Tag Archives: French literature

REVIEW: Esther Kinsky, GROVE and Jean Frémon, NATIVITY

Esther Kinsky, Grove, translated from German by Caroline Schmidt (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Grove is a story of mourning: the narrator has recently lost her love, and travels to places both familiar and unfamiliar to her in order to work her way through her grief. She visits cemeteries and attends unnoticed the funerals of strangers, observing death and the mourning of others as a way to cope with the pain of her own loss. She notices grief where it might previously have gone unobserved, underlining how loss can change everything in our perspective on the world. The narrator becomes herself like the herons she observes at one cemetery: “guardians of the dead who kept watch at a proper distance, unobserved attendants to the gathered mourners.”

This kind of voyeuristic introspection (I know that sounds weird – it’s the best description I can come up with) wasn’t the highlight for me, though; I responded much more viscerally to the narrator’s intermittent references to her own mourning. There are plaintive comments that describe grief vividly and yet without melodrama: it is acknowledged that there is “no consolation in bereavement”, and that an insurmountable loss makes things that once were simple seem impossible: “Each morning I had to learn everything anew”. Similarly, the instinctive connection between memory and objects is sensitively detailed (“For years these memories were stored somewhere in my head and now they surged up only because here, at this place, I came across the missing negatives that must have been tucked away in the unused side pocket for a long time”), as is the way in which memory changes over time: “As time passed after my father’s death, he became even smaller in my mental picture of this walk along the river, and his suitcase ever larger, into which he had stuffed who knows how much of his life that he had never found a name for.” These glimpses of the narrator’s own emotion were the parts that really appealed to me in this otherwise understated narrative of grief.

The translation by Caroline Schmidt is stylistically beautiful, capturing the wistfulness and the precision of the narrator’s observations. In particular, the descriptions of nature regularly contain a single descriptive verb that makes it clear how well Schmidt has “got” this narrator: “Scattered cyprus saplings buckled over, as if in pain”; “A violent thunderstorm broke the heat that had crouched above the landscape.” There is no dialogue in Grove, or overt interaction with other characters in the present; the narrator speaks very formally (objects are weighted “qua testimony”, a town sits “atop” a hill), and there are occasional arcane phrases (“a languid summer that augured ill”) and uses of syntax (“idle lists of a forlornness that knows not what to do with itself”). This lends a gravity and formality to the narrative that is maintained admirably by Schmidt, whose translation also includes plenty of references to nature that I didn’t recognise even in English (a red-backed shrike creaks in a bush, while cliffs form tuffs on the coastline and a water ditch is lined by canebrake). I always like learning new words, and Grove was certainly the book for that. While it wasn’t “my” kind of book, it did make me think about myself – specifically about how we have to listen to what other people need us to be when they’re sharing their pain. I may not have felt a close connection with the narrator, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the shortcomings are with her.

Jean Frémon, Nativity, translated from French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2020)

This short essay from Les Fugitives is the second offering from Jean Frémon and Cole Swensen and, like the first, represents a kind of homage to Louise Bourgeois. 2018’s Now, Now, Louison was a fictionalised biography of Bourgeois by Frémon, who was a friend of hers, and Nativity features five original pieces of art by Bourgeois that she painted in watered-down gouache to accompany this reflection by Frémon on the representation of Jesus in art.

Frémon’s focus is on a painting being commissioned hundreds of years ago: the fictional painter is given the task of painting “a large Nativity on a single panel” for a palace chapel, and must succeed in representing divinity made incarnate. The painting is not solely for decorative purpose: it should not only inspire those who already read the Bible, but also serve as an instruction those who cannot read and write. His artwork must, therefore, make it clear that the baby in the painting is the son of God. Traditional depictions of the baby Jesus achieve this variously by painting a golden aura radiating from him to show that he is no ordinary child, revealing his mystery in the awe-filled faces of those gathered around, or filling the tableau with angels and kings to demonstrate the significance of his birth; this painter decides instead to dispense with the swaddling clothes, believing that the key to showing the child’s divinity lies in his nakedness. This is also, of course, the most basic sign of his humanity, thereby instructing all those who view the painting that the son of Mary is also the Son of God.

Frémon discusses the Nativity analytically, and Swensen translates with great poise, subtly communicating two key things in particular: firstly, that Frémon’s decision to focus on a painter and his mission brings something very personal to the history encompassed within this short essay and secondly, that the women are notable by their absence. The painting is commissioned by a man, of a man, about the Son of Man, but the illustrations offer a different perspective. The five paintings by Bourgeois are made up of red brushstrokes, and depict the more human side of the Christmas story: a child swelling in the womb, a birth, a hungry newborn.

In four of the five paintings, the mother is as present as the child, and these invite as much reflection as Frémon’s prose. Heavily pregnant, she has just undertaken a gruelling journey, and then gone into labour and given birth in a stable. While I entirely understand the focus on the child – whether divine or human – it’s the depictions of Mary that I’m always drawn to, and they could easily have been absent from this essay just as they are absent from much discourse of the Nativity. The artwork by Bourgeois fills this void: among other images, she traces in blood-red strokes a view such as the one that Joseph – as de facto midwife – might have had.

The reflections are compelling and lucidly composed; in contrast the representations offered by Bourgeois are carnal, showing that for all the divine wonder of the Nativity, it is also the story of a first-time mother giving birth in extraordinary – and probably terrifying – circumstances. At the start of the essay, the canon commissioning the painter explains that “we depend on the imagination of painting to prove reality”, and the prints by Bourgeois do exactly that: this is an distinctly humanised view of the Nativity, and an interesting alternative Christmas story for you to seek out this year.

Review: Annie Ernaux, A MAN’S PLACE

Translated from French by Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

The release of A Man’s Place makes Annie Ernaux the most published author at Fitzcarraldo Editions: this is the fifth of Ernaux’s books to be published in translation by Fitzcarraldo, with another two scheduled to come next year. A chronicler of personal and historical detail, Ernaux looks back on pivotal moments or relationships with a detached observation that belies deep emotion, and offers a portrait of a particular time, place and milieu that shaped her. In A Man’s Place, the subject is Ernaux’s father, a working class countryman who had been taken out of school at the age of twelve to work on a farm and pay his way. Defined when people spoke of him by the fact that he could neither read nor write, he had always wanted his daughter to rise above the “humiliating barriers” of a social situation in which he felt trapped, forever striving for a better life and never quite attaining it. Ernaux’s relationship with him was complex, and A Man’s Place represents her attempt to document his life as she knew it.

The narrative opens with Ernaux announcing her father’s death, information that she imparts with characteristic understatement: “My father died exactly two months later, to the day … It was a Sunday, in the early afternoon”. The earlier event to which Ernaux refers here was her success in the entrance exams to the teacher training college in Rouen: it was a milestone in her life, but she had been unaware that her father was proud of her achievement. She discovers the significance of her success for her father when she looks through his wallet after his death and finds a newspaper clipping of the exam results: the names are listed in order of merit, and Ernaux’s was second on the list. The father’s unarticulated pride is, however, always coupled with a more palpable resentment that his daughter has been able to move “up”, to leave her parents behind, to notice their lack of refinement and in that silent observation to make them realise that she no longer accepts their ways without question.

This is a story of missed moments and painful silences, written in what Ernaux herself identifies as a neutral style and presented as an endeavour that brings her no joy. Yet the words she chooses to write her father’s story are perfectly pitched to offer both an insight into the hardships of her father’s life and an understanding of her experience of him as a daughter. Emotions were not easily expressed in the household, and this inflects Ernaux’s detached writing style: not only does she describe it as akin to the way she wrote to her parents after she moved away, but also she observes her younger self from a vantage point years later, struggling to recognise in that stranger the person she still harbours inside her (this is even more evident in the wonderful A Girl’s Story, published earlier this year by Fitzcarraldo in Alison L. Strayer’s translation). Even the decomposition of her father’s corpse is presented in a measured way (“Within a few hours, my father’s face had changed beyond all recognition … The smell set in on the Monday”). Indeed, the imperative to remain objective is explicitly voiced when Ernaux notes that she had originally thought of writing a novel about her father, but realised that this was out of the question as “in order to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach.”

Yet Ernaux creates a work that is artistic in an unconventional way: to write a man crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing, she chooses her words with great care and embeds simple refrains from her childhood household in beautifully crafted sentences. She places these phrases in italics, and so they stand out to allow insight into the way her parents thought and spoke. Her parents are “afraid they would lose everything and lapse back into working-class poverty”, “always afraid they would eat into their capital”, and are haunted by “this fear of being ashamed, out of place.” Ernaux’s father is afraid of what other people will say, of using the wrong words (which would have been “as bad as breaking wind”), of being looked down on; the italicised phrases and the fear they contain are, as Ernaux explicitly notes, inseparably linked to her childhood. Tanya Leslie weaves them admirably into delicate sentences of her own, her careful and lucid translation respecting Ernaux’s understated eloquence. The only thing I’m less convinced about in the translation is the title: the French La Place is less specific, and so the translated title becomes less representative of the book itself. I had similar reservations about the translated title of Happening (though my quibble there was more that the title diluted the original), and I do think that Ernaux’s titles (with the possible exception of The Years) are particularly difficult to translate literally. I’m sure this won’t be a deal-breaker, anyway – fans of Ernaux will find much to enjoy in A Man’s Place, and for those new to her work it will give an excellent introduction to her writing style and preoccupations.

It’s twenty years since I first read La Place, and it was fascinating to read it in translation with a couple of decades of reading and living under my belt. I felt much more empathy towards Ernaux’s father than I remember feeling back then, and the carefully contained and articulated emotion struck me much more than they had twenty years ago – my over-riding memory had been the depiction of a suffocating home environment and Ernaux’s detachment towards her family. These things, of course, are only part of the story, but that’s how my memory had condensed it (“Memory resists”, writes Ernaux; personal reminiscence is unreliable). Above all, A Man’s Place is an emotive goodbye to a man who remained distant from his daughter, a homage born of silences and the inability to find a way to reach one another. Ernaux’s father’s greatest fear was giving his daughter cause for shame; his greatest satisfaction “the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.” In this touching tribute she creates in her “educated bourgeois world” a legacy for a man she will never fully know, giving him his place by carving it out in a world from which he always felt excluded.

Review copy of A Man’s Place provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Review: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens

Translated from French by Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a work of non-fiction that delves into the life of Marie van Goethem, the young model for Degas’ famous sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen). In it, Camille Laurens takes us back to Paris in the Belle Époque, but exposes a sordid underbelly beneath the glittering façade.

Though the Palais Garnier opera house evokes opulence, elegance, and sumptuous fin-de-siècle decadence, Laurens takes us quietly and carefully through the reality behind the curtains. The petits rats, young girls who were sold to the ballet and earned a pittance, were put through physically demanding training routines while barely having enough to eat; if they were expelled because of absence, insolence or lack of progress then they were still yoked to the opera, compelled to pay for the years of “education” and remaining in a contract that was close to slavery. Many were sold in other ways too: Laurens notes that “as soon as the girls reached adolescence they acquired a blank gaze and a look of resignation, entering a life of prostitution without ever having been children.”

In 1880, Marie Van Goethem was one of the Opera’s petits rats, sold with her sisters to the opera house, a lonely girl whose fate concerned no-one. She supplemented her pitiful income by posing for painters and sculptors – including Edgar Degas, “her frail body now turned to bronze” by the artist His immortalisation of her did not, however, give her a voice or an identity, but rather ensured that “she would die less completely than the other girls”, seen across the world and through the generations but never known or understood. Tied in with Marie’s modelling for Degas is a topic that influenced much French literature of the period: physiognomy. This new “science” was believed to enable the educated or “initiated” to distinguish certain characteristics about people from their physical appearance – essentially, proponents believed that they were able to designate a person criminal or lacking in morals because of features such as a prominent forehead or high cheekbones. The luminaries of the day needed scant licence to exaggerate this, condemning people from the lower classes because of their appearance and supporting their prejudice with a “science” that amounted to little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy: “The ruling classes needed to be reassured about their privileges. Small wonder that they clung to theories that ‘proved’ the natural superiority of the bourgeoisie over the working class, the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, and men over women … Social hierarchy was justified by nature itself, with rich white men at the apex and other races, women, and the poor in the lower depths.” Though we may have moved beyond physiognomy, some of Laurens’s depictions of its uses are strikingly and terrifyingly contemporary.

Throughout the reconstructions in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen we gain intimate insights into Degas’ life and artistic process. In particular, Laurens lingers on his commitment to eschewing superficially glamorous representations of ballet in his paintings and focus instead on the rehearsal space, the physical hardship to which the dancers were submitted, showing “not the mythical dancer but the humdrum worker.” However, Laurens resolutely refuses to shine a purely flattering light on the artist’s intentions. She openly refers to his own prejudices – which were backed up by advances in studies of physiognomy – detailing how his exaggerated courtroom drawings of suspected criminals were designed to “reflect theories of social delinquency that he subscribed to.” On the basis of this, Laurens suggests that he did the same to Marie, coarsening her features between his initial sketches and the finished sculpture and changing her face “to give it the hallmarks of a savage, quasi-Neanderthal primitivism, a precocious degeneracy.” This alarming representation of women, and in particular a young woman with no rights, no voice and no agency of her own, may have been intended to unsettle and question, as Laurens suggests, but it also perpetuates the social hierarchies mentioned above, and makes this attempt to give Marie back a place in history all the more historically and socially important.

Towards the start of the book there were a few examples of syntax that stood out to me as awkward, but aside from this the translation by Willard Wood rapidly developed into a careful non-fiction narrative, understated and yet lexically rich, a piece that evokes the Belle Époque while simultaneously remaining contemporary. Overall, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a particularly interesting kind of non-fiction. It blends an almost academic research (in the acknowledgements Laurens does note that the book is an offshoot of her doctoral thesis) with references that bring us back into the now – and the result is a piece that raises more questions than it answers, but in doing so shows how very contemporary the concerns of the work still are: the classism, prejudice, poverty and exploitation of women over a hundred years ago are uncannily close to our modern experience.

As for Marie van Goethem, frustratingly little about her actually comes to light, for the information is simply not there to uncover. She has disappeared in history, an insignificant and impecunious petit rat who is remembered only the way Degas presented her, offered up for the interpretation of art lovers the world over. If Laurens does not manage to reinstate Marie, or to give her a story or a voice (I was glad that she consciously refrained from inventing these in their absence) she does nonetheless succeed in questioning the place and period that condemned her to this disappearance. Though at times Little Dancer Aged Fourteen seemed more about the artist than the muse, by shining a light on Marie’s absence even as her likeness is tangibly present throughout the decades, Laurens pays the only kind of homage possible to a young girl without a future: though Laurens attempts to discern Marie’s inner emotions as she posed for Degas, to understand her thoughts and her inner world rather than simply the artist’s intentions, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is all the more poignant for the author’s acknowledgement that “what is missing is her soul.”

Review: Nathalie Léger, Exposition and The White Dress

Earlier this year, Les Fugitives published the final book in a trilogy of studies by Nathalie Léger. The first, Suite for Barbara Loden, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, marked the launch of Les Fugitives in 2015 and became the cornerstone of their publishing identity. Exposition, translated by Amanda DeMarco, was published in December 2019, and The White Dress, translated by Natasha Lehrer, in March 2020.

Exposition, translated from French by Amanda DeMarco (Les Fugitives, 2019)

Nathalie Léger is a museum curator, and her published works blend biographical study with personal reflection. In the opening pages of Exposition, Léger recounts her decision to curate an exhibition on the Countess of Castiglione, a young and beautiful Italian aristocrat who was a sensation at the French court of Napoleon III. Léger’s determination to curate an exhibition that focuses on a subject rather than on objects is a pattern of hers, and reflects her belief that there are far more stories to uncover about a person than an object. Her exposition of La Castiglione constitutes a discovery of the other that offers a path to discovery of the self, albeit an uneasy one: Léger is progressively consumed by her own project, noting that it has “already surreptitiously gobbled me up,” to the point that towards the end of the text when La Castiglione is imagined as saying “c’est moi,” this could also be Léger’s own voice.

La Castiglione is a figure onto whose countenance is projected the image that others have of women, imprisoned in her beauty and the role it forces her to inhabit. Having herself photographed was, Léger suggests, not a vanity project, but a means to “construct, under the guise of frivolity, what Poe called ‘the chamber of melancholy.’ To hold on, to silently hold on.” The photographs are an attempt to take control of a life shaped by others, and so the photographer’s studio becomes “a mythical space in which her empire silently expanded and where her legend was written.” Léger’s goal – at least in part – is to give La Castiglione her own agency, a legend in which she is the subject controlling her image rather than the object reflected in that image.

The translated title is well chosen by Amanda DeMarco: the French exposition means an exhibition but also an exposing, a laying bare, and this is the more important of the two meanings in Léger’s narrative: the exhibition is a means to an exposition. She muses on what a photograph can achieve – does it capture an essence, or just a moment? The countess, Léger concludes, is just “a mass of absence” behind the lifelong tableau vivant of her captured image. Imprisoned in other people’s perceptions of her, la Castiglione exists only for the gaze of the other, and so her only victory can be that she is not truly there, forever absent from her own image. Léger also lingers on representations of women through literary and visual history, and on what it is to be a woman. We witness her reflections on her own relationships and intimacies with women – particularly her mother, another woman about whom she knows little and who she wants to discover through photographs of times past.

The White Dress, translated from French by Natasha Lehrer (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Is it a coincidence that the first photograph of La Castiglione was entitled The Black Dress? Perhaps. But it is a fitting coincidence, as Léger ends her triptych with The White Dress. This takes as its subject Pippa Bacca, an Italian performance artist who undertook a hitchhike from Milan to Jerusalem wearing a wedding dress. Her journey was part of a “beautiful, and a little mad” performance for peace in countries affected by war or conflict, Bacca “a bride setting out beneath an overcast sky on an improbable journey to save the world.” Pippa Bacca never finished her journey: she disappeared in Istanbul. She was raped, murdered, and left naked in some bushes, her body already decomposing by the time she was found. Pippa’s story is entwined with a deepened reflection on Léger’s fragile and strained relationship with her mother, and the responsibility that Léger feels to both women to tell their lives. Pippa’s voice was cut short by her violent end, her murderer even appropriating her gaze by taking her video camera and using it to film his own life; Léger’s mother is similarly voiceless, having “never known how to say what she wanted, rendering daily life an endless struggle.”

Léger plans to interview Pippa’s mother, but struggles with the ethical implications of her own quest, turning back because “I had nothing to offer a mother in mourning, I was only going to take something from her, devour her heartlessly.” Instead she shifts focus from a mother who has lost a daughter to another – her own – who sacrificed hers on the altar of her marital abandonment (“we were dragged along with her in the wake of her sadness.”) For both Pippa Bacca and Léger’s mother, the wedding dress symbolises their own personal misfortune, the burden and perils of womanhood, and the pressures of conformity.

Léger struggles with the weight of all this sorrow, as she tries to navigate the horror of Pippa’s final journey and the responsibility of her mother’s never-ending one. She claims that “my feeble heart means I can’t carry more than one pain at a time,” and yet she manages to achieve just that: Léger not only immerses herself in her quest, but in so doing creates a symphony of Pippa’s story and her own life, examining the symbolism of the white dress, and the fate to which the actions of others (usually men) condemn women. Does Léger’s mother, denied “words, attacks, justice” in her divorce case and left with only tears, have any more control over her life than Pippa did? Like La Castiglione, Léger’s mother is imprisoned in the way others perceive her, but not truly there: as Léger reminded us in Exposition, “you can die a hundred deaths from not being loved.” And is it better to die believing in freedom and peace than to live consumed by resentment, frustration and regret? Léger does not offer answers, but rather a meditation; in this respect, The White Dress is a culmination of both Léger’s project and her pensive style, which is rendered by Natasha Lehrer in a graceful and attentive prose that shifts unobtrusively from the meticulously objective to the intensely personal. The tension between the story of the mother, confined to an unfulfilled life in a stifling home, and Pippa’s fateful wanderings in a dangerous outdoors, shows that women are still not free in any sphere, and makes a quietly valuable contribution to literature, biography and feminism.

Review copies of Exposition and The White Dress provided by Les Fugitives

While stocks last, order any two books from Les Fugitives to receive a free limited edition copy of the anthology Detour/Détours.

Review: Pauline Delabroy-Allard, All About Sarah

Translated from French by Adriana Hunter (Harvill Secker, 2020)

All About Sarah is Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s powerful debut novel about love: love as an all-consuming force, love as a lit match that can burn itself out, love as a sickness. To “just” call it a love story, though, would be to downplay its intensity: it is all about love because it is all about Sarah, the object of the narrator’s affection. The nod to All About Eve is a clever rendering of the title by translator Adriana Hunter; above all, it made me think of my favourite line from that film: “Where Eve goes, life goes”. Where Sarah goes, life goes, and when Sarah is no longer there, life ceases to have any meaning.

Straight away we know that Sarah is loved by the narrator, and that she is sick. This sets up the two parts of the novel: the background, including the narrator’s first encounter with Sarah, and the aftermath. The first part I found engaging and absorbing: Sarah crashes into the narrator’s life like a tornado, an impetuous violinist who laughs too loudly at the theatre, cares nothing for decorum or good manners, and whirls the narrator up and sweeps her into her world – a world that had hitherto been regimented by social expectation and doing the right thing. Our formerly uptight narrator experiences the full force of Sarah’s attention,  noticing how Sarah listens to her when she talks, asks her questions, and creates intimacy. Sarah’s declaration of love is a “gift” that comes early in the novel, a visceral confession, accompanied with the smell of sulphur as she strikes a match to light her cigarette. The moment and the smell will always be entwined, embodied by “Sarah the sulphurous”; indeed, the awakening of the senses is one of the powerful features of the love story, whether it is scents or soundtracks (particularly the narrator’s newfound obsession with string quartets, inspired by her love’s musical profession).

Such an intense love, though, cannot last: like the match that burns until it is consumed by its own flame, their desire becomes so powerful that it obliterates everything around them. Where until now Sarah’s defining feature has been her humanity (“she’s alive” is one of several recurring phrases), her portrayal shifts to vampiric: cruel, unfamiliar and murderous. The lovers part, but then Sarah falls ill: this development sets up the second part, which is dominated by Sarah’s illness and the narrator’s response to it. Here I didn’t find myself swept along with the narrator’s emotions in quite the same forcible way (perhaps I needed Sarah’s tornado presence?): she retreats into herself, abandons Sarah because she can’t face watching her die, and cuts herself off from the world and from life, neglecting everyone who cares about her, including her daughter (who has little more than a walk-on part in this scenario).

The translation by Adriana Hunter is mostly excellent, particularly in conveying the ferocity of emotions and reactions. The text poses some knotty problems: there are frequent references to French literature, the narrator writing herself into a specific literary and cultural tradition, and Hunter deals with these unobtrusively. If you don’t spot them, I don’t think you would lose anything from your reading of the book. There are, occasionally, some words I perceived as slightly anomalous – always quite banal words (apart from the repeated use of “snatch”, but I racked my brains and came up with a total deficiency of non-offensive and non-childish alternatives).

Snatch aside, there is much to love in All About Sarah: the thought that has particularly remained with me in the months since I first read it was the narrator’s longing to remember the second before Sarah came into her life, before she knew Sarah existed, which encapsulates the focus on the dual nature of passion as both desire and suffering. Above all this is a book about life, love, and how messy they both get: it manages to be both intense and detached, urgent and languorous, and is an extremely engaging more-than-just-a-love-story.

Review copy of All About Sarah provided by Harvill Secker

Review: The Beauty of the Death Cap, Catherine Doustessyier-Khoze

Translated from French by Tina Kover (Snuggly Books, 2018)

This is the final instalment in a trilogy of reviews of translations by women I met at the Translating Women conference last year (see my reviews of Bellevue and Not My Time To Die for the first two), and it’s also the first of my shorter-format lockdown reviews, a shift I discussed in my open letter a couple of weeks ago. Thank you to all those who wrote to me in response to that letter – it was deeply moving to receive your replies.

The Beauty of the Death Cap is a murderous romp through rural France, and quite unlike anything else I’ve read. Fans of crime fiction will no doubt enjoy the modern pastiche of an old-fashioned isolated genius with delusions of grandeur and nefarious intent; equally if, like me, you’ve read very little crime fiction, then this is an entertaining place to begin.

Meet Nikonor. He is an elderly and well-to-do resident of Charlanne and inheritor of its chateau, a self-proclaimed “great man” beneath whose refined exterior lies a calculated murderer. Yet this word is never mentioned: Nikonor recounts his crimes in the same way he recounts his everyday life – though the two are inseparable, for Nikonor’s everyday life is consumed by elaborate scheming to rid himself (and the world at large) of all those unworthy imbeciles who have frustrated him. Does this country gentleman sharpen his daggers? Load his pistols? Stock up on arsenic? No, for Nikonor abhors a cliché. He is a mycologist, a specialist in mushroom science, and he knows exactly how much of which species of mushroom will cause an untraceable death. Enemies of Nikonor, beware!

The characterisation and the narration maintain a tongue-in-cheek irony throughout, and though Nikonor is entirely loathsome, I couldn’t help but follow his carefully laid and executed plans with a kind of sadistic glee. If I’m honest, I prefer reading narratives that have strong female characters in the lead role (it’s not as though the literary world is lacking Machiavellian male anti-heroes…) This meant that I didn’t relish Nikonor’s relentless self-aggrandisement, and I confess that the use of phrases such as “Boys will be boys” or describing women as “hysterical” set my teeth on edge. However, I accept that this is a question of characterisation rather than misogyny – we’re not supposed to like Nikonor, after all – and in terms of characterisation it was entirely appropriate, from Nikonor’s condescending footnotes and opinions on the best cheese to his postulating on his own superiority in all things: “All those poets who have penned mawkish tributes to flowers, women and birds since the classic era are vapid fools – dreadful louts suffering from an acute atrophy of the aesthetic gland”; “it was utter madness and completely unthinkable that I would sacrifice my youthful freedom to such drivel.”

Tina Kover translates Doustessyier-Khoze’s debut with a superb blend of darkness and levity, revelling in Nikonor’s affected manner of speaking and rendering his monologue in the tone of a perfect gentleman. Despite Nikonor’s languorous and sometimes florid manner of speaking, there is still a certain urgency to the narrative, which he is committing to paper “before events catch up with me” and he arrives at “the final watershed moment of my life.” He addresses himself consciously to his reader, which is engaging and conspiratorial; his acerbic sense of humour also lends itself brilliantly to English translation, and is communicated with insouciant energy in Kover’s prose. If you’re looking for some amusing yet erudite escapism right now, The Beauty of the Death Cap is a good place to start.

A trio of Translating Women conference books: L-R Catherine Doustessyier-Khoze, THE BEAUTY OF THE DEATH CAP, tr. Tina Kover; Yolande Mukagasana, NOT MY TIME TO DIE, tr. Zoe Norridge; Ivana Dobrokovová, BELLEVUE, tr. Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.

 

Shards of memory: Colette Fellous, This Tilting World

Translated from French by Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives, 2019)

The latest release from Les Fugitives is a work by French-Tunisian author Colette Fellous, offered in an elegant and articulate translation by Sophie Lewis. In This Tilting World, Fellous explores different dimensions of grief and loss: the sudden death of a friend, the terror attack on the beach at Sousse in 2015, and the exile from a home(land) that both is and is not hers. This is an intimate farewell to parts of Fellous’ life that she loved and can never fully possess or experience again: the recent loss prompts her to reflect on her relationship with her deceased father, and to write a fragmentary novel, a “nocturne” that pays tribute to people she loved, people she never knew, a country that she can never truly leave behind, and a figurative home in literature.

In This Tilting World Fellous draws together her father’s life during the twentieth century, the Tunisia of her childhood, and the changed world of the twenty-first century with its institutionalisation of terror and fear, describing the project within its own pages as an attempt to “tell the story of a father born and dead in the twentieth century, and the story of this world now, this Tunisian village I shall have to leave behind, in this year 2015, a terrifying year, remorseless, in its new, 21st-century colours.” The fragments of text move between past and present, but also beyond rigid notions of time as Fellous blends events and memories from different periods into one narrative experience. She layers terror attacks so that their impact is felt simultaneously, imagines her father as both a deceased adult who has left her adrift and a newborn child who she must protect, and unites her personal experience with a collective or universal one: “my novel is damaged, the world is damaged, I too am deeply wounded.” If her homeland is ravaged so too is she, as her country and her generation witness the birth of “a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even in our own bodies.”

The embodiment of terror – encompassing both fear and exile – is echoed in several of the fragments. Fellous describes the terrorist at Sousse as having killed people “on my beach, our beach, on every beach”, showing a universality of experience (“every beach”) and a collective suffering (“our beach”) alongside her personal grief and loss (“my beach”). Though Fellous recognises that she is privileged to be able to give voice to this experience, she also expresses a desire for individuality (“I don’t want to join any group, I want to see life with my own eyes, I want to be free”) and a yearning for selfhood alongside her reflections on writing, on creativity, and on the ways in which pain can inspire art. This longed-for freedom from prescribed views or distinct communities also represents a freedom from past silence: Fellous attempts to understand her father, and in particular to understand the silence that he transmitted to his children. She acknowledges that with this silence he had hoped to protect them from knowledge of his own suffering, rooted in its historical time of “betrayal, brutality … the camps”, but ultimately the father’s silence imprisons his children in a false innocence, a not-knowing that Fellous seeks to redress through her writing. Her father’s fractured, multi-cultural past is intertwined with historical experiences of colonisation and exile, which represent “the rupture that he’d tried to minimise”: this rupture is woven into the substance of her prose, which is itself always fragmented. Indeed the original title, Pièces détachées, indicates this fragmentation with the rupture between generations, cultures and languages reflected in the ruptures between each shard of text.

Sophie Lewis translates with sensitivity and a depth of understanding of the intricacies of Fellous’ writing: literary references abound but are never heavy-handed; the family experience is understood through references ranging from 19th-century novelist Flaubert to Alain Renais’ holocaust film Night and Fog and many others in between; nouns and adjectives are coupled carefully to convey the wistful heart of the narrative (such as “entwined bodies” or even the title, “this tilting world”, echoed in the text) and the syntax is deliberately poetic (“the wrinkles were become a kind of writing”, “always I stumble at this love”). This book is worth reading for the translation alone: there is a richness and range to Lewis’s vocabulary; the breadth of lexis is stunning, and shows an alertness to the possibilities of language (for example, choosing “I guarded Alain’s smile inside me” over the more obvious equivalent “I kept Alain’s smile inside me”). Above all, Lewis conveys the intimacy of a work that Fellous confesses is at the limits of what she can bear. Fellous claims to be writing so as not to forget her father, to offer him something long promised, and to give him a fitting farewell. Yet it is also a farewell to the country that she means to leave and yet to which she knows she will “always be returning”: she is perpetually drawn back to Tunisia “to see, to reassess, in order more easily to disengage”. This Tilting World is an evocative, candid and deeply moving account of a life lived between histories, worlds and languages, of times gone by, of present horrors and of fears for the future, but above all it is a monument to memory in all its forms: recollection, recognition, and remembrance.

Colette Fellous and Sophie Lewis will be in conversation with Michèle Roberts to launch This Tilting World at Daunt Books Hampstead (London, UK) on Wednesday 18 September; tickets available here.

Review copy of This Tilting World provided by Les Fugitives

“Can a man write a feminist book?”: Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon

Translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2018)

In Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon offers an extraordinary homage to French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, weaving together fragments of her life and her art from his own experience. However, it would be false to describe this short, lyrical book as either a biography or art criticism: although Frémon offers glimpses into the life of Louise Bourgeois (which was also, as Frémon reminds us, “the life of the century”), and further insights into how many of her famous works originated, it is more in the style of a memoir. This is not Frémon’s memoir, though, but rather a memoir by Bourgeois via Frémon: Frémon shifts between the first and second person in his narration, sometimes speaking to Bourgeois as a real “you”, and sometimes as her, as an imagined “I”, writing Bourgeois in “his words that are also her words” (Siri Hustvedt).

Image from lesfugitives.com

Yes, “his”. This is an interesting case study that pushes at the boundaries of how we might understand “translating women”: publisher Les Fugitives released it yesterday with the tantalising question “Can a man write a feminist book?” (my instinctive response to this is “yes” since, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I believe that feminism is for everyone – but that’s a debate we can continue another day). Written by someone who knew her well, Now, Now, Louison is a unique insight into the world of Louise Bourgeois – her upbringing, her decisions, and her art. Though famed throughout the world, it was only towards the end of Bourgeois’ life that her work was celebrated (a point eloquently made by Frémon: “You can’t make a move these days without someone’s interpreting it in his terms. Above all, the French. They ignored you for fifty years, and when they finally noticed you existed, they couldn’t wait to tell you what you’d been doing”). Now, Now, Louison avoids the temptation to explain Bourgeois and her work in this way, and instead offers snapshots into the paths that brought her to fame. This is an intimate and emotional book, and above all a very beautiful one. The translator, Cole Swensen, is a poet, and this shows through in the translation. I ached with a kind of nostalgia while I was reading this book, and at first I couldn’t put my finger on why – the nostalgia often hits me when I read in French, or about Paris, which was once my home – but this was in English, and not focused on Paris (indeed, much of the book is set in New York, where Bourgeois lived as an adult). About a third of the way through my reading, it hit me: the reason I felt this nostalgia was because reading Now, Now, Louison was like reading in French. And this is not because of what you might call “literal” translation or anything clumsy like that, but rather because the syntax and some of the vocabulary mirror the French in a way that is not “English” but yet does not feel “foreign” in the translation. And yet there is nothing odd or affected about the translation: it’s simply an immense achievement on the part of the translator, that the translation communicates the language as if through a lens. I’m aware that this might seem as though I’m advocating an “invisibility” of the translator, so let me be clear: I am not of that school of thought. I see the translator as a co-creator, and Swensen is certainly not invisible here. Nor is the French book invisible beneath the translation – and that’s why I loved it. But it’s also why there was the occasional detail that didn’t sit too well with me, words that have a reduced field of usage in English (such as “parturient spider at the bottom of the garden”), a slightly odd use of syntax that mirrors the French (“there would reign a sepulchral silence throughout the house”), even my own bête noire for translation into English (using “the latter” too liberally). The “Frenchness” of the text is not hidden, and apart from these few details, this was a good thing in my view. Sometimes the original French language is explicit: there is analysis of a French phrase “made of marble” and its English equivalent “poker face”, there are French song lyrics that remain untranslated, and French cultural references that are unexplained (from Charcot and the Salpêtrière to Varda, Sagan, Duras and the Récamier) – these add to the feeling of “Frenchness” that pervades the translation.

The “spider woman”

I couldn’t write about Louise Bourgeois without mentioning spiders. They feature heavily in all of her exhibitions, and I was fascinated to learn how she became so obsessive about them. Frémon speaks as Bourgeois, explaining that they represent her mother: “She’s always been in my drawings, in the form of a spider. People don’t usually like spiders – they’re afraid of them. Women leap onto stools and scream, and men step on them with the satisfaction of having done a good deed.” The spiders take on a form of feminist resistance, instilling fear into other women and inciting men to crush them self-righteously, but Bourgeois made them ever bigger, stronger, and, crucially, pregnant, ready to give birth to more like them. The maternal image is present throughout: her own mother, weaving, attentive, and her female spiders, heavy with the life they will bring forth (or “immoderately maternal”, as Frémon puts it). Spiders are observed, catalogued, praised, and then sculpted into her “family”, with an attention Bourgeois does not seem to extend to her own children – or perhaps this is simply not where Frémon’s focus lies. Indeed, on the book jacket, Now, Now, Louison is described as exhibiting “elusive, haunted excess”, and I thought for a while about what exactly this meant. Haunted, because it is lyrical, philosophical, almost ethereal, Bourgeois appearing almost as a spectre; excess, because this is a big story in a small package, a story of the fragility behind the indomitable force; elusive, because there is so much that is not told, because Louise Bourgeois herself is always just out of reach. Her drawings “scream in silence” while she remains mute; she is likened to an “empty house” that she wanders through; the art she made is an expression of pain, love, and the questions she never articulated; her sculptures are “self-portraits”. Yet there is rarely any more detail than this: Frémon describes her sculptures as an equation with, on one side, “pain, anxiety, and frustration” and, on the other, “wood, marble, bronze”, and then, speaking as Bourgeois, offers the following realisation: “Then one day I thought, you can always carve wood, mold clay, or polish marble better than anyone, but what good is it if you don’t tell your own story? Lovely sculptures, gratuitous, idiotic, vain, and useless if they don’t say what you have to say.” Frémon, or Bourgeois-through-Frémon, seems to be saying that the key to understanding Bourgeois is in understanding her sculptures, and yet he avoids the temptation of telling us how to understand them. That is not to say that there are no revelations at all (there is a very interesting insight into the hanging headless figure of “Single II”); rather, there is an acknowledgement that “we are what others say we are.” Neither Bourgeois nor Frémon tells us directly how to interpret her work, and this elusive understanding is deliberate: “You’ll never know if it was ecstatic. I have my own ideas on the subject. And I will continue to have them.” If there is one key to understanding how Bourgeois worked, and what her work “means”, then perhaps it can be summed up in my favourite excerpt from the book:

“Aim for beauty, and you get the vapid; you get fashion, beribboned cliché; aim for something else – encyclopaedic knowledge, systematic inventory, structural analysis, personal obsession, or just a mental itch that responds to scratching, and you end up with beauty. Beauty is only a by-product, unsought, yet available to amateurs and impenitent believers.”

Neither Bourgeois in her work nor Frémon in his homage have “aimed for beauty”, but rather, just as the personal obsession Bourgeois had with spiders gave way to knowledge and analysis, which resulted in beauty, so Frémon’s obsession with giving Bourgeois a voice has given way to knowledge and analysis of his own, and he has ended up with beauty. A beauty that will always be incomplete and unsought, but that is there nonetheless, “available to amateurs and impenitent believers” in the pages of this book. It may have imperfections but, as we are told, “perfection masks feelings”, and if this book is anything, it is a book of emotions: this poignant tribute is just as it should be.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting list of titles forthcoming in 2019, that will probably be of interest to blog subscribers. You can browse the catalogue here.

Review copy of Now, Now, Louison provided by Les Fugitives.

The collective memory of a generation: Annie Ernaux, The Years

Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo, 2018)

The opening line of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, “All the images will disappear”, both sets up and sums up her project: every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, bear witness, and claim a place in the world. This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a modern masterpiece, and I was delighted when Fitzcarraldo sent me a copy for review. Publisher Jacques Testard describes The Years as “a monumental account of twentieth-century French social history as refracted through the life of one woman”, and this is about as accurate a statement as anyone could come up with to describe The Years. It’s a tremendous, poignant, necessary book, but there’s a big issue for the translation: how will something so steeped in French cultural history translate to another context, and into another language?

Firstly, although you don’t need to have read any Ernaux to enjoy this book, any reader who has read other texts based on Ernaux’s life will recognise a number of important references in here: her mother’s illness and decline, her reflections on growing up in a post-war working class milieu, her relationships (including her first sexual relationship, an adult affair, and an illegal abortion) and her use of photographs to frame a narrative all feature in other works by Ernaux, and are presented in a different way here. In fact, “presented in a different way” could sum up everything about this book: it challenges perceptions of autobiography, balances personal triumphs and quiet tragedies with historical atrocities and the implacable passing of time, and offers a fascinating overview of life in France from the 1940s to the 2000s.

Testard advertises The Years as a “collective autobiography”, but there is more to be said on this. In one sense it is not collective, since it is written and narrated by only one person, but it is certainly not a “traditional” memoir. Rather, it is an individual voice representing a collective one: Ernaux herself describes it as an “impersonal autobiography,” based on a collection of images and reflections, a narrative framed around photographs of the author at different points throughout her life. The girl and woman in the photographs is never explicitly named as Ernaux, but the series of photos provide the reference points through which her past – and that of her country – is narrated. The “collective” aspect is evidenced in the most striking feature of this sort-of-autobiography: Ernaux never uses the first person singular. She does not speak as “I”, but rather “we”, or occasionally “one.” This narrative style mirrors Ernaux’s own description of the way her relatives told stories of World War II: “everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events.” Adopting the same narrative strategy elevates this from a personal memoir, and instead makes it about events that affected people of Ernaux’s generation: in this way, The Years becomes an artefact for the collective memory of a generation. In the translation, the pronoun most regularly used is “we”, which creates an inclusivity akin to that of the French impersonal pronoun “on”, but on the few occasions when Strayer uses “one” in the English translation, it stood out as a little jarring to me (“It was quite enough that you had to be afraid of making love, now that everyone knew AIDS was not only a disease for homosexuals and drug addicts, contrary to what one had first believed”; “Just getting tested was suspect, an avowal of unspeakable misconduct. One had it done at the hospital, secretly, with a number, avoiding eye contact in the waiting room.”) I can see why Strayer chose the impersonal “one” here, as using “we” in the first instance implies that she and her peers initially believed AIDS to be a disease for homosexuals and drug addicts, and in the second instance would confirm that she and her peers went to the hospital for AIDS tests. I imagine that the sudden shift to “one” was a decision not made lightly, but can’t help thinking that something truly impersonal (the non-specific mass noun “people”, for example, or a passive, if we accept a shift in agency), might have stuck out a little less here – especially in the first instance, when the subject shifts from “you” to “everyone” to “one”.

Where the impersonal pronouns do work well, and map neatly onto the French original, is in Ernaux’s description of herself via photographs in the third person singular, “she.” The woman in the photographs hopes to write about “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation,” and this is the great strength of The Years: its universality. Anyone who lived through the events Ernaux describes – even if not as closely as those who lived in France – will be able to relate to the global political shifts of the last sixty years (“1968 was the first year of the world”) and the technological advances of the 21st century (“a world that moves ahead in leaps and bounds”). Nonetheless, Ernaux eschews self-congratulation for her enterprise, noting with irony that “in the humdrum routine of personal existence, History did not matter. We were simply happy or unhappy, depending on the day.” This daily life is in part deliberately banal, in part coloured by history, but always recognisable and always beautifully observed. The Years is nostalgic yet still contemporary, from the pronouncement that progress means buying more to the description of fearing Arabs on the street during the Algerian war.

Women’s history is, unsurprisingly, at the forefront of many of the historical narratives: from equal access to education and “the deadly time ruled by their blood” that preceded the legalisation of contraception to the facilitating of backstreet abortions being likened to the Resistance of World War 2 and the revolution of May ’68, Ernaux brings to life a specifically female experience of “the years”. These are underlined by a gritty realism, however, as May ’68 is described as neither as momentous nor as glorious as the recurrent camera images, and Ernaux notes that “the struggle of women sank into oblivion. It was the only struggle that had not been officially revived in collective memory.” The Years helps to combat this, reviving the struggle of women in a conscious contribution to collective memory, and an attempt to allow a generation to own its collective history.

“Just as her older relatives used to gather around the family table to eat and to share memories that became their version of history, now it is Ernaux’s turn – and with her, her generation – to ‘tell the story of the time-before.’”

The Years is a book that defies translation: how can we translate a novel that is like a memory box of post-war French culture? Yet we have to try, and that Strayer has produced a page-turning, non-alienating piece of literature is a remarkable feat. There are some minor inconsistencies in the translation, though. For example, song and book titles are sometimes given in French with no footnote, sometimes given in French with a translation in the footnote, and sometimes given in translation. It must have been quite an endeavour for the translator to decide which would be recognisable more universally, and which would not. Radio and television shows are dealt with in the same way: Les Guignols de l’Info is given a footnote, but Allô Macha is not. The quintessentially French “minitel” (a pre-internet information system) is left as “the minitel”, and one footnote makes reference to “an untranslatable fart joke.” Strayer’s approach mostly seems to correspond to Michael Hoffman’s position that “what matters to me[…] is providing an experience, not footnoting one that might have been in had in another language, if only the reader had been conversant in that” – she provides an experience with minimal footnoting, recognising that it will not be the same and that endless footnotes would not make it any more comparable to the original. Though there is the occasional inconsistency or turn of phrase that gave me pause for thought, these are small details in an otherwise beautiful manuscript, that takes Ernaux’s masterpiece and offers it as an experience to a new readership.

As a true meta-narrative, the book ends with the woman in the photographs deciding to write down her story, which will be “a slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life.” To cover more than half a century in such incisive detail, in under 250 pages, is an achievement in itself: the passing of time is palpable throughout, but the narrative never feels rushed. Rather, this is a handing-down of an obligation to remember. Just as her older relatives used to gather around the family table to eat and to share memories that became their version of history, now it is Ernaux’s turn – and with her, her generation – to “tell the story of the time-before”; translating this important work into English contributes to this imperative to remember.

The Years ends as it began, with snapshots from images that will disappear (at the beginning) to memories she wants to save (at the end). It is, perhaps, no coincidence that she talks of “saving” things in the digital age, and this is one of the great achievements of The Years: it saves a common time, a collective memory, and “the lived dimension of History.”

Review copy provided by FItzcarraldo Editions.