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Bullet Points: A review of The Missing Pieces by Henri Lefebvre

By Daniel Bosch.

The Missing Pieces

Henri Lefebvre, The Missing Pieces, Translated by David L. Sweet (Semiotext(e), 2014)

The Parisian author and publisher Henri Lefebvre’s unprecedented prose poem The Missing Pieces begins and ends with pre-meditated gestures. Out of the nothing at the left hand margin of page 7 leaps:

Murder, The Hope of Women, a twenty-five minute opera composed in 1919 by Paul Hindemith •

The poem closes, 76 pages later, with:

• In 1959, Balthus asks Giacometti to give the canvas Coffee Pot with Three Fruits [Cafetière aux trois fruits] to a waiter named Henri, whom they both know; forty years later, the painting is mysteriously found in the Giacometti estate; Henri still hasn’t been identified

In between the sudden emergency of “Murder” and the unidentifiable waiter “Henri,” 531 bullets are fired. Look between any two bullets and you are likely to find Lefebvre’s idiosyncratic single-sentence sketch of a single thing (or a class of things) we once had or might have had but now (or someday) we may no longer have — to see, or read, or hear, or touch. Mainly these are people, texts, scores, films, choreographies, and other art projects — individuals, capacities, and works conceived, begun, perhaps even completed, but no longer extant.

The complexity of Lefebvre’s poem is belied by the simplicity of his project. Lefebvre provides no index, no table of “missing” contents; the organisational principles of the poem must be inferred (or not). As you will see, the range of items which make up The Missing Pieces can make even an erudite reader anxious that they do not read enough: Lefebvre’s poem characterises its author as one who knows loss, who attends to loss—and perhaps to everything—better than we do, one who has been remade by his attendance upon perdition and un-making.

• The letters of Proust torn up by Marie-Laure de Noailles (six years old) •

• There are two manuscript copies of the Jena Symphony, one signed by Ludwig van Beethoven, the other by Friedric Witt; we still do not know who is the actual author of the work •

• Stendhal dies without completing Lamiel

• Net Art:  Any work of virtual art is hereby condemned to disappear •

• Abandoned in a studio since its inventor’s death, Dieter Roth’s chocolate sculpture is inexorably deteriorating; Roth sought the sculpture’s total disappearance; it’ll go fast •

• The pregnancies of Frida Kahlo •

• Goethe, lost orthographic ability; Dostoyevsky, lost syntactic ability •

• The library at Alexandria in 47 BCE •

Not all of the pieces of Lefebvre’s poem detail single losses; a few lists make the list. Take, for example, a catalog of artists on hiatus:

• George Oppen’s first collection of poems is published in 1934 and the poet stops writing for twenty years; for thirteen years Verdi doesn’t write a single opera; Rossini abandons composition at forty; Mozart didn’t produce anything in the year 1790; Strindberg called the seven years during which he could not write a novel an “Inferno Crisis”; before writing A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, Stéphane Mallarmé had renounced publishing for ten years; during divorce proceedings with Olga, Picasso stops painting and tries his hand at writing •

Stéphane Mallarmé

Or see below, where one piece which names three lost passages of music is followed immediately by a litany of precious printed texts lost to a holocaust:

• Missing, the conclusions to the opera Die Drei Pintos by Carl Maria von Weber, the Third Symphony of Anton Bruckner, and the Suite as seinen Orchester Werken by Jean-Sebastien Bach • On May 29, 2002, three million books go up in smoke in the warehouse fire of publishing company Les Belles Lettres, in Gasny in the Department of the Eure; go missing: Chinese texts of the Ming period, the complete works of the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, the Corpus Flaubertianum (a diplomatic edition of Gustave Flaubert), a first bilingual edition of the texts of Shakespeare, six hundred leather-bound, limited editions of Budé (1921-1960), all or part of the archive of forty-five publishers including Unes, Fata Morgana, Chandeigne, L’Escampette •

• • • • •

The Missing Pieces derives its power from how it pitches its content against formal manipulation of two kinds of syntax: the order and patterning of the unit losses, and the word order and patterning of clauses between the bullets that separate those units. The poem’s content is non-fictional, hews close to fact, but it operates like fiction: as with King Lear or Ulysses or Star Wars, the poem grows bigger, and longer, as it names and addresses—and so, in a way, makes present—only cultural artifacts or producers or proposals which cannot actually be present. Lefebvre collects and collates perfectly immaterial materials, losses strung in the perfect order, along a 76-page-long wire.

Manipulating either of the poem’s principal syntagms, Lefebvre is pressed to find appropriate kinds and degrees of sameness and difference. The first syntactical challenge is less constraining, and less difficult to master, due to the sheer volume of the poem. Lefebvre has composed discrete, brief prose passages, some of which record the losses of several items, or persons, or chances, that the reader of The Missing Pieces is gradually instructed, by his work with each concise segment, in how to make sense of the poem. Carefully tuning himself to the variations and repetitions in the kinds of pieces Lefebvre presents, the reader comes to feel, and perhaps to understand intellectually, the bittersweet music of aggregated absences.

Sometimes a given piece misfires. Even if it is grammatically correct, for example, the seven consecutive modifier-noun phrases in the bulletin below also acts to deaden it:

• In British author J.G. Ballard’s office a fake Delvaux painted by an unknown artist and based on a destroyed work by the Belgian surrealist occupies a place of honor •

I cannot tell whether lapses in grace like the one above (and some of the other unnecessarily repetitious phrasings) are weaknesses in the translation or in the editing of the book, or if they are in some way faithful to Lefebvre’s original French.

Though I’ve called Lefebvre’s poem unprecedented, it has cousins in, for instance, the work of legions of contemporary artists who have embraced an archival impulse, Christian Boltanski, for example, or Rachel Whiteread, or Fred Wilson, even Gerhard Richter in his Atlas mode. Thankfully The Missing Pieces stands apart from most of such work in its respect for a reader’s time. Passages meditating on measure in Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces (Espèces ddesies o, 1974) also come to mind. More distantly related, perhaps, is French writer Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, collected and translated by Luc Sante for New York Review Books (2007). They are utterly different in form—Fénéon’s novels trace independent narrative arcs and delineate individual psyches, and Lefebvre’s bulletins, so steadfastly non-narrative, repeatedly drive home the point that no there is no such thing as loss independent of other losses—yet Lefebvre’s and Fénéon’s texts induce a similar wonder and pleasure via repetition and variation of a concise basic unit. Even in English translation, though, each of Fénéon’s three-line narratives is exquisite; Fénéon with a pen was like Van der Weyden with a brush; if the trace in English is accurate, Lefebvre is not a stylist. No doubt Fénéon’s novels amount to an aggregate portrait of fin de siècle France (he drew his facts and circumstances from newsroom reportage), but that portrait’s elements turn inward, toward individuals. By contrast, the accumulated losses recorded by Lefebvre point the reader toward the human condition. Perhaps for Lefebvre, then, style is not the point. The form he’s devised—invented is too strong a word—is flexible and modest, and what happens to the language between two bullets is never so important as that a loss be marked. (Perhaps the marking of a loss reduces, somehow, its degree.) His book asks us to attend to his list of pieces and to imagine how our lives have been altered by what we no longer have the opportunity to know, read, see, hear, or touch; his project does not call for tormenting sentences into arabesques to indicate the quality of that alteration.

• • • • •

• My father’s heifer, fourth prize winner at the 4-H Club fair, sold by his father, who had promised he would never do so • A Junior year and a Senior year my younger sister might have spent as a student at St. Francis High School, had my father not decided to move the family to Florida • My mother’s left breast and pectoral muscles and lymph nodes, 1964 • Two hundred thousand dollars that my father would have made on the family home—if only he had waited one more year to sell it • The sex life of my mother, taken from her by her father, though she would bear three children • Several hours of sleep, never found on the floor of an apartment in Tampa, Florida, because I’d had a girl over to dinner, though I was “in love” with my sweetheart back home • My younger sister’s middle name • My mother’s right breast and lymph nodes, 1978 •

As I read and reread The Missing Pieces I began to wonder how Lefebvrean bullet points might feel if the content they recorded were not pieces loosed from a canon, but bits missing from the life of an American lower-middle class family at the end of the twentieth century. Having fitted some of my own family’s losses into Lefebvre’s template, I’m aware of how the disciplined indirection of The Missing Pieces amplifies its claim on the reader’s emotions, of how the personal is addressed the more powerfully because it remains unsaid. If my parody shows that to choose a particular family’s history as the fund for a non-fiction is to choose to narrate, it may also show how Lefebvre’s refusals to narrate strengthen the “nos” in nostalgia. And though his poem is not about the elements that it assembles, if we take his curatorial practices to be ethical and serious—a note at the end of the book acknowledges how he sourced the facts for his poem, and admits that some of The Missing Pieces have turned up since the poem’s initial publication—I’d argue Lefebvre’s is one of only a few poems published in America in the last decade from which a reader is extremely likely to learn something they didn’t already know.

• • • • •

Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco

One person who must be stayed from oblivion by any book as beautiful as The Missing Pieces is its author. (The book was given to me by a friend who had assumed it was written by the famous French philosopher and sociologist. How delightful it was to tell her that it isn’t, that the extremely oblique self-portrait painted by this book must depicts no one we already care about, but rather one who may be himself in danger of going missing.) Analysis of the bullets fired by the Paris publisher Henri Lefebvre should allow my trained eye to identify or characterize the “weapons” he used, and perhaps to delineate some of what was at stake for him in shooting so many bullets the ways he did. Well, my reading of The Missing Pieces has turned up four auto-references (there may be more), none of which help very much in drawing a picture of the author, and one of which points to his famous Marxist namesake:

The List of Transparencies, text by Henri Lefebvre and linocut by Marie-Noelle Gonthier •

• We no longer know why Henri Lefebvre fell out with Guy Debord •

• Oils on wood by the painter Pierre Lefebvre, cut into strips then nailed to strengthen the framework of more recent works •

Add to these the final entry, which as we know leaves a waiter named Henri hanging unidentifiably in the wind. Only in English is waiter so close to writer.

• • • • •

The Missing Pieces has as much to do with presence as with absence, and this tells us something about the canon, and—forgive me—about “poetry in general.” I mean that no equivalent list of artworks or gains or successes could be so powerful as The Missing Pieces. As if the ubi sunt and elegiac and epitaphic traditions were not proof enough, Lefebvre’s book is further evidence of poetry’s continuing commitment to strengthening those who suffer loss, to those who grieve yet would remember; at some level his list speaks on their behalf. One of the compelling mysteries of The Missing Pieces is framed by the question: from what are all his pieces “missing”? Or, put another way, who is the “we” who has lost or will lose these precious things? The answer is not just “Henri Lefebvre.” The entity that has lost his list of things and people is trans-historical and trans-national (and arguably even global, though Lefebvre’s inventory is decidedly Western.) If shrinkage-control or hypothetical taxonomy is its mode, the ground of his prose poem is a vast treasure-hoard of culture that is not lost. 

Readers determined to find more of what is missing in The Missing Pieces will complain that Lefebvre would preserve the memory of too many long-dead white males and their works, and it is true that the book is easily misread as a one-man wiki of already-immortals. Yet even such readers may find it humbling to encounter so many artists and works for the first time. And because his book names and addresses so many things and people which are so close to the brink of perdition, or have fallen into it, The Missing Pieces performs one of poetry’s essential duties. Staying oblivion for the pieces he has chosen to include, Lefebvre demonstrates one way to stay oblivion for any text or project or person. As we all know, to curate—to include a person or thing in a list or collection—is to care.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daniel Bosch

Daniel Bosch‘s Octaves was just published as a free .pdf by www.beardofbees.com. 3:AM published an actual “Cover Letter” by Daniel just in time for AWP 2014. He teaches at Emory University.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 28th, 2015.