Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I thought to do a little microscoping work on Beauty on Earth for a change. Here is one of my favorite scenes, when Juliette first escapes from her uncle’s café:

But the door to the house had closed again. The girl was now on the other side of the door, in other words, on the good side. She had all the music for herself. All she needed to do was swim up it, like she would have swum up a stream. Just past the ninepins game was a kind of passage which opened up between two walls behind some sheds. She entered into the passage. She raises her head, turning it right and left. It was on the right. The wall was taller than her, but now we begin to see who she is. A wagon with a ladder had been pushed against the wall; she grabbed hold of it with two hands, having wrapped her shawl around her belt, and then began to climb up the ladder, in the moonlight, because the moon had just come out from behind the clouds, and so the moon was on her hair, on her shoulders, then on her skirt and around her legs. We saw how flexible she was. She held herself crouched for an instant at the top of the wall, leaning forward on her hands which she held flat before her; she was on the edge of a paved terrace used for hanging out the washing, which we could see by the iron lines fixed between two supports. We saw that she knew what she was doing. We saw that she knew how to take care of herself. She did not stand up, did not straighten herself; that would have made it too easy to see her. That first quarter of the moon shone like a well washed ice cube over the Café Milliquet, shining even farther out on the water like a kind of long road casting back its reflection; she crawled like a cat. She was so quiet that she seemed to add to the silence with her crawling. She made it to the other side of the terrace. All she had to do was stretch along it with her body, with only her eyes peeking out.

There are two lines I absolutely love in this short scene.

The first is, “She had all the music for herself,” and how, with these words, suddenly the village disappears completely, leaving Juliette alone with the accordion music, alone with the reader. She is rarely allowed to be alone in the novel, she is under constant surveillance – and here Ramuz allows the reader to be the only one spying on her. It’s a lovely trick.

The second line that always brings me up short is, “… but now we begin to see who she is.” This is the key, I think, to how much Ramuz stays away from Juliette’s mind. He is telling us here that the story is not going to be about her as much as it will be about the others. He is telling us that she will be fine no matter what else happens. That we aren’t to get caught up in worrying about Juliette. I love the daring in this.

4 Responses to “Beauty on Earth – Juliette’s first escape”

  1. Scott W.

    Michelle – First, a great thanks for the translation. I finished reading it last night and was just delighted to have read another Ramuz novel. If I were a fiction writer myself, I think I’d spend a lot of time studying him, as he does such clever, stylistically unique tricks with shifting pronouns, verb tenses, and perspective. As in Derborence, he occasionally puts one foot of his compass in a fixed place and swings the other foot from one perspective to another. I’d also marked the passage you excerpt above (the quarter moon as a “well washed ice cube” is one of those descriptions that will stick).

    This was my fourth Ramuz novel and quite a different one from the others, with more emphasis on the painterliness of the style – a bit like a painting in four dimensions, in fact. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I loved the brief passage where the narrator provides a kind of list of four or five different perspectives from which Juliette is being observed at once. The cover too seems like an inspired choice, given the swatches of color that Ramuz uses to tell his story. Anyway, many, many thanks for making this available to readers of English, and for being a promoter of such a deserving author.

    • Michelle

      Thank you so much Scott for this comment, I really appreciate it – especially from someone already familiar with Ramuz’s work. Isn’t that “well washed ice cube” just a wonderful image. I also love how he describes the dance floor and the café as the sun sets and the electric lights turn on – both times he uses imagery related to the walls being made out of the countryside around the area. It’s lovely.

  2. Angela Young

    I’ve just begun reading Beauty on Earth … and I’m dazzled by the facility of your translation and – as the comment above – Ramuz’s stylistically unique syntax (and thank you for your note in the introduction about his use of on). As a writer I’m intrigued by the way I’ve been pulled into the story, as if I’ve become a character myself or, at the very least, one of the observing villagers, and as a reader I’m already addicted. Thank you.

    • Michelle

      The way he involves the reader is one of the very first things that struck me the first time I read this novel (and he does this in some of his other novels as well) – the way he lets you in and pushes you back out is just wonderful. Challenging at times, but something I grew to love about his work. Thank you for your comment, Angela!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: