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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary

The Roving Shadows

Pascal Quignard

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To purchase The Roving Shadows

Title: The Roving Shadows
Author: Pascal Quignard
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 225 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Roving Shadows - US
The Roving Shadows - UK
The Roving Shadows - Canada
Les Ombres errantes - Canada
The Roving Shadows - India
Les Ombres errantes - France
Die wandernden Schatten - Deutschland
Las sombras errantes - España
  • French title: Les Ombres errantes
  • Translated by Chris Turner
  • Prix Goncourt, 2002

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Our Assessment:

B+ : marvelous pieces, but much that feels too willfully obscure (in presentation and/or content)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 17/10/2003 Henriette Korthals Altes
TLS . 2/8/2013 Henriette Korthals

  From the Reviews:
  • "Quignard’s thinking progresses in circles of associations. (...) (D)ense to the point of being arcane. (...) For although it introduces notions that will make sense within the three volumes or will be meaningful to readers already familiar with Quignard’s work, the text is problematic and elliptical." - Henriette Korthals Altes, Times Literary Supplement

  • "An encyclopedia of free associations (.....) Published by Seagull Press in a beautifully presented edition, Chris Turner's translation is a fine rendering of Quignard's pithy aphorisms." - Henriette Korthals, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Roving Shadows is part of a larger project, the first volume of Quignard's six-volume 'Dernier Royaume' ('last kingdom') series. A genre-defying 'literary' text with short chapters -- often further divided into short sections -- which consist mainly of brief thoughts, reflections, and descriptions, it somewhat surprisingly won the prestigious French prix Goncourt, traditionally awarded to a novel. There is little memoir here (but some), quite a bit of history -- traditional as well as literary --, and considerable philosophical speculation. Its main themes can be reduced to art and death, but it's not quite that simply reductionist.
       Quignard is, emphatically, a reader; reading is bliss to him. Among the most powerful chapters are the personal ones in which he relates (to) reading. In one he describes setting out in the summer of 1999 and successfully cutting himself off from all human contact and any distraction:

Happiness welled up inside me. I read. I was engulfed by happiness. I read all summer long. Happiness engulfed me all summer long.
       The book even begins with a beautiful description of a formative experience, where it is isn't him that loses himself in reading, but another:
     A body once liked reading them better than it liked me. A young German woman looked after me until I was two. The fact that she read by my side robbed me of the joy of being near her, because it seemed then that she wasn't at my side. She wasn't there. She was already gone.
     She was elsewhere.
       This power of reading marks Quignard, and all his life he too, apparently, wanted to -- and often did -- similarly lose himself in books. He is convinced of their great and transcendent power: "Humanity owes more to reading than to weapons", he argues. And one of the theses of The Roving Shadows is the primacy of reading -- now and always.
       Quignard sees the Second World War and the two horrors of the German death camps and the dropping of the atomic bombs as a demarcation point in history -- forever dissolving: "the idea of a humaneness within humanity". Given these realities, he is drawn to abstraction -- hence also a focus on shadows and shades (and also the literary text, which is just a different kind of 'shadow' of reality). The abstract -- the shadow -- is also universal and eternal, transcending that most basic thing of all: death.
       He argues:
     The past, tombs, memory, stories, ancient languages, the books written in days gone by, the religious, political, artistic and individual traditions that were abandoned, torn away from the legendary spirit that had brought them into being, one after the other, are forever disconnected from the real. We even speak of the languages that no longer have mouths to speak them as dead languages. Yet they are treasures of accumulated joy. In accumulating, the joy becomes concentrated. The meaning, the surprise have not fled them
       Quignard makes his case eloquently -- in describing, for example: "A gulp to stave off death. / That gulp: reading."
       Quignard cites and analyzes many examples from history, from ancient Rome and China to, for example, modern Japanese author Tanizaki Jun'ichirō's laments about the "loss of shadows and darkness" in his 1933 work, In Praise of Shadows (陰翳礼讃;).
       All this does not make for a straightforward argument: even as Quignard builds up a case in The Roving Shadows, the text remains almost entirely patchwork. Yet even as it seems occasionally almost anecdotal (though never purely fragmental), the pieces and even the sentences are weighty: repetition of some themes helps, but there's an incredible amount of substance here: this is a decidedly philosophical and intricately layered text that lends itself to elaborate de- and re-construction. Even bold statements such as: "Writing is entirely political" are presented as little more than asides -- supported by some of the evidence, but not a central focus in what turns out to be a very large structure of argument.
       Quignard writes:
To read is to wander. Reading is errantry.
       He means to prod the reader to wander, to invite the reader to errantry -- and perhaps also to be more conscious of the rewards of almost aimless immersion in texts: reading not for a specific purpose, but for the wonder and surprise it can offer (even as the text spans history and civilization, and fleshes out theories of the world ...). With some remarkable arresting observations and images, Quignard does show what writing still can be and do.
       Here is a book that requires readers to be open to it -- one that almost demands (or certainly at least wishes) that readers don't come to it with specific expectations. It certainly offers ample -- if not necessarily always easy -- rewards. Unfortunately, this one volume also is only a sliver of a much larger work; as is, much here still also remains elusive.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 August 2012

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The Roving Shadows: Reviews: Other books by Pascal Quignard under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review
  • Index of Prix Goncourt-winning works under review

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About the Author:

       French author Pascal Quignard was born 23 April 1948.

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© 2012-2024 the complete review

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