“Introduction: A Moor in the Onyx Ash Grove” – Fiction by Amanda Sarasien

Night - Alexandre-Auguste Hirsch, 1875
Night – Alexandre-Auguste Hirsch, 1875

“Introduction: A Moor in the Onyx Ash Grove, Amanda Sarasien‘s Borgesian contribution to our Winter 2015 issue, introduces us to a fascinating “novel in miniature” called Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx, written by Sylvain Dubois and reviewed by the highly intelligent yet somewhat cranky G.L.B. Pym. (Don’t forget to read the footnotes!)

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YOU MIGHT SAY THE DRIVING RAIN DROVE ME TO SYLVAIN DUBOIS. That afternoon, in Geneva, I had failed to locate the restaurant recommended to me by a discerning friend. I had wandered all morning under a leaden sky, as if tempting my luck, and so was not surprised when the heavens suddenly let loose, soaking my brand-new, bespoke wingtip brogues. I ducked into the closest storefront, only to find myself standing amid row upon row of sagging bookshelves. In some sort of numinous equation solved by the hand of fate, I had, by chance, stepped into the only space more comforting to me than a cordwainer’s shop. Fine Italian leather for full-leather binding, it seemed a worthy, albeit unnecessary, sacrifice.

And how, among the hundreds of thousands of titles all stuffed into that dim cavern, I ever alighted upon Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx, could also be described as kismet. While the owner pottered around behind teetering stacks of unshelved volumes, mumbling in German to a mangy, calico cat, I distractedly pried the book from its place, at first mistaking the rubbed gilt lettering on its spine for the name Dumas. When confronted with my error, I was tempted to return it to its place, but one glance out the window told me I’d have plenty of time to examine the contents of this little shop. I turned to the first pages. “Monsieur?” I called into the gloom, before remembering he had been speaking German. But, too late, the shopkeeper had already answered me in French, so I continued by asking if he knew anything about this Sylvain Dubois. The man furrowed his brow, squinted at me from beneath bushy, unkempt gray eyebrows and shook his head. Then, wordlessly, he turned and shuffled off.

Despite the series of serendipitous circumstances which led to my purchase of that first battered volume, I maintain that only my singular bibliophilic tenacity could have transformed happenstance into a true connoisseurship. I, alone and without the benefit of literary orientation, read the book, cover to cover, judged it entirely on its own merits, and proceeded to immerse myself in Dubois research, piecing together the fantastic fragments of a life we now know all too well. Thus, I do not hesitate in laying claim to the distinction of Sylvain Dubois’ first English-language reader, and it is under this authority that I introduce him to you now.

Sylvain Dubois was born Auguste Hauchecorne on May 22, 1893, in Bernay, France, the only child of Severin and Arianne (née Lacaille) Hauchecorne. At an early age, he eschewed the family profession of glassblowing and declared his intention to become an arborist. But, only seven months into his apprenticeship, his precocity got the better of him, when, behind his mentor’s back, he created a crossbreed he believed would protect surrounding trees from infestation by any number of insect species plaguing France’s orchards at that time. To test his hypothesis, he planted this new hybrid among a grove of the region’s oldest trees, and within one month, every single trunk was mottled with the scars of a previously unknown disease, contracted from the seemingly innocent little sapling. When it was learned the role Hauchecorne had played in this calamity, the youth was disgraced, his budding career in arboriculture uprooted.

Hauchecorne did not have time to contemplate his failure, however, for three weeks later, World War I broke out. Auguste, a vehement pacifist, fled to Brittany to avoid the draft, and adopted an ascetic’s life in the mythic forest of Brocéliande. Here he took the name Sylvain Dubois, moved into an old, hollow oak tree and subsisted on acorns. Unfortunately, it was precisely his pseudonym which gave him away. When residents of the local village reported the presence of a strange man who called himself Sylvain Dubois, it was only a matter of time before the French military connected the doubly arboreal name[1] to that failed arborist gone missing from the Eure district. He was summarily removed from his mystical home and shipped off to the front.

Once in the trenches, Dubois was assigned mess hall duty, eventually working his way up to head cook. It was during this time that he discovered writing when, attempting to develop an haute cuisine centered upon the acorn (a cuisine which, incidentally, did not prove popular with the soldiers), he found himself more and more absorbed in embellishing the written descriptions of his dishes. He then announced to his comrades in arms that upon conclusion of the war, he would go abroad, with the goal of penning a travelogue to the world’s great trees. While we can surmise that such a guide would have generated little interest from publishers, let alone readers, we will, in fact, never know, because not long after the armistice, Dubois checked himself into an institution and was diagnosed with shellshock, a condition he had heretofore been treating with cocaine. He spent the next four years in Fond-du-Lac Sanatorium in Bellevue, Switzerland, just outside Geneva.

The sweep of empty hours in between treatments would give Dubois ample opportunity to experiment with his writing, and by the time of his release, he had amassed thousands of pages of poetry and prose. These early attempts are uneven, to say the least,[2] but literary scholars have managed to distill the work into a handful of recurring themes and subject matter. It seems that, under the influence of his psychiatrist, a Dr. Humbert, for whom the insecure patient developed a strong attachment (rather like that of a son for his father, which Humbert believed to be indicative of Severin’s abusive parenting), Dubois abandoned his mania for trees and turned instead to dreams. Unbeknownst to him, Dubois’ work had meandered into the same territory concurrently being explored by the Surrealists via their experiments with automatism. Dubois himself employed automatism as a poetic technique but inexplicably abandoned it only a few months before his first meeting with a Surrealist painter, Gabin Chéreau, at the latter’s Geneva exhibition. It was Chéreau who prompted Dubois to come to Paris and introduced him to the other members of the movement. Unfortunately, Dubois’ participation in the Parisian avant-garde was short-lived, for he instantly clashed with the group’s most influential element, particularly André Breton and Paul Éluard. Due to scant documentary evidence for contact between Dubois and the Surrealists, literary scholars have traditionally denied any surrealist influence upon Dubois’ work, citing coincidence instead.[3] Hypotheses surrounding the inverse – that is, that Dubois might have infused new motifs and techniques into the surrealist imagination – have proved more controversial still: Promising scholar Julia van Denend sacrificed her career over a dogged assertion that the cherry trees in the title of Breton’s Young Cherry Trees Secured against Hares is in fact the mark of Dubois’ arborous obsession planted firmly into the fertile soil of the former’s subconscious.[4]

Whatever the truth of Dubois’ involvement with the Surrealists, it seems clear he was formally admitted into the tight-knit circle but failed to make headway. The group found Dubois’ ideas outré and forthwith rejected him. He responded by shutting himself in his Saint-Germain apartment and feverishly completing an entire book of poetry in seven days. During this period of prodigious output, he continued submitting poems to leading literary reviews, but the war had created poets out of more veterans than just Dubois: Each envelope was returned unopened and scrawled with a note explaining the editors had a surfeit of poetry and could accept not a single verse more for the next three years.

Dubois then gave up on poetry altogether and turned to the novella, convinced the twentieth century would see a surge in popularity for this “novel in miniature.”[5] His living situation, however, had become greatly reduced due to the unreliability of his employment: Dubois would routinely begin a job only to forget his responsibility not a week later, when he would simply stop showing up for work. Short on cash, he was forced to lodge in a dilapidated tenement of Le Marais which had become so subdivided it would be generous to say the drab, paper-thin walls delimited closets– hardly a space conducive for the deep concentration required by his creative process. Though he soon adapted to this cramped, noisy environment by becoming nocturnal, the author did not give up hope that he could somehow earn enough to pay his debts and return to the Rue des Saints-Pères. To combat his short-term amnesia and generate a modest income, he began interspersing his own creative work with brief stints as a literary translator, taking on projects whenever the rent came due. Dubois was fluent in two languages besides French (English and German) and, during his lifetime, was known only for his translation output – not, unfortunately, for his own poetry and prose.

How ironic, then, given Dubois’ decades-long work as a translator, that he developed a profound fear of translation. Perhaps it was his firsthand experience which gave him insight into the distinct power wielded by the translator. Whatever the source of his paranoia, he chose to translate all his works himself, in a process he referred to as “re-writing,” a term used to express his deeply-held belief that translation was not an adaptation but a writing-again. This led to the production of what he considered to be three distinct works for each poem or novella he wrote, raising the question: Which of the three, if any, should be considered the “original” text?

Around this time, circa June of 1924, Dubois completed Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx, his first attempt at the novella, now largely considered his magnum opus. Evidence from his journals suggests the writing coincided with a period of persistent insomnia precipitated by an unrequited love for his neighbor, Othilie Milhaud, a woman twelve years his junior whose father was the building’s superintendent. While pining into the wee hours of the morning, Dubois half-heartedly scribbled some rather incoherent passages scholars have often dismissed as throwaway lines for a novel never fully fleshed out. Such suggestions not only ignore Dubois’ own conviction that the novel was a “lost form” which belonged “asphyxiated by the nineteenth century,”[6] but also overlook myriad instances of shared word groupings between this supposedly rejected fragment and the final draft of Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx. The truth is, once M. Milhaud was transferred to another of the landlord’s properties, taking his daughter with him, Dubois drowned his sorrows in his work, plunging once again into that total creative absorption which was his custom. The result was a work incorporating many elements from his earlier attempt, now approached with an artistic detachment more suited to his particular brand of literary genius.

This oneiric novella has been the subject of much critical controversy since its publication in 1926, the first and only of Dubois’ own works to appear during his lifetime. Critics did not approve of the guignolesque violence bleeding through its rather diaphanous plot – a plot that has since become iconic, finding its way into several novels, plays and films of the ’68 generation and beyond.[7] I hardly need summarize it here, but, in the interest of professional rigor (and by dictate of conventional protocol), permit me this brief synopsis. The story concerns a young physicist, Balthus Dorminy, attempting to work at his figures from his incommodious Le Marais apartment. On the verge of an epiphany, Balthus’ concentration is shattered by the activity of a new upstairs neighbor who, with a thud and a crash, begins the process of moving in. For the next two months, Balthus is awakened every night, at three a.m. precisely, by the neighbor’s heavy footsteps and his inexplicable opening and closing of doors and drawers, seven times for each hinge.

Lost in a somnolent haze, Balthus finds himself unable to work and watches with dismay while rival physicists stumble upon every one of his deferred discoveries. Meanwhile, he re-channels his own scientific impulses toward the strange behavior of the upstairs neighbor, and, within days, the exhausted Balthus has recorded a daily sleep cycle which is wildly deviant, yet obsessive in its regularity. The scientist then calculates the sum sleep time across six separate periods of repose and learns that it equates to the eight hours which the rest of humanity gets all at once. He therefore decides to sync his own biological clock with his neighbor’s and thereby reclaim the entirety of his body’s sleep debt.

Balthus immediately discovers that to harmonize his own circadian rhythm with that of his neighbor is to acquire the bizarre capacity for entering his neighbor’s dreams. While at first too hungry for sleep to pay this phenomenon much attention, Balthus is soon tempted by this newfound power, which he tests by conducting increasingly sadistic experiments into the limits of his influence over the neighbor’s subconscious. His “real-world” work, however, suffers due to the inexpediency of the hours remaining to him in between periods of slumber. Ultimately, Balthus goes too far when, within the confines of the nightmare, he abandons himself to his frustration and bludgeons the neighbor to death, only to find that the result of this dreamed murder is an actual, physical death, for which he has no alibi but his implausible explanation that, at 6:22 p.m., he was sleeping. The novella ends with Balthus’ arrest and the confiscation of his incriminating notes on the neighbor’s sleep habits.

Told in a stream of consciousness punctuated by curious references to the world outside the story, the above plotline emerges in fits and starts, as if glimpsed piecemeal through a thick, hypnagogic fog. Is the story itself a dream, the reader an intruder into Balthus’ dream, itself an intrusion into his neighbor’s dream? What is fiction but a dream we can enter and leave merely by closing the book, or is fiction more “real” than reality? Such are the questions that have dogged exegetes ever since the novella’s publication. Despite the prevalence of theories surrounding Dubois and his work, Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx is sui generis and therefore resists a definitive interpretation. Yet, like some sort of scholarly Jacob’s ladder, we envision a soul-enriching climb, believing there remains but one more rung – one more published paper – to reach that Paradise of total enlightenment.[8]

Of these interpretations, the most galling comes from a Dr. Bertram Beake of Wexford University, who has spent the past thirty years arguing that the novella is merely a surrealist retelling of Dubois’ own experience living in Le Marais, where neighbors, too close for comfort, continually interrupted his writing until he teetered on the brink of insanity.[9] Indeed, from the moment of his release from the institution, Dubois would struggle periodically against insomnia until his death, a battle he both candidly and lyrically described in his journals. Nevertheless, to reduce this sublime chiaroscuro to mere autobiography is to stomp upon a masterpiece. Then, when it emerges from beneath the shoe tread, battered and bruised, one can hold it aloft and pronounce there was nothing to this art, any idiot could have produced it – thus assuaging an unsettled sense of awe before the work’s greatness.

As an antidote to this affront, let me offer my own humble interpretation. The problem with past critiques of the novella is, no matter how gingerly they peel back the myriad layers of metafiction piled atop one another like a callus to protect the wound beneath, these analyses stop before they reach the tender lesion. Clearly, Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx expresses anxiety, but not an anxiety about sleep, or lack thereof. Further, anyone who takes Balthus for the victim, simply because the story is told from his point of view, is blind to the protagonist’s power. The dream, here representing the work of fiction, is not Balthus’ but his neighbor’s. With his intrusion, Balthus rewrites the fiction and murders the original author, a figure so insignificant as to go the entire story without a name. Thus we are led to the rather transparent conclusion that Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx is not the work of a psychopath, concealing his murderous angst deep inside an impenetrable novella, but a meditation upon what Dubois believed to be the inherent violence of translation.

If the history of the work’s English translations is any indication, Dubois had reason to fear this assault. Despite the horror Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx provoked in its French-speaking audience, at least one bilingual reader was quite taken with it, so much so that, unaware of Dubois’ own English version, he took it upon himself to translate the novella. In 1928, Lord Rowley Blackwood, a dilettante rich in pedigree but poor in matters of common courtesy (or international copyright law), published his translation without so much as a telegram to the author or the original publisher.[10] Worse, his chosen title, The Season of All Natures – a reflection of Blackwood’s own admiration for Shakespeare, which Dubois did not share – entirely ignores the signification of the French. Sadly, the liberties Blackwood took with the title were the least of his attacks upon the essence of the original text, and it would therefore be more accurate to say that Blackwood traduced rather than translated Dubois.

Not until after Dubois’ death did a second English translation appear. By then, Dubois’ own English version had gone missing in the chaos of his personal papers (an impossible accretion including grocery lists, ticket stubs, café receipts, and deeds to various mopeds, through which scholars are still sorting to this day), and revived critical interest necessitated a more faithful rendering than Blackwood’s. Firmin Botterill’s translation, published in 1971, is, in fact, more accurate – not that it would have been difficult to improve upon Blackwood’s atrocity. Nevertheless, its title, Ashes to Ashes, shows the challenge posed by Dubois’ surrealist style. Botterill, too, fell victim to that most insidious of the translator’s temptations, to impose order upon an inherently disordered text. Because, while he did manage to detect Dubois’ frequent use of word play, which the author accomplished via the French language’s ample reservoir of homophones, Botterill took this one step further, playing upon English-language homophones and popular epigrams to make associations not implied by the text.

So “frênaie” (ash grove) becomes “ashes,” which, to the translator, must have seemed sufficient to express the novella’s macabre ending. But he sidestepped the rest of this highly evocative title. Whether Dubois was conscious of it or not, “Un Maure” (a Moor, of which there are none in the story) suggests its homophone “un mort” (a dead man), and “d’onyx” (onyx), while ostensibly referencing the funereal color of the stone, evokes the Greek goddess of night, Nyx. Viewed thus, Botterill’s pithy Ashes to Ashes proves a feeble attempt at approximating the richness of Dubois’ enigmatic imagery. The rest of the book reads just as flatly as the title.

Hélène Auclair-Winesap’s translation A Moor in the Onyx Ash Grove, which you are about to read, strips away the varnish of these past editions, makes use of the raw material of the French text to build something basic and functional. As I have not – and will not – read it, I leave it to you dear readers to judge the new translation’s success. For my part, I’ll never forget that little bookshop in Geneva and the rainy day I spent poring over the leather-bound volume waiting for my poor shoes to dry. That is the edition that sealed my admiration for Sylvain Dubois, and that is the book to which I will return.

Dubois died on May 22, 1953, his 60th birthday, when, for reasons mysterious to his acquaintances and eventual biographers, he decided to climb an apple tree in the Bois de Boulogne. He slipped, tumbled nearly twenty feet, and (perhaps fortunately) he died on impact. It seems a fitting, poetic death for this consummate lover of trees, for it reminds us that a life beset by falls can secure a different, more exquisite kind of fruit than that for which we first reached. To his colossal failures, the world owes that priceless gift of Sylvain Dubois’ literary genius.

— G.L.B. Pym, October 2014


[1] “Sylvain,” of course, meaning “forest,” and Dubois meaning “of the wood.”

[2] I take issue with Bertram Beake’s assertion that these early pieces are merely “the outer fringes of a snarled mess of an oeuvre” (1987). Dubois’ first literary attempts, though inchoate and tending toward the prolix, were clearly spun from the same fibers as the novellas and poetry for which he is now remembered. Anyone with eyes can see the leitmotifs that run like intricate patterns through the tapestry of his work. Those who don’t – well, I can only suggest they have their eyes checked. Or unchecked, as the case may be, for to read Dubois is to watch the lines between reality and dream steadily blur until all that remains in focus is some interstitial truth. Perhaps Dr. Beake simply cannot abandon himself to such a depth of abstraction and will forever stand on the precipice criticizing a grandeur which from his vantage he cannot see.

[3] Bertram Beake has been the most outspoken critic of attempts to link Dubois with the Parisian Surrealists. Nevertheless, his willful ignorance of recent findings (see Mortimer Bardsley’s cogent book, Sylvain Dubois: Forgotten Genius, New York: Prinsen University Press, 2005) suggests Dr. Beake simply refuses to amend his past critical interpretations of Dubois, in particular his 1991 essay “Much Ado about Nothing: Sylvain Dubois and His Literary Legacy,” which maintains, “Dubois could never have been initiated into surrealism for the simple fact that his work shows none of the movement’s fluid originality. Instead, his poetry can only be considered coarse and jejune.” Such drivel is not only intellectually lazy, it is aesthetically dishonest.

[4] Van Denend’s paper, “A Cherry Tree at the Crossroads: Sylvain Dubois and the Surrealists” (included in the volume Sylvain Dubois in Paris, Ed. Mortimer Bardsley, New York: Prinsen University Press, 1983) makes a convincing argument and is well worth the read.

[5] Although the term “novella” was of course already well established, it does not appear Dubois ever knew it. He apparently believed himself to be the originator of the form and ceremoniously dubbed his “new creation” the “novel in miniature,” a phrase he continued to use in his journals for the rest of his life.

[6] This is my own translation of phrases I gleaned from Dubois’ original journals, which have yet to be translated into English. Installments were published in France, under the title Les Cahiers de Sylvain Dubois (Ed. Thibault Villemot, Paris: Éditions Gauthier, 1966), but went out of print before the entirety of his sixty-eight notebooks had appeared.

[7] Would that Dubois had lived long enough to see his star rise. It is unclear how the student revolutionaries came to discover his largely forgotten work, subsequently choosing to lionize him as the anti-establishment emblem of their movement. But one can hardly underestimate the influence Dubois exercised on the minds of writers, filmmakers, philosophers, critics, and other intellectual luminaries participating in the protests, and thus, on the cultural landscape of today. For these “soixante-huitards,” Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx had a sociopolitical message I cannot in good conscience endorse. Nevertheless, I will agree that contemporary philosophical theories, which grew out of the deconstructionist and post-structuralist currents circulating through that rarefied, revolutionary air, are only just now verging on an understanding of this novella’s existential complexity. And, of course, I am loath to dispute any aesthetic agenda which results in reinvigorating Dubois’ work for a new generation. I argued as much in my 2010 paper, “Echoes of Sylvain Dubois,” but because Bertram Beake threw his weight around at Wexford to thwart its publication, you, dear readers, are regrettably deprived of the benefit of adding my trenchant insights to this discussion.

[8] I, too, found myself compelled to contribute what I could to this critical effort. After all, I was Dubois’ first English-language reader. I have read Un Maure en frênaie d’onyx more times than anyone and saw quite plainly that the discourse hungered for my percipience. But, as I’ve already mentioned, that fusty cur, Bertram Beake, so long ago tenured as to become lax in his publications, somehow managed to attain that plum chair of English at Wexford the year I submitted my paper to the review board. What else can one conclude but that my celebrity and inspired reasoning threatened his sense of inferiority and he set out to block my paper’s publication at all cost. That is the only explanation for why such a thoroughly penetrating piece of scholarship should suffer so callous a rejection. Nevertheless, I cannot be silenced, for this introduction is my forum. I will use it to attempt a summary of my argument, and you will see the error that has been inflicted upon the world with the suppression of my ideas.

[9] Bertram Beake is an idiot.

[10] Despite the fact that Blackwood produced his translation before I was born, and thus before my fateful visit to that little Geneva bookshop, I maintain that the laurels crowning Dubois’ first English-language reader should remain on my head, given that the translation proves Blackwood was completely ignorant of the author and his work. Nor, for the rest of his life, would he ever pick up another Dubois title (see the translator’s obituary of May 22, 1963, published in the Cheshire County Chronicle). One wonders, then, if Blackwood even did read the novella other than to transfer it sloppily from the original page to that in his typewriter – an activity I submit does not constitute reading. At any rate, such a patently negligent perusal not only offends the author’s genius but also does not warrant so dignified a mantle.

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Profile PicAMANDA SARASIEN is a writer and literary translator whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cigale; Emrys Journal; Aldus, a Journal of Translation and MAYDAY Magazine. She contributes film and book reviews at the sites Reading in Translation and The Mookse and the Gripes. You can find her on Twitter@amandasarasien or on the web at amandasarasien.com.

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