These imaginary conversations, casually organized, four in number, each have the name of a day of the week: Thursday, Sunday, Tuesday and Saturday. The first three, concerning the place, do correspond to the title and take place either on the terrace in front of a small castle, near Blois, or on two small boats that are floating on the “Loir-et-Cher”, or on a road between Chaumont and Amboise. The last one takes place on the deck of a Japanese ship returning from the Far East between Honolulu and San Francisco. This work, begun at the castle of Lutaines in July 1925, (Thursday) was continued at the castle of Brangues in July 1927 (Sunday) and completed in Washington in January-March 1928 (Tuesday and Saturday). Published separately in various journals, Chroniques du Roseau d’or, Chantecler, Commerce, Vigile, Almanach des champs, these texts were assembled and published together in 1935. With the completion of The Satin Slipper, Claudel’s literary production takes a second turn: “I felt that in effect a large part of my work was done. (…) I had more or less the sensation that I still had many expressive forces to bring to completion”. Claudel’s prose now takes the form of a conversation which avoids the dangers of didactic exposition.
By its nature, the conversation implies the idea of liberty, spontaneity: it does not progress, it doesn’t need to progress. It can proceed indefinitely. The characters take their time during this period of vacations, it’s July or August. From the beginning, Claudel seeks to display the laws and usages of conversation which allow reprises, repetitions, sudden breaks and contradictions and which differentiate conversation from theatrical dialogue. “I firmly reserve the right to contradict myself (…) and to repeat myself of course” declares Furius. Conscious of the novelty of the genre he is adopting, Claudel seeks to avoid all resemblance with theatrical dialogue, even if Florence, one of the female characters, can evoke Léchy, the actress of The Exchange. The characters who exchange their remarks have names that signify attitudes rather than personalities: Furius, Flaminius, Acer, Civilis, Florence and Palmyre. Furius, often impulsive and violent as the name indicates, can often seem close to Claudel himself, and could well represent the anarchist; Flaminius wants to be the moderator, Civilis, the somewhat pale social man while Acer by his jests, his lively and ironic remarks, furnishes contradictions and animates the dialogue. “The four men are like the Four Guardians of Buddhist pagodas, or like the Four Bearded Kings of a deck of cards”. The female characters, Florence and Palmyre, the musician and the actress ensure harmony and guarantee the flexibility of the composition, introducing into the conversation “that little right note from time to time. A drop of azure”. Thus, the conversation allows one to unload a jumble of ideas, “all sorts of incomplete confidences, all sorts of veiled overtures, of enigmatic beginnings”. But the conversation also participates in the double meaning of the discussion: chat, exchange, it is also what maintains, reinforces, nourishes the connection, it expresses this very difficult art of living together. By the multiple mouths of his characters, what Claudel is advancing, is neither plan, nor line, nor calculation but equilibrium, composition, volume, spiral, movement, appeal to higher faculties. “What I like about you, it’s that you understand that conversation is a search” declares Grégoire. The characters look at an idea from all angles, reexamine it under various forms, try it out, model it before giving it a definitive form.
In the Thursday Conversation, interest is concentrated on problems of society and justice. “It’s not putting men all together pell-mell which is difficult, it’s figuring out how they can get along instead of hurting each other”. “When man tries to imagine Paradise on Earth, that makes a very suitable Hell right away”. What follows are considerations on architecture, on the family, among others a lovely couplet on the Chinese mother-in-law, on the intellectual, on small cities in the French provinces, on markets. On Sunday, the conversation centers on theological questions, on the sadness of lost souls, on the soul in each of us that is sequestered and deprived of light. And it’s art, especially music that is capable of reaching this interior soul to “offer it an irresistible proposition”. From here, also admirable considerations on the art of stained-glass windows, on Le Mans cathedral, on color defined as “the mixture of the soul with light”. “Blue is darkness become visible”. The day ends with the sublime Song of Palmyre to which the Song of Intelligence responds, placed by the poet on Florence’s lips. Tuesday allows us to return to the problems of urbanism and architecture. It’s a charge against skyscrapers, those termite-hives, those impersonal niches, those closed-in containers that people construct for us in civilized countries. Architects have not found a way to make a more original use of reinforced concrete. “They think neither in stones, nor in cement nor in volumes, they think in plans, designs, in lines, in sketches and premade calculations. The idea of depth is foreign to them”. What follows is praise for winding streets, for family, for the father, for the cloister and for the hostelry of Oropa. The last Conversation, Saturday, is different from the preceding ones. It is a dialogue between two new characters Saint-Maurice, aviator and Grégoire, curio merchant. The multiplicity and the variety of points of view gives way now to developments about final purposes, communion and the modern era which is agitated, crossed by all “these uncertain, latent, imperceptible, wormlike movements of all these souls that a new form is working and mixing together”. Whether it’s about the airplane or America, which fascinates him, or Europe, “narrow and jagged fringe”, the poet perceives with joy “this question, this urgency, this summons of chaos and wound that will only be satisfied when it has drawn a word from us”. The earth still needs to be completed and we will finally have to build the city of souls, the city of God.
Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher is the opposite of a treatise that organizes arguments and proofs; it gives, in spite of its apparent wanderings, a feeling of speed and precipitation. A veritable firework explosion of images, points of view, descriptions and reflections! Acer can well exclaim: “And all at once while we’re talking, it’s as if we suddenly turned a corner and perspectives open on all sides. There are ideas that burst out like gunpowder and others that cook slowly like cabbages”.
Les Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher were adapted by Silvia Monfort and staged at the Carré Thorigny in 1973.
Pierre FRANCK directed and presented an abridged version of the Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher at the Théâtre de l’Atelier under the title Conversation dans le Loir-et-Cher (in the singular) from December 1996 to March 1997. See the Dossier de presse in Bulletin de la Société Paul Claudel, n° 147, 3ème trimestre 1997, p.12-16.
On this too-little-known work, only a few articles :
Michel LIOURE, Sur le “dialogues ” de Claudel, in Hommages à Jacques Petit, Annales littéraires de l’Université de Besançon, 1985, p. 431-441.
Michel LIOURE, La Conversation sur Jean Racine ou la leçon d’écriture, in Écritures claudéliennes, Actes du colloque de Besançon, collection du centre Jacques-Petit, 1997, p. 283-293.
Nina HELLERSTEIN, L’Écriture des Conversations de Claudel, in Écritures claudéliennes, Actes du colloque de Besançon, collection du centre Jacques-Petit, 1997, p. 260-270.
Jean MAMBRINO, Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher de Paul Claudel au Théâtre de l’Atelier. in Études, mars 1997, p.392-394.
Michel BRESSOLETTE, “D’un pique-nique hasardeux de propositions..” (Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher, in L’Essai : métamorphoses d’un genre, textes réunis et présentés par Pierre Glaudes, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, Université de Toulouse-le Mirail, 2002, p. 439-446.
Séverine N’GUYEN, Édition critique des Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher, établissement du texte, introduction, D.E.A de Littérature française, mention XXème siècle, 2004, Bibliothèque de l’U.F.R. Lettres, musique, philosophie. Université de Toulouse-le Mirail.
These three texts, “The Poet and the Shamisen“, “The Poet and the Incense Vase“, “Jules or the Man with two cravats “, belong to the collection The Black Bird in the Rising Sun. But, as prose poems, all three written in Japan from June to November 1926, they differ from the essays and reports that occupy the rest of the volume. The three contain most of the themes dear to the poet, hidden in the broken form of the dialogue and the perpetual use of allusion.
The emphasis in “The Poet and the Shamisen” on the theme of the island or the rose, or the woman, evokes an enchanted prison, “the promise that cannot be kept”, and conveys the ambiguous impression of a feeling of exile experienced in the very midst of delights. In the following dialogue, the poet, rising to a meditation on Asia, insists on the image of a satanic prison that bars Orientals from the path of salvation. From “Jules” comes the impression that the Japanese garden is only the privileged site where man, thanks to the vision of a “skilfully concentrated nature”, can finally understand the meaning of the universal drama whose adventures reveal a fundamental absence. To understand the landscape is to be seized by both the delights of certainty and the poignant sadness of a separation that may be irreparable.
These so different dialogues are thus united by a deep bond. The poet, Claudel says, “carries with him a kind of essential pattern ” which, in our three texts, is none other than the lost Paradise, the feeling of exile, which springs as well from the most moving beauty (roses, the “sacred sylva of Ysé” on an autumn day on the inland sea, the temple view of Kompira) – because this beauty is only a “tantalising” allusion – as to the vision of certain nightmarish sites such as the ruined temple of Angkor. The world then becomes, however beautiful it may be, “a paradise of sadness”. In our three texts, the poet takes us for a walk in this “wounded garden” of which he speaks in the Cantata. In “The Poet and the Shamisen” or in “Jules“, the beauty of the enclosed garden shines out , witness to a higher beauty and therefore a source of melancholy. In “The Poet and the Incense Vase“, the horror of the garden populated by monstrous ruins can only be attributed to the action of Satan, responsible for our fall and exile. And all the concern of the exiled person, all his effort, if he is not fascinated by the enchanted refuge that constitutes this island, this rose, this “paradise within your reach”, consists in finding a way out, to leave this paradise of sadness, to find Eden. Get out! Get out! Kampei, the Young Fate [allusion to Valéry, “La Jeune Parque”], the Beautiful Lady of the Prado, want to leave ! But the blinded pagan resigns himself to his prison (“The Poet and the Incense Vase“).
It is understandable why Claudel wrote these texts at that time: it was his stay in Japan that accentuated “the feeling of the religious character of nature”, it is Japan that best evokes for him the “enchanted garden” and the most poignant impression of the inseparable exile of a mysterious promise.
These three dialogues are to be seen in the edition of Les Belles-Lettres, critical edition commented by Michel MALICET
CONVERSATIONS DANS LE LOIR-ET-CHER