From an Anglo-American viewpoint, where translations from France are predominated first by Michel Houellebecq, anti-saint, and second by a nimbus of metaphysical detective novels, Pierre Michon at first appears to be a delicious throwback, writing with luxurious self-confidence and unembarrassed depth. "Let us explore a genesis for my pretensions," he begins in his critically acclaimed first novel, now translated by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays as "Small Lives" (Archipelago Press, 214 pages, $15).
Divided into eight mini-biographies, these "vies miniscules" are short in length, and humble in their choice of subjects. Mr. Michon makes the everyday French countryside come alive with the silent, throbbing transcendence of a Van Gogh painting. An illiterate old man sits at the window of a provincial hospital:
The lindens traced trembling cursive shadows over his bald, always astonished head; he contemplated his thick hands, the sky, his hands again, finally the night; he lay down to sleep stunned.
Mr. Michon's narrator, a drunken author, had glimpsed similar linden trees a few nights before, after he had let himself be beaten almost to death by a victim of his bitter book-learned sarcasm.
A bartender, black and white imp, made me drink cognac; a bit of my blood stained his napkin; the street lights in the square stretched toward the stars high armfuls of linden leaves, green and gold as grass and bread, immensely gentle.
A symbol, like the linden tree, is more than a spice sprinkled throughout the text; it is noted, savored, returned to insistently. The speaker is torturing himself with wholesomeness, imagining the goodness of bread and grass suggested in the artificial blare of streetlights. "I cannot write without singing," Mr. Michon has said, and in many ways his prose is an attempt to soothe himself and heal: "Small Lives" is truly not a throwback, but a very modern book about pain and recovery.
Both an experiment in hagiography and an episodic confession, "Small Lives," first published in 1984, immortalizes the author's failure to love those who have most influenced him. It combines the considerable power of contemporary memoir with the equally vital mini-genre of fictional biography, as practiced by W.G. Sebald or Alexander Kluge.
Anxious, but full of conjuring power, Mr. Michon never sets up terms that would ask his departed heroes, uncles, and older schoolmates to forgive him in any way. Rather, he wants the reader to experience the wonder of his own regret. He writes of old letters that inspire "a delicious, literary emotion, dense as foliage." He would have us experience the same. The early stories, those that peer furthest into the darkness of the past and that emit from the lack left by Mr. Michon's own absent father, are his most literary and his best.
Was one of my ancestors a fine captain, a young, insolent ensign, or fiercely taciturn slave trader? East of the Suez, some uncle gone back to Barbary in a cork helmet, wearing jodhpur boots and a bitter smile, a stereotype warmly endorsed by younger branches of the family, by renegade poets, all those dishonored ones full of honor, shadow, and memory, the black pearls of the family trees? Did I have some colonial or seafaring antecedent?
You can hear the first-time author cycling his engines, almost flooding himself with an intoxicating desire for Romantic license. He is the "renegade poet," as we learn in later stories, dishonored by drunkenness and writer's block, an indeed pretentious college student too busy with the events of 1968 to visit his dying grandparents.
The author of an untranslated book about Rimbaud, Mr. Michon finds himself as unusual a hero as his subjects, but unlike them he can convert pain into energy. Abandoned by his own father, he is inspired by a converse story, that of the Prodigal Son. In "The Life of Antoine Peluchet," he writes brilliantly of a male ancestor who left home, and whose father hoped against hope that his son would come back:
He stops occasionally and lifts his head toward the stars; this is to savor the moment near at hand when, under the lamp light, he will see Antoine returned [. . .] Then he sets off again more quickly, his cap conceals him, and there is nothing left but the wooden jaw, brutally despairing. He is an old man. When he takes the path to Le Châtain and we see him approaching, he closely resembles the one who was Toussaint Peluchet; but let us not let that heavy gait deceive us; because he carries on his shoulder something shimmering and magic, peremptory as the harp of an ancient king inventor of psalms or the halberd of an old lansquenet who sees things in the night that are not there, horns suddenly appearing on the brow of a hedge or forked hooves in the sculpted prints of cattle: a scythe, which he rests beside the door, and it falls with a clatter his hand is shaking so much. Antoine is not there.
The emotion, the forceful claims of the imagery, the painting of the starry night: Mr. Michon achieves what other writers wouldn't try, licensed as he is by keen regret and transfigured loss. More than other writers, Mr. Michon misses the poetry of the past, and in missing it he possesses it.