Michel Leiris, writing in Atoll in 1968, described the writer Georges Limbour as: ‘a great poet in every heart-beat of what he wrote, but a poet without fanfare or vain display’. In ‘a society less gross than ours’ Leiris went on to say, Limbour would have had a far larger following. Limbour was greatly admired by his contemporaries, many of whom he knew as friends, including Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau, George Bataille, and Raymond Queneau. But very little of his work has been translated into English, and even in France he is not widely known.
He was born in 1900 and grew up in and around Le Havre. His childhood friends included the painter Jean Dubuffet, and Raymond Queneau. He started writing in his teens. Aged 18 he went to Paris to study medicine, then switched to philosophy. But he spent more time in literary circles than with his text books, drawn to both André Breton’s Surrealist group, and the experimental artists and writers who met at the studio of the painter André Masson. Limbour’s first story, L’enfant polaire (The Polar Child), heavily influenced by Surrealism, appeared in two parts over the winter of 1921/22. A slim volume of poems, Soleils bas (Low Suns), with illustrations by Masson, was published in 1924. More poems followed, and more stories, three of them published in 1930 as L’Illustre cheval blanc (The Illustrious White Horse).
Limbour never fully applied the strict ‘automatic writing’ methods demanded by Breton, and these early works already reveal a level of literary artifice which other Surrealist texts of the period eschew. He was, accordingly, denounced by Breton, in the second Surrealist manifesto of 1929, and expelled from the movement for ‘literary coquetry in the worst sense of the word’. By this time Limbour had aligned himself with the writers linked to George Bataille and the journal Documents, and he contributed to the anti-Breton pamphlet Un Cadavre (A Corpse).
After 1930 Limbour’s writing shifted register, with prose becoming his primary focus. The excesses of the Surrealist phase modulated into a gentler, more subtle style, yet still magical. He published four novels: Les vanilliers (The Vanilla Plants, 1938), La pie voleuse (The Thieving Magpie, 1939), Le bridge de Madame Lyane (Mme Lyane’s Bridge Club, 1948) and La chasse au mérou (Fishing for Grouper, 1963). Les vanilliers won the Prix Rencontre the year it was published. After his death Limbour’s short stories were collected and published in two volumes by Gallimard. He also wrote a play, and three opera librettos.
During much of the early period of his life Limbour lived outside of France. Between 1924 and 1939 he had teaching jobs in Albania, Egypt and Warsaw – and he travelled widely in Europe. In his later years he spent a great deal of time in Spain, where two of the novels are set – La pie voleuse and La chasse au mérou. The other novels, and many of the stories, also have exotic settings. Les vanilliers is set in Réunion, and Le bridge de Madame Lyane on the Danube. Several tales are set in Egypt (including Le main de Fatma, and Lettre d’Omdah), À l’encre sympatique takes place in Albania, and Le chien blanc in a remote mountain village. Even the stories set in France tend to happen on islands off the coast, as in Le calligraphe, La Chapelle de la Joie, and Un petit micro-climat. The events in the Surrealist influenced stories of the 1920s, of course, take place in imaginary landscapes, only loosely anchored in reality, where locations dissolve into each other with the fluidity of a dream.
The American writer Donald Heiney published a perceptive overview of Limbour’s writing in The Iowa Review in 1974. This is the only extended piece of writing on Limbour in English, which I have been able to find. Heiney says:
It is an odd fiction, rich in energy and full of partly resolved conflicts. There is a great note of enthusiasm and sensual delight running through it, yet the verbal effervescence is always tempered by intelligence. Leiris characterizes him as a being ‘intoxicated with life and at the same time too lucid not to perceive its inanity.’ The heroic is established in deft sketches and then deflated by the playful.
Heiney’s essay provides details about the novels, as well as commenting on a few of the stories. I have been particularly focused on the stories, which I am in the process of translating, and it is to these I will now turn. Limbour wrote short fiction throughout his life, and the evolution of his style can be clearly traced through these works.
The Surrealist stories are madcap, plotless adventures, full of rich invention. L’acteur du Lancashire (The Lancashire Actor), written in 1923, includes a wonderful rant against British imperialism – delivered by a horse. The hero, Herodstar, is looking for somewhere to bury his companion Pamela who has suddenly died. At one point on his quest he wakes up a bookseller in the middle of the night in order to buy a Spanish dictionary:
…marvelling at how the words of this foreign language were like fruit fresh from the tree and not old and dry; they touched the senses delightfully, new like the young beggars that assail you, no longer words but the things themselves which they designate, happy to run naked before clothing themselves in abstraction.
A battle with three policemen ensues, in a passage which anticipates Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, and the story ends with Herodstar gassing himself in the apartment he once shared with Pamela, while filling coloured party balloons. The balloons drift away into the night, across space and time, the last of them falling at dawn into a sandstone courtyard where the ‘glory of Rome’ slumbers, the balloon startling ‘the geese of the Capitol’.
Les yeux de verres (The Glass Eyes), from 1924, is a more straightforward tale with a macabre twist at the end. The central character purchases a ‘fist-full’ of glass eyes at an optician’s and gives them to a group of children playing marbles in front of a bench on which a group of blind old men are sitting. On discovering that the children are using eyes instead of marbles several of the old men go mad, thinking the eyes are their own.
From 1930 onwards the stories are less frenetic, more ‘naturalistic’, though no less magical. In Conte d’été (A Tale of Summer), the narrator is on a deserted beach with the strange name of ‘Domino’. In the brilliance of this landscape, memories of a masquerade in Venice, and of a former lover, take on bodily form and seduce him.
The charm of the south held me, unmoving: then two hands (with the lightest of touches) suddenly placed a mask, without holes for eyes, over my face, thus divesting me of the world, and a voice (seductive and amused) sang out behind me, like the sound of small black, shining pebbles cast into the sparkling sea, these three sombre and clear notes: Domino!
The text unfolds in a series of lyrical descriptions of the sensuous visions he experiences, culminating in a revelation of the woman and the world as one:
That’s when the sea, the sky and all things lifted for a moment their frail domino, to allow me at last to expose their secret. As vast as the sea, higher than the sky (and speaking on a human scale, with the true dimensions of love and the size of my hands, for that image was close to me beneath far off things) your limpid face reigned in its fresh and tender nakedness. Your hair crowned the golden splendour of the universe and the light gleamed in the hollow of your shoulders which rounded off the horizon. Through you, I saw everything, the face not of a dream but of one woman, and the material of the world was your body, and the sea covered it…
Conte d’été was later reworked into a text called Domino: Project for a Ballet, in which the events of the original story are expanded and developed into a dance piece.
Limbour’s tendency to write long, involved sentences, piling image upon image, is evident in the above quoted passages. Heiney comments on this in his essay, but also observes that: ‘…the style is less sentimental than it seems at first. In spite of the curlicues and little flourishes it is tightly controlled; the excesses are not really effusive or emotional, they are gongoristic. A verve of irony chills them sufficiently to avoid the mawkish.’
Le chien blanc (The White Dog) of 1953 has the quality of a story by Kafka, though without the sense of menace. The narrator is writing from a small inn high in the mountains. It is a winter’s night, and time has a fluid quality, moving at a pace divorced from that of the rest of the world. There is a white dog at the inn which the narrator is drawn to. But the landlady is suspicious, and discourages his attempts at familiarity.
After his second visit to the inn he has a vision of a woman he knows and desires floating naked in an icy stream flowing through the hamlet. The next day he witnesses a woman with a broken leg being brought to a roadside chalet, where he buys a scarf with the motif of a white dog printed on it. The story ends with him back in the inn. The dog is by the fire when he enters, but is led out by the landlady when she sees the scarf. The text concludes:
As he passed the door he turned and looked at me, but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Yet everything is clear to me now. I am approaching that night in the inn I have dreamed of.
Unfortunately the evening hasn’t even begun yet, and in a short while the woman will put me out. (Donald Heiney’s translation)
The theme of the absent lover is returned to in Description d’un tableau (Description of a Painting) from 1957, which is based on a painting by Dubuffet, Pierre aux figures (Stone with Figures), given to Limbour by the artist. In this abstract work, in which the ‘figures’ are barely discernible, the narrator of the story sees different shapes and patterns. A small splash of red in one part of the picture makes him think of the coat of a lover, Pauline, who he believes is lost to him. The description of her implies she is dead, perhaps drowned, but this isn’t clear. The narrator decides to throw out all the letters he has from her ‘in order to reach her through space, and even to wound her a little’. Having considered various options for their disposal, he casts the bound letters into a pond in a forest.
The narrator is considering selling the painting to a collector called Falseau, but doesn’t like the man’s obsession with ‘owning’ things, nor share his views about the picture. Limbour is making some interesting observations here about art and its place in society. At the end of the story, having decided not to sell the painting, the narrator revisits the pond in the forest. It is winter, the pond is frozen, and he finds Pauline there skating on the ice.
The later stories have less of the elaborate lyricism of the earlier work and are written in a more straightforward style. This is the case, for example, with Description d’un tableau, and is mirrored in the novels. As Heiney notes, Fishing for Grouper is the most ‘conventionally structured’ of the novels.
At the end of his life Limbour published a number of short tales which draw on his memories of Albania and Egypt. These are humorous, whimsical pieces. In À l’encre sympathique (In Invisible Ink), dating from 1965, a young teacher stationed in Koritza in Albania decides to visit a nearby lake in search of solitude and inspiration. He tears some pages from an exercise book, stuffs them into a bag, and hitches a lift to the lake. While looking for somewhere to spend the night he runs into a mysterious group of men who hand him over to the local police. The corporal in the police post is soon convinced the pages in the man’s bag are written on in invisible ink. In the morning the young teacher is escorted back to Koritza by two officers who take pot shots at birds and squirrels along the way, though always missing their mark. Back in town the young man is released after further questioning by the police commandant. The story ends:
Was he convinced of my innocence when he allowed me to leave? He had placed the sheets of paper in a folder, and I imagine now, with the passage of time, that the invisible ink has become legible, and how I would love to read the secret message which it concealed.
Fortnightly Review recently published translations I have made of three short tales, written in 1968 and all set in Egypt where Limbour lived from 1926 to 1928. I am currently working on translations of other stories, and of the long poem Le manteau rouge (The Red Coat) written between 1945 and 1949, which Limbour drew on for Description of a Painting. For further biographical information on Limbour see the English Wikipedia entry which I recently updated.
About the Author
Simon Collings is a writer based in Oxford, UK. His poems, stories and essays have appeared in a range of publications, and he has published two pamphlets of poetry. https://simoncollings.wordpress.com