841: Leaves of Hypnos by Rene Char

by Gerard

841.91: Char, Rene. Leaves of Hypnos (Extracts) and Lettera Amorosa. Translated by Jackson Mathews. Rome, Italy: Istituto Grafico Tiberino, 1944. 62 pp.

The 810s through the 860s are rather repetitive. Each division is literature from a different geographic culture (810 is American, 820 is British, 830 is German, and so on), then a pattern repeats: poetry, fiction, essays, speeches, letters, etc. The 840s are French literature, and xx1 denotes poetry, so 841 is French poetry. French poetry is a pretty expansive field, going back all the way to the troubadours of medieval Europe. In my library, I only have three books to choose from: a small volume of light poetry (but completely in French), a thick collection of Baudelaire’s works, and today’s selection.

I picked up this book while studying abroad in Paris from the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, famous nowadays for its appearance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. How could I not go and root around the stacks? For 12 euros (the price is still written on the inside cover), I egregiously overpaid for this slim volume of translated passage of Rene Char’s poetry, but the memory is more than worth it. That day, I also picked (from the booksellers along the Seine) a book of French Lenten sermons from 1708, but I had to sell it some years ago.

Now, on to the book at hand…Mathews’s translation of Rene Char Leaves of Hypnos is fun and interesting. His poetry is not structured as you would expect, no shortened line, no simple stanzas, but rather a sequence (or a barrage) or paragraphs, each one a wonderful prose poem. There are two sections of this book, Leaves of Hypnos and Lettera Amorosa. Hypnos deals with Char’s experiences during World War II and how lives the memories after the peace treaty. It is haunting and passionate, but quietly triumphant nonetheless:

We are stretched on the rack between the craving to
know and the despair of having known. The goad will not
give up its sting, nor we our hope.

Lettera Amorosa is a smaller broken prose poem about the love and loss of his paramour Iris. It is similarly paced, and has some great tender nuggets:

Who has not dreamed, strolling along the boulevards of
cities, of a world which, instead of beginning arbitrarily with
the word, might start from intentions (in the strictly amorous
sense). The notion of the impulsive freshness of such a society
can make you tingle.

You probably won’t be able to find this particular book (it had a limited print run of 350 copies), but I would suggest locating some of other translated work. It’s well worth it.