A Life of Ruptures: Frédéric Pajak’s “Uncertain Manifesto,” Translated from French by Donald Nicholson-Smith

By Sean Lambert

The title of Uncertain Manifesto is apt, because it is difficult to say how it constitutes a manifesto, or even that it does at all. A novel that traverses generic as well as geographic and historical boundaries, Uncertain Manifesto switches, from chapter to chapter, between autobiography, essay, illustrated novel, history, literary analysis and fable-like fiction. The result resembles two types of modernist painting: a portrait of the author in cubistic fragments and an abstract, expressionistic declaration of his worldview. Though the work succeeds in crafting a character study of its author by examining the objects that interest him (especially: writers like Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett; European cities; and the culture of the interwar period,) generalizations about life, art and human nature in certain sections conflict with what is otherwise an exciting experiment in autobiography.

Pajak is known among readers of French for developing a genre-bending style of illustrated novels, which have won him literary awards in France and Switzerland. Nicholson-Smith’s 2019 translation of Uncertain Manifesto (which is really only volume one of an ongoing series of novels called Uncertain Manifesto; six other parts are available in French) for the New York Review of Books is the first appearance of his work in English. Nicholson-Smith has translated a range of fiction from French – from detective novels to works by Antonin Artaud – and his translation deftly preserves the author’s pensive, reflective tone throughout, even while Pajak’s voice explores a range of stylistic registers. By leaving many French expressions untranslated, Nicholson-Smith also helps ground us in the particular geographic context from and about which Pajak writes.

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Pajak emerges as a strong narrator in Uncertain Manifesto’s preface and in the first chapter. Then, he mostly recedes into the background as the novel shifts its focus to a series of episodes in the lives of Samuel Beckett and Walter Benjamin. Nonetheless, the preface and first chapter are essential in implicating Pajak in the histories and critical analyses that follow. These early sections inform us that Pajak is a loner and a wanderer, who has lived in Switzerland, France and the United States (at least) and held such diverse occupations as factory worker, typographer, gofer, rotary-press operator and “even worse… student” (21). For Pajak, uncertainty is not an abstract philosophical position, but an existential condition of life lived in precarity. Pajak writes that he has dreamed, since he was a child, of producing a book “mixing words and pictures,” which would contain “snippets of adventure, random memories, maxims, ghosts, forgotten heroes, trees, the raging sea” (7).

By the time he was a teenager, he had come to title this work-in-progress “Unsure Manifesto,” thinking about the power of uncertainty to resist the extreme ideologies he saw proliferating in the world: “ideologies, leftist, fascist, were everywhere, and certainties jostled one another in every head” (7). Later in the novel, a section concludes by mentioning a diary entry from Walter Benjamin in which the words, “the conception of life as a novel” appear (74). With the context of the first-person chapters, it becomes clear how this idea must have struck Pajak as a revelation. The novel’s beginning cues the reader to notice how present-day issues of alienation, liminality and displacement played a role in the lives of the modernist thinkers that Uncertain Manifesto investigates.

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As the novel shifts its focus to historical subjects – such as the relationship between Samuel Beckett and the Dutch painter Bram Van Velde; Walter Benjamin’s travels through Europe; and Ernst Toller’s autobiography – the narrator trades the passion and emotional frankness of the opening chapters for oblique, suggestive, occasionally funny commentary on the life and work of these historical figures. The through-line that runs throughout is uncertainty. The novel’s constantly shifting form and focus contribute as much to its investigation of adriftness as its content, in a harmony of form and philosophy that would have excited the thinkers of the Frankfurt School.

Bob Fosse theorized of musical theater that “the time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you ‘feel’” (Joosten, 4).Similarly, after the preface, which ends with, “Other [themes] will follow at the beck of uncertainty” (10), Uncertain Manifesto breaks out into pictures. And when Pajak’s grandmother dies a few pages later, the novel unfurls again into paragraphs of prose (21). The integration of these formal ruptures into the emotional beats of the narrative suggests they are inseparable from the events being described – that Pajak’s experience of a transient, precarious life consists of such ruptures. This is another veneration of aesthetic form that not only further links Uncertain Manifesto to the modernist experiments of its historical subjects but puts in practice the aesthetic philosophies of the Frankfurt School.

Uncertain Manifesto provides a self-portrait of the author in the way that a photograph of one’s room, with all one’s beloved possessions assembled at once, can be a self-portrait. Throughout the novel, one asks oneself why the author devotes his attention to Beckett’s relationship with this Dutch painter, to this moment by the seaside, to this episode in the life of Walter Benjamin. One draws one’s own conclusions about what these episodes mean to the author and how they come together to fulfill the dream of “the conception of life as a novel.” The novel’s form provides as many answers as the content itself. The constantly shifting, metamorphosing focus suggests a protagonist who anchors himself, in his lost life, through attachments to other objects or moments of lostness, dislocation and detachment. Fascinatingly, the novel thus provides a portrait of an alienated loner through the things that ground him in the world — a lost person, seen through the things that he finds, and those which find him.

However, although the novel succeeds in presenting the author’s life as material for a novel, it also purports to say something about its subject — that is, life — and this is where its reach sometimes exceeds its grasp. The work succeeds most when it embodies and examines uncertainty, and fails during certain self-righteous, frustratingly certain rants about philosophical subjects. For example, near the end of a first-person chapter called “The Wind of Things,” a montage of vignettes of poignant moments in Pajak’s life is broken by several paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness philosophizing: “Naturally, we measure time in terms of seconds or chiming bells; we have rigged our timetables, our days and nights, our years and centuries, so as to avoid the evil of time, the time that exists, and steals our existence… We smother mysteries in vain” (86). This tone, which surfaces at various points throughout the narrative, is both certain of itself and abstracted from lived experience, clashing with the themes and techniques of the rest of the novel.

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Along with a jarring and surprising misogynistic tone that surfaces from time to time (“girls dressed like whores with skirts up to their moneymakers and eyes blackened by mascara” (94),) the philosophical generalizations contribute to a vein of adolescent male energy that surfaces from time to time. Unprompted musings such as, “everything is mystery, and nothing but mystery: cascading questions, inert answers” (86) or “’The people’ is an opaque being… The people is an ineffable entity that defies all definition… Intellectuals are not part of the people because they are intellectuals” (109), neither satisfy on their own nor add up altogether to a theory totalizing enough to be called a “manifesto.” This tone is so at odds with the delicacy and humility of the rest of the book that it is hard to square.

On the other hand, by anchoring the attempt to deliver a manifesto within a larger story about a deeply uncertain person trying to create meaning in an uncertain world, the attempts at theory somewhat work as a dramatization of failing to think through an argument. That might be the best one can say of Uncertain Manifesto’s forays into philosophy — they work if you read the book generously and ironically enough to subsume their failures under the book’s other successes.

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I think the novel would appreciate that kind of reading — the kind of generous engagement with the human behind the art that Benjamin gave Baudelaire or Beckett gave Van Velde. The theoretical excursions fit into a life of fragments that do not all neatly fit together. It is appropriate that such a complex and conflicted novel might produce complex and conflicted reactions. Although the book does not leave the reader with a theory of life, such as they might expect from a manifesto, it does contribute to an understanding of uncertainty that speaks to these ambiguous and uncertain times.

Pajak, Frédéric. Uncertain Manifesto. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York Review of Books: New York, 2019.

Sean Lambert is a graduate student in German at UC Berkeley. He studies affect, aesthetics and politics in early twentieth-century literature and film. He translates from German (and does his best with French.) 

Works Cited

Joosten, Michael. Dance and Choreography. The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009.

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