“I’d love to love you”: Sarah Léon’s “Wanderer,” Translated from French by John Cullen

By Janet Lee

WandererSarah Léon wrote Wanderer in 2016, at age twenty-one, four years after she had published her first work, the novella Mon Alban. The novella is narrated from the perspective of a mother writing to her musically-gifted son Alban, unable to send her letters since Alban disappeared over the Berlin wall, leaving her behind on the eastern side. In Mon Alban we already see the characters that will be re-worked in Wanderer: the opera singer Lennie (whose talent is on par with that of the pianist Lenny in Wanderer), Wilhelm, the best friend Alban abandons, and Alban of course, the wanderer. We also see a musical-literary ambition, in which sonatas, serenades, and opuses structure her narratives. Schubert’s Winterreise informs both Wanderer’s atmosphere and the essentials of the plot.  

In Wanderer the German pianist Lenny appears on the doorstep of Pommier Chenin château at nightfall, beautiful and evasive, and the composer Hermin invites him inside. Lenny had had, for a long time, unrestricted access to Hermin’s apartment when they lived in Paris and Hermin was attending the conservatory. The past begins to fold into the present, and whatever was unsaid then, weighs upon the Pommier heavily. They spend little time bringing each other up to speed. Lenny has achieved a certain amount of fame as a pianist and Hermin has little to say about the intervening decade. Lenny is Hermin’s guest for the foreseeable future, and his reasons seem to be the mystery of Wanderer, except, we understand promptly that Lenny’s reasons are love and death. He languishes as Catherine languished for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and seeks solace in the wind-formed slopes as the latter had.

The Pommier is accessed by a recess in the Bourbonnais Mountains where Hermin has found refuge in an old ruin, Pommier Chenin, to compose his Homage to Schubert. The mountains are caught in the full of winter, crystalline, starkly contrasted, snowed-in. Indeed what lingers, the book closed and contemplated, is an atmosphere of wintriness, of a sort of huis clos, in which Hermin and Lenny are confined and really unable to leave, although Lenny will try. Words that jump out from a page at random (15): “garret”, “semidarkness”, “Rimbaud”, “aimless conversation,” wrap each scene in Brontë-esque romanticism. Léon’s prose is at its most lustrous in staging Wanderer’s winterland: “Hermin could see the tops of the larches writhing wildly, their branches furiously whipping the glass panes. The twilight still wrested the occasional gleam from the table, the mirror over the fireplace, the candlesticks” (99).

Léon’s characters are seen in half-light, reclining in the worn decadence of the Great Room, in shades of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, in which the Latin and Greek scholars of Hampden College aspire to speak and dress like the classicists they admire, mingling next to the hearth and drinking wine. Lenny and Hermin seem to exist in another time and place, to the extent that it is not until the last pages that an apparatus of modernity appears when Hermin jumps into his car to go after Lenny who had left Pommier Chenin in the middle of the night. John Cullen’s translation revels in this winter landscape finding fifty words for snow: “a river full of ice floes” (9), “like crystal embedded in rock” (20), “[t]he slopes were covered with an opalescent coat” (140).

Lenny is a romantic figure in excess, given to a love for his friend that is in turns possessive, manipulative, touching, and brooding. His musical capabilities come with a weakness, a certain pallor, even a death rattle. There’s a romantic indulgence in the myths we construct about musicians – that a musician such as Lenny has at his fingertips songs that he hasn’t yet played, that his gift is a torture, that his life is a constant struggle to communicate with people because his form of communication is music. The novel cleaves to such stereotypes making Lenny feel one-dimensional. On the other hand, I like Lucas Debargue’s reading, in conversation with Léon for France Culture, of Lenny as a figment of poor isolated Hermin’s imagination.

Léon’s prose reads as if she is pulling from old leather-bounds yet it is youthful in its flaws. The prose is often inflected with past perfect properness, further compounded by Cullen’s tendency here to avoid gloss, which I must say, in his translation of Yasmina Reza’s Happy are the Happy is wonderful. The more liberal use of contraction and word order so that Lenny’s note to Hermin “I am off to see the Pierre Charbonnière. […] I am not really sure how much time it takes, but I hope before night to be back” (69) reads more conversationally as “I’m off to see […] I’m not really sure […] I hope to be back before night” would have rendered the pair much more sympathetic in the English translation. It is true that their dialogue in the French seems to aspire to a register (expressing perhaps their affinity with the early twentieth century, or even Lenny’s German-ness), and I think Cullen recognized the need to treat their dialogues in English as less conversational.

Léon and Cullen are an interesting pair – I dived into the book not noting its translator until about fifteen pages in, thinking that both the translator and author in this case were at the beginning of their careers. Realizing that it was Cullen, the prose was exposed as not tentative, but unworked. Was there an attempt to mimic the author’s inexperience? But this stilt works on a thematic level, for the conversations between Lenny and Herman follow certain conventions: a) do not pry too much, b) do not reveal too much, and c) have poetry and music speak for you (e.g., Verlaine’s Sagesse, Aragon’s Le Roman inachevé, Jacques Drillon, and Schubert of course.) The references to music seem to comprise the essence of their bond; the struggle to speak to things beyond music confounds them. In her response to Lucas Debargue, Léon acknowledges this strange contrast between the expressiveness of Lenny’s music and the silence that otherwise permeates the way they communicate.

The close quarters, their history, and Lenny’s vulnerability suggest that the tension between the two men will eventually collapse into passion. We are to understand on some level that Lenny is the epitome of what Hermin seeks to emulate in his compositions, and even, as he contemplates Lenny playing the piano for the last time, that his Homage to Schubert was really an homage to Lenny. Their dialogue leans heavily on references to romantic poetry and music, and although the romantic references often function to obscure the speakers’ true feelings, they also seem foundational to what would be a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, Hermin rejects Lenny’s love:

“So you do not love me?” asked Lenny, speaking with effort.

Hermin raised his head. With this question, which could elicit but one response, [Lenny] seemed to be calling for the final blow […] For a few seconds, [Hermin] continued to hesitate, not knowing what to say or do, almost as lost as the person facing him. Then, practically in spite of himself, he elected to murmur, “I… I’d love to love you.” (175,177)

Lenny seems to be sure that Hermin never loved him. Hermin too feels that way and yet he resists. Why? Is he actually uncertain of his feelings? Or is he unwilling to cause his friend pain? And then does saying “practically in spite of himself […] I’d love to love you” imply that Hermin is rejecting Lenny or that Hermin is rejecting himself?

This moment twists the tropes of romantic love to reveal a true human complexity and gestures at what the two men may symbolize: the über-romantic, a movement in classical composition that has been rejected in favor of a more restrained and multi-genre approach. Hermin’s reworking of Schubert (his Homage) is not simply an expression, it is also a study, an effort undertaken to archive, expand, re-vitalize Schubert’s and Lenny’s legacy. Whether Hermin denies himself or whether he truly refuses Lenny seems ultimately secondary to the gravity of Hermin’s symbolic rejection of romanticism.

At the end of Mon Alban, we learn that the opera singer Lennie has kept Alban’s death a secret, that she heard the shots that killed him, but couldn’t tell his mother what had happened. This new knowledge changes completely our opinion of Lennie, who for most of the story is frustratingly taciturn, sickly and sad. Lennie has been carrying around such a secret, and now we see, the pitiful character is actually the optimistic mother, faithfully writing to her son, convinced that they will meet again. Wanderer does something similar to a different effect: when we learn that Lenny is not only in love with Hermin (we suspected), we learn that he is also about to die, Hermin on his part remains opaque: why did he offer so much of time and attention to Lenny if he doesn’t love him? Or are Hermin’s motivations a mystery to himself? This overwrought moment speaks to how deeply complex Léon envisions her characters to be, and while Wanderer at times gestures wildly to the unrealized potential of her vision, I’m watchful for her next.

Sarah Léon. WandererTranslated from French by John Cullen. Other Press, 2019.

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