Every pun intended

Ceci est bien une pipe. San-Antonio by Frédéric Dard. 1999. Not available in English. (Again, I know, I know…)

San-AntonioFor a French, San-Antonio is probably as famous Philip Marlowe. He a commissaire created by Frédéric Dard, a French crime fiction writer. There are 175 San-Antonio books and the first one was published in 1949. It’s a cult crime fiction series, my paperback edition even includes a guidebook by category. For example, you can know which novels are about a kidnapping. With such a reputation and such a fan base, I had to try one and my random pick brought me to Ceci est bien une pipe. Well not exactly random since the title is a reference to Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe and I love Magritte.

Frédéric Dard is not translated into English and there’s certainly a reason to it: the style. It’s literary lad lit. – Try to say this aloud. That’s probably why this genre doesn’t exist in book stores, you can’t even pronounce it. So Frédéric Dard writes lad lit. That’s an undeniable fact: sex, dead bodies, fights, sex, dead bodies, fights,… the pattern is easy to recognize – not that I’m that familiar with the genre. The plot in Ceci est bien une pipe is as engaging as an episode of Scooby-Doo. Wait, actually, I still have to decide whether Scooby-Doo isn’t even more suspenseful than this. In addition, the characters aren’t well-drawn and they all seem rather strange. San-Antonio and his colleagues still live with their mothers in their old childhood rooms despite behaving like stinking machos. I’m not sure I want to know the Freudian interpretation of it.

Why didn’t I abandon the book? Because of the Queneau-like style. Frédéric Dard was well-read and his writing was full of puns, cultural references, inventions, use of English grammar in French and twists with words. The text is full of allusions and double-entendres. It starts with the title as pipe is both a pipe and a blow-job. Now my challenge is to translate a few sentences to try to show you what I mean.

English syntax Contremauvaisefortuneboncoeurfaisant Makingthebestofabadjobly
Literary reference : Apollinaire’s poem Sous le Pont Mirabeau. Quand tu deviens gênant pour ton entourage, retire-toi dans un mouroir ou enjambe le parapet du pont Mirabeau sous lequel coulent la Seine et nos amours, tout le monde t’en saura gré. When you become a burden to your relatives, retire in an old people’s home or cross the parapet of the Mirabeau bridge under which the Seine and our loves flow, everybody will be grateful.
Old FrenchChangeons de page, je vas te narrer la chose ! Let us change of page, I will narrate thou every thing!
Subtle lad litMon Dieu, pouquoi avez-Vous fait les “autruis” si chiants? Je ne demande que leur cul aux unes et un peu d’amicalité aux autres. Pour le reste, je parviens à m’arranger. Dear God, why did Thou create the “others” so annoying? I only ask their ass to the ones and a bit of friendshipness to the others. The rest I can manage.
Play-on-words after discovering a mutilated bodyAujourd’hui, le fond de l’horreur est frais.Based on the French phrase « le fond de l’air est frais », meaning it’s chilly. Today, the horror is chilly.

It’s pearl after pearl of funny, inventive language and major use of argot – some words I didn’t even know. Lots of good play-on-words. Excellent ideas to twist the French syntax, include literal use of English expressions. To be honest, I had a lot of fun during the first 100 pages. Then it becomes old and tiring and since the plot wasn’t worth it…I finished it but used a lot of times the second unalienable right of the reader: I skipped pages, scanned through many ones and reached the end. You might love chocolate, when you eat too much of it in a row, you get sick.

By the way, Frédéric Dard comes from in Saint-Chef, a quaint village in the Dauphiné. It’s between Lyon and Grenoble and he makes several allusions to his region in the book. He includes local ways of speaking (mimi for kiss on the cheek), allusions to the Basilique de Fourvière (Lyon) and a touching reference to the cemetery in Saint-Chef, where he is now buried.

[Je] songeais qu’après une longue immersion dans la médiocrité, je prendrai un pied éléphantesque dans le nouveau cimetière de Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné où j’irai attaquer mon éternité à l’ombre de la « Tour du Poulet » (XIIè) [I] was thinking that after a long immersion in mediocrity, I’ll get an elephantly kick out of starting my eternity in the new cemetery in Saint-Chef-en-Dauphiné, in the shadow of the Chicken Tower. (12thC)

There really is a Tour du Poulet in Saint-Chef and it really dates back to the 12th century.

Touching as this is, no more San-Antonio for me, but I’m glad I read it. Frédéric Dard also wrote La Vieille qui marchait dans la mer, which was made into a film with Jeanne Moreau. I want to read this one as it doesn’t feature San-Antonio.

  1. April 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    I’ve wanted to read one of these for a long time, but I’ve been intimidated by the stylistic and linguistic complexity as well as by my inability to find one particular title – mentioned by somebody (Le Clezio? Carrère? Echenoz?) as a favorite. Alas, no copy under E35 has shown up, and it’s certainly not in any library around here. I very much appreciate your annotated side-by-side translation. If I ever do find the book, I’ll ask you to provide similar annotations for it. 🙂

    Like

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:28 pm

      I hoped you’d leave a comment: how does it sound in English? Is it difficult to read?

      You can probably have his book delivered in France and waiting for you next time you cross the Atlantic.
      I never feel comfortable with the translation I do but this time was over the top: creative English in addition to the regular translation. You know, he’s so famous and he’s got such a fan base that I’m almost sure there there websites with explanations of the references of each and every novel.

      Last question: who’s the Frédéric Dard of the English-speaking world?

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      • April 24, 2013 at 4:11 pm

        I haven’t tried him in English either, but just went searching to see what might be out there (as Bernard indicates below, there are several titles translated).

        Since the San Antonio books fall into a genre I don’t often read and about which I know next to nothing, I won’t hazard a response to the last question. But I’m sure there’s no shortage of English-language writers of the hard-boiled and raunchy who could line up as candidates.

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        • April 24, 2013 at 10:40 pm

          I’ll have a look again to see if some of his books are available in English.

          Like

  2. April 24, 2013 at 1:28 am

    Not sure if I’d like this. I have a hit and miss relationship w/Queneau: loved Zazie in the Metro but disliked They Always treat their Women Too Well.

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    • April 24, 2013 at 8:07 am

      No you wouldn’t like it. To me it just proves that the greatest style is not enough if the plot or the narrative is weak.

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    • April 24, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      Guy – If you haven’t read it, you should at least thumb through Exercises in Style before giving up on Queneau (but I agree with you about Zazie in relation to the few other works by him I’ve read – Exercises excepted).

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      • April 24, 2013 at 10:39 pm

        I’ll second this recommendation, Exercices de style is excellent

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  3. BERNARD
    April 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Pas de traduction en Anglais are you sure ? cherchez un peu il y a une quinzaine de titres traduits

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    • April 24, 2013 at 9:02 am

      Tant mieux : où les trouve-t-on? Some readers might be interested.

      Like

  4. leroyhunter
    April 24, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    “his writing was full of puns, cultural references, inventions, use of English grammar in French and twists with words. The text is full of allusions and double-entendres”
    Now who does that remind me of??

    Sounds like fun. I can’t honestly immediately think of an anglophone equivalent. Ukridge in PG Wodehouse’s stories? Sherlock Holmes? – no – too serious.

    Like

    • April 24, 2013 at 10:43 pm

      Yes, who could that be? -:)

      I’ve only read one Woodhouse so it’s hard to tell, but I think Dard’s prose is more colloquial or even rude or vulgar.

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  5. April 25, 2013 at 10:15 am

    San Antonio is such a phenomenon that it’s well worth a blog post. I totally forgot about this series. Or rather that I always meant to read at least one title. But that was when I was more interested in style than plot. That’s a bit different now, so I might not read him any day soon.

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    • April 25, 2013 at 7:46 pm

      Like you, I wanted to read at least one title. Still, it’s too chauvinistic for me, even if I know the writer doesn’t seriously think what he writes.

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  6. February 3, 2017 at 7:08 pm

    Hm, I can see why Pushkin went for the stand-alone noirs. It sounds like this is only worth it for the wordplay, which would probably get lost in translation.

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    • February 4, 2017 at 5:10 pm

      Exactly. I wonder how the San Antonio series could be translated.

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