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The Dance of the Seagull by A. Camilleri. Thoughts about the unusual French translation

May 1, 2016 27 comments

The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri (2009) French title: La danse de la mouette. Translated from the Italian by Serge Quadruppani.

Camilleri_mouetteI went on holiday in Sicily and it was the perfect opportunity to read a book by Andrea Camilleri. He’s a crime fiction writer, the father of the commissario Montalbano series. The Dance of the Seagull is the fifteenth book of the Montalbano series. It didn’t matter much that I hadn’t read any of the previous ones.

In this episode, when Montalbano arrives at the police station in Vigàta, he discovers that inspector Fazio is missing. It seems like he was investigating shady business in the habour when he went MIA but nobody knows exactly what he was working on. Is it smuggling, arm or drug dealing? Montalbano is worried about Fazio and starts digging while dodging bullets from his superiors as he doesn’t want to reveal that he’s in the dark regarding Fazio’s work. Montalbano is upset enough about Fazio’s disappearance to forget all about his long-distance girlfriend Livia who comes from Geneo to visit him.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot. It’s my first encounter with Montalbano and again we are drawn to a set of characters and a location. Montalbano is this middle-aged police officer, grumbling, eating fantastic food in trattorias and riding shotgun instead of driving as often as possible. He only follows the rules when absolutely necessary, not hesitating to forget some of them when it’s convenient.

It was a nice read, I can’t say that the plot was extraordinary but it came second to the setting and the translation. The most fascinating aspect of the book was its translation.

The French translator, Serge Quadruppani, wrote a foreword to explain his translation choices, backed up by the publisher. Camilleri’s language is specific to Sicily and to him. He peppers the book with Sicilian dialect. He uses a lot of regionalisms and his syntax is special because of the Sicilian setting. He also tweaks the spelling of certain words to give back the Sicilian accent. Therefore, the original text has a specific flavor for the non-Sicilian Italian. The French translator and the publisher decided to transfer this experience into the French text. This is why we find in the French translation: strange syntax, Sicilian words, French verbs with a bizarre spelling, regionalisms from the South East and creative spelling to transpose an accent. Serge Quadrippani chose to make his French translation sound like person from Marseille who would be of Italian origins. It works. There’s a similarity between the South East of France or Corsica and Sicily. The Mediterranean landscape is similar and the city of Palermo reminded me of Bastia in Corsica.

For example, Montalbano introduces himself with Montalbano sono, which has been translated into Montalbano, je suis or in English, Montalbano, I am. It’s strange in French but it sounds like the original. That’s for syntax oddities. Then Quadrappani twisted some French verbs to match the original. When Camilleri writes aricordarsi instead of ricordarsi, the French verb se rappeler becomes s’arappeler.

Here are two examples of the first pages and the comparison with the English translation by Stephen Sartarelli. I’ll underline the oddities in French, for foreign readers.

Souvent par chance, il dormait comme ça jusqu’au matin, si ça se trouvait, il faisait tout ça à la file, mais certaines nuits au contraire, comme celle qui venait juste de se passer, au bout d’une paire d’heures de roupillon, il s’aréveillait sans aucune raison et il n’y avait plus moyen d’aréussir à retrouver le sommeil.

Often he was lucky enough to sleep through till morning, all in one stretch, but on other nights, such as the one that had just ended, he would wake up for no reason, after barely a couple of hours of sleep, unable for the life of him to fall back asleep.

The word roupillon is more nap than sleep and it’s more spoken language than sleep is. See also the a before the verbs réveillait and réussir.

Mais il n’avait aucune envie de s’amontrer de mauvaise humeur devant Livia quand elle arriverait. Il fallait passer une heure en rousinant.

Le voyage du matin lui avait réveillé un solide ‘pétit.

But he really didn’t want to be in a bad mood when Livia arrived. He had to find some distraction to make the extra hour pass.

The morning drive had whetted his appetite a little.

The English doesn’t sound like the French at all. We have another a before a word, the verb rousiner that I had to look up and ‘pétit instead of appétit. The English is flat and factual. Of course, it is a lot easier to do that with the French language, with it being so close to the Italian. It sure isn’t as simple in English. The French sounds like the South, cicadas, characters by Pagnol and a man who speaks like a blue collar.

In the end, what impact did it have on this reader? It is well done, consistent throughout the novel. It is commendable that the publisher agreed to it and went out of the usual path. After a while, I got used to it.

For a French from the North, it reminded me of the sun, the holidays. Reading this while visiting Sicily made me appreciate Quadruppani’s creative translation even more. It enhances the sense of place. However, it’s hard to connect this type of style with crime fiction, with investigations and criminality. But one can argue that it’s probably the same for an Italian from Milan who reads Camilleri.

I would love to hear someone else’s experience with reading Camilleri in French or in the original, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Messages in French are welcome too. For readers who are fluent in French, I would recommend to try this out, for the good time with the story but also for this curious translation.

Sicile

 

Quais du Polar #6: Translation contest

April 2, 2016 7 comments

Quais_polar_logoI’ll write a post about my days at Quais du Polar once the festival is over. Meanwhile, I want to share with you the fantastic session I went to this afternoon. It was a translation contest organized by the ATLF, the association of French literary translators. There were a lot of people waiting to enter the conference room. More than what the translators expected. The rules of the translation contest are simple: two translators translate the same text by Craig Johnson and confront their translations in his presence. Here we had Sophie Aslanides, Johnson’s “official” translator and Charles Recoursé, an outsider. The translation contest is a way to put forward the inevitable subjectivity of a translation.

Craig Johnson’s novels are successful in France. He made a short introduction to the session, reminding the public that a good translation matters and that a bad translation makes a bad book. He can’t judge the quality of the French translation by himself since he doesn’t speak French but he assumes it is good. Why? Because the French critics of the book reported that the book was full of humor. He said that if Sophie Aslanides managed to give back the humor, then the rest can’t be bad.

He mentioned that his translator knows the US well and it shows in her work. He also reported that working on the translation with her –mainly by answering her questions—made him realize what was difficult to translate into French, like references to football or baseball. It was interesting to hear his side of the translation story.

I’m not going to detail the discussion about differences between the translations but I want to share with you what I learnt about translating from the English to the French language.

I don’t work in the literary world so I am clueless about the workings of the author/publisher/translator triangle. So I was quite surprised by the weight of the publisher on the translation. They approve of significant translation decisions such as choosing the present tense instead of the passé simple. They will highlight (and reject) repetitions in the text even if the original used the same word several times. (Apparently the English language bears repetition better than the French). They may impose translation rules, like whether they expect proper nouns to be translated. This is how a Mrs becomes a Madame or stays a Mrs or how Mount Rushmore becomes Mont Rushmore…or not.

The session was also an opportunity to point out common difficulties in translating English into French. The most obvious one is to choose between vous and tu to translate you. Once the decision is made, the next one is “When do I move to tu between characters that started out with vous?” Charles Recoursé said he usually waits for a significant even to happen: the characters have sex, they share confidences, they bond after a fight or traumatic events. In any case, it is thought through.

Another tricky thing is the translation of gerund, like in this sentence: I continued to breathe deeply and sat there waiting for I’m not sure what. It is tempting to use the “participe present” in French and say en attendant for waiting, but it can be heavy. Sophie Aslanides explained that she tries to refrain from using the participe present form.

Two other difficulties weren’t surprising given how hard these notions are to get when you’re French and learning how to speak English. The first one would be the representation of space. It’s all these down, up, through, toward, forward words that are difficult to learn and equally difficult to translate. The second difficulty relates to the description of a someone’s position. For example, Cragi Johnson wrote I lowered myself into a three-point position which can’t be translated literally. Both translators say that in cases like this, they do the movement and wonder how to say it in French. It’s also the case when a character stands out the door, when in French we don’t have an exact equivalent to stand.

I had also noticed that the French version of an English text is always longer than the original. I learnt that it’s called “foisonnement” and that in average the French text is 15% longer than the English one.

This translation contest also showed that having a recurring translator is an asset, that translating a few pages out of the blue is not easy. Some of Sophie Aslanides’s choices were due to her familiarity with Craig Johnson’s novels. She knows the characters, the atmosphere of the books, she has spent time in Wyoming and knows the setting of the novels. She capitalizes on her experience.

I was amazed at the details she researches. For example, she chose to translate crow into corbeau and not into corneille because contrary to corneilles, corbeaux walk and the text mentioned footprints. The excerpt was about a peyote ceremony. Sophie Aslanides explained how she checked previous translations of such ceremonies for her translation to be consistent with whatever previous notion the reader might have of a peyote ceremony. This is so thoughtful.

My enthusiasm about this translation contest probably shows in my billet. I didn’t know that the publisher had a word to say in the translation and I was truly fascinated by the information Sophie Aslanides and Charles Recoursé shared about their work and the process of translating a book. Before starting this blog, I was never concerned by the work of the translator. They were a sort of ghost writer necessary to read foreign literature. I started to wonder about it when got used to putting quotes in both languages in my billets and when I struggled to translate phrases myself when I didn’t have a professional translation on hand. Then my English improved and I could better spot poor or old-fashioned translations. This session helped me understand better the wonderful work the translators do to open us the window to other literatures and set us free to explore other cultures. Thanks guys.

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

March 5, 2016 22 comments

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (1937) Translated by Peter Hargitai. French title: Le voyageur et le clair de lune. (Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba.)

Preamble: Although all the quotes I inserted in this billet come from the English translation by Peter Hargitai, I have read Journey by Moonlight in French. This English translation dates back to 2015 and its actual title is Traveler and the Moonlight, which is the same as in French. (Le voyageur et le clair de lune). Since Szerb’s novel is better known under Journey by Moonlight, I’ll refer to it under this title in my billet.

The practical life is a myth, a bluff, invented by idiots as a consolation for being impotent as intellectuals.

SZERB_voyageurJourney by Moonlight starts in Venice where Erzsi and Mihály have just arrived from Budapest. They’re on their honeymoon and Mihály is a bit wary. It’s his first time in Italy and we learn from the first page that he has lived in France and England, travelled a lot but avoided Italy like the plague because it was a country for grown-ups. So he thinks. And now that he’s married, he’s an adult and he should be protected against Italy’s power of attraction.

Erzsi and Mihály leave Venice for Ravenna and Mihály’s past catches up with him in the form of János Szepetneki, one of his old classmates. Suddenly, his youth resurfaces and Mihály reveals to Erzsi a whole part of his past that she’s unware of. As an adolescent, Mihály suffered from what I’ll call panic attacks. It lasted until he became friends with Tamás Ulpius, who seemed to have the power to prevent the attacks from happening. Tamás and his sister Éva are free spirits, living in a strange household. Their mother is dead, their father is very strict and their eccentric grand-father encourages their weird activities. There is no schedule in this house and Tomas and Éva do as they please. They love theatre and keep playing dramatic deaths. They have a fusional relationship. Mihály is drawn to their world. He comes from a close-knit bourgeois family. His father owns a small company and the atmosphere at home is loving but conformist. Mihály finds it smothering and he’s madly attracted to the Ulpius lifestyle. They represent freedom. But despite his efforts, Mihály doesn’t really fit in, he feels like a fraud:

“At the same time, I didn’t feel quite right about Tamás and Éva. I felt like I was betraying them. What they regarded as natural and free was for me a difficult, agonizing rebellion. I was too bourgeois. I was raised that way, as you well know. I had to take a deep breath the first time I allowed my cigarette ashes to fall to the floor. Tamás and Éva couldn’t imagine otherwise. The few times I mustered the courage to skip school with Tamás, I suffered from stomach cramps the entire day. My nature was such that I’d get up early, sleep at night, and eat lunch at lunchtime and supper at supper time. I’d prefer to eat my meals from a plate, and I’d never start with dessert. I like order, and I’m terrified of policemen. I tried to conceal from Tamás and Éva a part of me that was order-loving, conscientious and petite bourgeois. Of course they saw right through the roles I was playing, even had opinions on the subject, but were polite enough not to bring it up with me, and kindly looked the other way whenever I tried to save money or had an attack of orderliness.

It’s not easy to leave your background behind and yet adolescence is really the time to question one’s education. Later, another student joins them and the group dynamic changes and Ervin is also an outsider.

Mihály relates his high-school years with Tamás and Éva and explains to Erzsi that Tamás is dead, that he committed suicide a few years before, that Éva got married and disappeared and that the rumour says that Ervin has become a monk. They didn’t keep in touch. Mihály never knew the exact circumstances of Tamás’s death and he never recovered from it. He tried to close the door of his past:

What had his life been like these last fifteen years? He was educated in his profession both at home and abroad. Not the profession of his choosing but the one conferred on him by his family, his father, his father’s company, which did not interest him but which he joined nevertheless. He struggled to learn amusements appropriate for a young aspiring partner of the company. To play bridge. To ski. To drive a car. He bent over backwards to become entangled in adventures of the heart appropriate for a company man, found Erzsi, and entered into a relationship with her which would elicit in society just the right amount of gossip, appropriate to an up-and-coming partner of a prestigious company. And, finally, he married a beautiful, intelligent and wealthy woman with whom he had carried on an affair and whose reputation of carrying on affairs was a notable advantage, befitting a wife of an aspiring partner. Who knows, another year and he may become a full partner. Attitudes about identity, about who one is and what one does go through a hardening process that cuts to the inner core of one’s being until it becomes callous beyond recognition. One starts out as so and so who happens to work as an engineer, and with time he is an engineer and who he really is no longer matters.

He thought he had moved on, that his marriage to Erzsi had sealed the door to this part of himself who yearned for a freer life. He tried to leave his past behind and grow up. The problem is he didn’t move on, he tried really hard to fit the designated mould. The encounter with Janos acts as a catalyst and Mihály unfolds from his mould, he breaks free and he rebounds back to his former self after being compressed.

He leaves Erzsi behind and starts a journey through Italy, revisiting his past, trying to find himself and to put the past to rest. He’s on a travel and on a journey, the French is more convenient here because “voyage” covers both meanings.

Journey by Moonlight is a picaresque novel. We follow Mihály in Italy and Erzsi in France. Mihály needs to find Ervin and Éva. But both have their past resurfacing and meddling into their present. For Erzsi, it’s in the form of her ex-husband who wants her back, even if she left him for Mihály. She had a comfortable life but she wanted to step out of conformity and marrying Mihály was a way to do it.

With just about everything, she’d been a conformist, as Mihály would point out. But then she got bored. Bored to the point of mind-numbing neurosis, and that’s when she sought out Mihály, sensing that he at least was a man, an individual who resisted the insufferable taboos inherent in social boundaries and their rock-solid walls. She believed that with Mihály she could scale those walls, beyond which were wild thickets and forbidden pastures that spread far toward an exotic horizon. But, as it turned out, Mihály was actually conforming through her, using her as a means to become respectable, and he’d only rarely break out and wander off to graze among those forbidden pastures, usually when he got fed up with following the herd and retreated back as far as the thickets.

They had found a middle ground in Budapest but change the setting, add Janos as a deus ex-machina and the fragile balance shatters. What’s as the end of this journey? Will Mihály find his peace of mind? Will Erzsi and Mihály go through a parallel journey or will they meet midway?

Journey by Moonlight is a thoughtful novel about identity, the weight of family expectations and the force of ingrained education. One’s education grounds them. Most of the time, it’s in a positive way. Sometimes, it fills one’s shoes with lead and prevent them from soaring and being themselves. It could be a sad book but it’s not, thanks to Szerb’s subtle sense of humour.

Pataki read somewhere that the only difference between a married man and a bachelor was that the married man could always count on someone to dine with.

It breaks the tension and puts the characters’ inner turmoil in perspective. What is their angst in the grand scheme of things? Nothing. His sense of humour also appears in descriptions:

That was Italy for you, he thought. Pelting each other with history. Two thousand years as natural to them as the smell of dung in a village.

Journey by Moonlight is also a wonderful tribute to Italy. Szerb is cosmopolitan, cultured and a humanist who lived in several European countries. His novel makes you touch the concept of “Europeanity”. He points out clichés but always with affection. About London:

He loved wallowing in London’s melancholy climate, its damp, foggy mist, loyal companion to solitude and the spleen. “London in November is not so much a month,” he said, “as a condition of the soul.”

And about the French:

Finding themselves alone in their first-class compartment, they were soon kissing as ardently as the French. For both, this was left over from their years of study in Paris.

Szerb shows local quirks but indirectly puts forward our common culture, the Europe built by art and intellectuals. The three first parts of the novel start with a quote by a poet. Mihály visits Keats’s grave in Rome. Journey by Moonlight was published in 1937, in troubled times for Europe. Italy, Germany and Spain were run by dictators. Eastern European countries were fragile after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In Szerb, I sense a man of peace, an intellectual who would promote unity against division. In times of Brexit and of the migrant crisis, he’d urge us to remember who we are and that there is indeed such an impalpable thing as European identity. It’s that  something that made our Australian guest gush over the phone “Oh my gosh, they’re so European!”

I’ll end this billet with a book recommendation: if you loved Journey by Moonlight, then there’s a good chance that you’ll like Les Enchanteurs by Romain Gary.

For other reviews, find Max’s here and Guy’s here.

PS: Szerb was Jewish. He died in 1945, executed by the Nazis. As usual, my French copy came with no comments of any sort. My English copy has a fascinating afterword by Peter Hargitai. He’s a translator of this novel into English and he paid for its publication. That’s how important it is for him. He was acquainted to Szerb’s widow and taught this novel for years to American students. He wanted to honour Szerb’s memory. His afterword gives a brilliant explanation of the novel and he also reminds us of the horrible fate of Hungarian Jews. (See my billet about Fateless by Imre Kertesz here)

PPS: Don’t ask me anything about the French cover, I’m clueless.

Women in Translation Month: French suggestions

August 6, 2015 25 comments

WITMonth15I’ve seen several posts and tweets about Women In Translation Month organised by BibliobioWhile I’m not fond of positive discrimination, any opportunity for foreigners to discover another country’s literature is fine with me. I’m not going to make a conscious effort to read more women foreign writers this month. In France, we have another approach to translated literature, we don’t see it as a topic worth discussing. Marvelous works of literature are not written in French. Most readers only read in French. Translation is the only means to access to these books. Therefore French readers read books in translation. End of story. I’ve never seen anyone arguing that one should only read francophone literature out of wariness for the translator’s work.

That said, I thought I’d give anglophone readers a list of French women writers who have been translated into English and are worth discovering, in my opinion. Here comes the list:

Novels:

  • The Princess de Clèves by Mme de Lafayette.
  • Indiana by George Sand.
  • The Collected Stories by Colette
  • Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
  • Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
  • The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  • All Men are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir.
  • Suite française by Irène Némirovsky
  • Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes (*)
  • Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan (*)
  • Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (*)
  • Héloïse is Bald by Emilie de Turckheim (*)
  • Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (*)
  • Sweet Agony by Nancy Huston

Theatre

  • Art by Yasmina Reza

Beach & Public Transports Books

  • Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb
  • Someone I Loved by Anna Gavalda
  • The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol

Crime fiction

  • The Chalk Circle Man: The First Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery by Fred Vargas (*)
  • Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti (*)

I hope it’s helpful. The titles followed by (*) have been reviewed here. If you pick any of these books after reading this post, I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts about it. Leave your thoughts or a link to your review in the comment section.

Happy reading!

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins

April 6, 2015 20 comments

B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins. (2009) French title: B comme bière. Translated by François Happe.

Robbins_beerI recently realized that there’s no French word to say teetotaler. I wonder why. Because it’s a wine country? Because it used to be a Catholic country with wine at mass? Because alcohol has never been prohibited? I don’t have a clue, I only know we don’t have a word to describe someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

As a matter of fact, I don’t drink wine or beer because I don’t like the taste of them. Don’t ask me how I survive in wine country without drinking any of it –imagine me enduring wine tasting at the Hospices de Beaune, standing beside friends and waiting for the boring thing to end—or how I survived being a student in a city where a street is renamed Rue de la bière because it’s the local Temple Bar. So, when I saw that B Is For Beer by Tom Robbins promised to explain beer to children, I thought it was meant for me. At last I’d know what the fuss was all about!

Here’s the first paragraph:

Have you ever wondered why your daddy likes beer so much? Have you wondered, before you fall asleep at night, why he sometimes acts kind of “funny” after he’s been drinking beer? Maybe you’ve even wondered where beer comes from, because you’re pretty sure it isn’t from a cow. Well, Gracie Perkel wondered those same things.

Gracie is almost six and she wonders what this mysterious beverage the adults drink is all about. Her father doesn’t volunteer but her Uncle Moe starts explaining and even promises to take her to visit the Redhook brewery. When Uncle Moe lets her down and the visit is cancelled, she’s very angry and steals a beer can in the fridge. She drinks it, gets drunk and sick and the Beer Fairy appears to her. The Fairy will take her to the beer country to explain to Gracie how beer is made and how it is consumed. Follows a fantasy journey to a fantasy land.

Tom Robbins is funny in many aspects. He has a funny mind and a funny style. For example, the Perkels, like the writer himself, live in Seattle. Even here in France we know it’s a rainy city. Here’s how Tom Robbins decribes rains in Seattle:

Do you know about drizzle, that thin, soft rain that could be mistaken for a mean case of witch measles? Seattle is the world headquarters of drizzle, and in autumn it leaves a damp gray rash on everything, as though the city were a baby that had been left too long in a wet diaper and then rolled in newspaper. When there is also a biting wind, as there was this day, Seattle people sometimes feel like they’re trapped in a bad Chinese restaurant; one of those drafty, cheaply lit places where the waiters are gruff, the noodles soggy, the walls a little too green, and although there’s a mysterious poem inside every fortune cookie, tea is invariably spilt on your best sweater.

The whole book is full of humorous descriptions, witty comments about humanity and its attraction to beer. The Beer Fairy shows the good and the bad about beer, subtly recommending moderation. Everything in life is about balance and not taking yourself too seriously. I had a wonderful time with that book. I read it in one sitting, an evening I needed distraction. It’s a joyful fairytale that will take you to another world. Tom Robbins has a unique angle on things, seeing fun in little details and creating a plausible Beer Fairy. He brings back your childhood, a time when you loved to imagine these hidden worlds or that there was a little man working a switch button to put light in the fridge when you open it.

Beer_Robbins

I have B Is For Beer in French and the translation is outstanding. François Hoppe managed to translate the puns in a very convincing way. It must have been complicated sometimes to find something equivalent without betraying the original text.

It’s the perfect book to pick while traveling or in-between two serious books or before visiting Ireland or Belgium but I’m afraid it didn’t change my mind. I still can’t swallow beer. 🙂

PS: Something else, for non-European readers. In this book, you’ll read “In Italy and in France, a child Gracie’s age could walk into an establishment, order a beer, and be served”. In case you’d take this seriously, don’t, because it’s not true. You need to be 18 to drink alcohol and it’s forbidden to sell alcohol to a minor, even in a supermarket.

Agnes by Peter Stamm

December 14, 2014 24 comments

Agnes by Peter Stamm. 1998 French title: Agnès. Translated by Nicole Roethel.

Preamble: I have read Agnes in French. Sorry for the crash course in French conjugation included in this post but it was relevant to my reading. It also means that I had to translate the quotes into English, so they may not reflect Stamm’s style as well as they should.

Agnes is dead. A story killed her. The only thing I’m left of her is this story. It started nine months ago when we first met in the Chicago Public Library. (my translation) Agnes ist tot. Eine Geschichte hat sie getötet. Nichts ist mir von ihr geblieben als diese Geschichte. Sie beginnt an jenem Tag vor neun Monaten, als wir uns in der Chicago Public Library zum ersten Mal trafen. Agnès est morte. Une histoire l’a tuée. Il ne me reste d’elle que cette histoire. Elle commence il y a neuf mois, le jour où nous nous sommes rencontrés pour la première fois dans la bibliothèque municipale de Chicago.

These are the first sentences of Peter Stamm’s novella, Agnes. You’re mentally prepared to read a story with a bad ending.

Stamm_AgnesThe unnamed narrator is Swiss and temporarily living in Chicago. He’s a writer of non-fiction books and his publisher commissioned him to write a book about luxurious train carriages in the USA. He’s in Chicago for research. Agnes is writing her thesis on a scientific theme I’m not able to translate into English. They meet at the Chicago Public Library, go for coffee, smoke together outside the building and gradually fall into a relationship and in love.

The narrator is a lot older than her (at a moment he says he could be her father). He’s writing non-fiction because it pays the bills and has abandoned the idea to write a novel. Agnes encourages him to write a story about them. He starts reluctantly but he’s soon caught in the game. He writes what happened, writes in advance how he would like things to happen. And their lives become muddled and influenced by the story. There’s a sort of twisted pattern where what he writes must happen and eventually guides their actions. It also generates discussions afterwards about Agnes’s and his vision of moments they spent together. It’s a bit like those books boys used to read when I was a teenager: it’s called gamebooks in English but in French it was marketed under livre dont vous êtes le héros. (book in which you are the hero.) You create your own story. That’s what Agnes and the narrator embark on and it’s a dangerous game.

This novella is excellent, well-constructed and I wanted to know how things unravelled and what happened to Agnes.

Peter Stamm’s style sounds formal in French. The translator chose two tenses that are a little dated for contemporary literature in French. For example, Agnes says Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je détestasse cela. (My father was adamant about it, although I hated it). The détestasse is no longer used in French, especially in dialogues. It is a tense called l’imparfait du subjonctif and nobody uses it in spoken language and hardly ever in written language. The ending in asse sounds heavy and pompous now. Although grammatically incorrect, it has been replaced by the subjonctif présent in common language. It means that the sentence would have been Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je déteste cela.

I also noticed the use of a past tense called passé simple in the first and second person plural. It’s not as dated as the imparfait du subjonctif but it’s not so used now for the first and second person plural. In Agnes, I mostly noticed it in descriptions, when the narrator relates his time with Agnes. Again, it sounds heavy and emphatic. For example: Nous louâmes une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous prîmes la direction du sud. (We rented a car and early on Friday morning, we headed South) I’m not sure a contemporary French writer would have written like this. I imagine more a sentence using another past tense, the passé composé : Nous avons loué une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous avons pris la direction du sud.

Tony from Tony’s Reading List has read Agnes in German and he also speaks excellent French. So I twitted him to know if the German text sounded as formal as the French translation. (See his review of Agnes here) He said that Stamm uses the subjunctive more than other German speaking writers. I hope that Caroline drops by and gives us her opinion about that. So I assume that the translation is accurate and that the use of these tenses in French is the best way to give back the flavour of the German prose.

I’ll go further. I also noted down the use of passé antérieur like in this sentence said by Agnes, Même si parfois je l’eus souhaité. (Even if sometimes I wished I did.) Nobody says Je l’eus souhaité anymore. We would say Je l’aurais souhaité. Choosing Je l’eus souhaité gives a sense of narration to the phrase. Indeed, the passé antérieur is not used in spoken language but in written language. It’s as if Agnes was speaking in written language because this scene is destined to be included in their novella. It sort of prepares the transcription of what they’re living into future literature.

It participates to the feeling of aloofness oozed by the narrator and Agnes. He’s always preferred keeping his total freedom than give it up partly to be in a relationship:

Et la liberté avait toujours été pour moi plus importante que le bonheur. Peut-être était-ce cela que mes petites amies successives avaient appelé égoïsme. Freedom had always been more important to me than happiness. Perhaps it was what my successive girlfriends had called selfishness.

Although he claims to be deeply in love with Agnes, he holds himself back. And Agnes does the same about her past and doesn’t share much about herself. Both characters are rather hard to define. In appearance, they don’t have much in common. They’re different in gender, age, nationality, occupation. But they do have the same detachment from their life, as if they were more spectators than actors. I have the impression that they watch themselves live through a glass wall and that the story they write is a literal way to indulge in this tendency. Their love is passionate but cold or reserved. It is difficult to nail, that cold passion. They’re detached but not indifferent.

The narrator’s voice is strong and unique. Stamm recreates Chicago very well and his characters came to life in my head. It would make a great film by Won Kar Wai or by a French director. I leave you with one last quote that left me thinking…

Nous pensons tous vivre dans un seul et même monde. Et pourtant, chacun s’agite dans sa propre tanière, ne regarde ni à droite ni à gauche, et ne fait que défricher sa vie en se coupant le chemin du retour avec les déblais. We think we all live in one and only world. And yet, each of us stirs in their own burrow, never looking left or right and only clears their life path while cutting their way back with debris.

 

Berlin Transfer

November 9, 2014 40 comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. 1929. French translation by Olivier Le Lay. (2008)

Doblin_BerlinMy good resolution for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy was to read Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. I’ve read 225 pages out of 625 and then decided that life was too short and my reading time too limited to force feed myself with more of Franz Biberkopf’s struggles in Berlin from the 1920s.

Here’s the story. Franz Biberkopf is freshly out of prison. He was condemned after killing his wife in a domestic fight. Now that he’s free, he determined to stay on the right side of law. But things aren’t easy outside when nobody is expecting you, when you’re alone in a metropolis and where you’re doomed to remain in the shady part of society.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a great novel. I’d say it echoes to Manhattan Transfer which was published in 1925 and in a way it resonates with No Beast So Fierce for its ex-convict theme.

Döblin and Dos Passos have the same sense of describing the bowels of a city, be it Berlin or New York. The form of their novel is similar with chapters describing the city and the people and their struggle to survive. Döblin concentrates on Franz Biberkopf while Do Passos creates a whole gallery of characters, giving a real feeling of the town. Manhattan Transfer pictures a wider range of social classes and this is where Döblin joins Bunker. Both show the city’s unsavoury neighbourhoods, in Berlin and in LA. Bunker describes wonderfully how difficult it is to go out of prison, have no one to welcome you and help you outside. Biberkopf wants to be honest now and turn over a new leaf but the economy is bad and he has trouble finding a job. I can’t tell more about the book since I’ve only read one third of it.

Döblin’s style is, I suppose, modernist or experimental, whatever that means. It’s not easy to read but Dos Passos isn’t easy either. I believe both brought something new to literature. My copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz is translated by Olivier Le Lay. It’s a new translation and he did an outstanding job. He translated the German into the French from the east of the country. For example, he wrote tu es schlass, which means you’re knackered. In common French, you’d say tu es crevé. Schlass is really a word we use in Alsace-Moselle. Sometimes, Le Lay also translated the German usage of putting a definite article before proper nouns. Like here: eh ben la Fölsch, elle est ben étalagiste, literally well, the Fölsch, she’s a window dresser, isn’t she? This use of the definite article before a proper noun is allowed in German and is used in popular French in Alsace-Moselle. In addition to these ways of germanising the French, he also translated accents to give a better idea of the atmosphere of the book. So the French reveals the German and you really feel like you’re in Germany and you forget it hasn’t been written in your language.

So after reading this, you wonder “If it’s that good, why did she abandon Berlin Alexanderplatz?” especially since I LOVED Manhattan Transfer and No Beast So Fierce. Why couldn’t I finish it? The reason I see is that Do Passos and Bunker instilled warmth and life in their work. Their characters are alive and human. Franz Biberkopf is cold. Döblin doesn’t explore his feelings enough. He’s a cog in a machine-city that crushes people. I couldn’t care less about him and what would become of him. I wanted to know what would become of the characters Dos Passos created and I wanted Bunker’s Max Dembo to escape his criminal fate. I rooted for them, I was interested.

The coldness I mentioned before prevented me from enjoying myself. I wasn’t willing to put more energy in this long novel. I was confronted again to the same experience with German literature that I’ve had before. I haven’t read many German books but each time I was dissatisfied. They were cold, the characters aloof. As a reader, I’m in a position of looking insects into a microscope, not of sharing a human experience. The writer doesn’t manage to reach out to me. Please, leave recommendations in the comments about German books that aren’t heavy and stuffy. Introduce me to let’s say, the German Nick Hornby or Alberto Moravia or Richard Russo or Philippe Besson. Otherwise, I’m going to think I need to stick to Austrian writers when German language literature month arrives.

For a review of Berlin Alexanderplatz by someone who’s read the entire book, read Max’s review here. Despite my poor experience with Döblin, I still recommend Berlin Alexanderplatz.

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