“On Dreaming,” Yale Review of Books, Spring 2006
McSweeney’s Books. 149 pp. $18.
American University in Cairo Press. 125 pp. $19.95
The Facts of Winter are not in fact facts. The truth of it is, the title is a joke, a misdirection whose sense is arguably lost in translation. In the French, in which this charming book was originally written, the title is Les Faits d’Hiver—literally, The Facts of Winter. But the slippery rules of homophony also make the title Les Faits Divers (The Diverse Facts). The latter name was the tag given to a series of sensationalized accounts of murders, suicides and mysterious happenings printed in pamphlets and newspapers in 19th century France. Immensely popular with the public, some stories were sworn reports of real people, while others were fabricated by editors. As the title suggests, Paul Poissel’s 1904 Les Faits D’Hiver supposes to be a series of such incidents, occurring in Paris during the winter of 1881, and inspired by a later-released anthology of faits divers.
Despite its complex evolution, this new version, gamely translated by Paul LaFarge, is simply and generously written. Arranged chronologically from January 1st to the Ides of March, the winter is sketched in soft focus, leaving thoughts unfinished and engaging a voyeur’s longing looks at the shifting lives of a city.
Poissel’s stories marry the melodramatic to the banal. In “Madman Ties Self Up,” he likens a man hanging from a lamppost to a teabag from a deluxe boutique, while in “A Patricide,” a widow tells her son to go out and fetch her a husband, only to marry the chair her son returns with. In “The Burning of Spring,” Baron Haussmann, former prefect of Paris, contemplates what action to take following a fire at the warehouse where the seasons are kept. Should he release summer early or “draw the winter out?”
In Poissel’s Paris nothing seems quite real. There is cause for this. These brief reports, recounting episodes of flying, drowning and sorrow with sly jokery, are narrated as dreams, dreamed by the people of Paris, 1881. Poissel’s relocation of journalistic scenarios out of waking life and into the world of dreams is a brilliant and productive variation on the genre of the fait divers.
On February 9, “Madame F—— dreams that she’s on the 367 Bus from the Louvre to Belleville. A well-dressed gentleman gets up and offers her his fortune, which adds up to two million francs, he says.” She is flattered, but on waking recalls that “the 367 bus doesn’t even go to Belleville.” It is this disconnect between sleep and the real that the collection seeks to inhabit. The texts offer breaths of insight into a dream-state that is a brittle simulacrum of the original faits divers that “happened” in and around Paris at the time. Reflecting this tenuous balance, the pieces are full of subtle wordplay in both French and English. The previously mentioned “Burning of Spring” is actually Poissel’s revision of a report about a fire in the Parisian department store Printemps—the French for “spring.” In “Je vous mens. Chant.” (“I Lie to You. A Song.”), he has simply rearranged the phrasing of the original published entry: “Changement de Vue” (Change of View).
It is a good joke then, that these “diverse facts” have such ambiguous ties to reality. The historical facts are fictionalized and reenacted, “a whole waking world rearranged,” says LaFarge. And where else can one find such irrational, jumbled branchings and wild association?
(Note that Les Faits D’Hiver owns yet another homonym: l’effet d’hiver; the effect of winter. The dreams then, tell the story of a long winter, the personalities that weather it, and the thoughts that fork through it.)
The book is published by McSweeney’s, which in addition to its excellent quarterly magazine deserves kudos for airing the translated versions of the bizarre writings of an obscure turn-of-the-century French poet. Another pleasure of this edition is the side-by-side translations that allow for better enjoyment through comparison. The pared-down line drawings that serve as illustration are also excellent punctuation of this strange collection.
The third treat of the collection is LaFarge’s afterword, which explores some of the truthfulness of the dreams and the origins of Poissel’s interest in the subject. Les Faits d’Hiver was written decades after the supposed events; LaFarge’s analysis contends that for Poissel the writing was cathartic, helping him through a period of insomnia during which, ironically, he could not dream. He also posits that Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, published not four years prior, may have influenced the author’s interest in the dream-state.
The afterword also touches on Poissel’s abandoned work, The Dictionary of Parisian Dreams, his first attempt to create a narrative world akin to dreaming. Success in thus aim might, he felt, wholly eliminate the need to dream. His thought: “Wouldn’t you pay for a dream, if it meant you didn’t have to sleep?”
In taking faits divers as source material, Poissel may well have captured the mechanics of the human mind, which replays, downplays, twists and cajoles memories of waking life into the stuff of dreams. At any rate, the prose succeeds in diverting the reader’s mind into a particular time and setting, and into ways of thinking that often echo a dream of winter, Paris and the rare palindrome, 1881.
In another variation on the theme, Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz has taken the subject of dreams and produced the latest addition to his massive body of work. The Arabic language Dreams of Convalescence, referred to in English as The Dreams, is a sort of autobiography with a difference.
Mahfouz has written since the 1930s, always with an eye to the universal; his work is likened to Balzac or Dickens in its relation to the Egyptian national literary tradition. The scope of his work is broad yet particular, with a style perfected in works like The Cairo Trilogy, The Beggar, and Midaq Alley.
This style is well-matched to the content of the new work, which takes Mahfouz’s talent for sharp portraiture and extends it to the realm of dreams. These, his shortest short stories, are fragmentary, ethereal, half-finished and revealing. What allies this book to the work of Poissel is that the concise texts are distilled personal reveries. The Dreams are Mahfouz’s own, his person the book’s sustained link to the real.
The author’s special involvement gives the text a bittersweet gravity. The book represents Mahfouz’s first work since a 1994 stabbing left him seriously injured and unable to write for some time. Whether a result of the attack or not, mortality, loss, humiliations, terrors, and endless chasing color the dreams. There are disappointments. There are loves. Characters from Mahfouz’s personal life arrive and depart. In dream 27, Hamza Effendi, an old, feared math teacher bars the path to redeeming death, “brandishing his bamboo rod”—the very same rod that tormented a school-aged Mahfouz.
At each turn, the author shares his private worries, laying them bare to what analyses the public might perform. This is appropriate; the dream is a vulnerable state, and while the collection is not all nightmares, there is always an element of terror.
Ninety-four years old and living in general isolation just outside Cairo, Mahfouz may well exist in a state of waking life not far from dreams. Thus his reflections on the century through which he has lived are also longing glances at the half-grasped truth of the dream-state. Mahfouz references his own musings on dreaming in the text of the dreams themselves: “There was no way to survive the all-encompassing terror—unless this really was just a nightmare, to be shattered by a fevered awakening on my bed.”
This self-consciousness is helpful in imagining how one thinks, and dreams, and travels between the two states. Mahfouz’s Dreams reveals the mind’s language to be fragmentary, piecemeal. The channels of association in the dream-state are so considerable that any literary treatment is necessarily plural. And so in 146 separate musings, Mahfouz helps the reader follow the tributaries of the dreaming mind, fully weighing how well our dreams mark fears and wild expectation, latent emotion and history itself. Not all the dreams are well-formed, or immediately productive, and many pieces would stand alone with difficulty. But the non-verbal visions of one man and his time, nation, and sensibilities have been made manifest in prose.
And is this not the aim of writing? To read back sensation in some intelligible form? Mahfouz does well to crystallize the thoughts of the mind into written language, but the work is also for the reader, to grasp in the haze surrounding the dream-expression some idea of meaning. This is the task that both he and Poissel have left, in the jumble of experience in long-ago Paris, and the anxious tension of the imaginary. Dream on.