discovering Clarisse Francillon

I’ve mentioned the Swiss writer Clarisse Francillon a few times, mostly on Twitter (and maybe not so much here,) but she’s someone I’m very interested in translating. I discovered her by accident one day, by wandering toward the back of the tiny public library in Vevey and finding myself in a little room that I thought, at first, was a storage space. But the sign on the door read “Clarisse Francillon Archive,” so, always curious, I turned the light on and started browsing. When she died in 1976, she donated her personal book collection to the library and they have kept it open to the public. There are about 2500 books in this small room.

A little background: Francillon was born in the Jura mountains in 1899, in the small watchmaking town of St. Imier. Her father and uncle were both involved as founders of the Longines watch factory. She was raised mostly in France, however, and moved to Paris in 1934 to live in a small rooftop garret to write as much as possible. In her lifetime she published something like 17 novels and several story collections. She was taken under the wing of Maurice Nadeau, and he was her editor for many years. Nadeau is often credited with the discovery of a number of celebrated French writers – I’m sad that Francillon is never mentioned on this list.

I am slowly working my way through her novels, all of which were published between 1927 and 1970. She has a vast and fascinating body of work. The book I started with – supposed to be her most famous – called Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook?) is written in an incredible style. Difficult, in many ways, as the sentences go on and on, and the narrative perspective isn’t quite easy to pin down, but it’s also clever and funny and definitely sometimes tongue-in-cheek. She absolutely rejects any notion of linear storytelling. But the book is about a woman who makes a Faust-like pact with the devil to remain beautiful forever. I’ve received permission from Denoël, the original 1968 publisher, to shop this novel around to English publishers, so I am working on my sample.

During the war, Francillon came back to Switzerland, and she wrote a novel of what that was like—being separated from the rest of the artistic movement, safe in the vineyards of the Lavaux. (She lived in a small cabin in Villette for those years, which is a village about 10 minutes from where I live). I’ve just started reading this one, and I think I’m about to be amazingly impressed. She is particularly interested, in all of her books, in women who are dealing with intense solitude. It’s fascinating.

I should also mention that Francillon was a translator. She was the person who brought Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano into French. They were close friends, and they had some interesting correspondence about this work and writing and the world. Her book collection involves a number of English titles – she was a devoted fan of Virginia Woolf and many other British modernists.

I had a chance to slip into the archives yesterday. The room is always dark. I’ve never seen another person in there – which is both exciting, because it makes me feel like I’ve got a kind of secret, but also a bit sad. Because isn’t anyone even in Switzerland reading her? A month or so ago, when I went to check out a stack of her novels, one of the librarians asked me what her work was like. I told her what I thought, but I was also disappointed that she hadn’t read her.

Yesterday, however, provided another treat. I have a hard time finding certain English books – especially older texts – without going to the University library in Lausanne. But I discovered yesterday that among Francillon’s own collection is an entire shelf of English books, and everyone I’d like to read. I came home with a 1950 volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays – The Captains Death Bed.

Francillon may have died in 1976, but she is lending me her books at the moment. And it feels like a very special conversation.

“One must hang it with jewels.” Going back to Woolf

In 2010, I began a Virginia Woolf project, reading her fiction in the order it was published alongside her diaries and her short fiction. Between then and last year, I read her Diary Vol. I (1915 – 1919), the sixteen stories written up until 1921, The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Jacob’s Room and her Diary Vol. II (1920 – 1924).

I wrote a few things about my reactions to this body of work, which are perhaps not very interesting but have been interesting for me to look back on after my unexpected break in the project:

And now I am picking up the threads of this reading again. I spent most of last year moving very slowly through the second volume of her diaries, which cover the periods when she is writing Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway. There is a lot of worrying over the reception of her writing; this is always interesting. But also much more confidence in her artistic vision. In both Vol. I and Vol. II she spends a lot of her time talking about the people in her life, her friends and family, as well as domestic concerns – but in Vol. II she expands on her thoughts about writing and literature, and her own fiction as well.

In February 1924, she writes:

I’m working at The Hours, & I think it a very interesting attempt; I may have found my mine this time I think. I may get all my gold out. The great thing is never to feel bored with one’s own writing. That is the signal for a change—never mind what, so long as it brings interest. And my vein of gold lies so deep, in such bent channels. To get it I must forge ahead, stoop & grope. But it is gold of a kind I think.

In terms of catching up, I’ve actually already read Mrs. Dalloway twice, but I think I’ll reread it once more as I get started on Vol. III. And I’m actually behind on the short stories so I got started on those today. I have thirteen to read that were published between 1922 and 1925. The first of these is called “A Woman’s College from Outside” and it is one of those snippets of scene that works as a full story because of the fullness and emotional specificity of Woolf’s prose. It is nothing but a glimpse into a women’s dormitory and a close-up of a single girl. Although at one point she moves wider to touch upon a few other students and gives this wonderful description, which contains a reference point, a kind of clue, for the ending:

Good Bertha, leaning with her head against the chair, sighed profoundly. For she would willingly have slept, but since night is free pasturage, a limitless field, since night is unmoulded richness, one must tunnel into its darkness. One must hang it with jewels. Night was shared in secret, day browsed on by the whole flock.

The story is not much more than a portrait of a very particular emotion – one I would call expectancy, which makes sense for the setting as well. The woman in the story is waiting, observant, awed. It ends like this:

…she lay in this good world, this new world, this world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, and there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming, ‘Oh,’ she cried, as if in pain.

This is something I find again and again in Woolf’s prose, the ability to combine movement with emotion with exterior (most often natural) scenery. She does this so incredibly well. She conjures up so clearly, so concisely, the often unexplainable connections between the world and human sentiment.

Am very much looking forward to getting back into this project.

a disorganized post about organizing my reading

I had my suspicions that it wasn’t a good idea to leave my 2013 reading so open—no defined projects, nothing to focus on—and I was right, because I have spent the month of January jumping somewhat aimlessly between books that weren’t speaking to each other. Luckily most of what I read was quite good: one exceptional novel-manuscript by the talented Steve Himmer and several books I would still like to write about, namely Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Steve Edward’s memoir Breaking Into the Backcountry about living alone in a cabin in eastern Oregon for ten months. Still, I like a little more continuity in my reading and so I put an end to my random reading last evening and made a proper plan with matching spreadsheet (oh yes, big nerd).

Before I tell you about the new project, I should give a quick re-cap of a current one. Last year I began reading Virginia Woolf start to finish and I am not curtailing that project, but I am reading her diaries at the same time as her fiction, and trying to keep pace—which means that I am somewhere in 1923 (17 July 1923, to be exact), quite a few months after she published Jacob’s Room (1922) and she’s now begun working on Mrs. Dalloway. I’m really looking forward to rereading Mrs. Dalloway but I have a few diary years to catch up before that. And I find that the diaries are best read slowly, a few pages every evening.

There is a lovely passage I underlined recently, one of the few passages in which Woolf writes about children:

We came back from Rodmell yesterday, & I am in one of my moods, as the nurses used to call it, today. And what is it & why? A desire for children, I suppose; for Nessa’s life; for the sense of flowers breaking all round me involuntarily. Here’s Angelica—here’s Quentin & Julian. Now children don’t make yourself ill on plum pudding tonight. We have people dining. There’s no hot water. The gas is escaping in Quentin’s bedroom—I pluck what I call flowers at random. They make my life seem a little bare sometimes; & then my inveterate romanticism suggests an image of forging ahead, alone, through the night: of suffering inwardly, stoically; of blazing my way through to the end—& so forth. […] Let me have one confessional where I need not boast. Years & years ago, after the Lytton affair, I said to myself, walking up the hill at Beireuth, never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having; good advice I think.

And she goes on at quite some length on the subject – it’s a very interesting moment in her journal, one of her most introspective.

In any case, while I do my catching up with Woolf, I need a new project, something to give some meaning to my reading, and as I’m elbow-deep in revisions of one of my novel manuscripts, and as this book is set in southern Japan, I thought to do some concentrated immersion. It is the perfect excuse to broaden and deepen my experience with modern and contemporary Japanese literature. I’ve put together a very preliminary list – works by well-known authors whom I’ve already read one or two novels, works by some lesser known writers, books by as many women as I can find in translation (and one Yoko Ogawa short story collection in Japanese – as slowly and painfully as I can) and many of the men as well.

This is an aside but I took many of these names from the Akutagawa Prize winners – and while there are actually a lovely number of women on the list, most of them have not been translated. More of the men on the list have been translated into English. So it goes.

Here is the early list – and I welcome any additional suggestions:

  • Yoko Ogawa – Hotel Iris
  • Yoko Ogawa – Amours en Marge (quite a bit of Ogawa is available in French)
  • Yoko Ogawa – Mabuta (in Japanese – wish me luck)
  • Yasunari Kawabata – Thousand Cranes
  • Yasunari Kawabata – The Dancing Girl of Izu (we spent time on the Izu peninsula last year and I’d wished I’d read this before going)
  • Fumiko Enchi – Tale of False Fortunes (I am a big fan of Enchi’s Masks and The Waiting Years)
  • Shusaku Endo – Silence
  • Shusaku Endo – Volcano
  • Shusaku Endo – The Sea and Poison (if it’s been translated)
  • Kobo Abe – The Ark Sakura (Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of my all-time favorite novels, it’s about time I read more from him)
  • Kobo Abe – The Ruined Map
  • Junichiro Tanizaki – The Makioka Sisters
  • Kenji Nakagami – The Cape and Other Stories
  • Kenzaburo Oe – Silent Cry
  • Kenzaburo Oe – Rouse up O Young Men of the New Age
  • Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction
  • Taeko Kono – Toddler Hunting
  • Minako Oba – Of Birds Crying
  • Risa Wataya – Isn’t it a pity? (which is supposed to be translated soon)
  • Yu Nagashima – Yuko’s Shortcut
  • Yoko Tawada – The Bridegroom was a Dog
  • Hiromi Kawakami – The Briefcase

That’s what I’ve got so far – what am I missing?

Virginia Woolf – Diaries, Vol. One: 1915-1919

Usually, when I read an author from start to finish, I try to avoid biography. It isn’t that I believe biography doesn’t or couldn’t inform my study of their work, but I prefer to take the work on its own terms first. I chose not to do this, however, with my Virginia Woolf read, mainly because her journals are so detailed, and really, they are as significant a contribution to her oeuvre as her fiction writing. (I have not taken on her essays or letters… yet. I’m tempted to integrate them now, especially as she consistently references both her reading and her critical writing.)

I’ve just finished Volume One of her diaries, which covers 1915 to 1919. What strikes me first and foremost about her diary writing is how different it is, on the whole, from her fiction. She has a very sharp and perceptive mind, that is evident in both, but she must have worked extremely hard to maintain her particular style in fiction. All writers have a “style,” of course, but Woolf was experimenting and so she breaks with traditional narrative structures and chronologies, even rhythms of language and thought. And then when you read her diary and see how concise it is, how succinct and detail-oriented her personal narration was—and I can only assume that personal narration is a writer’s most natural and instinctive voice—it only serves to highlight the affect of her fiction style.

The other thing I find interesting is that before reading her diaries, I might have been inclined to put her in the mad-genius category. This is a category of artist I am wary of because I do not believe that genius requires madness. To be fair, it is also a stereotype that is often imposed upon an artist by others and while some might enjoy the label there are those who fight it. I admit that I was curious to see how Woolf negotiated this tension, or whether it was even an issue for her in her lifetime. So it is curious to me that there is very little self-reflection upon her depressive tendencies, at least in these early diaries, even after the long depression she suffered between 1915 and 1917, during which she could not write at all. The first few months of entries written after this illness are markedly different from her usual journaling style, but she does not comment on the lapse herself except obliquely, and only on a few rare occasions.

I don’t know how frequently Woolf lost herself completely to depression—perhaps it began to happen more often or maybe she writes more about it as she grew older. I’ll be curious to see how the subject evolves throughout her diaries. I know about, but haven’t yet read her essay “On Being Ill” and I suspect she concentrates her thoughts here (another reason to order her complete essays!)

Going back to where I started, I’m happy to find that reading her diaries doesn’t interfere in any way with the experience of reading her fiction. It is easy to maintain a line between the two forms, and there is just so much to admire in her diaries – character portraits, anecdotes, thoughts on writing, exquisite descriptions of nature.

I do wonder about one thing, however, and maybe some of you know: do Woolf scholars believe that Woolf wrote her diaries knowing they would be public some day? How personal are they?


Woolf project: quick thoughts on Jacob’s Room

While on holiday in September, I made some progress on my Virginia Woolf project and finished up Jacob’s Room. This is a title that isn’t spoken of much and although I really enjoyed it, I can easily see why. It isn’t the kind of book that makes anything easy for you—not that ease of reading or ease of understanding is a measure of a book’s worth—but I find it difficult to know exactly how to file this particular novel away onto my mental bookshelf. It fits on the Woolf shelf, but resists most other comparisons or associations.

Jacob’s Room is about Jacob Flanders: his family, his schooling, his friendships and romances, his movement into adulthood. The book moves forward more or less chronologically, but it isn’t at all concerned with fixing the reader into any real time line. We watch Jacob watching the world, and at the same time watch the world watching Jacob. The intensity of the reader’s focus gets caught up in the tension between these two perspectives.

Compared to both The Voyage Out and Night and Day, Woolf pushes her literary experiment much further with Jacob’s Room. Looking at the short stories she published around the same time, it is much of a piece with “The Mark on the Wall,” “Kew Gardens” and my favorite, “The Unwritten Novel”. All very impressionistic with an unspecified narrator shifting in and out within a scene. I quite like it when Woolf puts her energy into representing the movement of the mind and its perceptions instead of focusing on actual story. She does both just fine, but she is so skilled at exploding a character’s thinking into that lovely/strange mixture of feeling and thought.

The book feels light in many ways, on the one hand because Woolf’s writing is so lively and quick but also because it skims through conversations and holidays and dances, all the while hinting at being a coming-of-age novel, but there is too much darkness in Jacob for this passage from young man to adult to work out so easily. Woolf wrote Jacob’s Room during the First World War, although the book is set in pre-war London and Europe. But this impending war hovers over much of the novel, this idea that humanity has taken a wrong turn.

This is a novel to be read several times—I suspect that much would come from a second and third read. There is so much going on in each scene, each jump of thought. Like all of her fiction, when I’ve finished something, I usually want to start right over again at the beginning.

So the project is moving slowly— if I continue reading chronologically, then I need to catch up to 1922 in her diaries (I am currently in April of 1919) and then read the next set of short stories published between 1922 and 1925. And then I’ll happily pick up Mrs. Dalloway for a re-read.

Jacob’s Room & second hand book treasure

I had grand illusions of sitting down and writing about Jacob’s Room today, which I finished while on holiday, but jetlag has turned my brain to mush so it will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that Woolf’s third novel was both bewildering and clunky but overall an extremely beautiful work of fiction. Part of me wonders if this book, instead of To The Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway better accomplishes what Woolf was trying to do in terms of fictionalizing pure consciousness… but I’ll save that thought for a longer post.

In other news, I had a disappointing rejection of my novel manuscript come through while I was on holiday. And so to cheer myself up I have been hitting 2nd hand bookshops with a vengeance. This morning I stopped in to one of my favorites and found some excellent books:

  • The Selected Poems of Robert Frost
  • The Penguin Book of English Short Stories (It starts with Dickens in 1812 and moves forward with about one story per decade—Hardy, Conrad, Kipling, Wells, etc.—finishing up with “Raspberry Jam” by Angus Wilson (whom I’ve never heard of) in 1912.
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death
  • Czeslaw Milosz’s Enfant d’Europe
  • Samuel Richardson’s Pamela
  • Ramuz, Notre Parrain (A biography by Hélène Cingria)

But the crowning jewel of this morning’s book hunt was a facsimile copy of a manuscript page from Ramuz’s La Beauty Sur la Terre. It was just sitting there on top of a pile of dusty Ramuz novels, just waiting to make my day.

Virginia Woolf – The Unwritten Novel

I’ve now read and reread Virginia Woolf’s short story, “The Unwritten Novel,” several times. Something I love about Woolf is her ability to create a story out of what seems like nothing. No real frame, no elaborate “set-up”. She simply takes an ordinary moment and expands it, pressing it further outward as far as it can go. This particular moment begins on a train, when the narrator allows her eyes to slip upward from her newspaper and something about the face of the woman seated in front of her works like a spark—suddenly, an entire life begins to take shape around the woman’s expression:

Such an expression of unhappiness was enough by itself to make one’s eyes slide above the paper’s edge to the poor woman’s face—insignificant without that look, almost a symbol of human destiny with it. Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of—what? That life’s like that.

This is a chatty narrator, who is pondering several big thoughts while she watches and judges and invents the life of the woman seated before her. This is, I believe, Woolf’s best kind of narrator. One which she gives free reign to skip and jump from detail to detail while centering all this rapid reflection on a precise idea—here the idea is how to define or describe life—like a touchstone the narrator cannot keep from grasping at every few minutes.

The woman and the narrator finally exchange a few words, which suffices to give the narrator a fuller picture of the woman’s life and then the narrator leans back into her corner of the train seat and lets a vast story play itself out in her mind. Here is the unwritten novel, the story of this unfortunate woman’s life. I love the idea here that contained within every chance encounter is a full and fascinating work of fiction.

Alongside the narrator’s inventions is a running commentary on how the novelist/narrator is going to put the story together. This is an excellent and subtly-done metafictional thread. Here she is contemplating the other travelers:

But what I cannot thus eliminate, what I must, head down, eyes shut, with the courage of a battalion and the blindness of a bull, charge and disperse are, indubitably, the figures behind the ferns, commercial travellers. There I’ve hidden them all this time in the hope that somehow they’d disappear, or better still emerge, as indeed they must, if the story’s to go on gathering richness and rotundity, destiny and tragedy, as stories should, rolling along with it two, if not three, commercial travelers and a whole grove of aspidistra.

By this time her story has taken on such a life that she’s already got the travelers somewhere in her scene, half hidden between some shrubbery – which of course isn’t on the train – but she’s working out the details and arguing about what’s appropriate for her setting and season. And she gets so deep into her story, is so certain she’s created the real life of this woman seated before her, as well as started in on the details of another man, that she is startled when the train stops and the woman gets down. The narrator has made her an unhappy old maid, off to visit her brother and his hated wife but then suddenly on the platform the woman is fetched by her son. A son! Suddenly the woman transforms into a mother and the narrator is left reeling:

Well, but I’m confounded…Look how he bends as they reach the gateway. She finds her ticket. What’s the joke? Off they go, down the road, side by side…Well, my world’s done for! What do I stand on? What do I know? That’s not Minnie. There never was Moggridge. Who am I? Life’s bare as bone.

But even the transformation of her original characters cannot stop her. The narrator rushes after them, wondering at this new configuration and what story she might be able to create around it. Suddenly everyone walking about her on the street embodies the possibility of a novelistic “life.”

If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, it’s you, unknown figures, you I adore; if I open my arms, it’s you I embrace, you I draw to me—adorable world!


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