[29.7.05] [Andrew Gallix]
ALL POETRY IS TRANSLATION: AN INTRODUCTION TO GODLIKE
Richard Hell's Godlike is subtitled "A Novel" which is probably a wise move. It is presented as the "Hospital Notebooks of Paul Vaughn", but this first-person narrative, supposedly written in 1997, is interspersed with Vaughn's third-person "memoir-novelette of R.T. Wode" set in the early 70s. Paul Vaughn -- a very unreliable narrator ("I don't have the best memory in the world," p 10; "My memory's not the best, and I don't trust memory anyway," p 23) who is on one of his regular spells in the psychiatric ward of a hospital ("I may be in the loony bin but I am not an unreliable narrator"! p 90) -- explains that he initially planned to write about R.T. Wode "in the form of a novel" but finally heeded his editor's advice to include all the disparate elements found in the notebooks ("letters, diaries, poems, even an essay," p. 10) thus creating a complex bric-a-brac effect which, incidentally, is reminiscent of Hell's 2001 compilation book, Hot and Cold.
At the end of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time, or whatever kids call it these days), the protagonist who has matured throughout the novel seems to step out of the book in order to write it. Here, Richard Hell takes this device one step further by introducing a retrospective contrapuntal running commentary into the novel itself. The two juxtaposed narratives and time-frames are (partly) the result of two conflicting points of view: the poet's and the biographer's (or novelist's). Paul Vaughn wants to endure ("Why do I try to preserve?" p 33) through literature ("The dead take you with them though. If I don't write about us, it will disappear into nothing forever," p. 30). At one point, he writes that "It's so preferable to care about the words above oneself", but then concedes that it's "'easier said than done'". R.T. (arty) Wode, for his part, wants (in Parnassian mode) to abandon the ego (TS Eliot's "continual extinction of personality" or Virginia Woolf's desire to "practise anonymity") and become an instrument of poetic inspiration ("It is necessary that 'I', that cowardly imposition, be discarded, in order that nothing interfere, that nothing interrupt, that nothing pollute what speaks," p. 15). Paradoxically enough for someone who praises impersonality, R.T. fascinates Paul because he is ("The world was his fucking pasture. Other people fantasized, other people 'perceived,' but he did. Like Jesus Christ," p 34), but also because he is not. Firstly, he is only present through his absence. Secondly, even when he was physically present, Paul was never able to pin him down: his ever-changing name (R.T., T., Randall, Terence, Randall Terence, Him...) reflects this protean, wind-heeled quality. To be by not being? A recurring theme in Godlike is thus Paul's obsession with survival ("It's so unlikely that I'm alive," P 30, "It's almost like I'm the last surviving member of a big-time rock group," p 31) -- a theme which is echoed by his friend Max who claims that "survival comes at the expense of others" and that "There's nothing good about just continuing" (p 78). When Paul claims that age is not "just loss and sleepiness" (89), he does not manage to be very convincing. In fact, he does not even seem to convince himself.
The creation/destruction dichotomy (which mirrors the tensions between middle-age and youth) is also present in the very fertile idea that "all poetry is translation" (p 87). According to Paul, this is the case because each reader apprehends a poem in a personal way. But then he takes the concept one step further when he argues that translated poetry is more poetic because it is the most allusive (and therefore from a Parnassian point of view the most poetic) of all: it alludes to the original ("What does a translation do but allude? . . . In the future, all poetry will be translation," p 87). This idea that translated poetry is more poetic than the original is fascinating, but could perhaps be reinterpreted in the light of the title: Godlike. Paul refers to the Parnassians (the original "godlike philosopher poets," p 101) who transformed art into a religion, as well as to Mallarme in whose poetry the subversive dislocation of the signifier and the signified begins (in a nutshell: God creates and then names what He has created; if the signifier is arbitrary then there is no God). Maybe "all poetry is translation" because humans are incapable of genuine creation? We can simply translate what is already there -- or destroy it, self-destruction being another Rimbaldian legacy. Talking of Rimbaud...
The central relationship is clearly reminiscent of Verlaine (Paul Vaughn) and Arthur (R.T.) Rimbaud. The references are numerous: Vaughn's spurned wife, the reference to "true life" being "elsewhere" (p 124), R.T.'s precocious brilliance, his disappearance and rejection of writing, the shooting episode... One might go as far as to say that the author has transposed the French poets to the East Village where a young, spiky-haired Richard Hell modelled himself on Rimbaud all those years ago (while his sidekick adopted Verlaine as his nom de punk). A clear link is also established between the New York School poets (whom Hell once described as the "ultimate bohemians") of the 70s and their 19th-century Parisian forbears. A few years ago, Richard Hell told Matt Thorne (Independent on Sunday Sunday 14 April 2002) that "the original DIY ethic" came from the "underground writers" of the early 70s, and announced his intention to give these "anti-academic street poets . . . the level of glamour and respect" that they deserve. The relatively small number of topical references in Godlike thus comes as quite a surprise. There's a couple of poetry readings. The clothes, the drugs, music and youth culture ("Youth ruled in those days," p 37) are briefly described or alluded to, but most of the book focuses on the relationship between the two protagonists who are outsiders within these bohemian circles. Somewhere along the line, Hell's second novel became more -- much more -- than a period piece or a roman a clef.
Godlike proves that growing old is not just about "loss and sleepiness". Richard Hell has finally come of age.
(Read our new interview with Richard Hell.)