The writing on the wall

A prehistoric literary hoax brought to light

Times Literary Supplement, March 2023

Can there ever be enough poets? Evidently not, because more get invented all the time. In the eighteenth century alone, teenager Thomas Chatterton “discovered” the work of the fifteenth-century monk Thomas Rowley, while James MacPherson “translated” – to great acclaim – an epic cycle of poems that he attributed to the Scottish Gaelic author Ossian.

In The Lascaux Notebooks Philip Terry introduces the little-known 1940s French poet Jean-Luc Champerret. Their engaging literary meet-cute, as sketched out in Terry’s introduction, comes by way of a chateau near Montignac, in the Dordogne region of France, where Terry finds the long-dead local poet’s neglected papers at the back of a dusty cupboard. The papers cry out for some biographical “research”, and Terry “learns” that in Paris, at the outbreak of war, Champerret was recruited into the French Resistance as a codebreaker. He later fled to Montignac, where soon after his arrival the Lascaux caves were discovered when a dog fell down a hole in the ground.

Champerret was among the first locals to explore the cave network, initially with the intention of calculating its possible uses to the Resistance. During these visits (which pre-dated archaeologists’ warnings against uninformed speculation), he became fascinated by the prehistoric markings on the walls. As poet and codebreaker he developed a theory about Ice Age poetry.

The Lascaux Notebooks is Terry’s translation of Champerret’s speculative poems, as potentially written by inhabitants of the caves 17,000 years ago. This intriguing frame seems deliberately to distance the material from contemporary writing, and the size of the project (the book runs to more than 400 pages, in which there are some 600 poems) risks summoning the shadow of Borges, who advised against “the madness of composing vast books. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary, on them”. So why has Terry chosen to present poetry in this undeniably complicated way?

Read the rest of the article here.