Gift: another thought on fictional poets and their unintended consequences
My recent and current investigations of the fictional poetry project appear largely in two serial sets of posts. The first here: Pages: A Fictional Poet's Notebook (entry one)(hubpost to other parts) (robertsheppard.blogspot.com), which relates the invention of Sophie Poppmeier’s lockdown diary and her caperings with a mannequin; and here: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2022/02/reflections-on-fictional-poetry-and.html, which contains reflections on the fact and factlessness of fictional poets and fictional poetry (two different things). Then a further episode suggested itself. This one.
The fraternity of Malcolm Lowry scholars who have washed up in Liverpool for various academic conferences on, and (deliberately) non-academic celebrations of, the work of Malcolm Lowry, seem a remarkable bunch. (My numerous accounts of these events may be accessed here: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2021/10/the-lowry-lounge-2021-bluecoat.html ) They are the best of academia, in fact, with their decades-long dedication to that enigmatic and eccentric author, whose marginality and greatness has never put them off, or marred their generosity. Often seeming immensely old, but physically robust and mentally vigorous, figures such as Sherill Grace, Paul Tiessen, Chris Ackerley and Pat McCarthy, complement the more ragged local enthusiasts, ‘the Firminists’ as we are known. One of the best of, and the most frequent of, visitors was Vik Doyen, who was, in the words Tiessen supplied for Grace’s obituary, to some: a ‘great gift to the Lowry world’ (he still had plans to deal with the labyrinthine manuscripts of Lowry’s October Ferry to Gabriola) ‘and to others: a dear, sweet, thoughtful man’. (Grace 2020: 222: see here: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/11/in-lieu-of-lowry-lounge-2020-remaking.html
and here for my brief obit: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2018/12/robert-sheppard-in-memoriam-vik-doyen.html
Vik was also Belgian. One year, at ‘The Lowry Lounge’, having spent some time talking to him, and judging his sense of humour, that ‘sweetness’ that Tiessen identifies, I dared to present him with a copy of A Translated Man. There, I had done it! I had placed my works of a fictional Belgian into the hands of a palpably real Belgian, a Belgian, no less, who was an expert in fiction! I’d done so at the end of the weekend celebration, without explanation, and without the possibility of response.
The following year, Vik returned to the Lounge, and spotting me, pointed across the room at me, laughed. We later spoke. He corrected my mistake of imagining that Walloon was a language, but otherwise made no comments on the poems of Van Valckenborch (or other failures in my genuine attempts to reflect Belgian social realities as I had gleaned them from visit and research). A Translated Man carries an introduction, ‘The Secret Player: René Van Valckenborch and his Double Oeuvre’, supposedly written by editor Erik Canderlinck, who styles himself ‘formerly of the Institute of Literary Translation, Leuven’. (An early version of this may be read here:) I had picked Leuven, not for the dreadful pun (‘You’ve lost that Leuven feeling’!), but because I had never been there, and I knew nobody from its town or gown. Vik, of course, was from both, having taught at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven from 1974 to 2002, emeritus professor until his sad death in 2018.
Whereas I have considered the situation of readers who cannot unhoax themselves of the presence and ‘reality’ of fictional authors (and their works), Vik had the opposite ‘problem’: he could not understand how I could not have known his colleague at the university – I fortunately forget his name – to produce such an erudite representation of his work’s focus and style in Canderlinck in prose. What I’d intended as a parody of academic discourse, with a shade of pomposity and preposterous posing, and a glimmer of insanity, was read as entirely plausible, or even more than that, real. Vik interrogated me time and again, so convinced was he, ‘You must know him!’ but never stopped smiling. I even used Lowry in my defence (though I’m not sure how that could have helped, given his frequent marshalling of real people as fictional shells). From its opening sentence, ‘This book is the result of an incredible story,’ through accounts of Van Valckenborch’s disappearance, to Canderlinck’s final admission of textual complicity (he declares he has amended the translated poems ‘occasionally without the benefit of an original’), I had tried to foreground the unreality of the imaginary author, only to trap Vik – he was quite happily trapped, I think – in the sticky web of my framing device. What we know we cannot unbelieve. Who we believe we cannot unknow. However much we are aware – at some level – that they are not the same.
The first two volumes of ‘The Fictional Poetry Project’ are:
A Translated Man, Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2013.
Twitters for a Lark: Poetry of the European Union of Imaginary Authors (with Others), Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2017. Both here: Poetry books | Modern Poetry | Classic Poetry | Poetry in Translation | Hispanic Poetry (shearsman.com)
Grace, Sherril. ‘“Glimpses of
Immortality”: Our Voyages with Vik Doyen’, in Helen Tookey and Brian Biggs,
eds. Remaking the Voyage: New Essays on Malcolm Lowry and In the Ballast
to the White Sea. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020. (See: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/11/in-lieu-of-lowry-lounge-2020-remaking.html