#SixDegrees November 2021

Yay, it’s time once more for Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and you have to link it to six other books to form a chain. They don’t all have to link thematically, but often your subconscious produces a bit of theme for you.

This month’s starting point is What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, a book I haven’t read, which always proves challenging at the start of a chain. So I decided to keep it very simple and link to another author named Sigrid (the only other author named Sigrid that I have ever heard of), namely Sigrid Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in 1928, mainly for her masterpiece, the Kristin Lavransdottir trilogy. It follows the life of a woman in fourteenth-century Norway, and is surprisingly frank about sexual desires (especially of women) and unwedded bliss.

The author’s straightforward, modern style was not well rendered with the initial translation dating from the 1920s, which favoured an archaic style (as if to make the historical aspect of things more obvious). This might explain why the book never made an impact in the English-speaking world. But Tiina Nunnally provided a fresh and by all accounts superior translation in 2005, and I am very tempted to read it.

Another book that was perhaps not well served by its initial translation into English is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which was first translated in its entirety by Eleanor Marx (yes, daughter of Karl). She also favoured a more dated language (although this was slightly updated for the Norton Anthology edition), heavily criticised by Nabokov and Lydia Davis – who translated the novel herself. There are by now approximately twenty English translations of Madame Bovary.

Next book therefore is Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry – although the title in the original is La condition pavillonnaire, which was initially a medical term to describe the siloed nature of hospitals with separate wings for each type of disease, but has since been adapted to explain the loneliness of low-density housing suburbs in the US. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Sophie Divry speak on the French literary podcast Bookmakers and was surprised by her very combative style, although perhaps less so when I heard about her past political activism.

Another author I heard on Bookmakers and who turned out to be less intimidating than his rather fearsome reputation is Hervé Le Tellier, a member of the Oulipo group. His recent novel L’Anomalie won the Goncourt Prize in 2020 (Oulipos have not had much luck with this traditional prize in the past) and will be out soon in the English translation of Adriana Hunter.

The Oulipo group provides my link to another famous group of literary and artistic rebels, the Dadas, and the Dada Manifesto 1918 by Tristan Tzara, a Romanian-born poet and rebel. It is in fact an anti-manifesto for culture, a belief that deeds are more important than words, a desire to escape all systems – the only acceptable system is to have none. I have a lot of sympathy for Tzara’s desire to emancipate himself from competing national cultures and nationalist rhetorics – he saw himself as a true European. However, it should be noted that his Dada associates did refer to him as East European, Oriental or even barbarian – it seems he cold not escape his ‘foreignness’.

This avant-garde literary magazine was named after Urmuz and published 5 issues in 1928.

My final link in the chain is another not very well-known yet hugely influential Romanian writer of the absurdist/avant-garde school of 1910/20s, namely Urmuz. Like Cavafy or Pessoa, he led a bit of a double life, drowning in colourless clerical work, yet notorious from his schooldays on for outrageous absurdist, almost surreal pranks. He died far too soon to produce a huge body of work, but captured the imagination of everyone who knew or read him. His Complete Works in English seem to only be available in a limited edition from Atlas Press, but his work has been translated into French, German and Italian. I have just spotted that a new translation of his prose by Alastair Ian Blyth will be published in 2022 by Dalkey Archive Press. [Leave something for me to translate, Alastair, will you?]

From 14th century Norway to 19th century France, from contemporary France to the avant-garde in 1910s Zurich and Romania, we’ve had a bit of an unusual journey here this month. Where will your literary travels take you?

12 thoughts on “#SixDegrees November 2021”

  1. What a fabulously unusual chain, though I’d expect no less from you. I wonder if I can source Madame Bovary of the Suburbs and the Kristin Lavransdottir trilogy, which sound fascinating?

  2. I also started my chain this month with a link to Kristin Lavransdatter as I was struggling to get started and the Sigrid link was all I could think of. I read the Tiina Nunnally translation a few years ago and found it very readable – I would definitely recommend it!

  3. I am really impressed with your chain, Marina Sofia! I love it that you used translations as part of it – not something people usually do, and they are so important. As I read your post, I wondered how many books never get the audiences they should get because either they’re not translated, or they’re not translated well. ‘Food for thought,’ definitely.

  4. Fascinated at the thought of Karl’s daughter translating Madame Bovary! It’s about a million years since I read it and I can’t remember which translation I read – I didn’t pay much attention to translators back then, not realising how much they contribute to how a book reads.

  5. woohoo, I love your chain, with Undset, Flaubert, et Le Tellier. L’Anomalie is absolutely fabulous! So glad English speaking readers can finally discover it soon. Oulipo writers are my favorites, and le Tellier is a great example of them

  6. Your chains are so unusual and interesting Maria. The only book I’ve heard of here – and one I coincidentally used in my own chain – is Madame Bovary. This was a set text for A Level for us and we therefore loathed it at the time (though for me nothing was as bad as Moliere), but I read it again later and liked it better. I think now I might appreciate it a good deal more.

    Not being nearly as well read as you, I linked the Flaubert to Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, Gemma Bovery!

    And I agree with the comments re translations – I too didn’t really think about the effect these have on the reader until quite recently, when I read Philippe Georget’s two detective novels set in Perpignan (Summertime; All the Cats are Bored, and Autumn: All the Cats Return.) The use of American words really grated, though I suppose they can’t afford to do different versions for the British and American markets. (I still enjoyed the books though, and now I see there is a third one out.)

    I have also read a few books in a cosy mystery series set in England but written by an American (who spent some time in Oxford I think). The writing is littered with American terms and ways of speaking, so much so that by the time I got half way through the last one these became all I could see on the page. In the acknowledgements the author just said she hoped people would forgive any such mistakes – but I felt there were so many that they became unforgiveable, it seemed more like sloppy writing and sloppier editing. And this wasn’t even a translation as such. From this I began to understand just how much skill goes into a good translation.

    1. I tend to be overly British when I translate, so have to think carefully about toning things down. And I think publishers are cutting down on editing costs, so…

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