Virginie Despentes: Vernon Subutex 1 – ennui and more ennui

This book fits into no less than four categories of hashtags: #TranslationThurs, #EU27Project, #WomeninTranslation and #20BooksofSummer. However, it didn’t do much else for me! Which is a shame, because I’ve had a good experience, on the whole, with Despentes’ writing.

This time, however, she focuses on such a narrow category of arty-farty pretentious Parisians that it’s difficult to care about any of them. Vernon is a middle-aged loser, former record shop owner now sofa-surfing from one dubious acquaintance to the next. Besides, haven’t we had enough of French male midlife crisis, portrayed in so many French novels and films? I wouldn’t have expected a woman to write about it – although she supposedly makes fun of it. But for a figure of fun, we simply get too many details about Vernon and the people he mingles with.

Everyone is neurotic, narcissistic, racist, drugged to the eyeballs or all of the above. You switch quite rapidly from one point of view to the next, which does allow for comic effect (what people believe about themselves and how they are perceived by others vs. how people are actually perceived by others), but rarely digs beneath the surface of a character. Despentes has created unlikable narrators before, but then gradually revealed many more layers to them. No time for that in this rather futile, repetitive and overly long novel (and there are two more volumes of this!)

There are some good social observations, as you might expect of Despentes, but it’s simply not political enough, witty enough or engaging enough to sustain my interest. It must have been a bit of a challenge for the translator as well to use so much bad language – Trainspotting for the chi-chi media set and those funding them.

The cultural habits of the poor make him want to spew. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food, public transport, taking home less than 5000 euros a month and buying clothes in a shopping mall. Taking commercial flights and having to wait around in airports sitting on hard seats with nothing to drink, no newspapers, being treated like shit and having to travel in steerage, being a second-class scumbag… Screwing ageing cellulite-riddled meat. Finishing the working week and having to do the housework and the shopping. Checking the prices of things to see if you can afford them. Kiko couldn’t live like that… Guys like him never act like slaves…

Kiko’s job? Trader on the stock markets.

DNF

P.S. A French friend who works in publishing says it’s a ‘roman à clef’ with recognisable characters from the Parisian media world, but that is too narrow a satirical premise to appeal to me.

Advertisements

Comparing Translation and Original for Marie Darrieussecq

I thought it might be fun to compare originals and translations occasionally. Not in an attempt to undermine the work of translators, but on the contrary: to appreciate the hard work that goes into every nuance and detail. I will examine some particular choices but fear not, it will not be a linguistic dissertation, but an unscientific examination of my own reactions to the two versions.

Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance des fantômes (1998)

Translated as: My Phantom Husband by Helen Stevenson (2000)

The story is deceptively simple: one evening the female narrator’s husband comes home from work, goes out to buy bread and is never seen again. You have a summary of the book in the very first paragraph:

Mon mari a disparu. Il est rentré du travail, il a posé sa serviette contre le mur, il m’a demandé si j’avais acheté du pain. Il devait être aux alentours de sept heures et demie.

My husband’s disappeared. He got in from work, propped his briefcase against the wall and asked me if I’d bought any bread. It must have been around half past seven.

At what stage should the abandoned wife panic and call the police? What is going through her head: does she wonder what went wrong, analyse every single moment of their seven years of married life, blame herself for anything? Does she blame him, is she ashamed, do all the cracks in their family and her less than perfect relationship with her mother-in-law start to surface? At first, she believes she catches glimpses of him on the street. She learns to sleep alone, do things alone, experiences something that is both grief and a recognition of freedom. She is terrified of forgetting her husband’s face, the impression he has made on her. Fears from her childhood (of monsters lurking under her bed or vampires out to get her) start reappearing, to the point where the crime fiction lover in me starts wondering if she has done away with her husband herself…

The book reminded me of Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, where she is trying to come to terms with her husband’s sudden death. Except, of course, in this case the grief is mixed with anger and resentment, with uncertainty about the fate of the husband, reassessing their history in the light of possibly never really having known him properly, perhaps even reluctance to have him back again.

The language is dreamy and poetical, there is a lot of underwater imagery, the sense of drowning, endless rain, memories being washed away. In French, this dream-like quality is further enhanced by alliteration of ‘s’ and ‘eu’ sounds, which remind me of a murmur of streams and a breeze blowing over them. The translator does an excellent job of maintaining the repetition of ‘s’, although the ‘eu’ is impossible to render in English.

Mais ce matin-là, le matin de ma nouvelle vie, comme je n’avais pas fermé l’oeil l’aube fut une nouveauté autant qu’un soulagement (et les deux avaient sans doute partie liée). Les rues étaient sombres encore, aquatiques, bleutées. Sans souffle, sans même un froissement, asphyxiées sous le ciel fermé, elles devenaient presque reposantes à contempler.

But that morning, the first morning of my new life, since I hadn’t had a wink of sleep, the dawn came as a novelty, as well as a relief (and the two were no doubt not entirely unconnected). The streets were still dark, and wore a bruised, underwater look. Not a breath of air, not the slightest rustle, asphyxiated under a sealed sky. I started to find them quite restful to look at.

The first thing that struck me in this passage is how French has certain adjectives which need to be translated into phrases to make sense: ‘aquatic, bruised streets’ would sound strange in English. Plus the nuance of ‘blue’ in the French for bruised describes the colour of the drab early morning streets and the narrator’s grief so well – this gets lost in translation. ‘Froissement’ also encompasses more than just ‘rustle’, there is also the feeling of shudder, of cold (from ‘froid’), of being crumpled or creased like a piece of cloth, of being hurt, like a muscular strain. How to convey all of that?

I do like the use of ‘sealed’ to describe the low clouds, ‘closed’ look of the sky, plus it adds to the alliteration. I’m not quite sure about the use of ‘novelty’ to describe the dawn, seems too literal and sounds more like advertising language. Nor am I sure about the change in subject in the final sentence. In French the narrator is letting the landscape, the streets, the view from the window dominate that paragraph, which underlines her passivity. In English, by introducing the ‘I’ (I started to find them quite restful), it makes her too much of an actor, gives her too much choice.

This is a challenge I have observed in other books translated from French (and when I was teaching French speakers how to write reports in English). The passive voice sounds much more natural in French, as does the use of the second person. This book has abundant examples of both and it is difficult to make comprehensible English out of them without losing slightly that sense of distancing and distinction between ‘I’ and ‘him/you/other people’ which the narrator seems to feel so acutely, and which is subtly conveyed throughout the book by the author – culminating with the final paragraph which is all about the ‘I’ that has broken free.

 

Romain Gary: Yet Another French Link for #EU27Project

Romain Gary: La vie devant soi (The Life Ahead of You)

The furore surrounding this book is well known in France, but let me quickly summarise for those who don’t know. Romain Gary had already won the Prix Goncourt for his novel Les racines du ciel in 1956. Since no one can win the prize twice, he wrote another novel under a pseudonym (he used several during his lifetime) Emile Ajar and won again in 1975. He carried on publishing under that pseudonym for about 4-5 years, getting a nephew to pose as the reclusive writer, but finally killed him off (the pseudonym rather than his nephew) and admitted the truth.

I found it a little surprising that people didn’t spot the similarities in style and subject matter between La vie devant soi and La promesse de l’aube (published in 1960). Or is it just because those are the only two books by Romain Gary that I’ve read at this moment in time (they certainly won’t be my last)? Both are about the relationship between an older woman (the mother, in the case of the earlier book; the childminder in the case of the later one) and a young boy. Both are about the unsentimental love and support they give each other, even as they disagree about things and annoy and hide things from each other. The style is also that unmistakable combination of pain masked by sardonic humour, strong sentiment tempered by a core of steel. My blogger friend Emma, who is a real Romain Gary connoisseur, calls that his Jewish humour and French rationality.

Madame Rosa is a former prostitute turned childminder (or foster mother, really) of prostitutes. She lives on the sixth floor of a building without a lift and is finding it increasingly difficult to climb the stairs, as she gets old and overweight. She is also a Jewish refugee who has never forgotten the horrors of the war, is constantly suspicious of the authorities and has an ‘escape hole’ in the basement. Momo, the narrator, is a young Arab boy who has been living with Madame Rosa since he was three years old. It seems both his mother and father have forgotten him and haven’t been paying for his upkeep for years, but his childminder hasn’t got the heart to turn him out. Momo feels bad about not being able to pay his way, however, and he is also afraid that Madame Rosa might die soon, so he starts planning for the future. Of course, the only life he knows is the life of the street in Belleville, so he shoplifts or tries to pimp out other women or to find protection elsewhere. Through his naive child’s eyes we see a whole neighbourhood and some of its eccentric characters, the daily troubles of people barely able to make ends meet, but also the way people can pull together in times of need. Euthanasia, aging, drug use, prostitution, the life of refugees and transvestites, mental illness – all heavy themes, but done with compassion and kindness. Above it all rise the resilience and beauty of the human spirit. And of course it is the story of a remarkable friendship, one might say a love story, as Momo helps the old woman face death (the thing she fears above all is cancer).

From the BD version of the book.

The book is full of remarkable observations and memorable sentences (beautiful in French, forgive my paltry translations)

Monsieur Hamil is a great man, but circumstances stopped him from becoming one.

‘This is where I hide when I am scared.’ ‘What are you scared of, Madame Rosa?’ ‘You don’t have to have a reason to be scared, Momo.’ I’ve never forgotten that, because it’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard.

People care more about life than anything else, which is funny considering how many beautiful things there are in the world.

‘Don’t worry, Momo, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.’ Was he trying to scare me or what? I’ve noticed that old people always say ‘you’re young, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you’ with a big smile, as it it’s something to look forward to. I know I’ve got all my life ahead of me, but I’m not going to make myself sick with worry over it.

I don’t really care that much about being happy, I prefer real life. Happiness is a fine piece of dirt, a nasty piece of work, it should be taught how to live. Happiness and me are not on the same side at all, I don’t have anything to do with it… there should be laws against it, to stop it being such a shit.

Still from the 1977 film, starring Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa and Samy Ben-Youb as Momo.

This book also fits in the #EU27Project, although I already have a fair number of French entries there. However, I do wish Romain Gary were better known in the English-speaking world. Child narrators are always tricky, but Momo’s ahead of his years in some ways and remarkably innocent in others, which is probably understandable given his unconventional upbringing. A real gem, which has been adapted for cinema in 1977 under the title Madame Rosa and translated into English as The Life Before Us in 1986 (now out of print).

I’m already planning my next Romain Gary book, although I’ll have to have it sent over from France: Les racines du ciel, about saving(my beloved) elephants in Africa.

 

Launching My First Asymptote Journal in Its 6th Year of Existence

The Fall Edition of the Asymptote Journal has just been launched and, although I can’t claim any credit for the content (by the time I joined the team, it was all pretty much done and edited), it is a pleasure to share some of its content with you.

First of all, there is a special feature on new voices from France – unusual and young voices, rather than the ones which have been translated before. I love the disturbing and dysfunctional relationship with a mother described by Frédérique Martin, the grim reality of abortion from three different points of view presented by Valentine Goby. Although not strictly speaking a new voice, one of my absolute favourite pieces in this issue is the provocative, energetic and rather elegiac essay by Bernard Hoepffner – much respected translator of English literature into French, who died recently off the coast of Wales. The translator as a chameleon, con-man and perpetrator of linguistic violence. Still in the sphere of France, there is also a review of Marcel Proust’s letters to his neighbour, which show a witty, charming, sensitive man rather than the hypochondriac we often seem to hear about in literary history.

But it’s not just France who features here. Overall, 31 countries are represented, including Romania, South Africa, Martinique, the Ukraine and Brazil. There is also a very interesting art project by Mikhail Karikis, bringing the sounds and images of a community (and especially that of young people) making abandoned industrial landscapes their own.

Overall, a great place to rummage around and explore, whether you like poetry, fiction, essays, art or drama. And in times fraught with the spectre of nationalism and lack of interest in ‘the other’, I find it is more important than ever to listen to other cultures and to further our understanding.

 

 

Marcus Malte: music, recent history and dark humour #EU27Project

It was Catherine from the wonderful Blog du Polar de Velda (if you read French and like crime fiction, this site comes highly recommended) who introduced me to author Marcus Malte in Lyon four years ago. I read two or three of his books (none of which have been translated into English yet) and found them all very different from each other, quite dark, highly imaginative and experimental.

In the meantime, he has won the prestigious Prix Femina with his novel Le garçon (which I haven’t read yet, but you can read Emma’s review), so here’s hoping at least that will get translated. However, in Lyon this year, I picked up one of his earlier books, Les harmoniques, which makes full use of his love of music, especially jazz. Malte is frequently described as a ‘noir’ author, but this book had moments of hilarious fun, almost farce-like, which surprised and enchanted me. Moreover, it did nothing to detract from the rather serious subject matter, proving that it’s not always grim and tortuous which is memorable or worthy. (Oscar selection committee, take note! How could you ignore ‘Hidden Figures’ so badly?)

The subtitle of the book is Beau Danube Blues (Beautiful Danube Blues) and this is a hint of the European tragedy that lies at its heart. It starts off with a chapter that resembles jazz improvisation, with two people talking (we have no idea who they are at first), and musical interludes between their words.

Som7   Sibm6

‘Believe it or not, there was a time when I thought I was immortal. But I fear that has gone. For good.’

‘That’s called wisdom.’

‘I’d rather call that giving up.

Fa   Fa7

‘Wisdom includes giving up.’

This might seem like a pretentious and unnecessarily difficult way to hook a reader into a novel, but if you move on to the next chapters, you realise it gives you a good insight into the two main characters: Mister and Bob.

Mister is a jazz pianist and one of his favourite fans, beautiful young Vera, has just been murdered and burnt alive. The police has arrested two suspects, who have confessed to the crime, but Mister is convinced there is more to it than meets the eye.

Bob is his friend and favourite taxi driver, a mighty unusual one, former philosophy professor, prone to enigmatic quotations and only occasionally charging his clients. Together, they set out to discover the truth about Vera’s death. In due course, they discover more about her life: she came to France to study theatre, but she was originally from the Balkans, from the Croatian town of Vukovar, where in 1991 an 87 day siege was followed by a whole-scale destruction and ethnic cleansing of the town by the Serbian army. But what could this long-gone war have to do with her present-day murder?

We never get to see Vera herself, she is dead at the outset of the novel, but we do see her through other people’s eyes and through short, poetic chapters, very much like musical interludes, which seem to delve into her mind, although they are in the third person:

This war which she escaped but which she carried everywhere with her. In her head. Secretly. Even in the most tender moments.

They come across a series of paintings of Vera in an art gallery and decide to visit the artist Josef Kristi, a strange, reclusive character, to find out more about the relationship between Kristi and the model. Although the artist tells them a little about Vera’s past, they don’t quite believe he is not involved in her death, so they decide to do some very amateurish surveillance. What follows is a very funny scene, where they end up in the middle of a field of beetroots (or maybe turnips or potatoes or pumpkins, they are not quite sure), just opposite the Kristi house. Mister fears they are too conspicuous, but Bob says they can always claim that they are waiting for a pick-up truck. And then a farmer passes by and stops to see what these incompetent investigators are up to… I was giggling all the way through this scene.

There are serious and dangerous moments too: they get involved with nasty and brutal people, some of them in positions of power, and make some unlikely allies – a blind, elderly accordeon-player and a young, tone-deaf singer. While this is not a plot-driven book, the build-up of tension was working well until about the last 100 pages, when it all descends into a lengthy explanation and is wrapped up too quickly, as if the author had lost interest.

Scene from the literary concert, from Var Matin.

But the crime element is not the main reason to read this book: it is a wonderful piece of rhythmic and musical writing, with many passages designed to be read out loud (as the author did, with musical accompaniment, in Lyon. You can read Emma’s thoughts about the event here). It is a melancholy look at all the ‘forgotten’ towns and victims, and a reminder that the consequences of war rage on long after the conflict is officially over. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am always curious to see what Marcus Malte writes next: he is most certainly not an author to be pigeon-holed.

This fits in well with the #EU27Project, since it is written by a French writer, deals with a recent conflict in Croatia and reminds us of the purpose of the EU.

 

 

 

In the Spirit of Reunification (of Books)

Yesterday I finally braved the loft again and got down a new set of book boxes. Sadly, quite a few boxes ended up with heavier boxes on top of them during 5 years of storage, so the books are not always in pristine condition. (Fellow booklovers who are equally obsessive about book spines remaining uncreased, corners unturned and therefore hardly ever lending books for fear of damage will understand my dismay!)

Small sample in a dusty bundle...
Small sample in a dusty bundle…
Spread out on the floor...
Spread out on the floor… with a nudge from my bright green slipper

From the English collection: one of the funniest books about anthropologists and one of my favourite Barbara Pym novels; Sylvia Plath’s rite of passage, the Metaphysical poets (which we were not allowed to study at university during Communist times).

From the Austrian collection: the stories of Arthur Schnitzler and Elias Canetti’s first volume of memoirs (given to me as a present by a friend who said it was his favourite book).

From the French collection, a charming coming-of-age story by Colette (perfect summer reading) and a grim childhood memoir by Herve Bazin (required reading in French class, but nevertheless memorable rather than sheer torture).

One of my favourite Romanian poets: Ion Pillat (I don’t think he’s ever been translated) – a lyrical nature-loving poet.

And finally a book that I haven’t read (there aren’t many of those in my loft): Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, because I was translating a Romanian writer at the time who kept referring to Pessoa and was writing in his style.

Here are some excerpts from the Japanese collection against a background of bins:

WP_20160905_14_09_12_Pro

Ugetsu Monogatari is one of the lesser-known classical works of 18th century Japanese literature. A collection of spooky stories, it is perhaps better known as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The flowery cover is actually the paper wrapping that you automatically get at the time of purchase in Japanese bookshops for all your paperbacks. It covers Banana Yoshimoto’s Tugumi, which I haven’t looked at since I was a student (and probably won’t be able to read anymore). Finally, we were very excited to read Norwegian Wood with our Japanese professor during our student days, but this is the English language translation. And what a beautiful edition it is too, with its two small volumes encased in a golden box.

WP_20160905_14_07_58_Pro

WP_20160905_14_08_04_Pro

Alas, alas, only a small part of the books have descended from the loft and we are already running out of space!

WP_20160905_14_07_01_Pro

 

Bastille Day and Some Reading Recommendations

Bastille Day has dawned nice and sunny, but clouds are on their way in, thunderstorms are predicted, so the fireworks this evening may be a trifle muffled and damp.

For this last 14th July that I am spending in France, I thought I would bring together all of my favourite early French writers and poets in a long, long list. Hopefully, at least a few of them might be new suggestions for you.

  • Young Rabelais, from france-pittoresque.com
    Young Rabelais, from france-pittoresque.com

    Rabelais is like Chaucer: bawdy, entertaining, and yet with a lot of depth. In the rollicking adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel he demonstrates his optimistic belief in the innate good nature of humans and the value of education:

‘parce que les gens libres, bien nés, bien éduqués, vivant en bonne société, ont naturellement un instinct, un aiguillon qu’ils appellent honneur qui les pousse toujours à agir vertueusement et les éloigne du vice’

Translation: ‘men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.’

  • Only known picture of Villon, from alchetron.com
    Only known picture of Villon, from alchetron.com

    François Villon is the original bad boy of French literature: a tear-away, a vagabond, convicted of assault and robbery, frequently banished, yet writing assiduously through all this. Reminds me a little of Christopher Marlowe.

Je connois bien mouches en lait,
Je connois à la robe l’homme,
Je connois le beau temps du laid,
Je connois au pommier la pomme,
Je connois l’arbre à voir la gomme,
Je connois quand tout est de mêmes,
Je connois qui besogne ou chomme,
Je connois tout, fors que moi-mêmes.

Translation: I know flies in milk
I know the man by his clothes
I know fair weather from foul
I know the apple by the tree
I know the tree when I see the sap
I know when all is one
I know who labors and who loafs
I know everything but myself.

Incidentally, there is a rather brilliant novella ‘Villon’s Wife’ by Dazai Osamu, about a ne’er-do-well Japanese novelist and his long-suffering wife, which seems to illustrate the nature of ‘genius’ and its self-justifications really well.

  • The young Marquise.
    The young Marquise.

    Mme de Sévigné is perhaps to blame for the cult of motherhood: left a widow at an early age, she devoted herself entirely to her children and wrote them the most loving, concerned, nagging yet also witty, vivacious and observant letters. She reminds me of Moominmamma, always calm, unflappable, generous and imaginative, but with a dry sense of humour.

Ideal beauty is a fugitive which is never located.

I dislike clocks with second-hands; they cut up life into too small pieces.

We like so much to talk of ourselves that we are never weary of those private interviews with a lover during the course of whole years, and for the same reason the devout like to spend much time with their confessor; it is the pleasure of talking of themselves, even though it be to talk ill.

  • louiselabeLouise Labé was that rarity: a 16th century female poet of non-aristocratic origin (her father was a ropemaker in Lyon), well-educated, multilingual, equally talented in sports and in literature. She ran a literary salon in Lyon and there are rumours that she was a courtesan. I suspect that means she slept with whoever she pleased when she pleased. Her poetry is frank, unashamedly feminine and deceptively simple, avoiding the flamboyant artificial flourishes of her period. She reminds me of Emily Dickinson or Emily Brontë.

Je vis, je meurs ; je me brûle et me noie ;
J’ai chaud extrême en endurant froidure :
La vie m’est et trop molle et trop dure.
J’ai grands ennuis entremêlés de joie.

Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoie,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure ;
Mon bien s’en va, et à jamais il dure ;
Tout en un coup je sèche et je verdoie.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me mène ;
Et, quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me trouve hors de peine.

Puis, quand je crois ma joie être certaine,
Et être au haut de mon désiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.

Translation: I live, I die, I burn, I drown
I endure at once chill and cold
Life is at once too soft and too hard
I have sore troubles mingled with joys

Suddenly I laugh and at the same time cry
And in pleasure many a grief endure
My happiness wanes and yet it lasts unchanged
All at once I dry up and grow green

Thus I suffer love’s inconstancies
And when I think the pain is most intense
Without thinking, it is gone again.

Then when I feel my joys certain
And my hour of greatest delight arrived
I find my pain beginning all over once again.

  • Voltaire. How could I avoid the patriarch of the neighbouring village? He was at times an insufferable know-it-all, a born meddler, who could not sit still. But his intentions were honourable and he was so progressive for his time. His world-weary, sometimes cynical pronouncements about human weaknesses and the opium of religion have shaped so much of subsequent French writing.

Zadig dirigeait sa route sur les étoiles… Il admirait ces vastes globes de lumière qui ne paraissent que de faibles étincelles à nos yeux, tandis que la terre, qui n’est en effet qu’un point imperceptible dans la nature, paraît à notre cupidité quelque chose de si grand et de si noble. Il se figurait alors les hommes tels qu’ils sont en effet, des insectes se dévorant les uns les autres sur un petit atome de boue.

Translation: Zadig made his way amongst the stars… He admired those vast globes of light which to our eyes seemed to be mere feeble sparks, while Earth, which is indeed an insignificant blob in nature, seems to our covetous gaze to be so big and so important. And that’s how he saw humans themselves: insects devouring each other on a lump of clay.

Voltaire and Mme du Chatelet, probably an apocryphal painting, from weblogs.senecacollege.ca
Voltaire and Mme du Chatelet, probably an apocryphal painting, from weblogs.senecacollege.ca

Besides, I adore Voltaire’s ‘marriage of true minds’ with Mme du Chatelet. At her death (giving birth to another man’s child), he wrote: “It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made.”