Pascal Quignard/translated by Bruce X
On Wooden Tablets / Apronenia Avitia
Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2001

Masked as a historical document, but in reality a sly Borgesian project of historical artifice On Wooden Tablets presents the buxi or wooden tablets upon which one Apronenia Avitia has inscribed her daybooks spanning the last nineteen years of her life during late fourth and early fifth century Rome. Beginning in the year 395 we receive a litany of impressions, often fragmentary, decadent, and self-absorbed, detailing a privileged, patrician world removed from the upheavals of late antiquity. No mere historical re-creation, but an excellent forgery On Wooden Tablets begins with a commentary and biography entitled "The Life of Apronenia Avitia", neatly inserting her into the continuum of event and catastrophe in late Rome with spry anecdotes and inventive biographical musings. And the witty excuse for her total erasure and invisibility to classical historian and scholar alike? "In letters and in a daybook kept in imitation of Paulinus and Rutilius Namatianus, not a single remark alludes to the end of empire. Either because she was above seeing. Or because she didn't see . . . Or in the conviction that seeing was irrelevant. This contempt and indifference earned her the contempt and indifference of historians." Convenient and ironic at the same time, for her daybooks scrawled on the buxi are almost entirely about seeing and perception. The senses heightened to the fire of an epigram. The plot, her course of life is irrelevant, it is all neatly
explained in the first twenty-five pages.

The buxi are often lists since they were used almost like notepads for daily ephemera. Each entry is as brief as it is dazzling. In fragment LXXXIV we find "Happiness. Wandering the Saburnian road. The eleventh hour. Gossip. Merchants closing up. Receiving the Vitellian tablets. Drunkenness before sleep." A marvel of compression and insinuation. The narrative threads are few and disjointed, teased through just enough, so that each succeeding fragment seems inevitable in its progression. Death binds the narrative together in many ways. Husbands and lovers decay and pass with an unsettling frequency. Some of the most riveting fragments record the death throes of her second husband Sp. Possidius Barca. An earthy sensibility grounds most of the fragments: the details of sex, lists of food, sarcastic barbs at peers (of which fragment LXXXVII "What Nausica Smells Like" is a priceless example), and enigmatic scenes that seem almost like parables.

Both sections of On Wooden Tablets complement each other in unexpected ways. The almost total absence of historical event in the buxi give them an airless quality, the death and decadence almost seem heightened as if the decay of empire cannot but effect the psyche of even the most insulated and wealthy. In counterpoint "The Life of Apronenia Avitia" is so hardened with the brutality and unrelenting course of history, the numerous characters are crushed flat and need the ephemeral vitality of the buxi to aerate history and give it a human subject.

Quignard has accomplished quite a feat here, he has created a remarkably vivid anatomy of the late Roman empire, excellent in its translations and artifices (all rendered in a supremely translucent English by Bruce X) and almost holographic in its complexity.

-- Randy Nakamura