Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Clarisse Francillon’ category

I’ve mentioned the Swiss writer Clarisse Francillon a few times, mostly on Twitter (and maybe not so much here,) but she’s someone I’m very interested in translating. I discovered her by accident one day, by wandering toward the back of the tiny public library in Vevey and finding myself in a little room that I thought, at first, was a storage space. But the sign on the door read “Clarisse Francillon Archive,” so, always curious, I turned the light on and started browsing. When she died in 1976, she donated her personal book collection to the library and they have kept it open to the public. There are about 2500 books in this small room.

A little background: Francillon was born in the Jura mountains in 1899, in the small watchmaking town of St. Imier. Her father and uncle were both involved as founders of the Longines watch factory. She was raised mostly in France, however, and moved to Paris in 1934 to live in a small rooftop garret to write as much as possible. In her lifetime she published something like 17 novels and several story collections. She was taken under the wing of Maurice Nadeau, and he was her editor for many years. Nadeau is often credited with the discovery of a number of celebrated French writers – I’m sad that Francillon is never mentioned on this list.

I am slowly working my way through her novels, all of which were published between 1927 and 1970. She has a vast and fascinating body of work. The book I started with – supposed to be her most famous – called Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook?) is written in an incredible style. Difficult, in many ways, as the sentences go on and on, and the narrative perspective isn’t quite easy to pin down, but it’s also clever and funny and definitely sometimes tongue-in-cheek. She absolutely rejects any notion of linear storytelling. But the book is about a woman who makes a Faust-like pact with the devil to remain beautiful forever. I’ve received permission from Denoël, the original 1968 publisher, to shop this novel around to English publishers, so I am working on my sample.

During the war, Francillon came back to Switzerland, and she wrote a novel of what that was like—being separated from the rest of the artistic movement, safe in the vineyards of the Lavaux. (She lived in a small cabin in Villette for those years, which is a village about 10 minutes from where I live). I’ve just started reading this one, and I think I’m about to be amazingly impressed. She is particularly interested, in all of her books, in women who are dealing with intense solitude. It’s fascinating.

I should also mention that Francillon was a translator. She was the person who brought Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano into French. They were close friends, and they had some interesting correspondence about this work and writing and the world. Her book collection involves a number of English titles – she was a devoted fan of Virginia Woolf and many other British modernists.

I had a chance to slip into the archives yesterday. The room is always dark. I’ve never seen another person in there – which is both exciting, because it makes me feel like I’ve got a kind of secret, but also a bit sad. Because isn’t anyone even in Switzerland reading her? A month or so ago, when I went to check out a stack of her novels, one of the librarians asked me what her work was like. I told her what I thought, but I was also disappointed that she hadn’t read her.

Yesterday, however, provided another treat. I have a hard time finding certain English books – especially older texts – without going to the University library in Lausanne. But I discovered yesterday that among Francillon’s own collection is an entire shelf of English books, and everyone I’d like to read. I came home with a 1950 volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays – The Captains Death Bed.

Francillon may have died in 1976, but she is lending me her books at the moment. And it feels like a very special conversation.

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Some Writing

Between January and March this year, I had the very real pleasure (and subsequent immediate self-doubting anxiety) of seeing several short fiction pieces, and one translation, published around this beautiful lit-loving internet:

In January the exciting and new Sundog Lit published the first of my Elemental stories, “miner’s daughter.” These are very short pieces that I’ve been playing with as I work on a longer cycle; they are also auxiliary pieces to the novel I’m slowly writing about a woman who discovers a naturally-occurring nuclear fission reactor (and abandoned mine).

PANK just recently published a second one, called “Mining.”

In March then, Two Serious Ladies, which is an online journal that has published some of my favorite contemporary writers, included a short piece I first wrote over 10 years ago and have been re-writing ever since.  “Gongneung subway, 1.am”

Also, the always-beautiful Cerise Press included my translation of Ramuz’s “The Two Old Maids” in their spring issue. This journal does such wonderful work and this issue hosts a number of really beautiful translations as well as essays. Two of my favorites from this issue are Mary P. Noonan’s essay on Beckett and Jacqueline White’s on Mata Hari.

The Ann Arbor Review published a very tiny poem called “For September.” This poem is the perfect example of something I wish I could re-write now that it’s been published – an ongoing war with my inner poet.

Finally, at Necessary Fiction, I was very happy to be involved in a Round Table Discussion on Kate Zambreno’s Heroines with fellow writers/readers Helen McClory, Joanna Walsh and Christine Cody. This book has continued to stimulate some very interesting discussions around the web, and I highly recommend it.

Some Reading

My reading has been very much all over the place for the last few months—a mixture of contemporary titles, classic and contemporary Japanese novels, and back to Virginia Woolf’s Diaries. I’m also about halfway through Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Woolf and thoroughly immersed—Gordon filters all auto/biographical information about Woolf and her family and peers with lengthy discussions of Woolf’s fiction and other writings. It’s all extremely compelling.

I have discovered a handful of writers this winter worth looking further into. The first is Michelle Latiolais, whose story collection Widow was published by Bellevue Literary Press. She has a novel as well, which I will read soon. And I’m going to write a full post on Widow, but will say quickly here that it was an exceptional collection—the combination of emotional and cerebral that I absolutely love, with narratives just a bit inscrutable but which attain a high emotional resonance. She reminded me of Christine Schutt in many ways (and indeed, Schutt blurbed the book). The second is Mariko Nagai, whose collection Georgic I wrote about here.

I’ve also read two quite different francophone women writers, neither of whom has been translated into English but who were both incredibly well-published in their lifetimes and who walked along the periphery of the “nouveau roman.” The first is Hélène Bessette who was French, and the second is Clarisse Francillon, from Switzerland although she lived for most of her life in Paris. Imagine my delight at finding at small back room at the public library in Vevey that houses the Francillon collection—all of her own work plus the library she donated to the city when she died in 1976. Imagine my further delight when I learned I could check anything out and that it wasn’t restricted to use on site. I toddled home with a tall stack of her novels and am getting acquainted. Her novel Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook) is described in the Dictionnaire Littéraire des Femmes de Langue Française in this way:

L’héroine y incarne au féminin trois archétypes de l’imaginaire occidental: Hamlet, le tourmenté, Don Juan, l’insatisfait et Faust, l’orgueilleux.

[In this book, the heroine represents a feminine personification of three western archetypes : Hamlet, the tormented, Don Juan, the unfulfilled and Faust, the proud.]

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