Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part eleven

La Tête coupable (1968) English title: The Guilty Head.

Gary_LecturesLa Tête coupable is the third volume of a trilogy. The first volume, Pour Sganarelle, is an essay about novels, novelists and literature in general. The second one is La danse de Gengis Cohn and you can read my sloppy billet about it here. The last one is La Tête coupable. It’s out of print in English but you can get really cheap used copies online. I haven’t read Pour Sganarelle — yes, there are some Garys I haven’t read. Regular readers know I’m not good at reading essays, so it’s not a surprise that this one is on the shelf, unread.
I have read La Tête coupable a very long time ago. We find again the character Cohn. He’s now living in Tahiti under the protection of Bizien, the Napoleon of tourism. He apparently lives a peaceful life with a Tahitian woman. Sometimes he cons people into paying a Gauguin tax, surfing on the guilt the island feels towards the painter. As I’m browsing through the book, picking paragraphs here and there, I can feel the energy of Gary’s writing, his fantasy. I don’t remember the plot but it sure sounds totally crazy with snippets of insight about the world’s affairs. It’s hard not to think about William Somerset Maugham.
Cohn is a cynic and a picaro. Sganarelle is a character of the comedia dell arte and a famous facetious valet in Molière’s plays. Gary is going towards comedy there but as always he uses humour and laughter to cover his traces. Cohn is a histrion with a sad side.

Un cynique (…) est en général un homme très vulnérable qui tuerait père et mère pour essayer de se désensibiliser.

A cynic (…) is usually a very vulnerable man who would kill his own father and mother to try to desensitise himself.

Or:

Un cynique (…) est en général un homme très vulnérable qui tuerait père et mère pour essayer de se désensibiliser.

A cynic (…) is usually a very vulnerable man who would kill his own father and mother to try to keep himself from feeling. (Translation reviewed by Erik Mc Donald.)

The first one is my translation, I wanted to keep the verb “desensitise”. In French, “se désensibiliser” is not really used in the sense Gary uses it. It’s a medical term. He applies it to emotions. I wanted to keep it because it represents Gary’s ways with the French language. Using a word in a close but in a different meaning and always surrounded by other words that make its new use sound perfectly natural. It brings wit in the text and also a lightness that contradicts the seriousness of the message.
Shuffling through the pages of La Tête coupable, one word comes to my mind: déjanté. That’s the word for a special brand of French craziness for which I still haven’t found an equivalent in the English language. Feel free to throw ideas around.

  1. davidsimmons6
    March 27, 2014 at 12:39 am

    This “trilogy” seems odd: an essay completed by two novels.

    For se désensibiliser, I’d be comfortable with desensitize himself or anesthetize himself, but perhaps that’s because I’m a physician. I prefer your translation to Erik’s. (Note the substitution of the “z”. I warned you about correcting your English before, hoping you’d freely correct my mistakes in French.)

    After looking up the etymology of déjanté/déjanter, my American suggestion would be: gone off his rocker/to go off one’s rocker.

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    • March 28, 2014 at 12:35 am

      I agree with you: it’s kind of unusual to have a trilogy starting with an essay and ending with two novels.

      I like “desensitise” too.
      About spelling. You know English is not my native language so I get to choose the one I’m writing. Since my very first and faithful readers are both British (hi Guy, hi Max!), my spell check is set on UK English. So expect “neighbour”, “favour”, “defence” and “s” instead of “z” 🙂

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  2. March 27, 2014 at 6:28 am

    Nice quote, Emma! Loved reading your notes on the translation. ‘Déjanté’ – that is a word I would like to keep in my wordbox and use sometime 🙂 I loved your description of ‘Pour Sganarelle’. I want to read it sometime. I love literary essays, if they are accessible to a general reader. Thanks for this beautiful quote, Emma!

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    • March 28, 2014 at 12:36 am

      Thanks Vishy. I’d like to read a review of Pour Sganarelle, I’d be less intimidated by it afterwards. (Maybe)

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