The Complete Review.
The First Book of Grabinoulor by Pierre Albert-Birot
The Complete Review‘s review:
Pierre Albert-Birot remains a peripheral literary figure of the 20th century, largely unknown outside France. He wrote a great deal, though his success in getting published was limited. He wrote, it seems, everything: experimental poetry and texts, dramas, all variety of narratives. A child of the avant-garde period of the early 20th century, he embraced it as fully (and successfully — at least in terms of actually creating avant garde work) as anyone.
Grabinoulor is Albert-Birot’s magnum opus. The Atlas Press/Dalkey Archive Press edition, The First Book of Grabinoulor, is, as the title suggests, just the first book of a larger work — a sliver, in fact: the complete French version of Grabinoulor, six books in all, runs to some 900 page.
The complete text remains inaccessible except in French, but The First Book is still a worthwhile introduction to the work. A preface by translator Barbara Wright, and a postface by Arlette Albert-Birot provide some of the necessary background information about Albert-Birot and his creation — though both are quite personal in their approach, and a more general introduction to author and work might also have been useful.
The book has twenty-six chapters, recounting episodes from the unusual Grabinoulor’s life. He is an odd, surreal creation: “Grabinoulor walks admirably on the earth and on the water above and below both in space and time”.
There are few constraints on the character. In the first scene his accomplishments already range from the mundane to the unexpected: “while he was happily washing his hairy body he went jumping naked through the woods and published a book then he put his clothes on”. Time isn’t much of a constraint to him, as he moves back and forward across it, traversing “all the rest of the Great War”, for example, simply with “an extra-big stride”. There are also few corporeal constraints: for an instant, for example, he becomes “one of those majestic automobiles”, only to “become the perfumed being made of white skin of black rhythm and of the unknown who stepped out of it”. Rarely, if ever, throughout the book does Grabinoulor stand still (in place or time) or remain unchanged.
If Grabinoulor is anything he is also a sexual being, and sex is of prime interest to him. The book begins with him “reaching out to life in virile expectation”, and he doesn’t let up until the end. There are amorous adventures (or, more often, brief flurries of engagement) throughout.
Love and sex seem the prime preoccupations and occupations of author and subject. This is even reflected in the typography, as Albert-Birot offers (in the eighth chapter) poems and lines that are suggestive not only in their content but also their shapely appearance.
Albert-Birot’s style takes a bit of getting used to, specifically because he employs no punctuation marks. Sentences tend to run on and meld into one another. As most of the chapters are very short this isn’t quite as daunting as it may sound.
The un-reality of the narrative — the carefree, avant-garde approach — may also not be to everyone’s taste. But Grabinoulor does have some fun adventures as well as some entertaining amorous encounters. And the pace of the book is almost breakneck. Never a dull moment, in other words — though occasionally some baffling ones.
The few notes that are included are helpful (though more might have been better), as are the post- and pre-face. The original first version of Grabinoulor (a page in SIC) is also reproduced, giving some sense of the French appearance and sound of the text.
Barbara Wright’s translation deals well with a difficult text, and certainly makes it approachable for an English-speaking audience. Fortunately, she decided to present chapter eight (with much punning verse) in both the French original and translation, acknowledging that it is “impossible to do justice” to some of the poems in translation.
An unusual text, The First Book of Grabinoulor is certainly not for everyone. But it is a fun, playful book, and Grabinoulor certainly a figure worth knowing. The greatest disappointment for readers will likely be that they find the many further adventures of Grabinoulor remain still untranslated ….