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In umbra voluptatis lusi: A Review of A Terrace in Rome by Pascal Quignard

By Melissa Beck.

A Terrace in Rome

Pascal Quignard, A Terrace in Rome, translated by Douglas Penick and Charles  Ré (Wakefield Press, 2016)

Horace in the Ars Poetica describes an artisan who has the ability to perfectly mould in bronze life-like fingernails or wavy hair, yet the totality of his work is unsatisfactory because he cannot sculpt and put together a complete figure. Pascal Quignard, the prolific French author of more than sixty essays, books and other writings, has undertaken an ongoing book project that is the literary equivalent of Horace’s bronze craftsman; The Roving Shadows, The Silent Crossings and the Abysses, works that defy classification in a specific genre, contain parts of stories, the beginnings of essays, aphorisms, personal anecdotes and terse philosophical observations on his favourite themes: sex, art, shadows, time and death. Understanding Quignard’s complex yet fragmented writing demands one’s full attention and considerable mental effort. In The Roving Shadows he writes:

On the edge of the terraces, with the blackbirds, we preserve nothing that isn’t blackness in the dark, but isn’t light in the day either.  

Many will, like Horace, find this terse and arcane style of writing frustrating or even uncomfortable—beautiful details making an unsatisfactory whole. True, it is not easy to describe what is so enjoyable and compelling about Quignard’s books. A rewarding exercise, however, awaits those who have the patience to slowly absorb his erudite though disjointed writings. His fragmented style has the ability to unveil our own vague meditations on subjects that have been lingering, unfocused, in the back of our minds.

 In A Terrace in Rome, a novella that adopts the narrative form of his non-fiction literary style, Quignard provides, through forty-eight terse chapters, a basic outline of the story of Geoffroy Meaume, an itinerant 17th century engraver whose illicit love for a woman causes him horrible pain and suffering. Meaume’s roving and scattered reflections on love, art, death and shadows, which make up the rest of the narrative, are as passionate and thought-provoking as Quignard’s other non-fiction writings.  Like Horace’s bronze artisan, Quignard focuses attention on only a few, specific pieces of the engraver’s life while leaving the reader to piece together the story of Meaume as a whole on his or her own.

The story opens with the tale of Meaume’s brief yet passionate affair with Nanni, the daughter of a goldsmith and judge in the city of Bruges. The story of Meaume’s fragmented and tortured existence often has a texture more akin to poetry than prose, but the passages describing the lovers’ all-consuming relationship, which will have lasting effects on Meaume’s personal and artistic development, are especially poetic. Quignard employs brief, rhythmic sentences that serve to emphasise the depth of Nanni and Meaume’s passion. Nanni’s beauty is described when Meuame first becomes enchanted with her: “She was blond, very pale, willowy, slightly bent over, slim-wasted, slim hands, heavy breasts, very quiet.” And later, when the lovers are caught in the midst of an intense sexual encounter by Nanni’s fiance: “Meaume tries to stand, his sex still slick and blue, he wants to fight Vanlacre, takes a step forward, sideways, back.” Quignard’s use of asyndetic sentences in the first few chapters suggest that the sexual relationship will end just as quickly as it began. 

Quignard is a master at composing tightly woven narratives which lend the feeling that every word, every character, every image has been carefully placed on the page and is of the utmost importance. Quignard is particularly fond of using repetition when describing the intense and erotic sexual trysts, giving a rhythm to their lovemaking:

In the garden (July 1639).
In the bedroom twice.
In the cellar, lit by an iron lantern.
In the old tile factory.
In the garret six times.
At the inn-keeper’s.
One time, in a small boat she had rented for the day.

When Nanni’s fiancé bursts in on them he pours acid on Meaume’s face, horribly disfiguring the artist. After the attack, Meaume tries to contact Nanni several times through letters, and when they finally speak in person, Nanni is completely disgusted by his appearance, no longer able to meet his gaze. “You have become a truly hideous man,” she says to him during their final, tragic encounter. The intertextual nature of Quignard’s works helps to explain the significance of many of the prominent and intriguing images in this novella. In The Roving Shadows Quignard draws on the words of Ovid who was forced into exile and whose travels far away from Rome made him desperately homesick. Ovid pours his emotions into his writing:

“Te loquor absentem.”
“You I address though you are absent.”
It is you, and you alone, that my voice names
Behind everything I refer to.
No night comes up without you.
No day rises.

Meaume’s life after Nanni is a manifestation in narrative form of Quignard’s translation and thoughts on Ovid. The artist leaves Bruges and for the rest of his life roves from one place to another; through his art, memories and dreams Meaume is always seeking that same feeling of desire he felt for Nanni when he was a twenty-one-year-old apprentice. The artist’s comments about his life are evocative of Ovid’s words written in exile: “I have never found joy again with any woman other than her.  It is not joy I miss, it is her.  And so have I, all my life, etched the same body moving in the intensity of passion of which I never stopped dreaming.” 

The themes that are explored in the first chapters linger throughout the rest of the novella but there is a marked difference in the narrative form. Instead of employing one continuous, narrative voice to tell the story of Meaume’s life in exile, aphorisms, ekphrases, historical narratives, anecdotal stories and dreams are all used to piece together the broken, wandering nature of the remaining years of Meaume’s life.

Quignard’s intricate descriptions of Meaume’s own art—etchings in mezzotint, dry point and sketches—serve to describe the artist’s roving life in  a technique usually associated with poetry. His discussion of the history of etching and of Meaume’s contributions to the craft give the novel a surprising depth of verisimilitude. For example, one etching done with a burin describes the artist’s relationship with a woman named Marie Aidelle: “Suddenly he sees the light of the water reflected in her eyes. That is what is engraved. That is what is seen. That is what is seen so intensely that she has raised her eyes and they shine tenderly, deeply. He desires her. He goes to sit beside her.” Quignard gives us this beautiful and luminous image which, like a true work of art, is mysterious, open to interpretation and worthy of several viewings.

Pascal Quignard

The ekphrastic descriptions in the novella serve to move the narrative farther away from the concrete as Meaume’s life in exile from Bruges takes on a more illusive and unreal quality:

Immodest woman. Mezzotint. Figures seen face forward in an oval. One is kneeling, the other sitting. The latter holds his hat on his right arm. His head bent forward leaves visible on his mass of hair. His belly is bare, and what juts out is partly hidden in the mouth of the delicate young woman with a long neck who is on her knees.

Marie lives with Meaume for almost a year, but she is repulsed by his disfigured face and when he asks that she not divert her gaze she cannot comply with his wish. The point of view employed in these chapters leaves many gaps in the narrative; we are never quite sure if these images are Meaume’s fantasies since Marie does reject his advances or if she eventually gives in to his seduction. 

The descriptions of his desire for Marie also bring us back to the shadowy places of Meaume’s love affair with Nanni in the first few chapters. Since their affair is an illicit one they meet in secret, shadowy places—like a church. In order to understand the connections that Quignard makes between desire and shadows it is helpful to look, once again, at some of his writing and observations from The Roving Shadows. This work also includes the author’s musings on the mysterious and shadowy nature of sex; the very act that has constructed us is most often carried out in the shadows. He writes:

In umbra voluptatis lusi.
I have played in the shade of pleasures.
This expression, simple as it is, comes from Petronius
We should translate it even more precisely to say,
have played in the shade of sexual bliss.

It is as if Quignard has created his character of Meaume to illustrate and give a specific story to his thoughts and meditations on shadows and desire. Quignard’s use of the word “lusi” (from the Latin ludo, ludere) is of the utmost importance because it specifically means to play, to dabble, to trick. If we apply the word to this novella, then we understand that Meaume, in the first part of his life, lingers in the shadows of Bruges, continually attempting to satisfy his desire for Nanni. And later, when the embarrassment of his disfigurement drives him further into the shadows, he is still searching for the body that will sate his passions. He is constantly playing, dabbling, being tricked by his primal, physical urge.

The theme of unfulfilled sexuality is explored most explicitly through a set of erotic prints that Meaume is commissioned to carve for an impotent young aristocrat in Rome. Eugenio, the eldest son of one of the most prominent families in Rome, is married to a beautiful woman but he feels no sexual desire for her or any other woman. In a desperate attempt to help Eugenio consummate his marriage, thirty-two erotic prints are ordered. But not even Meaume’s salacious and graphic pictures can help the young man get an erection. Through the extreme example of Eugenio’s story Quignard emphasises his belief that sexual satisfaction—jouissance he calls it in his book Sex and Terror—is constantly at war with desire. “Art always prefers desire,” Quignard argues. “Art is indestructible desire. Desire without jouissance, appetite without weariness, life without death.” There exists throughout A Terrace in Rome a constant tension manifested as desire that never achieves jouissance.

Dreams are the ultimate manifestation of frustrated desires—Quignard uses them to further emphasise and enhance the feelings of Meaume’s unfulfilled sexual desires. “Dreams provide a sufficient substitute (Ersatz) for all the body is deprived of,” writes Quignard in The Roving Shadows. Shortly after his disfigurement, Meaume has a vividly erotic dream: “The light of the sun, white, thick, hot, streams down the naked breast of a young woman, blonde with a long neck. The light spills over the contours of her body, eroding the shadows of her cheeks and breasts.” The illusion to shadows and the eroticism used to describe his dream are all reminders of Meaume’s tragic love in the beginning of the book. Quignard’s writing has the feeling of being both elusive and deeply moving.

In The Roving Shadows, Quignard says about the experience of encountering a book: “In reading, there is an expectancy that does not seek to come to anything. To read is to wander.  Reading is errantry.” The alternation among these different narrative techniques—ekphrasis, dreams and stories—in A Terrace in Rome create a multilayered and spellbinding tale that delivers the sensation of wandering that, Quignard postulates, should be an integral and rewarding part of the reading experience.


Melissa Beck

Melissa Beck has written for Numero Cinq and World Literature Today. Twitter: @magistrabeck

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 6th, 2017.