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No French toast from me to Breakfast at Tiffany’s

May 24, 2014 29 comments

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. 1958. French title: Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany.

Our Book Club picked two books for May, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I’ve finished Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a collection composed of a novella and three short stories.

  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • House of Flowers
  • A Diamond Guitar
  • A Christmas Memory.

Capote_Tiffany_françaisBreakfast at Tiffany’s is the novella and most famous story of the collection. We’re in 1943, in New York and “Fred” is our narrator. He lives in the East Seventies and Holly Golightly is one of the tenants in the same brownstone. She names him Fred after her beloved brother and we will not know his real name. Fred is an aspiring writer and he’s soon fascinated by Holly. She’s 18 or 19 and she’s a free mind. She smokes, drinks and has a liberated sex life. She doesn’t work but wants to live the good life; breakfast at Tiffany’s is her dream. Her life is made of men, partying and strange visits to prison. Fred is her friend and nothing more and he loves to gravitate around her colourful friends and live vicariously through her. That’s for an overview of the plot.

I didn’t like this novella very much. Part of it is due to the poor French translation I read and I’ve already discussed it in My recent bad luck with translations. But more importantly, I was disappointed. I haven’t seen the film and didn’t know anything about the plot but the cover of the book is misleading. They look more like James Bond and one of his girls than like a poor lost girl playing socialite and befriending a pathetic aspiring writer, don’t they? To be honest, I’m a bit fed up with men fawning on eccentric women and women playing the eccentric to have men at their feet. Holly is a fake and the men around her totally buy it. They have no spine and behave like love-sick puppies. Even years after her disappearance from their life, the narrator and his barman friend Joe Bell still think about her and would run to the other side of the world if they could locate her. Of course, Holly is pretty, that’s a prerequisite since only pretty women can afford her brand of behaviour. Capote attempts to give Holly a bit of substance with her unusual past. He tries to instil fragility in her character but I still found her vapid. She’s partying, flirting and surviving on men while Fred plays the gentleman and in a way slips into the role of the older brother that his adopted name designated for him. In a nutshell, the characters seemed a bit too clichéd for my taste.

I liked the three short-stories a lot more and the translation was not as flawed as the one of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s the same translator though. Perhaps by the time I reached the short stories I had gained a virtual armour against translation hazards. The three stories are very different from one another. House of Flowers is located in Haiti and relates the fate of a prostitute who leaves her brothel to get married. A Diamond Guitar is about Mr Schaeffer who’s serving a life-sentence in a prison-farm. He has found his routine in prison and it is disturbed by the arrival of a fellow prisoner from Cuba, Tico Feo. He has a guitar and Mr Schaeffer is drawn to his personality. What consequences will it have? In A Christmas Memory, a man describes his last Christmas with an older relative. He was seven, she was over sixty and they were friends. They always baked specific cakes for Christmas together and he remembers the process of this special baking day. These three stories were original in their themes and their characters and the last one was really lovely.

That said, I’m far from enraptured by this book and I’m now joining Ernest Hemingway in Paris with A Moveable Feast. I hope it will turn out in a reading feast.

My recent bad luck with translations.

May 19, 2014 24 comments

Cain_facteurI’ve come across a few book reviews about books in translation where the blogger mentioned that the translation was good. I always wondered how you could tell when you didn’t speak the original language and finally came to a conclusion. Good translations are the ones you don’t notice. They stay in the background, let the author reveal their literary voice and never speak for themselves. Bad ones come between you and the text and jump in your face. You may not think of the translator when they did a good job but you cannot not notice a bad translation.

Why am I discussing this now? Because I’ve had three bad experiences with translations lately. First, I started Le facteur sonne toujours deux fois, the 1936 French translation of The Postman Always Rings Twice and nearly went postal with the translation, so I preserved my sanity and downloaded the original text. Then I tried to read La reine des pommes, the 1958 French version of A Rage in Harlem (upcoming billet) and the poor translation enraged me. Bis repetita, I downloaded the original. And finally, I got to Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, the 1962 translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I’m not going to propose a French toast to the translator. This time, I got fed up with paying twice for the same book and endured the translation. I haven’t fully recovered.

Capote_Tiffany_françaisI know translators are underpaid, that they don’t always work in the best conditions and all that. Actually, I’m not mad at the translators of these three books, I’m mad at the publisher, Folio, that still publishes these outdated and flawed translations. Let me show you what I mean.

These translations have something in common: they use outdated French vocabulary when the English is neutral –at least to my ears, since, after all, I’m not a native English speaker. It starts with the titles. I don’t even know what La reine des pommes means, though I guessed the meaning after reading the book. Same thing with Fais pas ta rosière! by Raymond Chandler. The original title is The Little Sister. In La reine des pommes, I stumbled upon la petite est en pleine mouscaille for She might be in trouble. Where does la petite come from and what does mouscaille mean? And later the English sentence “And they didn’t like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves” becomes Ils n’admettaient le schproum que lorsqu’ils en étaient les instigateurs. Schproum ?! Is that even a word? Apparently it’s argot, antiquated argot. The English doesn’t sound dusted to me. In Un petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, I had the pleasure to discover the word truqueuse for phony.

Himes_reineThen you’ve got the literal translation of things. Milles for miles, which makes you think you’re on a boat. Le quartier des Est-Soixante-Dix for the East Seventies, la maison de pierre brune for brownstone. In La reine des pommes, jukeboxes are translated into les appareils à disque when we use juke box too. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, there’s a footnote to explain Coca-Cola!

And last, but not least, the things that don’t even sound French. Like [elle] allait patiner à roulettes dans Central Park, when you usually say elle allait faire du patin à roulettes dans Central Park –The original is [she] went roller-skating in Central Park. In Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, sometimes I could hear the English under the French translation. That’s the worst. C’est une si sacrée menteuse is a sentence that is not French at all but sounds a lot like the literal translation of She’s such a goddamn liar. Later, I read: On va faire un pot de café pour célébrer l’événement for We’ll make a pot of coffee and celebrate. Nothing special in English but in French you say on va faire du café et célébrer l’événement. I’ve never heard of a pot de café but I guessed the original text.

And sometimes, the French text is simply an insult to the writer.

Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face. Des talons si hauts qu’ils faisaient vaciller ses chevilles accentuaient sa hauteur ; un corsage serré sur sa gorge plate suggérait qu’elle pût se baigner sur une plage en maillot d’homme ; des cheveux tirés en arrière accusaient la siccité, l’émaciation de son visage de modèle pour modes.

Poor, poor Truman Capote. You can picture her very well in English and in French, it’s, well, ugly.

These three translations are rather old and I thought they were bad because they were done in a rush at a time when translators didn’t have thorough working standards. Wrong again. Shortly after, I started Manhattan Transfer in French. The translation dates back to 1928 and it’s excellent. I don’t hear the English under the French and yet I still know it’s not been written in French. New York realities are in italic and when characters make grammar mistakes, it’s translated. The Flatiron Building didn’t become l’immeuble du fer à repasser and you’re in New York but reading in French. I sighed of contentment because frankly, I wasn’t going to read Dos Passos in the original. That’s when I realised that a good translation is the one you don’t notice. I paid attention because I’d been through three bad ones but otherwise, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. A good translation brings you in another country, maintains the impression of strangeness but flows well in your native language.

So please, Folio, hire a new translator and give French readers who don’t speak English the opportunity to read decent translations of Himes, Capote and McCain.

 

White Dog by Romain Gary

May 8, 2014 42 comments

White Dog by Romain Gary 1969 French version: Chien Blanc.

 If evil things were done only by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.

Gary_CentenaireToday is the 8th of May and Romain Gary would have been one-hundred-year old. For the centenary of his birth, I decided to read the English version of Chien Blanc. The title is literally translated into White Dog but that’s where the literal translation stops. I mean it when I say the English version and not the translation. White Dog has been self-translated by Romain Gary and he took the liberty to change passages, split one chapter in two, change references that were too French, add ones that were more American. From what I’ve seen, and sadly I don’t have time to compare more thoroughly the two texts, the global text is close enough to be the same book but not enough to be called a translation. He just adapted his speech to his American public to better reach out to them.

So what’s it all about? White Dog is a fictional non-fiction book, meaning that it’s a memoir without a journalistic aim at accuracy. Maybe there’s a genre for that, I don’t know. White Dog is focused on the year 1968 in Gary’s life. It’s the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy got killed, the one of the Spring of Prague, the one of the student revolution in France and in other countries too.

The book opens in Los Angeles. Romain Gary lives in Beverly Hills with his wife Jean Seberg while she’s making a movie. Their son Diego Alexandre is six. Romain Gary is an animal lover and specifically a dog person –White Dog is dedicated to his dog Sandy—so when a lost German shepherd lands on his door and seems lost, he takes him in and names him Barka. (“little father” in Russian). A few days later, he realises that Batka is a white dog, a dog that has been trained in a Southern State to attack black people. Gary decides to bring him to Jack Carruthers’ zoo, he wants him to reform Batka. Unfortunatelyn it’s easier said than done.

At the time, Jean Seberg is a fervent militant of the fight to civil rights for black people in America. She gets more and more involved with different groups of black activists, giving them money and support. Gary watches all this with wariness. Her naïve involvement in that cause puts forward their differences: he’s French, she’s American, he’s 24 years older than her and his lucidity, political sharpness and experience in the French Foreign Office make him analyse the situation with more accuracy. She doesn’t want to understand his point of view. White Dog shows how their different vision, not on the rightness of the cause, but on the nature of the black political movement, drives them apart. In White Dog, Gary lets the world know how much he loves his wife, as you can see in this passage, even if they’ll get a divorce in 1970, :

We part, and I walk back home wondering how my America is doing, if Sandy and the cats look after her, if she misses me, if those exquisite features under the short-cropped hair are sad or serene, and if those sweet peepers still look at the world and people with the same belief in something than can never be world or people, and which has always had so much to do with prayers…I miss my America very much.

The book is split in three parts, the first one describing Gary’s efforts to have Barka reformed, the second detailing his stay in Washington DC during riots and his views on the “black problem” in America and the last one picturing Mai 68 in Paris and the student riots.

White Dog is one of Gary’s best books. He’s everywhere in these pages and it helps understanding the novels he wrote. He describes how he liked to spend time in a python’s cage in Carruthers’ zoo and that leads us to Gros Câlin. When he wants to be anywhere else but with himself, he thinks of Outer Mongolia, like Lenny in The Ski Bum. His relationship with Jean Seberg gave us the one between Jacques and Laura in Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. White Dog shows his inner struggles, his need to write off his problems by writing them down in a book. It pictures a man with strong beliefs, ready to stand to his ground even if his ideas are out of fashion. I love that passage about Stupidity.

The black-white situation in America has its roots in the core of almost all human predicaments, deep down within something it is high time to recognise as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle. Stupidity has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over. The latest typical example is the murder of the “spring of Prague” in the name of “correct Marxist thinking”.

Gary_White_DogHe’s an uncompromising moderate. He sees violence as being violence, not a means to defend a cause. He’s disgusted with the so-called good deeds done by the Hollywood circles. He’s appalled to see an old black friend turn into a vindictive and unrealistic activist. He’s a strange mix of a strong will not to give up in human nature and an ingrained cynicism gathered through the years, in spite of him.

His style is brilliant. Funnily, I could hear the French under the English. It doesn’t have the same ring as the passages of French literature translated into English I’ve read. When it’s done by a native translator, the general feeling is that it is an English text. Here, I can hear that English is an acquired language for a French native (or almost) speaker. I spotted mistakes Francophones tend to make when they speak English and turns of sentences that sound like a Frenchman speaking English. It made me smile.

It is risky to re-read a book you have loved when you were young. Will it be as brilliant as the first time? So far, all the Garys I’ve re-read have passed the test of years with flying colours. This one is no exception. It’s thought-provoking, witty and lovely at the same time. Gary has a knack with words and his style shines through and through, even if he’s not aiming at beauty or poetry:

I drive through Coldwater Canyon with enough stones in my heart to build a few more cathedrals.

I’m happy I picked this one for Gary’s centenary. It’s him as a man and him as a novelist too. The mix is potent. Highly recommended, the kind of book your want to share with your friends right away.

PS: I have tons of quotes and I can’t share them all but here’s a last one:

All this must have been happening in a wonderful smell of roses. Whenever I leave Jean alone, I am immediately replaced by bouquets of roses. Dozens of them come to fill the void, all with visiting cards, and I have estimated at various times that my flower value is about a dozen roses per pound. It is flattering and very satisfying to know that as soon as you leave your gorgeous wife alone, an impressive number of people rush to the florist’s in the admirable hope of replacing with roses your sweet-smelling self.

PPS: Another thing: White Dog has been made into a film by Samuel Fuller in 1982. You might have seen it.

Romain Gary captures my fascination for America in one sentence

April 20, 2014 6 comments

I’m reading White Dog in English for Romain Gary Literature Month in May and on the second page, here’s a quote that sums up

That day, a rainstorm hit Los Angeles with the kind of larger-than-life fury you soon come to expect in America, where everything tends to be more dramatic and violent than elsewhere, with both nature and man trying to outdo each other at the art of showmanship.

I’ve been to America several times now and every time the size of everything hits me. Everything seems huge from buildings, to cars, roads, portions in restaurants. And renaming French fries into Freedom fries is a perfect illustration of the dramatic side of the country, one that leaves me dumbfounded.

Incidentally, the equivalent of that sentence in the French version of the book is:

Ce jour-là, une averse démesurée comme le sont la plupart des phénomènes naturels en Amérique lorsqu’ils s’y mettent, s’était abattue sur Los Angeles.

The second part of the English sentence is absent from the French one. I knew there was a good reason to read White Dog in English. I suspect it’s going to be a slow read if I’m tempted to check the French version of every quote.

PS: Here’s Delphine’s billet about Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joann Sfar. She included pictures of Gary and the corresponding drawings by Sfar.

Until the end, we are our body’s child. A puzzled child.

April 7, 2014 15 comments

Le Journal d’un corps by Daniel Pennac. (The Journal of a Body)

I wrote that billet in French back in October 2013 and said that if anyone needed a translation, they should just ask for it in the comment section. Well, Sophie left a message asking for one, so here it is. A billet in French was a first, self-translating it is another first. For the original French, click here. So enjoy!

Emma

_______

I was reading this book and I was thinking I won’t be able to write about this book in English, I don’t have the words. Then I thought that since most of the regular readers of this blog can read in French, I’d write in French for a change. I’m a bit intimidated, I must say. I’ve never written any billet in my native language. And the human brain is a strange thing, it compartmentalizes our experiences, learns, makes inventories and settles patterns. My brain is used to writing billets in English. This activity has been in English from the start and for my brain, switching from one language to the other is a bit against nature. But it’s not to ramble about my brain or my body that I cross that path today, it’s for Daniel Pennac.

Life is a grand theatre and we make out little performance every day, walking out on stage in the morning, as soon as someone lays eyes on us. The look of others makes our inner actor stepping in because as soon as we’re no longer alone, the other expects something from our presence, a certain behaviour, a feedback or simply reassurance. Writers like to show us what’s behind the curtain of that theatre and unveil the thoughts and feelings of the characters. With his Journal of a Body, Daniel Pennac chose to shed some light backstage. Our body. An unusual project, I have to admit.

When he turns twelve, a boy decides to control his body that betrayed him, giving away his fear. A paralyzing fear took his body and his sphincters abdicated, a real disaster in his pants. This child is the son of a Great War soldier, weakened and eventually led to death by the consequences of the toxic gas inhaled on the front. The father fades away, betrayed by his body. A little while after his death and this intestinal debacle, the son takes himself in hand. We are in 1936 and until his death, he will write the journal of his body, his life companion. The book is constructed as a diary and no significant event is written in it unless it has a bodily impact or unless it can be described through an alteration of his body. We guess what is happening in his life because some furtive words here and there unravel his great moments. After all, these events affect his body. The death of his nanny, Violette. His first lover. The first time he sees Mona, his future wife, love at first sight. And now, he’s a father:

To become a father is to become one-armed. I’ve only had one arm since a month; the other holds Bruno. One-armed from one day to the other, you get used to it.

The Journal of a Body is a funny book that talks about what cannot be said, what cannot be written. There is no deep analysis of feelings here, just the sensations of a body. Some are familiar to me like yawning, feeling fear squeezing your guts, dizziness, water on your skin in the shower, the dazzling attack of a tooth ache. Some are foreign to me since I’m a woman; I know nothing about the pleasure of a good shave in the morning. Some of the sensations reveal his feelings, show what’s happening on stage, where our man interacts with his public, his colleagues, his employees, his family.

I love Pennac; his ten inalienable rights of the reader are in a visible pad on my blog and the Malaussène series is a wonderful memory of reading. I love his humour, his warmth, his joie de vivre. His style is gourmand and gourmet, blunt but never vulgar. (“Love punctuation by Mona: give me that comma to turn it into an exclamation mark”) He intertwines poetry and mundaneness with a happiness that smells like childhood, cheeks reddened by games and the absence of ulterior motives. (“Our voice is the music that the wind makes when it goes through our body –well, when it doesn’t go out through our backside”) He never takes himself seriously. (You can scratch yourself to ecstasy but tickle yourself as long as you want, you’ll never make yourself laugh) His strength is that he doesn’t only describe his body as the recipient of stolen pleasures; he goes through everything, the good and the bad. This visible lightness, this sensorial badinage doesn’t prevent Pennac from serious thinking about the place of our body in society.

We spend our time comparing our bodies. But after childhood, only in a furtive, shameful manner. At fifteen, on the beach, I compared the biceps and abs of the boys of my age. At eighteen, I compared the bulge in their bathing suit. At thirty, forty, men compare their hair. (Poor bald ones!) At fifty, they look at pot bellies (Don’t have one), at sixty, they check teeth (don’t lose them). And now, in the assemblies of old crocodiles that are our supervisory bodies, they check backs, steps, the way you wipe your mouth, you get up or you put your coat on. Old age, actually, just old age. John looks older than me, don’t you think?

It’s so true, we do it without thinking. This story is both universal and unique. I’ve described the universal moments. But this man has also a relationship with his body that tells about his generation. We feel him a bit stiff, this father whose children never see him in pyjamas. At some point, he says he’d like to read the journal of a woman’s body to have a glimpse at this intimacy and understand, among other things, what it is to have breasts. Intriguing for a man, I assume. He describes his little miseries, his illnesses and his curiosity for a body that we only pay attention to when it violently or repeatedly reminds us of its presence. He makes experiments with his body like yawning in a meeting to see if it generates a yawning wave among the audience. This novel is brilliant, tender and sad at the same time. We discover a traditional, deadpan and generous man. A successful man, a faithful husband, a somewhat distant father, an affectionate grand-father. A man who sees his body as a roommate, in for life.

I really like this text and unfortunately, it’s not been translated into English for the moment. It was published in 2012, it may be available in English later. It’s probably a good book to buy for someone who’d like to work on his/her French. It’s a journal, composed of tiny moments; it allows a disjointed reading

Well, the billet comes to an end and to be honest, writing in French isn’t easy. The English language kept on coming to my mind; it’s become my language to write about literature. My brain switches to English when I want to express my thoughts about a book. I had to delete Anglicism (you don’t say “compartimentaliser” in French, but “compartimenter”) or false friends (you don’t say “caractère” for “character” but “personnage”) and I had to translate a few adjectives that came in English first. Bizarre, je sais.

Wednesdays With Romain Gary – Part Five

February 12, 2014 8 comments

Gary_LecturesLife is a serious matter because of its futility. That’s what M. Cousin says in Gros Câlin. (1974). I have written two billets about this bittersweet tale of a sensitive and lonely man who lives with a python named Gros Câlin. Câlin is a word that means cuddle. The accent on the a makes the a last a bit longer. It sounds like the softness of a mother, the tenderness of a lover and it evokes warmth and happiness. Strange that a python might be named like this. It’s one of my favourite Gary and if you’re really fluent in French, it’s worth reading. It’s beautifully written and totally different from anything you’ve read before.

The first quote is about brotherhood, a theme often present in Gary’s books. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood) is France’s motto and the immigrant Roman Kacew still hiding behind Romain Gary believed in that slogan. Gary was also scarred by war and he had a strong experience of brotherhood in his combat unit. (He was in England, in an airplane squad.). It’s important to him, so I picked that quote:

Je pense que la fraternité, c’est un état de confusion grammaticale entre je et eux, moi et lui, avec possibilités. I think that brotherhood is a state of grammatical confusion between I and them, me and him, with possibilities. Translation kindly reviewed by Erik McDonald.

I love the way he pictures the feeling and twists the language on his way.

The second quote is typically Gary too. Gros Câlin is about loneliness. Cousin is isolated, anonymous in a big city and Gary nails down the feeling when Cousin describes his hesitation about beds:

Les lits m’ont toujours posé des problèmes. S’ils sont étroits, pour une seule personne, ils vous foutent dehors, en quelque sorte, ils vous coupent vos efforts d’imagination. Ca fait I, sans ambages, sans ménagement. « T’es seul mon vieux et tu sais bien que tu le resteras » Je préfère donc les lits à deux places, qui s’ouvrent sur l’avenir, mais c’est là que se présente l’autre côté du dilemme. Les dilemmes sont tous des peaux de cochons, soit dit en passant, j’en ai pas connu d’aimables. Car avec un lit pour deux chaque soir et toute la journée samedi et dimanche, on se sent encore plus seul que dans un lit pour un, qui vous donne au moins une excuse d’être seul. Beds have always been a problem for me. If they’re narrow, single beds, they throw you out, in a way; they cut short all your efforts of imagination. It makes an I, without beating around the bush, bluntly. “You’re on your own, my friend, and you know you’ll stay that way.” I therefore prefer double beds, which are open to the future but that’s where the other side of the dilemma comes in. Dilemmas are bitches, by the way, I’ve never known a nice one. Because with a bed for two, every night and all day Saturday and Sunday, you feel lonelier than you would in a bed for one, which at least gives you an excuse for being alone.  Translation kindly reviewed by Erik McDonald

This is Gary at his finest: funny and serious, talking about a serious matter through a futile preoccupation.

Please, can a publisher contact Alexandre Diego Gary who’s in charge of his father’s work and acquire the rights to translate this wonderful novel into English? Meanwhile, for other readers, it exists in German (Monsieur Cousin und die Einsamkeit der Riesenschlangen.), in Italian (Mio caro pitone), in Spanish (Mimos) and probably in other languages too. What is the Anglophone world waiting for?

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part three.

January 29, 2014 4 comments

Hello,

Gary_LecturesTime for our weekly Gary quotes. Today I’ve chosen two quotes from Les Cerfs-volants. (1980). It’s Gary’s last book and I don’t think it’s been translated into English. The title means Kites. It’s a story of love, hope and war from 1930 till after WWII and from Normandy to Poland.

Like last week’s quote, Erik McDonald helped me with the translation. The quotes I picked are short but triggered exchanges about their translation. I found it fascinating that we both struggled with the same words or expressions and that we had so much hesitation to translate such short passages. It gave me a tiny glimpse of what it must be to translate a book; the exchanges between writers and translators must me interesting and I wonder how translators of dead writers do to make all the choices they have to make every sentence along the way.

First quote:

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. I understand how you can die of love because sometimes it’s so powerful that life can’t stand it and it shatters

Our problem was about the translation of “elle craque”. I had initially written “it breaks down”

Erik commented: I would suggest “bursts,” or perhaps “breaks apart” or “splits open” or “shatters,” if “craquer” sounds like a metaphorical use of the physical meaning (pants splitting, for instance). “Breaks down” works for “craquer” in the sense of “be unable to resist,” but in this short phrase I would take “break down” to mean “stop working,” the way a car can break down.

I answered:I had trouble with “craquer”. I went for “breakdown” because of the word “mourir” at the beginning of the sentence and also because “craquer” is a word you use for “to have nervous breakdown”. Perhaps “breaks apart” is the best or “falls apart”? Or “shatters”? It’s difficult because “craquer” means both mental and physical. You can use “craquer” for “pants splitting” as well. So maybe “shatters” is the best, eventually. (I’m writing and thinking at the same time)

In the end, I settled for “shatters” but it’s not exactly the same meaning as “elle craque”. For me, “to shatter” is more violent than “craquer”. What do you think?

The second quote is the following:

Le rêve a touché terre et ça fait toujours des dégâts. Même les idées cessent de se ressembler quand elles prennent corps. The dream has landed and that always causes damage. Even ideas stop seeming like themselves when they take on flesh and blood.

This is a recurring theme in Gary’s work, how good or nice ideas can become ugly when someone tries to put them into practice. I had first translated “a touché terre” by “has landed” and “prennent corps” by “embodied”

Erik changed them into “run aground” and “take on flesh and blood”. I agreed immediately about “take on flesh and blood”, I knew “embodied” sounded strange but I couldn’t find anything better. However I wasn’t so keen on “run aground”.

Here are Erik’s arguments: “Run aground” sounds like a ship metaphor: the ship gets into water that’s too shallow and hits bottom. That would cause damage. I first took “toucher terre” to be an airplane metaphor, in which case “has landed” or “has touched down” would work, but it would then be unclear what causes the damage.

And this is my answer: I prefer “has landed” because in French you don’t use that for ships. (You’d say “échouer”) and because Gary was an aviator. Airplane metaphors are more probable. And dreams are in the sky. (Day dreaming is « avoir la tête dans les nuages », “to have one’s head in the clouds”) What causes the damage? A dream is not supposed to land to remain intact. It can’t land without crashing and being damaged. That’s what he means.

I wanted to share our exchanges with you because I found it interesting that we had so much trouble translating passages as short as these. I hope you enjoyed this and I’m curious to know if you have other suggestions.

Thanks again for your help, Erik.

See you next week with quote from Lady L.

Love autopsy

January 4, 2014 20 comments

Contempt by Alberto Moravia (1954) French title: Le mépris

Contempt was our Book Club choice for December. (I know, this billet is late) It managed to push Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh out of my list of favourite books for 2013. Here is the opening paragraph of the book:

During the first two years of our married life my relations with my wife were, I can now assert, perfect. By which I mean to say that, in those two years, a complete profound harmony of the senses was accompanied by a kind of numbness –of should I say silence?—of the mind which, in such circumstances, causes an entire suspension of judgment and looks only to love for any estimate of the beloved person. Emilia, in fact, seemed to me wholly without defects, and so also, I believe, I appeared to her. Or perhaps I saw her defects and she saw mine, but, through some mysterious transformation produced by the feeling of love, such defects appeared to us both not merely forgivable but even lovable, as though instead of defects they had been positive qualities, if of a rather special kind? Anyhow, we did not judge: we loved each other. This story sets out to relate how, while I continued to love her and not to judge her, Emilia, on the other hand, discovered, or thought she discovered, certain defects in me, and judged me and in consequence ceased to love me.

Moravia_meprisThis is Riccardo speaking and analysing the end of his marriage to Emilia. Contempt a first person narrative and it never switches to another point of view. Riccardo and Emilia have been married two years when their relationship starts to deteriorate. Riccardo is an aspiring playwright and he’s been doing odd jobs to support his wife. At the beginning of their marriage, they were renting rooms in a house as they couldn’t afford more expensive accommodation. Now, Riccardo has just bought an apartment, which changed Emilia’s status from aspiring to official housewife. She’s delighted with the new flat and her ambition is fulfilled.

When the novel opens, Riccardo has just landed an interesting contract to write a screenplay for the film director Battista. It comes as a relief since he’s struggling financially to pay the mortgage of the apartment. Just when he can stop worrying about money, Emilia’s behaviour towards him changes. Without any obvious reason, she starts distancing herself from him. He feels that she no longer loves him but he doesn’t understand why. His first move is to pressure her until she acknowledges that she fell out of love with him. Then he wants to figure out what changed her heart and he will not let go until she eventually blurts out that she despises him. He would have recovered better if she had slapped him.

Everything goes downhill from there. Relocating from Rome to Capri to work on another screenplay for Battisti won’t help. Riccardo knows that Battisti is attracted to Emilia, it was clear from the first evening they had diner together. How does his presence in their lives influence their couple?

Moravia_contemptMoravia is a fantastic writer. He combines Proust’s analytical skills with Maupassant’s style and lucidity. There is something of Swann and Odette, of the Narrator and Albertine in this relationship. Like Swann and the Narrator, Riccardo is a cerebral who feels too much. He over analyses everything, pays attention to tiny details and elaborates theories to explain Emilia’s behaviour. He breaks down her every move, her words and tries to decipher what she meant exactly and why she said this or that. As Riccardo describes Emilia, it becomes clear that they have very different interests and ambitions in life. Riccardo is an intellectual. Emilia loves her home and is content with taking care of the house. She isn’t interested in Riccardo’s job. She’s pretty, he loves her but they don’t seem to have much in common. After the honeymoon stage, how can this relationship blossom?

Like Swann and the Narrator, Riccardo is well-aware of Emilia’s limits. She’s not well-read, she’s a bourgeois and her mind bears the marks of her upbringing. But, as Riccardo says There is in love a great capacity, not only of illusion but also of forgetting.

Like in Notre Coeur by Maupassant, Moravia shows how difficult it is to love someone who doesn’t love you back or not enough. More than unrequited love, Moravia pictures the damage done by contempt. It destabilises Riccardo because it nibbles his self-esteem. Losing Emilia’s love is painful but that kind of wound heals, eventually. Arousing Emilia’s contempt shatters his peace of mind. He wonders what he did to deserve this and more importantly if she’s right.

Contempt is a fascinating read on several levels. Moravia’s style is close to perfection, lucid, matter-of-fact and yet full of emotion. He manages to build a bridge between opposite notions. The reader reads with detachment and yet reaches out to Riccardo’s pain. He explains everything with logic and yet stirs an illogic sense of dread. He’s analytical and warm. Riccardo explains:

I have noticed that the more one is overcome with doubt, the more one relies on a fake lucidity in the hope to clarify though reasoning what emotions have muddled.

He’s centred on Riccardo’s turmoil but doesn’t neglect to picture the beautiful landscapes of Capri. He manages to connect the reader to Riccardo’s inner mind and to his surroundings.

We were quickly driving down the hills to the sea among pine trees and magnolias, the blue gulf as a setting. I was feeling drowsy and exhausted like an epileptic whose body and soul have been wrecked by a violent and uncontrollable convulsion.

Very Proustian, this to-and-fro between the scenery and the emotions of a character. It reminds me of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs when the Narrator rambles about Albertine and her girlfriends and the landscapes of Balbec.

The construction of the book is impeccable. Moravia builds the tension masterfully and plays his score of words like a gifted pianist. Cherry on the cake, his take on the place of scriptwriters in the film industry was interesting. This is a short book, my copy is only 152 pages but it encapsulates universal and profound notions in the unique story of two indivuals. As the cover of my copy recalls us, Contempt has been made into a film by Jean-Luc Godard.

Highly recommended.

PS: The opening quote is translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson. I’ve read the book in French and I translated the other quotes myself from the French. At least you have the rather long first quote to sample Moravia’s wonderful prose.

PPS: I find the English cover a bit creepy.

Writing doesn’t know any other country than that of their mother tongue.

August 22, 2013 24 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. Egy Polgár Vallomásai. French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois.

After a billet about the events told in Confessions of a Bourgeois, I thought that the book deserved a billet dedicated to literature. Márai exposes his views on writing, on being a writer and he unravels how he came to his vision of literature and writing. For him, it’s an obsession and naming it a calling is just a way to embellish an urge. He was 14 when he knew he had to write but it took him years to know what he would write. He’s not a writer who spent his youth scribbling stories or writing theatre plays he would play with his cousins in front of the family. Márai doesn’t mention a lot of influential writers but he does refer to Kafka as a writer who “spoke” to him:

Il s’avère toujours difficile de cerner la notion d’influence littéraire et de rester objectif et sincère à l’endroit des auteurs qui ont déclenché en vous ce qu’on peut appeler une vision littéraire du monde. La littérature, comme la vie, comporte des affinités mystérieuses. Il m’est arrivé une ou deux fois— pas plus— de rencontrer des êtres qui me paraissaient aussitôt douloureusement familiers, comme si, en quelque époque préhistorique, j’eusse manqué avec eux je ne sais quel rendez-vous. Ces êtres ont la faculté de m’arrêter sur mon chemin et de me révéler à moi-même. It’s always difficult to grasp the notion of literary influence and to remain honest and objective about the authors who triggered in you what you may call a literary vision of the world. Literature, like life, has mysterious affinities. I happened once or twice –not more often—to meet with a being that immediately seemed painfully familiar, as if I had missed a rendezvous with them in some prehistoric era. Such beings have the power to stop me on my journey and to reveal myself to me.

I think all readers have had this experience of reading a book which suddenly seemed to have been created only for them. Some writers have a direct access to our inner selves, knocking down the barriers of time, sex or language. That’s a wonderfully soothing effect of reading. After a few years, Márai made up his mind about what a writer should be:

Je me méfie de ces âmes délicates qui fuient la vie, comme je trouve profondément antipathique l’écrivain « naturaliste », qui, semblable à un violoniste tsigane, « n’écoute que son cœur » et « décrit l’existence » avec une précision minutieuse. C’est entre ces deux pôles extrêmes que vit, crée et se débat l’écrivain. I am wary of these delicate souls who shy away from life, just as I deeply dislike the naturalist writer who, like a Hungarian Gypsy fiddler only listens to his heart and describes life with a thorough precision. An author lives, creates and struggles somewhere between these two extremes.

For me, Rilke is a writer of the first category, it is clear in his Letters to a Young Poet while Zola is, of course, one of the other category. As a reader, I enjoy both and struggle with both. I’ve had a hard time following all of Malte’s inner musings in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and I didn’t enjoy much the lengthy descriptions of Les Halles in The Belly of Paris. I guess Márai has a point when he says a writer should find a middle ground between the two. Philip Roth manages that brilliantly; he can mix the most down-to-earth details with deep thinking. However, I’m not sure about Márai’s idea of writing only in your mother tongue:

L’écrivain ne peut travailler que dans l’atmosphère de sa langue maternelle, et ma langue maternelle était le hongrois. C’est pourquoi, quelques dizaines d’années plus tard, alors que j’écrivais déjà passablement en allemand, et baragouinais tant bien que mal le français, pris de panique devant ma surdité quant à l’essence même de ces langues étrangères, je rentrai précipitamment au pays pour me réfugier au sein de ma langue maternelle. A writer can only work in the atmosphere of his mother tongue and my mother tongue was the Hungarian language. Therefore, a few decades later, when I could passably write in German and jabber away in French, I panicked because I was deaf to the essence of these foreign languages. I hurried home to find shelter in my mother tongue.

Zachary Karabashliev wrote his book set in America in Bulgarian, even if he’s been living in Ohio for years now. He didn’t translate his book into English himself. It seems to confirm Márai’s theory. I’m not a writer and I’m not sure my opinion about this is worth anything. But still. On the one hand, writing in another language can be liberating because the words aren’t loaded with unconscious meanings or don’t carry the same emotional weight. On the other hand, they’re new to the writer but aren’t new to the reader who may load them with a meaning unexpected by the author. More importantly, I wonder if writing in another language doesn’t give the writer to innovate in their adopted language. Perhaps it is an opportunity for the adopted language. Romain Gary never wrote a book in Russian. However, he transposed some of his Russian heritage in his writing in French. He has a unique way of using the French language, something someone with a French background may not have invented. I wonder what Márai who have thought about Beckett or Milán Kundera?

Then, if a writer can only write in their mother tongue, translators are vital. Márai also mentions translations as he discovered French literature in translation.

Etrange métier que celui du traducteur, qui requiert toujours la présence de deux artistes. Le traducteur est souvent un écrivain avorté, comme le photographe un peintre dévoyé. Translator is a strange profession as it always requires two artists. A translator is often an aborted writer, just as a photographer is a corrupted painter.

While I agree that translating literature requires more artistic skills than translating directions for use, the rest of the quote is a little too harsh for me.  I think that photography is an art of its own; it’s not the residue of a more noble art called painting. Plus, aren’t translators literature lovers who strive to promote foreign literature in their language? They bring the world to us, readers and allow us to wander outside of our culture, our language. I like better what Zachary Karabashliev wrote in the Acknowledgments section of 18% Gray “I grew up in a country whose language is spoken by fewer than nine million people. Most of the literature that shaped me as a reader and an individual, and later as a writer, was in translation, mostly English works in Bulgarian. This translation of 18% Gray from Bulgarian to English is, in a way, my chance to give back what’s been borrowed, a raindrop returning to the ocean it came from.” I told you I liked the man behind the book.

Last, but not least, I leave you with a quote coming just after Márai sold his first article written in German:

Ce fut mon premier article écrit directement en allemand. Je rédigeai en cette langue étrangère avec une assurance aveugle. Après coup, l’entreprise me parut d’une folle témérité. Fixer mes idées en un idiome, que certes, je comprenais et parlais, mais en lequel je n’avais jamais encore écrit la moindre ligne, relevait de la gageure. This was my first article written directly in German. I wrote in this foreign language with a blind assurance. Afterwards, this initiative seemed to be of a crazy boldness. To lay down my ideas in a language that I could understand and speak but in which I had never written a line was a real challenge.

At my own little level, I know the feeling quite well…

No se peude vivir sin amar

March 17, 2013 14 comments

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry 1947 French title: Sous le volcan

Under the volcano! It was not for nothing the ancients had placed Tartarus under Mt. Aetna, nor within it, the monster Typhoeus, with his hundred heads and—relatively—fearful eyes and voices.

After a disconcerting first billet about Under the Volcano, this is my attempt at writing a sensible one. I still have Pulque, mescal y tequila playing in my head as I try to collect my thoughts. I started reading that masterpiece without knowing anything about it, apart from the difficult masterpiece tag.

Under the Volcano is located in Mexico, precisely in small town named Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, November 2. On that very day of 1939, M Laruelle recalls the drama that occurred the same day the year before. The novel tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, the alcoholic British consul in position in this little town. His wife left him the year before and on that day of November 2, 1938, she comes back to him. It is also the day that Hugh Firmin, the Consul’s half-brother returns to town too. Geoffrey expected Hugh, but not Yvonne. The novel relates that day, the day these four people with intertwined lives gather again and try to communicate and interact with one another.

The Consul is an alcoholic and his disease impacts the lives of the ones who love him. Yvonne loves him madly, would like to save him but is at loss what to do. She tried to leave to save herself or him.

Yet they had loved one another! But it was as though their love were wandering over some desolate cactus plain, far from here, lost, stumbling and falling, attacked by wild beasts, calling for help– dying, to sigh at last, with a kind of weary peace: Oaxaca.

Everything but the first chapter happens the same day. The narrative alternates between M Laruelle, the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh. Each of them ruminates about their life and the reader discovers about their past lives and their current predicaments and anguish. (What was life but a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn?)

The Consul is the main character. Laruelle is his childhood friend, Yvonne is his wife, Hugh is his half-brother. The chapters where the reader sees the event through the Consul’s eyes are the most difficult. Because he’s drunk and Lowry manages to put you into the mind of the drunkard like no other writer does. I felt a lot of sympathy for the Consul’s struggles.

The Consul felt with his right hand his left bicep under his coat. Strength—of a kind—but how to give oneself courage? That fine droll courage of Shelley’s; no, that was pride. And pride bade one go on, either go on and kill oneself, or “straighten out,” as so often before, by oneself, with the aid of thirty bottles of beer and staring at the ceiling. But this time it was very different. What if courage here implied admission of total defeat, admission that one couldn’t swim, admission indeed (though just for a second the thought was not too bad) into a sanatorium? No, to whatever end, it wasn’t merely a matter of being “got away”. No angels nor Yvonne nor Hugh could help him here. As for the demons, they were inside him as well as outside; quiet at the moment—taking their siesta perhaps—he was nonetheless surrounded by them and occupied; they were in possession.

He tries to keep up appearances but his vision of reality is blurred. The pages of his delirium tremens are amazing; you’re there, in his head, seeing the world through his blurred and confused mind. He wants to make a decision, but he needs a drink first. He hides bottles everywhere. He wants to resist but cannot. The booze comes first, whatever the situation, even if his life is at stake.

For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.

Hugh is also an interesting character. He’s a product of the 1930s, he’s probably read La condition humaine by Malraux He comes from a wealthy family, tries to be a songwriter, decides to be a sailor to piss his family off and much to his dismay, they don’t fight against it. He becomes a journalist, covering wars and especially the Spanish Civil War. He’s into a bolshevist or communist (whatever the right term is) movement and supports the Spanish Republicans. I suspect Lowry put a part of himself in Hugh, just as he put his experience with alcohol into the Consul.

Lowry excels at describing landscapes (as in the quote in my previous post) and at creating bonds between his characters and their surroundings.

There was something in the wild strength of this landscape, once a battlefield, that seemed to be shouting at him, a presence born of that strength whose cry his whole being recognized as familiar, caught and threw back into the wind, some youthful password of courage and pride–the passionate, yet so nearly always hypocritical, affirmation of one’s soul perhaps, he thought, of the desire to be, to do, good, what was right. It was as though he were gazing now beyond this expanse of plains, and beyond the volcanoes out to the wide rolling blue ocean itself, feeling it is his heart still, the boundless impatience, the immeasurable longing.

The volcanoes are characters themselves, the landscape interacts with the humans living there. Does it come from his reading of Indian legends and cosmology? Like here, about a storm:

Up in the mountains two drunken gods standing far apart were still engaged in an endlessly indecisive and wildly game of bumblepuppy with a Burmese gong.

 Under the Volcano is also about politics. The story takes place in November 1938 and the political context of the 1930s is both present in the background and plays deus ex-machina. It’s set during the Battle of the Ebro, the decisive battle in the Spanish Civil War. Franco ruled the country after that. This war made people pick a side in other countries too and it weighed on local political contexts. It filters through the pages.

The poultry was a sad sight. All alike had submitted to their fate; hens, cocks, and turkeys, whether in their baskets, or still loose. With only an occasional flutter to show they were alive they crouched passively under the long seats, their emphatic spindly claws bound with cord. Two pullets lay, frightened and quivering, between the hand brake and the clutch, their wings linked with the levers. Poor things, they had signed their Munich agreement too. One of the turkeys even looked remarkably like Neville Chamberlain.

In addition to the Spanish Civil War, Lowry evokes the Jews and anti-Semitism and the situation in Germany. The political context in Mexico also plays a role. The communist ideas are spreading; Hugh is involved in political movements. I’m not qualified to discuss this and I actually missed most of the political references mentioned. I don’t know anything about the history of Mexico and I don’t remember much about the Spanish Civil War although I plan on reading about it later. (I have Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Geroges Bernanos on the shelf.) I decided not to research this aspect of Under the Volcano. Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes not to understand all the political implications of the novel but a reader can enjoy it without that. The content is rich enough and the style is so breathtaking that it doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter to me.

Under the Volcano is full of literary references, questions about the meaning of life.

Yes, indeed, how many patters of life were based on kindred misconceptions, how many wolves do we feel on our heels, while our real enemies go in sheepskin by?

You can find useful explanations about the references here. (Leroy, if you read this, thanks for the link)

Lowry’s language is his own and sometimes a strange pix-and-mix of English, French and Spanish. His sense of English grammar and use of vocabulary can drive MS Word’s spelling and grammar check tool go wild with green and red waves. I don’t speak Spanish but I discovered I’m not that bad at guessing the meaning of the sentences sown in the text. Thank God for seven years of learning Latin in school. I suppose it helps being French, especially for sentences like this one: The Consul decapitated a dusty coquelicot poppy growing by the side of the gutter with his stick. A coquelicot is a red poppy. The dialogues with Spanish native speakers attempting at English are funny.

You were so perfectamente borracho last night I think you must have killèd yourself with drinking. I think even to send a boy after you this morning to knock your door, and find if drinking have not killèd you already.

It’s an untamed flow, a new way of disposing of words. Lowry can write proustian two-pages digressions between brackets. His sentences are long, full of strings of adjectives, propositions. I don’t have the words to describe it, suffice to say it’s different from any other writer. Was he influenced by Virginia Woolf? I’ll leave the analysis of his astounding style to specialists.

On a personal level, several coincidences pulled me toward Under the Volcano. Details kept on bringing back fond memories. M. Laruelle comes from Moselle, like me. I bought my copy during an extraordinary trip to New York with colleagues; I was in a bookstore while they were queuing at Abercrombie and they thought I was nuts to prefer books to shirtless salesmen. I spent my honeymoon in Bristish Columbia, so I loved the descriptions of the region by Hugh and Yvonne when she imagines living there with Geoffrey. And last, but not least, Huston, who directed the film Under the Volcano also directed The Roots of Heaven.

I hope I did better in this billet than in the previous one. Let’s face it, Under the Volcano is a difficult read but please, try it.

PS: I have a special message for the writer Emilie de Turckheim and to the question she left in the comments of my billet Promising French women writers, they say. She wrote “Take Under the Volcano, read it as if you were reading a foreign language, and tell me if it wasn’t worth disturbing the dust on your shelf !”  You are so right. It was more than worth it.

Love X-rayed

January 17, 2013 45 comments

Notre Cœur by Guy de Maupassant.1890 English title Alien Hearts.

Aime-t-on parce qu’on rencontre une fois un être qu’on croit vraiment créé pour soi, ou bien aime-t-on simplement parce qu’on est né avec la faculté d’aimer ? Do we love because one day we meet someone we believe is our soul mate or do we love only because we are born with the capacity to love? (My poor poor translation)

When I read Guy’s review about Alien Hearts, I wanted to read this novel and I was delighted that the other members of my Book Club agreed to read it. Our meeting was scheduled on January 17th, but since I have the flu we postponed and I’m not able to share our discussion with you. Notre Coeur is the last novel written by Maupassant who was already ill at the time.

André Mariolle is a well-educated, affable man who meets with artist friends in different salons in Paris.

Âgé d’environ trente-sept ans, André Mariolle, célibataire et sans profession, assez riche pour vivre à sa guise, voyager et s’offrir même une jolie collection de tableaux modernes et de bibelots anciens, passait pour un garçon d’esprit, un peu fantasque, un peu sauvage, un peu capricieux, un peu dédaigneux, qui posait au solitaire plutôt par orgueil que par timidité. Très bien doué, très fin, mais indolent, apte à tout comprendre et peut-être à faire bien beaucoup de choses, il s’était contenté de jouir de l’existence en spectateur, ou plutôt en amateur. At thirty-seven Andre Mariolle,  unmarried and without profession, rich enough to live as he pleased, to travel where he liked, and to collect a houseful of modern paintings and old porcelain, passed for a witty fellow, rather whimsical, rather wilful, rather superior, who affected solitude for reasons of pride rather than shyness. Talented and astute but lazy, likely to understand everything and even to accomplish something, he had nonetheless been content to enjoy life as a spectator, or rather as an amateur. Translation by Richard Howard (thanks Guy)

 When the book opens, one of his friends suggests that he introduces him to the famous Madame de Burne who runs a trendy salon. André isn’t thrilled by the idea but his friend insists and organizes the meeting. Madame de Burne is a widow and her marriage has been such an awful experience that she doesn’t want to live through that again. As she’s beautiful, witty, intelligent and well-read, men tend to fall in love with her. She’s a flirt, she loves to be adored. She chooses a victim and makes him fall for her but she neither gives her heart or her body.

Cela l’amusait tant de les sentir envahis peu à peu, conquis, dominés par sa puissance invincible de femme, de devenir pour eux l’Unique, l’Idole capricieuse et souveraine ! It amused her so much to watch them being overwhelmed, conquered, dominated by her invincible feminine power, to become for them the Unique, the whimsical and reigning Idol. (My poor poor translation)

Mariolle is far from a womanizer. He’s a bachelor and happy to be:

Il considérait les femmes comme un objet d’utilité pour ceux qui veulent une maison bien tenue et des enfants, comme un objet d’agrément relatif pour ceux qui cherchent des passe-temps d’amour. He considered women as useful objects for those who want a well-tended house and children, as an object of relative pleasure for those who look for love as a hobby. (Again my poor poor translation)

Note the reference to women as objects, no more than useful furniture. I believe that at this stage, Mariolle has more affection for dogs than for women.

André becomes her next target. They spend a lot of time together and develop a close relationship. He resists at first and then gives in. Their relationship is a first for both of them. André is passionately in love while Madame de Burne is fond of him. She loves him as much as she’s capable of love. She offers companionship, stability. He wants the throes of passion. Alien hearts.

I think the English title is very well chosen. Mariolle and Madame de Burne have their own hearts, with limitations and they’re not exactly on the same wavelength. She loves him in a way he finds unacceptable. He loves her in a way she enjoys but can’t reciprocate. How will they go out of this impasse?

It took me a few pages to accept the names of the characters (literally Andrew Cleverdick and Lady Balls) but then I was taken in the flow of Maupassant’s prose. I prefer him to Balzac. He goes straight to the point, doesn’t indulge in emphatic descriptions and pictures lovely scenes:

Se tournant vers lui, elle souleva ses deux bras, par un ravissant geste d’appel, et ils s’étreignirent dans un de ces baisers aux yeux clos qui donnent l’étrange et double sensation du bonheur et du néant. Turning to face him, she raised her two arms in a lovely calling gesture and they embraced in one of those kisses with closed eyes that give the strange and double sensation of happiness and nothingness. (My poor poor translation)

Maupassant has a fine knowledge of the human heart and describes precisely the stages of Mariolle’s love. But he’s quite cynical and the book is the opportunity for him to criticize the women of his time. The generalities about women didn’t appeal to me very much but they are part of that time. Maupassant argues that the high society women are frivolous and not able to love deeply anymore. They are taken in a whirlwind of social events and are shallow in their feelings. (This is in total contradiction with the passion Zola describes in La Curée where Renée falls madly in love). To make a long story short, Mariolle wishes Madame de Burne were Mathilde de la Mole and not a mature woman who knows her own limitations.

I liked Madame de Burne because she’s honest. She doesn’t pretend to love him more than she does; she genuinely cares about him and tries to give him what he needs but can’t. And André is honest too; he wants to be adored, not less. I have to say the ending is as ironic as a Thomas Hardy short story. It was unexpected and yet so plausible.

Apart from the story, there are beautiful descriptions of the Mont Saint-Michel area and of the Fontainebleau forest. I’ve never been there but he makes you want to visit the places at once. This passage reminded me of a painting by Caillebotte Place de l’Europe par temps de pluie.

Caillebotte_Place_Europe_temps_pluie

Le coupé de Mme de Burne roulait au grand trot des deux chevaux sur le pavé de la rue de Grenelle. La grêle d’une dernière giboulée, car on était aux premiers jours d’avril, battait avec bruit la vitre de la voiture et rebondissait sur la chaussée déjà sablée de grains blancs. Les passants, sous leurs parapluies, se hâtaient, la nuque cachée dans le col relevé des pardessus. Après deux semaines de beau temps un odieux froid de fin d’hiver glaçait de nouveau et gerçait la peau. Madame de Burne’s coupé was trotting hastily on the cobblestones of Grenelle Street. The hail of a last April shower was beating noisily against the car’s window and was bouncing on the road already sanded with white grains. Under their umbrellas, the passers-by were hurrying, their nape hidden in their turned up overcoats’ collars. After two weeks of fine weather, a hateful cold of end of winter froze people again and chapped their skin. (My very poor translation. It’s awfully difficult to translate.

The quote is more than tricky to translate, don’t hesitate to leave suggestions to improve it. In English, you say April showers and in French, the corresponding expression is giboulée de mars. So the sentence, la grêle d’une dernière giboulée car on était aux premiers jours d’avril battait avec bruit la vitre de la voiture (literally, the hail from a last April shower –since we were at the beginning of April—was beating against noisily against the car’s window.) doesn’t translate easily, unless you change April into May. But then, you change the chronology of the story. And what about this one!

Qu’allait-elle lui dire ? le mot « aimer » y serait-il ? Jamais elle ne l’avait écrit, jamais elle ne l’avait prononcé sans le faire suivre du mot « bien ». – « Je vous aime bien. » – « Je vous aime beaucoup. » – « Est-ce que je ne vous aime pas ? » Il les connaissait, ces formules qui ne disent rien par ce qu’elles ajoutent. Peut-il exister des proportions quand on subit l’amour ? Peut-on juger si on aime bien ou mal ? Aimer beaucoup, comme c’est aimer peu ! On aime, rien de plus, rien de moins. On ne peut pas compléter cela. What would she say this time? Would she use the verb “love” without spoiling it by adding “very much”? Could there be much or little to add to “love.” if it was really love? Who can say a person loves “well” or “badly,” a lot or a little–were there such proportions in love? A human being loves, nothing more, nothing less, the meaning cannot be completed beyond the word–nothing further can be imagined, nothing said beyond those letters in that order.Translation by Richard Howard

When I read about it in French, I immediately wondered how the translator dealt with this. In French, you have only one verb for love and like. This paragraph is so intertwined with French language, grammar and usages that I genuinely wondered how it would be in English. Thanks to Guy for providing me with a solution to this mystery: he looked for the quote in his English copy of the novel. The meaning is there, undoubtedly, but part of the beauty of the French is gone. For example, Il les connaissait, ces formules qui ne disent rien parce qu’elles ajoutent. Literally, it would be He knew these phrases that mean nothing because they add to it. [the verb Love] It’s not in the translation. I wonder what David Bellos would do with that paragraph. This is where blogging in English adds a new dimension to my reading. Reading and knowing I’ll have to write a billet in English made me notice things about Maupassant’s style that would have remained unnoticed otherwise.

Well, that’s all, folks. I suppose my enthusiasm for this book filters through my billet. It’s a short book and I highly recommend it.

Is that a Frog in your ear? Let’s play with translations

January 3, 2013 42 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet, I’m reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. It’s a fascinating essay about translation. I’m only at the beginning of the book and at a moment, Bellos explains that without prior notice, we aren’t able to recognize a translation from an original text:

In practice, we look at the title page, jacket copy, or copyright page of a book or the byline at the bottom of an article to find out whether or not we are reading a translation. But in the absence of such giveaways, are readers in fact able to distinguish, by the taste on their linguistic and literary tongues, whether a text is “original” or “translated”? Absolutely not. Countless writers have packaged originals as translations and translations as originals and gotten away with it for weeks, months, years, even centuries.

Incidentally, this reminded me of a commercial for Danone that I’ve seen countless times on the French TV when I was a child. In this ad, they were doing a blind test to see if a person could recognise a real Danone among other yoghurts. That’s why I want to play a little game with you: I’m going to choose three quotes and amond those, one is a translation from a French original and the others are English texts. Will you find out which one is the French one? Ready?

Quote 1

“******, one of the loveliest of this race of goddesses, had the splendid type, the flowing lines, the exquisite texture of a woman born a queen. The fair hair that our mother Eve received from the hand of God, the form of an Empress, an air of grandeur, and an august line of profile, with her rural modesty, made every man pause in delight as she passed, like amateurs in front of a Raphael.”

Quote 2

“But what he allowed her, even with the addition of her alimony, was absurdly insufficient. Not that she looked far ahead; she had always felt herself predestined to ease and luxury, and the possibility of a future adapted to her present budget did not occur to her. But she desperately wanted enough money to carry her without anxiety through the coming year.”

 Quote 3

“He had quite intended to effect a grand catastrophe at the end of this drama by reading out the name, he had come to the house with no other thought. But sitting here in cold blood he could not do it. Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him. His quality was such that he could have annihilated them both in the heat of action; but to accomplish the deed by oral poison was beyond the nerve of his enmity.”

Now don’t cheat and search for the answer on the internet. So, which one was originally written in French and why? Leave a comment!

January in Japan and a Victorian Lit coincidence

January 2, 2013 23 comments

January in JapanWe’re in January now and January in Japan has started. This event is organized by Tony, from Tony’s Reading List and he created a dedicated blog for the event. Check it out here. So it’s all about reading Japanese literature this month and I’m in. And a few days ago, I started reading Is That a Fish in You Ear? by David Bellos. It’s an essay about translation. In a chapter where he tries to define what translation is, Bellos lists the different words that are available to the Japanese speaker to say translation:

Here, for example, are the main words that you have to talk about them in Japanese: If the translation we are discussing is complete, we might call it a zen’yaku or a kan’yaku A first translation is a shoyaku. A retranslation is a kaiyaku, and the new translation is a shin’yaku that replaces the old translation, or ky yaku. A translation of a translation is a j yaku. A standard translation that seems unlikely to be replaced is a teiyaku; equally unlikely to be replaced is a mei-yaku, or “celebrated translation.” When a celebrated translator speaks of her own work, she may disparage it as setsuyaku, “clumsy translation,” i.e., “my own translation,” which is not to be confused with a genuinely bad translation, disparaged as a dayaku or an akuyaku. A co-translation is a ky yaku or g yaku; a draft translation, or shitayaku, may be polished through a process of “supervising translation” or kan’yaku, without it becoming a ky yaku or g yaku. Translations are given different names depending on the approach they take to the original: they can be chokuyaku (literally, “direct translation”), chikugoyaku (“word-for-word translation”), iyaku (“sense translation”), taiyaku (“translation presented with the original text on facing pages”), or, in the case of translations of works by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and other popular American writers, chyaku (“translations that are even better than the originals,” an invention and registered trademark of the Academy Press)

 Amazing isn’t it? When I read it, I thought about Tony who mostly reads in translation, loves Japanese and Victorian literatures. The coincidence of me reading a non-fiction book, in January and stumbling upon a quote about the word translation in Japanese is so incredible that in matter of coincidences, Thomas Hardy seems like an amateur. Life surpasses fiction, that’s for sure.

And then I wondered about translating Japanese into English or into French. How do they do it? The way of thinking, of expressing thoughts, of putting reality into words is so different from ours that it must be awfully difficult to give back the substance and the music of the original. It’s probably impossible.

I’m also thinking about using the word akuyaku at the end of the quotes I translate from the French when I don’t have a professional translation available. If I continue like this, I’m going to have my own blogging language full of billets, copinautes and enthusiastic akuyakus. But what do you say for a genuinely bad translation of a translation? I do that when I read a Japanese book in French and then write a billet in English about it. A j akuyaku? Seems like Japanese lacks one more word to say translation! Let’s start this with my upcoming review of N*P by Banana Yoshimoto.

PS: More about Is That a Fish in You Ear? pretty soon; I want to play a game with you.

German Lit month and other bookish things

November 28, 2012 15 comments

December is almost there and I haven’t finished Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum and I won’t be able to participate to German Lit Month this year. I first tried to read Berlin Alexanderplatz by Döblin but I never managed to read it past page 30. The style didn’t appeal to me although it’s a brand new translation. I wish I could read in German but my German is very poor, despite all the years I spent learning it. I never got along with this language; it never came naturally. As often, Romain Gary says it all for me and depicts perfectly what it was for me to study it:

Je venais d’entrer dans ma chambre pour préparer ma leçon d’allemand, langue qui me donnait beaucoup de mal, par le cérémonial rigoureux et empesé de ses circonvolutions grammaticales.Les Enchanteurs. I had just entered my room to study German. This language was difficult for me because of the rigorous and starchy ceremonial of its grammatical circumvolutions.
(My attempt at a translation)

Perhaps it’s also because the only things we heard about Germany – except from the two world wars –was Derrick and car manufacturers. Not exactly glamorous. Anyway, I abandoned Berlin Alexanderplatz to try it later, when I have more brain cells available. I started Grand Hotel instead and I like it a lot so far. I enjoy the characters, the location and reading about M&A in Berlin in the 1920s.

As I’ve had problems concentrating on books, I paid more attention to the radio and magazines around me. I stumbled upon a fantastic article about translations of Noir novels. I was happy to read that new translations are on the way. The Killer Inside Me and The Getaway have already been released. It’s great because the translations from the 1950s or 1960s are outdated. This I already knew. The argot is almost incomprehensible to the modern reader and it sounds very strange. The article I read explains that major countersenses were made in translations (For example gay became, gai –cheerful— instead of homosexuel) and that 24% of the book is missing in the 1966 translation of The Killer Inside Me and so is one third of The Long Good Bye. The reason? Crime fiction wasn’t “real” literature, didn’t deserve excellent translators and books couldn’t be thicker than 250 pages. A crime to this excellent kind of fiction. Well, I’d rather struggle with the English version than read about un bar sans toita bar without a roof– instead of a topless bar. Sounds like Google Translate, doesn’t it? I hope these new translations will help the genre. If you’re interested, you can read the entire article here.

As Christmas approaches, publishers release special version of books, with new covers, new translations or like for Gros Câlin by my beloved Romain Gary, a new edition with a bonus chapter: the initial ending written by Gary and that Gallimard asked him to change. Of course, I had to have it as I wanted to discover that last chapter. It was finished on November 30th, 1973, 39 years ago and it comes from the manuscripts kept at the Musée des Manuscrits.  Alexandre Gary approved of this new edition. Well, I can understand why Gallimard didn’t want to take the chance to publish such an unorthodox ending. It’s crazy like The Breast by Philip Roth. It’s not the first time I see parallels between the two writers and Roth’s recent decision to stop writing reminded me of Gary’s exit. (I had a lot of fun, good bye and thank you)

Talking about Christmas, it’s still time to join us for our Humbook Christmas Gift event. We’ll post about the participants on December 1st. Sorry about all the personal posts I wrote this month instead of proper billets about books. This was just not a good month for reading or writing billets.

PS: What the hell happened to my Link Categories. How did they become Bookmarks?

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin

October 14, 2012 7 comments

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin. 1836

When I loved a book or when I hated one, billets seem to write themselves on their own will. In both cases I have many things to say about a novel that stirred strong emotions. When the time I spent with a book only triggered mild feelings, I have difficulties writing about it without yawning. And that’s where I am now that I’m supposed to write about The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin, which was our Book Club’s choice for October.

If I’m correct, with The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin wrote the first great novel of Russian literature. After his poetry work, he decided it was time to try prose and was inspired to do so after reading Sir Walter Scott. [Note to self: read Scott one of these days, he influenced so many Western writers of the early 19th century.]. I read a French version translated in 1973 by Brice Parrain. The free version available online is a translation by Louis Viardot  which dates back to the 19th century. Turgenev helped him translate Pushkin and Gogol into French. So it’s supposed to be faithful to the original and yet the newer translation sounds better. My question now is whether this new translation isn’t too modern and thus erases the formal atmosphere of the original. I’ll never know.

The story takes places in 1773 when Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov, a young aristocrat is sent into military service in a remote fort near Orenburg, the Belogorsky fortress. During his journey, he is caught in a snow storm and generously compensates with a coat a fellow traveler who leads him to a shelter for the night. Pyoth eventually arrives to the fortress which is actually barely better than a village with a fence around it. He gets acquainted with his commanding officer, the captain Ivan Mironov, his wife Vassilia and his daughter Masha. Pyotr and Masha fall in love but Pyotr’s parents refuse the alliance as they judge that the girl is beneath him. At that moment, the Pugachev rebellion spreads in the region and the fortress is besieged. What will become of the two lovers?

The Pugachev uprising is a historical event that took place in Russia in 1773-1774. Pushkin was interested in it and wrote nonfiction about it. Catherine The Great wad ruling Russia at the time and Pugachev claimed to be emperor Peter III and started a civil war. He raised an army and won several battles against the Empress’s army. Pushkin made an enquiry, visiting people who had lived through the period, collecting stories and building up a novel with this raw material. I suppose that this historical side is the link between Pushkin and Scott. I wasn’t blown away by the book, even if I was eager to know what would happen as it is full of twists and turns. Perhaps the translation impaired my reading and the Russian prose is better than the French. I was into the story but didn’t feel strong emotions; the novel doesn’t linger on psychological insight and is more on the side of a plot-driven novel.

However, side aspects interested me because I learnt details about Russia at the time, in addition to the historical events. Of course, I’d never heard of the Pugachev uprising and the footnotes of my paper edition were useful. I didn’t understand all the details but understood the main events.

Through the pages you can pick up information about the Russian Empire, for example how noblemen estimate their wealth according to the number of souls they own. (And there will be Gogol’s Dead Souls in 1842) I noticed that Pyotr’s personal servant behaves like a slave and yet is surprisingly literate as he can write good letters. I laughed at the description of the French teacher Pyotr had as a child. The man was lazy and more interested in wine and duels than in actual education.

Then some war customs in the 18th century Russia horrified me. Do you know what they did to traitors? Cut their nose and/or their ears. As I write this, I wonder if this custom has something to do with Gogol’s choice for his wandering appendix in The Nose. (1835-1836). And deportation, sorry exile, in Siberia was already fashionable.

The Belogorsky fortress is only a fortress by name; the army there is little trained, Captain Mironov isn’t tight on practicing. They have only one cannon and only dispose of few weapons. It doesn’t give a good image of the imperial army. I thought about Lermontov and the fortress he will describe in A Hero of Our Time (1840).

The captain’s family is nice and loving as if Pushkin wanted to put forward a part of the society which usually remained behind the curtains. The Captain’s Daughter is light but doesn’t hide the atrocities of the Pugachev uprising or the bad shape of the Russian army. For me, this novel is to the Russian literature I’ve read what Ladies’ Paradise is to Zola’s work: a unique piece without darkness, with hope and good people. I probably would have made more of it if I knew better about Russian literature.

Now you’ve read this post and seen different covers for it. But none of the quite matches with the story. My edition has a portrait of Catherine The Greatand the ones I included here are anachronistic.

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In November, our Book Club is reading Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

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