The Spring Issue of Metamorphoses—the journal of the five college faculty seminar on literary translation—includes my translation of Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’s short story, “Phimonette.” It took me several tries to find a home for this unique and sad little story. It is essentially the story of a life lived unhappily, and a sudden frenzied rush to do it again, this time happily, even if that happiness is imagined, even delusional. The title character, Phimonette, is an old woman who has suddenly shown up at a semi-secret dance party in a hay loft on the mountain where the young people of the village like to meet. Phimonette has lost her grip on reality and has imagined herself young again, this time with a fiancé, and so the young villagers tease and laugh at her, although they aren’t mean. However, as the day continues and the group descends from the hillside back into the village and we meet Phimonette’s sister, Angèle (also unmarried, also an old-maid and also very unhappy), it becomes clear that Phimonette’s delusion will have quite sad repercussions.
This kind of story involving two sisters – old maids – is one that Ramuz returns to again and again. It’s clear he was interested in solitude and the nature of sorrow created from loneliness. In “Phimonette” he pushes this idea to the extreme and shows that this lifelong unhappiness has finally caused a rupture. Phimonette is incapable of living with her unhappiness any longer and so she exchanges it for something equally dangerous – insanity. (I can’t help finding the French kinder here – “la folie” seems so much softer than “insanity.”)
Editions Slatkine in Geneva have been slowly producing The Complete Works of CF Ramuz, fully annotated and commented; there will be 30 volumes in total when they finish the series in 2013, including five volumes dedicated to his short stories. It is an enormous undertaking, but the result is spectacular. I have three of the short story volumes (Nouvelles et Morceaux) and it’s from these annotated texts that I’ve based my translations. These annotated volumes are also a wonderful source of information about each piece.
For “Phimonette,” for example, we learn that the story was originally titled, “Mariette” but that Ramuz changed the protagonist’s name for his second draft. The story was written in about one week in September of 1907, and there are five different drafts. It was rejected by a literary journal in Lausanne in October 1907 and was not published in Ramuz’s lifetime. Fun to think that it found a home in another country and language just over a hundred years later!
Here is a link to Metamorphoses.