My Strawberry Plants: On Marcottage


On Books

Alphonse du Breuil, Marcottage en serpenteaux, 1846. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, I read Virginia Woolf’s first published novel, The Voyage Out, for the first time. There, I made a discovery: it features a character named Clarissa Dalloway. This encounter initially provoked delight, surprise combined with double take, like bumping into someone I thought I knew well in a setting I never expected to find them, causing a brief mutual repositioning, physically, imaginatively. (Ah! So we’re both here? But if you’re here, where am I?) Then my feelings went strange. For some reason, I felt disgruntled, almost caught out: as if the world had been withholding something important from me. How was I only just now catching up on what—for so many readers—must be old news? Yes, there’s a Clarissa Dalloway in The Voyage Out. She’s married to Mr. Richard Dalloway: the couple have been stranded in Lisbon; they board the boat and the novel in chapter 3. She is a “tall, slight woman” with a habit of holding her head slightly to one side.

I was impressed by the boldness of this move: for Woolf to initiate a character in a minor role and then, years later, to return to her, to open out a whole novel from her private intentions and in this way continue her (Mrs. Dalloway was published a decade later, in 1925). It made me think of E. M. Forster’s two lectures on “character,” published in Aspects of the Novel in 1927. The first is titled “People.” The second: “People (continued).” Then I remembered why I’d had that “caught out,” “I should have known this” feeling: this same technique of novel-growth was also of great interest to Roland Barthes. In his lecture courses at the Collège de France in the late seventies, he named it marcottage.

It’s a horticultural term. A process of plant propagation, working for instance with trees or bushes. It involves bending one of the plant’s higher, flexible branches into the ground and fastening it there, a branch-part under the soil, to give it the time and energy to root. It was also, for Barthes, a method of novel composition, one practiced by Balzac, by Proust. In an article (translated in 2015 by Chris Turner) on the discoveries that initiated Proust’s writing In Search of Lost Time, Barthes defined the method as that “mode of composition by ‘enjambment,’ whereby an insignificant detail given at the beginning of the novel reappears at the end, as though it had grown, germinated, and blossomed.” The detail could be an object, a musical phrase, or the first mention of a character: the point is that it recurs, appearing again in a later volume, connecting several books of a life’s project—only that, each time, it is allocated a different amount of attention, provided with more or less space to develop (to grow). Marcottage. The plant example Barthes reached for to illustrate this in his lectures was the strawberry plant. Strawberries do it spontaneously, “asexually,” sending out long stems called runners from the “main,” or “mother,” plant. The runner touches the soil a small distance away, takes root there, and produces a new “daughter” plant. Together, the plants form a pair, eventually a network of mature plants, making it hard to distinguish daughters from mothers. The generative paths run backward as well as forward.

Marcottage could be a possible metaphor for translation. This work of provoking what plants, and perhaps also books, already know how to do, what in fact they most deeply want to do: actively creating the conditions for a new plant to root at some distance from the original, and there live separately: a “daughter-work” robust enough in its new context to throw out runners of its own, in unexpected directions, causing the network of interrelations to grow and complexify.

For me, marcottage is a way to make sense of my own translations of Barthes’s lecture courses. Officially, there have been two—two translations into English of two volumes of lecture notes published in French more than a decade ago: The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live Together. But to my mind, there have really been four: two further books, translations in a more expanded sense. This Little Art, my long essay that stays close to Barthes’s late work, frequently citing it, renarrating it, making an adjacent space to keep thinking with it. And now my novel The Long Form, a book that borrows its title from The Preparation of the Novel and shares many preoccupations with How to Live Together: how, concretely, to live together; how to continue a relation with another person; how to continue a character and a prose work, to keep them all going at the levels of imagination, rhythm, accommodation, and composition; and how these different orders of question could be made to communicate with each other and shown to actually relate.

In a different way, The Long Form is also connected to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, if only in the remote sense that it is a novel that likewise unfolds over a single day. And then there is this thin, recently discovered line of attachment to The Voyage Out: when in Lisbon, the first Mrs. Dalloway visits Henry Fielding’s grave. She photographs it. There, she also “let[s] loose a small bird.” Jane Wheare, the editor of my Penguin edition, appends a note to this: “Henry Fielding (1707–54), the novelist, visited Portugal in the hope of regaining his health, but died at Lisbon. Woolf herself loosed a caged bird at Fielding’s grave on 8 April 1905.” A detail from life recurring in fiction (or, in the sequence of my own reading, a detail from fiction recurring in life), which sends me forward or back to The Long Form’s closest relative: Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. A true “mother plant” in the sense that its compound structure, alternating “essay parts” with “fiction parts”, provided a template for my own.

While working on The Long Form, I came across a further reference to marcottage—this spontaneous strategy of plants presented as a potential writing technique. It’s in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus and they are citing someone else: Carlos Castaneda. His passage is written as a set of instructions. In Brian Massumi’s translation, it reads like this:

Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil’s weed plants that are growing in between are yours.

I received these instructions as though they were written for me. In my mind’s eye, I saw the old plant, the first, mother plant. I called it the morning: the start of an imagined day. (I looked up “devil’s weed,” or Datura stramonium, and learned that is an “invasive” plant of the nightshade family that has “frequently been employed in traditional medicine.” It also has hallucinogenic properties, “causing intense, sacred or occult visions.”) I then located the plant growing at the farthest possible point away from the source: to my mind, this was the evening, bedtime. I knew I wanted the novel to get there. So: I had this expanse between two points, this marked-out duration. But what about the in-between? What could happen, what would grow, what could be grown out of that long, narrow channel? And who decides? Me? Yes, the instructions seemed to be saying: It’s all yours. Between here and there—all of it, anything that falls in or shoots up, is yours. But also, not yours. For how could it be? The line is energizing for precisely the reason that it makes this bold, untenable claim on what it’s not possible for anyone to fully own: this unruly, self-directed, undirected growth. All these unexpected interplants seeded by someone or something else—assisted by pathways long furrowed by other forces and the collaborative work of the rain. In a note to her introduction to The Voyage Out, Wheare writes: “Woolf shared Henry James’s view that a novel ‘is more true to its character in proportion as it strains or tends to burst, with a latent extravagance, its mould.’ ” On my street, a neighbor has placed a line of strawberry plants on her sunny step. Each plant is contained within its own small, plastic, basically impenetrable pot. Each plant is already overhanging its edges, throwing out shoots, reaching into the other’s earth.


Kate Briggs is the author of This Little Art, a narrative essay on the practice of translation, and the novel The Long Form, published this year by Fitzcarraldo Editions and Dorothy.