In his debut book, 1984’s Vies minuscules (Small Lives), Pierre Michon began a wonderful, strange career exploring the lives of historically real, if not, by most estimations, historically important, lives through miniature narratives. This year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist features two of Michon’s imaginative biographies compiled in one book realeased by Yale University Press, Winter Mythologies and Abbots (Mythologies d’hiver, 1997, Abbés, 2002; tr. from the French by Ann Jefferson, 2014).
The figures that features in Michon’s other work may have been tangential to more famous lives — such as van Gogh, Goya, Rimbaud, etc. — but in Winter Mythologies and Abbots the lives are even more remote, involved as they were in relatively obscure monasteries and priories of the distant past. Indeed, Michon learned about these figures by researching archives; one section of Winter Mythologies, in fact, exists only because Michon found an old historical book in a village shop. This work is a project that seems to have stemmed from the same desire of a few of the characters in the book: to look for the dead. Within the narrative of these lives we find more than just the dried bones, though, a feat all the more impressive considering Michon’s preference for the exceedingly short form, with some of these coming in at just a couple of pages.
My favorite section in the book is called “Nine Passages on the Causses,” which concerns some individuals around the monastery in Sainte-Enimie, including Enimie herself.
Each passage focuses on one individual, usually somewhat removed from whatever time period we just read about. The first section takes place in a time relatively close to our own, in August 1870, when a doctor and amateur anthropologist named Barthélémy Prunières is “looking for dead men,” his “passion.” As is common in these short accounts, by the end, three pages later, he himself will be a dead man. The next passage goes back to the region even before Saint Enimie has been born, and we meet a Bishop who has abandoned his calling. Years later, we meet Enimie herself, and still later we stumble upon her bones when other occupants look to restore the unused monastery.
This is a wonderful cycle, time flowing onward, bones drying, lives forgotten and on the edge of being forgotten. It has the wonderful effect of making these individuals ever-present. This is emphasized by Michon’s ability to briefly evoke those moments that made the blood pump faster through these now-dead individuals’ veins.
Indeed, it’s Michon’s focus on the body and the visceral that makes these stories so penetrating even in their brevity. These are, ostensibly, spiritually-minded folks, yet this is a spirituality generated within the beating human heart. Those beats are heard across time, if we’re willing to look closely and use a bit of our imagination.