Fondane homme de théâtre - Au temps du poème N° 20

Discovering rue Rollin

Mitchell Abidor

Visiting from Brooklyn, we’d just finished paying homage to Jean Jaurès at the Panthéon, my wife and I, and were wending our way down Montagne Saint-Geneviève. At the end of rue Cardinal Lemoine, coming almost directly off the building at no. 74, where Ernest Hemingway lived, we saw a short street unlike any other in 21st century Paris: cobblestoned, bollard-lined, carless, quiet… Rue Rollin. We set off on it towards rue Monge.

To our left, at number 14, a plaque saying René Descartes had lived there. Further down, a plaque on a school wall commemorating the Jewish children who attended it and had been murdered in the camps. And then, slightly further, still a plaque at no. 6 saying « Benjamin Fondane, (Jassy, 1898 - Auschwitz, 1944) poète et philosophe français, habita dans cette maison du 15 avril 1932 au 7 mars 1944 ». Fondane… I’d read the name in an article in the review Le Grognard, for which I wrote. Other than that, I knew nothing of him, remembering nothing of the article. But I loved the street, which I added to my list of places I recommended whenever people asked what they should see in Paris. And I loved the serendipity of stumbling upon Fondane, and when I returned to New York I made half-hearted efforts to track down books by him, in vain. Finally, a couple of years later, I found a volume of his poetry, and it was a coup de foudre. I had to find a way to translate him.

I’m invited to Paris to talk about my translation of Jean Jaurès. We look for an apartment in the 5tharrondissement on Airbnb, and find one described as being on a short, quiet street with no cars. It can only be rue Rollin. I write to the owner of the flat, who tells me she can’t rent it to us because we’re not staying long enough. I write back, speaking of my love for Fondane. She changes her mind. We are able to stay across the street from Fondane‘s home.

Another year goes by and I learn that New York Review Books will be publishing a volume of his poetry. I contact one of the editors, who informs me that the volume is a collective effort, and that I should write to Leonard Schwartz, the volume’s editor, and ask to participate. I do, and he sends me a handful of poems to work on. I’d never translated poetry before, don’t even like poetry, but I handled them with joy and ease.

When the volume is finally completed the publisher asks if I’d be willing to review some of the translations. I’m in Paris again, working on another book. I’m staying on rue Rollin again. They send me the poems requiring review, and with no living author to ask about words susceptible to multiple interpretations, I can only turn my chair towards number 6, rue Rollin and hope the answers come. They do.

iI later learned that Blaise Pascal lived at no. 2, rue Rollin. The title of a hypothetical biography: Benjamin Fondane, The Man Who Lived between Descartes and Pascal.