BY Bailey Trela in Books , Opinion | 11 JAN 24

Éric Chevillard’s Quirked-Up Philosophy of the Museum

The author’s latest collection, which takes place in an imaginary museum, often manifests as a parody of scientific observation

BY Bailey Trela in Books , Opinion | 11 JAN 24

Éric Chevillard writes too much. For the past three decades and change he’s averaged roughly a book a year, only a handful of which (so far) have found their way into English. On top of that, since 2007, he’s also written three entries every day on his blog, L’autofictif, a sort of experimental journal whose title pokes fun at the perennial French fascination with autofiction and its tendency, as Chevillard sees it, to devolve into ‘complacent self-exhibition’. L’autofictif is less a day-to-day record of personal experience than a barometer tracking Chevillard’s mental weather. ‘Nothing is off limits,’ he has observed, ‘from elaborate forms to sketches, to micro-fiction – all kinds of risky endeavours, speculations, paradoxes.’

Part of a loose association of experimental writers who emerged in the 1980s and were published by Les Éditions de Minuit, Chevillard has built an oeuvre notable less for its univocity of style than the spectrum of its experimentation. He’s probably best known in English for The Crab Nebula (1993), whose protagonist, Crab, is part of a long tradition in French literature of rarefied alter egos that includes Paul Valéry’s occasional interlocutor Monsieur Teste and Henri Michaux’s form-challenged blunderer Plume. As in Samuel Beckett’s Watt (1953), the narrative is advanced by means of absurd permutations, though Chevillard’s proceduralism is less rigid and proof-like. His is an experimentalism of the churn – hence the generally Gadarene composition of his books, which have an air of being dashed off in one fluid (if inflamed) drafting session. Order, as a result, is provided by a classificatory strain, which often manifests as a parody of scientific observation.

In Museum Visits (2024), Chevillard’s latest work to appear in English, aesthetic observation is subjected to this same parodizing process. The book, translated by Daniel Levin Becker, offers a sampling of shorter works that have appeared in volumes published by Fata Morgana over the past decade or so. It’s a classic grab bag, its contents a bit uneven, though not terribly so. Chevillard is – you almost hate to say it – a sincerely zippy writer, and even his most pro forma pieces have a certain profluent charm. One technique Chevillard frequently deploys is a surprising inversion of perception, followed by a lengthy investigation or cataloguing of this fresh perspective’s significance. It’s no surprise that many of the pieces in Museum Visits rely on this mechanism.

‘Autofiction’, for instance, is a rueful sendup of the genre’s essential onanism, relying for its effect on a simple joke – namely, writing as ejaculation. ‘At sixteen my ejaculations were strongly influenced by Rimbaud’, Chevillard observes, ‘but they weren’t very good, now that I think about it.’ Other pieces, like ‘The Chair’, engage in a light-hearted defamiliarization reminiscent of the work of Francis Ponge. ‘The chair is originally from the woods,’ we read. ‘It’s a relative of the tree, even if it’s managed to distance itself – more than the swing has, at any rate, although the swing is endowed with the gift of motion, unlike the chair, which, again, doesn’t move unless you tackle it.’ Sometimes the inversion is a little too simplistic, smacking of the merely zany. Pieces like ‘The Pan’, which dwells on the utter inutility of the common frying pan when it comes to doing anything beyond frying, evoke a dusty chuckle at best.

Éric Chevillard, Museum Visits, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Yale University Press

As Jordan Stump wrote in his introduction to The Crab Nebula, there are ‘two fundamental questions’ that Chevillard explores in each of his works: ‘How can we possibly claim to understand the world around us, and how might we reshape that world into something comprehensible and workable?’ One solution, of course, is to musealize the world. Museum Visits opens with ‘The Guide’, in which the titular cicerone provides a tour of history itself, with a focus on its most ephemeral moments and gestures. ‘So, right here is where Henri IV ran a hand through his beard, here’s where a raindrop landed on Dante’s forehead, this is where Buster Keaton bit into a pancake, here Rubens scratched his ear,’ and so on. The practiced brusquerie with which the guide rushes his audience along is understandable, since, presumably, they have the rest of history to get through. Expanding the purview of the museum until it takes in the most fleeting experiences is more than a solid joke – it suggests a model for Chevillard’s own fictional practice. There is a lightness to everything he does, coupled with a tendency to label things clearly and curtly; every gesture is a dashing-off, a quick stroke, his thoughts traced out alla prima.

This deftness, a sort of pose of effortlessness, lends an odd character to Chevillard’s diminutive essays. The pieces in Museum Visits aren’t really micro-epics of observation, since Chevillard does little to string his impressions together, to link them systematically. And it isn’t right to call them reflections, either, since he rarely confronts his subjects head-on. They’re more like contortions, the product of a mind whose first instinct is always to warp, like a funhouse mirror, whatever it encounters. Chevillard’s quirked-up philosophy of the museal emerges naturally from this impulse. A well-run museum is, in a sense, a machine for perceiving – guiding our progress through physical space, subtly nudging our attention along, offering subliminal suggestions as to where we might stand, where precisely on a canvas we might allow our eyes to linger. Chevillard shows little interest in a laborious deconstruction of this regime; instead, and as ever, his interest lies in the fleet inversion. What would happen, he asks, if we used this machine in an unexpected way? What would it then emphasize?

The collection is anchored by three pieces called ‘The Museum Visit’, all of which posit an off-kilter way of enjoying the museum space. In the first, the narrator claims to visit museums for the symphonic qualities of their floors. ‘Some floors crackle like leaves, twigs, and acorns strewn over an autumn undergrowth – we wouldn’t be surprised to see a stag scamper off into the receding perspective of the exposition rooms,’ he notes. ‘Others rustle like freshly fallen snow.’ In the second, he’s preoccupied, not with the art objects themselves, but with their frames, those ‘four lengths of wood’ that ‘bind the world tightly, its rivers and its mountains and all the madness of humankind.’ In the third and final visit, he cops to admiring the works of ‘minor masters’, among them ‘the chiaroscuros of Anthracite Lenoir’ and ‘the seascapes of Auvergnat Blot,’ as well as ‘the series of Self-Portraits Without Glasses by Célestin Bourne’ and ‘Young Girl with a Round of Gruyère by the high-society painter Amedeo d’Orfin.’

These works don’t exist, but they might as well. As an act of the mind, Chevillard suggests, contemplation is best when it occurs in the mind and nowhere else. In ‘An Overwhelming Success’, Chevillard’s narrator sets out to establish an imaginary museum to accommodate this preference. ‘It took me some time, as you might imagine, to get the works together,’ he explains. When all the details have been finalized, he closes his eyes, ready to enjoy the opening – only to find that ‘a queue several dozen yards long stretched out before the entrance to my imaginary museum!’

To manage his imaginary museum, he hires imaginary guards, recruiting them ‘from among the ghosts of my past and the blurry silhouettes that people my dreams.’ But it isn’t enough. One morning he enters the museum and finds it ‘ravaged,’ with ‘empty frames scattered across the floor.’ Then again, the narrator reflects, maybe he let the ransacking happen. Maybe he was hoping to regain ‘a peace without images, without shapes or colours, the blessed primordial emptiness of those uncreated worlds where everything remains to be done.’ There is an old saw, when it comes to aesthetic appreciation, that posits that careful, sustained attention will disclose the essence of the object or work observed. What Chevillard suggests is that our observations are far more likely to go caroming off the object in perverse directions, ricocheting from thought to thought. If that’s the case, then bliss would be this: an empty museum, an equally empty mind.

Éric Chevillard’s Museum Visits is published by Yale University Press

Main Image: Éric Chevillard, Museum Visits, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Yale University Press

Bailey Trela is a writer based in New York, USA.