Tag Archives: Francis Boutle Publishers

Review: Maria-Mercè Marçal, The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Translated from Catalan by Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2020)

This is a very different kind of novel from those I normally read for Translating Women, and will be a treat for anyone who enjoys creative biographies. The Passion According to Renée Vivien represents a literary project to uncover the hidden life of Renée Vivien (the literary pseudonym of Pauline Tarn).  Renée Vivien was an English-born poet who wrote in French in the early twentieth century, whose poems are particularly notable for their explicit revelations about her amorous relationships with women, who lived in a “palace of pain” and longed to escape from life, and whose legacy has been “demolished by the victorious blows of mediocrity and stupidity.” Originally published almost thirty years ago, The Passion According to Renée Vivien is a ground-breaking work in Catalan literature, taking on the traditional “academy” from the marginalised perspective of a woman writer – and not just a woman, but a woman who openly proclaims her love for other women, a poet whose name “shines … with its own light amid a tradition that certainly existed but only underground, the victim of invisibility and silence.”

Herself an openly feminist and lesbian author and activist, Maria-Mercè Marçal became obsessed with the idea of lifting Renée Vivien out of the exile which is “the common lot of poets” – an obsession that she transfers to one of the main active voices of the text, Sara T. The decision to create fictional biographers is a clever one: this is no dry, objective account of Vivien’s life, but rather a vivid, impassioned quest to uncover her mystery and her legacy. The Passion According to Renée Vivien is full of beautiful aphorisms (“After all, perhaps glory is just a posthumous form of love: the only form with the capacity to raise the dead”), and Marçal sets out to give voice to an overlooked figure from recent literary history by writing a book about “women who, like me, yearned for deep-rooted changes in the world.”

This polyphonic text is part documentary, part biography and part love song to its subject. We discover much of Pauline’s life through the eyes of Sara T., a 1980s Catalan documentary maker who becomes obsessed with giving voice to Pauline, and in particular Sara reveals the difficulties of piecing together all the details of Pauline’s life to make a coherent whole. The other main source of information is Salomon R., a museum curator, and we also have letters from Pauline’s lovers, as well as a more objective and omniscient third-person narrator from Pauline’s own era, through whom we gain insight into her personal circumstances through observations of her entourage and conversations between courtesans. Though in some ways contemporary readers might find the main narrative’s milieu less recognisable because of the relatively privileged lifestyle it details (for example, one character’s great dilemma regards her “unresolved doubts” about an ivory statue in a museum, and Renée herself “had the fortune to be able to torment herself with only metaphysical problems”), the timeless and universal qualities of love, loss, desire, jealousy, sorrow and despair prevent the text from feeling dated or unrelatable.

My over-riding impression of the translation was that much time, energy and (if I may borrow from the title) passion has gone into making this work available to English-speaking audiences: it’s clear just how much both translators care about this project. The writing is lyrical and eloquent, almost old-fashioned in its language choices, but not dated. It evokes a time of formality in turn-of-the-century Paris, and manages to sustain a formal and authentically period-appropriate narrative style throughout its 350 pages. This formality is also partly owing to a delicate attention on the part of the translators to favour terms that have French etymology, reflecting through this choice Pauline’s own writing “against” English. In the whole book there were only a couple of instances when I thought something more modern might have crept in, but this may well be my own ignorance of when expressions became current in English – or it may reflect potential anachronisms in the original Catalan. Overall, there was something very nostalgic for me about reading this book: its turn-of-the-century style and references to 19th-century writers and culture took me back to my years studying French literature, and locating much of the narrative in Paris is always a way to tug at the nostalgia for me. All it takes is the street names and in my mind I’m already there – so my only regret in that sense was the anglicisation of some of the street names – a number of the more recognisable ones remain in French, but elsewhere there are references to, for example, “Vendôme Square” and “the boulevard of Paix”, which for me snapped the nostalgic connection. But that’s an entirely personal reaction, and for readers who don’t know French – or don’t know Paris – then this might, conversely, bring them closer to the text, particularly given the strategies of writing “against” English that I mentioned earlier.

I’ll leave you with a little scoop that for me was the most fascinating thing about this novel: thanks to an interview with translator Helena Buffery (which you can read here in full next week), I discovered that the final chapter of The Passion According to Renée Vivien is made up entirely of fragments of Renée Vivien’s poetry. This section is breathtakingly beautiful, and the book is worth reading for this alone – not only its beauty, but also the skill of weaving together the (French) fragments to make a narrative (in Catalan) that is now translated into English. Within the fictional biographer’s task, we are told that “her verses were the autobiography of her soul”, and so it feels appropriate to give the last word to Renée Vivien, via Marçal, in a rendering by Buffery and McNerney:

“I am of those laid low by light. Under the implacable face of day, memories devour me like abject vermin. And at dusk when I hear the groaning of the unfortunate land, I have felt in excess the horror of having been born. Who, then, will bring me the hemlock in their hands? Night slithers, slowly and subtly, toward the opal of the hill. The soul resuscitates in the tenebrous shadows.

… I will hurl myself into your eyes, where sadness rhapsodizes.

… Here, words do not hurt, Let us keep the doors closed. Souls without hope have the solitary pride of islands.”

Review copy of The Passion According to Renée Vivien provided by Francis Boutle Publishers

 

 

Writing between two worlds: Eva Moreda, Home is Like a Different Time

Translated from Galician by Craig Patterson

In Home is like a different time, Galician writer Eva Moreda delves into the lived experience of emigrant communities in London in the 1960s and 70s. She writes from the perspective of Gelo, a recently widowed young(ish) man who has travelled from his home town of Veiga in Galicia to seek a different life in London, leaving his home – and with it his former life – suspended in his memory, exactly as it was when he left: “To go to London, Hamburg, even Madrid or Barcelona, as some people go, was to really go: to be resigned to not seeing Veiga for a year or two. It was knowing that in your mind, Veiga was going to be frozen in that same moment when you left.” In the original, the title is Veiga is like a different time (A Veiga é como un tempo distinto), and the more general “home” is well chosen for the translation, opening up the narrative to invite a more universal connection and empathy. Veiga features throughout as distant yet always remembered, a place to leave but one which is never truly left behind. Moreda’s prose is limpid and precise, and this is delicately rendered in the translation: despite an occasional overly literal term or grammatical slip, Craig Patterson communicates sensitively the undertones of longing and belonging, as well as the numerous “unsaids” so crucial to the tone of the work. Patterson resists the temptation to over-explain, showing a discreet understanding of Moreda’s uncluttered style.

Gelo addresses his narrative to a second-person “you”; this “you” is Elisa, a young woman from Veiga who Gelo meets again in London and whose life intersects with his in ways that contribute to the wistfulness and longing that pervade the text. Veiga is described as frozen in time; Elisa describes its traditions and expectations when she acknowledges that “My mum sees me working in a shop, my granny tidying up and her doing the accounts. It’s all she dreams about and hopes from life”. England is represented, then, not only as a different place, but also as a different time – in terms of years elapsed, but also a time of different attitudes and possibilities, “a country where there were no haberdasheries or families of three generations of women who lived in the same house.” Apart from one chapter which returns to the “different time” in Galicia to explain how Gelo met Elisa, all the chapters in the book take a London place name as their title. This not only shows the various locations that were significant for Galician emigrants at the time the narrative is set – places that define the characters who inhabit them, and the different versions of themselves that those characters embody in each place – but also traces Gelo and Elisa’s path through London. Both of them leave Veiga in search of something different, and both end up by turn finding and losing themselves in their new lives.

Gelo takes a job as a waiter, and the hostility towards emigrants is palpable even when not overt: Gelo’s name is rejected outright by his boss (“Gelo” sounds too much like “hello”; his full name, Angelo, is too aberrant, for how could the boss call a man Angel?) Eventually Gelo’s boss decides that he will be called Martin (a calque of his surname, Martiño), and so Gelo’s dual life begins: Gelo is “left behind somewhere, in a different time”, while Martin is swallowed up by his life in London (“I became more and more Martin and less and less Gelo”). Identity is not chosen but imposed, and this duality and eclipsing of identity is echoed elsewhere: Elisa finds work under the name “Liz”, and is employed by Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street, despite the manager’s reservations about “how the very middle-class customers of that establishment would take your imperfect accent, your at times intuitive English.” If Gelo’s life is full of unfulfilled desires and dreams, then Elisa’s is even more so: there are hints of foreboding early on, references to her eventual disappearance, and details of how she slips away from Gelo as her dreams retreat further away from her, until eventually Gelo acknowledges that “I knew that my Elisa no longer existed.” London is a place of opportunity and possibility, its streets bursting with colour and music, its enclaves brimming with camaraderie, but it is also a place that can strip away Elisa’s dreams, community, and sense of identity, as she moves through increasingly hardened incarnations of herself. Gelo is the only one who still sees “his” Elisa, and who never gives up on her, and in this sense the story is as much about the fleeting, flitting Elisa as it is about Gelo himself.

As we follow Gelo through London, “that immensity, that mass, that gravitating mass that ended up swallowing you as it twists and turns, so everything ends up becoming less important, less than in Veiga”, Gelo in turn follows Elisa – always moving, always elusive, shifting as much in identity as in destination: “The Liz from Oxford Street […] who sold skirts and perfumes in Marks and Spencer in the centre of London, who liked to go to Brighton in the summer. That Liz was alive just three years before. In the days of Bethnal Green, nobody knew where she was. Today, nobody knows where Elisa from Bethnal Green is.” Elisa’s disappearance is explained towards the end of the novel – as usual, I shall avoid spoilers, and restrict myself to saying that all the nostalgia and desire gathers and bursts out in the revelation of Elisa’s fate.

Though Gelo has both a deceased wife and, eventually, a new one, the love story in Home is like a different time is about neither of these women, but rather about the one who is never his, the one in whom he sees himself reflected, the one who always exists in a “different time.” Moreda brings to life the streets and sounds of London in the 1960s and 70s, but above all gives voice to the difficulty of being caught between two worlds, languages and identities. This beautifully observed short novel is meditative and yearning, a hymn to the resilience of the human spirit and to the lengths we will go to for love, in whatever form that love may take.

Review copy of Home is like a different time provided by Francis Boutle Publishers.