French Actor Clementi’s Prison Memoir “Not a Warning, but a Wailing”

Interview 4

By Jean Marc Ah-Sen

Pierre Clėmenti, the enigmatic French actor and director whose roles in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour, and Phillipe Garrel’s The Virgin’s Bed made him one of the most recognizable talents in the world of art house cinema, was arrested in 1972 on suspicion of drug possession charges while residing in Italy. Clėmenti was jailed for 17 months without trial and endured unspeakable treatment by his jailers before being released and ejected from the country. His son Balthazar Clėmenti has long attested to his memory of seeing corrupt Italian law enforcement officers planting drugs in the apartment that his father was living in at the time of his arrest.

During his incarceration, Clėmenti took to writing what would become his prison memoir, and elaborated on a variety of subjects dear to him, not least of which was the hypocrisy behind the prosecution of drug users to the same degree as drug traffickers. Clėmenti held the view that it was preferable for lawmakers to view drugs as evil, rather than closely investigating the complicated social origins of drug use or the complicity of legal institutions.

In October of 2022, Stephanie LaCava’s independent publishing outfit Small Press released the only English translation of Clėmenti’s A Few Personal Messages to coincide with the MoMA’s retrospective of the actor’s contributions to cinema. I corresponded with Claire Foster, the Toronto-based American translator and Type Books bookseller responsible for the latest edition of Clėmenti’s only literary offering, to discuss the actor’s enduring legacy as an artist and intellectual and translation as a curatorial practice.

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: One of the defining features of Clémenti’s memoir is his iconoclasm. He derides “café society,” where his peers are described in your translation as “completely inept, useless, ‘luxurious.’” His remarks about the majesties of acting inspiring audiences to become “so wise, so revolutionary, that the Church no longer had any direct power over them” were anti-clerical sentiments he had espoused publicly before and likely responsible in some part for his arrest. Does Clémenti’s memoir serve as a dire warning against challenging an oppressive system, or does it perhaps paint an honest portrait of the necessity of its eradication?

Claire Foster: Clémenti’s memoir is not a warning, but a wailing. He riles and rails against a prison system and judicial apparatus that he wholly believes can and should be eradicated. Clémenti writes how everyone should be revolting against these forces with whatever instruments of rebellion are at their disposal—violence, silence, one’s own body, witness, painting. In an early chapter, he writes that “[t]he prison system is the total negation of the human being” and later, imagining possibilities for revolt, he writes: “You must know when it’s necessary to go too far. Far enough that the system cannot handle your journey and consequent absence. If you merely withdraw into yourself, stay in your lane, and refuse to comply with the habits that dictate and trivialize prison life, it’s tantamount to giving up without a fight.”

Clémenti wants to fight. But he understands, too, that this fight can be played out within oneself, and that revolt can be quiet: “[Y]our inner illumination pushes you beyond your limits and commits you to a more radical refusal. Your absences become a force of extreme negation. And your body starts bearing the scars of crisis. You will be the (still) living proof of the machine’s very logic, and thus unacceptable to it. The machine destroys men, and if you look at me, you’ll see that I’m the very portrait of this destruction. The machine ravages bodies and breaks spirits. And I bring its truth to its most severe consequences. I am the most logical of its products.”

Jean Marc Ah-Sen:  A large portion of the book is dedicated to Clémenti’s impassioned call for drastic prison reform. He talks about how prisons provide an economic and political advantage to state apparatuses in the sense that the unemployment rate can be reduced if you simply lock people away or employ them within the prison-industrial complex. Do you believe that the relevance of the text lies foremost in its ideas for radical prison reform?

Claire Foster: I hesitate to point towards one primary reason why the text is relevant, because it does so many things at once. But of course, Clémenti’s ideas resound in shrill unison with conversations about prison abolition that are happening. And I’d insist that his calls for abolition are louder than his calls for reform, though I admit his ideas (reform vs. abolition) are not always clear-cut. For example, in his final chapter, which is written as a direct address to the Minister of Justice, he imagines a future for the prison in which “Fellini [comes] to premiere his films—isn’t that better than the Roman bourgeoisie?” but I don’t think Clémenti believed in any good future for the prison, either. These logical wrinkles aside, Clémenti wrote with clarity about the impossibility of there ever being a moral version of prison, or a justly imprisoned person.

I’d like to point towards critic Madeleine Wall’s response-essay to the book, published last month on Mubi, which I found extremely shrewd: “This incarceration in Italian prisons changed Clémenti, and his memoir non-linearly focuses on life in prison, the oppression of the State, and his own life, all now inherently linked. The book begins and ends with a direct address, first to a warden of the prison, and ending with one to a judge, asking them to experience the prisons as he did. Clémenti’s desire to undergo something transcendental and make it communal, which formed his acting career, shapes this text just as much.”

I wonder whether Clémenti is sounding out his writerly ethic when he describes a painter who mentored him in prison: “I painted like a child in a style that could be called ‘naïve,’ and my mentor smiled when I told him that I didn’t know how or where to begin a painting. ‘You paint everything all at once,’ he said. And I did just that, because the impressions and images behind my paintings were so vivid in my memory.” With the sweeping movements of a painter, Clémenti reaches towards politics and grabs art and philosophy in the same hand, all at once. A Few Personal Messages is a text grounded in its politics, but it’s less a treatise than a testimony.

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: Clémenti dedicates a few letters to exploring his unique acting philosophy in relation to his work with directors like Fellini and Buñuel, but what becomes abundantly clear through his writing is how he was an artist who could not be contained by the traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines. Whether as a painter, writer, director, activist or actor, he seemed to embody all of these roles with abandon. How do you think he will be best remembered with regard to his contributions to film culture and beyond?

Claire Foster: It’s largely thanks to Sophie Cavoulacos, Stephanie LaCava, and Balthazar Clémenti, that his immense contributions to film and culture have been made so clear: there was recently a retrospective of his work as actor and director that was organized at the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film, where Cavoulacos is an amazing curator. This retrospective brought together the many shades of Clémenti—angel, devil, poet, rebel.

How Clémenti will be remembered is up to every single person who has ever had the luck of looking at his face, or of watching him stride, saunter, or slink across a stage or screen, or of watching his films—and everyone is right. And he was so many things, as you rightly list—artist and activist, poet, painter, and partier, a saxophone player, a lover, a director, a dad. But it’s probably worth noting that no one can talk about him without mentioning his beauty. He was simply that beautiful.

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: How did you get into literary translation?

Claire Foster: My point of entry was accidental, which isn’t unusual. Here is one beginning: I was stumbling through two undergraduate theses, one in English and one in French, about several autobiographies that were written in the second language of their authors (the colonial language in several instances, and the language of the country into which the author had migrated in another); I was also learning French. And I remember very clearly the moment at which I realized, with a sinking feeling, that all I was theorizing—the possibilities of finding a more true or compelling ‘I’ in a second language—was actually of no interest to me personally. This is because my interest was (and remains) writing in English, and producing work in English. It felt to me like an intellectual and/or moral failing—that I didn’t aim to eventually publish writing in French, since it was precisely this doubling/distancing of language that was the focus of so much of my writing and thinking at the time.

But fortunately, a wonderful professor of mine, Hédi Jaouad, asked me to translate a short essay, a piece of travel writing by Isabelle Eberhardt, and it was this exercise that prompted me to learn that literary translation calls for the same perching between two languages that I find so stimulating, and that it also allows me to work and write in English. 

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: Do you believe that there must be, in a certain sense, a divide between the translator and the text that is being translated, and that you must resist bringing elements of yourself to the work so that the writer’s voice can be uplifted? Or do you view the process as being much more symbiotic or collaborative in nature, and involving a fair degree of push and pull between the two voices?

Claire Foster: Of course I wanted to uplift Clémenti, but in every word that’s in the book, that’s a word I decided on over all the other words that exist in the world, and these words—their constellations of meaning, rhyme, rhythm—are singular to my use of language. It’s vital to note that it’s not just my words in the book, either. I had huge amounts of help, most vitally from Gabriel Briex. At the end of the translation, I thank him; he is a brilliant (and endlessly patient!) scholar and translator—he helped me to wrestle meaning out of every single one of Clémenti’s always beautiful, sometimes bewildering French sentences. This text was also scrupulously and shimmeringly copy-edited by Eugenie Dalland, and the translation is better because of her reading.

Translation is always going to be collaborative—it will always begin with an already written work, with another person’s words. I was always-already translating in collaboration with Clémenti, trying to get as close to his words as possible so as to pull out of them an English counterpart (and this counterpart, as I’ve mentioned, includes many lines of sound other than my own). I wonder whether it’s possible to say my English aspired to be an octave of language away from Clémenti’s French.

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: If your translation can be viewed as a form of curation on your part, I am wondering what attracts you to a text in the first place that makes you want to broaden its audience? Are you looking for obscure, lost or forgotten works, or are there thematic and stylistic qualities that you are attracted to?

Claire Foster: A Few Personal Messages is my first book-length translation, so it might be impossible to think about my translation work as curatorial by any means. And I’m not sure it’s something I would ever aspire towards—the notion of translation as a form of curation. I like to think of translation as something more inherently accumulative, amateur, capable of stretch and stain. There’s something inside the idea of curation—not its definition but connotation/modern usage—that I dislike. It nods towards the clean, the pristine, the selective—and I’m not tempted to bind these ideas to my work in translation. I’m a bookseller, too, and I also dislike the term in bookselling. I’d rather say that the books are cared about, rather than curated. And in translation, I want to be able to say that the translations I do are cared for, not curated. As I move forward towards other projects, that’s something I will keep in mind.

I take pleasure in finding French texts that unlock in me a desire to bring them closer to me, and other readers, through English. I learned French as an adult, so my experience of reading in French is much different than English—it’s always going to be from a distance, like listening to an instrument being played in the next room. And I know I want to try to translate something if I want to get closer to the sound. It’s something I want to make ring in English.

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: Does your translating seek to modernize texts for new readers in the spirit of relatability—in terms of a vernacular, word choice and idiom use—or do you view it as being an exercise in preservation, in which you are trying to capture a snapshot of a moment in time as accurately as possible?

Claire Foster: I didn’t seek to modernize the text in any way, since I always viewed this translation—and the original text itself—as an archival document. A Few Personal Messages is a poetic text, obviously, and Clémenti was a poet in language and in his living. But this book is, above all, a vital document from 1973—a sustained moment of witness. In translating it I had the duty and privilege to sustain the witnessing into a new language.

This is a digression, but I feel it to be an important one, because I like your idea of a snapshot so much—the informality of it, and the imperfection built into a snapshot being much akin to the imperfection (I don’t use this word with a negative valence!) that’s always going to be part of translation. I shrink from the notion of “accuracy”—perhaps as a measure of self-protection, but also as a proposition for the privileging of error. Here I’m thinking of poet and translator Yvette Siegert, who I saw give a really inspired craft class on error in translation at Bread Loaf over the summer—she was making space for the translator to err.

In one of my favorite passages of the book, Clémenti writes: “I love cinema because its images are traces of something forgotten, a lost part of you. Suddenly, in a flash, you are reacquainted with your past: I was once that man who runs across the screen.” That’s how I feel when I read my translation of A Few Personal Messages today. I was once that woman who translated those words in that way.


Bio: Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the author of Grand Menteur, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation, and a participant in the collaborative omnibus novel Disintegration In Four Parts. His writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Catapult, Hazlitt, Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and elsewhere.

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