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from the March 2010 issue

The Languages of Alta Ifland

Alta Ifland’s writing raises important questions about the legitimacy and practice of autobiography that are too often taken for granted by American writers. In an alert literary age, the fifty-three thought-provoking short prose texts of her Voice of Ice / Voix de Glace would have attracted considerable attention outside the circles of small magazines and bookshop readings, in which this book indeed attracted attention when it came out in 2007.

The author, described in a back-page résumé of this bilingual edition only as having been born in Eastern Europe, having studied literature and philosophy in France, and currently living in California, remains somewhat mysterious as a person. Yet this autobiographical discretion—so rare among contemporary writers—is justified thematically; it creates the possibility of speaking with an “im-personal” authorial voice, one of the several essential philosophical issues raised in this volume, which was first written in French, the author’s second language, and then self-translated into English, her third. Moreover, there are indications that “Ifland” is a pseudonym, even perhaps a heteronym in Pessoa’s sense, with its imaginable literal meaning of an “if-land,” a “place of conjecture,” and a lofty one at that. Apropos: “My language doesn’t belong to me. All that belongs to me is a long, flowery absence at whose edges roses are growing alongside my legs, encircling them, climbing and covering my body like a tomb. Deep in the absence, my language unearths its words of fog, dead like me, and holds them for an instant above the tomb, then lets them fall like petals.”

Ifland’s homeland and mother tongue are never mentioned in any of the texts of Voice of Ice, which comprise prose poems, brief reminiscences, succinct narratives, newly told fairy tales, diary- or notebook-like evocations, and philosophical insights couched in stimulating, sometimes surrealistic, imagery. Of the allusions made to her European background, the most explicit clue is arguably found in a text tellingly entitled “I.” While looking at photos of old Balkan peasants, the author recalls her grandparents’ faces, which “resurface, brown and sharp-featured, like mute tree bark.” “And I know they are still there, inside me,” she confesses, “but ever receding, unreal, untouchable. Who is I?” This avowal in the dual form of a pressing question about her identity and of a certitude that increasingly cannot be reconfirmed perhaps restricts Ifland’s origin to a central southern region of Eastern Europe.

If we step outside Voice of Ice for a moment, these mysteries at once narrow and sharpen in her “Trilingual Poem with Dead Swans,” published here in Words without Borders alongside the internally rhyming “Bilingual Poem avec Clichés,” with its tribute to Verlaine’s famous line “les sanglots longs des violins.” The third language in the former poem is Romanian. The poem can be read in each language. The poem begins with the Romanian phrase “Lebede moarte pe ape vinete,” and the French and English phrases that follow are more or less exact translations, and so forth—with one remarkable exception. The final Romanian phrase, “lebede moarte transformate în carte”—in which “moarte” and “carte” rhyme—actually means “dead swans transformed into a book” (and not “signs,” as the French and English near-parallels put it). Does the phrase perhaps announce Ifland’s geographic exile and linguistic transmutation from a “dead” and “swanlike” Eastern European past and the Romanian language to France (and French) and then to the United States (and English), a metamorphosis that resulted in the book Voice of Ice? So has the mystery about Ifland’s rootlessness and cultural origins been solved? Is she Romanian? It seems so, but compounding matters is that her collection of short stories about her upbringing in “Eastern Europe,” Elegy for a Fabulous World (2009), is set in Ukraine . . . The stories are penned entirely in English.

If taken at her word as an author, not as a mask mostly implying artifice, Ifland is focused much less on geography, European history, and personal history (in its ordinary sense) than on the ontological rootlessness in our human condition. The French writer Pascal Quignard has suggested that our anxiety vis-à-vis our origins results from our absence at the sexual act that procreated us; we can never get back to it. In Voice of Ice, Ifland associates the insoluble enigma of our being-in-the-world with a mother whom she cannot really “attain,” at least in the state in which she was when she gave birth to her. This is declared as the volume opens with the initially fable-like, suddenly realistic, then once again fable-like “Birth”:

I was born in a lapse of time, my hand clinging to a dandelion, my feet gripping a vine leaf, my nose on my back, an eye on my ankle. The moon cast its dead pale rays, sprinkling the mortals’ dreams with a layer of spice. My mother wasn’t present at my birth or maybe she was there and her pain of being torn apart still throbs in my veins.

The nose on my back is reflected in a strange way in the eye on my ankle.

Imagining the cubist or surrealistic image of a nose on a back being reflected in an eye on an ankle seems possible, even palpable; yet as much cannot be said of our ability to reexperience the sensations of our birth. We need to feel that pain (her pain) in order to assuage our ontological anxiety, but we cannot do so. The ever-fading European grandparents are similar: we have moved away from them, indeed we were already moving away from them, like a receding galaxy, from the very onset of our existence.

Yet are not images, however arrestingly cubist, surrealistic, or “poetic,” equally illusory? And just when “spicy” moonstruck dreams (as the above text posits) begin to affect consciousness while we are sleeping, we awake. In this respect, Ifland’s retrospections are essentially post-Proustian: the project of recovering vestiges of past time still solicits her, but it is mostly unrealizable. The associative thinking sparked by the photos of the Balkan peasants ends in an awareness of impossibility. In Voice of Ice, one senses separations more than potential connections, whence the difficulty of constructing or reconstructing an autobiography in any continuous sense. Incidentally, Ifland makes effective use not only of dreams and nightmares but also of fairy tales and fables in Voice of Ice, especially in the middle section. One of her best tales revealingly commences: “Once there was a woman who, whatever she did, could not be.” This struggle to be, this effort to bridge one’s seeming separation from Being, define a quest that is self-charted by the author from the beginning to the end of a book that is also a sort of journal.

For all the author’s rightful skepticism about straightforward autobiographical discourse, this is the deeper level at which Voice of Ice ultimately functions, as autobiography: a fragmentary or dual one, to be sure, and one that is perhaps offset, highlighted or even occasionally internally contradicted by fictional elements pertaining to the pseudonymous or heteronymous identity. Despite the fictional interludes, one nonetheless senses an overarching attempt to trace the genuine trajectory of a life-in-progress or, as Ifland herself puts it more ironically in “The Emigrant” (Voice of Ice), “the mythology of her reconstituted biography.” Besides depicting all individuals as caught up in their existential or ontological instability, Voice of Ice also studies, as Ifland testifies in the same seemingly autobiographical text, a specific “emigrant whose story I know, a young girl who set foot ashore—or rather, landed—in New York.” Interestingly, in French, the word for “emigrant” (émigré) is significantly kept in the masculine case, which underscores not gender here but rather generality as opposed to a particular “jeune fille qui débarqua.” This distinction recurs even in a later phrase like “Car cet émigré était tellement étourdi qu’elle avait même oublié . . . .” where one might have expected a particularizing feminine “cette émigrée” at the beginning. This dialogue between Every(wo)man and a particular woman (Ifland) can often be heard; their contrasting perspectives seem to govern the way these texts are arranged. As the general yields to the particular, then vice versa, and so on, a conceptual rhythm or pattern is formed.

In Voice of Ice, there is also frequent shifting between metaphors, surrealistic imagery, and more objective descriptions of real things, as when Ifland perceives light in Europe as being “sad and weak as the old continent”—perhaps rather like those symbolic “dead swans” in her trilingual poem once again—whereas the light she observes in California is “almost material, ceaselessly renewing itself out of a sky of immaculate enamel.” And yet philosophical abstractions and perceptions of concrete objects or natural processes (such as shining light) must alike conclude in a silence that Ifland situates at both the source and the end of genuine writing. She concludes her beautiful text “Light” when the “rays like spread braids linger on the surface of things, and the wood seizes their heat, and gorges on it, and light suffuses the boards’ grain, burrowing deeper and deeper into silence.” The dense and tense materiality of this silence confronts the reader with all the mystery of perceiving a world that is ultimately mute and ever over there, separated from us.

This sense of separation necessarily originates in the self, which, arguably, has induced the separation in the first place. Ifland’s carefully ordered sequence of texts chronicles a process of self-dismantling perhaps undertaken in the hopes of inducing a more authentic rapport with personal history and everyday life—a rapport that paradoxically demands, it seems, the uses of a pseudonym or heteronym as well as a second and third language. In the important text “First line” of Voice of Ice, she notes: “I wish I could write a first line that belonged to no one and would be the exact opposite of the desire to write that gave birth to it.” The remark is profound, and not only sums up the ideal poetics of the entire volume but also and specifically defines the lieu to which Ifland has endeavored to retire while she is writing. As far as this book is concerned, her true, essential, emigration is not from Eastern Europe to Western America, but rather to this “place” (and the trip must ever be recommenced). Yet I prefer the French word lieu here because of its use by contemporary French poets attempting to pinpoint the elusive locus—another synonym—of certain sensate, emotional, cognitive, or even quasi-mystical experiences involving the World en face—experiences in which the self is paradoxically transcended or surpassed and yet somehow remains the seat of experience. Voice of Ice plays with these poetics and this philosophical quest as well.

One’s “self” can also be, and perhaps always is, en face, an Other—as Rimbaud famously phrased it. In the text “My double’s double” of Voice of Ice, Ifland spots her double wandering the streets. She continues: “My double is my negation . . . . And if my double had its double too? Would its double be me then? I don’t know, but I know that I is but the doubtful and unlikely shadow of my double.” In order to intimate the liens connecting all these labyrinthine dichotomies, one must get beyond the self, as she finely formulates it in the aforementioned quotation. Yet this goal may well be unattainable, even as a self-less experience is a contradiction.

The bilingual stylistic efforts involved in composing Voice of Ice are impressive. Even when the author is relating dreams, nightmares, or evoking humans as shadowy, phantomlike creatures, her writing is clear and concise; and her texts are vivid in detail, often in a painterly manner. In his perceptive introduction, Gary Young finds echoes in her writing of “Gertrude Stein’s use of repetition and reiteration,” “Baudelaire’s juxtaposition of the quotidian and the fantastic,” Rimbaud’s more “tortured” practice of the prose poem, and even of the alchemists, with their emphasis on “anguish, annihilation, purification and eventual rebirth.” As is already evident, Rimbaud’s perception about the “I” being an “Other” certainly informs the central question around which all these texts implicitly revolve: “Who is I?,” where “I” as a subject, once again, ranges from the particular to the general, from the presumable real ego to an alter ego, and is, furthermore, engaged in the tasks of de-subjectizing, of im-personalizing the voice.

A few texts, it seems to me, conjure up the atmosphere of Jean Follain’s prose and poetry. Durably shocked by his “exile” from a small Norman town to Paris, Follain (1903-1971) was a master of conveying, in deceptively straightforward sentences evoking everyday scenes, complex states of thought and feeling about a past that is vanishing, even abolished, and a present that seems to hover at once closely around us and hopelessly afar. In Voice of Ice, a Follainesque melancholy, with its acute awareness of loss, is perceptible in some of Ifland’s isolated remarks, such as when she evokes a “feeling of strangeness as if all things were receding behind a veil of smoke, and this certainty that if she tried to touch them, they would disappear in a universe beyond her reach.” One text especially recalls the author of Canisy:

In the old days, things were wrapped in sweetness as in a layer of lavender honey, and when they happened, the sweetness surged inside them as inside a stem and spilled on the ground, and the whole world smelled of honey and peace.

In the old days, men went out in suits on Sunday, and women wore flowery dresses. I too, in the old days, wore a little flowery dress and a little white hat, and clung to my father’s hand—he was dressed in a suit. . . .

(. . .) We stopped at the big house with climbing foliage, and I played with Ada’s toys—her name is all I remember. No, I didn’t play with her toys. I touched them, as one touches things wrapped in a layer of honey. And I was already breathing their death to come, and savoring their sweetness in small gulps. . . .

The stories of Elegy for a Fabulous World often prolong these gazes backward, yet with similar distancing effects in passages where Ifland’s sharp eye for recollected detail is accompanied by her reflections about what she is remembering.

In contrast, “Ocean” (Voice of Ice), set in California, seeks to move beyond melancholy and celebrate the present moment and the miracle that the natural world can also be:

In front, some green bushes, a patch of gray land—the beach—and the ocean. Remember all the exotic dreams of seas and oceans impossible to reach during a life equally impossible to imagine now, a life that was yours and that now belongs to no one’s past. Remember and rejoice in this marvel. Light broken in waves, blue sea mixed with green ocean. Blue flow tinged with white, black depth with a child’s face. Brightness streaming in the night of dreams. Bottomless peace murmuring in the depths of all things rhymed: waves, rain, trains.

The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who long lived in exile in Berkeley, likewise developed the idea of a natural realm that stands in stark contrast to the historical tragedies of Europe. Eastern European writers are particularly sensitive to the conflict between an alluring present moment, especially when embodied in Nature (which can be comparatively grandiose in America), and the moral responsibilities engendered by a knowledge of History or the experience of certain tragic periods of history. Ifland’s Voice of Ice can also be read in this Eastern European context, and even more so the stories of Elegy for a Fabulous World, which often evoke everyday life under communism.

This being said, irony in regard to normally solemn personal or historical subject matter is perceptible, to the extent that Ifland’s Voice of Ice may ultimately seem ambiguous on some levels.This is an admirable subtlety, not a drawback. The writing is not uniquely or consistently aimed in a single direction, neither exclusively toward autobiography, nor toward a pastiche of personal sincerity. Both directions are followed, perhaps sometimes simultaneously in the same prose poem. Is the above-quoted Follainesque passage sincerely penned? I think so, but not all readers may agree. And yet playfulness and parody are also there, qualities enabling Voice of Ice to be so tantalizing. The studied inconsistencies, the intriguing pen name, and the shifting between second and third languages actually keep several interpretative doors open, notably the autobiographical one, even if that particular door probably leads into a deep storm cellar and is by no means of the seemingly solid oak (but sometimes hollow) variety that we knock on when reading the personal narratives of many contemporary American poets and writers. If Voice of Ice is autobiography (even at the removes that I have evoked), then it differs from nearly everything in the genre that one encounters in the United States.

Elegy for a Fabulous World will seem more familiar, formally and stylistically, but caveat lector. Was the author really raised in Ukraine? Is she really, as she claims in one story, a relative of the equally mysterious Brazilian-Ukrainian writer Clarice Lispector? Has she perhaps invented some of the other colorful ancestors who are described so sharply in the book? More gently here, yet once again, Ifland surely sports with conventional literary genres.

In Voice of Ice, she can be admired for having produced such engaging and well-crafted bilingual texts that are nearly identical in meaning, feeling, and effect. On her own Web site, which refers the critic seeking more biographical information back to a few texts from this very book, she mentions Samuel Beckett, who would sometimes self-translate himself rhythmically, that is, produce a passage in English or French that was entirely different from the original in order to preserve the overall music. This implicit homage is perhaps also a ploy designed to deceive the credulous reader. Voice of Ice actually offers mirror-like self-translations, though the author makes this revealing remark: “While doing my translation, I found myself more than once under the influence of the English language, going back to the original (in French) and changing words in it.” Ifland’s bold literary undertaking relies on well-considered philosophical assumptions about truth, genuineness, subjectivity, and im-personality. Her accomplishment is much more serious than a feat of polyglot virtuosity.

Only in a few spots of Voice of Ice will the bilingual reader perhaps form different mental pictures as he or she compares the respective versions. An example is the less specific expression on the face as evoked by the French “Du dehors, je regarde la grimace sur le visage qui n’est pas le mien” and the English “From a distance, I watch the grinning face, which isn’t mine” (from “Bones without a body”). I doubt that the French face “grins.” (And in the same sentence, “du dehors” and “from a distance” also contrast.) But here, as elsewhere, the disparities mostly result from the well-known differences in the way French and English respectively evoke abstractions, ideas, facts, and things. These differences between French and English are longstanding, persistent, sometimes frustrating, and they can be isolated, interpreted, and even neutralized to a certain extent, as Ifland demonstrates time and again; they do not represent shortcomings in either language. In one instance at least, she creates a funny tongue-twister in English (“I am but a lame louse let loose”) against which the French original (“Je ne suis qu’un pou sec, dépouillé”) slightly pales, despite its pun on “pou” and “dépouillé.” And perhaps a familiarity with Beckett’s or, more pertinently, Raymond Queneau’s notions of sound and sense has encouraged her to play linguistically with the contents of the basket in the opening sentence of “The cat, the mouse, and the Merlot”: compare “Dans un panier: des noix, deux oeufs, quelques noisettes, une orange, une oie” to “In a basket: some nuts, a cup, duck mousse, an orange juice, a goose.” Enough said: ponder these short prose pieces and their perspectives on being alive. The bilingual Voice of Ice offers remarkable evocations of a multifaceted rootlessness, as does its arresting monolingual counterpart, Elegy for a Fabulous World.


Copyright 2010 John Taylor. All rights reserved.

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