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.

 

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.