Jeanne Benameur – Profanes

Profanes (Actes Sud, 2013) by Jeanne Benameur is a story about long-standing grief, and how it transforms a person, transforms a life. The book involves one very important grief situation and then around that is clustered a raft of smaller ones. Wrapped around and mixed in with this are other smaller stories about how desire works within this context. I think it’s fitting to put these two situations side by side, since grief and desire are essentially forms of longing with vastly different modes of expression.

Structurally, the book is multi-voiced and richly-layered—a favorite of mine. The story opens in the first person voice of a 90 year old man, Octave Lassalle, a retired surgeon, and all we learn is that he has assembled four people to “assist” him in an unspecified project. We are then introduced to the four people—three women and one man. Each person is given a room in Lassalle’s house and a portion of the day: Marc will come in the morning and work in the garden, Hélène (painter) will come in the afternoon to complete a painting at Lassalle’s request, Yolande will come in the early evening to prepare supper and sort through the house’s many rooms and attic, and Béatrice (who is a young nursing student) will come to sleep, to be a presence in the house if Lassalle needs someone in the night.

This premise of strangers coming together in quest of an unspecified goal is one that I really enjoyed. There is something slightly unbelievable about it (especially in today’s world, I think) but then it all felt very old-fashioned and natural. It makes sense that an elderly man of his position would need help to maintain his estate and house, and Lassalle is presented with a certain benevolent (and quiet) eccentricity that makes it easy to accept that he would prefer to create the situation on his own terms instead of finding himself in a medicalized and sterile environment.

Lassalle doesn’t really explain what he is really after—mostly because he doesn’t know it himself. He’s selected Marc, Hélène, Yolande and Béatrice quite carefully, this he makes very clear. But the only part of the project that is concrete is the painting that Hélène is meant to create, a portrait of the daughter that Lassalle lost about forty years before. It becomes very clear that the daughter’s death (and all that happened just after) is a situation that Lassalle cannot seem to move away from, despite how many years have passed. He has gone on living and working, but his life has essentially been an empty one. He doesn’t even really have any memories of this time. Forty years is a long time to efface oneself, and this becomes the central question of Profanes—how did this happen, and can it be undone?

That makes it sound like the book is about trying to “live” again when one has lost the verve for life, but that isn’t right at all. Benameur doesn’t work the reader toward any grand epiphany or attempt to “unefface” Lassalle – except in a very gentle, sideways kind of way. There are subtle evolutions as Lassalle’s story evolves and connects with the individual stories of the four, and there is a general (although muted) movement toward a kind of closure. As the situation deepens (with a kind of mystery at its center—although I think some readers will find the mystery a little superflous), Benameur wrestles with questions of grief and desire more than she propels the reader toward any answers. It is carefully done.

The book’s title is an interesting one: Profanes. This word—and what it means in the context of the novel—has a double meaning. As in English, profane describes something that is outside the realm of religion (opposite to sacred). But here it is being used as in a person who is uninitiated to something. You can say in French, un profane en philosophie, meaning that you haven’t studied it, know nothing of the subject, have not yet experienced it. I am fascinated by this title because within the context of the story, it essentially refers to the idea of being un profane de la mort, a person who does not yet know death. And Benameur plays with this idea (while brushing up against its other meaning of religious/nonreligious) again and again—confirming it, rejecting it, subverting it.

Finally, there is a lot of poetry in Profanes. Lassalle is a great admirer of Haiku and he attributes one of his favorite verses to each of the people who come to the house. These verses change sometimes, or become images that Benameur plays with as we learn more about each character. One of my favorite passages about the meaning and importance of poetry is here:

A l’intérieur de lui, une terre arasée. Il a besoin de poésie, c’est tout. Il a besoin à nouveau du calme des haïkus. Tout ce blanc entre les mots, tout ce vide qu’on ne comblera jamais. Et puis un mot, un seul, et le monde qui bat, fragile, éphémère, tenu par un seul mot.

I’ve made two different translations of these lines—one that plays with the rhythm of the words in English and a couple word choices. I can’t decide between the two.

Within him, a flattened terrain. He needs poetry, that’s all. He needs again the calm of a haiku. All that white space between the words, all that emptiness that can never be filled. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.

A razed landscape inside of him. What he needs is poetry. What he needs now is the calm of a haiku. All that whitespace between the words, all that emptiness that can never be made full. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.

I’m not happy with the word order of that last sentence – putting all the adjectives together isn’t as pretty as the French original, but to keep it more literal (and the world that beats) doesn’t show that the “bat” here is like wingbeats or heartbeats. So I fear I’d have to do something like: …and the beating world—fragile and ephemeral—held by a single word. Maybe that’s the best solution.

Benameur is a new discovery for me (and I can’t see that any of her work has been translated into English) and I’m eager to read more.

“Art must take reality by surprise.”

From the 1956 Paris Review interview (which is very short) with Françoise Sagan:


Then you think it is a form of cheating to take directly from reality?


Certainly. Art must take reality by surprise. It takes those moments which are for us merely a moment, plus a moment, plus another moment, and arbitrarily transforms them into a special series of moments held together by a major emotion. Art should not, it seems to me, pose the “real” as a preoccupation. Nothing is more unreal than certain so-called “realist” novels—they’re nightmares. It is possible to achieve in a novel a certain sensory truth—the true feeling of a character—that is all.

Of course the illusion of art is to make one believe that great literature is very close to life, but exactly the opposite is true. Life is amorphous, literature is formal.

Read the whole interview here

I am very much thinking about her use of the word “arbitrary” in this reply – it is curious to me and I’m not sure I would agree. But this idea that “art must take reality by surprise” is a beautiful idea, a true idea. She is just about 21 years old in this interview, by the way, and now I’m hunting about for a similar discussion/interview/essay from her when she’s older. It would be interesting to compare her thoughts on art and writing, etc, at the end of her life.

Delphine de Vigan – Les Heures Souterraines

My French book group meets this coming Monday evening, and this month we selected Delphine de Vigan’s 2009 novel – Les Heures Souterraines. De Vigan has six novels to her name, although this is my first experience reading her. Les Heures Souterraines was a Goncourt finalist and translated into English as Underground Time (Bloomsbury).

The book follows two desperately unhappy people—Mathilde and Thibault—for exactly one day. Their unhappiness stems from two very different situations. Mathilde (who is a widowed mother of three boys) is being bullied at her job. The bullying is pretty horrific, so horrific in fact that it starts to undermine the book’s verisimilitude. Mostly because about halfway through, it becomes very hard to understand why Mathilde has even stayed in this office – unless we are to assume that it would be otherwise nearly impossible for her to find another job. This is a detail, perhaps, but one which the author could have easily dispensed with and didn’t, and so it weakened my otherwise intense sympathy for Mathilde.

The bullying, however, was expertly done. And quite frightening. Les Heures Souterraines draws an extremely realistic portrait of a kind of harassment—not at all sexual—that gave me chills. After daring to publicly contradict her boss (at a moment when she was “in favor” with this vain and power-hungry man), Mathilde is subsequently ostracized and then repeatedly set-up to fail or disappoint. The day the novel follows her she is at the breaking point.

Thibault’s unhappiness is less defined. He’s recently realized that the woman he’s been seeing will never love him back, in fact, she finds pathetic, even enraging, the whole idea of his loving her. There is more, namely a drunken argument fifteen years ago that resulted in the loss of two fingers and wrecked his chances at becoming a surgeon. So when we meet him, he’s been working for years as an on-call emergency doctor in Paris, a stressful and unsatisfactory job.

Les Heures Souterraines is a work novel in many ways, and it spends a considerable amount of time exploring how our professional life, separate as we may keep it from our personal life, becomes a strong and unavoidable reflection of a person’s identity. What happens to Mathilde is so unexpected, a completely unforeseen violence and an attack on who she believed she was, that she becomes paralyzed, and by the time she realizes that she must act, do something to change what is happening, it is already too late. For Thibault, the disconnect between the person he wanted to be and the person he finds he has become is so great that he has simply become numb.

De Vigan sets up the expectation that Mathilde and Thibault are destined to meet on the day in question and that this meeting will change the course of their lives. I won’t give anything away, except to say that de Vigan both fulfills this expectation and completely subverts it. That dual result is as frustrating as it is thought-provoking—I suspect my book group will have much to discuss.

Although I read this book in two sittings, and last night I literally could not put it down, I also found myself mostly reading for Mathilde’s story and quite uninterested in Thibault, except as a possible catalyst for Mathilde getting out of her difficult situation. I don’t think this was an inherent problem of the novel’s dual narrative, a technique I usually like, but more because of the contrast between Mathilde and Thibault, which could easily be described as active and passive. Some of the problem comes from Thibault’s psychological state on the day in question—he is so numb that he is difficult to access—but it’s also because de Vigan seems content to leave him more of a sketch compared to the intricately detailed portrait she creates of Mathilde.

After this first experience, I’ll be interested in reading more de Vigan. She is apparently best known for an earlier novel, No et Moi. Her other books include both autobiographical works and true fiction. I’m always quicker to pick up fiction, and her novels seem to favor urban-setting solitude narratives, something I feel (although I’m saying this off-the-cuff and could be wrong) that not many contemporary women writers take as their subject. Loneliness in a domestic setting, yes, loneliness within a couple or because of a broken family setting, yes, but a book that explores the loneliness of the greater urban world seen through a female protagonist strikes me as relatively unique.

a review of the new Madame Bovary translation

I’ve recently come across three excellent articles, all about matters close to my own heart. I’ll mention the first one today and get to the two others either tomorrow or Monday.

The first is Julian Barnes’ Writer’s Writer and Writer’s Writer’s Writer from last week’s London Review of Books. This is not only a thorough and excellent review of Lydia Davis’ much-celebrated and much-discussed new translation of Madame Bovary, it is also a careful discussion of what literary translation is all about and what kind of choices translators must make.

With careful and good-natured severity (the best kind), he explains many of Davis’ choices and compares them to other, previous English versions of Madame Bovary. These comparisons are wonderful for a details enthusiast like me, as each reveals how the various translators interpreted or compromised the original.

I haven’t read Madame Bovary in translation, and I didn’t really plan to until reading this article, but as a translator I am now extremely interested in the choices that its previous translators have made. One choice that Davis made came as a surprise to me – she wanted to mirror Flaubert’s grammar and sentence structure as much as possible. This is a curious choice. Often a French sentence is a little turned around compared to an English sentence, not in terms of subject/verb or the big important parts of the sentence, but in terms of the little clauses and the commas. This is part of the musicality of French, and something that English doesn’t necessarily have.

As Barnes suggests, and I would agree, to keep Flaubert’s grammar in English is a risky decision. It keeps the translation accurate in one sense, but opens up a separate claim to inaccuracy. If a sentence reads awkwardly once it has been transformed into another language, this is a deep betrayal of a writer like Flaubert whose prose is anything but awkward. Which obviously makes Flaubert a most difficult writer to translate.

Barnes’ final critique of Davis is that she isn’t a great fan of Madame Bovary and he wonders whether it is possible to create a truly masterful translation when you are “out of sympathy” with the work. This is an excellent question. I would tend to say no. If you cannot find the beauty of the work in the whole, and not just on a sentence per sentence basis, I suspect your readers won’t either. But Barnes is ultimately fair with Davis, however, calling her translation “more than acceptable.”

For those of you who have read Davis’ translation, or any others, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

loving and (although I'm loathe to admit it) hating Ramuz

A short break from work today to reveal my conflicted heart to you…

Why I love C.F. Ramuz (as a reader):

He has brought Switzerland into closer focus for me, with his intricate details of traditional village life, his sly view of social failure, and his careful dissection of personal vice and caprice

His language is a pure pleasure to read, filled with extraordinary descriptions and unconventional metaphor

He is as thorough as Balzac in his attempt to catalogue daily life. It is clear to me that he literally lived to observe the world around him and then worked extremely hard to distill what he observed into a kind of perfect, polished artifact

He is as devoted to the natural world as he is to the human world, rendering both with an unusual acuity

Why I hate C.F. Ramuz (as a translator):

Too many semicolons

He loves to switch tenses, using a particular narrative authority (like an invisible storyteller) that moves fluidly from looking back upon an event (a more formal past-tense stance) to bringing the reader inside the event, despite it being in the past (a more informal present-tense stance)

His absolute preference for the French pronoun “on” is distracting at best, most of the time it is a nightmare…the last paragraph I worked on used “on” to mean “everyone in general” at first, then later “a group of young persons” but from their own collective perspective and then later he uses it in reference to one woman’s thoughts which is the most unconventional use of “on” I’ve ever seen and he gets away with it only because he’s melding the telling of her story with an omniscient invisible storyteller who is “sharing” the voice with her

And now back to work!

Honoré de Balzac – Eugénie Grandet

I finally finished Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet Friday afternoon. I love how Balzac writes, even when he does narrative summation – something which can overwhelm sometimes in older novels. But Balzac manages to keep the tension alive even when he’s covering several years and lots of events in a single paragraph. Perhaps it’s the power and inflection of his narrative voice. Or the sheer confidence of his storytelling.

Eugénie Grandet is primarily a love story. Although I would argue it has two main characters. First is Eugénie, who falls in love with her cousin. And second is Eugénie’s father, whose love and devotion to his money gives Eugénie’s less-experienced passion some stiff competition. And of course the book isn’t really JUST a love story. It’s about greed and family legacy, about small-town social machinations, religious devotion and martyrdom. This last theme is what I found myself reading for the most. Balzac makes Eugénie into a perfect martyr and her movement toward that decision (because really, it’s her choice) was fascinating.

Eugénie Grandet is filled with all sorts of surprises. The first surprise to me was Eugénie. Balzac describes her in the beginning as an ignorant fool. And she is. But she develops over the novel in such a way that you almost wonder whether he was teasing you to start. For example, the very first time she’s confronted with a difficult choice (between her father’s wishes and her desire to please her cousin), she doesn’t hesitate for a second to find a way around her father. She may be ignorant but she very quickly digs her heels in and decides to do what will make her happiest. That self-will transforms itself into something self-defeating later on as she accepts a series of disappointments.

Something else I find surprising is the way Balzac doesn’t pull his punches. His entire project was to reveal the multi-faceted face of humanity and he doesn’t disappoint. Eugénie’s cousin Charles is a good indication of how well Balzac understood human nature. Charles evolves over the course of the novel and the result is fairly disappointing until you realize how many clues Balzac leaves along the way. Charles’ character develops as a result of circumstances and personality, two aspects of human existence Balzac grasps nearly perfectly.

It’s funny to me how much more often people give themselves Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu as a project. I think Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine might be even better – more entertaining and just as insightful. They are very different projects, if we take the author’s intention as a starting point, but both deal with the fundamentals of existence. A comparison of these two monumental works would be fascinating – I won’t be volunteering for that job anytime soon, just throwing the idea out there for someone else!

Any takers?

rereading Ramuz

Next week I’m meeting up with my French book group for the second time. Our first meeting went relatively well, although I was a little worried about the number of people who insisted we should be reading police thrillers. Call me biased (or well, okay, a snob) but I would rather we stick to contemporary or classic literature. I don’t mind police thrillers and mystery books, I will even read one on occasion, but I’m not sure they provide the kind of substance for a truly extensive book group discussion. I feel kindof guilty admitting this but there you go.

Anyway, our book for this next meeting (a choice I fanagled like a happy little bookish dictator) is one of my favorites from the Swiss author C.F. Ramuz, La Beauté Sur la Terre (Beauty on Earth), and I am contentedly re-reading it this week in preparation. The novel was written in 1927 but is stylistically quite modern with an unusual narrative approach. The narrator implicates the reader in the telling of the story as though the reader, alongside the narrator, was actually standing inside the frame of many scenes, looking in on the action like an invisible presence. When I first read the book, I remember feeling kind of strange and unsteady, it was such a direct request for me to join in, but the more I’ve read the book, and the fact that the story takes place in a village just down the hill from where I now live, makes me enjoy the level of participation Ramuz demands.

Rereading is such a different experience compared to the first time you get your hands on a book. I’m not preoccupied with what will happen within the story, or trying to figure out the characters; I can spend all my energy just picking the sentences apart and noting details I’ve already forgotten or maybe didn’t catch on earlier reads. Like this next passage:

Les nuages avaient été longtemps sur le ciel comme une couche de glace sale; tout à coup ils s’étaient crevassés en tout sens. Le ciel, apparu dans les fentes, faisait là-haut des espèces de rigoles, comme dans un pré irrigué.

I’ll translate that in a second, but I want to describe the region where I live first because I think it helps explain why I love these two sentences so much. Lake Geneva sits in a lopsided bowl at about 300m altitude. My side (in Switzerland) and in particular, the region where I live, was first settled by the Romans and they built terraced vineyards that slope steeply down to the lake edge.  A series of small villages dot the vineyards and are connected by windy roads. The upper end of the lake opens up to a sharp valley, with steep mountains on both sides. Those mountains extend back along the French side so if you’re standing in the vineyards looking out across the lake, the mountains form a formidable wall. When the weather is bright, the space appears vast – a wide stretch of lake, green forests climbing up toward the mountain peaks and then a wide blue sky beyond, but when there are clouds and the mountains and sky vanish, the space retracts to what seems like a few feet of gray water. It’s an incredible trick of perspective.

And now for a translation:

The clouds had been hanging in the sky for ages like a layer of muddy snow; suddenly they broke up into crevices in all directions. The sky, which showed through the cracks, created what looked like gullies in an irrigated field.

That isn’t perfect but it will do for now. Two things about this: first, he manages to express the extraordinary texture of the moment the weather changes over the mountains and opens up toward the vineyards, and second, he very subtly gives the moment its due joy. In the French version you’ll see he uses the word “rigoles” which I’ve translated as “gullies” but there is another, unrelated word in French, “rigoler”, which means “to laugh or joke about”. So not only is the sky opening up but that movement contains laughter and teasing.

Isn’t that wonderful? And how sad the nuance gets lost in the translation.


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