NEA Literature Fellowships

Edward Gauvin

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2011 - Translation)

from L'Angoisse de la première phrase (Fear of the First Line) by Bernard Quiriny

[translated from French]

It was while reading Bartleby & Co., by the Spaniard Enrique Vila-Matas, that Pierre Gould found his calling. This astonishing book took the form of numbered sections that the narrator, a lowly bookkeeper, conceived as footnotes to an imaginary text. They all concerned a single subject: Bartlebys, named after Bartleby the Scrivener, who spent his time doing nothing in an office he never left. Bartlebys, as the narrator saw it, were writers "attracted toward nothingness" who never managed to set a single line down on paper or who, having done so, gave up writing in the end. Thus Vila-Matas invited readers on a sort of stroll "through the labyrinth of the No, down the roads of the most disquieting and attractive tendency of contemporary literature": that of inquiring into what writing was, and "prowling about its impossibility."

After a few pages of acclimation (Gould liked to finish books, not start them; what he needed was that all-encompassing book, the dream of demiurges and philosophers that rendered all further reading pointless, since everything had already been written in it) -- after a few pages, then, Gould was hooked by the Spanish writer's game. He came across names well-known (Walser, Rimbaud, Keats, Salinger) and less so (Bobi Bazlen, Gregorio Martínez Sierra, Enrique Banchs); he was surprised by the attitudes of these authors without bodies of work, or with aborted ones; admired their obstinacy in refusing to consort with writing despite their obvious talents. In his eleventh footnote, Enrique Vila-Matas' narrator mentioned a collection like his own: Literary Eclipses, by the Frenchman Robert Derain, a volume entirely devoted to writers unique in having written one book and one alone before renouncing literature forever. "All the authors in this book are inventions," the narrator adds, "just as the stories attributed to these Bartlebys were in fact written by Derain himself."

Gould re-read this passage several times, wondering if Derain and his book really existed, or whether they too were inventions. That Vila-Matas spoke of them so casually and seemed to think so little of the fact a Frenchman had had his idea before he did made the latter hypothesis more likely. At any rate, Gould found the idea behind Derain's Eclipses more interesting than that of Vila-Matas, whose selection criteria were looser. After all, his Bartlebys could have had the respectable beginnings of a career before giving up, whereas Derain's eclipsees had had the willpower to quit after the heady exaltation of a first attempt. The former might well have confirmed the promise of a first book; the second, with superb hauteur, had not even conceded this much to literature.

Whether Derain had really existed or not, Gould was sorry the Spaniard hadn't said more about him -- a few allusions, here and there, but never, alas, any details. To write a single book, then renounce literature: the idea began to take hold of him. He knew quite well he would never be rid of it.

Excerpt in French

About Bernard Quiriny

Some writers write, the Viennese ironist Karl Kraus once opined, because they haven't the strength of character not to. Or, as Parisian nihilist Roland Jaccard once remarked, writing is hard, but few writers really appreciate that not writing is harder. Stieg Larsson died at the right time, Swiss writer Peter Stamm once mused to his American editor. Couldn't you arrange my murder, to help sales?

In this story, Quiriny casts these preoccupations with literary glory, pretensions, and posterity, with pranksterism, prophecy, celebrity and the rage against influence into a heady mix with assassination -- character and otherwise. It is about the fear of failure, the fear of success, the fear of beginnings, of taking the first step into that void where nothingness ends and creation begins, the imperious and doomed attempt of art to dictate the terms of life. Its fixation on fictionality is mirrored in the story's idiosyncratic structure. Quiriny can do anything he turns his intellect to.

Writer and translator Edward Gauvin ( has received fellowships and residencies from the Centre National du Livre, Ledig House, the Banff Centre, the Clarion Workshop, and the American Literary Translators Association. He recently debuted fabulist Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud with the collection A Life on Paper (Small Beer Press, 2010). His work has appeared in Tin House, Conjunctions, PEN America, Epiphany, The Southern Review, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and The Harvard Review. He is the Contributing Editor for Graphic Fiction at Words Without Borders and translates comics for Tokyopop, Lerner Books, First Second, and Archaia. The winner of the 2010 John Dryden Translation Prize, in the coming year he will be a Fulbright scholar in Brussels, studying Belgian fantastical fiction.

Photo © Paul Underwood 2010

Translator's Statement

Bernard Quiriny, a bright star in the current Belgian Francophone firmament, was born in 1978. In his first book, L'Angoisse de la première phrase (Fear of the First Line, Phébus, 2005), he alludes to Flann O'Brien and Marcel Aymé, and was likened to Borges and Calvino.  Playful, philosophical, pristinely structured, mordantly serious, these stories showcase Quiriny's elegance and verve with narrative experiment. The collection received the Prix Littéraire de la Vocation, a prize previously won by Amélie Nothomb, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Shan Sa.

Quiriny's second collection, Contes Carnivores (Le Seuil, 2008), won Belgium's top literary prize, the Prix Rossel, whose citation read: "for inventiveness in style and content, for his uniqueness, his aesthetic, and his humor." In his preface, Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas (whose work Quiriny had referenced in his previous book) called Quiriny "one of my favorite writers." It also won the Prix du Style and the Prix Marcel Thiry, the latter named for the noted Belgian fabulist. More overtly fantastical, these works, which weave in references to Robert Louis Stevenson, drew him comparisons to de Quincey, Chesterton, Poe, and Cortazar.

The range of praise Quiriny has garnered in his brief career to date testify not only to the author's ingenuity and breadth of reference but also to an infusion of intertextuality poised to freshen the 20th century European fabulism. Mixing absurdism, surrealism, existentialism, and magic realism, post-Borgesian paradox, and Belgian fantastical writing (L'École belge de l'étrange), Quiriny participates in a conversation of truly international scope and influence.

Quiriny lives in Burgundy and teaches law and philosophy at the University of Dijon. He is the head literary critic at Chronic'Art, and his reviews frequently appear in Epok and Le Magazine Littéraire. He studied with the Greek political philosopher, psychoanalyst, and revolutionary theorist Cornelius Castoriadis, who shows up, with a time-traveling Karl Marx, in an early tale. In the US, his stories have appeared in Subtropics and World Literature Today.  My work on the author marks his first appearances in English.