Although the Catholic diplomat, poet and dramatist Paul Claudel (1868-1955) lived in Japan for only five years, from 1921-1925, when he was the French ambassador, the country’s influence lingered all of his life.
As he later wrote: “No poet can have spent time in China and Japan without turning an eye to those materials which in those countries aid the outpouring of thought.”
Among the first of these influenced works was the chamber play “The Woman and Her Shadow (La Femme et son ombre),” a work strongly indebted to noh drama and performed with Japanese music at the Imperial Theater in 1922. It was also the first of the author’s experiments with the noh-like theme of double identity.
Claudel’s interpretation of the noh protagonist, the shite, was that it was the actor doubled — the apparent character and then the real one. This device he used in his theater, most dramatically in the 1929 “The Diary of Christopher Columbus (Le Livre de Christophe Colomb),” which was later an opera with a score by Darius Milhaud. Here Columbus I performed the action and Columbus II commented upon it.
Claudel’s use of a narrator was also influenced by Japanese arts, for which the model was the gidaiyu chanter from the Bunraku puppet-drama. It is the gidaiyu who explained and offered comment and provided that distancing effect that Claudel often sought in his theater.
Perhaps some of the attractions of these Japanese dramatic devices were didactic. They taught, their sententiousness serving as a kind of morality. And, as a practicing Catholic, Claudel was very interested in morality, as he indicated in his two books on Japan — “A Glance at the Japanese Soul (Un Regard sur l’a^me japonaise)” and “The Black Bird in the Rising Sun (L’oiseau noir dans le soleil levant).”
Perhaps, however, the purest (and least didactic) of these influences from Japan is found in the poetry. Here the impulse is freed from the needs of theatricality on one hand and morality on the other.
Among those materials from the Orient that Claudel mentions is the brush: “the pervasive lure of calligraphy — the brush now quivering at my fingertips; this silk-crackling paper, tight as a bowstring and soft as fog.”
Substitute the brush for a pen and everything changes. “A vertical concentration replaces the sloping three fingers-and-pen harness . . . . The poet is more than a mere author. Like a painter he is both spectator and critic of what is being created under his eyes.”
The most extensive collection of Claudel’s Japan-inspired poetry is contained in the “One Hundred Sentences Written on Fans (Cent Phrases pour eventails),” here translated from its first 1941 edition. Written in 1925, at the same time that the poet was gathering material for his 1926 “Occidental Ideograms (Ideogrammes Occiden- taux),” these tiny lyrics (“I as foolhardy enough to try to adapt from traditio- nal haiku”) are wafted toward the reader “on that wing which is a fan, ever ready to disseminate its breath.”
And most haiku-like they are. “Scent you must shut your eyes to know.” And “On Jizo’s head set two pebbles. That will stop his gadding about.”
Also, they attempt to approximate in French the appearance of the Japanese. For example, “A fan’s poems. All written in a single breath,” is rendered from
crits sur le
These designs are faithfully reflected in Robin Magowan’s beautifully laconic and supple translations that reflect the typography of the original: title, poem in French, poem in English, in separate columns.
This is also a new edition of Magowan’s translation. It originally appeared in 1986 and has been for some time unavailable. Now it is to be welcomed back. Among the translations of Claudel’s work, this is one of the very best.
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