All her life, DePaul professor Kathleen Rooney was a fan of Belgian painter René Magritte. A writer herself, Rooney describes Magritte as “a writer’s painter. His work is very literary and poetic.” In July 2014, her friend and fellow faculty member Eric Plattner suggested they go see “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Little did she know that this trip to the museum was the beginning of a project that would consume the next two years of her life.
“I kept noticing that the wall texts were really, really good,” Rooney says. The exhibit used many excerpts from Magritte’s own letters and essays to accompany the paintings, and she recalls that one in particular, taken from his autobiographical essay “Life Line,” made her decide to buy a book of his writing. “I felt embarrassed—how have I not bought this book? How can I consider myself a fan and not have known Magritte was such a good writer?”
She didn’t find one to buy in the Art Institute gift shop, or anywhere else for that matter. As it turned out, none of his writings were available in translation.
Rooney holds an MFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, teaches English and creative writing at DePaul, and has published eight books of fiction, essays, and poetry. However, she says, “All I’ve ever wanted to be is a detective.” Although she has no formal background in art history or detective work, she began investigating the mystery of why Magritte’s writing wasn’t available in English.
The French publisher Flammarion had released Magritte’s Écrits Complet (Complete Writings) in 1979, but no English translation of the complete or selected writings seemed ever to have existed. The only thing Rooney could find was a listing in WorldCat—an online database of library collections—for an English translation of Magritte’s selected writing from 1987. But though the listing and ISBN (international standard book number) were there, Rooney couldn’t track down any physical copies, which led her to surmise, correctly, that the publication had been planned but fell through before it came out.
It was around this point that her search shifted from looking for a book she wanted to read to looking for a book she wanted to publish. “Once it occurred to me that it might exist but had not been available, I became extremely drawn to the idea of trying to be the person who made it available to the world.”
The existence of an ISBN was a promising clue that a manuscript might exist. WorldCat listed Riverrun Press as the publisher, a British house run by publishing legend John Calder, who was a personal friend of Samuel Beckett and who introduced many 20th-century avant-garde writers, such as William Burroughs and Marguerite Duras, to the UK reading public. Rooney discovered that Riverrun had folded due to Calder’s poor health and a loss of funding, and Alma Books, another British publisher, had bought the rights to all of Riverrun’s projects. At that point, work on the book officially ended.
“It was sort of like the Vivian Maier thing,” Rooney says. “They scooped up all of Riverrun’s rights but had no idea what was in it nor the time to discover what was there.”
Rooney e-mailed Alma Books and heard back from Alessandro Gallenzi, the current publisher and managing director. Gallenzi had no knowledge of the title, but pointed Rooney to an abbey in Caen, France, that housed John Calder’s archives. André Derval, director of collections at Ardenne Abbey, e-mailed Rooney back on August 13, 2014, to let her know that he had a typed copy of the book.
“We don’t know—we may never know—why the manuscript ended up there,” Rooney says. “But it was superexciting when Andre wrote back and said, ‘Yes, it’s here.'” The single typewritten copy of the book had been sitting in the French abbey, most likely since the late 1980s. Gallenzi arranged for Derval to scan the 391-page manuscript and forwarded it on to Rooney.
“I felt extremely lucky to have made the discovery, and extremely surprised that no one else had ever pursued it. I guess if you’re hard-core into Magritte or the French and Belgian surrealists you probably speak French, so you’d just read the Flammarion edition.”
Calder had commissioned Jo Levy, a French-to-English translator, for the Flammarion edition, and the duo worked together to select which pieces of Magritte’s writing to include. Levy passed away in the mid-90s, and while Calder is still alive, he’s in very poor health, and Rooney has been unable to discuss his original project, or her revival of it, with him. Additionally, Calder and Levy lived near each other, and they likely did all their selecting, translating, and editing together in person, so no correspondence survives that reveals their process or intent.
Despite the lack of concrete information about how the original manuscript came together, Rooney was thrilled with the results. “After the initial fear of ‘Does this exist?’ was resolved, I wondered about the quality of the piece,” she says. “Anytime you’re dealing with someone from the past whom you admire, you want what they said to be intelligent and of merit and add to the conversation.”
Rooney found the quality of writing in the manuscript to be as good as the tidbits she’d read at the exhibit, but she was surprised by the range of Magritte’s intellect. Whether addressing his paintings, politics, life, or art, his prose reflects the perceptiveness and daring of his visual work.
“One of the cool things in the text is to see Magritte over the decades return to this idea of mystery,” Rooney says. “He hated mystification, he hated bullshit, but he loved mystery. The world is so full and so incapable of being taken in all at once or efficiently, we have to constantly approach the things we know and not take them as a given. I like the surrealists, but of all them I think Magritte is the one who has the most literary sensibility, the biggest heart, the biggest desire to convey meaning.”
Having tracked down the manuscript and been given Alma’s blessing to continue the project, Rooney and Plattner—who accompanied her on that first visit to the Magritte exhibit, and who became her coeditor—began the work of preparing it for publication. They retyped Levy’s manuscript, checked references and footnotes, and reviewed the translation. “I love Jo Levy,” Rooney says of the collaborator she’ll never meet, “but at times I want to wring her neck.” Rooney believes that the text she received was an early version of the translation—there were inconsistencies that needed to be resolved, and times when Levy would make a revision by typing directly on top of the original source, rendering it illegible. Presumably this rough draft would have been smoothed out by Levy or Calder had they seen Écrits Complet (Complete Writings) through to publication.
Rooney nonetheless admits she owes a great debt to the pair. “They seemed extremely savvy,” she says, and besides commissioning six additional pieces from the Flammarion edition to be translated into English, Rooney and Plattner otherwise adhered to Calder and Levy’s selections.
Although it’s her first foray into art-history scholarship, “the project was intellectually quite sound,” she says. “I do consider myself a scholar, but I also consider myself more into the humanities and the bigger sense of being human. For me it was very much a humanities project. I was excited to have found this contribution to the Magritte scholarship, but also to contribute to the understanding of Magritte as a person.”
“I liken it to becoming friends with the person even though they’re dead,” Rooney says. “I wasn’t just sitting there typing up the manuscript or polishing the translation, I was trying to educate myself more about Magritte’s biography and process. I really got this full sense of him as a human person. I think that feeling for me ended up being really motivating.”
Although initially uninterested, Gallenzi decided that Alma would publish the book in the UK after seeing the manuscript as Rooney worked on it. That left Rooney to find a U.S. publisher. “So in addition to becoming Magritte’s coeditor, I’m also his agent,” she says. “It was interesting, a lot of places were like, ‘Nah, definitely don’t want Magritte.’ It made me feel better as an author myself.” Having gone through the process of finding publishers for her own work, she’d had her fair share of rejections. “I was thinking now that I’m basically Magritte, no one will say no,” she says. “People still said no.”
She eventually found the University of Minnesota Press, which was not only excited about the artistic and literary value of the book, but willing to navigate the complicated rights situation involving the Magritte estate, Flammarion, and Alma Books. On September 22, the press will publish René Magritte: Selected Writings, the result of two years of literary sleuthing, cajoling, and hard work that began in that gift shop.
Magritte was a prolific writer. He wrote detective novels when he was young, and throughout his life continued to be, as Rooney describes in her introduction to Selected Writings, “a genre-jumping author of essays, prose poems, manifestos, polemics, lectures, reviews, film scripts, memoirs, interviews, pamphlets, aphorisms and plays on words and images.”
The selections in the book include one- or two-line musings such as “In Europe, on the vast plains where the ripe wheat makes the Sun shine, we are a handful of men and women living beside our food,” but there are also full-length interviews and essays as well as plays, pamphlets, open letters to the Communist Party, thoughts on his fellow artists, and reflections on his own work.
Although Magritte’s painting complements his writing and vice versa, both stand on their own merits. A note of Magritte’s included in this book says: “The titles of pictures are not explanations and pictures are not illustrations of titles. The relationship between title and picture is poetic.”
For now, Rooney may be leaving art-history detective work behind. Her next novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, which she worked on concurrently with the Magritte manuscript, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017.
But Magritte’s influence remains. Rooney just finished a book called The Listening Room, titled after Magritte’s painting of the same name (La Chambre d’Écoute), that is told from the perspective of Magritte’s wife, Georgette, and their many Pomeranians, all named Loulou.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Rooney says of another art history or research project. “I like all interesting ideas, so we’ll see. I don’t anticipate finding any more lost manuscripts by titans of 20th-century art history, but if I do, I will track them down.” v