The Quarterly Conversation (rock-solid, as always) has a review of Mathais Énard’s Zone, to be published in English translation by Open Letter. It is one of two books to be published by Open Letter in the near future that I’m very excited about–Death in Spring being the other.
The reveiwer,Énard’s title:
In 1913 Apollinaire published Alcools, his famous poetry collection. One of his texts was entirely devoid of punctuation. Its name? Zone. And indeed, Apollinaire is one of many writers quoted in this book and probably one of its most important references: as Énard himself commented, his poem and the novel share many thematic aspects.
And whence that poem’s title? To those who have read it, it can seem somewhat arbitrary. I read the answer this morning in Calvin Tomkins’ fascinating biography of Marcel Duchamp. From page 110:
[Apollinaire] got on famously with Mme Buffet, an elegant, highly cultivated woman whose grandfather had been a famous botanist and a friend of Lamartine, Chateubriand, and Madame Recamier. He wanted to know everything about the beautiful and remote region of France they were in, which was known locally as the Zone, and he loved to draw out Mme Buffet on the subject of her eighteenth-century ancestors; with his amazing erudition, Apollinaire told stories about the great intellects of that time as if he had known them intimately. Apollonaire could be tremendously winning, and on this occaision he seems to have been on his best behavior. It rained a lot, so they spent most of their time indoors, playing jackstraws or sitting by the enormous fireplace in the main room where, Mme Buffet subtly guided the conversation…One evening Mme Buffet asked Apollinaire to read some of his poems. “He recited them rather ceremoniously,” according to Gabrielle [Buffet-Picabia, daughter of the aforementioned Mme Buffet and inamorata of Duchamp's], “in a restrained tone of voice, stressing the rhymes…He read several poems from the collection Alcools, which had not yet come out, and one of them, which retraced his life, his childhood, and his disappointments, made a great impression on my mother…She asked him the title of this poem. ‘It’s not finished yet,’ he said, ‘and it doesn’t have a name.’ Then, suddenly, gracefully, her turned to her and said, ‘I will call it Zone.’”
I confess that, in my ignorance, I had postulated a connection with the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Tomkins gleaned this remarkable anecdote from Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia’s Recontres. I wholeheartedly recommend the Tomkins biography, even if you are relatively unfamiliar with Duchamp but nevertheless interested in the period. The book is filled with gems.