Christian Bobin honors Dickinson in the form of a brief, poetically imagined account of her life and the work that she gave the world.He does not so much tell her story as suggest a way of understanding who she was, of seeing her subliminally, intuitively
Christian Bobin, The Lady in White, Trans. by Alison Anderson, University of nebraska Press, 2014. [2008.]
To this day, Emily Dickinson remains a beloved and enigmatic figure in American poetry. This “lady in white,” who shut herself away from the world and found solace alone with her words, has since her death been viewed primarily through the lens of her poetry, which afforded her beauty and hope amid the agony and loneliness of her life.As a reclusive writer himself, contemporary French author Christian Bobin felt a kindred tie to the poetess, and his book The Lady in White honors Dickinson in the form of a brief, poetically imagined account of her life and the work that she gave the world. This fresh and personal interpretation of Dickinson’s life leaves one with an impression of knowing Dickinson both through her poetry, as recalled by Bobin, and as he senses the person she was through her work and the sparse facts we have about her life.
“A text of luminous, intuitive grace.”—Christine Ferniot
“There is a Bobin style, a way of approaching literature through the joy that words radiate, the light they hold within.” —Guy Goffette
“A portrait full of empathy that cares little for chronology and facts, since what really matters to the author is elsewhere. . . . Bobin preserves Emily Dickinson’s fervor, her attentiveness to small things, to nothing, to simplicity. . . . This is a biography full of grace and vision.”—Gérard Pussey
La Dame Blanche, an excerpt of which will appear in the upcoming edition of Two Lines, is Bobin’s most recent publication in France as of this writing, an imagined biography of Emily Dickinson. They are kindred souls, both living reclusive lives enriched by their ability to focus on the everyday, in a familiar landscape that is, in fact, never the same from one day to the next. Reading Bobin opens one’s eyes onto a new way of seeing the world—in fact it may be an old way, a forgotten way, but it becomes fresh beneath his pen, through his words. Something he must share, after all, with the Lady in White from Amherst. Like all his other texts, La Dame Blanche is short, poetic, inventive. He does not so much tell her story as suggest a way of understanding who she was, of seeing her subliminally, intuitively. - Alison Anderson
The Lady in White of the title is American poet and recluse Emily Dickinson, and this slim volume a typical reflective one by French author Christian Bobin, as much or more essayistic than in any way fictional.
In short sections or chapters (untitled and unnumbered) Bobin presents episodes and times from Dickinson's life, filling in the details of her few relationships, within and outside, her family and giving a sense of the isolation in which she spent most of her life. "Humility was her pride, self-effacement her triumph", Bobin suggests -- and that: "Writing was its own reward".
Of course, Dickinson's mastery makes it easier to suggest writing is its own reward: rarely does it burn so brightly. Bobin's presentation -- spare but exacting -- of Dickinson's genius is seductively convincing: summing up before describing one personal encounter, for example:
After only a few minutes Higginson was exhausted. Only madness can devour energy to this degree.
Though so very short -- eighty pages, very generously spaced -- The Lady in White is significantly more than a biographical sketch. Indeed, it isn't sketch-like; it isn't a simple summary of facts and odds and ends. There is a surprising amount of biographical information, but what Bobin manages is to penetrate that life. In these short chapters Bobin dives in and plumbs the depths of Dickinson's soul. The sections have to be so short, because it is necessary for the reader (and author) to come up for air.
It is a reading and interpretation of Dickinson, and Bobin goes at if from a variety of angles. So for example, fundamentally:
What was "real" life ? Father and daughter had two very different responses to the question. For the father, real life was horizontal: the train and telegraph were brought to Amherst, contracts were signed, men were connected to one another, and all of that, to the rhythm of their exchanges, caused wealth to grow. For the daughter real life was vertical: a movement from the soul to the soul's master -- for which there was no need of a railroad.
They're kindred spirits, it must be noted, author and subject -- Bobin is also notoriously withdrawn, his writing also marked by concision (though nowhere near as pared-down as Dickinson's) -- and this also marks the text. Repeatedly he falls back on the first person plural, in generalizations that are more personal than, perhaps, always universal -- as when he suggests: "We all make a home of our own unhappiness".
Love and the void belong to the same terrible genus. Our soul is the terrain of their unsettled contest.
Bobin is also exploring his own fascination with writing -- as its own reward, and more. He suggests:
Poetry is more than just a manner of writing: it is a way of finding one's bearings, turning one's life to the rising sun of the invisible.
Dickinson seems to fit Bobin's poetic ideal -- summed up in a variety of ways here, including in the observation that:
Poets are pretty when a century has gone by, when they're dead and in the ground and alive through their texts. But when you have a poet in your home, a child who is in love with the absolute, shut away in her room with her books like some young wild animal in a divinely smoke-filled lair, how are you to raise her ? Children know all there is to know of heaven until the day they begin to learn things. Poets are children who have not been interrupted; they are sky-gazers, impossible to raise.
Carefully and beautifully crafted, The Lady in White is a compact but weighty and resonant consideration of Emily Dickinson's life. Though Bobin is foreign, he is well-attuned to Dickinson, and his understanding extends surprisingly well even to the American matters.
The Lady in White is a slim but significant addition to the literature around Emily Dickinson. - M.A.Orthofer