Saint Ghetto of the Loans: Grimoire
Ugly Duckling Presse, NY, NY, 2023
144 pp. Paper, $20
Saint Ghetto of the Loans (first edition 1950) is no longer a more or less forgotten key work of French Lettrism, one of the many revolutionary avant-garde groups of post-World War Two years in Paris, best known as the immediate precursor of Situationnism (all these groups were also circling around Existentialism, the then dominating new form of living, thinking and writing) Thanks to the joint efforts of an American publisher, Ugly Duckling Presse, and its initial translator, Michael Kasper, the work resurfaced in 2006 and is now splendidly reissued in a carefully edited volume (a new French edition has been announced with the éditions du Sandre, but its publication has been postponed, so that even for French readers this is the only currently available edition).
The very title of the book, Saint Ghetto of the Loans, is already a synthesis of its theme as well as certain aspects of its form:. The title’s toponym refers to the cradle of existentialism, the Parisian neighborhood of Saint-Germain des Prés, with a double pun on “Germain”/”Ghetto” and “prés”, meaning meadows, and “prêts”, meaning loans), while a “grimoire”, the identification of the book’s genre, is a handbook of sorcery and magic. The book itself is groundbreaking for at least two reasons. On the one hand, it is a prose poem that can be considered the first example of what will eventually be called a dérive or “drifting”, a technique of rapid and chance-driven passage through varied ambiances that aims at producing unknown and unforeseen “situations” with nonorthodox psychogeographical effects. As such Saint Ghetto of the Loans is a kind of group portrait of the Parisian counterculture of these years and the places made famous by its parties like the Taboo Bar – all this a decade before the American Beats (but some of them spent some time in Paris in the late 40s and they must have known about Lettrism and its strong sense of public relations). Pomerand is not only a gifted writer, but also a sharp observer, despite the sardonic tone of his poem and the alcoholism that reshuffles and twists most of his notes. On the other hand, the work is also a unique example of visual poetry, but one that radically exceeds the experiments of visual poetry as known till these years. Presented on the left page of each double spread, one finds the fragments of the poem in prose, actually a long narrative, but these texts are only the transcription of a new form of rebus that occupies the right pages of the book. These visual compositions (Pomerand calls them “metagraphics”) invent a new type of visual language, a blurring of boundaries between a very freely applied rebuslike type of writing and a visual page layout or visual score whose global design is no less important than the elements that compose it. Without the verbal transcription, it would be impossible to decipher the visual text (we do not know however whether this was the “original”, the poem in prose being its translation, of whether it was the prose poem that came first…). Yet thanks to the presence of the verbal double or subtitle (if we consider the sequence of visual layouts as a new type of cinema on paper), the reader can start playing with the book, trying to understand the often very open match between words and images.
Saint Ghetto of the Loans is opaque and marvelously idiosyncratic. At first sight one has the impression that it is more a book to be looked at than to be read, but reading a book like this can only mean to reread it (and moreover this rereading should be one of the highly close reading type). Contrary to other Lettrists, who totally rejected “ordinary” language and writing, Pomerand has chosen to present his creation as a verbo-visual diptych, both immediately understandable and difficult to grasp, in order to produce a fascinatingly new way of reading, permanently torn between understanding and magic or trance. It is difficult not to think of Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice”, which must have made a similar impression on the unprepared reader, but whose mysterious composition and meaning have not ceased to sprawl since its first public appearance in 1897. The superb translation and editorial comments of the two American editions are therefore much more than an attempt to fill in the gaps that the work itself can only leave open. They are a brilliant exercise in contextualization that helps understand how a book like this could actually be produced and what it meant in its own cultural environment. Parts of Pomerand’s text were first used as an “oratorio”, that is a kind of poetic performance included in the voice-over that accompanied a short documentary on the Parisian underground scene of the late 1940s, Jacques Baratier’s 1950 Désordre (“Disorder”; this 18 minutes movie is now freely available on YouTube and I can strongly recommend all readers eager to “see” Gabriel Pomerand before “reading” him to have a look at this exceptional testimony). The oratorio developed into a standalone book, rapidly forgotten but much later rediscovered by Michael Kasper, the translator of the two Ugly Duckling editions and also an important translator of mainly Belgian Surrealist authors.
A remarkable expression of the most radical avant-garde of that period, Saint Ghetto of the Loans will help revise the history of French and international experimentalism, often narrowed down, at least in the literary field, to the leap form pre-War Surrealism to post-War Situationnism – a limitation that pays the price of the global and lasting success of Guy Debord. With the help of this new edition, it is possible to start rethinking this oversimplification, not only in literature but also in the expanded field of literary writing (film, performance, sound poetry) and last but not least in politics. Instead of seeing Lettrism and Situationism as something that comes “after” Existentialism”, in the typically teleological way of thinking that defines our views on the place of avant-garde in history, it is now easier to see Lettrism besides and why not at the heart of Existentialism.