Stendhal noticed at La Brède that there was no parquetry for the floor, that the fireplace, though baronial, was not dominated by a mirror, and that the right-hand jamb of it had been worn down by the slipper which Montesquieu placed there one hundred years before, to prop up the knee on which he chose to write Le Grandeur des Romains.
‘A Warm Place Revisited’, Christopher Middleton
(from Crypto-Topographia: Stories of Secret Places. London: Enitharmon, 2002).
An acquaintance of mine calls Christopher Middleton in passing ‘our most European poet’, and it occurs to me that the phrase, like ‘poet’s poet’, has a double meaning. On the one hand, any poet with a European reputation is a European poet; but these are the poets most likely to be treated as representative of a national literature, as Seamus Heaney becomes a synecdoche for Irish poetry in general. On the other hand, you have the network of poets who are ‘European’ precisely by virtue of not fitting into their respective national literatures: a secret map of the marginal and exilic, a ‘Crypto-Topographia’, as Middleton titled his 2002 collection of short prose pieces.
Short prose as a genre, the German Kurzprosa, was a fascination of Middleton’s. (His ‘Short Prose’ undergraduate seminar course at Austin University examined texts from writers as diverse as Lars Gustafsson, Raymonde Linossier, Charles Baudelaire, Yannis Ritsos, Nancy Condee, Robert Walser, Tanikawa Shuntaro, and Roger Ascham.) It’s a European genre, perhaps, by the same virtue which makes Middleton a European poet; that is, by non-participation in most generic taxonomies or classifications. Like that twentieth-century favourite the ‘fragment’, it is something that shouldn’t be possible to create deliberately: instead, some arrangement which might have become an essay or a close reading or a poem or a piece of autobiography has to exhaust itself (or be vacated) earlier than expected. (Ted Hughes, writing on Sylvia Plath: ‘If she couldn’t get a table out of her material, she was happy to get a chair, or even a toy.’)
‘A Warm Place Revisited’ exhausts itself within the compass of a single sentence. It is actually a re-re-visiting: just as Stendhal notices the essentials of Montesquieu’s room, Middleton notices and condenses the essentials of Stendhal’s noticing (from Voyage dans la midi de la France, written in 1838 and published posthumously in 1930). Middleton’s condensation retains as much of Stendhal’s French as possible. The sounds of parquetry, baronial, jamb slip past unobtrusively, exposing the sinews and strengths of the French in the English, and Middleton’s abbreviated version of Montesquieu’s title makes the great historian and philosopher just as much a property of the English language as the word grandeur itself.
All three, as they appear in the text, are unselfconscious. Montesquieu has no mirror over his fireplace, and Stendhal, if he finds a mirror for himself in Montesquieu, does not share it. Middleton likewise draws no conclusions. The note of absurdity (‘the knee on which he chose to write Le Grandeur de Romains’) is subdued enough as to carry its own strange gravitas, as if Montesquieu’s knee has become a disembodied piece of Roman statuary. All this is at odds with Middleton’s source; it’s worth quoting from the original account of the fireplace, to get some sense of what heavy weather Stendhal makes of it:
L’absence de miroir en cet endroit est une chose à laquelle je n’ai jamais pu m’accoutumer; c’est pour moi le dernier degré du triste et du malheureux.
(Voyage dans la midi de la France, p. 110)
The unselfconsciousness and cheerfulness, likewise, are all Middleton’s own. Stendhal finds the chateau to have an ‘aspect horriblement triste et séverè’ (p106), and throughout his visit his own relation to Montesquieu’s work is a constant preoccupation (‘C’est ne pas précisément de l’amour que j’ai pour Montesquieu, c’est de la vénération’: p105). Stendhal renders Montesquieu on his own terms; Middleton, likewise, renders Stendhal on his.
It’s this element of possession which makes Middleton a European poet in a sense additional to the two I suggested above: that is, a poet for whom the literature of all Europe is, in some way, of a piece, is equally near and tangible in a way that transcends the barriers of language. A longer piece in Crypto-Topographia, ‘Phantoms at Mansfield Park’, elegantly limns through quotation and reconstruction the various rooms inhabited by Fanny Price, their contents, their odd psychic interlinkages:
…unaccountably Fanny has transformed the junk ejected from other rooms, family spaces, the public domain, into an integrated world of her own radiant desiring. It is a world in which, herself a cable in the web, her plants and her moonlight lake, her pictures and her books, do not clash but co-operate…
This has something to do, I think, with the sort of Europeanness which Middleton might have celebrated.
Christopher Middleton’s ‘A Warm Place Revisited’ appears here with permission from Enitharmon.