Home > 1930, 20th Century, American Literature, Cain James M, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Made into a film, Polar > Lust at first sight and to hell with the consequences.

Lust at first sight and to hell with the consequences.

February 10, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. 1934. French title: Le facteur sonne toujours deux fois. Translated by Sabine Berritz.

Next thing I knew, I was down there with her, and we were staring in each other’s eyes, and locked in each other’s arms, and straining to get closer. Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it. I had her.

Cain_facteurFrank Chambers is our narrator. He’s in his twenties, has lived across the country as a hobo and ends up at Twin Oaks Tavern, a diner and gas station along a road. The owner Nick Papadakis needs help and hires him to serve gas and take care of cars. Frank isn’t interested in the job but the food is great and he needs a place to crash. That’s until he spots Cora, Nick’s wife. Between them, it’s lust at first sight. He discovers that she married Nick to have a place to live in. She doesn’t love him at all and she’s even disgusted by him. Frank and Cora have an affair and eventually decide to murder Nick.

To me, Frank and Cora are like wild animals. They don’t think about the future, they act to satisfy their immediate needs. He stays at the diner’s for food, she marries Nick to be off the streets. Once their need changes, they change of attitude. They have no gratitude, no moral compass. Nick is a nice guy, generous, welcoming. He may sound a little stupid but he’s a good man. Cora and Nick call him The Greek and look down on him because of his origin. (She doesn’t want to be called Mrs Papadakis) Racism is rampant there, and their attitude towards him illustrates what Gary said about racism. It’s when they don’t count. Nick doesn’t count. His death doesn’t count, he’s not their equal, is that so morally reprehensible to kill him? I saw Frank and Cora as cold blooded murderers and not at all as people accidentally led to crime. That’s what happens in Build my Gallows High, not in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

As always, I have trouble writing about crime fiction. I have things to say but most of what I’d like to write about the plot and the characters is full of spoilers. My rule is not to ruin the book for another potential reader, so spoilers aren’t an option.

However, I have things to say about the French translation. I bought a paperback copy published by Folio Policier and the translation by Sabine Berritz dates back to 1936. I’m not judging Ms Berritz, she probably did her best given the context. It was a time when crime fiction like this was trash literature, when publishers didn’t hesitate to accommodate books for their public and when translators might not have had the wages and time necessary to do a thorough job. I’m just disappointed that Folio sells that great novel in such a poor translation. They could afford a new one, the book is less than 150 pages long. It’s not like retranslating War and Peace! When I reached page 16, I went to the Kindle Store to buy the original. The French version was unbearable. I switched between the electronic version in English and the paper version in French as I was on a plane and e-books aren’t allowed during take-off and landing. The French translation is bad, there’s no other word. Some things are ludicrous now but forgivable. For example, words like corn-flakes or bacon are in English and in italic, like miso in a book translated from the Japanese. Now, we have adopted these words in French. What made me really laugh out loud is the footnote to explain what Coca-Cola is. I had the same experience when I read On the Road in a 1950s translation. Again, it reminded me how our country got americanised during the 20thC. At least, that’s understandable given the time and even interesting, from a “historical” point of view. But what is absolutely unbearable is the tone of the translation: the overabundant use of argot that didn’t age well (boustifaille, c’est bath…); the explosion of exclamation marks when there are none in the original and worst of all, paragraphs mixing different levels of language for no reason.

« Ça n’me creuse pas l’estomac, ça! Ça n’me fera pas m’arrêter ici pour essayer de croûter. Elle vous fait perdre de l’argent cette enseigne et vous n’en savez rien » when the original is “Well, Twin Oaks don’t make me hungry. It don’t make me want to stop and get something to eat. It’s costing you money, that sign, only you don’t know it.” The “vous n’en savez rien” doesn’t agree with the previous “ça n’me fera pas”. A “vous en savez rien” would have been better, in my opinion. Then I noticed a « Je m’en retourne », which sounds like 19thC French poetry, not crime fiction, when the original is a simple “I’m going back”.

There are crimes in this book but the translation is almost a crime to literature as well. Please Folio, have someone retranslate this! This book is fantastic in the original and doesn’t sound as fantastic in French.

Max has read it recently and he’s a bit more positive than me about the characters. Have a look at his excellent review here.

  1. Brian Joseph
    February 11, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    I am familiar with this story through the 1946 film version. I am not sure how faithful that movie was but it was an extraordinary film. Not having read the book, in terms of crime fiction this one seems to be looked upon as a masterpiece. It is on my list and I will read it in the future.

    • February 11, 2014 at 11:21 pm

      I haven’t seen the film but the book is really worth reading.
      Let’s wait for Guy. Hopefully he’ll drop by and will have seen the film and read the book.

  2. February 12, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    There are some differences between the book and the film. There are two film versions btw, and both are worth checking out. The modern film version stars Jack Nicholson.

    • February 12, 2014 at 11:58 pm

      I’d like to watch one of the film versions, it’s good movie material.

      • February 16, 2014 at 8:23 pm

        yes if you get a chance, grab the film. There’s something about the visual of seeing Lana Turner stuck in that drab little roadside diner. She so obviously doesn’t fit, and then there’s the prospect of nursing Nick’s semi-invalid mother. The prison called home becomes intolerable.

        • February 16, 2014 at 8:57 pm

          So you recommend the older film? I can’t picture Nick as Jack Nicholson anyway.

  3. February 13, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Good point on the racism – they dehumanise Nick who while a bit dim is actually a pretty nice guy.

    I suppose I had a certain sympathy with their weakness, and with the fact that separately they weren’t really dangerous – it was in combination that they exploded.

    The translation sounds shockingly bad. I’m glad you were able to read the original.

    • February 13, 2014 at 9:41 pm

      I’m glad you agree upon the racism part. I had doubts when I wrote it. I wondered if I was so wrapped up in Gary because of the weekly series that it affected my vision of other books.
      I don’t think they’re harmless when they’re on their own. Frank had already beaten someone seriously enough for the police to get interested and they didn’t hesitate long about Nick’s fate.
      That translation was horrible indeed. Folio is Galimard’s brand for paperback. They’re a big publisher, they can afford a new translation. This cult book deserves a fresh translation and French crime fiction lovers too.

      • February 13, 2014 at 10:15 pm

        You’re absolutely right about the racism part, I was glad to see you explore that.

        They do try for a while to resist the thought of killing Nick, but I admit they have the thought in the first place fairly quickly. Either way, I wouldn’t want to share a small diner with them.

        • February 13, 2014 at 10:21 pm

          Right, you wouldn’t want them over for diner.
          In French I’d call them les amants terribles.

  4. acommonreaderuk
    February 13, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    That is very interesting. You give me the impression that the film was very faithful to the book. And that Jack Nicholson is perfectly matched to the character Frank.

    I sometimes write about crime novels and don’t find it much different from writing about other books – most books seem to contain something I should hide from my readers.

    • February 13, 2014 at 10:17 pm

      That’s interesting, I can’t imagine Frank as Jack Nicholson. He’s not handsome enough.

      I don’t know why I find it so difficult to write about crime fiction. It happens all the time, though.

  5. February 15, 2014 at 8:13 am

    I haven’t read this book, but have seen the movie version which had Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. I loved the movie. I agree with you that the main characters are not likeable, but the story is quite gripping. I have a lot of respect for James Cain for inventing the ‘noir’ novel genre and for his huge contribution to it. Sorry to know that the French translation that you read wasn’t good. Hope the publishers get a new translation done. I couldn’t resist smiling though when I read your comment that there was a footnote on ‘Coca Cola’ in the book :) That definitely makes the book dated, but it also makes it charming :)

    • February 16, 2014 at 4:01 pm

      I want to see a film version of it. Sure, the characters aren’t likeable but the plot is gripping. (and chilling)
      I wonder what Claude Chabrol would do with such a book. I bet he’d make a fantastic movie.

      That translation is terrible but sometimes interesting for the information it gives about what French people knew of the American way of life at the time.

  1. May 19, 2014 at 10:49 pm

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