Returning from the Small Publishers Fair last November and looking on the bus at my new copy of Journey to the Land of the Real felt like being a teenager again, after finally tracking down some long-desired record I had read about but never actually seen. Victor Segalen is my favourite French writer. Not having known the Atlas Press were bringing out a new translation of Equipée (first published posthumously in 1929), I was astounded to see it lying on their table, like some precious piece of calligraphy or mysterious jade artefact. The book is a beautifully printed hardback with endpapers reproducing photographs of a mountain pass taken by Jean Lartigue, Segalen's travelling companion in 1914. The text was partly inspired by this journey, an archaeological expedition in China and Tibet, although, as the editors of the Wesleyan UP edition of Stèles note, Segalen 'wrote travel literature only in the sense that we might say Proust wrote an autobiography or Baudelaire recorded Parisian street life.' At the beginning of the Journey to the Land of the Real, Segalen says that what follows is 'not a poem about a journey, nor is it the travel diary of a wanderer’s dream.'
The question of landscape description is addressed in Chapter 21, which opens with a criticism of conventional writing, 'pleasant verbal colour.' He says he cannot describe some of what he has seen in words - the red hills of western China, the entrance to Tibet, 'so many mineral landscapes'. He talks about the chaos of forms in the valleys.
'A landscape of yellow earth. Literally made entirely of earth, yellow earth enriched with subtle tones, pinky-yellow in the morning, salmon-yellow in the light from the west, growing pale towards midday, violet in the evening, and at night, deepest black - for not the slightest glimmer of diffused light penetrates at that hour. Perspectives, indentations and architecture, both bland and fantastical, all more astonishing than the colours themselves. [...] I find respite and calm only by climbing as high as possible, fleeing the low, chaotic regions for the high, paradoxical plateaux, where the soothing plain dominates and unfolds beneath the skies.'This passage reminded me of 'Terre Jaune', one of the poems in Stèles (1912) which, according to the free online collection of sources and contexts, was based on some notes Segalen made in August 1909. I've reproduced the French version in full below - the Chinese characters mean 'high plain (tranquillity above), chaos below'. Stèles is not a collection of landscape poems but it takes its title from the stone tablets dotted around China which could, I suppose, be thought of as a great authorless text covering the landscape. In his introduction to Stèles, Segalen says that these 'embed their low foreheads in the Chinese sky. One encounters them unexpectedly: on roadsides, in temple courtyards, before tombs.' 'Terre Jaune' is placed in a section entitled 'Stèles by the wayside.' Such monuments 'offer themselves without reserve to passers-by, to mule-drivers, to chariot drivers, to eunuchs, to footpads, to mendicant monks, to people of the dust, to merchants. Towards all of these they turn their faces radiant with signs...'
D'autres monts déchirent le Ciel, et portant le plus haut qu'ils peuvent les tourments de leurs sommets, laissent couler profondément la vallée.
Ici, la Terre inversée cache au creux des flancs ses crevasses, tapit ses ressauts, étouffe ses pics -- et tout en bas
Les vagues de boue chargées d'or, délitées par les sécheresses, léchées par les pleurs souterrains gardent pour quelque temps la forme des tempêtes.oAlors que, supérieure, ignorant les tumultes, droite comme une table et haute à l'égal des cimes, -- la plaine étendue
Nivelle sa face jaune sous le Ciel quotidien des jours qu'elle recueille dans son plat.