Benjamin Fondane was Shestov's disciple and friend, and maybe something of a lost son too (Shestov's own only - and illegitimate - son died young in WWI). Fondane, a Romanian Jew, was also a noted figure in the vibrant literary life of Paris. Shestov indoctrinated Fondane into his peculiar brand of philosophy in the hope that Fondane would disseminate his ideas in larger circles of the reading public as Shestov's own books were not much read. This filial and philosophical project lasted over a decade and Fondane did write many an article on Shestov, and Shestov made Fondane the privileged participator of his private philosophical monologue.
Shestov died in 1938 of old age. Fondane died in 1940 in Auschwitz.
Beside his own poetic and literary output, he left to the world a collection of notes he took of his many conversations with Shestov. They were posthumously published in full in 1982 under the title Rencontres avec Léon Chestov. These notes constitute a valuable peek into the way Shestov himself understood his philosophical mission, and the figure of Fondane in his life is important enough to merit a special place on this site.
The book also contains a couple of long essays by Fondane about Shestov and other addenda. I've given a full translation of the "Conversations" and of some explanatory material. The rest is given in French - for those who can read it. Some Fondane-related links are there to complete the picture.
RENCONTRES AVEC LÉON CHESTOV
Editorial Notes (English / French)
Jules de Gaultier's philosophy (Italian)
Fondane's note to Victoria Ocampo
[ French version ]
Victoria Ocampo told the story of how and when Fondane gave her the manuscript of his "Encounters with Lev Shestov".
One June 18, 1939 in Paris I took Fondane home after a fine diner with much talk of literature and lots of joking - our usual fare. I had no inkling this was going to be the last time I saw Fondane - I was about to leave for London and from there to Buenos Aires. When the taxi stopped at his door, Fondane asked me to wait a few moments: he wanted to give me a package for safekeeping. He had already mentioned it previously but I thought he was joking. He came back after a few minutes absence and put in my lap a large envelop full of papers and bundled with a piece of string. The inscription on the package said:
"Shestov. Formless and unfinished manuscript containing 1. letters Shestov wrote to me 2. my conversations with him. I give this to Victoria Ocampo in case the war destroys the manuscript I am working on. Should the war happen, she can use this manuscript as she pleases and can therefore open it. Until then I ask her to keep it with care. Thank you."
I read these lines in the dim light of a street lamp and for a moment I did not know what to make of it. Then I reacted the way a person reacts when a friend has just told her: "I am very ill. I don't think I am going to make it." I reprimanded him:
- How absurd of you, Fondane! It just makes no sense at all. Even if there was a war, it wouldn't happen just so as to steal those precious letters from you... Really, I am surprised at your tragic air. Again, I repeat: it just makes no sense!
- I know for sure there will be a war. I know, I can feel it, we are not going to see each other again. I am sorry for these somber premonitions (he said these last words half-laughing).
- Now, that's all you need - premonitions! And what's next - hearing voices? My dear Fondane, you must be kidding me. You probably stuffed this envelop with a bunch of old newspapers. I'd like to remind you this is not the April Fools day.
- You can laugh all you want about it. But I still have this feeling we are not going to see each other again. And only God knows what will happen to me."
Such was the tenor if not the exact words of our conversation on June 18, 1939, in a taxi waiting on rue Monge. I remember that he repeated twice that we were not going to see each other again. I remember that I refused to take his premonitions seriously. That night I crossed Paris (Fondane lived very far from my area) with that envelop in hand. What could possibly happen to Fondane, a Romanian Jew naturalized French citizen? Jew, yes, but when one lived in Paris it didn't matter. What then?... And to my knowledge, the author of "Rimbaud le voyou" has never been involved in politics.
I put the envelop in my suitcase and when I arrived in Buenos Aires, I put it in a desk drawer. It stayed there for many years. I opened it only when I had lost all hope of ever returning it to its rightful owner. The one unimaginable, monstrous thing has happened. Fondane was right.
Beside the manuscript, I found a sheet of paper where Fondane was reiterating his instructions: