“…as if everyone is confronted with their inner darknesses” – a conversation about Ramuz’s Beauty on EarthPosted: January 10, 2014
Outside of Switzerland, Ramuz is not very well-known but in the country he is really and truly considered one of the “fathers” of Swiss literature. This fact explains why the Swiss radio invited me this week to talk about my translation of Beauty on Earth on one of their cultural programs. (I’m a huge fan of this program by the way – every morning from 7 to 9 on Espace 2).
But because this is an English-translation we were talking about (in French) and this book is meant for English-language readers, I thought it might be useful/interesting to write out a transcription & translation of our short conversation.
Two things I learned from writing this out:
- it is difficult to make a transcription like this read like a normal conversation
- introverts (like me) do their best thinking in quiet spaces and not on national radio programs (but there are a few things about Ramuz I’m happy to have said)
Here is the link to the interview, which will only be available for a few more weeks.
Florence Grivel: It is 8h21, hello Michelle Bailat-Jones.
Michelle Bailat-Jones: Hello.
FG: You are a Swiss-American writer and you’ve just published a highly-anticipated English translation of CF Ramuz’s Beauty on Earth with Onesuch Press. This is a highly anticipated book because, if what I’ve heard is correct, it has never before been translated except for an unsigned version published just after its French publication, in, I believe, the beginning of the 1930s.
FG: We’re going to come back to this, but first I’d like to ask you something I’m really curious about. You live in Puidoux, in the hills above Lake Geneva, in the very countryside Ramuz speaks so much about. Is this one of the reasons you wanted to translate this author?
MBJ: Yes, exactly. When I first arrived in Switzerland, people gave me a number of Swiss books and Ramuz was obviously one of the first I received (in fact it was my mother-in-law who gave him to me). And I discovered in this book a vision of Switzerland that I didn’t know before, a vision I found extremely beautiful. So I very much wanted to translate Ramuz, to throw myself into his world, to discover his universe.
FG: When you say a beautiful vision of Switzerland, what does that mean more precisely?
MBJ: On the one hand, it’s a pastoral vision – with the lake and the mountains
FG: The background of a painting.
MBJ: Yes, exactly. There is this aspect of his work. And then what I love about Ramuz is how he looks in detail at people, (he has) a very particular way of creating detail… (mumbles about the story taking place in the past and how beautiful the book is – totally lost my train of thought)
FG: The story of Beauty on Earth is the story of Juliette, a young 18 year old orphan who arrives one day in a village in Vaud. She is from Cuba. And she lives at first with her uncle, a café owner, who remains her only family. And her beauty, her difference, will radiate in a way that ends up hurting the village…
MBJ: Yes, her beauty destroys the village,
FG: Exactly, and this novel, published in 1927, remains relevant even today. Maybe this is what fascinates you about this book?
MBJ: Yes, I think that the idea that a foreign person who comes to a new country, someone who is very exotic, who upsets the mores and attitudes of the people (in this new country), this is something that happens even today.
FG: Especially today.
MBJ: Exactly, this is very much a topic that we can still really discuss.
FG: A translation is something anchored in its time period, in the 30s Ramuz was translated into German, for example, and there was a kind of polemic because of its relationship to traditions/customs was something that spoke to the nationalist propaganda of the time. Ramuz translated into English in 2014, what kind of story does that tell?
MBJ: Hmm, that’s a very good question. I think the thing that surprises me a lot with Ramuz is that this is an author who is extremely modern. He deals with “modernist” themes in the sense that he is looking at the difficulties between the two wars, for example, the psychology of people between the two wars, and this is something that is still relevant for us today. So then to put this into English, I think this is still meaningful today. Despite the particularities of his French, I believe this is a text that resonates in English.
FG: Michelle Bailat-Jones, Ramuz’s writing is very particular, as you’ve just said, there is both “plomb and celeste” (NB: a particular way of describing his style, both weight and weightlessness might be one way of translating this) in the way of fashioning the words. What did you discover, as a young woman, when working through this text?
MBJ: For me, what I find in Ramuz’s work is that he has a completely fascinating way of moving the narrative framework between the reader, the narrator, the characters, and even him… because I think that Ramuz himself is also there inside the text. So, there is this frame that is changing all the time, the size of the frame changes between the “we” of the village, and the characters and the people he is describing. I find this to be completely unique. It is only in Ramuz’s texts, in his style, that we find this way of— I don’t know how to say it—this way of maneuvering throughout the story. And this is something I found to be extremely beautiful. While translating this book, and I really wanted to keep this in the English text. It’s destabilizing for (Francophone) readers, and I wanted English readers to be just as…
FG: Immersed in this.
FG: Something interesting, at least something that interested me about this idea of translating Ramuz into English is that English is an efficient language…it has absolutely nothing to do with Ramuz’s French, how did you render this language, beside this idea of a moving framework?
MBJ: I really tried to remain extremely faithful to Ramuz’s French, by doing this I think that I created an English that is not exactly a normal English, and because of this I’m asking the readers of this English translation to keep their minds open to this. I kept faithful to Ramuz’s movement, to his grammar, which means in turn that the English is also changed… and so it’s actually a much less-efficient English.
FG: And what about the regional expressions, the traditional/local words, how do you work those into the text, how do you make them come alive in English?
MBJ: I tried to find the same kind of pastoral, bucolic words, things like that – for the plants, and the flowers, all that, just being very specific, and sometimes I kept a word or certain small expressions in French.
FG: Like what, for example, do you have something in mind?
MBJ: Sorry, not off the top of my head…
FG: Michelle Bailat-Jones, how does one approach Ramuz, how does a translation begin?
MBJ: In reading, for me it is about a deep reading, reading the text over and over. I have to find a way to get Ramuz’s voice into my head. So now I have this little Ramuz voice in my head—I hope it’s really his although I can’t be sure. I think I read this book at least five or six times before even starting the translation, at that point I began to play a little bit with paragraphs and words. Also in re-writing a lot. I think that I re-wrote the beginning, the first three chapters, two or three times, until I found the right narrator, the narrator that worked alongside Ramuz’s narrator but in English… it was a kind of detail work.
FG: This fairly pessimistic vision that moves throughout the book…
MBJ: Yes, it’s sad…
FG: Sad, isn’t it? But is this also something that interested you?
MBJ: Yes, a lot. I really like… in fact, this is what I mean by Ramuz’s modernism. In the sense that everyone in the book is extremely sad, everyone is angry… they have trouble with their neighbors, with the village, their relationships…
FG: Yes, it’s like the lightness or the beauty of this young woman…hmm, I’m not sure how to say it, it’s as if everyone is confronted with their inner darknesses.
MBJ: Exactly, no one can stand the beauty of this woman… and everyone falls apart, everything destroys itself.
FG: Would you like to translate more Ramuz? I know that before Beauty on Earth, you translated a few of his short stories. Would you like to start another Ramuz project?
MBJ: Yes, absolutely. I am currently working on Si le Soleil ne Revenait Pas which is also an exceptional book… but I still need to find a publisher.
FG: (laughs) Ah, so here’s a call out to publishers!
FG: Have you had any commentary coming back from the English reading public?
MBJ: Yes, it’s coming slowly. I’ve heard from people who have read him now in English, who are experiencing him for the first time. This is a real pleasure (for me) to hear people express their surprise that they’ve never heard of him before, and especially someone of his level. So I’m hoping this (translation) will start to have an impact, to make some noise.
FG: Thank you (etc etc) and good luck to this translation.
MBJ: Thank you.
I thought to do a little microscoping work on Beauty on Earth for a change. Here is one of my favorite scenes, when Juliette first escapes from her uncle’s café:
But the door to the house had closed again. The girl was now on the other side of the door, in other words, on the good side. She had all the music for herself. All she needed to do was swim up it, like she would have swum up a stream. Just past the ninepins game was a kind of passage which opened up between two walls behind some sheds. She entered into the passage. She raises her head, turning it right and left. It was on the right. The wall was taller than her, but now we begin to see who she is. A wagon with a ladder had been pushed against the wall; she grabbed hold of it with two hands, having wrapped her shawl around her belt, and then began to climb up the ladder, in the moonlight, because the moon had just come out from behind the clouds, and so the moon was on her hair, on her shoulders, then on her skirt and around her legs. We saw how flexible she was. She held herself crouched for an instant at the top of the wall, leaning forward on her hands which she held flat before her; she was on the edge of a paved terrace used for hanging out the washing, which we could see by the iron lines fixed between two supports. We saw that she knew what she was doing. We saw that she knew how to take care of herself. She did not stand up, did not straighten herself; that would have made it too easy to see her. That first quarter of the moon shone like a well washed ice cube over the Café Milliquet, shining even farther out on the water like a kind of long road casting back its reflection; she crawled like a cat. She was so quiet that she seemed to add to the silence with her crawling. She made it to the other side of the terrace. All she had to do was stretch along it with her body, with only her eyes peeking out.
There are two lines I absolutely love in this short scene.
The first is, “She had all the music for herself,” and how, with these words, suddenly the village disappears completely, leaving Juliette alone with the accordion music, alone with the reader. She is rarely allowed to be alone in the novel, she is under constant surveillance – and here Ramuz allows the reader to be the only one spying on her. It’s a lovely trick.
The second line that always brings me up short is, “… but now we begin to see who she is.” This is the key, I think, to how much Ramuz stays away from Juliette’s mind. He is telling us here that the story is not going to be about her as much as it will be about the others. He is telling us that she will be fine no matter what else happens. That we aren’t to get caught up in worrying about Juliette. I love the daring in this.
I am not sure why this has only occurred to me, perhaps because there is a new Robert Walser translation just out (A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, NYRB Classics). This is excellent news, of course. I love Walser’s work, and I think Jacob von Gunten one of the most fascinating pieces of literature I have ever read. But this new translation reminds me that so many people think of Walser when they think of Swiss literature. This is interesting to me simply because of my work with Ramuz —whom most people have never heard of.
Walser was born in 1878 and died in 1956. Ramuz was born in 1878 and died in 1947. These men were perfect contemporaries, writing incredibly avant-garde literature (although both in their own unique way) at exactly the same time. They both started publishing their work around the same time, and had similar professional trajectories in that they lived both inside and outside of Switzerland, were befriended by various “high-up” literary people, lived both reclusively and in the company of others. The biggest divergence between them would be Walser’s continuing mental troubles.
What is so curious for me when comparing these two men is how one came to be “exported” and not the other. You could even argue that at the time they were publishing, Ramuz was the more famous and had much more of an international audience. Ramuz was translated into German and a few other languages during his lifetime, including a handful of English translations that were done in the 20s (three, I think, not more). But Walser, with only one book translated into English in his lifetime, has become the canonized writer (in an international way) and Ramuz not. Although Ramuz is on Switzerland’s 200 franc bill, so symbolically he is a “national treasure.” I am genuinely curious about the how and the why of this, and can only explain it to myself with the idea of an accident of history.
I’ve been reading Ramuz’s journals again – slowly, and loving them – and yesterday, in the middle of an antique book shop where I’d gone to hunt down some Julia Daudet and Clarisse Francillon (but found neither), I got stuck inside two volumes of Ramuz’s letters. I have found no mention of Walser in the letters or the journal. Did Ramuz know of Walser? Did he read him? I have no idea if Walser was translated into French in his lifetime. But Ramuz made it into German. So did Walser read Ramuz? These things are fun to think about. They were, in a way, both writing about similar ideas, both obsessed with individual solitude and nature’s effect on that individual. Walser much more interested in bureaucracy and institutional questions, Ramuz much more focused on nature and village life.
I assume that somewhere out there – in Switzerland or beyond – there are academics looking at these two men in parallel. I think it would make for a fascinating comparison – from a critical perspective as well as biographical.
I am so excited to be able to announce the publication of my first book-length translation—Beauty on Earth by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz—which has just come out this month from the Australian publisher Onesuch Press. It has been a true pleasure working with Onesuch and I’m honored to have had their support. Also, this English-language edition comes with a forward from the American writer Valerie Trueblood, and I am so grateful for her insight into the novel.
Beauty on Earth was first published in 1927 and it is the story of a Cuban orphan, Juliette, who must come to live with her uncle Milliquet in a small village on the shores of Lake Geneva. He is a local café owner, greedy and inept, and he has a horrid wife; Juliette’s life in this village is doomed from the start. She is so different from these stuffy Swiss villagers, so beautiful, so exotic, that they literally do not know what to do with her. With her beauty.
Unfortunately, the quickest and most common response is an attempt to possess her. And as the story proceeds, a series of men try their hardest (in quite different ways) to do exactly this.
The book is populated with a range of wonderful characters—from Chauvy, the town drunk, to Rouge, the gruff but sweet fisherman; from Ravinet, the malicious Savoyard, to Maurice, the Mayor’s son. And my favorite—Emilie. I won’t tell you about her because I want you to read her for yourself. More than Juliette, I think of her as the novel’s emotional pinpoint. Each scene in which she features broke my heart (several times, as I translated and revised and revised and revised). And while Ramuz has been criticized for keeping his distance (and therefore the readers) from his supposed main-character Juliette, he shows with Emilie exactly how deep he is able to go into one of his creations.
So that distance from Juliette is done on purpose and is there for a reason. I leave it to you to speculate why.
I don’t want to write too much more about the book, for fear that I will unwittingly give away all of its hidden treasures, but I’ll leave you with an excerpt, from one of the story’s quiet moments, when the first difficulties have seemingly fallen away, just before everything falls apart:
As for the girl, she’d gone on fishing with us. She’d gone on having a place among us, when she got into the boat, leaving each morning with us to go raise the nets. She held onto the rudder; Rouge telling her, “Right…left…straight on…” she pulled one of the ropes, or the other, seated on the rear bench. In the beautiful weather that lasted all of the rest of that month and for much of the next, they set out together, the three of them, and this space where she found herself, it belongs to us. It seemed she was right where she should have been: look carefully, beneath the mountain, look carefully, among the stones and the sand, or on this water that is gray at first, then lemon yellow, then orange yellow; then it looks as though we are navigating through a field of clover, upsetting the stems with the oars. She was completely at home here, maybe, for awhile, because there was no one else here; which means that there was no one but her and us; her and us, and these things and us.
The book is available in the UK, the US and Australia. Please take a look at the Onesuch Press website, for even more information.
This week I am finishing up what I hope will be the final revisions on this long Ramuz translation—and it is a pure joy to go through this text again, for the third or fourth time, word by word, reading most of it aloud, looking at the way the sentences work in a series, work against one another, and marveling at how quickly Ramuz wrote this book. A draft completed in only a few months, rewritten again over another few months.
But today I find myself pausing on a particular scene. This happens just after Juliette is settled into Rouge’s house, at the most idyllic point of the novel, when everything seems to be falling in place (and obviously just before everything begins to fall apart). It is a Sunday morning and the entire population of this lakeside village is out singing and walking and enjoying the sunshine. Juliette and Rouge and Décosterd have just finished their breakfast and are out walking along the shoreline, and Maurice (the mayor’s son) is spying on them from a hiding spot beneath some bushes up the hillside. What is also important about this scene is that Juliette has just changed out of her black mourning dress into a brightly colored Caribbean-style dress.
Lui, là-haut, regarde toujours. Il a vue que les montagnes en ce moment avaient été atteintes sur leur côté par le soleil qui descendait, en même temps que sa lumière était moins blanche ; il y avait comme du miel contre les parois de rocher. Plus bas, sur la pente des prés, c’était comme de la poudre d’or ; au-dessus des bois, une cendre chaude. Tout se faisait beau, tout se faisait plus beau encore, comme dans une rivalité. Toutes les choses qui se font belles, toujours plus belles, l’eau, la montagne, le ciel, ce qui est liquide, ce qui est solide, ce qui n’est ni solide, ni liquide, mais tout tient ensemble ; il y avait comme une entente, un continuel échange de l’une à l’autre chose, et entre toutes les choses qui sont. Et autour d’elle et à cause d’elle, comme il pense et se dit là-haut. Il y a une place pour la beauté…
[Up on the mountain, he was still watching. He had seen that at this moment the mountains were touched on their side by the sun dipping down, at the same time the light turned less white; there was a color like honey between the walls of rock. Lower down, on the slope of the fields, it was like powdered gold; above the woods, like warm cinders. Everything was making itself beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry. All these things making themselves more beautiful, always more beautiful, the water, the mountain, the sky, all that is liquid, all that is solid, all that is neither solid nor liquid, but it all holds together; it was like an agreement, a continual exchange from one thing to another thing, and between everything that exists. And around her and because of her—what he is thinking and telling himself up there. There is a place for beauty… ]
Ramuz does so much with this idea of Juliette as a figure of nature. She is so much more than a person, she is more-than-human. In this scene she is adding to the natural setting, she is a part of it, but later she will both create the atmosphere and be destroyed by it. She is absolutely enmeshed with the natural setting and this is something Ramuz does particularly well – his characters are never separate from their surroundings, but fundamentally altered by the mountains, the sun, the snow, the fields and all the workings of the natural world. I do not know of another writer (off-hand) who does this in quite the same way.
I have mentioned before how much I love the international journal Cerise Press—consistently excellent content and a lovely design as well. But I’m extra delighted about their latest, the Spring 2013 issue, as it includes my translation of a 1906 short story by Ramuz. This particular story was originally published in the Journal de Genève in 1906, and as far as I can find was never anthologized elsewhere or re-published.
Ramuz is especially good at writing about old women, old maids in fact, and this story, aptly named “The Two Old Maids” is one that showcases that skill. The story is really only a very brief portrait—a single evening in the night of two older seamstress sisters living in a small town when they get a glimpse of a life that was denied to them.
My favorite part of the entire story is when Ramuz steps back and sets the scene – just before the women sit down at the window to look out into the garden (which is an action that will devastate them – this looking out – best not to look out):
And so the daylight departed slowly from the back of the room up to where they were sitting. The furniture entered into the shadow; it appeared to be drowning. The shadow began at the base and then rose like water, until eventually each piece was submerged.
Looking outside, the light was a surprise because it was still so bright yet already dark inside. The sky was yellow, then it became green. A gust of wind bent the branches on the trees.
A large garden extended in front of the ladies’ house. The garden belonged to Mr. Loup, the surveyor. The trees were all black too, making great masses in the sky. In between them, a bit of lighter colored grass stuck out. Then there was a movement in the air. Up above, the green had gone, turned to blue, darkened and a star began to shine at that moment, opened like an eye.
Oh, what softness was on everything! The evening lies down, lets itself go. A renunciation. And then noises come from further away, weaken and disappear. So good to breathe in this silence! Even if it makes lonely souls sad.
You can read the entire translation – and the rest of this excellent issue here. Enjoy!
Over the weekend I had one of those real-life/literature cross-over moments that had to do with wine and Ramuz. I was visiting my mother-in-law and on Saturday noon we went to some of her friends for an easy lunch. They served us a wine from the canton of Valais; the wine was an Amigne, which I haven’t had in ages, but it’s a lovely and quite sweet white. There are several grape varieties grown only in Switzerland and this is one of them. Another is Humagne. Both are quite nice.
I cannot drink either an Amigne or an Humagne without thinking of Ramuz. In his short story, “Phimonette,” which I translated for the American journal Metamorphoses this past spring, there is a mention of this wine, but it’s done in quite a funny way. I wrote about the story here, but I can say briefly that it is the story of an old woman who believes she’s young again. She’s gone to meet the youth of the Alpine village where they are dancing in an abandoned hayloft and she’s pretending to be waiting for her fiancé who has gone down into the valley to save money for their wedding. The young people tease her because the way she’s lost her grip on reality is somehow funny, but it’s also very sad and the story is, at heart, really heartbreaking.
In any case, there is a moment in the story when the young people are teasing her and it goes like this:
And everyone was beside her asking questions, and among them Justin said, “So you’ve had news then?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “Good news, not like the rest. He’s coming back. Just when, I’m not exactly sure. He told me, ‘Just a bit longer, you know, you’re a brave girl… when I’ll have the money, you know, a full handkerchief or two, for the bed, and a chest of drawers.’ He told me, ‘in eight days, eight and a half days.’”
But Justin had an idea. And as she was still talking, and the others were asking her, “What’s your fiancé’s name?” and she said, “His name is Joseph” and they asked her, “What’s his full name?” and then she hesitated a bit, so Justin suddenly said, “Joseph Amigne, by God! From Umagne.”
It’s such a great line, and although he is teasing Phimonette, it’s more to show off to the group of his peers than really be cruel. She agrees immediately, delighted to have a name for her fiancé and Justin even gives her “news” from Joseph, whom he pretends to have seen the week before. It’s a powerful scene, both lighthearted and deeply serious. I cannot see a bottle of Amigne or Humagne without hearing that last line in my head.
So I sat there with my company on Saturday, and when our host placed that lovely bottle of Amigne on the table, I thought of Ramuz and smiled and had to keep myself from whispering, “Joseph Amigne, by God! From Umagne.”