Among the paintings by Georges de la Tour that René Char saw exhibited at the Orangerie in Paris in 1935 was ‘Job visited by his wife’, once thought to represent an angel freeing St Peter from prison. It must have been partly this interpretation which formed the basis of the prose poem on ‘the prisoner’ published in Feuillets d’Hypnos [Leaves of Hypnos, 1946], for its theme recalls the Service du travail obligatoire [mandatory work services for Germany] instituted by the Vichy regime, and the fact that Char met ‘les réfractaires’ who had joined the Maquis. He himself joined the Resistance in 1941.
The challenge posed by the political crisis in France at that time is neatly summed up in Char’s later homage to La Tour, in 1966. There he praises him for not ‘yielding to the temptation to substitute the broad daylight for the darkness and its lightning fed by an inconstant term’. One problem for the translator, however, is the use of the word réfractaire, unknown as a noun. Originally, the word designated priests who had refused to sign the Civil Constitution under the Revolution. Char himself accepted the translation ‘partisan’, which makes an association with the ‘Chant des Partisans’, the hymn of the French Resistance, written in 1943.
In my translation, the reader will find, instead, a phrase from T.S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ and one from D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, to convey the experience of suffering and hope.
Char’s engagement with poetry, beginning with Surrealism early on, spanned nearly sixty years; his love for his native Isle-sur- la Sorgue and the Névons, his birthplace, permeates throughout.
My thanks are due to Patrick Boyde, Clive Scott and Clive Wilmer for their helpful reading of my translations.