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The Song Is You by Megan Abbott – Aspartame Noir.

April 6, 2019 5 comments

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott (2007) French title: Absente. Translated by Benjamin Legrand.

Megan Abbott was at Quais du Polar a few years ago and I had the opportunity to talk to her and she signed my French copy of The Song Is You. It was time for me to finally read it.

The book opens in 1949, in Hollywood. An ambitious starlet, Jean Spangler leaves her home to go to a night shooting at a studio. She never comes back. The only thing that was ever found was her handbag in a park. The case is closed quickly by the police and remains unsolved.

Then we’re in 1951. Pushed by Jean’s friend Iolene, the journalist Gil Hopkins starts investigating Jean’s disappearance again. Jean was involved with actors who had violent and degrading parties and possibly with the mafia.

Gil Hopkins is a journalist turned into a well-known PR person for a studio in Hollywood. He spins stories for a living, in order to keep the studio’s actors out of bad press. He benefited of Jean’s disappearance in a way because he was the one who helped her studio erase any link between her and them that night.

Gil Hopkins (Hop) is a troubled character, a womanizer who drove his wife into the arms of his best friend. A man attracted by Hollywood’s fake lights like a moth to a flame. He has money to buy fine clothes but at what price for his integrity? Of course, he drinks a little too much and spends too much time in bars. He’s handsome, has a real talent for spinning stories and feeding them to the press. He knows how to swim in muddy waters.

To be honest, I wasn’t interested in discovering what happened to Jean Spangler and I abandoned The Song Is You after reading half of it. I figured that if I wasn’t hooked by a crime fiction novel after 150 pages, then it was probably time to spend my precious reading time on something else. It didn’t help that the translation had some mishaps, mostly frenglish translation. Completed cannot become complété in French. And executives are cadres, not exécutifs.

The Song Is You is a tribute to Chandler but to me it remained aspartame Noir. It reconstructs the atmosphere of Hollywood in the golden age. All the details are probably accurate but it lacks the feeling of the writer who actually lived that time. It’s well-crafted but it’s not the same. It is also based on a true story and I think it might even be a cold case. It’s hard not to think of it as a reference to The Black Dahlia.

I felt like Megan Abbott was slipping into someone else’s shoes instead of using hers. Although he’s a lot less detail oriented about Hollywood, I preferred Jake Hinkson’s Not Tomorrow. It is set in the 1940s but he doesn’t try to create another Chandler or another Cain. He made the setting his own and wrote a book with his own voice. He didn’t try too hard to respect some Noir codes.

So, I left Hop in Hollywood and hopped on another crime fiction trip with Les suppliciées du Rhône by Coline Gatel.

Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 3: Criminology and translations

March 31, 2019 7 comments

For my last day at Quais du Polar, I decided to attend to two events, one entitled “CSI in the 19thC: when literature looks into the birth of crimilogy” and one which was actually a translation battle.

I started with the one about criminology, a conversation between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle. We were in the Jacquard room of the Palais de la Bourse. Coline Gatel wrote Les suppliciées du Rhône, a crime fiction book set in Lyon at the end of the 19th century. Fabrice Cotelle is a commissaire, and the staff chief of the SCPTS (Service Central de la Police Technique et Scientifique), the French CSI. The real police forces are involved in Quais du Polar, as a way to make their work better known and I found it marvelous that they are willing to take part in the festival.

Lyon has a long tradition around solving crime. In the 19th century, Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924) was a famous criminologist and specialist of forensic medicine. Edmond Locard (1877-1966) is another forensic scientist who formulated the basic principle of forensic science. Meanwhile, in Paris, Alphonse Bertillon made huge progress in indentification. He’s the inventor of the mug shot. Nowadays, the headquarters of Interpol are in Lyon and the national school for police captains is near Lyon. It is open to the public during Quais du Polar. I visited it once, and it was fascinating. There’s a fake apartment where students learn how to retrieve clues from a crime scene and an interesting museum about criminology. Moreover, the police stations of the 1st and 4th arrondissements were open to the public during the weekend. The public could meet and chat with authors who are also detectives or police officers.

The meeting between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle was absolutely fascinating. She has written a book with Lacassagne as a character and she brings back to life the beginnings of forensic science. The turning of the 20thC was a critical period for crime investigation as several sciences made progress at the same time: medicine, photography, psychology and psychiatry.

Mr Cotelle had read Mrs Gatel’s book and could easily interact with her, explaining what he discovered in her book and going back to the history of criminology. He told us what methods invented back in those days are still used today. He shared about the changes, mostly DNA exploitation and digital traces. Of course, we know that we live traces with our phones and credit cards. But did you know that the computer in your car records when and how many times a door was opened? So, if you say that you were alone in your car and that your connected car recorded that the passenger door was opened, you’ll have some explaining to do. (I’d be a suspect: I always open the passenger door to put my bag on the passenger side because I don’t want to twist my back by doing it from the driver’s side!)

The challenge is also to turn some state-of-the-art technique only used in special cases into readymade and efficient processes that can be used on the field, on a daily basis to help policemen and gendarmes solve everyday criminality.

I loved this exchange so much that I decided to buy Les suppliciées du Rhône, just to discover who Alexandre Lacassagne was. Lyon was a hotspot for science in those years and I’m looking forward to knowing more about my adoptive hometown. I also liked that Fabrice Cotelle didn’t look down on crime fiction writers, pointing out inconsistencies. I also appreciated that he took the time to read Les suppliciées du Rhône to have an enlightened discussion with its writer. He was respectful and engaging, just as his neighbour was.

I’m glad that the festival managed to involve the police in the conferences and the events of the festival. It’s a rare opportunity to hear them talk about their job.

In the afternoon, I decided to attend the translation battle around an English text. We were again in the Jacquard room.

 

It was a short story by Jamey Bradbury, an American writer born in the Midwest and now living in Alaska. (She’s published by Gallmeister, there’s a good chance that her book is good) Two translators worked on a French translation of her story. They presented their translation to the attendance and another translator acted as an anchorman and asked questions about their choices and the differences between the two texts. Jamey Bradbury was there too and she could give her opinion about the option taken in the translation of this or that word. The art of translation fascinates me. The translators explained their choices and basically had the same issues with this translation. Words like to hum, to poke, to squint, to waggle one’s eyebrows, to scavenge; to pee…have no direct equivalent in French and are a hurdle. Just like something and whatever.

I loved attending this exchange and I envy their job. I think that bringing foreign books to local readers who wouldn’t have access to them otherwise is a fantastic job. It brings us a world of literature we’d never know.

That’s all for this year, folks! It’s been a great three days and I’m looking forward to the next edition.

Book haul for the day:

 

Fête du Livre de Bron – Bron literary festival.

March 10, 2019 18 comments

It’s currently the Fête du Livre de Bron, a festival for contemporary literatures, one of the numerous literary festivals in France. This year’s theme is La vie sauvage. (Wild Life in English). Friday morning, I attended two conferences, one by Oliver Gallmeister, the founder of Gallmeister publishing house and one by Pierre Schoentes, professor at the Gand university in Belgium.

Regular readers of this blog know that I love books published by Gallmeister. They are specialized in American literature with two strong preferences, Nature Writing and Noir fiction. All books show a certain side of America and in their way, question the American way of life. Their books are right in the theme of the festival.

Oliver Gallmeister was interviewed by Thierry Guichard and the interaction between the two was lively. It was interesting to hear the point of view of a publisher. He runs an independent publishing house and his only compass is that he publishes books that he loves. Old ones with new translations or new ones. He comes from the countryside and says that nature has always been part of his life.

Gallmeister publishes Edward Abbey, Pete Fromm, David Vann, Jean Hegland, Gabriel Tallent but also Ross McDonald, Craig Johnson or Thoreau. They publish writers whose books could not be transposed anywhere else. Books that are intrinsically American.

He talked about nature in America, the way it is part of the American psyche and in their daily life, something we can’t understand in Europe where wilderness is when a garden in unkempt. In the books Gallmeister publishes, nature is an important part of the plot. It’s almost a character or at least something so present that it influences the character’s way of life.

I’m not going to paraphrase everything he said about Nature Writing but I’d like to share what he said about publishing.

80% of the books they publish come to them through literary agents. Gallmeister starts to be well-known in America for publishing a certain type of American literature. They receive around 500 books per year and publish 20. Some of these books are not even published in English because no American publisher wants them. For me, it’s quite puzzling to read a book in translation that has not even been published in its own language. It’s the case of Evasion by Benjamin Whitmer.

Oliver Gallmeister said that France is a little paradise for some of the writers they publish. France still has a unique dense and active literary ecosystem made of libraries, independent bookstores, festivals and partly relayed in the school system. When they first come to France, their writers are amazed by the crowds they meet and it’s something I’ve witnessed at Quais du Polar. Writers are sitting at their table to sign their books and they’re pleasantly surprised by the queue of people, patiently waiting their turn to have their book signed and a quick word with its writer. There are a lot of people attending literature festivals, them being free probably helps too.

Can you imagine that? Some of Gallmeister’s writers are so successful in France that it helps them being published in their home country or live off their books. Some keep on writing thanks to the French public and their book buying. (Now I have an excuse to splurge at Quais du Polar…)

I’ve already mentioned that Gallmeister’s traductions are outstanding. They work with a steady team of translators and their watchword is to disappear. The translator shall not be visible and they have each translation controlled by a team to ensure that the translation reflects the author’s text. There is no room for the translator’s voice or interpretations. Their efforts are visible in their translations. I speak English well enough to hear the American under the French, but it’s still written in a French that a French would speak. And yet, it reflects the American way of speaking and Frenglish with literal translation of expressions doesn’t have its place here, which is excellent because it’s irritating. It sounds odd to readers who don’t speak English and they leap to the face of the English-speaking reader. Honestly, it made me want to be part of their team who checks on translations.

I loved this interview because I truly share Oliver Gallmeister’s passion for American literature and also his non-academic relationship with literature. He doesn’t lose the most important part of why we read: pleasure. I managed to muster the courage to talk to him at the end of the conference and ask if they’d branch out to Australian literature and suggested a book that seems right in their publishing policy: The Hands by Stephen Orr.

Last info: Gallmeister will have a stand at the London Bookfair on March 15th.

The second interview was in total contrast with the first one and soon became a snooze fest. Pierre Schoentjes is certainly a very competent academic. He has written an essay about “nature writing” in French literature, which explains why he was Oliver Gallmeister’s counterpart. His first sentence included a word of literary theory that I didn’t know. That didn’t bode well for the rest of the talk. His speech was not totally accessible to non-academics. Sadly, he reminded me why I never wanted to go to university and study literature.

To sum it up: there’s no real nature writing in French literature for different reasons. There’s a genre called “régionalisme”, about peasant stories and it’s not considered as noble as literary fiction and it’s a put off. Europe doesn’t have wilderness anymore. Post WWII intellectuals were mostly urban writers and were more interested in the working class than in nature. It seems that books about nature were a political statement, either to contrast with the brutality of war (Giono) or to promote ecology.

The two interviews really illustrate my perception of American vs French literature. American writers (at least the ones I read) tell stories and nature or wilderness can be part of their story. French writers often fail to avoid the pitfall of introspection and intellectualization of things even when it’s not needed. One example: The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari. An American writer published by Gallmeister would have written a story about the two friends taking over a café in Corsica. All the stuff about Saint Augustine would never have been there.

I don’t want a novelist to show off how erudite they are, it’s boring and in a way, it says, “I only write for like-minded people”. I see literature as a way to escape, a way to see the world and broaden my horizons. Why should I need a degree in literature to read novels?

So yes, I’m going to be a very good customer to Gallmeister. The icing on the cake? The book covers are gorgeous.

On Saturday, I attended the interview of Fabrice Caro, a BD (comic books) writer and novelist. It was a very funny interview by one of his passionate reader, Maya Michalon. We went through his work as he shared anecdotes about his life, his creation process and his interactions with the public.

I bought his BD Zaï, zaï, zaï, zaï, the story of the absurd manhunt that starts in a supermarket when a consumer forgot his loyalty card. He had no papers. I haven’t read it yet but from the excerpts I’ve heard yesterday, it’s totally hilarious in an off-beat sense of humor. The idea behind the loyalty card is to show what could happen to someone who doesn’t have an ID card.

I’d also like to read his novel, Le discours and his other autobiographical BDs entitled Le Steak haché de Damoclès, Like a Steak Machine and Steak It Easy. He can’t tell you why all the titles have steak in them, except for the pleasure of a good word.

There were a lot of other conferences that seemed fascinating but alas, one is always caught put by pesky things called work and chores.

Bookish news in my small world

January 26, 2019 20 comments

Over the last few weeks, I have gathered miscellaneous bookish things I wanted to share with you. They caught my attention during my daily life activities and stayed with me.

Literary events

Angouleme BD festival

This weekend is the Festival de Bande Dessinée d’Angoulême. It’s the 46th edition of this festival dedicated to BD, a French acronym that covers comics, graphic novels, manga… The Grand Prix of the Angoulême festival has been awarded to Rumiko Takahashi, the Japanese author of mangas. Did you know that France is the second market in the world for mangas? (After Japan, of course) 18 million of mangas were sold in France in 2017 and it represents 38% of the BD sales in France. We are unique in the Western world for this and it started with my generation. We watched manga cartoons on TV and we were hooked.

 Fête du Livre de Bron – a festival for contemporary literature.

It’s organized from March 6th to 10th, 2019. Oliver Gallmeister will give a lecture, Nature Writing, une tradition anglo-saxonne. I hope I can attend this as I’m curious to hear this wonderful publisher of American literature.

Quais du Polar – March 29th – March 31st.

I have my subscription to Quais du Polar! Nordic Crime will be celebrate during the 15th edition of this cime fiction festival. I received my badge, my two free books and now I need to browse through the writers that will be invited and see if I have one of their book on the shelf already.

Translations

Good news! Il reste la poussière by Sandrine Collette is now translated into English. It’s published by Europa Editions and it’s entitled Nothing But Dust. See Claire’s review here.

Other great news, La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will be available in English in September. It will be The Godmother, in a Coppola sense, not the Disney one. It will be published by Old Street Publishing.

I also stumbled upon a German translation of Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. I hope it’ll make it into English one of these days.

Economy and Literature.

When literature takes interest in economy and vice versa.

I’ve started to read the number 79 of the magazine L’Economie politique as it is about literature and economy and how the two interacts. Some articles are more difficult than others, I’m not done yet. I didn’t know that Robinson Crusoe was used in economy theories. I enjoyed the article about writers and the literature and book market. I’m looking forward to reading the one about economy and Zola.

I’m not going to post a billet about it. Sometimes I struggle to understand the content in French, so writing a summary of it in English is insuperable.

When the French tax law for 2019 favors independent bookstores.

When browsing through the tax changes voted last December, I stumbled upon an article about new tax exemptions for independent bookstores. Chain stores are not in the scope of this law and I’m happy our deputies voted texts to protect our network of independent bookstores.

 

America – A French magazine

America is a magazine founded by François Busnel and Eric Fottorino. It started when Trump was elected as president and it is meant to last the four years of his presidency. Each magazine has a theme to make us discover America. François Busnel is best known in France as the presenter of the weekly literary live TV show La Grande Librairie. It’s a famous TV program in France, one that managed to gather 841 000 viewers on December 11, 2018 and keeps getting high ratings for that kind of show.

America includes long interviews of writers, reportages by French and American writers, a chronology of events in Trump’s America, beautiful illustrations and pictures. It’s a gorgeous magazine, the right mix of long articles and news in brief, of contemporary writers and older ones, of literature, cinema and TV.

This quarter’s number is about race in America, it opens with a poem by Maya Angelou and includes a long interview by Russel Banks, a text by James Baldwin and other reportages and interviews.

Silence, on lit!

Quiet! We’re reading, that’s the meaning of Silence! On lit. It’s a charity devoted to developing reading in schools. The idea is simple: everyday students read at the same time during 15 minutes. The middle schools (collèges) have arranged their schedule around this new reading time. Any reading material is allowed: books, magazines, BDs…Anything. The whole school gets quiet during 15 minutes as all the students in all the classrooms are reading what they chose to read. The repetition helps improving at reading. It’s a real success where it’s implemented. New readers emerged and for the others, it’s a quiet time to settle down after other activities and be ready to learn something else after.

It’s a charity, and of course, they need money to buy more books for school libraries because they need a bigger stock of books if all the students read at the same time and want to borrow something from the library. I like their idea a lot, because 15 minutes is not long and I think that their small steps approach is interesting and takes reading down from its pedestal of intellectual activity.

Libraries Without Borders

Libraries Without Borders is a French charity whose aim is to help alphabetization and promote access to culture and education through libraries. They work locally in 30 countries.

In France, they were recently involved in La nuit de la lecture. (Reading night). Libraries Without Borders gave book bags to a group of migrant children. French children from Alsace prepared personalized book bags for each child, as a welcome to France and the French language gift. For my Australian readers, have a look at what they do for Aboriginal communities. (Here)

Why this billet? you might ask

I know there are tons of initiatives to foster reading, to improve literacy or to build bridges between communities. There are also tons of book festivals everywhere in France. All the events, actions and news I shared are just drops in this ocean of literary-oriented activities. But they were the drops that brightened the world news I heard every day.

The Kites (Les cerfs-volants) by Romain Gary

April 29, 2018 19 comments

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980) Original French title: Les cerfs-volants.

The Kites is a novel by Romain Gary translated by Miranda Richmond-Mouillot. Although it was published in French in 1980, its English version was only released end of 2017. I am crazy enough about this writer to have ordered the English translation of a book I’m perfectly able to read in the original. I wanted to see how the translation was, how the translator managed to give back Gary’s peculiar style. All the English translations in this billet are by Ms Richmond-Mouillot.

Lisa from ANZ LitLovers and I decided to read The Kites along. With time difference between Australia and France, her review is already available and as I write these lines, I haven’t read it.

The Kites starts in 1930 and ends just after WWII. Ludovic Fleury lives in Cléry, a small village in Normandy. He’s an orphan who lives with his uncle Ambrose. Ambrose is a bachelor, a postman with a passion for kites. He makes wonderful kites that sing the beauty of life and feature the great names of French history, be it literary or political. He’s famous for them and he became quite an attraction in the neighborhood. Ambrose’s friend Marcellin Duprat runs a gourmet restaurant, Le Clos Joli. Tourists go to Cléry to have a wonderful meal at the Clos Joli and see Ambrose’s artistic kites.

Ambrose is a full-on Republican, someone who values the heroes of the French Republic. He celebrates them through his kites and he passes this vision on to Ludo. The young boy is the product of the Third Republic, educated in the public school-system. From a very young age, Ludo is attached to historical figures and suffers from too much memory. He remembers too much and he’s able to do complex calculation in his head or to remember lists of numbers, something that will prove helpful for clandestine activities.

In 1930, Ludovic is 10 when he meets Lila Bronicka for the first time. She’s the daughter of a Polish aristocrat who owns an estate near Cléry. Ludovic is bewitched by Lila.  Victim of his infallible memory, he will wait for her return during four years. He’s totally and irrevocably in love with her.

Lila returns to Cléry with her family, her German cousin Hans von Schwede and their protégé Bruno. Ludo befriends Lila and her brother Tad. Things are more complicated with Hans and Bruno who are also in love with her. Ludo is invited to their estate and gets to know her and her family. In the 1930s, Lila spends all her summers in Cléry and their love relationship grows. Meanwhile, Ludo works as Count Bronicki’s secretary. In 1939, Ludo goes to Poland to spend the summer at Lila’s and he’s still there when WWII starts.

How will Ludo and Lila survive this war? You’ll have to read the book to discover it.

The Kites is a typical love story by Romain Gary. Absolute. Irrevocable. Made of mutual imagination and unbreakable bonds. As Lila explains to Ludo:

Je comprends qu’on meure d’amour, parce que parfois, c’est tellement fort, que la vie n’arrive pas à tenir le coup, elle craque. Tu verras, je te donnerai des livres où ça arrive. I understand dying of love, because sometimes it’s so strong that life can’t withstand it, it snaps. You’ll see, I’ll give you books where that happens. (chapter 6 p37/38)

When Lila and Ludo are adolescent, they try to imagine their future. And Lila’s words reflect Gary’s vision of youth.

Je peux encore tout rater, disait Lila, je suis assez jeune pour ça. Quand on vieillit, on a de moins en moins de chances de tout rater parce qu’on n’a plus le temps, et on peut vivre tranquillement avec ce qu’on a raté déjà. C’est ce qu’on entend par « paix de l’esprit ». Mais quand on n’a que seize an et qu’on peut encore tout tenter et ne rien réussir, c’est ce qu’on appelle en général « avoir de l’avenir »… “I can still fail at everything,” Lila was saying. “I’m young enough. When you get old you have less and less opportunity to mess everything up because you run out of time, so you can live an untroubled life and be happy with what you’ve already made a mess of. That’s what they mean by ‘peace of mind’. But when you’re only sixteen you can still try everything and fail at it all, that’s what they usually call ‘having your future ahead of you.’” (chapter 8 – p55/56)

Youth is when everything’s still possible and risky. In his eyes, old age is not a time to take advantage of your past experiences but more a time to mourn the loss of possibilities. Time is running out and nothing daring can come out of it.

The Kites is more than Ludo and Lila’s challenging relationship. It’s an homage to the Resistance. Romain Gary joined the Resistance early in 1940 and his novel is an opportunity to mention names and places, a way to give them immortality through literature. As Lisa pointed out, historical details don’t fit. It doesn’t matter because it is not a historical novel. It’s a way to mention heroes from the time and especially the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon where the pastor André Trocmé and other villagers helped to save Jewish children.

The war time in The Kites is also a time to ask ourselves “What is it to be human?” After the horrors of WWII, how do we reconcile the concept of human with all this inhumanity? Inhumanity was so widespread that it must mean that it’s hidden away in each of us. How do we know if we’ll be able to chain this wild beast if dire times happened? Inhumanity is part of humanity and this war made us learn this lesson.

I cannot write about Gary without mentioning his witty style. It brings a lightness to the story, a little spring in his sentences. Despite its serious themes, it’s told with a unique sense of humor and a lot of cultural and popular references. He uses the French language in his own way, mixing expressions, thinking out of the box, putting codes upside down.

Il ne s’agissait pas de ce que j’allais faire de ma vie mais de ce qu’une femme allait faire de la mienne. It was not a question of what I would do with in life, but what a woman was going to do with mine. (chapter 17, p102)

Miranda Richmond-Mouillot did an excellent translation of Gary’s voice. Here’s the perfect example of her excellent interpretation of Gary’s mind:

En réalité, avec le genre d’esprit que tu as, mon cher frère, tu devrais être garçon de bains : tu aimes tellement donner des douches froides ! Really, dear brother, with a sense of humor like, you should take up meteorology – you just love to rain on people’s parades! (chapter 8, p52)

She managed to translate the French play-on-words with an equally good pun in English. In American, I should say. We had a little exchange about that with Lisa who was complaining that the version published in Australia was not with Australian spelling. I objected that the translation was American, with American spelling and keeping ‘mustache’ instead of ‘moustache’ kept a certain consistency in the text. Gary’s French is full of colloquialisms with some swear words. I’m not an English-speaking native but from where I stand, the differences between English and American are a lot more visible in colloquial language. And I’m not sure that an English translator would have translated putain de merde by goddammit. What do English speaking readers think about this?

Another thing about the translation. It’s not the first time that I noticed it but a level of informal language seems to be missing in English compared to French. There’s no English equivalent for words like ‘bouquin’ (book), ‘godasses’ (shoes) or ‘bagnole’ (car). It’s not vulgar, it’s warmly informal. These words convey affection of the things they refer to. It’s too bad because it brings warmth to someone’s tone. Miranda Richmond-Mouillot can’t do anything about this and her translation of Gary is still remarkable compared to the original.

The Kites has another dimension, a more personal one for Gary. I think that Ludo’s love for Lila is a representation for Gary’s love for France, his adoptive country, that Lila is a personification of France and that The Kites, Gary’s last book mirrors Education européenne, Gary’s first book. This is a trail I can’t explore without spoilers. I will write about it in another billet, you’ll be free to read it or not. I know that at least Lisa will read it.

A last word about the book covers I included in my billet. I think the American one is the best. It’s an excellent representation of the book with the kites, the French flag, the Lorraine cross representing the Resistance and Lila’s face on a kite. It’s perfect. The French one with the postman is my old edition and it represents uncle Ambrose and his kites. It gives a good idea of the humorous thread of the book and of its “Douanier-Rousseau” vibe but leaves out Ludo and Lila, the main protagonists. The other French one is terrible: it’s only Lila as a femme fatale and The Kites is a tale, told by a story-teller and the naïve tone of the narration is totally missing, just as the kites and their symbolic value is left behind.

I hope this billet will prompt you to read The Kites, a lovely book by my favorite writer.

Quais du Polar 2018 : Fascinating conference about republishing old crime fiction books.

April 9, 2018 9 comments

At Quais du Polar I attended a fascinated conference among publishers about republishing old crime fiction books. The participants were Oliver Gallmeister, from the eponym publishing house, Jeanne Guyon, in charge of Rivages Noir, Jean-François Merle for the publisher Omnibus and Jérôme Leroy, writer, reviewer and in charge of the collection La Petite Vermillon at Gallimard.

The journalist started the discussion by asking about each publisher’s view on reeditions. All said that it was part of the strategy of their publishing house as a way ensure the transmission of a literary heritage. Rivages Noir started with a new edition of Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. For Omnibus born 30 years ago, it was the origin of their existence as they started with the project to publish an omnibus collection of Simenon’s work. You know how prolific he was and it ended up with 27 volumes of 1000 pages each. A colossal work of researching all the books, getting them and arranging them in consistent volumes. Gallmeister has started to republish Ross McDonald, mostly because Oliver Gallmeister wants to share this writer with new readers. When he launched his own publishing house in 2006, he had in mind to release half of new books, half of reeditions. The first reedition was The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. (French title: Le gang de la clé à molette). He was inspired by François Guérif, the creator of Rivages Noir.

Reeditions are a way to help a new publisher to create a catalogue and start their activity. At the same time, they quickly become a tricky economic equation. Indeed, there isn’t as much press coverage for a reedition as for a new book. And there are less prescriptions from the libraires. Why is that? Well, for these well-read and sometimes older readers, these books are old news. They’ve read them before and don’t see why they should write about them or recommend them to clients. Gallmeister has republished seven books by Ross McDonald and it hasn’t been profitable since book three. He said he will keep on republishing them anyway, as it is his duty as a publisher to keep this literary heritage alive. Jeanne Guyon said they had the same problem at Rivages Noir where they endeavor to reedit every book by Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard.

The root of the economic equation is: Is there a public today for this book? They never know if a reedition will be a success. For example, they republished We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. (French title: Nous avons toujours vécu au château), and it was a huge success. Gallmeister republished Margaret Millar and it was a failure, total silence in the press. On the contrary, when books by Chesterton were republished, glowing articles appeared in Le Figaro and Le Monde and the book was launched. The publisher’s thorough work is a not a sure recipe for success in bookstores. There’s a good dose of serendipity. The corporate executive in me understands the economic angst coming out of this serendipity and the need to ensure a return on investment for their good work and the aim to earn money and not endanger their company. The passionate reader in me is happy that selling books is still something different from selling peas and that the whims of the reader remains an unpredictable variable in the equation.

With this economic problem comes another tricky question: should they be completist and republish every single book by a writer or leave behind the less worthy ones? Westlake’s books were of unequal quality; is it worth it to republish the bad ones?

The question of the publisher’s duty in the transmission of book heritage was a crucial one. Gallmeister recoiled a bit at this idea, probably because it smelled a bit too much about duty and mothballs and not enough of passion for books. Jérôme Leroy said he was in a very comfortable position: as the director of a small collection of four books per year at Gallimard’s, his only guide was his urge to share with other readers books by writers that have been formative to him and kindled his love for reading. He loves to republish long forgotten books like La princesse de Crève by Kââ or La langue chienne by Hervé Prudon or oddities in a writer’s career like Drôle de salade by Cécil St Laurent, a penname of the very conservative Jacques Laurent.

The question of republishing one book in a writer’s work or all of their books came back because it’s a crucial question for the publisher. Gallmeister said that no matter what, he will publish the whole work of Ross McDonald. For other writers, he will leave some lesser works behind. He thinks it’s also part of the publisher’s duty to let some writers fall into oblivion. Do former Nobel Prizes like Anatole France deserve republishing? He’s not so sure. (Me neither, btw. Same for Voltaire. Most of his plays are OOP and for a good reason, from what I’ve heard)

I guess that all these parameters are valid for all countries and all literary genres. There’s a specificity to crime fiction and Noir in France though. Books by Thompson, Chandler, McDonald, Westlake and others were first published in collections called Série Noire or Fleuve Noir. They were named romans de gare, books to be bought in railway station by travelers. They used to sell their collection through subscriptions, publish ten to twelve books a month. Books had to be 250 pages long, not more. It was considered as popular literature aimed at a popular readership. They thought about their readers before thinking about the writers. And they had –in my view—quite a low opinion of their readers. They assumed that these readers weren’t able to read long books or that they could enjoy digressions and detours in their crime novels. There’s a lot of contempt from the literary elites on their working-class readers. White collars just assumed that their blue-collar readers were idiots.

So, they took liberties with the original and tampered with the translations. The publishers kept a team of writers/translators who worked according to precise specifications. There wasn’t much time for proof reading. Passages that didn’t contribute to move the action forward were cut, accuracy wasn’t a golden rule for the translator who adapted the text to the reader’s everyday life references. These butchery cuts sometimes erased the singularity of the writers and could reprensent from 10% to 30% of the original. Pop 1280 became 1275 âmes in its first edition probably because it sounded better than 1280 âmes. In the end, 1280 âmes is a book by Jean-Bernard Pouy where he investigates the disappearance of these five souls.

A same writer had a lot of different translators which resulted in inconsistencies in the translations. Two characters would say vous to each other in one volume and tu in others. What’s their relationship? How do they address to each other? The choice must be consistent throughout the translations and it wasn’t. It’s the case for 87th Precinct by Ed McBain published by Omnibus. The foreign authors had no idea of the poor quality of the French translations.

It was another era, a time where French readers knew less about America and translators tried to translate the books into French but also into French references to help the reader. This is behind us with globalization.

This doesn’t correspond to our vision of what a translation should be. Now translation contracts specify that the translation must be faithful, complete and accurate. Publishers are also more respectful of authors and now readers buy a book by a certain writer and not the latest Série Noire or Fleuve Noir. That’s a major difference too.

However, this past isn’t without consequences. Any reedition implies a retranslation of the book, adding to the cost of the new edition. This is also why the participants to this conference consider the republishing of older crime fiction books as a literary duty, a way to preserve and foster a literary heritage. It allows new readers to discover the books that were seminal to their contemporary favorite writers. This trend also means that crime fiction is now seen as a noble and literary genre. Excellent news, if I may say so.

2017 in books: highlights of my reading year.

January 2, 2018 31 comments

Let’s face it, the TBR is still out of control. I read 56 books in 2017, half of them came from my TBR, the rest were new acquisitions. Oh well, they’ll keep, all these books, right?

My Reading Bingo billet already gave you a vision of my reading year through my bingo card. This is a more personal list of categories to highlight part of my 2017 literary journey.

The book I’d love to find a translator for.

Les harmoniques by Marcus Malte. This crime fiction book resonates with the sultry notes of a jazz club in a black and white movie and dives into the horrors of the war in ex-Yugoslavia. A tribute to jazz, to classic noir novels and films and a sobering reminder of that war.

The book that may change your vision of the emigrants that run aground on the coasts of Sicily.

In Eldorado, Laurent Gaudé shows us two sides of the problem. Through the eyes of an Italian naval officer, we see the weight of rescuing so many people and finding so many bodies. Through the eyes of an immigrant, we see what they’re ready to live through to get to Europe. A very moving book that puts this delicate question at human’s height

A 1930s book that reminded me of Trump’s America.

A Cool Million by Nathanael West. A rotten politician tells speeches whose rhetoric sounds like Trump. Chilling.

A book that will show you another side of Paris.

In Black Bazaar, Alain Mabanckou takes the reader in the black communities in Paris. His vivid descriptions of the 19th arrondissement in Paris will walk you away from the museum Paris that tourists see first.

The book that blurs the lines between literary fiction and crime fiction.

Elle by Philippe Djian. I’m a huge Djian fan and he gets better as years go by. Elle is one of his bests with Michèle as a venomous femme fatale.

Bleak but brilliant.

Caribou Island by David Vann. I wasn’t initially attracted to Vann’s books because they seemed too bleak for me. But after hearing his interview at Quais du Polar, I decided to give this one a try. And I’m so glad I got over my reservations. Alaska is not a place you want to visit after reading Caribou Island, though. The cover of the French edition is stunning as it pictures perfectly the relationship of the older married couple.

Books with unexpected modernity.

I never expected the feminist streak of The Dark Room by RK Narayan and Doctor Glas by Söderberg raises questions about the right to conjugal duty, euthanasia and birth control that I never suspected in a book published in 1905. Both books are novellas and their writers managed to say a lot in a few pages.

Journey into the past.

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret. Proust’s last housekeeper relates her memories of her years at his service. It pictures an outmoded world that died with WWI. She was too fond of him to be objective in her stories but she doesn’t hide his flaws. What a pain he must have been. A fascinating one, certainly, but still a pain with his upside-down way-of-life.

Most crazy book in its plot and characters.

Aller simple by Carlos Salem. Sadly, it’s not available in English. It’s a crazy road trip through Marocco and Spain with a poor fellow who’s afraid to be charged for the murder of his wife and the ghost or reincarnation of the famous tango singer Carlos Gardel.

Best blind date with a book.

Dominique Sylvain was present at Quais du Polar. When I discovered that she comes from my region and that The Dark Angel opens with a quote by Romain Gary, I had to read it. Billet to come where you’ll encounter a great duo of female investigators.

Best Sugar Without Cellulite Book

The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge. I finished it on December 31st and I will write the billet in a couple of weeks. It reminded me of The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy. It’s one of those 19th century books about love and marriage with incredible twists and turns.

Worst reading experience of the year.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. Truly awful, a crime to fiction, to quote my billet.

The billet you liked the most.

Last year, your favorite billet had been Literature in relation to American paintings in the 1930s. This year, it is Book recommendations needed: Australian literature. It was inspiring, I received recommendations for 80 different books.

The billet you missed.

Not a lot of comments or likes for Letters from England by Karel Čapek and I find it unfair. It’s a short book about his travels in Great-Britain. It’s delightful and witty.

A book for the Romain Gary aficionado that I am.

In Un certain M. Pielkieny, François-Henri Désérade writes an autofiction book about looking for M. Piekielny, a person mentioned in Gary’s autobiographical book, Promise at Dawn. Billet to come. I loved it.

 

 

2017 has been a good reading year, but not an excellent one. I didn’t read any Thomas Hardy, and I still want to read all of his books. My work life has been quick paced and it drained part of my energy. I turned to easy books and tried to read in French as much as possible. It took me a month to read the 750 pages of Bánffy’s They Were Counted. I hope I’ll be able to read more engaging books in 2018. As mentioned in my Happy New Year billet, I will read at least one Australian book per month among my selection and my Book Club reads. (The list is here, if you’re curious about it)

If you published your Best of 2017 already, links in the comments are welcome. And of course, I’m curious: what are your reading plans for 2018?

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