Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie – Why has it taken me this long to read Rushdie? This is definitely a book to read slowly, however, so I’m taking it a few chapters at a time in the afternoons. I am surprised at how much I’m enjoying the narrator’s tangential way of telling the story. I usually dislike interruptions of this kind, moments which reveal the seams behind the main story, but the voice is really strong and it’s clear that these moments when the narrator draws attention to himself will come to be meaningful later on. I do find myself at a bit of a loss for this particular novel because my knowledge of India’s history is so poor.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens – Yesterday I read one of the best scenes I think I’ve ever read in any classic novel to date. The scene occurs when a wine cask falls off the back of a cart in a Paris street and breaks and everyone in the shabby, run-down neighborhood jumps on the chance to drink some of the wine. Dickens has people building mud walls to catch the flowing wine, soaking it up in their handkerchiefs and sucking on the cloth, lapping at puddles or even chewing on the wood from the barrel staves. It’s a thoroughly disgusting image, but so vivid.

Nouvelles et Morceaux (Tomes 1-5), C.F. Ramuz – Every day I read a few more Ramuz short stories and select one or two to begin translating. I’ve finished three this summer and am sending them around for publication – although I’m finding it difficult to get contemporary journals interested in short stories written in the early 20th century. There are more and more journals interested in translation these days, something I definitely applaud, but most journals are publishing contemporary fiction from around the world, not classic short stories.

Anyway, this week has me working on a lovely story called Les Deux Vieilles Demoiselles (The Two Old Ladies). Ramuz does atmosphere so well and the story takes place on a summer evening, right at dusk, when the stars first appear and when these two sisters have finished their needlework and are sitting at the window looking out into their neighbor’s garden. I love his description of how the shadows of the impending night creep across the room:

Alors le jour s’en alla lentement depuis le fond de la chambre jusque là où elles étaient. On vit les meubles entrer dans l’ombre, on dirait qu’ils se noient ; d’abord ils entrent par le bas et l’ombre monte comme l’eau, et enfin, ils sont recouverts.

[And so the daylight slowly departed from the back of the room up to where they were sitting. The furniture entered into the shadow, it appeared to be drowning. At first, the base of each piece enters and the shadow rises like water, until eventually, they are submerged.*]

A bit later the ladies see their neighbor’s daughter, a girl of barely sixteen, sneak out to the orchard and meet a young man. One of the sisters jumps up, embarrassed and indignant, while the other begins to stare longingly at the scene. The one sister escapes to the kitchen while the other watches the couple. She tries to hear what they are saying and can’t, but suddenly she discovers she can imagine their conversation. She finds the words deep inside herself that she might have once said to some young man. Except, of course, she never got the chance. The scene ends with the sisters trying to console one another, although Ramuz makes it clear that this is impossible.

*I’m still tweaking this passage and making some decisions about how I want to handle it. Ramuz is notorious for his use of the French subject on, which is tricky to make work in English the way he uses it. A literal translation of that second sentence would be: One saw the furniture enter into the shadow, one would say they were drowning. He consistently brings a larger audience, so to speak, into the scene instead of allowing for a straightforward narrator. And you’ll notice he switches tense in that last sentence…just to make my life easy, of course.

13 Responses to “this week's reading notes and some Ramuz”

  1. Ann

    Every time I read a posting like this I think, OK Ann you have to go back and give Rushdie another try and every time I fail. I think this has something to do with the fact that I find magical realism very hard to read anyway, but nothing of Rushdie’s does anything for me. I am in the middle of another Indian novel at the moment, however, which I do think is superb (disturbing, but superb) and that’s Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’. Have you read it?

  2. Sarah

    I’ve only read Rushdie’s short stories in East, West and have been meaning to start Midnight’s Children. I found his voice appealing, so must get to it soon.

    I love A Tale of Two Cities- I think it’s Dickens at his vivid, melodramatic and memorable best!

  3. Steph

    Can’t wait to hear more about the Rushdie! Just these first impressions have really made me excited about my own copy of Midnight’s Children!

  4. litlove

    Your translation notes are fascinating – Ramuz doesn’t want to make it too easy for you, does he! I really like the way you’ve used the passive voice for ‘on’. When you don’t have a focaliser in the passage, a person you can tie the perception to, then I think it works well. Not that I know so very much about this, of course, although I always found translation a really compulsive sort of discipline. It’s impossible not to pick away at it and fiddle!

  5. ds

    I loved Midnight’s Children and am so glad that you are enjoying it, despite the narrator’s “tangential” tendencies!
    Your translation is beautiful–“the furniture entered the shadow…” I have no French, but I doubt that English on its own could have come up with a metaphor like that! Such an exacting discipline, and yet you really have to take great leaps into the void, don’t you?

  6. verbivore

    Ann – I haven’t read A Fine Balance, but I have read Family Matters by Mistry and for some reason I didn’t love it. But I’ve heard wonderful, wonderful things about A Fine Balance and so am eager to try it. I have another of his waiting for me on the shelf – Such a Long Journey, so will probably read that first.

    Sarah – A Tale of Two Cities is really fun, I have such a shallow reading knowledge of Dickens that I can’t compare it much but I’m thoroughly enjoying the story and his descriptions.

    Steph – It’s been a fun book to turn to in the afternoons, his prose is so incredibly confident.

    Lilian – I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Ramuz is great at these little, important moments. Very emotional.

    Litlove – Fiddling away at a translation is something I could do for hours, course I never get anything finished that way! But Ramuz is particularly fertile ground for endless changes because of the decisions he made in his writing and how difficult they are to make smooth in English.

    Ds – I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And yes, sometimes you just have to make a decision and another translator would have made a very different one. It’s tricky….

  7. Luke

    I just came across one of your older posts on Dickens — Nabokov’s essay on Bleak House. Don’t know if you’re looking for suggestions, but just finished The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon which is rather Nabokovian as the author writes more beautifully in his second (or third or fourth for all I know) language than most do in their first, and for the text’s stylistic finesse. Hope you enjoy if you get to it; glad I found your blog–looks intriguing.

  8. Dorothy W.

    You’re making me want to read A Tale of Two Cities again! The last time I read it was a couple decades ago, but I remember the scene you describe vividly. About Rushdie, I’m not a huge, huge fan, but I can see why he’s a really important writer. I’m kind of like Ann and feel that magical realism just doesn’t work for me.

  9. Stefanie

    I am glad you are enjoying Midnight’s Children. I remember liking it a lot when I read in college. I have not readt Tale of Two Cities though and I really am going to need to do that. The Ramuz sounds lovely and like a fun challenge!

  10. Guilherme

    I have too only read “East, West” and ever since then, his work’s been on my list.
    If you want a primer on Indian History, check out “Karma Cola”; it’s a short book and a wicked laugh! One of the best works of non-fiction I’ve ever read.
    Those not crazy about magical realism, should maybe start w/ sth. “light”: “Everything Is Illuminated”, which I’m currently reading.
    There, sth. for everybody! I’m making up for my long absence… ; )

  11. verbivore

    Luke – Thank you for stopping by and for the suggestion, I will definitely have a look for The Lazarus Project.

    Dorothy – I’m having my moments with Rushdie, enjoying the book for the most part, but am also curious about some of his choices. I’m glad I’ve finally read him and I will look at his other books as well.

    Stefanie – I think you’ll enjoy A Tale of Two Cities, I’m definitely enjoying it!

    Guillerme – Lovely comment! And I will have a look for Karma Cola, because I could a) use a good laugh and b) learn about India at the same time. Sounds perfect.

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