Swiss in October: Ramuz and Canton Vaud

I’ve owned this copy of Beauty on Earth by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz for several years. It was translated, after all, by my good friend Michelle Bailat Jones, and I trust both her literary taste and her translations, since she is a very sensitive, poetic writer herself. But, for some reason, it did not click with me at first reading and I abandoned it after a few pages.

When I started it this time round, I was craving something more specifically Swiss, after the rather disappointing LA setting of Pascale Kramer’s novel. Well, Ramuz certainly is the master of that: the landscapes, the descriptions of village life (and suspicion and gossip) were so spot on that I felt transported back to this…

September blue, picture taken by Michelle Bailat Jones. She lives in almost the exact location where Ramuz set his novels, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

During his lifetime he was often dismissed (especially by the French) as a ‘regional writer’, but his reputation has grown since his death in 1947 and he is the only Swiss writer to achieve that highest of French literary accolades, i.e. be published in the ‘Bibliothèque de la Pléiade’. Yes, he often sets his novels and novellas in the Swiss countryside he knew and loved, but the landscape is never described just for the sake of prettifying the text. Instead, it is perceived as THE main character, sometimes benign, often threatening, with an inestimable impact on humans.

Beauty on Earth is one of his major works, but the only previous English language translation of it was a curtailed and anonymous version published in 1929 (the novel itself appeared in 1927). The beautiful orphan Juliette is brought from Cuba to Switzerland to live with her uncle, the village innkeeper. The uncle Milliquet is not sure he wants her there, although at first his earnings go up as people crowd on his terrace in the hopes of catching a glimpse of her. However, she soon causes turbulence in the village, through no fault of her own except for her ‘strange ways’ and love of accordion music. The innkeeper’s wife kicks her out and she finds refuge with the fisherman Rouge, who soon starts to feel over-protective of her. The turmoil her presence creates in the village can only end in a huge (literal and metaphorical) storm. Yet she is not the only outsider in the village: there is a tension between the fishermen and the farmers, a hunchbacked Italian musician and a secretive Savoyard are frequent guests on the cafe terrace. The border is just across the lake, and beside, this has always been a region of shifting borders and loyalties.

It is easy to see why there haven’t been that many translations of Ramuz: his style, even for fluent French speakers, is idiosyncratic and difficult. He soon abandons any pretence at chronological storytelling, he wanders from one point of view to the next and has a tendency to use that amibiguous French pronoun ‘on’, which could mean ‘it’, or ‘we’ or ‘you’. The translator’s notes at the beginning of the book describe the impossibility of being consistent in translating this simple word. The actual narrator often seems to be an all-seeing figure somewhere above the common fray, who makes grave pronouncements from time to time, generally meditating about the nature of beauty and the damage it can cause in everyday life.

… we are drawn into beauty’s orbit. Down here on the earth we don’t see enough of it. We are greedy about it, we hunger for it; we want to possess it… do we know what to do with beauty among men?

This ‘voice’ gives the story the gravitas and solemnity of the choir in Ancient Greek tragedies. We watch the actors playing their roles in those beautiful landscapes, we hear their dialogues and see their gestures, punctuated by commentary. Overall, there is a sense of inescapable fate, no matter how much the villagers try to fight it.

Ramuz is a poet as well as a novelist. His long sentences and sensuous descriptions are works of art and if anyone can do them justice, it is Michelle, with her own talent for writing (honestly, I am being objective here, I have no qualms about criticising my friends if I don’t like their style). His creation of atmosphere through minute description of people’s appearance, of landscapes, of set scenes (often described as ‘stepping into a painting’) is at a far slower pace than contemporary readers might like. That is possibly what made me stop reading a few years ago. However, if you allow yourself to slow right down and follow his pace, it feels timeless, following the natural flow of the seasons, remaining in close proximity to nature, observing and respecting it. He describes a world that was already vanishing in his day, a world that was in equal parts enchanting and menacing.

How can I not love the tranquillity and beauty he describes, which can still be observed nowadays on the shores of Lac Leman?

The door was wide open; the entire beautiful Sunday came in, with its rowboats, with its steamboats. On Sundays people love to come down off the mountain and from the villages up the hill or behind the hill; young people, boys and girls; and it’s when this beautiful water starts to shine between your field stakes and it calls to you from the lake over your little walls… And there are the big steamboats, all white with their red, green and white, or tri-color flags, and their big wheel beating the water, each flat thud can be heard before we even see the boat; or we can even hear singing…

And yet all this calm beauty also hides constraints – the rules and regulations that Rouge feels land people are bound by (I have to add: in Switzerland perhaps more than in other places), whereas he, as a fisherman, is less hemmed in.

…alls these winemakers or the people who cut the hay and rake the hay, these owners of a corner of a pasture, of a part of a field, of a tiny piece of the land, you see all of them forced to follow a path and always the same one, between two walls, between two hedges, and here this is my home and next door it’s not. It’s full of rules over there, full of No Tresspassing… they can’t go left nor right… As for me, for us… we go where we want. We’ve got everything because we have nothing.

I allowed myself to be engulfed by the magic of Ramuz and was suddenly extremely homesick for the Swiss village he described (although not for its inhabitants). At the same time, we can never forget that this village is the whole world and the whole world is represented in this village.

This was exactly the sort of reading from Switzerland that I’d hoped for. Dare I read him next in the original French? Not sure, but luckily Onesuch Press has brought out some further translations: the poetry collection Riversong of the Rhone, translated by Patti Marxsen, What If the Sun, translated once more by Michelle Bailat-Jones, Derborence translated by Laura Spinney, and an earlier novel The Reign of the Evil One, translated by James Whitall. You can find more details about their books here.

Ramuz’ house in Pully, where he died in 1947.

Too much to handle in October?

Have I set myself up for failure in October, by taking on too many things?

Possibly.

The reason for that is that October is my quietest month at work. The students have come back, my colleagues are very busy, so no one has time for my training courses and webinars. Although I am preparing some behind-the-scenes improvements, it is not as busy as the summer period, when I had no holiday at all. On the personal front as well, things start falling into place after the back to school frenzy. So the plan was to take some days off, but just stay home, rest, tidy up my study, focus on reading and writing.

The reality is…

I’ll be visiting my parents in Romania toward the end of the month (apparently to discuss funeral arrangements and elder care issues, so that will be fun!), plus it’s an opportunity to get some of the boys’ paperwork done so they can get Romanian passports. I also have additional paperwork to prepare and check, as right after we return from Romania, I will be appearing in court for financial settlement in this never-ending divorce case. [For all the wimps who shout ‘Get Brexit Done!’ and cannot handle 3.5 years of Brexit negotiations, they should try 4-5 years of divorce negotiations!] I’ll also be helping out a friend by looking after her children while she is away on a business trip, so cooking for six instead of three and four different schools to handle instead of just two. The last of the admin type issues I’m tackling this month involves something more joyful: it’s still secret and very early stages, but let me just say it might involve a translation of books from Romanian type project.

Joyful though my cultural and social events are, I seem to have agreed to an awful lot of them this month: from the Kenneth Branagh Awards at the Windsor Fringe Festival, to films, plays, opera, taking my son to Duke of Edinburgh Awards-related events, quiz night at my son’s school, the very last university open day (I hope)… as well as trying to go to the gym regularly.

Last but not least, my cup of joyful reading is in danger of running over too. Switzerland in October is a-go, I’ve already read the first (disappointingly un-Swiss) book by Pascale Kramer and have now embarked on Ramuz. Then there is the 1930 Book Club, for which I am very tempted to re-read Camil Petrescu’s Last Night of Love, First Night of War, a Romanian classic. I might feel differently about him and the book now, after reading how he behaved to Mihail Sebastian in the late 1930s. October is also the Orenda month, and I cannot go past it without picking up at least one (or two) of their most recent books! I am also continuing to read the ‘one entry a day’ readalong for Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries on the Mookse and Gripes site and am trying to stay clear of the temptation to reread Proust in preparation for Backlisted Pod’s Christmas special. The #EU27Project needs to finally conclude at some point. Plus, that pesky library keeps pestering me with some China Mieville, Iain Banks and Nicola Barker books that I also want to read…

What I absolutely must do, even if it comes at the expense of anything else on the above list, is edit my poems and start putting them together for a chapbook. The need for artistic ‘selfishness’ has become obvious, as this article on the dangers of kindness points out.

Why can’t I learn to relax like Zoë (pronounced Zo-eh, with trema, as my boys keep pointing out, rather than Zoey)?

Friday Fun: Writers Houses, Mostly French

I thought I had already shown you most writers’ homes in France, but it turns out I’ve barely scratched the surface. So here are some more, plus an extra one a little further afield!

Winter falls on Rousseau’s house in Montmorency, from museejjrousseau.montmorency.fr
Francois Mauriac’s little chateau in Vemars, L’Express.
An older house, for the playwright Corneille, from tourmag.fr
Alphonse Daudet bought this house from his first royalties, which must have been greater in those days, maison.alphonse.daudet.overblog.fr
Surprisingly, Jean Cocteau had the most romantic house outside Paris, in Milly-la-Foret. From L’Express.
Last but not least, this amazing House for Writers from Tbilisi, Georgia. From itinari.com

China in September: Chilli Bean Paste and Noisy Families

A Chinese friend once told me: ‘We Chinese families are very noisy, you know.’ and I certainly spotted the contrast between people on streets in China (jostling, laughing, chatting you up) and Japan (carefully respecting the distance – at least, if you are a foreigner). Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Past Clan certainly dials up the volume on this story about a dysfunctional family in a small provincial town in Sichuan, a landlocked province in the south-west of China, renowned for its extremely spicy food.

The Xue-Duan family runs a chilli bean paste factory in this town and the main character (known as Dad, because it is his daughter who is telling the story, although it is in fact more like a third person narrative) is a bon viveur, who likes to smoke, eat, drink and mess around with women. He is also foul-mouthed, selfish and not very considerate of the women in his life (his mother Gran, his wife Mum, his mistress Jasmine and his daughter). Yet, despite the comfortable life he has created for himself, he is still envious of his siblings who managed to escape from their humdrum home town and the eagle eyes of their mother.

As the family starts preparing for their matriarch’s 80th birthday, and his siblings return home, Dad’s life gets less and less comfortable and old bitterness and memories start to resurface. By the end of the book, Dad gets a sort of come-uppance and the reader realises just what a sad creature he really is. (Although no doubt some women will feel that he hasn’t been punished enough.)

Interestingly, when the novel was first published in China, many readers were very surprised that the author was a woman, because they felt it was describing all too well the world in which men can get away with anything. Here is what the author has to say about that:

I wrote this book because, as a young female writer, I have encountered many, many men who have behaved in such an ugly way. I can think of many scenarios in my early twenties where, as a writer, I was thrilled — this was great material, it revealed the richness, the unspeakable darkness of human nature — but as a woman, I was absolutely traumatized. People often are surprised that this book is written by a woman. Actually, this book is a traumatized woman wanting to get back at those men by writing a story like this. It is venting, an expression of my anger, a therapeutic experience.

At first I was very angry. But it is important not to hold any moral judgement when you’re writing a novel. When I was writing this book, I passed no judgements on my characters, and I was actually surprised to feel the anger when I reread it. But I think my anger vanished as I wrote on. In the end I truly liked Xue Shengqiang. He is a misogynist, but once you get over it, you can see the other sides of him, his loyalty to his family and friends, his cowardice and kindness. In the end, I reconciled with him.

The book is full of local dialect and slang, so it must have been truly tricky to translate. I’m sure the ‘dude talk’ that the translator Nicky Harman has introduced is probably the closest stylistic approximation of this, but it does sound irritating (and perhaps too Western) at times.

It was fun, operatic, over the top – a sort of soap opera set in a rapidly changing town and society. Not my favourite of the Chinese reads this month (that would be Eileen Chang), but certainly more interesting than Shanghai Baby. One final little tidbit of information: the author now lives in Ireland with her Irish husband and has started writing in English. However, she says she refuses to write about China in English.

Friday Fun: A Romanian Landscape Photographer

Autumn is spectacular in the Romanian mountains and, as if to alleviate my homesickness, I’ve discovered the amazing photographs of the very talented Alex Robciuc. Here are just a few examples, but you can follow all his work on alexrobciuc.wixsite.com/photo or check him out on Facebook. He was the award winner for Romania in the Sony World Photography Awards 2019. No filter required!

The first glimpses of autumn.
Autumnal village in Maramures.
Almost like a toy landscape in Transylvania.
Makes me want to move there immediately…

Friday Fun: 5 Things to Sing About

It took some deep digging these past two exhausting weeks, but I finally found five things to rejoice about.

On a Poetry Roll

I’ve been working hard at editing and in some cases rewriting my poems. Maybe I’m regaining my groove!

Unexpected Fleabag Treat

A friend of mine couldn’t make it to the NTLive screening of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag theatre performance, so I was the lucky recipient of her ticket. I loved the TV series, but I thought the stage show demonstrated the range of her acting talent, as well as her writing talent. She is far more moving, able to switch (you as an audience) from laughter to tears in a few seconds.

A Painting I Thought About for a Year

I visited local artist (and friend of a friend) Inge du Plessis last year at the local art trail and open house. I bought a small portrait of one of my heroines Sophie Scholl, but I couldn’t forget another picture that grabbed my attention that time. It was entitled The Suburbs and reminded me of the books of Richard Yates – the everyday blandness but also darkness and loneliness of life there. This year, I visited again and there were plenty of new paintings, but no sign of The Suburbs. So I asked about it – and it turns out it hadn’t been sold and Inge was thinking of painting over it! Luckily, I rescued it from its ignoble fate and am now the proud owner of it. Taking pictures of painting is very tricky – but I hope you can catch a glimpse of why I fell in love with it.

Discovering Norwich and UEA

I was utterly charmed by the town and the university, despite the grey concrete of the latter. I’m trying not to influence my son, but wouldn’t mind if he went there to study. And, if I do stay in the UK after they leave home, I’m seriously considering moving there!

Iconic architecture, the Ziggurat accommodation seems to be the party hub of the campus.
The Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts is not just a gallery but also Avengers HQ (especially in the earlier films).
Norwich Cathedral is just so beautiful and full of friendly people… and a cathedral cat.
Less Gothic, more Norman – a very interesting interior
Strangers Court, so-called because Norwich provided shelter for refugees from the Low Countries in the 16th century. By the late 1570s, one person in four in Norwich was a refugee who had come into the city within the previous ten years.

Going to the Gym with My Son

My older son and I have signed up with the local gym and are egging each other on. A much-needed break from hunching over books and computers!

Friday Fun: Balconies Once More

It’s still pleasant enough to sit outside on a balcony and read, or watch the world go by, or become acquainted with trees and wildlife. Or, ideally, all three! Some of them are more open than others, but they all make wonderful retreats from the world’s madness.

Double-decker conservatory from casanaute.fr
Talk about a grand entrance – the upper floor looks like a perfect library, too! From Christopher Architecture and Interiors.
Discreet Provencal charm, from Lucien Longueville.
Practical Dutch design combines conservatory with balcony elements, from simplysteel.nl
More of a comment than a question, more of a patio than a balcony, but so delightfully South of France. From planetedeco.fr