Monique Wittig provides a hint of how to approach Djuna Barnes‘s short stories collection Spillway. Wittig insists on the role of sarcasm and irony in making manifest that which tends to pull in multiple and separate directions. In her forward to her translations she remarks
C’est pourquoi à l’époque où il s’opère une énorme poussée pour évacuer le sens des pratiques de langage il nous faut insister du côté du sens et par le sarcasme et l’ironie rendre manifeste ce qui tire à hue et à dia.
It just so happens that the first story in Spillway is called “Aller et Retour” in English (which title is preserved in the French translation) which references a round trip. It is a story that has the reader leaping through time and space much like the to and fro of a railway excursion. We begin with the protagonist on a train from Marseilles to Nice. We learn that she lives in Paris or rather “lived in Paris” which is exquisitely ambiguous as to whether she still resides in the City of Light. From there the story informs us with the irony and sarcasm signalled by Wittig that
In leaving Marseilles she had purchased a copy of Madame Bovary, and how she held it in her hands, elbows, slightly raised and out.
She read a few sentences with difficulty, then laid the book on her lap, looking at the passing hills.
We next experience a wee bit of disorientation (the narration had set up travel towards Nice but we find ourselves in Marseilles): “Once in Marseilles, she traversed the dirty streets slowly […]”. One experiences a little shock of dislocation for that “once” means not “arrived” but “once upon a time” or “upon one occasion”. We are brought face to face with the story as story.
Wittig’s French version “A Marseille, elle a parcouru […]” becomes with back translation “In Marseilles”. But had it not been for the Wittig rendering we may have never bumped up against the English’s dislocations. There is to and fro between versions that set up a spinning.
Emblematic of these motions is the description of the flow of water in the title story.
|L’eau quand elle est dans la main est sans voix, pourtant en passant par-dessus les chutes elle rugit bien. Elle chante contre les petits cailloux dans les ruisseaux mais quand elle est caputrée et se bat et coule le long des mains, elle n’a goût que d’eau.||Water in the hand has no voice, but it really roars coming over the falls. It sings over small stones in brooks, but it only tastes of water when it’s caught, struggling and running away in the hands.|
Water tasting of water and the curve of a tautology. Water escaping. Hands that cannot clutch its fluid journey à hue et à dia. But words do hold it still for the mind to taste.
And so for day 1362