“Are we at war, Papa?”
“What makes you think that?”
“I don’t know, all these soldiers outside the shops.”
“Then it must be war.”
“But people are shopping in the sales.”
“So we can’t be at war.”
“The police are checking handbags and ID cards.”
“That means it’s war.”
“But there are no tanks or any shelling on our good city of Lyon.”
“It’s not war, then.” (17)
Lyon, France 2016. In the wake of the Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris, a state of emergency has been declared. The Nice attack is yet to occur. Protestors clash with security forces over controversial labour reforms. An unnamed, ungendered narrator wanders the city streets, observes police aggression, stays home reading Klemperer and Kraus, drawing parallels between Nazism and contemporary France’s nationalistic turn, smokes joints, listens to Tom Waits, Rihanna, and Tupac, quotes Whitman and Ginsburg, eats (a lot of) bananas, devises a manifesto for aspiring poets, looks for work, frets about finding a job, ponders the place and usefulness of poetry as an activity, all the while engaging in a Socratic dialogue with an omnipresent/omniabsent superego father. For such a slight novel (103 pages in French, 107 in English), Noémi Lefebvre’s Poetics of Work, translated by Sophie Lewis, packs an ambitiously loaded punch.
Lefebvre renders the novel more ambitious still with a nod to the OuLiPo movement—authors who experiment with artificial constrictions and mathematical combinations in order to explore the possibilities of literature. George Perec’s La Disparation (1969) translated as The Void by Gilbert Adair (1995) is possibly the most well-known example of an Oulipian novel, famously composed without a single letter ‘e’. Lefebvre’s Oulipian constraint in Poetics of Work echoes that of Anne Garréta’s in Sphinx—she removes all markers from the text that could identify the gender of the narrator. It is a vertiginous feat to pull off in French, and is so dexterously done that it went unnoticed by Lewis while she was working on the translation. Lefebvre skillfully avoids gender-defined words, phrases and allusions, and the novel is narrated in the first person, with only interior monologues and dialogues; the lack of gender indicators never jars. The experiment’s striking result is that it reveals just how unimportant the sex of the narrator is in our reading of this unrelenting, hyperintellectual postgender work.
Not all the novel’s characters escape gender. There is a mother, who died “quite a few years ago,” and a belligerent father, who seems to exist solely in the narrator’s mind,
For years everything that’s gone through my head has been debated in this courtroom that I call the house of the dead, where my father presides. Some people talk to God, others to their dogs; my father is my dog, my god, the magistrate who nips at my arse and straightens out my soul, who protects me from all kinds of wanderings and who keeps me from doing life. (25)
The father is relentless in his criticism of his offspring for not taking what he considers economically worthwhile, useful action, labelling the narrator, in Lewis’s translation, a “shiftless loser.” In a recent interview, Lefebvre discusses the overbearing father as the embodiment of her belief that “pure power has no superior instance.” “Who speaks in your head?” Lefebvre asks, “Who decides?—Nobody.” In Poetics of Work, the narrator, an out-of-work poet living off the royalties of a “thickwit” novel, must overcome the father’s chastising voice and forge forward.
At the novel’s outset, the narrator casts an eye over the tension-filled streets of Lyon and notes,
There isn’t a lot of poetry these days, I said to my father. (9)
“Aren’t there more urgent problems?”
“There are, Papa.”
“What earthly good is poetry when lunatics filled with global hatred are blowing their brains out amid crowds of ordinary people?”
“Indeed, Papa.” (11)
Lefebvre thereby opens a line of exploration and inquiry on the role of the poet in a contemporary society obsessed with productivity and crippled by police repression. This in turn leads to the first of a ten-point manifesto for poets that punctuates the novel:
Lesson one: Poets, subject no one to the authority of a father.
Paternal authority is, of all authorities, the one most inimical to poetry.
“Are you giving lessons to poets?”
“In what capacity?”
“None, Papa.” (29)
The narrator shrugs off the father’s potential for gaslighting and proceeds, in a direct link to the novel’s title, to seek meaningful work as a poet,
I’d looked through the classifieds for poets wanted, I’d had this idea of a job in nothing supervised by no one that I felt corresponded with a lack of profile that was difficult to encapsulate in a list of skills; under “poet” I found a job for an e-learning technical editor for a leading industrial company… (37)
Despite the father’s role as an antagonistic, imaginary, anti-poet, Lefebvre portrays him as a real, tangible figure—a superego who travels and who goes to the dentist, “alternating Plato and 4×4 everyday”—and a comical one, at times verging on the preposterous: “My father was whistling in a bath among the coconut isles, he’d set his laptop on the massage table was also streaming a Simpsons episode” (68).
In the same interview mentioned above, Sophie Lewis praises Lefebvre’s minimal, shaped prose and describes the importance of the humor that pervades all of her writing. Lewis, who also translated Blue Self-Portrait (2018), deftly conserves the voice, rhythm and comedy of Lefebvre’s implacable, at times comedic, tirade, and doesn’t hesitate to gleefully interweave her own linguistic turns and avian puns in the English version of the book: “The day swans are personally concerned about famine in the world they will swan about less…” (42).
Poetics of Work is a short, dense, articulate novel in which not much happens, but a great deal is debated regarding the place of language, poetry, work, principles and—without mentioning it—gender in a society rankled by fear, violence, nationalism and uncertainty. It’s a powerful uppercut of a treatise that jolts the reader out of any kind of complacency they may have been languishing in.
Lefebvre, Noémi. The Poetics of Work. Translated by Sophie Lewis. Les Fugitives, 2021.
Andria Spring is an emerging literary translator with a background in translating for intergovernmental and educational institutions. She is a masters candidate in Translation and Interpreting at New York University and is currently working on two non-fiction translations that will be published in 2021 – Dust, a monograph by French photographer Patrick Wack, and Diard & Duvaucel, an account of the first natural history expedition to Singapore.