I first heard that marvellously mellifluous and evocative name Maldoror when at Cambridge in 1959, where I was a 19 year old undergraduate, reading English literature. By that time my own first language, Greek, had been almost entirely forgotten. But at my earliest schools in England I had had the compensatory good fortune to be taught by two inspirational French teachers. So, after taking French 'A Level' at 16, I continued cheerfully though unsystematically, to explore that unfamiliar new world of French writing.

Then, at King's College, a contemporary told me about an extraordinary, difficult, unclassifiable masterpiece which he (a Modern Languages specialist), thought I might appreciate. This, referring to Les Chants de Maldoror, was something of an understatement! According to Tony Wood - in later years the founder-publisher of Angel Books, UK, specialising in European translations - the work was by one of the 19th century's original "angry young men", someone mysterious, displaced and savagely satirical. And furthermore, this pseudonymous youthful irreligious revolutionary was an experimenter with the texture and sonority of language itself, so that poetry and prose became fused into a disturbingly vivid Gothic collage, a dark dreamscape, a violent phantasmagoria of the subconscious.

All this sounded just up my street, as it proved to be, and remains so to this day!

I still have my original copy of the José Corti edition, with those famous Prefaces by De Gourmont, Breton, Soupault, Gracq, Blanchot, etc, which helped me find ways into reading this momentous narrative. Several years after I had graduated, and while I was struggling with my third novel (it must have been about 1967), two friends who ran a small poetry publishers, Clive Allison and Margaret Busby, suggested that I translate Maldoror. I was nothing if not enthusiastic in those days, and had the sublime confidence (and perhaps the ignorance) of youth. So, while scarcely even a fledgling translator, I agreed "to have a crack at it" -amazingly challenging task that it was... Accordingly, in 1970 the first - and to this day still the only -complete annotated English edition of the Chants appeared. Its success ensured that A & B also published in 1978 the Poésies, letters, miscellanea and apocryphal writings, again with notes and my Introduction: this became the second volume of Lautreamont-Ducasse's Complete Works. By good fortune and with positively serendipitous timing, Allison & Busby were able to reproduce on its cover the sole photograph of Isidore Ducasse extant - that singular likeness which had been only recently discovered by J-J. Lefrère.

Since those exciting days, I've translated about two dozen other books (the good, the bad, the indifferent), but my English-language Lautréamont seems to have been specially blessed. In one or another edition, it's never been out of print. There followed various paperback reprints from A & B, until Margaret and Clive eventually ceased publishing in the late 1980s. Crowell published the American editions of Maldoror in 1972 in both paperback and hardback, and then to my delight, in 1994 came the superbly designed one-volume edition of the Complete Works, from an excellent independent U.S. publishing house, Exact Change. This edition - as near definitive as we can manage - has been reprinted several times to date, and is periodically revised, corrected and updated. (The Bibliography is of course 'Select' rather than comprehensive: it can never claim to be 'Complete', since the volume of material - literary, critical and biographical - on Lautréamont Ducasse greatly expands, not surprisingly, every year.)

As for me, I've been trying to get to know Lautréamont for 45 years, almost double Ducasse's own lifetime - a long and fascinating span of years well-spent attempting an impossible task. How can one catch that special tone, how best to convey the unique qualities of this great outsider? However one reads or interprets him, it's clear that the Montevidean magician - serious word-alchemist and blackhumorous forefather of Surrealism that he was - remains one of the few international literary stylists who can be considered (and this too is a paradox) enduringly avant-garde. 

For Journal of Les Amis d’Isidore Ducasse - 2001


Dear Sir,


I was delighted that your Editorial (Wormwood 8, Spring 2007) should praise my version of Lautréamont as "trenchantly translated". It was also pleasing to read in the same issue Adam Daly's enthusiastic appreciation of this enduringly great and subversive writer.

It's rather ironic, though, that for his quite properly extensive quotations Daly seems to have relied entirely upon that dreadful Penguin farrago! Published some years after my own two-volume edition of Lautréamont's 'Works' - the first (and still the only) complete, fully annotated English translation - the Penguin remains, in terms of translation, something of a publishing disgrace. It is, as I and other critics have variously and exhaustively indicated, a complete travesty, both of the Lautréamont of Les Chants de Maldoror and of the Ducasse of Poésies; but it's also, as a single-volume edition, far from complete. Isidore Ducasse's letters are missing, as are any explanatory notes, bibliography, and so on... Not content with its egregious errors, it added insult to injury: the author's name was even misspelt on the cover!

I don't intend to cavil, but I do hope Anglophone readers of Wormwood when wishing to explore such a uniquely original, difficult yet rewarding writer (and Daly names Jarry, Joyce, Cendrars, Celine, Breton and Pessoa as "direct inheritors of Lautréamont's literary legacy"), will exercise discretion and discernment. They're welcome, for example, to check my own version against the French text, while any general feedback, particular suggestions and alternative readings are always gratefully considered: I have tried to correct, reappraise, and where possible improve, my translation through its several previous incarnations in the UK and USA, over the course of almost forty years.

A line-by-line comparison with my own version of these extraordinary texts, as published and reprinted in a single 340 pp. volume by Exact Change, USA (1994 & 1998), could prove instructive as well as amusing. I realise however that even the informed and interested readers of Wormwood might have neither time nor inclination for such a probably laborious if hilarious exercise. I hope, nonetheless, that you'll allow me to give just one brief example - a few phrases from a far longer quotation (as cited by Daly), via that nonsensical and inaccurate Penguinification against which I must warn your readers. There's reference to the quite lengthy Ducassian list of the maladies of his 19th century: here we find "extravagant prefaces, such as those to Cromwell, those by Mlle Daupin and Dumas the younger". But do we? I think not. My own translation reads: "idiotic prefaces like those of Cromwell, Mlle de Maupin and Dumas fils". A numbered note fully explains the sardonic literary points made, and scored by, Ducasse, regarding the once-famous prefaces to Hugo's drama Cromwell, Gautier's genderbending novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, and those homilies produced compulsively by Dumas. The necessary notes I supply are numerous, but I trust they're at least illuminating and informative. Nowhere I hope, do I casually omit or, even worse, lazily invent: the Penguinizer, by contrast, has "reptilivorous serpent" for "serpentaire reptilivore" - one piece of gibberish among many; it requires another note [69] in my edition, to situate the secretary-bird within Lautréamont's extensive aviary!

Finally, however, I can't accept Daly's odd contention that Lautréamont "is chiefly remembered by Situationist stragglers", nor that "Only the bare facts about him are known with any certainty". Among the best of so many biographical and critical books in so many languages devoted to this short-lived but ever-influential writer is Jean-Jacques Lefrère's Isidore Ducasse, subtitled Auteur des Chants de Maldoror par Le Comte de Lautréamont and published by Fayard in 1998: this is almost 700 pages long and contains a wealth of well-researched information on its subject. Had Daly dug a bit deeper, he'd have realised that Ducasse isn't actually "buried in the Cemetiere (sic) du Nord"; to this day nobody knows for sure where his remains lie. As for "One suspects that few people visit it nowadays", this is fanciful speculation indeed, since Ducasse has neither marked plot nor grave. "No memoirs, no grave" as my Introduction concludes. "Their lack ensures the legend - but let us look instead at the legacy."