#WITMonth: The Two Violets – One Abandoned, One Success

Also my #20BooksofSummer Nos. 16 and 17. I can count the abandoned one, can’t I, since I gave up on it about two thirds of the way through? By complete coincidence, the main protagonist in each of these novels is called Violette or Violeta.

Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers, transl. Hildegarde Serle

There was something rather endearing about the Violette in this novel, a much put-upon woman with a good-for-nothing husband, who suffers that most unbearable of losses, the death of her young daughter. With her patience and openness to helping others (even when they take advantage of her), she reminded me of Felicité in Flaubert’s Un cœur simple. Yet the author has to give the protagonist a chance at remaking her life, learning to love and live again, because the story is set in the present-day (or thereabouts – with talk of the automation of the barrier at the train crossing, which Violette was originally operating).

This is the second book about a cemetery that I’ve read in the last year, after The Field by Robert Seethaler. Although I complained that one was a little overlong, it was certainly more interesting in format, with the voices of the dead speaking to us directly. Here, the story is resolutely Violette’s, although we do get the occasional chapter from the perspective of some of the people around her.

Although I enjoyed parts of the book, I simply did not feel the urge to pick it up, and really struggled to read more than a few pages at a time. It felt predictable, the characters simply refused to come to life for me (with the exception of Violette herself) and the little philosophical observations often felt trite. I had read so many good reviews from bloggers I love that I probably stuck with it for far longer than I should have, and it impinged upon my ability to read and enjoy other books for about a week. I felt relieved when I finally gave myself permission to leave it behind.

Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars, transl. Ángel Gurría Quintan

This is more familiar territory for me: a dark, sardonic, unlikeable main character, an uncompromising experimental style that pulls you right in if you are in the right mood. I guess I just don’t do well as a reader on the more ‘charming’ side of the spectrum!

Much has been made of this being yet another example of a novel in one sentence… except that there is a reason for it in this case , for these are the jumbled up thoughts of Violeta, who has just overturned her car in an accident and sees her life flash before her eyes. Trains of thoughts come and stop abruptly, going nowhere; there are certain verbal tics and repetitions; we circle further and further back to unpick Violeta’s past and how she ended up driving so fast and recklessly. We discover that recklessness is part of Violeta’s nature, as if to counteract the image people might have of her as an overweight, plain, middle-aged woman. She is a travelling saleswoman, hawking all sorts of depilatory waxes to beauty salons (nobody wants to buy the much more expensive eco-friendly brand). She gets her kicks with lorry drivers or other strangers in the service station car parks or toilets. She is bored to death of Angelo, her dull husband ‘who never did anything exciting in his life’; she has a fiery relationship with her daughter Dora who doesn’t seem to want anything that her mother wants for her.

Alcohol and preying on strangers dull her pain momentarily, but she is all too soon brought back to earth by the disdain of others. She is regarded as a freak, but it’s not the laughter of strangers that fills her with self-revulsion and hatred of others. As we delve deeper into her family history, we find a troubled relationship with her own mother, the dreams she had to compromise early on in life, the patterns of abuse that she herself perpetuates. And throughout it all, we have Violeta, larger than life in all sense of the word, with her refusal to apologise for her sexual appetites, her relentless candour, her inability to sugarcoat anything. Yet, if we listen closely, beneath her justifications and patter, we discover all the things she is not telling us – the things she refuses to acknowledge even to herself.

There are references too to revolution and changes in the social order, as well as children out of wedlock with black men. This refers to Portugal’s not that distant past, when Angola was a Portuguese colony (until 1975) and Portugal itself was in the grip of the Estado Novo dictatorship of Salazar and his followers (which collapsed in 1974).

A breathless tour de force, which must have posed serious translation challenges. This book won’t be to everyone’s taste, but to this particular fan of dysunctional mother/daughter relationships, it rang very true.

There Are Bored Foreign Teenagers Too!

I recently came across this feature in The Guardian about bored teenagers in literature as selected by John Patrick McHugh – and really liked many of the titles listed, some of which deserve to be better known. However, we come up against this problem over and over again in the Anglo-Saxon world: very little awareness of literature that is not written in English.

Much as I love the ‘Write Around the World’ literary travels with Richard E. Grant currently showing on BBC4, and much as I appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald and Patricia Highsmith to have only two foreign writers out of seven in both the episode on Italy and the one on the South of France feels rather… provincial. My blogger friend Emma in France is always puzzled why there is such reluctance to read books in translation in the Anglocentric world and has a Translation Tragedy category on her blog. (This applies also to English books that haven’t been translated into French, but more often books in other languages that haven’t been translated into English).

Anyway, back to stroppy teenagers (a subject which has somewhat incensed me this week, I have to admit). There are so many superb books about teenagers in world literature – and a few of those have made it into the English-speaking world too. So here is my correction to that Guardian list. Quite a few of these titles also fit into the #WITMonth project, if you are looking for inspiration.

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse, transl. Heather Lloyd, Penguin Modern Classics

The quintessential story of a bored wealthy teenager who cannot resist manipulating all the people around her, especially the women who seem to be gravitating around her father. Written when the author was still in her teens herself, this short book scandalised French society at the time (1950s) and led to a life of success and excess for Sagan. (This would also have fit in perfectly with the Write Around Episode set in France and has had a Hollywood adaptation).

Jean Seberg giving the evil eye to David Niven and Deborah Kerr in the 1958 film directed by Otto Preminger.

Trifonia Melibenia Obono: La Bastarda, transl. Lawrence Schimel, The Feminist Press at CUNY

The teenage protagonist here is anything but privileged: Okomo is an orphan, raised by her grandmother in Equatorial Guinea. She longs to find her father and in doing so gets involved with the illicit gay subculture in her country, which she finds far more welcoming than her own mainstream culture. It is also the first novel from that country to be translated into English.

Faiza Guene: Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, transl. Sarah Adams, Harvest Original/Harcourt.

Again, a marked contrast to the genteel, wealthy French teen described by Sagan: this is the France of the banlieue, those ghetto-like suburbs of Paris. The heroine Doria is determined to prove that not all that comes out of these estates is crime and rap although all the odds seem stacked against her: her father has abandoned the family, her mother has to do cleaning jobs to make ends meet, the boy she loves doesn’t seem to notice her, and she has just about had enough of school…

Janne Teller: Nothing, transl. Martin Aitken, Strident Publishing.

Denmark may often be touted as the happiest country in the world, but for Pierre Anthon, the teenager at the heart of this book, it is most certainly not the case. One day, he has an existential crisis ‘he realized that nothing was worth doing, because nothing meant anything anyway’ and climbs up a tree. Nothing that his classmates say or do can convince him to come down again. Philosophy is clearly important to Scandinavian teenagers (remember ‘Sophie’s World’ by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder), and this is a very interesting attempt to counteract teen nihilism.

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis, Jonathan Cape (no named translator!)

At the start of this autobiographical graphic novel, the authors is a child, but in the subsequent volumes she grows up and describes both her daily life in Iran in a time of Islamic revolution and war with Iraq, as well as her difficulties in adapting to life in exile.

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, transl. Jamie McKendrick, Penguin Modern Classics

A will-they, won’t-they teenage love story set in 1930s Italy, when the anti-semitic laws introduced by Mussolini means that the young narrator of the story is kicked out of the local tennis club in Ferrara and is invited to play tennis in the private garden of the wealthy Finzi-Continis. Elegy for a lost world, with the author telling us early on in the book that the glamorous family he so admired were deported and killed in concentration camps during the war.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Tschick, transl. as ‘Why We Took the Car’ by Tim Mohr, Scholastic

Mike and Tschick are two German teenage boys – or rather, Tschick is the nickname of a Russian immigrant boy, whose surname is too complicated for anyone to even attempt to pronounce. They feel like outsiders, never get invited to any of the cool parties and during the summer holidays, they take an ancient Lada for a spin and end up making a road trip out of it.

Tschick has also been adapted for film as ‘Goodbye, Berlin’ directed by Fatih Akin.

Makoto Shinkai: Your Name, Yen Press.

This YA novel was released around the same time as the animated film directed by Shinkai, describing two teenagers, a boy and a girl, bored of their daily routines in the city and the countryside respectively, who end up switching bodies periodically. They communicate through notes and text messages on their phones, but when the boy makes an attempt to visit the girl in the countryside, he discovers that her village has been obliterated by a falling comet.

Tsugumi Oba & Takeshi Obata: Death Note, Shonen Jump.

I cannot avoid mentioning Death Note when I talk about Japanese teenagers: this is a very different kettle of fish than the romantic and sweet Your Name. It is a manga that became an hugely successful anime series and a (somewhat less superlative) film. It’s the story of cocky teenager Light Yagami who finds a mysterious, dark notebook, which confers the ability upon the owner to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages. And so Light becomes a vigilante, initially planning to create a more just world by killing all criminals, until the power goes to his head…

Mircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, transl. Christopher Moncrieff & Christopher Bartholomew, Istros Books.

Mircea Eliade became a revered (although controversial) professor of world religions, but this is a fairly autobiographical novel that he wrote as a teen and never published in his lifetime. Although it takes place in Bucharest a hundred years ago, it is a universal story of the monumental egoism but also lack of confidence, search for identity and everyday failure of teenagers everywhere. Although there are shades of the insufferable Holden Caulfield here, this book doesn’t try too hard to be clever. The strength of the book lies in precisely those passages where the narrator unwittingly reveals all of his adolescent naiveté and doubts which are both funny and touching.

I could have made a much longer list, but the original had ten, so these ten will do for starters. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent French novella that we published at Corylus Books Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy, transl. Graham Roberts, in which we spend some rather tense time with disaffected teenagers in a run-down school and a French literature class. A guest author is visiting, the ineffectual teacher is ogling at her much to the amusement of his pupils, and then the school enters lockdown because of a potential terrorist attack…

Very good timing to talk about teenagers in literature: wishing you success to all the UK students getting their GCSE results today!

Two Tough Reads: Endless and Very Much Numbered Days

I’m not sure how wise it was to read these two books over the past week or so, as they were both quite harrowing in terms of subject matter. Luckily, both of them were well written and very much worth my while… but I think I will be relaxing now with some less demanding, frivolous reads.

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days #20BooksofSummer No. 8

This is probably the oldest book I have on my Netgalley shelf (2015). It was Claire Fuller’s debut novel and in the meantime she has published three others (of which I read one, Bitter Orange) and her latest, Unsettled Ground, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It is the story of Peggy, an eight-year-old only child of eccentric parents – a concert pianist German mother and a survivalist English father – who is abducted by her father after a family quarrel and taken to a remote cabin in the German woods. For the next nine years, her father manages to convince her that the world has ended and all the people they know have died. They have to fend for themselves – and those descriptions of the seasons and living that close to nature, with no back-up whatsoever, is miles removed from the lyrical nature writing we might have come across in recent years. This is nature at its harshest – and Peggy is completely at the mercy of her tyrannical father, whom she adores… but very gradually starts to question.

The narrative switches between two time frames. We start with the present-day, when seventeen-year-old Peggy tries to reintegrate into society and re-establish a connection with her mother and the younger brother born after she disappeared. Then we move to the child’s view of the world, the limited understanding and naivety of eight-year-old Peggy. There are hints of the shocking denouement of the novel throughout, but – call me a far too trusting reader, or else wanting to believe the best of everyone – I was completely misled by the author, believed everything she was saying, and was caught by surprise at the ending. Yet, unlike so many recent psychological thrillers that deliberately withhold information, simply to create that much-publicised ‘twist’, it felt very organic in this case and central to the story. Peggy is not an unreliable narrator because she wants to mislead us or justify her bad actions or run away from the police (as would be typical in crime fiction). It feels psychologically spot on: she is disassociating from her own experiences and still trying to figure out her own past and how she feels about it.

Quite a tour de force for a debut, and an uncompromising tale. Brutal at times, yet also hinting that so much more could have been said, that whole swathes of story or characterisation have been left out, that each character has a shady hinterland (yes, even the nine-year-old brother).

Hervé Le Corre: In the Shadow of the Fire, transl. Tina Kover

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I remain fascinated by the Paris Commune and its failures, and have read a whole array of books, both fictional and non-fictional treatments of those few months in the spring of 1871. Le Corre’s ambitious (and lengthy – 509 pages) account of the last ten days of the Commune, the so-called Bloody Week at the end of May, is soaked in blood, sweat and despair, a gruelling continuation of Zola’s Debacle, picking up just where Zola’s work tapers off.

There are so many deaths in this book, so many relentless descriptions of poverty, hunger, exploitation and killing that you need to stop every now and then and catch your breath. I admire translator Tina Kover for being able to stomach it and render Le Corre’s dense prose and vast cast of characters into something coherent. I am also really grateful that I could read it in translation, as reading it in the original French would probably have taken me a couple of months (like the Zola did).

Some of the individual stories worked better than others – the enigmatic Clovis, who has lost all belief in society and people; the loyal lovers Nicolas and Caroline who spend most of the book undergoing horrific experiences but never giving up hope that they might find each other; the brotherhood between the three comrades-in-arms Nicolas, Red and Adrien. However, that whole thread about the photographer of pornographic images and girls being kidnapped by a man with a half-destroyed face (very Phantom of the Opera, that!) felt a bit gratuitous. I suppose the intention was to add a criminal investigation to a narrative that would otherwise have been extremely depressing and predictable: we all know that the Communards got thoroughly thrashed and killed en masse (or else imprisoned and sent into exile).

Although I love crime fiction in general, I didn’t really need that particular strand in this book, as I was quite happy to read about all of the other personal and collective stories. And yet the author clearly knows what he’s doing, because in many ways, Antoine Roques, the investigator, is the most interesting character of them all.

They put the sash on him before he left the police station, assuring him that his way, his authority, conferred by the people, would be clear to all… Elected police delegate to the Sûreté only a month ago. A bookbinder by trade. He hadn’t wanted the job, given his longstanding, deep-seated loathing of anything to do with the police. But the assemly had judged him the most sensible, the most astute.

Yet this accidental policeman becomes devoted to the idea of justice and saving people, even in the mess and confusion of the last few days of the Commune. When he hears about the abducted woman, the latest in a series to disappear from the streets of Paris, he makes it his mission to find her. What does one more dead woman matter in a landscape littered with corpses and dying ideals? That is perhaps the whole crux of the story – that kindness and respect for the individual has to matter, even in the new revolutionary world order.

Although we see events almost exclusively through the eyes of those fighting for the Commune, the author does not idealise the revolutionaries. There are profiteers and opportunistis on both sides, cowards and empty idealists as well, and we get to hear different points of view from secondary characters who have become disenchanted with the whole process. In the words of a doctor trying to deal with vast numbers of fatal injuries:

I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed a republic of words that will soon be a repbulic of he dead… It’s a bit like we doctors tried to heal injuries simply by shouting obscenities, or to cure disease using magic spells. They talk and talk at the Hotel de Ville, they gossip on the barricades; they hem and haw about what reinforcements to send against Versailles, and in the mentime Monsieur Thiers is planning his onslaught… Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken more care of the dead than the living, because at least I don’t have to lie to them about what’s coming and my inability to stop it.

The research that Le Corre has done for his book is fantastic; having myself read several history books about the Commune, I am impressed with how effortlessly he blends all that (and more) into an exciting narrative. The individual stories are less important than the vast fresco of a city in turmoil. The crowds are unruly, not everyone is truly committed to the cause, there are far too many people willing to betray them, but there are also others who put their own lives at risk to help them.

At times, some of the passages and speeches verge onto the unrealistic and didactic, but there are others where the character’s idealism and courage even in the face of defeat shines through as rather beautiful and inspiring. Here is Roques wondering if he should sneak off, leave Paris behind and join his wife and children in the countryside:

He knows the insurrection will be crushed, that this undreamt-of moment will soon come to an end. Still… This city has a unique genius for revolt and revolution. It has been starved, bombarded, humiliated, and when the powerful ones thought it was dead, it rose up, rebellious and generous, defying the old world and calling, beyond the besieged ramparts, for public well-being and a universal republic… There’s no question of leaving this city of infinite tomorrows, especially now… Paris, teh city-world where anything will always be possible.

The book is at once a eulogy to ideals whose time had not yet come, and a love story to the city of Paris, a mistress who may be old and wrinkled, full of dirt, blood and grime, but remains defiant and unbowed. Impossible to tame permanently, even if you can defeat her temporarily.

Remembering the Unforgettable Anthea Bell #AntheaBellDay

Yesterday, 10th of May, was the birthday of that wonderful translator and champion of German and French literature, Anthea Bell. After her death in 2018, Roland Glasser, himself a translator from French, had the following brainwave:

I realized that she was one of those people who had almost an immortal presence, like Bowie or Dylan, and was the nearest thing we translators had to a contemporary icon! Her reputation was on a whole other level. And in contrast to St Jerome [patron saint of translators], she was a contemporary woman translating secular texts and thus, in many ways, more relevant to many of us. I had visions of translators parading through the streets carrying her effigy (yes, I know that goes against the whole “secular” thing!). And so the idea for  #AntheaBellDay was born. Last year, the inaugural day coincided both with the AGM of the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires // European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations at the Writers’ Centre in Norwich and an exhibition of Sebald’s photgraphs at the @SainsburyCentre at the University of East Anglia. It seemed most auspicious!

Every translator and every writer who has ever worked with Anthea Bell has expressed their profound admiration not only for her skills, but for her generosity of spirit and championing of her colleagues. Sadly, I never got to see or hear her in person, but she has nevertheless had a profound personal impact upon me.

As a child I discovered her translations of Asterix long before I got to know the name of the translator. I collected and read the Asterix and Obelix books in three languages: French, German and English. Even at the age of 7-8, I realised that the German language editions were OK but nothing to write home about, while the English language editions at times surpassed the original. My favourite examples are Getafix for the druid (so much wittier than Panoramix) and Dogmatix for Obelix’s little canine friend (which translates the spirit of Idéfix perfectly, but with additional humour).

Later, I became obsessed for a while with all things Sebald and this was where Anthea’s translations helped me most. I tend to read books in German and French in the original, because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a multilingual environment. In my late teens/early twenties I was just a tad fanatical about it: poo-poohing reading in translation as ‘taking the easy way out’. Which was ironic, given that I was studying modern languages and training to become a translator and interpreter myself. However, when I read Anthea Bell’s translations, particularly of Sebald’s Austerlitz, for example, I discover something new, an additional nuance that I’d missed in the original.

At a recent literary event, Julia Franck spoke about the joyous experience of being translated by Anthea Bell, and how difficult it was losing her. Anthea, Franck said, had an intuitive feel for the language and how to make it work in English, how to keep its melody and rhythm, while conveying several layers of meaning.

When I was reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover, I read quite a few of Anthea’s translations of crime novels, such as those by Ferdinand von Schirach. Now, you know I love my crime fiction, but occasionally the style can suffer a little at the expense of the plot. Not so with Anthea’s translations – I remember a particularly beautiful description of a landscape which was much more eloquent in Anthea’s rendering of it than in the original text (of an author who shall remain nameless here). Anthea was no literary snob – she translated widely, across all genres (I am particularly fond of her children’s literature), always to the best of her abilities, rather than solely to a deadline or a pay cheque.

Below are a few of my treasured Anthea Bell translations. I do hope that this commemoration of her life and work will continue for many years to come. And I still aspire to translate maybe a third as well and as broadly as she did!

New Year, Final Book Haul

Since I’ll be practically selling my kidneys (and almost certainly my parents’ old age security) in order to buy out the ex’s share of the house, I have to be very, very careful with money for the foreseeable future. So no more book buying for me this year – and this time I mean it!

However, before this frugality kicked in, I had a final splurge of French and Swiss books which I might struggle to find back in the UK, plus some that had been preordered in November or so, but got delayed in the Christmas frenzy post.

The French contingent

I finally bought myself a copy of Montaigne – not one translated into contemporary French but a ‘rejuvenated and refreshed’ edition, based on the 1595 version. I bought an abridged version of The Three Musketeers, in the hope that my younger son would fall for its charm. I got two Goncourt winners (smaller Goncourt prizes – for debut and the one given by high school students, which is often far better than the main one) and wanted to get the 2018 Goncourt winner that Emma rated so highly Les Enfants aupres eux – but they’d sold out and were waiting for the poche edition to appear some time in 2020. Last, but not least, I couldn’t resist this fictionalised biography of Tsvetaeva at a second-hand bookshop. The bookseller said I was the first person there who seemed to have heard of Marina Tsvetaeva, so we had a good long chat about her, how she is my favourite poet, but my Russian friend prefers Akhmatova.

The Swiss contingent

My good friend Michelle Bailat-Jones, whose translation of Ramuz so impressed me, was delighted to take me to a bookshop in Lausanne and recommend some more Ramuz and other Swiss writers. I ended up with Fear in the Mountains and with this trilogy by Agota Kristof, a Hungarian writer who taught herself to write in French. This trilogy has inspired other writers, a film (The Notebook) and even a video game, believe it or not!

Books arriving while I was away

Sadly, Michelle’s second novel Unfurled, which I’d wanted her to sign for me, arrived long after I’d left for Geneva. I had also ordered an Olga Tokarczuk which Tony Malone reminded me had been translated into English: Primeval and Other Times. I’ve been collecting quite a few books about the difficulties of writing and the importance of perseverance lately – Dani Shapiro’s one comes highly recommended. Last but not least, following the death of Alasdair Gray, whom I’ve never read, I wanted to sample some of his writing,but was not sure I could commit to a full novel, so chose these stories instead.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Finally, I have selected a few contenders for the January in Japan challenge. Heaven’s Wind is a dual language anthology of 5 women writers (each represented by one short story, all translated by Angus Turvill) and makes me feel like I almost remember enough Japanese to read it in the original. The translation notes at the back, though, make it clear just how little I am able to grasp the nuances nowadays. Another shortish story about insomnia by Yoshida Kyoko, Spring Sleepers, in that rather lovely publishing initiative by the Keshiki UEA Publishing Project. Then I have Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), one of the most beautiful collection of supernatural stories in Japanese literature dating from the 18th century, which has inspired many, many later books and films. A classic of Japanese crime fiction and the author with the highest profile currently in Japanese literature consumed in the West make up the rest of my small selection. Now all I have to do is keep up with the reviewing!

Like a painting, Mont Blanc from the train window.

The holidays were nice, and reminded me once more just how much I miss that particular part of the world. They had the potential to be truly spectacular holidays, but alas, not quite! Sadly, you cannot escape all your problems or the nuisance people in your life, even at times of peace and joy to all humankind, even at a distance of a thousand miles. Stroppy teenagers changing their minds about things at the last minute and bringing plague-like flu symptoms with them meant that there was far less writing, skiing, fondue and chocolate eating, wine drinking, snowshoeing, meeting of friends than I’d planned. I am nevertheless incredibly grateful to my friend Jenny for allowing us to use her flat and partake in her impeccable literary tastes.

Rediscovering Montaigne

I say rediscovering, but I doubt that I ever discovered him properly the first time round. I vaguely read his essays in my omnivorous teens, jotted down a few quotes, but probably confused him quite a bit with Montesquieu (well, they both start with M and are roughly categorised as philosophers) and de Tocqueville (I know, no excuses there!).

In 2015 we holidayed in Aquitaine and I kept stumbling across Montaigne in Bordeaux (he was mayor of the city from 1580 to 1585). I borrowed his essays from the library when we returned to our then-home in Prevessin, but once again failed to read them in great depth. I had simply too many other books to review.

Then I recently came across this sort-of-biography of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Entitled How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, it is nothing less than a declaration of love for Montaigne the man and the writer, for his tolerant spirit and for not being judgemental (rare during those times of religious wars in France), his openness to new things, his love of the good life but also desire for solitude. Montaigne feels very modern, very akin to us, even to the point where he claims to despise in-depth scholarship.

I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments… If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.

He also endeared himself to me by preferring his books and travels to family life. Had he been free to choose, he would not have been the marrying kind at all, yet he reached a kind of contentment within it:

Of my own choice, I would have voided marrying Wisdom herself, if she had wanted me. But say what we will, the custom and practice of ordinary life bears us along.

Yet he was by no means a hermit. He enjoyed company and cultivated friendships, highly praised kind-spirited and friendly conversations – about anything, no subject was taboo in his household. He was also one of the first to establish a rapport with animals and think of them as sentient beings.

He is also ahead of his time regarding women: he was very conscious of the double standard used to judge male and female behaviour, and believed that by nature males and females are cast in the same mould.

Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them.

Above all, I can relate to his glorious laziness. Looking after his estate was an onerous task, and he was useless around the house because he had other interests. He hated doing the things that bored him – a dereliction of duty which was shocking for his time, but which we can empathise with nowadays.

I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it… Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art.

As Sarah Bakewell notes, he ‘knew there was a price to be paid’ for this unwillingness to be a micro-manager, that people would take advantage of his ignorance. ‘Yet it seemed to him better to lose money occasionally that to waste time tracking every penny and watching his servants’ tiniest movements.’ Of course, this comes from a position of privilege, where he could afford not to track the pennies.

Finally, perhaps his most endearing quality is his acceptance of everything that happens and everything you have done and been. His was not the Christian doctrine of repentance, but nor did he try to airbrush his past. He knew that some of the things he’d done a long time ago no longer made sense to him now, but he is forgiving to himself and to others for their mistakes. We are all made up of what we’ve done throughout our lives and what we’ve learnt from that.

We are all patchwork; and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game… our being is cemented with sickly qualities… Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.

Yet the author also points out, that for all his individualistic modernity, Montaigne also has much to teach people in the 21st century about moderation, being courteous, that no utopia or fantasist vision of the future can ever justify hurting others in the present or outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

Coincidentally, a French writer friend Lou Sarabadzic has just been busy curating an exhibition about Montaigne at the library Abbé-Grégoire in Blois, as part of her travelling and writing residency there. And I can now understand her passion for this author and wish I’d discussed him with her sooner! If you want to see the author Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne, here is the link to a video from the LRB Bookshop.

I will certainly add him to my list of favourite classic French writers : Voltaire and Molière.

The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune

Advertisement for the new novel by Zola.

So I finally finished Zola’s The Debacle and, while it was a fascinating, at times gruesome depiction of the Franco-Prussian War, it lacked substance when it came to the presentation of the Paris Commune. While it’s not fair to criticise the book for something that it’s not, I had picked it up in the expectation it might give me some new insight into the Commune, however brief its treatment of it.

Sadly, it does not.

The reason for that is probably because Zola himself (and his contemporaries) were not entirely sure what to make of the Commune. It had been brutally vanquished by the government, after all. There was no attempt at reconciliation, forgiveness or negotiation. Thousands were killed, many more sent into exile in a penitentiary colony. Its most visible supporters (like the painter Courbet) were imprisoned and then had to flee France to avoid having to pay off horrendous debts to the state for the destruction of property.

Those months of self-governance were presented in the newspapers and popular culture of the time as destructive, indiscriminate, incoherent, rudderless. Now, Zola is not one to shy away from controversy (remember the Dreyfus Affair?), but he was clearly influenced by the flood of published literature in the 1870s condemning the whole movement. While similar, on the whole, to the critical stance of most of his liberal republican contemporaries (disenchanted with the Second Empire and the Franco-Prussian War and attributing the outbreak of the rebellion to the poor handling of that), Zola’s views on the uprising were slightly more compassionate than most, calling on the National Assembly to listen to the ‘legitimate grievances’ of the Commune. Following the suppression of the rebellion, however, Zola is conspicuously silent about the government-sanctioned blood-bath. Perhaps he felt that the French were a little too prone to be swept away by revolutionary fervour, without thinking about the consequences.

Caricature of Zola, suggesting he uses the most disgusting things to ‘cook up’ something.

His ambivalence about the Commune has been noted by historians: he wrote some negative chronicles in the newspapers of the time, and there is one letter dated 22nd May, 1871, addressed to the newspaper La Semaphore in Marseille, in which he makes fun of the Communard desire to recognise all children born out of wedlock and to do away with titles of nobility:

The farce is now over and the clowns will be arrested. Rochefort is already in chains and surely the others will follow shortly. The cannon is booming, these are the last horrors and last remnants of the civil war.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in The Debacle, Maurice, the idealist who had been so keen to fight against the Prussians at the start of the novel, is the one who is indoctrinated with revolutionary ideals, while practical, down-to-earth Jean remains in the army. Of course, Jean is horrified by the disproportionate revenge he sees the army exacting upon the Communards and, in a fine piece of melodrama (spoilers ahead), he is the one who pierces Maurice with a bayonet before realising just whom he is killing. Maurice is ravaged by fever and keeps repeating that Paris is burning, that the only way to purify the city is by having it burn to the ground. But the purification does not come from the rebels themselves. What Maurice says in his delirium (but which probably reflects the author’s views) is:

This is the sane and reasonable part of France, the measured, sensible peasant part of France, which has stayed closer to the land, defeating the mad, exasperated side, spoilt by the Empire, irredeemably broken by dreams and pleasures. It had to be done: cutting into the very flesh… The bloodbath was necessary, the loss of French blood, this abominable holocaust, this living sacrifice, to be purified by fire.

The wall at Pere Lachaise cemetary where at least 150 were shot in the last couple of days in May 1871 (an estimated total of 20,000 men, women and children died during the Bloody Week – or Fortnight – in May).

This is repeated in the final chapter of the book, Zola’s belief that the birth of a new nation and an improved form of republic can come out of all that suffering. The novel ends on a tiny note of hope, with Jean and Henriette looking forward to the reconstruction of the city and, indeed, all of France ‘… like a tree bringing forth a new, powerful shoot, after cutting off the putrid branch whose poisoned sap had turned the leaves yellow.’

The Siege of Paris and the Commune are despatched hurriedly in a few short chapters (comprising only about the last 10% of the book) and is perhaps less interesting (and more ambivalent) than what we encounter on our journey there. The chapters following the fall of Sedan, when Jean and Maurice are made prisoners of war by the Prussians, are particularly grim. The appalling conditions in the prison camps, the dead bodies (of both men and horses) floating in the Meuse river, the desperate attempts to slaughter and eat horses are images that were almost unbearable to read and will stay with me forever. Not a trace of sugarcoating from Zola, pure condemnation of violence and war at its nastiest and messiest.

Almost at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some lighter moments, almost comic relief with the self-centred and vain Gilberte, wife of the local merchant and Henriette’s friend. But this is a far cry from the comedy of manners or social critique that Zola incorporated in his other novels (and in his literary ideal of realism). This is almost photographic realism, forcing the reader to look at the terrible consequences of nationalism, pride, revenge and the futile hunt for glory.

I am glad that I read this novel, it is certainly unforgettable, but I do wish I had spent more time on the Vautrin book for a fuller (and more sympathetic) Commune experience.

Zola: ‘The Debacle’ Readalong (Part 1)

May was going to be dedicated to the Paris Commune this year. I have read a couple of history books about it (to be reviewed) and had arranged to read Zola’s massive volume ‘The Debacle’ at the same time as Emma from BookAroundtheCorner. However, although I am 60% of the way through the book, I have yet to reach any chapter that relates to the Commune. So far it is all about the ill-conceived and ill-fated Franco-Prussian War of 1870. I’m talking from the French perspective, of course, because for the Prussians it certainly marked their ascendancy on the world stage.

This is not to say that I am not fascinated by the story, which reads quite well as a standalone, even if you haven’t read previous novels in the Rougon-Macquart series. This long series of 20 novels was intended to be a family saga but also a chronicle of the Second Empire. Or rather, a portrayal of how historical and social events colour individual lives and affect families. The series itself was started in 1871, soon after the fall of the Second Empire, but this is the penultimate volume and wasn’t published until 1892, by which time the dust had settled after the defeat in the war, the fall of Napoleon III, the desperation of the siege of Paris and the failure of the Commune.

The Infantry Will Advance by Carl Rochling, said to depict the Battle of Sedan.

Jean Macquart had appeared in a previous Zola novel La Terre. He is now 39 years old, a resilient, practical farmer, who is still recovering from the loss of his wife and lands. He is now a corporal in the 7th division of the French army, on the Franco-German border at Mulhouse. He is initially derided as an illiterate ‘peasant’ by a soldier under his command, Maurice Levasseur, who is from a more middle-class family, descended from a Napoleonic war hero, qualified as a lawyer.

Maurice starts off as an idealist, who thinks war is not only inevitable, but entirely justified for France, and who underestimates the Prussian military machine, not heeding his brother-in-law’s warnings. Jean is an experienced soldier, who fought in previous wars, a veteran of the battle of Solferino against the Austrians. He is more sceptical about the causes and outcomes of this war, but even he is stunned by the incompetence of the French military leaders.

Over the course of the mismanaged campaign, retreating and advancing without any plan or explanation, trying to make sense of the conflicting orders and constantly changing chains of command, the two men start to respect and support each other. Zola paints a dire picture of the military march in the first part of the book: the lack of provisions and discipline, the mixed feelings of the civilian population in the villages the army are passing through, the profiteering, the gnawing hunger. In one particularly poignant scene close to the beginning of the book, the army is engaged in yet another pointless retreat on an empty stomach, their feet full of blisters in ill-fitting shoes, under the relentless August sun. The soldiers start throwing away their weapons and rucksacks. Maurice is about to follow suit, but Jean forces him to pick up his gun, provoking an outburst of anger and hatred. The worst thing is: nobody is punished after that act of insubordination. It’s almost as though the officers have given up already on this farcical campaign.

Sedan marked the start of a new kind of warfare: urban warfare, as show here in The Last Cartridges by Alphonse de Neuville.

The second part of the book deals with the decisive Battle of Sedan, where the Prussians managed to trick the French army into a kind of pincer grip around the town of Sedan on the Franco-Belgian border. The village of Bazeilles just outside Sedan, where Maurice’s sister and brother-in-law live, is retaken and abandoned no less than four times. Although the descriptions of war strategy and actual battle scenes have never been my favourite thing (I used to skim through them in War and Peace, for example), Zola does an excellent job of conveying the confusion and terrible waste of war, particularly when it leaves the battlefield and enters the villages, affecting the civilian population.

He personalises these scenes with fictional characters we can become attched to, like Maurice’s twin sister Henriette searching for her husband. But there are also very brief, distressing vignettes, which he must have absorbed from eyewitness accounts. For example, the mother who refuses to evacuate because her child is terribly ill and feverish. She is shot down on the street and the feeble cries of her child from within the house ‘Maman, maman, I’m thirsty!’ will haunt the soldiers who witnessed it. Readers who found War Horse upsetting may want to skip the part where Zephyr, the brave black horse belonging to the officer Prosper, is killed as the cavalry charges forward for the third time. Maurice and Jean conclude that being brave is simply not worth it.

A rare photograph of the period. After repeatedly trying (and failing) to die in battle, 2nd September was the day the Emperor surrendered and was deposed.

It’s an ambitious fresco of a book, the longest by far in the Rougon-Macquart saga, one where the panoramic view of history tends to overshadow the personal, but Zola does his best to weave in some individual stories. Very moving and very political. Can’t wait to see what happens when they reach Paris.

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.

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.