Peter and the Wolf: Short Prose by Éric Chevillard

Peter and the Wolf: Short Prose by Éric Chevillard

The following short appears as part of a robust portfolio devoted to the French writer Éric Chevillard in Music & Literature no. 8. To view the complete contents of the volume and read extracts from other works, click here.


Yes, yes yes, it’s very charming, is Peter and the Wolf, I won’t deny it, a fine introduction to orchestral music for the young audience who must somehow be made to swallow that bizarre, tiresome manifestation of human genius, those fireworks of polished brass and varnished wood, that spectacle of austere, black-dressed personages waggling their mallets, their sticks, their bows, as if it weren’t enough for a man to know how to handle a shovel, a drill, a saw, a ladle, an oyster fork. Sergei Prokofiev believed—rightly, cleverly, underhandedly—that some manner of sop had to be thrown to those little sprites, who might very well whine and carry on without some naïve little tale to distract them from the stiff-necked, solemn, symphonic tedium.

And so, as everyone knows, how can you not, he came up with the idea of assigning every character in the story an instrument of the orchestra and a musical phrase, to keep the ingenuous child, ignobly manipulated and silenced, still in his seat. Thus, the strings introduce Peter, the happy, fun-loving little hero; the airy, twittering flute is the bird, the melancholy oboe the duck, the mellow clarinet the velvet-pawed cat, the severe, somber horns the wolf, the muttering bassoon the grumpy grandfather, the timpani and bass drum the hunters. The story is simple: ignoring his grandfather’s orders, Peter ventures into the countryside, where he meets a cat, a bird, and a duck, whose mutual vilifications come out as music, of course. Later, a wolf devours the duck. Perched on a branch, Peter captures the wolf with the aid of the bird and a rope; the hunters pursuing it show up too late, and it all ends with a perfectly orchestrated tumult of collective celebration.

A narrator tells this fine story, since the audience could never begin to understand what’s going on from the narrative expressivity of the music alone, but in any case, it’s light-hearted, it’s lively, it works. We’ve all heard that concert three or four times in our childhood, and seen several cartoon versions as well. And of course not one Christmas went by, not one birthday, without some music-loving, short-fused aunt giving us yet another new recording of the thing, Peter and the Wolf, them again, narrated by some silver-tongued actor or other. They all have to shoulder that role sooner or later, it’s a must for a successful career, that and Hamlet and Don Juan, there’s no getting out of it.

But here’s the rub: pummeled by Peter and the Wolf, knocked senseless, saturated, the child ends up definitively and permanently associating the instruments with the characters they arbitrarily play in the story. I’m a victim of that syndrome myself, and it’s left me lost to music forever. Because while the story expressly written for Prokofiev’s instrumental playlet obviously works very nicely, the same is not true of all the other pieces in the classical repertory. But for me, you understand, the muttering bassoon will always be a grumpy grandfather, the melancholy oboe a duck, the airy, twittering flute a bird, the mellow clarinet a velvet-pawed cat, the bass drum a hunter, the severe, somber horn a wolf emerging from the forest, and the violin that happy, fun-loving little hoodlum Peter.

Imagine, then, the nightmarish visions that come to me when I listen, for example, to Tchaikovsky’s Pathetic Symphony: the melancholy duck eats the eyes of the velvet-pawed cat, its claws shredding happy, fun-loving Peter’s belly as it dies. Then the muttering grandfather marries the melancholy duck while the hunters slaughter each other and the airy, twittering bird carries off the severe, somber wolf to devour it in its aerie! And Mahler’s Song of the Night: the severe, somber wolf is a finance minister, calling for a vote on a law that will sentence the velvet-pawed cat to shell peas. The airy, twittering bird vomits up wallpaper paste. Happy, fun-loving Peter plucks the melancholy duck alive, and the hunters shoot the grumpy grandfather in his bath. It’s horrible, but that’s nothing compared to the goings-on in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony: happy, fun-loving Peter rapes his grumpy grandfather, the velvet-pawed cat has succumbed to alcoholism, the airy, twittering bird and the melancholy duck appear only in the form of terrines three days past their sell-by dates, the severe, somber wolf and the hunters divide the world between them, in four pieces, like an orange. And Ravel’s Bolero!  What an abomination! The severe, somber wolf passes itself off as the velvet-pawed cat, which pretends to be the airy, twittering bird, which is disguised as happy, fun-loving Peter, who takes himself for a hunter, and that hunter turns out to be the melancholy duck’s grumpy grandfather. And then when it’s over, it all starts up again. For me Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a mortifying ordeal. I leave the auditorium humiliated for life. And don’t get me started on Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique: nothing more than a long string of unnatural acts, a sordid, macabre delirium I’d rather not recount in detail. There may be children listening.

Translated from the French by Jordan Stump


Éric Chevillard was born in 1964 in La Roche-sur-Yon in the west of France. He published his first novel, Mourir m’enrhume (Dying Gives Me a Cold), at the age of twenty-three, and has since gone on to publish more than twenty works of fiction, including The Crab NebulaOn the CeilingPalafoxPrehistoric TimesDemolishing Nisard, and The Author and Me.

Jordan Stump is a Professor of French at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the translator of some thirty works of (mostly) contemporary French fiction. His most recent translation is Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In.

The Voices of Linor Goralik

The Voices of Linor Goralik

Just as we can discern the ancestors of the novel—the letter and the diary—in eighteenth-century exemplars of the genre, so too does Lina Goralik’s writing betray its roots in the anarchic, confessional culture of early Runet. Even on paper, Goralik’s texts retain an intimacy and immediacy, a sense of just having been overheard, that digital natives associate with online posting. They are also eminently shareable, which is what compelled me to translate them in the first place—so I could keep on laughing and cringing, this time with English-speaking friends...

Waiting Translations: A Conversation with Kate Briggs

Waiting Translations: A Conversation with Kate Briggs

I was thinking about a lot as I was reading about how, in the translation workshop, every week we would have a theme, translation as X—translation as copying, translation as refraction, translation as dépaysement—and we would work with this theme and write about it. So as I was going through your book, I was thinking, “What is this translation as?” The first one is translation as affirmation: I accept the terms under which this writing has come to me, but I also accept that I can read it and participate in it, I accept that this is a proper text and not an inferior copy.

Yes, I think that’s what the opening section is all about—as I say repeatedly, I don’t read German, and yet here is this book, which I receive as The Magic Mountain, which has become very important to me. Perhaps it is worth making clear that all the materials that I draw on, all the books that I think with in This Little Art, whether it’s The Magic Mountain or Robinson Crusoe, are the books that Barthes was also thinking with [in The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live Together]. In other words, those are the books I was reading in order to translate Barthes’s lecture notes, and so they were the ones I was also thinking with as I was thinking about the translations. But beyond that requirement to read it, The Magic Mountain was also just this extraordinary reading experience. I mean, it’s an amazing novel. Unlike Barthes, who read it in Maurice Betz’s French translation, I received it in Helen Lowe-Porter’s English, in the form of the book-object that she made. The question I wanted to open the book with was: How to make the fact of this appear? How to make translation appear when, as we all know, it is so easy to lose sight of, so easy to forget and pass over? You know that famous line from Viktor Shklovsky? Something like “art exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”—art exists to make things unfamiliar, to de-familiarize them even if ever so slightly, so they have a chance of being registered, kind of received in all of their strange particularity. How do you make the stone stony? I was thinking about that a lot: How do I make translation thick

A Conversation with Éric Chevillard

A Conversation with Éric Chevillard

Alyson Waters: But then where does the first sentence come from, if it doesn’t come from your imagination? I’m thinking, in particular, of some first sentences from your novels that are too long to be quoted in full but which are utterly delightful: “Boborokine was not a big man, though not preposterously small, he must have stood, amounted to, or measured a head shorter than me, judging from his uniform…” (Prehistoric Times) or “The thickest clouds are gray, the tallest, mightiest cities are gray, the elephant, the hippopotamus, all the pachyderms are gray; they can be seen from a much greater distance than the garish hummingbird or butterfly, and yet the prejudice persists that gray is the more minimal manifestation of visibility . . .” (On the Ceiling); or a far shorter sentence, the one that opens Dino Egger: “Finally, I’ve got one, and now we’re going to find out.”

Éric Chevillard: The beginning is always a feat of willpower. I’ve often had to deliberately set down—like an absurd premise, an indefensible principle—a first sentence so bizarre that it opened up a wholly unexplored space. At least then I could be sure I was the first to land on this shore, to tread on this snowy stretch. I remember very clearly the moment when I started my novel On the Hedgehog by writing these words: “It seems exactly like a naive and globular hedgehog, this animal, there, on my desk.” It was practically automatic writing. I didn’t yet have any specific aim. But the impetus was there. I will maintain that any other formulation could have served my purpose just as well. It’s a matter of surprising myself in order not to repeat those worn-out phrases that have not only been put to use already in literature, but also come to dictate our very existence. I believe that art in general and literature in particular offer us the chance to broaden the range of our awareness as well as our areas of experience, to leap from a moving train of thought as if to free ourselves from the specific conditions imposed upon us. So the first words count quite a bit; here the words really do give the orders. If a writer isn’t careful he will innocently formulate the words that already dictate the world, whereupon everything will start over as it always has and, as Beckett puts it at the beginning of Murphy, the sun will shine “on the nothing new.” A mysterious or extravagant first sentence must, on the contrary, be justified. A different world order must be invented in which it makes sense.

A Conversation with Unsuk Chin

A Conversation with Unsuk Chin

A feature by Daniel Medin


Daniel Medin: I can’t help but try to situate Le Silence des Sirènes in relation to previous works of yours, and one obvious connection seems to be to the concertos. Yet writing for a human voice has to be different from writing for piano or violin or any of the instruments featured in a traditional concerto; what sort of concerns does it raise for you?


Unsuk Chin: The human voice is always something different, as you say. Naturally, differences exist between instruments; for example, when a string instrument plays a long note, it expresses certain emotions which couldn’t be expressed in the same way if the note were played by the piano. But there is a stark difference between these instruments and the voice, because you can’t use the voice without implying a particular set of underlying affects. I can’t sing at all myself, but I have a great affinity for the human voice, and I’ve written lots of vocal music. The reason, perhaps, is that I come from Korea—Koreans like to sing, and when I compose for other instruments, even when the music is multi-layered and abstract, I try to sing it with my “inner voice.”

A Conversation with Mark Turner

A Conversation with Mark Turner

A feature by Ben Ratliff


BR: I want to know more about your grandfather. There’s an airport named after him, right?

MT: Yes, there is now. It’s in Ohio.

I know only a little bit about his time training African-American air-force pilots during the 1940s.

Yes, exactly, he trained pilots in Tuskegee. He wasn’t enlisted, but he was one of the non-enlisted who trained pilots. I don’t remember how many trainers they had, but he was one of the main guys that did it.

Autofiction: Short Prose by Éric Chevillard

Autofiction: Short Prose by Éric Chevillard

I began ejaculating when I was seven.

     It came to me one morning, just like that. I started ejaculating feverishly all over my schoolbooks.

     My parents disapproved. You’re not old enough to ejaculate. You’ll put an eye out.

     So what. I continued ejaculating in secret.

     I ejaculated, I ejaculated, I ejaculated, without fatigue, without boredom, without deviation, come hell or high water.

     I held in my hand a magic wand. I ejaculated certain that I was creating marvelous things.

     It was in my blood, to be sure. At the first free moment, did I play with marbles or chase girls? No. I did not watch television. I didn’t help my father in the garden. What did I do? I ejaculated.

     At sixteen my ejaculations were strongly influenced by Rimbaud, but they weren’t very good now that I think about it...

A Conversation with Georgi Gospodinov

A Conversation with Georgi Gospodinov

What was the translation process like?

I wanted translation, or the impossibility of translation, to be an intrinsic part of the text. Because of that, its starting point was the untranslatability of the Bulgarian тъга (“taga”: sorrow, melancholy), the concept as well as the word itself. The text is made of various personal notes which take their structure from the notebooks I travel around with. I always have one with me, I am now probably on volume 67 or so.

Do you have it with you currently?

Yes, I always have the latest one. Though I travel a lot and carry at least the last fifteen with me.

Do you ever write on a computer?

Yes, but it all starts from the notebooks: the ideas, the phrases. I develop these further on a computer of course, and I do write prose on it, but poetry I can only write on paper. I am an analog poet. Poetry on a computer is a different genre altogether...

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Musical memorialization at John Coltrane’s Funeral

Feature by Kevin Laskey

Because of Coltrane’s musical stature and the public nature of his funeral, the performances by Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman had the power to establish the conventions of a modern jazz requiem—how to properly memorialize a member of the jazz community. In their performances, Ayler and Coleman memorialized Coltrane not through imitation or pale attempts at resurrection, but by organically integrating aspects of Coltrane’s playing into their own distinct styles—a form of musical signifyin(g).

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Feature by Adrian Nathan West

Even more, perhaps, what mattered to me was to recreate the language my mother invented when she arrived in France, a trans-Pyrenean language, a language split in two, an inventive, joyous, poetic tongue that laughed at and manhandled the dominant language, and thereby opened new horizons of meaning. And this language, which my sisters and I called “Fragnol,” this language I was ashamed of when I was a girl but later loved with all my heart, could only have been invented between Spanish and French. With Catalan it would have been unthinkable.

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Unlimited Americana:
A Conversation with Halim El-Dabh

Feature by Tommy McCutchon

When Halim El-Dabh speaks about his investigation of “energy and vibration” and the universality of sound, it is tempting to think his perspective aligns neatly with that of New Age music. However, El-Dabh is actually quite far removed from the genre. He is rigorously dedicated to pursuing a musical investigation of the ancient knowledge held within his Egyptian heritage, as much as he is dedicated to making sure America receives the credit for inspiring and facilitating that worldview. The seemingly paradoxical quality of that relationship would be taken as straightforward, were it not for the fact that America remains ill-equipped to share American identity with that of other nationalities, such that El-Dabh, a U.S. citizen since 1961, would be accepted as just as American a composer as Bernstein or Copland.

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Toward Marzahn:
A Story by Bae Suah

In contrast to Korean literature of the twentieth century, which battled with how to present social and political upheaval from occupation to war to industrialization, Korean writers of the twenty-first century often seem driftless. Many writers of this new generation experiment and take risks in their fiction but few have done so as brilliantly as Bae Suah. With its shifting timeframes, ambiguous narrator, and apartment empty except for small traces of previous inhabitants, Bae’s “Toward Marzahn” perfectly depicts a hypnagogic atmosphere unlike any other. Marzahn is not in Korea but rather a corner of Berlin, a city where Bae has spent long stretches of time, and her words give life to this realm far removed from her Korean readers’ homeland. Yet the loneliness of these characters never feels foreign or unfamiliar. Rather, it transplants Bae’s readers to her reality, which her critics have hailed as “a world of dreams . . . through which lost voices drift.”

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Feature by Anne Lanzilotti

Grounded in the reality of the concert hall and its traditions, Aeriality invites the audience to focus on different aspects of the soundscape—at times treating it as a sound installation, as Thorvaldsdottir suggests. She asks the audience to have the willingness to explore these perspectivesand the requisite “unease”as they become a part of the resonant landscape of the hall. Thorvaldsdottir achieves the transition from “reality” to “aerial” by creating a clear progression of pitch away from its origin, and eventually through a timbral shift from pure tone to air sound. Sound itself is used as a way to change perspectives.

<i>KULTURMESSIAH</i>:<br>Patrick Frank and the Roads to Freedom

Patrick Frank and the Roads to Freedom

Feature by Max Erwin

The avant-garde after Cage and Lachenmann incorporated increasingly alien sound materials into composition—first extended techniques, then sound production from non-instrumental sources—until a point was reached where any source of sound could be interpolated into a composition and be recognized as “music”—or rather, could be recognized as such by a consensus of New Music audiences. Thus, according to this teleology, the conquest of sonic material (a process described in such precisely conquistadorial terms at least since Webern’s writings) had exhausted itself; there are no “new” sounds left to bend to the will of musical logos. Indeed, at one of Lachenmann’s lectures at the 2014 Darmstadt courses, he spoke of this material conquest in the guise of an orange: what do you do after you have consumed the inside of the fruit? Do you eat the peel? What next?

A Conversation with Eugene Ostashevsky

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The title of your recent lecture was “Poetry and Multilingualism.” Can you tell us about The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, and whether you think of it as multilingual poetry?

Well, the Pirate is, maybe, a novel that consists mostly of poems. It has two protagonists, a pirate and a parrot. It is a book of several parts. Part One keeps asking about the similarities and differences between the pirate and the parrot, which is a bit like that question in Alice in Wonderland: “what is the difference between a raven and a writing desk”? And that question ultimately goes back to Plato, to the comparative procedure that gives rise to Platonic Forms. But with the pirate and the parrot, the added difficulty is that they are also the same. They are both PRT if you take the vowels out. So it’s like Jewish Plato. Anyway, Part Two consists mainly of pirate songs. There’s a chantey, there’s old school hip-hop, there’s a song my father used to sing to me when I was little. Because pirates party. Part Three is about skepticism. I am comparing the way parrots were taught to speak in Persia with the skeptical experience of al-Ghazali, a Persian philosopher in Bagdad. Al-Ghazali in a way went farther than Descartes, because he doubted not only learning and the senses, but also reason. His solution to the problem—nothing is provable, therefore trust God—is a total copout. In Part Four, the pirate and the parrot get shipwrecked, which is, like, a metaphor for immigration. Most of it is devoted to arguments about the effects of particular languages on the thought patterns of the speakers of those languages. It is thus about, or perhaps against, translation. This is one way of summarizing the book. It is probably the most pretentious way. In real-life terms the book is about the pirate and the parrot, about how they do and do not communicate, how they do and do not understand each other, how they do and do not love each other. More than one person has said that it’s about marriage. The philosophy stuff might even be something I read into it . . .

I went to the house but did not enter: a text by Paul Griffiths

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I took the route I’d made out on the map, going by car most of the way, then on foot for the last bit. There was no hitch. It all went well. When I got there I took up my place a short way back from the house, at the other side of the road; I stood there with my feet just down off the curb. Now; then. Then; now. Is it so odd?

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Feature by Heidi Hart

Reading the introduction to German poet Uljana Wolf’s “Method Acting mit Anna O.,” I come across the word “Aberzählen.”  Momentarily forgetting my own German prefixes, I see a new mashup of “aber” (“but”) and most of “erzählen” (“to narrate”). Knowing Wolf’s penchant for neologism, code-switching, and pun, I wonder if this anti-telling is intentional, before the poet explains to me that this is simply “Ab-erzählen,” a no-longer-used term for free association, or “telling off” from the expected storyline.  We are sitting in a café in Berlin’s Neukölln district, where Wolf’s preschool-age daughter has somehow found a graphic novel on Hemingway and Sartre, and her husband Christian Hawkey works nearby.  Both of them teach poetry and translation at New York’s Pratt Institute, while Wolf also teaches German-language courses at NYU. True to her continuous contesting of language-borders, the poet divides her time between Brooklyn and Berlin. Most often she works at thresholds between German and English, which “makes the reader slippery, too,” as she puts it, referring to my misreading of an archaic word...

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Lexical Music and the
Text-Sound Compositions of Charles Amirkhanian

Feature by David Menestres

I went all over San Francisco with a recording engineer from CBS Radio who had a Nagra, which is a really fine reel-to-reel machine. We would go into underground subway stations where there was a resonant cavity, and he would turn the volume up and point to me, and I’d say a word, then he’d put the volume down. And my idea was we’d have all these different sorts of fadings-in and -out and they would fall in counterpoint with each other, so you’d have different locations and different timbres of the voice and different words that would somehow add up to something greater than the sum of its parts.

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A Conversation with Bernard Cooper

Feature by Mary Mann

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