Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Daniël Robberechts

The writing below is the opening passage from Arriving in Avignon [link]by Daniël Robberechts, which was first published in Flemish in 1970, and has just appeared in English. I cannot appraise the book, because I haven't read it, which would normally prevent me from mentioning it, however, I can't help myself. There is something about the passage below, which attracts me (and quite a lot more of the book can be read at Google Books [link]). Besides, I have ordered my copy...  
In the diary that he has kept since he was eighteen, the name of the town is mentioned explicitly at least ten times within a period of four years. An investigation of the routes that he probably followed on the various journeys documented in the same diary and spread over eight years, including the abovementioned four, leads one, moreover, to the conclusion that he must have got into or out of a train in that town's station, or else must have traveled through that station on a train, or traveled in some other vehicle through or around the edge of that town, about twenty times. These are facts and figures that are difficult to argue with, and yet it’s quite possible that he’ll nonetheless maintain that Avignon means little or nothing to him. In response to that one should say that he ought to know better; that it is unlikely at best for someone who is not a professional traveler "just happening" “with impunity” to be repeatedly in the same place, about nine hundred kilometers from his hometown, on average three or perhaps four times a year over a period of eight years, and whose view of that place, because of his various visits, their dates often falling outside the usual holiday periods, must of course have differed considerably from that of those tourists for whom this town is just the first leg of a trip through the South of France, and then too from that of the vacationers who stop in at the town on their way to the Mediterranean coast and are only urged on to greater haste by all its southern features; and given, finally, that Avignon, though primarily a transit hub, has none of the cosmopolitan neutrality of other such cities—for instance, Paris, which he had to pass through whenever he traveled by rail—that it is, again, unlikely at best for someone like him, and a northerner to boot, to be so often in the same town and have it make no impression upon him. Alternatively, one could ask him curtly: Have you been to the town or not, yes or no?—“Of course I have.”—On more than one occasion?—“Definitely.”— Including at times of the year that for most of us would be unusual?—“Certainly.” Though actually, the main thing is to get him to accept that his experience of Avignon as an essentially arbitrary town (which could thus be replaced either by Prague, a town he’s never set foot in, or indeed by his hometown) and perhaps even as an arbitrary object (just not so central an object, so exclusively personal, that any statement about it would become problematic)—however fragmentary and unsystematic this experience, however inadequate for a historian, a geographer, an economist, a sociologist, an archaeologist, a compiler of travel guides, or even a tourist—precisely because of its randomness, its physical, synthetic innocence, offers the chance of an exploration, of course lacking the thoroughness of a scientific research project, but being therefore a report that would have room for everything that scientists must neglect for the sake of objectivity: an ordinary human statement that might satisfy in us precisely what all scientific literature fails to satisfy.

And then it turns out that his very first contact with the town on the Rhone (apart from a purely verbal one, when as a toddler he had learned to sing the dance tune that goes: Sur le pont / d’Avignon / on y danse, on y danse / sur le pont d’Avignon / on y danse tous en rond—and it was only recently that he’d heard that the lyrics originally went Sous le pont d’Avignon, when the Pont Saint-Bénezet still spanned the river and people crossed in the shadow of its arches to dance on the île de la Barthelasse) actually predates the earliest entries in the preserved diary by several years: He was fourteen, and the first and ultimately last full-force family trip in the first post-war car through Southwest France and Northern Spain had been interrupted at the start of the return journey in the village of Remoulins (near Pont-du-Gard on the right bank of the Rhone) by a breakdown requiring the replacement of parts that in the France of the time were obtainable only in Paris; for him, however, since he had passed the entrance exam to a boarding school where the academic year began earlier than elsewhere, a speedy return to Brussels was required, so it was decided that he would travel home with his mother by train, his older brother accompanying them as far as Paris, while the father, sister, and younger brother would stay in Remoulins. That’s as far as the anecdote goes.

Dalkey Archive Press, the publishers of Arriving in Avignon, have a small biography of Robberechts on there website [link], which I have copied below:
The Flemish writer Daniël Robberechts (1937-1992) refused to identify his books as novels, stories, or essays, according them all equal status as, simply, writing.  This liberation from genre gives his work, for all its apparent simplicity, an elusive, hypnotic quality, and no more so than in his debut, Arriving in Avignon, which records a young man's first encounter with that labyrinthine city, and his likewise meandering relationship with a girl from his home town--and indeed virtually every woman he meets.  Hesistant and cautious, unable quite to enter nor turn away, the young man seems to circle Avignon endlessly, in the process attempting to delay his inevitable descent into maturity and monogamy.  What seems at first like a cross between a memoir and a guidebook comes in time to be the story of a young man's dogged yet futile quest to know his own mind--unless it's the ancient city of Avignon itself that is our real protagonist: a mystery that can be approached, but never wholly solved.


  1. hi there. pardon the intrusion, just stumbled on this post, having just finished reading this book myself. sort of Sebald-y, or Bernhard-y, but with more youthful? adolescent? juvenile? preoccupations/insecurities, which i guess puts him in a spectrum between those writers and someone like, i dunno, Bolaño, maybe; certainly on the surface there's more about sex in it than in anything by Sebald or Bernhard that i've read (not really a lot, btw). what it lacks in the latter writers' (mostly thematic, but also stylistic) gravitas, Robberechts makes up for with a kind of gnarly energy (at least in this translation).

    i'd be very much interested to hear your take once you've read this.

    thanks for this post, & hope you enjoy the book.


  2. thanks a lot for your thoughts on the book.

    i understand that there is some sort of interplay between arriving in avignon, and arriving (or not) at sexual maturity... or something along those lines... i'm not sure though because i'm still waiting for arriving in avignon to arrive chez moi!

    (have you read peter nadas? he is another author that i wrote about recently, who takes sexual consciousness, sort of, as his subject, writing in long sentences that focus on the interiority of his narrators. perhaps there is a comparison to be made..? i'm not sure.)

    at the moment, i'm really interested in this book from a distance, but i will post a comment here as a sort of postscript as soon as i have read the book, so if you have email notifications you can read my response.

    good to hear from you.