Something very interesting happened last night at my French book club. We are accustomed to small differences in opinion; this is probably what makes us all come back month after month, the idea that we will discuss and debate a work of fiction, not simply admire it. But last night went far beyond a small difference in opinion. I was especially looking forward to our discussion yesterday evening because I had suggested the book – Robert Pagani’s Mon roi, mon amour (The Princess, the King and the Anarchist, tr. Helen Marx) and was eagerly waiting to hear how much everyone loved it. But last night we got settled in to our seats at the carnotzet at one of our local wine bars, pulled the book out of either a purse or other bag, placed it on the table, and before I could say, “Wasn’t it fantastic?” four other women had torn it to pieces. They didn’t just not like it: they called it worthless, they said it was badly written, there was eye rolling and a symbolic tossing of the book away in disgust.
I was speechless, which is rare for me. And we hadn’t even yet received our wine so there was nothing for me to do but take an imaginary gulp and then charge forward to defend what I considered a lovely, unique work of fiction. I suggested it was not supposed to be read as historical fiction, I brought up theories of monarchy/anti-monarchy conflict and mythology, I said Pagani wasn’t writing stereotypes but ironic caricatures, I argued that it was laugh-out-loud funny. I even tried to read passages aloud in a meaningful voice. Nothing uprooted their disdain.
Now these are intelligent women – clever, articulate, worldly, multi-lingual, fantastically well-read. In short, absolutely entitled to their opinion, however greatly it varied from my own.
So why this huge difference in judgment? I was particularly unsettled by the charge of “badly-written” and so started to think back over my experience reading the book. Which reminded me that by a very strange twist of fate,* I had actually read the English translation of Pagani’s book and not the French original.
My memory of the English text is its delightful simplicity. It reads much like a fable. On the surface there is a lot to laugh at – the narrator very gently mocks each of the characters. But is it possible the English version was better written than the French? Is it possible that Helen Marx, an extremely accomplished translator, might have smoothed any awkwardness out of Pagani’s prose? I cannot say until I’ve read the French. I started last night and in all honesty, I do not find his writing flawed at all. Like the English, it is playful and simple.
But there is another difference between the French version and the English version – a thoughtful introduction opens the English version. And contrary to what I usually do, I actually read the introduction before reading the book. So before I even started, I had some notion of Pagani having deeper but subtly portrayed intentions. I firmly believe the book has a lot to it, as I wrote in my review at The Quarterly Conversation, but I can’t help wondering how influenced I may have been by the introduction. And also by the fact that I had just finished reading Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy, which brought me to this idea of literature being a more useful and beautiful copy of life’s first rough draft, an idea which applied so wonderfully to Pagani’s novel as he takes an historical event and then creates a vibrant fictional tale around it.
On the whole I’m amused by our disagreement last night and sometimes this just happens, so there may be no reason behind it, but as a translator I am now very curious how the French version and the English version might be wholly compared, not just in terms of the faithfulness of the English version, but in their aesthetic and textual presentation.
Recently, at Necessary Fiction, in a review of Lily Hoang’s unique story collection Unfinished, one of our regular reviewers, Jess Stoner, wrote about the importance of the paratexts that surround a piece of literature and how this information influences our reception of the text. Just a quick comparison of Mon roi, mon amour with The Princess, the King and the Anarchist brings an easy list of possibly significant differences: title, cover art, font choice, introduction, back cover text. All of this peripheral data sets the reader up for a certain aesthetic experience of the book. I could argue that the English version book with its black and white fairytale wedding photo gave me a sense of romance (like an independent arthouse film) that the French version with its stark white background and tiny wedding carriage (almost cartoonish) did not.
But this is just guessing, with a tiny measure of self-justification. Unfortunately, I cannot go backward and experience Mon roi, mon amour with fresh eyes so I’ll never really be able to resolve this question. But it will continue to fascinate me.
*I had requested the translation from the American publisher for a reviewer who was interested in reviewing it for Necessary Fiction, but once I had it in my possession I just couldn’t resist reading it quickly before passing it along. I fully intended to read the original before meeting with my book group but, as it happens, sadly never found the time.
Also while I was away, The Quarterly Conversation published my review of Swiss writer Robert Pagani’s The Princess, the King and the Anarchist:
Which is better? An imagined literature which takes a true historical event as its beating heart? Or a richly-detailed but otherwise straightforward account of that same occasion?
Robert Pagani’s The Princess, the King and the Anarchist raises this question in the subtlest and sneakiest of ways, offering itself up as a piece of evidence for the truth of the former. Its claim is based on the idea that every history has an unrecorded element, the part of the moment that can never be precisely known. That element remains hidden in the minds of the witnesses and participants. Historical fiction, by daring to go inside the minds of its characters, can work to uncover this truth, to present certain possibilities, to offer a possible consciousness to what are otherwise facts and chronologies.
This beautiful gem of a book, translated and published by the late Helen Marx in 2009, did not get much attention when it came out and will probably fade away in relative obscurity. That would be very sad. So here is my attempt to give it a little more of the press it deserves.
Click here to read the full review.