Henri Lefebvre - an incantatory text, a catalog of what has been lost over time and what in some cases never existed. Through a lengthy chain of brief, laconic citations, Henri Lefebvre evokes the history of what is no more and what never was: the artworks, films, screenplays, negatives, poems, symphonies, buildings, letters, concepts...
Henri Lefebvre, The Missing Pieces, Trans. by David L. Sweet, Semiotext(e), 2014.
A boarder for two years following a national funeral, Mirabeau is removed from the Pantheon and transferred to the cemetery of Clamart when his pornographic novels are discovered • A photograph taken by Hessling on Christmas night, 1943, of a young woman nailed alive to the village gate of Novimgorod; Hessling asks his friend Wolfgang Borchert to develop the film, look at the photograph, and destroy it • The Beautiful Gardener, a picture by Max Ernst, burned by the Nazis -- from The Missing Pieces
Lefebvre's list includes Marcel Duchamp's (accdidentally destroyed) film of Man Ray shaving off the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's pubic hair; the page written by Balzac on his deathbed (lost); Spinoza's Treatise on the Rainbow (thrown into a fire); the final seven meters of Kerouac's original typescript for On the Road (eaten by a dog); the chalk drawings of Francis Picabia (erased before an audience); and the one moment in André Malraux's life in which he exclaimed "I believe, for a minute, I was thinking nothing." The Missing Pieces offers a treasure trove of cultural and artistic detail and will entertain even those readers not enamored of the void.
Each sentence or phrase in this haunting project from French poet and publisher Lefebvre (not to be confused with the Marxist philosopher) describes something lost, erased, destroyed, or otherwise unfinished within the life of an artist. Some seem frivolous: “Tintin’s bedroom doesn’t appear in a single album by Hergé.” Others are serious: “The composer Max Deutsch mercilessly destroyed his musical scores, having chosen to leave no trace other than teaching.” A few subjects are terribly sad, and very famous: the ancient library of Alexandria; the Archaeological Museum in Baghdad, the art that perished with the World Trade Center, and a broken litany of lives, books, manuscripts, and visual art destroyed during WWII. The destroyed volumes of Thomas Mann’s diary are there, as are Sylvia Plath’s never found, perhaps never written, sequels to The Bell Jar. David Sweet provides clear, idiomatic translation of the work Lefebvre published, in installments, 10 years ago. These postmodern memento mori may lose their force read all at once. On the other hand, gathered all in one place, unrelenting, they feel more like the American conceptual poetry of recent years. - Publishers Weekly
The Parisian author and publisher Henri Lefebvre’s unprecedented prose poem The Missing Pieces begins and ends with pre-meditated gestures. Out of the nothing at the left hand margin of page 7 leaps:
Murder, The Hope of Women, a twenty-five minute opera composed in 1919 by Paul Hindemith •
The poem closes, 76 pages later, with:
• In 1959, Balthus asks Giacometti to give the canvas Coffee Pot with Three Fruits [Cafetière aux trois fruits] to a waiter named Henri, whom they both know; forty years later, the painting is mysteriously found in the Giacometti estate; Henri still hasn’t been identified
In between the sudden emergency of “Murder” and the unidentifiable waiter “Henri,” 531 bullets are fired. Look between any two bullets and you are likely to find Lefebvre’s idiosyncratic single-sentence sketch of a single thing (or a class of things) we once had or might have had but now (or someday) we may no longer have — to see, or read, or hear, or touch. Mainly these are people, texts, scores, films, choreographies, and other art projects — individuals, capacities, and works conceived, begun, perhaps even completed, but no longer extant.
The complexity of Lefebvre’s poem is belied by the simplicity of his project. Lefebvre provides no index, no table of “missing” contents; the organisational principles of the poem must be inferred (or not). As you will see, the range of items which make up The Missing Pieces can make even an erudite reader anxious that they do not read enough: Lefebvre’s poem characterises its author as one who knows loss, who attends to loss—and perhaps to everything—better than we do, one who has been remade by his attendance upon perdition and un-making.
• The letters of Proust torn up by Marie-Laure de Noailles (six years old) •
• There are two manuscript copies of the Jena Symphony, one signed by Ludwig van Beethoven, the other by Friedric Witt; we still do not know who is the actual author of the work •
• Stendhal dies without completing Lamiel •
• Net Art: Any work of virtual art is hereby condemned to disappear •
• Abandoned in a studio since its inventor’s death, Dieter Roth’s chocolate sculpture is inexorably deteriorating; Roth sought the sculpture’s total disappearance; it’ll go fast •
• The pregnancies of Frida Kahlo •
• Goethe, lost orthographic ability; Dostoyevsky, lost syntactic ability •
• The library at Alexandria in 47 BCE •
Not all of the pieces of Lefebvre’s poem detail single losses; a few lists make the list. Take, for example, a catalog of artists on hiatus:
• George Oppen’s first collection of poems is published in 1934 and the poet stops writing for twenty years; for thirteen years Verdi doesn’t write a single opera; Rossini abandons composition at forty; Mozart didn’t produce anything in the year 1790; Strindberg called the seven years during which he could not write a novel an “Inferno Crisis”; before writing A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, Stéphane Mallarmé had renounced publishing for ten years; during divorce proceedings with Olga, Picasso stops painting and tries his hand at writing •
Or see below, where one piece which names three lost passages of music is followed immediately by a litany of precious printed texts lost to a holocaust:
• Missing, the conclusions to the opera Die Drei Pintos by Carl Maria von Weber, the Third Symphony of Anton Bruckner, and the Suite as seinen Orchester Werken by Jean-Sebastien Bach • On May 29, 2002, three million books go up in smoke in the warehouse fire of publishing company Les Belles Lettres, in Gasny in the Department of the Eure; go missing: Chinese texts of the Ming period, the complete works of the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, the Corpus Flaubertianum (a diplomatic edition of Gustave Flaubert), a first bilingual edition of the texts of Shakespeare, six hundred leather-bound, limited editions of Budé (1921-1960), all or part of the archive of forty-five publishers including Unes, Fata Morgana, Chandeigne, L’Escampette •
• • • • •
The Missing Pieces derives its power from how it pitches its content against formal manipulation of two kinds of syntax: the order and patterning of the unit losses, and the word order and patterning of clauses between the bullets that separate those units. The poem’s content is non-fictional, hews close to fact, but it operates like fiction: as with King Lear or Ulysses or Star Wars, the poem grows bigger, and longer, as it names and addresses—and so, in a way, makes present—only cultural artifacts or producers or proposals which cannot actually be present. Lefebvre collects and collates perfectly immaterial materials, losses strung in the perfect order, along a 76-page-long wire.
Manipulating either of the poem’s principal syntagms, Lefebvre is pressed to find appropriate kinds and degrees of sameness and difference. The first syntactical challenge is less constraining, and less difficult to master, due to the sheer volume of the poem. Lefebvre has composed discrete, brief prose passages, some of which record the losses of several items, or persons, or chances, that the reader of The Missing Pieces is gradually instructed, by his work with each concise segment, in how to make sense of the poem. Carefully tuning himself to the variations and repetitions in the kinds of pieces Lefebvre presents, the reader comes to feel, and perhaps to understand intellectually, the bittersweet music of aggregated absences.
Sometimes a given piece misfires. Even if it is grammatically correct, for example, the seven consecutive modifier-noun phrases in the bulletin below also acts to deaden it:
• In British author J.G. Ballard’s office a fake Delvaux painted by an unknown artist and based on a destroyed work by the Belgian surrealist occupies a place of honor •
I cannot tell whether lapses in grace like the one above (and some of the other unnecessarily repetitious phrasings) are weaknesses in the translation or in the editing of the book, or if they are in some way faithful to Lefebvre’s original French.
Though I’ve called Lefebvre’s poem unprecedented, it has cousins in, for instance, the work of legions of contemporary artists who have embraced an archival impulse, Christian Boltanski, for example, or Rachel Whiteread, or Fred Wilson, even Gerhard Richter in his Atlas mode. Thankfully The Missing Pieces stands apart from most of such work in its respect for a reader’s time. Passages meditating on measure in Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces (Espèces ddesies o, 1974) also come to mind. More distantly related, perhaps, is French writer Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, collected and translated by Luc Sante for New York Review Books (2007). They are utterly different in form—Fénéon’s novels trace independent narrative arcs and delineate individual psyches, and Lefebvre’s bulletins, so steadfastly non-narrative, repeatedly drive home the point that no there is no such thing as loss independent of other losses—yet Lefebvre’s and Fénéon’s texts induce a similar wonder and pleasure via repetition and variation of a concise basic unit. Even in English translation, though, each of Fénéon’s three-line narratives is exquisite; Fénéon with a pen was like Van der Weyden with a brush; if the trace in English is accurate, Lefebvre is not a stylist. No doubt Fénéon’s novels amount to an aggregate portrait of fin de siècle France (he drew his facts and circumstances from newsroom reportage), but that portrait’s elements turn inward, toward individuals. By contrast, the accumulated losses recorded by Lefebvre point the reader toward the human condition. Perhaps for Lefebvre, then, style is not the point. The form he’s devised—invented is too strong a word—is flexible and modest, and what happens to the language between two bullets is never so important as that a loss be marked. (Perhaps the marking of a loss reduces, somehow, its degree.) His book asks us to attend to his list of pieces and to imagine how our lives have been altered by what we no longer have the opportunity to know, read, see, hear, or touch; his project does not call for tormenting sentences into arabesques to indicate the quality of that alteration.
• • • • •
• My father’s heifer, fourth prize winner at the 4-H Club fair, sold by his father, who had promised he would never do so • A Junior year and a Senior year my younger sister might have spent as a student at St. Francis High School, had my father not decided to move the family to Florida • My mother’s left breast and pectoral muscles and lymph nodes, 1964 • Two hundred thousand dollars that my father would have made on the family home—if only he had waited one more year to sell it • The sex life of my mother, taken from her by her father, though she would bear three children • Several hours of sleep, never found on the floor of an apartment in Tampa, Florida, because I’d had a girl over to dinner, though I was “in love” with my sweetheart back home • My younger sister’s middle name • My mother’s right breast and lymph nodes, 1978 •
As I read and reread The Missing Pieces I began to wonder how Lefebvrean bullet points might feel if the content they recorded were not pieces loosed from a canon, but bits missing from the life of an American lower-middle class family at the end of the twentieth century. Having fitted some of my own family’s losses into Lefebvre’s template, I’m aware of how the disciplined indirection of The Missing Pieces amplifies its claim on the reader’s emotions, of how the personal is addressed the more powerfully because it remains unsaid. If my parody shows that to choose a particular family’s history as the fund for a non-fiction is to choose to narrate, it may also show how Lefebvre’s refusals to narrate strengthen the “nos” in nostalgia. And though his poem is not about the elements that it assembles, if we take his curatorial practices to be ethical and serious—a note at the end of the book acknowledges how he sourced the facts for his poem, and admits that some of The Missing Pieces have turned up since the poem’s initial publication—I’d argue Lefebvre’s is one of only a few poems published in America in the last decade from which a reader is extremely likely to learn something they didn’t already know.
• • • • •
One person who must be stayed from oblivion by any book as beautiful as The Missing Pieces is its author. (The book was given to me by a friend who had assumed it was written by the famous French philosopher and sociologist. How delightful it was to tell her that it isn’t, that the extremely oblique self-portrait painted by this book must depicts no one we already care about, but rather one who may be himself in danger of going missing.) Analysis of the bullets fired by the Paris publisher Henri Lefebvre should allow my trained eye to identify or characterize the “weapons” he used, and perhaps to delineate some of what was at stake for him in shooting so many bullets the ways he did. Well, my reading of The Missing Pieces has turned up four auto-references (there may be more), none of which help very much in drawing a picture of the author, and one of which points to his famous Marxist namesake:
• The List of Transparencies, text by Henri Lefebvre and linocut by Marie-Noelle Gonthier •
• We no longer know why Henri Lefebvre fell out with Guy Debord •
• Oils on wood by the painter Pierre Lefebvre, cut into strips then nailed to strengthen the framework of more recent works •
Add to these the final entry, which as we know leaves a waiter named Henri hanging unidentifiably in the wind. Only in English is waiter so close to writer.
• • • • •
The Missing Pieces has as much to do with presence as with absence, and this tells us something about the canon, and—forgive me—about “poetry in general.” I mean that no equivalent list of artworks or gains or successes could be so powerful as The Missing Pieces. As if the ubi sunt and elegiac and epitaphic traditions were not proof enough, Lefebvre’s book is further evidence of poetry’s continuing commitment to strengthening those who suffer loss, to those who grieve yet would remember; at some level his list speaks on their behalf. One of the compelling mysteries of The Missing Pieces is framed by the question: from what are all his pieces “missing”? Or, put another way, who is the “we” who has lost or will lose these precious things? The answer is not just “Henri Lefebvre.” The entity that has lost his list of things and people is trans-historical and trans-national (and arguably even global, though Lefebvre’s inventory is decidedly Western.) If shrinkage-control or hypothetical taxonomy is its mode, the ground of his prose poem is a vast treasure-hoard of culture that is not lost.
Readers determined to find more of what is missing in The Missing Pieces will complain that Lefebvre would preserve the memory of too many long-dead white males and their works, and it is true that the book is easily misread as a one-man wiki of already-immortals. Yet even such readers may find it humbling to encounter so many artists and works for the first time. And because his book names and addresses so many things and people which are so close to the brink of perdition, or have fallen into it, The Missing Pieces performs one of poetry’s essential duties. Staying oblivion for the pieces he has chosen to include, Lefebvre demonstrates one way to stay oblivion for any text or project or person. As we all know, to curate—to include a person or thing in a list or collection—is to care. - Daniel Bosch
Henri Lefebvre's The Missing Pieces (Les Unités perdues), translated by David L. Sweet, capitalizes on the list form. This inventory is certainly not one of things possessed, but rather a gathering of things so far gone we might have otherwise never known they were there in the first place. "James Joyce and John Milton wrote their masterpieces," Lefebvre writes, "Finnegan's Wake and Paradise Lost, while losing their sight," or "On the Road: the final, seven meters of Jack Kerouac's original typescript were eaten by a dog," are items on Lefebvre's list that show us the missing pieces: bits of information we find we're surprised to learn but that should have been, seemingly, obvious all along.
Like Roland Barthes (A Lover's Discourse), Walter Benjamin ("One Way Street"), Joan Didion (The White Album), or Maggie Nelson (Bluets), Lefebvre doesn't merely use but is supremely conscious of the list form -- a book like The Missing Pieces could potentially have been written differently, presented as a series of vignettes with a little explication accompanying each missing thing, or as a patchwork of quotes, getting the exact words of those who've made us aware of what's gone missing. "Several pages in this text," Lefebvre writes in a "Remarks" section following the book, "were published in serial form every half-year in the journal IF, from 2001 to 2004." He additionally notes that much of the information gathered for the book was taken "from biographies and autobiographies or from print newspapers," or collected from "statements from writers and painters, statements published here as a mark of respect for those men and women." This book thus rightly appears as a list, not only as a way of honoring as many informants as possible, but as a way of showing us Lefebvre's composition process.
More missing pieces: "As a student, Ezra Pound wrote a sonnet every day and destroyed all three hundred and sixty-five poems at the end of the year"; "The name of the imbecile who interrupted the life of Roland Barthes and the novel Vita Nova by the latter, victim of the hit-and-run"; "Ten thousand five hundred films made with nitrate film before 1950 in the United States have self-destructed." There's no guarantee that, even in Google's age, without Lefebvre's book we wouldn't be totally lost when searching for these facts. But this isn't the point of compilation -- the point is to look at the list both in parts and as a whole, a synecdochic examination of the fact that, as human beings, we overlook. The Missing Pieces is a list not only to be read an item at a time, but, as the very cover of the book itself might imply, to be viewed as a mishmash of things forgotten, and of things we need to dutifully remember. - Micah McCrary
...This is not the only question implicit in Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces, also out this year in translation by David L. Sweet, but it is the most pertinently challenging. Henri Lefebvre—not the Henri Lefebvre you are thinking of—has assembled, in no apparent order, an extensive mosaic of books, paintings, compositions, manuscripts, collaborations, and the like, all of which share one quality: we have some notional trace of them, but each is, for one reason or another and presumably forever, unavailable for consultation. These pieces—Joyce’s Stephen Hero, Mussorgsky’s Khovantchina, Molière’s handwriting, and so on—are all lost to theft or censorship or lassitude or miscellaneous destruction or death; in theory, the stories behind their missingness could be, like Perec’s lacunae, little bits of fabrication whose romance and mystery gain only a minor additive frisson from their basis in fact.
The Missing Pieces is interesting, though not good—it is frustratingly selective, sometimes objectively inaccurate, and awkwardly variegated in syntax, tense, and curatorial attitude—and it might, at best, be considered grist for the ouroboric corpus of what Spanish pseudo-novelist Enrique Vila-Matas calls “the literature of the No.” But Lefebvre’s thrall to the muse of inexistence serves a worthy purpose here, for in it we can glimpse the empty spaces in both Levé’s hermetic echo chamber and Perec’s ceaseless search for wholeness: we see that the once-was and the never-been are unified by the manipulation of what is lost in both space and time, propelled by the search for something beyond the present—both in the sense whose opposite is past or future, and in the sense whose opposite is absence.
Lefebvre’s particular gift to us is the occasion to consider how little difference there is between those senses. We might wonder how many people since the beginning of time have made things that are now missing, and how many of those things were the same as things that we currently know to exist. We might wonder how many pieces, potentially worthy of remembering, potentially worthy of mourning, have been conceived but not brought into being. And we might wonder, when they cross over into being, what becomes of their absence—what that absence becomes, if not a new kind of potential. - Daniel Levin Becker
We are a culture that likes to make lists. We have top 10s. We have the five best. The three worst. We have every story ever written on Buzzfeed. But Henri Lefebvre's "The Missing Pieces" turns the listicle into a platform for storytelling, a funereal poetry of sort. The book is an 83-page list of objects, ideas and concepts that have been lost, gone missing or simply never been seen in Western culture.
Among the missing chronicled in Lefebvre's brief entries are the destruction of the library at Sarajevo, which was bombed in 1992-93; the whitewashing of Diego Rivera's controversial Rockefeller Center mural in 1934; the poetry of Cicero; a never-seen rock opera written by American sculptor Dan Graham; and the disappearance of the final seven meters of Jack Kerouac's original scroll manuscript of "On the Road," which were eaten by a dog.
Certainly, the whole exercise is permeated with plenty of dry humor. One listing pokes a stick at a fellow French poet: "'The Field of May' by Pierre Oster; missing a comma on page 124, line 7." Another lists Internet art among the missing, because "any work of virtual art is hereby condemned to disappear." A particularly acerbic entry states: "The pregnancies of Frida Kahlo."
Or this, about the 18th century painter Francisco Goya: "In 1899, the Spanish demand Goya's remains, dead and buried in Bordeaux in 1828; the body, without the head, is returned to Spain." Some suspect it was taken for study by phrenologists, who were taken seriously at the time. Certainly, there's some Sherlock Holmes-level mystery behind that missing head.
One begins to ponder alternate realities, such as how this mysterious waiter's life might have been transformed (or not) if he'd come to possess a canvas by Balthus.
For those interested in the missing, think of this as a work not to be missed. - Carolina A. Miranda