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Masked as a historical document, but in reality a sly Borgesian project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