Barbara Burns interviews David McCallam, editor and translator of Legenda's newly-published André Chénier: Poetry and Revolution 1792-1794, which is volume 24 in our Transcript series.

BB. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to study French?

DMcC. I grew up in Cockermouth, Cumbria. I left school in sixth-form for a job in a chemical works, which I came to hate, so returned to school and flunked my A-Levels. I didn’t study French at A-Level, only sciences, but in my self-imposed gap year, I learned French by hitch-hiking round France, as I did every summer for years afterwards.

BB. How did you get interested in French literature as a serious subject of study? Which authors did you start with?

DMcC. I initially went to City of London Polytechnic to study geology, then switched to French (as you could do then) when I heard about the year abroad – a whole year in France paid to teach a few hours of English a week... Where do I sign up? I got into French literature at university through the tried-and-tested route of existentialism: Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, plus Malraux, Merleau-Ponty and so on. I also took a course on the novel and society and Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir was the first novel I read from cover to cover in French, and it blew my mind. Its hero, Julien Sorel, became my brilliant best friend.

David and Stendhal

BB. Can you remember when you first encountered André Chénier's poetry, and what impact it had on you?

DMcC. I first came across André Chénier on my year abroad, teaching English in France. I picked up a shabby Larousse pamphlet of his Œuvres choisies for 10 francs at a flea market in Saint-Gaudens, south of Toulouse. This was in 1989, the bicentenary of the Revolution, so Chénier and the Revolution converged quite naturally in my thinking. The poetry, though, was a bit of a slow-burner for me. I really came to appreciate it and enjoy it fully when I started teaching it. The students’ readings helped to bring out some naïve and/or nuanced interpretations of the work that I wanted to explore further.

BB. Did the process of preparing this book change your view of Chénier? What did you find most challenging about the translations?

DMcC. I always felt an affinity for the Jacobins in the Revolution, for Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, for the towering ambitions of the Committee of Public Safety reinventing every aspect of French life in their own revolutionary image while defeating the reactionary forces of every other European state massed in grim coalition against them… So I didn’t warm at first to Chénier’s insistent anti-Jacobinism; and found him a bit lukewarm, moderate. Yet the more I read, and the more closely I read, his last poems, the more I found a voice that was every bit as thrilling, radical and captivating as that of Saint-Just at the rostrum of the National Convention. Chénier cleaves to his vision of ‘a’ Revolution with the same force as the Jacobins promoted ‘their’ Revolution. So the challenge of translating the last poems became one of finding a way to render this voice in English. And when I say ‘voice’, I think more of the German ‘Stimmung’, something like ‘tone and atmosphere’ – a certain pitch, that’s perhaps the best word for it – an intensity of feeling and meaning combined.

Robespierre, along with Saint-Just and others, was executed only three days after signing Chénier's death warrant

BB. Chénier was a political journalist. Was he well known during his day? You refer in your book to ‘suicidal journalism’: what was the reality of taking an outspoken stance during the French Revolution?

DMcC. Chénier was tried and executed as a pro-monarchist journalist. He was not well known to the broader reading public and certainly not to the man or woman in the street. But his writings articulated a powerful strain of anti-Jacobin thinking. A fatally dangerous quality when the Jacobins were in the ascendency in the Convention, the executive Committee of Public Safety and through their network of militant clubs across France.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, of July 1793. Article VII declares that 'The right to express one's thoughts and opinions by means of the press ... cannot be forbidden'. As Chénier was to find, it could.

BB. In what sense is Chénier’s work still of interest to new generations of readers?

DMcC. It’s important to start from the notion that the Revolution isn’t just a detached object of historical study. For Chénier, as for his contemporaries, it’s a full-body immersion in a situation that determines you even as you strive to determine it. Chénier’s last poems exemplify this fraught engagement with his immediate revolutionary world. He is a brilliant distiller of an experience that remains relevant, valuable and urgent today. And he paid for this engagement with his life.

BB. Are there a couple of lines from one of Chénier's poems which you could quote to illustrate his work?

DMcC. The fierce and brilliant iambics are probably most representative of Chénier’s last poems. I’ve translated them in various ways, since no single translation methodology can do justice to them all. One early translation adopted an accumulative sibilance as the best means of getting across the verse’s mounting fury, as it moves from impotence towards its own form of cursing potency. It begins:

Ils vivent cependant et de tant de victimes
    Les cris ne montent pas vers toi.
C’est un pauvre poète, ô grand Dieu des armées,
    Qui seul, captif, près de la mort,
That they live and their numberless victims’ anguish
Be a voice crying in the vastness,
O great Lord of hosts, of your indifference,
A poor poet uprises […]

BB. I really enjoyed reading your Introduction and found your writing style strikingly expressive. Apart from translating poetry, you wouldn't happen to write poems of your own, would you?

DMcC. I used to, and I published a couple of poems and a short story when I was finishing my PhD around 2000. I thought at the time that creative writing of one sort or another would run alongside the academic work but it never happened that way. And then the research took over – which is not without its creative side. Other creative energies went, and still go, into staging French plays with students. At the same time, I’ve always been an avid reader of poetry and the experience of translating Chénier has encouraged me to actively consider taking up writing poetry again. But this is very much in the knowledge that it’s as much about the graft as the craft, not just waiting for the arch Romantic-style inspiration to strike but working at it consistently, critically and seriously. Ditto for translation, of course.

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