I will be getting back to this space more regularly soon – we moved to a new village in March and I’ve been very busy getting settled in. I am extremely happy with our new place – even if I will miss our old farm house from time to time. But this new place has…. built-in bookshelves!! Everywhere!! (Which I filled up a little too quickly, even if I did a major book sorting/giving away before we moved. Sigh.) In any case, things are nearly back to normal and I have been reading some wonderful stuff, all of which I am excited to write about. A short list:
- Clarisse Francillon’s collection of stories Le Quartier – wonderful and touching vignettes of 1950s Paris
- Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale – reviewing this one soon for Necessary Fiction
- Chris Yates, Night Walk – these are really lovely nature essays in praise of exactly what the title says, walking at night
- Amy Sackville’s Orkney – read this a few months ago and it just enthralled me
Also, I just started reading Sworn Virgin by the Albanian author Elvira Dones. Here is a book whose cover flap I actually should have read before diving in. On the first page the gender pronouns are switching all over the place – but this is the story of a young Albanian woman who has been living as a man in her village for the last fourteen years. The novel opens with her arrival in America, and the implication is that she will be able to be a woman again. This is proving difficult for her. Promises to be a really interesting book.
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Also, In March I reviewed Christa Wolf’s slim novella August over at Necessary Fiction. I loved this little book – it’s simple and careful and all about memory.
August opens with the words, “August is remembering.” And this very simple sentence (the present tense of it absolutely perfect) directs the reader toward a series of tender meditations on this man’s early life. That word tender seems strange when the first memory called up is about the loss of his mother during a bombing raid on a refugee train, about a difficult conversation with a woman from the Red Cross and 8-year-old August’s medical exam and subsequent removal to a tuberculosis hospital. But despite the implied horror of these events, August’s tone is tender. Perhaps it is the distance Wolf gives him, 60 years in the future, or perhaps it is the life she has given him—a life mostly only hinted about—to fill those 60 years.
Alongside the careful tenderness in August’s tone there is also a feeling of resignation, and a cautious sorrow. Now a widower, now ready for retirement, now a man with plenty of time to be quiet and alone with his own thoughts—August fits the mold for the kind of memory piece that has even become a genre: an older man looking back upon his life and revisiting its twists and turns, its more difficult questions. But August isn’t interested in understanding anything. And this is the key. August simply wants to look at it again. To feel it all again. To peer through the windows of his mind and see the people and the objects of this particular and short period of his life.
You can read the rest of the review here.
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.
I read the following few paragraphs today, from Annie Dillard’s essay « Death of the Moth” which was published in 1976 in Harper’s. It is now one of those things I can never unread, and now I am different for having read it. That is the very best kind of reading. This essay was published with a new title, “Transfiguration” in her book Holy the Firm:
Two summers ago, I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.
Moths kept flying into the candle. They would hiss and recoil, lost upside down in the shadows among my cook pans. Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched — a pan, a lid, a spoon — so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free. These I could realize by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff gilded with torn flecks of moth wings, triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminum. So I read, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and read on.
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when the shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, dropped abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.
And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into a flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical light, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.
There is an interesting essay here on the entire piece and how Dillard came to write it.
I read Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell With Cronjé (Open Letter Books, 2010) at some point over the end-of-year holidays, staying up late to finish it despite the ongoing problems I am having with my eyes (a frustrating kind of eye fatigue). I bring this up only because the book is printed in a lovely but very small typeface called Bembo that, while pretty, made me want to throw the book across the room on several occasions as I squinted in the light of my reading lamp and rubbed at my smarting eyelids.
Eyes are very important to this book, or rather, “seeing” is important. There is a lot of scanning the landscape, watching other people to guess at their decisions and motives, studying the natural world, examining faces, being a witness to both words and acts, and even—in one special instance—the experience of a ghostly vision, a visitation.
Even the narrative perspective that Winterbach uses becomes a kind of “seeing.” The story is told through a close focus on one character, Reitz—he is the only man whose thoughts we are given. But he is watching the others so closely it often feels like an omniscient perspective. What Reitz notices and evaluates and worries at, so the reader does too.
To Hell With Cronjé is a historical novel set during the Boer War in South Africa. While the book is very much about this moment in history, I found myself much more drawn to the elements of the novel that spoke far beyond this particular setting and time. Not that I wasn’t curious to learn about it, but I think the success of the book is particularly related to how much the story operates outside its historical anchor. It is a book of wandering and of friendship forged in war, a book of longing, of fragile and fleeting connections. It is about the dangerous tension between belief and knowledge, and how people navigate that tension when they stand at opposite ends of that spectrum.
While reading To Hell With Cronjé, I found myself thinking often of Cormac McCarthy. The journey that Winterbach lays out for her two main characters—Reitz and Ben—felt very similar to the one experienced by McCarthy’s young hero in All the Pretty Horses. This comes, I think, from the juxtaposition of human-centered violence with a deep study of natural beauty and solitary thought. In many ways the book felt very masculine (perhaps I only noticed this because Winterbach is a woman?), and I know this comes from its focus on war, and on these men living out in the camps and in nature. So I am curious to read her other novels—only one other is translated into English, The Book of Happenstance—to see if she repeats this aesthetic or does something else entirely.
I haven’t said much about the story itself: the basic premise is that Reitz and Ben (and two other soldiers) leave their commando unit in order to return a traumatized young soldier to his mother. These men, some more consciously than others, are flirting with desertion. They end up getting picked up/captured by another commando unit, a band of wounded men and misfits left to survey a small area, and are in danger of being killed for having left their unit. They must prove (to the others and themselves) that they were not deserting.
Behind all of this are the little stories that make the book into such a quietly intense read: the war tales the men share around the campfire at night, Reitz’s attempts to commune with the ghost of his dead wife, Ben and Reitz’s scientific studies of the natural world, the power relationships between the men, the lack/loss of women because of the war, the variations and struggles with racism… the list goes on – with everything interconnected and related. It is neatly done.
Perhaps what I loved best about the book (and how it differed the most from, say, a Cormac McCarthy novel) was how it resisted any grand heroics and how quietly it resolved itself. Its resolution is not neat, nor was it without very serious complications. But it is very human. It asks the reader to be satisfied with something rather messy and a situation that feels both fitting but also quite sad. On top of all of this, the last line is pure genius.
My review of the Icelandic novel The Greenhouse (by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and translated by Brian FitzGibbon) is published this week at Necessary Fiction. This was an intriguing book – the kind of writing and story that grows on you as you work through its pages and story. By the end, I loved it. Here is a little of what I had to say about it:
As signaled to the reader in the very first pages when Lobbi and his father, in the midst of preparing his farewell dinner, go back and forth about his leaving, about his accidental fatherhood and what it means to be going away from his child and the child’s mother, and with the subtext of Lobbi’s mother’s death between them at every moment, the biggest question in The Greenhouse revolves around the possibility of meaning in coincidence:
Dad doesn’t believe in coincidences, or at least not when it comes to major events in life such as birth and death. A life doesn’t start or end out of pure chance, he says. […] Dad looks on these things differently; the world is a cluster of numbers that hang together, making up the innermost core of creation, and the interpretation of dates can yield profound truths and beauty.
Words like coincidence and accident fill the book, as do the possible examples of each: Lobbi’s mother dies in a car accident, Lobbi’s child is conceived accidentally after a party, and even the least important story, of Lobbi’s damaged twin brother, gently re-phrases this same question of the coincidence or destiny of someone’s birth.
Interestingly, Ólafsdóttir works these questions through the narrative while keeping the reader in the shadow of the monastery. There are no overt religious discussions—no direct wondering at God’s hand in all these accidents—but instead there is place, there is the infrequent glimpse of a monk in his robes, there are moments of wonder inside a church.
You can read the rest of my review of The Greenhouse here.
Ólafsdóttir has a more recent book out in English translation, Butterflies in November, (this time with Pushkin Press), that sounds very good as well.
Thinking about it, she might be the first Icelandic author that I’ve read – is that possible? It seems I should have read something Icelandic somewhere along the way… There were a few things I wanted to write in my review about how the language felt, but without having read more examples of Icelandic in English translation, I didn’t feel confident making any real statements. Does anyone have any suggestions? I know that I would like to read Sjón, since so many people whose reading tastes I trust have spoken so highly of his work. But who else should I be adding to my list?
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:
- The Mark on the Wall (1917-1921)
- The Unwritten Novel (1917 – 1921)
- The Voyage Out (here and here)
- Night and Day (here and here)
- Diary Vol. I
- Jacob’s Room
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.
“…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.