Portrait of Jacques Rigaut by Man Ray
Portrait of Jacques Rigaut by Man Ray
In an earlier post, I presented the synopsis of my novel in progress, Housebreaking the Muse. As noted, the novel is haunted by the figure of Jacques Rigaut, the French Dadaist, gigolo, addict, and suicide. Though I’d long had an interest in the Dadas, I didn’t hear the name “Jacques Rigaut” until I stumbled upon it in the following passage on page 233 of the 1990 Penguin Books edition of Paul Auster’s novel, Moon Palace:

I can’t remember all the pieces I worked on, but at least several of them come back to me when I strain hard enough: a meditation on money, for example, and another one on clothes; an essay on orphans and a somewhat longer piece on suicide, which was largely a discussion of Jacques Rigaut, a minor French Dadaist who declared at the age of nineteen that he was giving himself ten more years to live, and then, when he turned twenty-nine, held good to his word and shot himself on the appointed day.

In the margin, I wrote, “If true, a story?” I soon began researching Rigaut and, over time, began to piece together the biographical details of his life. Part of my research involved attempting a translation of the posthumous collection of his works, Écrits, published by Gallimard in 1970. I also wrote the story, “Jacques Rigaut’s Happiest Birthday – A Dada Bedtime Story” which has served as a seed for the novel.

The following is my translation of the fragment “Hope,” which appears in the “Early Texts” section of Écrits. When I published this translation on Maximum Fiction last year, I overlooked the the notes on this piece from the 1971 Gallimard edition of Écrits in which it appears. I’ve included these now following “Hope,” along with a few observations of my own.

Jacques Rigaut

The soul of dynamite, of which some alcohol had already betrayed the trace, sprung up from the amorphous mass of boredom, confounding in its flamboyance, day and night. More obscure than any apocalypse night, final rising, Remedy and Knowledge together, the most helpful of possibilities.

Round the tin of sardines with the key, flown easily away from the girdles of boredom, genuflection, tears, tears of joy, seeds of destruction in a brandished fist. There was a flash of lightening. An explosion so violent that no one heard it; hardly recognizable, the conscience of the world, refugee in the little alveolus of space between a meteor and its fluorescent trajectory, no longer recognizes the simulacra of life. A raw flame with neither center nor zenith chars the cadavers of gods. So be it.

Nothing of the sort happened.

UPDATE 10.25.10: Notes on “Hope” (from Écrits)

Notes on the Manuscript of “Hope.”

The manuscript is from Rigaut’s early period. It is written in pencil on a large sheet of squared paper. Very difficult to read; legibility poor.The draft title, “Revenge,” has been crossed out and “Hope” added in ink. Other passages added in ink: “confounding in its flamboyance, day and night”; at the beginning of the second paragraph: “Round the tin of sardines with the key […] tears, tears of joy.” A second version of the manuscript of this text (written in ink and shorter) on the reverse side of the paper bears the rough draft of “Spineless Remarks” and some accompanying notes and phrases, like “beautiful as a cannon, beautiful as waste,” etc.

It seems this text describes–in a very curious and personal kind of poetic code–the first attempt at suicide by Rigaut. N.B. the expression “An explosion so violent that no one heard it” (the revolver with which he wanted to shoot himself did not go off). The last phrase, “Nothing of the sort happened,” must have been of particular importance to Rigaut as it is found elsewhere [in his writing].

The manuscript of the first version bears on the verso notes about classes in the school of law [which Rigaut attended prior to and after World War I-ERD] and at the bottom (recto) these words:

|–Dr. Civil [law]

Dim –
|–administrative law
Lun –
Mar — Dr. Civil”

Since there are no classes on Sunday, this might only be a kind of small calendar revision for the examination passed on March 9, 1920. This document, therefore, allows us to place the first attempt at suicide around this date. [It is, of course, _possible_ that Rigaut used this sheet long after leaving law school, or that he wrote this text around March 9, but the events he describes–his attempted suicide–took place well before. It can easily be argued, however, that according to this hypothesis, the most probable date of the attempted suicide, and the date the text was drafted, are close to March 9, 1920.

These notes provide valuable context for this piece, underscoring as they do the situation in which Rigaut found himself. Only 21 and just one year removed from the butchery of WWI, Rigaut is in the process of completing his studies in law, which he had begun before the war. He must certainly have considered these studies a project begun by a wholly different individual from himself. One can imagine the alienation from these studies he must have felt, as well as the pain of going through with them. I see here a Rigaut playing out the bourgeois role envisioned for him by parents who had no concept of what he’d been through. Like millions of other French parents of the day, they simply assumed the war could be put behind and life could carry on as it had before the hostilities. Meanwhile, their son was already turning his back on a culture so eager to sweep under the rug the horrors of 1914-1918; as his now-meaningless exams approached, he’d tried and failed at suicide only to make it his “vocation” of nearly ten years, ten years that ended with another, this-time successful, attempt.


5 thoughts on “Hope, by Jacques Rigaut (translation), Updated with Notes

  1. As the author of GOING TO PATCHOGUE, out again finally in paper in the spring from Dalkey Archive, I created the group Lord Patchogue on Facebook… there is a report that Jacques Rigaut performed at the Four Corners in Patchogue, some time ago… we hope your novel is equal to the task you have set for yourself: suicide obviously must be considered… you might be interested in SUICIDE by Edouard Leve that Dalkey is publishing this spring also.. the author killed himself a few weeks after handing in the maniscript

  2. Thanks for the comments, and congratulations on the new edition of your work. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for it.

    Certainly, suicide lies at the heart of my novel. It also works notions of authority, authenticity, inspiration, and the creative act. It’s not a “straight” historical novel, but Rigaut and his story are essential components. By exploring ideas about war, suicide, authority, etc., through the character of Rigaut, I hope to reclaim him from the cardboard cut-out version invented by Drieu la Rochelle in service to his authoritarian agenda.

    I can’t imagine what JR might have performed at the Four Corners. When living in NYC, he noted in a letter to Colette Clément that he was working as a “reader” for a newly forming theatrical group, The 9th Free Theatre. Perhaps a connection there?

  3. But Drieu is such an interesting character on his own with the two suicide journals.. and the life in Argentina and the connection to the circle about Borges and all the rest of it…
    only Joyce resisted through his anarchism that is the reality of Europe in the 20th century… the writers all signed up to kill for the left or the right
    only Sandor Marai succeeded in escaping but then he killed himself in San Diego just before the fall of the communism in Hungary

  4. My mother Jaqueline Waite Barber often repeated a legend to me when I was a little girl growing up in New York City. My father was James Laurance Barber, younger son of Edward James Barber, who was married to Gladys (although I’m not sure of her correct name; to the best of my recollection, it was Gladys.) My father disappeared, never to be seen again, in September of 1959 when I was only six years old, so most of the Barber family mythology was handed down to me, my identical twin sister Warren, and our older brother Rocky (James Laurance Barber Jr.) by our mother rather than anyone on our father’s side of the family. Because of that, I have no way of knowing how accurate either the information she was originally given or her recollections of them years later actually were. But family legend has Gladys leaving my grandfather sometime in the 1920s to take up with “a French existentialist,” as my mother used to refer to him; that was Jacques Rigaut. I came across a photograph of him in a Barber family album recently, a personal photograph, not the kind you get from some agency, in which a lit cigarette is in his right hand and he is looking off into the distance at something we cannot see. He looks very natty in a suit and tie with a carnation in his lapel. That, apparently, was his daytime dress, at least on the day the photograph was taken.

    I’d love to research this further, if for no other reason than to confirm that someone on my father’s buttoned-down, raging alcoholic side of the family actually had the temerity to shake off the shackles of post-World War I conventions and try to attain a happiness she knew she could never achieve as the spouse of an American steamship line owner/executive. I don’t know what became of Gladys, and I had never googled “Jacques Rigaut” until just now, a day after I came across that photograph of him in an album my father had carefully put together at some point during his pre-marriage youth, when he was an MIT graduate and pilot for the Army Air Corps, and then for the newly formed Air Force during the Korean Conflict. If anyone knows of any biographies of Monsieur Rigaut or any other works containing references to any of his (I’m sure!) various affairs, I’d be very grateful for the leads.

    Thank you, and a happy, non-suicidal 2013 to all,
    Perry Barber

    1. Life among the Surrealists is the place to begin by Matthew Josephson…I knew him toward end of his life through Hannah Green who wrote The Dead of the House probably one of the very best books about memory and family ever written

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