DREAMS AND DESTINIES
By Marguerite Yourcenar
Translated from the French by
Donald Flanell Friedman
St. Martin's. 126 pp. $21.95
By Breyten Breytenbach
Harcourt Brace. 197 pp. $22
Reviewed by James Sallis
Our dreams are artifacts of unknowable civilizations that fall into ruins with our waking. They are obscure telegrams sent, along what lines we'll never know, from self to self.
Originally published in 1938 in France, Dreams and Destinies compiles a sampling of Marguerite Yourcenar's obsessive dreams. "I have been accompanied throughout my nocturnal life by a dozen disquieting or propitious dreams, as identifiable as musical motifs and susceptible, like them, to infinite variation," Yourcenar wrote in her preface to the volume. She had already, at the time of its publication, published six books. In 1980, the year she became the first woman elected to the Academie Francaise, Yourcenar announced her intention to expand the book, but she left the project uncompleted. Notes for it were included in a posthumous collection of essays, and appear herein.
In his introduction, translator Friedman makes a claim for Dreams and Destinies as a pivotal work in Yourcenar's canon, a work overlooked because of its literary nonconformism and blurring of genre distinctions. It is, definitely, a sport; still, one must wonder (and this is not a criticism) whether its appeal must be chiefly to confirmed Yourcenar readers.
We are, at any rate, ushered forthwith into a landscape of blood, flowering things, transformations, walls and steps, trees, paths, doorways, clouds and faceless churches that is instantly recognizable. For the stuff here, the material, is unreconstructed: the selfsame tatters of rag and foul bone from which all our dreams, in whatever smithy, are forged. To this lumpen stuff Yourcenar brings those powers of observation and description, and the classic prose, that made her one of our great modern writers:
"I dream that my left arm is overspread with leprosy, a leprosy as thick and scintillant as a crust of salt. My swollen arm does not hurt, but I find it as disgusting as a diseased animal next to which I am forced to lie down. And this monstrous arm, grown gigantic, crumbles like marble into dust, melts like snow, is decomposed into yielding dough, leaving me at last in the condition of those statues in the royal parks of France or Bavaria, drenched and mold-stained, amputated in riots yet continuing to bravely sketch some useless gesture, with their rotten hands next to them in the grass, forgotten like a pair of gloves."
It was not only her recurrent dreams that obsessed Yourcenar but also, as evidenced in the preface and even more significantly in her notes for expansion, the mystery of dreaming itself. In those notes she quotes from her own The Dark Brain of Piranesi on the characteristics of the dream state, among them the negation of time, physical displacement, dread that trembles at the very edge of ecstasy, absence of connection between incidents or personae, and finally "the fatal, ineluctable beauty."
For dreams are clearly a kind of poetry. They are also, and undoubtedly, as Friedman points out, "a curiously oblique and therefore liberating form of autobiography." We may not be able to read the telegram but we recognize its urgency and can make out enough of the words to know that the message, whatever it might be, could . . . damn us? Save us?
Dog Heart is the latest thrust in what has become South African poet Breyten Breytenbach's relentless if idiosyncratic project, the simultaneous mapping of his land and self. Like Yourcenar's dream book (and in part as phantasmagoric), it takes an odd form, filled with dislocations, wrenching enjambments and, throughout, a sense of memory, like Time eating its own children.
Breytenbach never strays far from awareness of memory's ambivalence, of the unstable charge it carries, at once destructive and creative. Itself a kind of memory, language holds for him much the same peril: "You will hear many stories. Do be careful with memory . . . we find many ways of devouring ourselves." Memory, he suggests again and again, has a gravity all its own, holding us in place in its gentle embrace even as it pulls us ever, finally, down.
"Writing is a messy way of committing suicide," Breytenbach suggested in an earlier book, The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution. I am dead, he says here -- three words from which the rest of his book will unfold its dark wings. For Breytenbach knows that the autobiographical writer by the very nature of his endeavor moves at one and the same time toward writing the self and rewriting the world -- that is, toward self-creation and a kind of revolution that must ultimately prove a destruction of self.
Meanwhile, however, you will hear stories of folk heroes Koos Sas and Gert April, of Breytenbach's own family, of mass slayings, of the school principal who "switches to Afrikaans [when] he takes off the dark glasses; with English he will put them back on again. He is still angry and unhappy, even if at present he doesn't quite know why -- but wasn't everything supposed to be different?"
Dog Heart is a book of parts, as fragmented, as much an historical collage, as its author's country and his own life. "We cannot live fast enough to escape the tongue of memory," he writes. "It pronounces us."
That Breytenbach is a poet of considerable genius is everywhere evident. A stately guest farmhouse is "a luxury liner beached among the vines." Elsewhere, "a soft carpet of dead mosquitoes covers the floor." An old man has "hands like page-pressed butterflies." The world, before it is much of anything else, is a sensuous place.
"Reader, I'm leaning forward to whisper to you," Breytenbach says near book's end. And no sensible reader should ever begin listening until he's heard that harsh whisper at his ear. Only with that, as here, do you know you've come into the presence of a writer you must not, cannot, ignore.
James Sallis has written a biography of Chester Himes, collections of essays and poems and a two-volume "Collected Stories" all due next year.