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.