Reading Benjamin Fondane produces mixed feelings of elation and regret: at the discovery of such a rich life's work, and at its tragedy and untimely arrest. Born in Romania in 1898, Fondane wrote principally in French, moving to Paris in 1924 and participating in the activities of the Dadaists and Surrealists, until his deportation as a Jew and death in Auschwitz in 1944. Efforts by such as E.M. Cioran and Paul Eluard to promote his work after the war were hampered by publishing difficulties resulting from his disappearance, as well as his independence from any single avant-garde group, despite a close alignment and friendship with Antonin Artaud and fierce polemics with André Breton, and even the vogue for Sartrean existentialism (his writing and worldview having been deeply shaped by his encounters with the alternative existential approach of Russian absurdist philosopher Leon Shestov).

Fondane's exilic life, existential and linguistic anxieties and Jewish influences invite parallels with his compatriot Paul Celan. However, if much of Celan's poetry represents a response to the Holocaust, Fondane's is perhaps its greatest foreshadowing, a prophetic meditation on the meaning of catastrophe for humanity. His poetic output was paradoxically driven by a mistrust of language engendered, as for Dada, by a desolate search for meaning in the wake of the First World War. His poetry breaks apart a plethora of forms - alexandrines, sonnets, ballades, Hebrew psalmody, Greek choruses - and weaves together verses at once ancient and avant-garde, a modernity related to that of Whitman or Eliot. L'Exode, from which the following translations are drawn, comprises part of the magisterial work Le mal des fantômes. Begun in 1934, it lays the Jewish experience of exile and enslavement over the modern alienation of man from God (Nietzsche and Dostoevsky also being among Fondane's influences). A third form of exile imposed itself in 1940, with the Nazi invasion of France and the great exodus of around 10 million French people.

As with much of his work, disconcerting changes of register and a persistent questioning of the world and of the reader mark these poems. The ocean, never far away in his lines, can also be felt, as a reminder of direct sensation of the world in its instability, but also in its possibilities. Fondane confronted his dark epoch as forthrightly as any other poet of his generation, maintaining a consciously absurd sense of hope in the midst of cataclysm. Keenly aware of the role of the prophet as intermediary between the people and the divine, he sought a path for the poet in a world bereft of God, seeing the absurd activity of poetry as a kind of resistance to dehumanization and living this resistance to the end. His poetry resonates as urgently today as it did in his own time, and is finally becoming available in English: a Selected Poems by various translators, including King and Rubens, is due to be published by NYRB Classics next year.



Three sections from Exodus by Benjamin Fondane,

translated by Andrew Rubens and Henry King


A man speaks:


Devouring fire in the beginning, devouring fire at the end

the world is small on my left - smaller than my hand

- and I'm hungry -

hungry for power?

My head turns in the salt wind of these spaces,

My mouth's acridity kisses bitterness,

opposing forces kiss,

in the world there is an irremissible Mother,

a powerful anger since time began

- is it expiation for having come into being,

the principle of birth, of growth,

the anger of what grows, of what sprouts,

the anger of the bull

that flings horses' entrails like a tangle of rope

onto the steaming sand?

- or else expiation for a long-forgotten act

some old dare attempted and carried off

under the ancient light?

Here I am crossing the city of men, here

the city's gods sit upon their pedestal

girls go to wash the fountain's waters

men come home with the forest on their backs

in the market Grace converses with Law,

Peace greets Order with such gracious

reverence, and Order rubs his broad hands

in satisfaction. Business is good. She is solid,

the earth, under men's feet. They do not see

death coming up the back stairs,

her thighs cool, though the smell less than pleasant

- what's the use in thinking about it?

she comes with a rose between closed lips

under her skirt she hides

earthquakes, smoking volcanoes

and no one, no one looks through the windows

at the river of life flowing by,

the gods sleep, marble seals their cold eyelids

- let's not think, not think about it

light up, good people, the lamps' myopic eyes

the smell of bread spreads like August hay

it smells so, so good

that you want to sob

- close the shutters, good people,


The road is long, how long the roads are

- did you know, my brothers?

Where do they go? Here are other loops of roads,

perhaps we are innocent,

perhaps guilty,

something could perhaps have been done,

back then, at night, on another road, under the ancient light

- all we can do now is walk

we have been thirsty, we have been hungry

saliva has frozen to our cheeks

the light is frozen too, though it sings

- light, do you suffer?

the flesh is exhausted -

O Anguish, venerable mother

give us the power to break this old light

burst this fruit open

plunge us into the filthiest shadows



Then a second:

I climbed as high as I could and was not up to it

       - so where is the altitude?

'Rise', we were told, 'climb', we were told,

- and I suddenly felt life freeze cold

discarding its leaves, its flowers and songs

         it retreated under the wind

the harsh wind rejoicing in hostile truths -

         but where is the altitude?

'We must raise ourselves above ourselves!'

         - And I climbed higher than myself

higher than the house, than my mother and my wife

         whose belly was warm

I left the familiar birds, the farmyard

I walked for a moment over the heads of men

higher, higher still I needed to climb

         to purify my blood

I would never have thought the sages' beards

         were so hard to cross

they were barbed wire, they bit and drew blood.

         - 'Higher, higher still!'

I discarded my shirt and walked stark naked

feet bloodied by streams of stones

         words grew scarce

snow-hinds bedded down in my hands

great birds of cold took me for a lamp

         they struck my skin

but fire pushed my tiredness onward, crying:

'We must raise ourselves above ourselves!'

         The space grew thinner

         the milk of stones ran dry

         the solitude had chilblains

but sometimes the abyss took the voice of a man

         crying for help:

'Higher, higher than man!'

and this solitude made me sick

the earth had lost its smell

blood spurted from my nose

my will had callused feet

         - so where is the altitude?

Doubt began to gnaw my flesh

so who had wished to trick us like this?

         who gained by our loss?

while we climbed what was it

         someone had wanted us to leave behind?

         who tricked our thirst

         to steal our life

and throw us, frozen, into the land of death?


And a third:

But I go on through the night

lonelier for my own company than for being alone

- what do you want from me, Spirit?

I hear the elements breaking out of their shells

the hand of flame writing on the slate

small, small and discouraged

with a child's heart in my chest

and a man's sex on my shoulder.

What do you want from me, Spirit? The world is in motion.

Your voice lashes my cowardly innards.

We go on without going onward

and it's no use my catching your voice, my blood drains away

Shall I tether my body collapsing in exhaustion?

All the sand-women have drunk from my throat

The wind is against me, the wind from the open sea

We go on very slowly

so slowly into wonder

that thirst itself melts like overripe fruit

and wets our lips…

What do you want from me, Spirit, old water-features?

I have sealed human thirst in my skin

I have buried the human face in the sand

- will I never know it again?

I have abandoned everything, I fled from bitter division.

I squeeze my anguish and out comes your face -

but what if anguish too should abandon me?