this week's reading notes and some Ramuz
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.