active until it disbanded in 1973. Their focus was initially artistic, but their activity soon extended to a broader critique of the political and economic implications of the increasing mediation of everyday life. The Society of the Spectacle, by Bernstein’s husband, Guy Debord, proved especially prescient in this regard: in many ways, it anticipated how much time we now spend in front of screens, beholden to representations of life—the spectacle—at the expense of our own actively lived experience. For the Situationists, this marked the reduction of experience to a commodity and the extension of the logic of capitalism to the totality of everyday life. Against this, the Situationists developed strategies of resistance designed to disrupt the spectacle and open up the possibility of a life lived somewhere beyond it.
And I should say that the Situationists are dear to me. Their theorizations of the mass media are among the most compelling I’ve found, for both the rigour of their analysis and their usefulness in application. But, deplorably, it would appear that it would have been asking too much of them to include some awareness of gender in their critique of the politics of everyday life. One of their key tenets was a principled refusal to work (“Ne travaillez jamais!” in Debord’s words), and so while Debord swanned about it fell to Bernstein to pay the rent. It is thanks to this arrangement that we have Bernstein’s two novels:
La Nuit would not exist if Tous les chevaux du roi hadn’t come first. Here’s why: in 1957 my husband and I were rather skint. In those days I was still a member of the lumpensecretariat, working for tuppence ha’penny at a humdrum publishing house. Guy Debord, naturally, wasn’t working. The journal of the Situationist International sold five or six copies, and we sent the rest to people we found interesting…
So to make ends meet, to earn our bread and butter, I decided to write a novel. (The Night, p. 9)
Her two novels, Tous les chevaux du roi (translated as All the King’s Horses) and La Nuit (The Night), were written to be cynical approximations of literary best sellers. The Situationists, Bernstein included, held the novel to be a dead and reactionary form and had no serious interest in it. These books could have been no more than a grab for easy money and it is to Bernstein’s enormous credit that they are more than that. They operate simultaneously as novels and as a subversion of the form of the novel. They are denaturalized texts; exercises in literary pastiche that work to subvert whatever coherent representation of reality they might have otherwise produced. They are constructed around a plot lifted from Les Liaisons dangereuses (and modernized—there is no scandal to the affairs in her novels, no mortal consequences) and each novel works through this plot in its own way—in Tous les chevaux du roi in a voice reminiscent of Françoise Sagan and in La Nuit an approximation of the style of the nouveau roman. They are deeply personal, intimate novels, but any presumption that these qualities are anything other than an effect of language runs up against the precisely calculated method of their composition. The imaginative screen the novel projects itself upon falls away and what remains is the lifeless mouthing of words.
This laying bare of the means by which the novel produces itself, this dissipation of whatever claim to reality or authenticity it could make, this undoing of the novel from within itself: it all makes for a Situationist gesture par excellence. And yet, these books have not been received as properly Situationist texts. They are largely excluded from the canon of Situationist writing—at best they have been received as romans à clef, read for what insight they have to offer into Bernstein and Debord’s private lives at the time they were written. Now that I have read them and had a chance to think through what they do, this puzzles me. These books deserve to have fared better than they did.
2. After the Night
In French, both Tous les chevaux de roi and La Nuit were out of print until very recently, and their first translations into English are the editions currently available. Tous les chevaux de roi was translated by Reena Spaulings Fine Art—it was published serially as part of the gallery’s regular activity, one chapter at a time; this attracted the attention of Semiotext(e), who then published the novel in a single volume in 2008. La Nuit‘s route to translation was more circuitous. It began with a chance encounter between Michèle Bernstein and a member of Everyone Agrees, a NY and London-based artist collective. A collaboration was proposed. Everyone Agrees had wanted to rewrite Bernstein’s text, to make a contemporary adaptation of it—effectively, to do to it something like what it had done to the contemporary literature of its day. This is not what happened. According to Everyone Agrees, Bernstein backed out of their collaboration and chose instead to have La Nuit published as The Night, a straightforward translation, leaving the text Everyone Agrees had been working on to be published as After the Night, a parallel text left without much of a reason to exist.
This is disappointing. La Nuit was only ever disdainfully a novel—Bernstein herself insisted that it was no more than a joke, and this likely goes a long way towards explaining the history of the book’s reception, but it was precisely as a joke that it is at its most interesting. La Nuit is incomplete, I would argue, without the story of its writing. It is not entirely itself without a knowledge of how it was written; without that, without the joke, implicit in this is another understanding of textuality, one that sees the textual object as unimportant except insofar as it is the trace of an act. It is not the object produced that has value, it is the process of bringing it about that does. It is the affirmation of writing as a moment, a relationship with language that shifts and changes according to the writer’s circumstances and that appears in the text as a trace of itself, unnoticed and unnoticeable but nonetheless exerting a deep structuring influence on it.
The reception of Bernstein’s novels as romans à clef approximates this other understanding but falls short of it. To read her writing for what biographical details it contains is still to approach the text as an object, to arrest the writing in a fixed form alienated from its process. The approach that Everyone Agrees wanted to take—one that disregards the text-as-object to instead orient itself around the way that the book was written—comes closer. It had the potential to do something very interesting with the text, though I would say it is a potential that goes largely unrealized.
La Nuit is largely organized around two of its characters walking the streets of Paris at night, drinking and talking to one another; passages describing these walks are interspersed with a fragmented sequence of narrative scenes that, taken together, articulate the novel’s structure. Everyone Agrees produced their text by appropriating this twofold structure. They mapped the routes walked through Paris, transposed them to London as best as they were able and re-enacted them. This re-enactment is the organizing principle of their book. And this introduces one of the difficulties of reading the book: it sits between forms, between discourses, it is as much a performance as it is a text. As such, it offers itself to be read from a literary perspective but, as with La Nuit, that reading falls short in significant ways. The choice to organize After the Night around the walks, and not the narrative that contextualizes it—that establishes the relation between the characters doing the walking, how that relationship came about, how it ends; in short, its novelistic meaning—this is a choice that confounds from a literary perspective but of course it is how a group of contemporary artists trained in process-based methods would approach the text.
These transposed walks operate, methodologically speaking, as the point of departure for the book. Everyone Agrees builds out from the act of walking into approximations of the other key structural components of La Nuit: the drifting conversations between the two characters walking and the narrative context of their walking. There is a certain fidelity to the source text, there is an effort to incorporate Bernstein’s writing into theirs, as in this passage:
‘Have you ever seen a striptease? I haven’t,’ says Francis.
‘No,’ says Savannah. ‘Remember those burlesque nights that were really in fashion a couple of years ago? At least at Spearmint Rhino, there’s a kind of honest transaction. But people like Dita von Teese just seem so nostalgic.’
‘I don’t actually mind the women, so much, it’s more the guys, dressed up in braces and handlebar moustaches,’ replies Francis.
‘Yeah, the vintage thing is a truly scary industry. Have you noticed how, at the start, if you typed “vintage” into eBay, then you’d literally get really old things that were falling apart? And now you get ballet shoes that were made about ten minutes ago in Taiwan.’
‘Yeah, that Tokyo schoolgirl thing has completely infected eBay. And at the same time, it’s funny, but if you look at Monocle, literally every single fashion shoot features a kind of repeated Asian worker apparatchik, sipping noodles in Shibuya.’
‘I think that very few people have a sense of the erotic, but that pornographers abound.’
Which mirrors this scene from La Nuit:
‘Have you ever seen a striptease? Me, never.’
‘No,’ says Gilles. ‘Sometimes I go to pretty weird places, but stripteases are a bit much.’
‘What interests me,’ says Carole, ‘is how they choose the girls.’
‘Dancers who haven’t made it, maybe. Or, I don’t know, perhaps they earn more.’
‘No,’ says Carole, ‘it’s not that; what I meant was, I’d like to see what others find erotic. It’s the complete opposite of everything I believe. Those petticoats they raise, for instance, the lace: it’s repugnant. Now it’s the fashion, even for schoolgirls. It’s a shame. And the plunging necklines—real pin-ups for army guys.’
‘I think that very few people have a sense of the erotic,’ replies Gilles, ‘but that pornographers abound.’ (91)
Although a conceptually sound move from an artist’s perspective, there is a way this does not work in a literary context. There is a fidelity to the materiality of the text here—and because the novel operates through the substitution of its materiality for an imagined scene, a method that emphasizes the material can only engage with it partially. The literal fidelity of After the Night to La Nuit falls short; it gestures towards the imagined scene of the novel but it does not do so coherently, it does not re-create it and incorporate it into itself, and in this regard, from a literary perspective, After the Night falls dramatically short of La Nuit. There is a plurality to the latter that the former lacks: it operates simultaneously as conceptual play and story, whereas After the Night works effectively in only the one register. As a narrative, it feels stiff, lifeless and humourless, too much like Everyone Agrees were only going through the motions of an adaption when more was needed from them.
Which is not to say that After the Night is without a narrative. In the place of the imagined scene of the novel there is a documentation of the process of conceiving and writing the book. This is where the narrative of Bernstein first agreeing to work with Everyone Agrees and then changing her mind plays out. If the book is to be taken at its word, this goes a long way towards explaining its lifelessness: this is in no way the book Everyone Agrees had wanted to write. Which leaves me to wonder what they might have done had they been able to do what they had wanted to do.
So, in the end, I am left deeply ambivalent about these books. I cannot say I entirely empathize with Bernstein’s decision to publish La Nuit in a straightforward translation. It is, arguably, a decision that departs from what is most interesting about the book. By publishing it this way it is no longer a prank, it has become a historical artefact—an object of precisely the kind it was designed to subvert and I cannot help but think of this as a betrayal. But is it fair to hold her to the position of an avant garde group that has been defunct for forty years? Is there not a certain truth to this passing of the Situationists into history? Because I did enjoy The Night, even if only as a trace of a historical period I am unusually fond of. Is that enough? Or should we expect more than to receive history as something this tidily contained?