Tag Archives: French

Proust Progress Report 10:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): continuing Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe

I’ve now been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for ten months. One unexpected feature of this project is that Proust and this work keep turning up elsewhere. It’s happened least twice this month.

First, on a recent episode of the ABC’s Conversations podcast, the guest Maira Kalman told Sarah Kanowski about a ‘Proust group’ – eight people who read the whole of ‘Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time‘ over seven years, a year for each volume. They read 50 pages a month, and met monthly to discuss and read aloud to each other:

It put the world in order in all of its madness, and such beauty that it was incomprehensible.

The group has moved on to other things, but will return to Proust because ‘it’s not a good thing not to have him in your life’. You can listen to the whole Conversation at this link (the Proust discussion is at about 2:30 minutes).

Then, in the latest season of the US policier Bosch, the Haitian crime boss is seen reading a suspiciously slender hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu emblazoned on its cover.

I’m reading quite a bit faster than Ms Kalman’s group, though I’m evidently enjoying it a lot less than them. And since I read it in the morning before getting out of bed, I don’t get to flaunt it as a sign that I’m more than just another evil thug.

There’s still a lot about the politics of salons, dinners and at-homes, still a lot about unconventional sexual practices, which I’ve just realised might be meant to be read with an ooh-la-la inflexion, still a lot of laboriously explained wordplay, still a lot of rhapsodic descriptions of scenery. There’s also still a lot that’s left brilliantly unsaid, much silliness, an occasional flash of self-mockery, and then observation that cuts right to the reader’s heart.

There are shocking moments, too. For example, in the middle of some gossip about the aggressively vulgar Mme Verdurin there’s this, about a Princess who had taken up her cause with people of high society (le monde):

Elle avait même prononcé son nom au cours d’une visite de condoléances qu’elle avait faite à Mme Swann après la mort du mari de celle-ci, et lui avait demandé si elle les connaissait. 

She had even mentioned her name [that is, Mme Verdurin’s name] in the course of a visit of condolence which she had paid to Mme. Swann after the death of her husband, and had asked whether she knew them [the Verdurins]. 

Unless I’ve missed something, that throwaway line is the first – and, so far, the only – mention of the death of Swann, who has been so significant in the narrator’s life and whose mortal illness has been achingly observed earlier in the book. Blink and you miss it.

And then, in the midst of an interminable recount of a dinner party, where conversations overlap and intersect like in an Altman movie, the narrator will rhapsodise about a beautiful sunset, will take a letter from his pocket and criticise the quirks of its writer, of will plunge without warning into melancholy reflections on lost loves of youth, like this one which reminds us sharply that the narrator is in terrible health, looking back at the events he describes, and also reminds us of his frankness about sexual maters (sorry, it’s a bit long):

On peut quelquefois retrouver un être, mais non abolir le temps. Tout cela jusqu’au jour imprévu et triste comme une nuit d’hiver, où on ne cherche plus cette jeune fille-là, ni aucune autre, où trouver vous effraierait même. Car on ne se sent plus assez d’attraits pour plaire, ni de force pour aimer. Non pas bien entendu qu’on soit, au sens propre du mot, impuissant. Et quant à aimer, on aimerait plus que jamais. Mais on sent que c’est une trop grande entreprise pour le peu de forces qu’on garde. Le repos éternel a déjà mis des intervalles où l’on ne peut sortir, ni parler. Mettre un pied sur la marche qu’il faut, c’est une réussite comme de ne pas manquer le saut périlleux. Être vu dans cet état par une jeune fille qu’on aime, même si l’on a gardé son visage et tous ses cheveux blonds de jeune homme ! On ne peut plus assumer la fatigue de se mettre au pas de la jeunesse. Tant pis si le désir charnel redouble au lieu de s’amortir ! On fait venir pour lui une femme à qui l’on ne se souciera pas de plaire, qui ne partagera qu’un soir votre couche et qu’on ne reverra jamais.

(page 1422)

 We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time. And so on until the unforeseen day, gloomy as a winter night, when we no longer seek for that girl, or for any other, when to find her would actually frighten us. For we no longer feel that we have sufficient attraction to appeal to her, or strength to love her. Not, of course, that we are, in the strict sense of the word, impotent. And as for loving, we should love her more than ever. But we feel that it is too big an undertaking for the little strength that we have left. Eternal rest has already fixed intervals where we can neither make a move or speak. To set a foot on the necessary step is an achievement like not missing the perilous leap. To be seen in such a state by a girl we love, even if we have kept the features and all the golden locks of our youth! We can no longer undertake the strain of keeping pace with youth. All the worse if our carnal desire increases instead of failing! We procure for it a woman whom we need make no effort to attract, who will share our couch for one night only and whom we shall never see again.

I’m finally just gong with the flow as I read this book, and just today realised that I look forward to my daily 20 minutes or so. I’ve also started looking up some of the unfamiliar words. Sometimes it turns out that the general meaning had been obvious even if the English word hadn’t leapt to mind; at other times, the dictionary translation of a word is no help at all. When aa boy is described as coqueluche de toutes les dames, I could tell from the context that it meant he was the darling of all the ladies, which sure enough is how Moncrieff translates it. But the dictionary tells me that coqueluche is whooping cough. I do my best attempt at a Gallic shrug and read on.

Other times, the dictionary is more fun. As in these from the last week or so, pretty much all in the context of a Thursday evening chez Mme Verdurin:

  • gourgandine hussy
  • gredin crook, wrongdoer
  • astucieusement slickly, diplomatically
  • escarmouche skirmish
  • débandade stampede

That’s it until next month.

Proust Progress Report 9:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): continuing Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe

I’ve been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for nine months now. Part way through this month, I decided to reduce my daily quota of five pages. Three pages were fun, and then the next two were a slog. So I’m now aiming for three pages a day, and expect to be reading Proust – still mostly without a dictionary and still with limited comprehension – well into 2021.

At about page 1320 I nearly threw in the towel – exasperated by the interminable salons and garden parties, the meticulous charting of the rivalries of various duchesses, princesses and other ladies, the intrigues of the idle rich and their shifting allegiances related to the Dreyfus case and antisemitism. If I wanted to read something in French, maybe I should shift to Montaigne … or Jules Verne, where something happens.

Then the narrator goes for a second time to the seaside resort of Balbec, and after an encounter with the manager whose malapropisms amuse him enormously and are carefully explained, he is knocked sideways by memories of his beloved grandmother, who was his companion on his earlier visit. He feels her loss intensely, and is stupefied by grief. Worse, a number of people – workers at the hotel, his mother, his servant Françoise – tell him of sacrifices his grandmother was making for him at a time when he was oblivious to her suffering. This whole section is just brilliant. Though Proust is as much the meticulous analyst of emotional processes as ever, here it feels like vivisection.

And then we’re back with tales of lust and disgust and linguistic oddities. The early parts of this book dealt with the world of Sodom, of male homosexuality. At Balbec, in the part I’m now reading, the narrator becomes obsessed with Gomorrah, the world of Lesbians In particular, he suspects Albertine of Sapphic desires. So far, there’s nothing more graphic than public kissing, tittering and indecent shouts:

elles passèrent enlacées, ne cessant de s’embrasser, et … poussèrent des gloussements, des rires, des cris indécents.

(page 1397)

This must be the kind of thing that gave French literature a reputation for being as good as pornographic in the early 20th century.

I the middle of all this there are a couple of pages where the narrator tells us about a couple of sisters from the country who are employed as messengers by a wealthy woman at the hotel. Having somehow – he doesn’t explain how – struck up a friendship with them, he gives us a blow by blow account of a conversation in his bedroom one morning where they mock him mercilessly. My impression is that a native French speaker would find great joy in their rustic language, but I enjoyed it a lot without that advantage. These two women, Céleste and Marie, are full of vitality and have no respect at all for the narrator’s poor health, social ambitions or writerly distinction. There have been other moments where Proust has taken the mickey, but this one shines.

I’m soldiering on.

Proust Progress Report 8: The Cities of the Plain

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): The last 100 pages of Book 3, Le côté de Guermantes, seconde partie, and the first 80 pages of Book 4, Sodom et Gomorrhe

I’m reading À la recherche du temps perdu five pages a day, mostly without a dictionary and therefore with limited comprehension. Currently, as I’m making my way through seemingly endless accounts of more or less random encounters at a range of social events, I’m quite enjoying it moment by moment, but if there’s a forest I can’t see it for the trees.

The main thing in the pages that I’ve read this month is that M de Charlus has come into the foreground. He’s the close relative of the dazzling Oriane de Guermantes who visited the narrator’s bedroom at Balbec in the second volume, and creepily stroked his chin the next day (as I mentioned in my third progress report, here).

In Le côté de Guermantes, the narrator is invited to M. de Charlus’ home late at night, where he is taken completely by surprise by an angry tirade. Thinking the M. de Charlus is accusing him of slandering him, the narrator swears that he has never said anything that could have offended him. What follows, though deranged, is a fabulous model for how to respond to a faux apology of the ‘I apologise for any offence my remarks may unintentionally have given’ kind:

— Et qui vous dit que j’en suis offensé?» s’écria-t-il avec fureur … «Pensez-vous qu’il soit à votre portée de m’offenser? Vous ne savez donc pas à qui vous parlez? Croyez-vous que la salive envenimée de cinq cents petits bonshommes de vos amis, juchés les uns sur les autres, arriverait à baver seulement jusqu’à mes augustes orteils?»

(Page 1173)

In English (from this link, with one or two changes by me):

‘And who told you I am offended?’ he screamed in fury … ‘Do you suppose that it is within your power to offend me? So you do not know to whom you are speaking? Do you imagine that the envenomed spittle of five hundred little gentlemen like you and your friends heaped one upon another would manage to slobber even as high as my august toes.’

Sodome et Gomorrhe (usually called The Cities of the Plain in English, primly avoiding the suggestion of sodomy, though that suggestion is clearly intended by Proust) gets off to a riveting, though still Proustily longwinded, start with a revelation about M. de Charlus. A 21st century reader will have gathered, or at least suspected, that M. de Charlus is homosexual well before now. But it comes as a revelation to our narrator when he sees him in an erotic encounter – well, he hears the heavy-duty erotic bit through a wall; what he sees is a weird bit of strutting and flouncing that precedes it.

After this revelatory moment, Proust goes off on a mini-essay about homosexuality. Apart from conflating homosexuality and gender fluidity, his reflections about the psychic damage done by the need for secrecy has aged amazingly well. He draws a parallel to Jews and antisemitism: in both cases it’s possible to ‘pass’ and man do. He describes the way internalised oppression can lead men (so far he’s talking almost entirely about men) who are in the closet to penalise and exclude anyone who is openly gay. While it’s not clear whether he thinks Zionism is a good idea, he’s emphatically against the idea of a movement to rebuild Sodom as a homeland for ‘Sodomites’, because:

Or, à peine arrivés, les sodomistes quitteraient la ville pour ne pas avoir l’air d’en être, prendraient femme, entretiendraient des maîtresses dans d’autres cités où ils trouveraient d’ailleurs toutes les distractions convenables. Ils n’iraient à Sodome que les jours de suprême nécessité, quand leur ville serait vide, par ces temps où la faim fait sortir le loup du bois, c’est-à-dire que tout se passerait en somme comme à Londres, à Berlin, à Rome, à Pétrograd ou à Paris.

In English:

For, no sooner had they arrived than the Sodomites would leave the town so as not to have the appearance of belonging to it, would take wives, keep mistresses in other cities where they would find, incidentally, every diversion that appealed to them. They would go to Sodom only on days of supreme necessity, when their own town was empty, in the times when hunger drives the wolf from the woods; in other words, everything would go on very much as it does to-day in London, Berlin, Rome, Petrograd or Paris.

That gives you some idea of the delicate path he treads between serious and interesting analysis and satirical barbs.

But then he goes to another party and we’re back on the subject of the glittering high society that he partly despises and mostly is entranced by. In his newly illuminated state, he notices and remarks wickedly on a number of homoerotic currents. For instance, M. de Charlus makes a big fuss of the woman who is his brother-in-law’s latest mistress, even though everyone would expect him to snub her. The reason for this unexpected behaviour is not, as the narrator’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup, back in town for the evening, is convinced, because his uncle Palamède is a womaniser, but because, as the narrator has told us, the woman in question has two strikingly beautiful sons, whose beauty is reflected in their mother’s.

There’s more. There’s lots more. There are amusingly vicious character sketches, lyrical descriptive passages, surprising asides about the nature of memory, insights into human folly sharp observations about Dreyfusards and antisemitism and, just once so far, a direct address to the reader who the narrator (correctly) assumes wants him to cut to the chase and get on with the story. I’m once again reassured by Clive James’s remark that having read À la recherche in French he then read it in English to find out what he’d read.

Proust Progress Report 7: more about the Guermantes

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Le côté de Guermantes, seconde partie (originally published as a separate volume in 1921)

I’ve just realised with a shock that it’s time for my monthly Proust Progress Report.

A month ago I ended my post with the hope that the plot, such as it is, might move along soon. The opening page of the first chapter of Le côté de Guermantes Part Two offers hope, beginning with a plot summary:

Maladie de ma grand-mère. – Maladie de Bergotte.
Le duc et le médecin. – Déclin de ma grand-mère. – Sa mort.

In English:

My grandmother’s illness. – Bergotte’s illness.
The duke and the doctor. – My grandmother’s decline. – Her death.

What follows is a moving account of the final illness and death of the narrator’s beloved grandmother. Proust’s sharp, satirical edge is still there in his accounts of the various doctors and visitors of the sick. In particular, this intensely felt episode doesn’t overshadow completely the main concern of this book (or two books, depending on how you count them), which is the narrator’s relationships with the aristocratic Guermantes family and his acerbic commentary on them.

Albertine, with whom he fell into unrequited love in the second book but who no longer tugs at his heartstrings, turns up when he’s sick with grief and it seems she is now in love with him. I may have misinterpreted Proust’s opaque narrative at this point, but I think they have it off, and remain completely at cross purposes about what it means. The plot is definitely thickening.

But then we move on to the main game, and the forward impetus is lost. The duchess Mme de Guermantes, Oriane, with whom the narrator has also been in unrequited love and who also no longer pulls at his heartstrings – invites him to dinner. The plot of the next 100 pages or so can be summarised as: the narrator goes to dinner with a bunch of aristocrats.

The narrator is pretty much a fly on the wall. Every now and then someone speaks to him and he gets a word in edgewise, but he gives us a meticulous, detailed account of the witty, snarky conversation, so that the various personalities emerge sharply. Embedded in the narrative are essays on aspects of the culture and politics of the salons and of the aristocratic class.

When the narrator arrives at the Guermantes home – which is just across the courtyard from his own, though separated by a great social distance – he is greeted by the duke himself, who happily grants him his wish to be left alone in a room with some paintings by the great Elstir. When he tears himself away from the paintings (having given us a richly evocative analysis of them) he realises an hour has passed. A servant takes him to where the other guests are waiting to start dinner. The duke, aware as are all the guests that the narrator has the lowest status of anyone in the room, is at great pains not to make him feel he has inconvenienced anyone. So even though they have all been waiting to eat for at least forty minutes, he makes a point of introducing him to everyone individually, beginning with the Princess, the noblest person in the room. Only after a decent interval does he signal diffidently to the servants to announce dinner.

That tiny sequence is the occasion for a complex meditation on what you might call noblesse oblige, though that’s not a phrase Proust uses. These people who are in the highest social rank will never make a point of their status. In fact the way they demonstrate their superiority is by treating their inferiors (that is to say, just about everyone) with elaborate deference. It’s hard to explain the pleasure given by this essay – and a number of others, such as one on Oriane’s wit and social eminence. It’s something to do with paradox, and the tension between the infectious enthusiasm that Proust has for these people and his clear-eyed perception that they lead largely idle and trivial lives, and generally have appalling politics. And it’s laid out in sentences that you can get lost in, and then miraculously found again.

I’ve still got about a hundred pages of this book to go. The narrator has an appointment to meet the creepy M Charlus – Oriane’s brother – once he can make his excuses from the dinner, and that appointment hangs over the glittering dinner like a livid storm cloud. The title of next volume is Sodome et Gomorrhe, which raises the possibility that things are going to get a lot spicier.

Proust Progress Report 6: halfway through the third book

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

Exactly six months into reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and I’m halfway through the third volume. I have now finished the first part of Le côté de Guermantes, which was originally published separately.

If you’re looking for sizzling action, this book isn’t for you. The narrator has dinner with the military friends of his friend de Saint-Loup and is fascinated by military theory. He meets de Saint-Loup’s mistress, whom everyone except de Saint-Loup knows is a prostitute. He attends a salon where people are variously snobbish, uncouth, bien-pensant, antisemitic, evasively diplomatic and pretentious. He goes for a walk with the extremely creepy and probably predatory M de Charlus. At home, he finds his beloved grandmother is sick. He goes out for a walk with her and she has a heart attack.

Much of it is wryly funny, and there is one belly laugh. At least, I laughed out loud when after about twenty pages in which the narrator is a fly on the wall at the salon, the object of his infatuation who has not deigned to utter a single word to him when introduced, finally – after the narrator’s dear friend Robert de Saint-Loup whispers in her ear – turns to him and says, ‘Comment allez-vous?‘ Your mileage may vary.

I think of Proust as the Anti-Twitter: no proposition goes unquestioned, one’s immediate interpretation of a word or action is more likely than not to turn into its opposite when subjected to sustained, complex explication. No one ever gives a straight answer to a question. We know that Proust and his narrator are dreyfusards*, and the anti-dreyfusard characters are mocked mercilessly, but there’s no sign of Twitter’s door-slamming outrage. And yet Patrick Alexander, author of a guide to Proust, is rewriting In Search of Lost Time (in English) as a series of tweets. Sadly, my computer wouldn’t go far enough back in his Twitter timeline to give me his version of what I’ve just read, so I can’t tell whether he’s making a point of the impossibility of the project.

It turns out, though, that skimming @ProustTweet‘s timeline gave me hope that the endless conversations in this volume are about to give way to something a little more active. The account of grand-mère’s heart attack holds out that promise as well: it happens offstage while the narrator is paying attention to a silly conversation between the ‘marquise’ who attends the public toilets and a caretaker of the gardens they are visiting. The important things, it seems to be suggested, happen when the narrative is engaged elsewhere.


* Proust assumes that his readers are familiar with the Dreyfus Affair, which Wikipedia informs me divided the republic from 1894 to 1906. In essence a Jewish army officer was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for treason, and even when evidence of his innocence came to light the high-ranking office who had actually committed the treason was found not guilty and Dreyfus was again, against the evidence, and went to prison. In Proust, and I assume in the actual world, conservative, Catholic, antisemitic people of the upper classes tended to be antidreyfusards.

Proust Progress Report 5: Beginning the third volume

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), deuxième partie, ‘Nom de pays: le pays’; began Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

As promised in my last report, I am now well under way in the third book, English title The Guermantes Way.

The last 60 pages of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs got quite sexy, with our poor narrator being sadly disappointed in what he had thought was going to be a long-yearned-for erotic rendezvous, in a way that not even his ingenious rationalisations could make less humiliating. But he bounced back and finished the book in good spirits.

There’s a scene in that book where an older man visits our narrator’s bedroom at night, lends him a book and paces about as if expecting something. The only way I can make sense of the scene is that the older man is hoping for a sexual encounter but goes away disappointed – to all of which the narrator is oblivious. Since absolutely no sexual overture is explicit it made me wonder how much I miss that goes unsaid elsewhere. And as I type those words I realise that the narrator’s disappointment in Albertine’s bedroom (mentioned in the previous paragraph) becomes even funnier in the light of his own unwitting rejection of the older gentleman. Incidentally, one of the common phrases in the book, is ‘à mon/son insu‘, which I guess translates as ‘unwittingly’.

I had thought that in this monthly report I’d write about whatever I happened to have just read. But what I’ve just read is two pages in which the narrator’s aristocratic army-officer friend Robert de Saint-Loup expands on the idea that there is an aesthetic side to the art of war, so maybe I’ll go back a bit.

On New Year’s Eve, in one of those conversations people who see each other once a year ask each other what we’ve been doing, I said I’m reading Proust. Behold, my interlocutor had read Swann’s Way with his book group, and has a friend who has read the whole of À la recherche in English and is now reading it in French. He quoted that friend as saying that in Proust what is not said matters more than what is said – a paradox, given that so much is said. There’s a marvellous moment in my reading since that conversation that exemplifies the point.

The narrator has gone to visit Robert de Saint-Loup at his garrison in the hope of procuring an introduction to Saint-Loup’s beautiful aunt, the object of the narrator’s stalkerish infatuation, the duchess de Guermantes. As it turns out, de Saint-Loup invites the narrator to stay with him in his quarters at the garrison. Over dinner, the narrator recognises a striking family likeness between his friend and his friend’s aunt. The emotional force of this recognition must have shown in his face because:

Robert, sans en connaître les causes, était touché de mon attendrissement.

https://ebooks-bnr.com/ebooks/html/proust_a_la_recherche_du_temps_perdu_3_cote_guermantes.htm

In English:

Robert, unaware of its cause, was touched by my show of affection.

From http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300411h.html, modified by me.

Things move on from there:

Celui-ci d’ailleurs s’augmentait du bien-être causé par la chaleur du feu et par le vin de Champagne qui faisait perler en même temps des gouttes de sueur à mon front et des larmes à mes yeux ; il arrosait des perdreaux ; je les mangeais avec l’émerveillement d’un profane, de quelque sorte qu’il soit, quand il trouve dans une certaine vie qu’il ne connaissait pas ce qu’il avait cru qu’elle excluait (par exemple d’un libre penseur faisant un dîner exquis dans un presbytère).

In English:

My affection was moreover increased by the comfortable heat of the fire and by the champagne which at the same time brought beads of sweat to my brow and tears to my eyes; it washed down the partridges; I ate mine in a state of wonder like some sort of profane person who finds in a form of life with which he is not familiar what he has supposed that form of life to exclude—the wonder, for instance, of a free-thinker who sits down to an exquisitely cooked dinner in a presbytery.

So far so good: during an extended tête-à-tête in his friend’s room, the narrator looks at his friend with an expression that properly would be directed to the women he is infatuated with. He sees that his friend mistakenly thinks the tender look is meant for him. The narrator is filled with a sense of wellbeing, is experiencing delights such as he had never imagined. What could happen next? Well:

Et le lendemain matin en m’éveillant, j’allai jeter par la fenêtre de Saint-Loup qui, située fort haut, donnait sur tout le pays, un regard de curiosité pour faire la connaissance de ma voisine, la campagne, que je n’avais pas pu apercevoir la veille, parce que j’étais arrivé trop tard, à l’heure où elle dormait déjà dans la nuit. 

In English:

And next morning, when I awoke, I went to cast from Saint-Loup’s window, which being at a great height overlooked the whole countryside, a curious look to make the acquaintance of my new neighbour, the landscape which I had not been able to distinguish the day before, having arrived too late, at an hour when it was already sleeping in the night.

So we’ll never know what happened between all those feelings of growing intimacy and waking up next morning. I won’t quote any more of this passage, as there’s an extended description of the neighbouring hill. But the narrator is filled with a new joy as the day progresses, and begins to visit Saint-Loup in his room regularly, and when Saint-Loup and he dine with Saint-Loup’s friends, they hang on each other’s words shamelessly – and our weedy, literary narrator becomes fascinated with the world of military manoeuvres and military history, the world of Saint-Loup.

What would I have thought of all this if I hadn’t been told that what’s unsaid is more important that what is said, and that this book is a classic queer masterpiece? Pretty much what I make of it now, I expect.

In a month’s time I expect to have finished the première partie of Le côté de Guermantes, and I’ll tell you if our narrator ever does get to meet the duchess … and if he cares.

Bête/beast du/of the marais/Camargue

Xavier-Marie Bonnot, The Beast of the Camargue (translation Ian Monk, Maclehose Press 2009)

Maybe I’m turning into a horrible person, because here’s yet another book I’ve laid aside, this time just before page 100. It was a big hit in France, so it might be that I’ve lost all sense of what makes a good read. But it’s a murder mystery, and very little had happened by the time I parted company from it – the body of an extremely rich man who has been missing for a fortnight or so has finally been found in a swamp, so it feels as if the story might be about to start. An unnamed man who is probably a psychopathic serial killer has made a couple of lacklustre appearances. There’s a cop with enough idiosyncrasies to make him interesting, a romance that will probably stay unconsummated, and a beautiful, rich widow with something she’s not telling. There are English-speaking tourists, wandering with their cameras through places where evil lurks. Oh, and there are hints that the evil might be in some way occult. In other words, it’s familiar territory, and there evidently wasn’t enough in it to engage this reader.

Two things kept me reading even this long: the setting and the translation. The action takes place in parts of France I visited last year (as one of those gormless tourists), and I was hoping there would be pleasure in revisiting them – but the sense of place, it turns out, isn’t very strong. I was fascinated by the translation. When Gregory Rabassa was working on his translation of A Hundred Years of Solitude, an interviewer asked him if he knew enough Spanish for the task. He answered, ‘The question isn’t whether I know enough Spanish, the question is do I know enough English.’ I have no doubt that Ian Monk’s French was well up to the challenge of translating this book, much much better than mine I expect, but his English is disconcertingly uncomfortable in its own skin. A quick google just now turned up this sentence from the original:

‘Sortez du problème, les gars. Allez fourrer votre nez là où personne n’irait jamais le fourrer.’

As luck would have it, I knew where to find the English version (on page 83):

‘Move outside the problem, lads. Go and stick your nose where no one else would stick it.’

The French, advice that a wise old cop once gave our hero, looks to be casual speech, but the English is oddly stilted. Sortir is ordinary language for leaving or going out (of something), but who says, Move outside (something)? And how could anyone else stick the lads’ nose anywhere? How about:

Step outside of the problem, lads. Stick your nose in places where no one else would think of sticking theirs.

That’s just nit-picking, of course. My eye glided over that sentence when I read it in context. I noticed its awkwardness now because it’s the only sentence from the book I’ve seen the French for, so it’s the one I was stuck with to consider here. But the cumulative effect of such small misfires is both fascinating (as in, I’d love to study this closely because it shows a lot about language) and unpleasant (as in, I keep being jolted ever so slightly out of the world of the story).

Actually, I think Ian Monk is probably a very good translator. I spent maybe ten minutes playing around with that one sentence. He had to earn a living. Translators aren’t exactly paid at merchant banker rates, and you do what you can in the time you’ve got.

Anyhow, Commandant Michel de Palma may be the French reading public’s equivalent of John Rebus, but he couldn’t keep me reading past page 98.

Les voies d’Anubis

Tim Powers, Les voies d’Anubis (J’ai Lu 1986; translated by Gérard Lebec from ‘l’americain’, original title The Anubis Gates)

2290020117When this turned up on BookMooch en français I decided to seize the chance to brush up my French at the same time as crossing an Apollo Award winner off my TBR list. The plan worked out excellent well. The novel is a fabulously over the top fantasy, like an extended episode of Doctor Who, only there’s no Doctor to help out when the quantum mechanical (or in fact magical) time travel to the England of Coleridge and Byron, and beyond, goes horribly wrong. Or it could be likened to a Cairo Jim adventure with an organisation very like the Old Relics Society and a time-travelling Eng Lit scholar cum pseudo-werewolf in place of Geoffrey McSkimming’s poet-archaeologist: it’s got Egyptian gods, animated statues, history mysteries, but sadly no animal companions. It’s a vastly inventive, rip-roaring picaresque adventure, with a lovely array of grotesque villains, some almost Shakespearean crossdressing, and much derring-do.

Reading it in translation reintroduced me to the childhood pleasures of incomplete comprehension, guessing meaning from the context, sometimes with a fair degree of confidence, occasionally looking a word up, every now and then having a word’s meaning emerge into clarity with repeated appearances, and even – once in a while – knowing what a word means without knowing the English for it (I had to look up embarcadère, for instance, to translate it as landing stage, but I knew what structure it referred to without benefit of dictionary).  I could just about feel my neurons reconfiguring.

The other pleasure came from pace: I was forced to read slowly, so slowly that by the time I’d finished the prologue and the first chapter, I felt as if I’d read a whole book, so in effect I got four or more books for the price of one. This effect was helped, of course, by the episodic structure.

I probably missed a lot, though I did laugh out loud more than once, which means I got at least some of the jokes, and that’s supposed to be the hardest thing when you’re reading in a language you’re not fluent in. In fact, there was at least one joke that might easily have been tailor-made for my situation: a character says at one point ‘Psaume en chemise sans cote de quarte?’ and I wracked my brains (‘Psalm in shirt on side of quad?’ Really?), only to be relieved five lines later when the character articulates carefully, ‘Sauté en mille six cent quatre-vingt-quatre’ (‘Jumped to 1684?’ which is simply reiterating incredulously what someone else has just said). [I just Looked Inside This Book at Amazon, and found that the original poorly articulated line was ‘Jutmoop sidskeen eftee door?’, gibberish which I don’t think would create the same puzzlement in someone who knew English as well as I know French.]

If this had been a ‘serious’ literary work and I’d enjoyed it this much, I’d probably feel that I ought now to read it in the original. While I now have Tim Powers on my list of authors to look out for, I’m happy with one reading of this, happy to recommend it as a constantly surprising and delighting romp either in French or in English.