Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘French literature’

One of the public libraries near me is a “living library” – it’s meant for the local school population, is not silent, in fact can be quite animated when the students are there for the internet or to have a coffee in the “café” portion on the second floor. It’s a decent size, making it a wonderful resource for anyone living nearby. Also interesting is that the library only stocks “recent” books or magazines, those that were published in the last 10 years or so. (All books in French). It isn’t, then, a place to go looking for classics, but it’s a fantastic place to come across new-to-me Francophone writers.

I picked up Agnès Desarthe’s La Partie de Chasse (now in English as Hunting Party, tr. by Christiana Hills, Unnamed Press) this way a few months ago, and also books by Lydie Salvayre and Pascal Kramer and some others. In my endless quest for the perfect novella, I often pick out slim books by writers I’ve never heard of. Which is what I did last week, and this tactic awarded me with Valérie Zenatti’s Mensonges (Lies).

I am, obviously, always interested in translators who are writers (“interested” is a little slight, to be honest, I’m probably obsessed) and Zenatti is both. With that in mind, Mensonges was especially fascinating because it is many things at once: it is both fiction and personal essay, but it is also a comment on translation as well as the relationship between a translator and the author being translated.

Not all translators feel so strongly connected to “their writer” but some do, and Zenatti writes so beautifully about what the act of translating Aharon Appelfeld has brought her personally. The book—which is just 90 pages—is like a platonic love letter, an expression of extreme gratitude and grace.

The book begins with a first person biographical sketch that you only realize later has nothing to do with Zenatti. It’s a description of someone born in 1932, whose early life is marked forever by WWII: removal to a ghetto, death of his mother, deported to and escape from a concentration camp, years of hiding until he arrives in Israel (just before independence), and then his adolescence in Israel and the learning of a new language. She is writing in the voice of Appelfeld. A daring ventriloquism.

The next section begins in 1979, in Nice, and this is an 8-year-old Zenatti, coming to understand her Jewishness, how it situates her, how it will always define her. She writes of her childhood nightmares and she details what a Jewish child born at any point after the war, when so many survivors were still around to describe what it must have been like, must have felt: the specific fear of “this happened, this could happen again” but also the pointed understanding that “this would have happened to me.”

Each chapter then moves the reader through the different stages of her “encounter” with the Shoah. There are moments she admits how unable she was—her youth, her distance from the war—to truly comprehend the immensity of it, and there are moments when the immensity of it overwhelms her. She writes also of her time in Israel, learning Hebrew, forgetting French.

And then, in 2002, she “encounters” Appelfeld for the first time through his novel 1978 Les Temps des Prodiges (The Age of Wonders), and in 2004 she finally meets him in person in Jerusalem after beginning to translate his work. I won’t give details about her description of that meeting because it is, in many ways, the heart and the secret of Mensonges, and it leads to the final chapter – a fiction, a kind of fairy tale of two children, an older brother and a younger sister, lost in the woods, hunted by an army. It is haunting, and deeply moving.

I mentioned above that Zenatti’s ventriloquism of Appelfeld in the first section is daring, but it also makes sense she would dare it. Of anyone, after translating at least nine of his novels, I suspect she knows what it’s like to inhabit his words.

After finishing Mensonges, I did my research and Zenatti has a long and successful publishing history: she writes novels for adults and for children, she is a translator and a screenwriter. One of her young adult novels—Une bouteille dans la mer de Gaza, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea—was translated into many languages, including English, and was made into a film as well.

From what I can find, none of her novels for adults have made their way into English. I took one of them, Les Ames Soeurs, from the library and will start it soon. I’ve also never read Appelfeld and will remedy that immediately.

(I have read several books this year dealing specifically with the Holocaust, and others looking at political oppression and forms of fascism. This is no accident, obviously, and the echoes to the contemporary politics of several countries are deeply disturbing.)

Cette double identité ravit Françoise : moitié homme, moitié femme. A la fois le dandy décadent et la grande dame du monde, reçue partout comme chez elle, entourée de princesses de son rang et des colliers de perles à son cou. L’image qui collera à sa légende est déjà contenue dans son nom, car c’est un nom qui dit que l’on peut conduire, les pieds nus et vernis, des voitures de sport, que l‘on peut perdre au casino et demander au portier vingt sacs pour rentrer chez soi, que l’on aimera des hommes et des femmes parce que ce qui compte, c’est d’aimer, pas forcément d’aimer bien, mais d’aimer fort. En choisissant ce nom, elle choisit tout ce qui arrive, tout ce qui approche, à grands pas, comme l’ombre de l’ogre se projette peu à peu sur le mur dans les histoires pour enfants.

(This dual identity delights Françoise: half man, half woman. Both the decadent dandy and the great lady of the world, made to feel at home wherever she goes, surrounded by princesses of her rank and draped with pearl necklaces. The image that will stick to her legend is already contained in her name, because this is a name that says: drive your sports car with your bare feet and painted toenails, go ahead and lose at the casino and then ask the doorman for twenty bags to take home, it’s a name that says you will love men and love women because all that matters is loving, not necessarily loving well but loving fiercely. In choosing this name, she chooses everything that will happen, everything that is drawing near, looming larger and larger, like in a children’s story when the shadow of the ogre cast on the wall begins to loom.)

This excerpt is from Anne Berest’s 2014 book, Sagan 1954, which I have recently finished, and which relates in semi-fictional form the year that a very young Françoise Sagan published her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse. This section is the end of a few pages explaining how Sagan chose her pseudonym and it covers the phone book, Proust, and several fantastic & willed coincidences. Berest’s book is excellent, and has inspired me to re-read Bonjour Tristesse, along with more of Sagan’s works. Berest intertwines anecdotes of her own life with her imagining of Sagan’s life-changing year, reminding me (in the best possible way) of Kate Zambreno’s work as well as Lydie Salvayre’s Sept Femmes on Bronte, Tsvetaeva, Woolf, Colette, Plath, Bachmann and Barnes.

Et je pensais que tout autour de moi vivait d’une vie mystérieuse et intense. Tout le monde avait des secrets. Tout le monde semblait en savoir plus long que moi. Je jouais à un jeu que je ne comprenais pas.

(And I felt that all about me churned a mysterious and intense life. Everyone had secrets. Everyone seemed to know more than me. I was playing at a game that I didn’t understand.)

Thus speaks the narrator of Elsa Triolet’s 1946 novel, Personne ne m’aime, which chronicles the life (and surrounding times) of two women in 1939 Paris, following their situation until 1945. This is pre-war Paris and occupied France placed under a microscope, detailed for the reader by Anne-Marie, who begins as an ordinary woman with no feeling for politics, no desire for anything but the bourgeois life she was born into.

That will change slowly as the novel unfolds, but Triolet makes it very clear that there are no instant heroes in wartime.

Through the proximity of their families, Anne-Marie was raised as kind of older sister to another woman, Jenny Borghèze, ten years her junior. When the novel opens in 1939, Anne-Marie is 37 years old and has returned from colonial France to Paris to establish a residence for her family who are meant to be joining her soon after. That won’t happen because of the war, but no one knows this yet—and this separation from her husband and two children is a fascinating element of the novel. So Anne-Marie visits Jenny, who has become a famous film star (she is likened to Greta Garbo so we understand her renown), and the women’s deep friendship is renewed. To the point that Jenny insists Anne-Marie move in with her in her vast apartment near Trocadero. And from here the novel takes flight.

Parties and love affairs (for Jenny), a new movie about to be released in which Jenny plays Joan of Arc, and the stifling atmosphere of pre-war Paris as the intellectuals and celebrities choose their sides for and against fascism. Jenny is outspokenly anti-Fascist but a very difficult person, while Anne-Marie refuses to even acknowledge the question but is generous, loving, intelligent. This juxtaposition is where the novel hinges, where it opens up a ragged line of inquiry on heroics, on wartime behavior. Something that Triolet, who was active in the French resistance, knew much about.

The novel contains a big event that I can’t mention here without giving the entire book away, but the event essentially breaks the novel into two distinct parts, and the second half sees Anne-Marie in a subtly-done and realistic awakening. She can no longer absent herself from what is happening around her. Triolet’s Anne-Marie is one of the best kinds of ordinary women: flawed but strong, sometimes deluded but always intelligent. Even her age – nearing 40 – is an interesting choice. More than anything, Anne-Marie is compassionate. Her compassion, and how it wanes and changes and evolves, is really the theme of the book, and this question already cited in the title – No one loves me – is repeated and examined and eventually enlarged to consider not just the women in the book but all of France, all of humanity. Who loves who in wartime? Who actually loves at all?

Anne-Marie’s story is continued in a second novel, Les Fantômes Armés, which was published in 1947.



August is Women in Translation month. I’m quite sad that to-date I haven’t managed to place any of my women writer book projects with a publishing house. This is something I’ve been working hard toward over the last two years – writing samples and querying publishers. I know that one of these projects will take, but it takes a long time. Patience is necessary.

BUT – I have had published a few short translations of women writers in several issues of Spolia Mag and going back to one of them this month seems like a good idea:

  • Julia Allard Daudet’s The Unknown Woman in Spolia’s The Wife Issue

There is a short excerpt of The Unknown Woman here, which includes my favorite line from the story, spoken by the narrator as s/he introduces the strange woman who has arrived in the small, Alpine village and inspired such curiosity with the villagers:

            What other motive than a great misfortune could inspire this desire for isolation?

I loved working on this story, loved discovering Daudet’s careful writing and vision. It comes from a collection of very time-period appropriate pieces. Early 1900s, the concerns of a certain slice of Parisian life. Both domestic and intellectual. It’s a shame Daudet did not publish more in her own right.

If you’re interested in the story and in Daudet, at the time the story came out, Spolia asked me a few questions about it all. The entire interview is here, but below is one small part of it:

Q: I love the strange atmosphere of this story, all of the things that we don’t know about this woman. I chose it to lead off the issue, because the wife, particularly when we are dealing with the wife of great men and their biographies, can be so mysterious and walled up. I liked the tone is set. What drew you to this particular story?

A: Within Daudet’s collection, Miroirs et Mirages, it really stands out. Not just because of its pastoral setting compared to the other more urban stories, but with exactly this atmosphere you mention. It feels very much like a legend, and I love how this woman remains so completely unknown. We don’t even know if she dies in the fire or not, and I love the possibility of escape that Daudet gives her.

Also, I love the context that surrounds this piece. It was published in 1905 at the height of the excitement about “L’Inconnue de la Seine” (The Unknown Woman of the Seine) and it’s clearly an homage to this romantic idea of a beautiful young woman lost to the world before her time. I can’t help but imagine Julia Daudet having one of those death masks in her salon, and it being a witness to the many discussions and writers passing through. And then one evening Daudet sits down after a party and writes her own version of the story.




Reading the passages below this afternoon and mulling their ideas over – especially after attending an outstanding short conference yesterday with Mathias Enard, talking about his books, specifically Zone and Boussole (Compass, which will be out later next year in English), and how they dialogue with ideas of contemporary and historical Europe – the historical/political and the emotional intersections of individuals:

Recognition, in the sense I’ve been using it so far, refers to a cognitive insight, a moment of knowing or knowing again. Specifically, I have been puzzling over what it means to say, as people not infrequently do, that I know myself better after reading a book. The ideas at play here have to do with comprehension, insight, and self-understanding. (That recognition is cognitive does not mean that it is purely cognitive, of course; moments of self-apprehension can trigger a spectrum of emotional reactions shading from delight to discomfort, from joy to chagrin.) When political theorists talk about recognition, however, they mean something else: not knowledge, but acknowledgement. Here the claim for recognition is a claim for acceptance, dignity and inclusion in public life. Its force is ethical rather than epistemic, a call for justice rather than a claim to truth. Moreover, recognition in reading revolves around a moment of personal illumination and heightened self-understanding; recognition in politics involves a demand for public acceptance and validation. The former is directed toward the self, the latter toward others, such that the two meanings of the term would seem to be entirely at odds.

Yet this distinction is far from being a dichotomy; the question of knowledge is deeply entangled in practices of acknowledgement…

From Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature

Profanes (Actes Sud, 2013) by Jeanne Benameur is a story about long-standing grief, and how it transforms a person, transforms a life. The book involves one very important grief situation and then around that is clustered a raft of smaller ones. Wrapped around and mixed in with this are other smaller stories about how desire works within this context. I think it’s fitting to put these two situations side by side, since grief and desire are essentially forms of longing with vastly different modes of expression.

Structurally, the book is multi-voiced and richly-layered—a favorite of mine. The story opens in the first person voice of a 90 year old man, Octave Lassalle, a retired surgeon, and all we learn is that he has assembled four people to “assist” him in an unspecified project. We are then introduced to the four people—three women and one man. Each person is given a room in Lassalle’s house and a portion of the day: Marc will come in the morning and work in the garden, Hélène (painter) will come in the afternoon to complete a painting at Lassalle’s request, Yolande will come in the early evening to prepare supper and sort through the house’s many rooms and attic, and Béatrice (who is a young nursing student) will come to sleep, to be a presence in the house if Lassalle needs someone in the night.

This premise of strangers coming together in quest of an unspecified goal is one that I really enjoyed. There is something slightly unbelievable about it (especially in today’s world, I think) but then it all felt very old-fashioned and natural. It makes sense that an elderly man of his position would need help to maintain his estate and house, and Lassalle is presented with a certain benevolent (and quiet) eccentricity that makes it easy to accept that he would prefer to create the situation on his own terms instead of finding himself in a medicalized and sterile environment.

Lassalle doesn’t really explain what he is really after—mostly because he doesn’t know it himself. He’s selected Marc, Hélène, Yolande and Béatrice quite carefully, this he makes very clear. But the only part of the project that is concrete is the painting that Hélène is meant to create, a portrait of the daughter that Lassalle lost about forty years before. It becomes very clear that the daughter’s death (and all that happened just after) is a situation that Lassalle cannot seem to move away from, despite how many years have passed. He has gone on living and working, but his life has essentially been an empty one. He doesn’t even really have any memories of this time. Forty years is a long time to efface oneself, and this becomes the central question of Profanes—how did this happen, and can it be undone?

That makes it sound like the book is about trying to “live” again when one has lost the verve for life, but that isn’t right at all. Benameur doesn’t work the reader toward any grand epiphany or attempt to “unefface” Lassalle – except in a very gentle, sideways kind of way. There are subtle evolutions as Lassalle’s story evolves and connects with the individual stories of the four, and there is a general (although muted) movement toward a kind of closure. As the situation deepens (with a kind of mystery at its center—although I think some readers will find the mystery a little superflous), Benameur wrestles with questions of grief and desire more than she propels the reader toward any answers. It is carefully done.

The book’s title is an interesting one: Profanes. This word—and what it means in the context of the novel—has a double meaning. As in English, profane describes something that is outside the realm of religion (opposite to sacred). But here it is being used as in a person who is uninitiated to something. You can say in French, un profane en philosophie, meaning that you haven’t studied it, know nothing of the subject, have not yet experienced it. I am fascinated by this title because within the context of the story, it essentially refers to the idea of being un profane de la mort, a person who does not yet know death. And Benameur plays with this idea (while brushing up against its other meaning of religious/nonreligious) again and again—confirming it, rejecting it, subverting it.

Finally, there is a lot of poetry in Profanes. Lassalle is a great admirer of Haiku and he attributes one of his favorite verses to each of the people who come to the house. These verses change sometimes, or become images that Benameur plays with as we learn more about each character. One of my favorite passages about the meaning and importance of poetry is here:

A l’intérieur de lui, une terre arasée. Il a besoin de poésie, c’est tout. Il a besoin à nouveau du calme des haïkus. Tout ce blanc entre les mots, tout ce vide qu’on ne comblera jamais. Et puis un mot, un seul, et le monde qui bat, fragile, éphémère, tenu par un seul mot.

I’ve made two different translations of these lines—one that plays with the rhythm of the words in English and a couple word choices. I can’t decide between the two.

Within him, a flattened terrain. He needs poetry, that’s all. He needs again the calm of a haiku. All that white space between the words, all that emptiness that can never be filled. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.

A razed landscape inside of him. What he needs is poetry. What he needs now is the calm of a haiku. All that whitespace between the words, all that emptiness that can never be made full. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.

I’m not happy with the word order of that last sentence – putting all the adjectives together isn’t as pretty as the French original, but to keep it more literal (and the world that beats) doesn’t show that the “bat” here is like wingbeats or heartbeats. So I fear I’d have to do something like: …and the beating world—fragile and ephemeral—held by a single word. Maybe that’s the best solution.

Benameur is a new discovery for me (and I can’t see that any of her work has been translated into English) and I’m eager to read more.

From the 1956 Paris Review interview (which is very short) with Françoise Sagan:


Then you think it is a form of cheating to take directly from reality?


Certainly. Art must take reality by surprise. It takes those moments which are for us merely a moment, plus a moment, plus another moment, and arbitrarily transforms them into a special series of moments held together by a major emotion. Art should not, it seems to me, pose the “real” as a preoccupation. Nothing is more unreal than certain so-called “realist” novels—they’re nightmares. It is possible to achieve in a novel a certain sensory truth—the true feeling of a character—that is all.

Of course the illusion of art is to make one believe that great literature is very close to life, but exactly the opposite is true. Life is amorphous, literature is formal.

Read the whole interview here

I am very much thinking about her use of the word “arbitrary” in this reply – it is curious to me and I’m not sure I would agree. But this idea that “art must take reality by surprise” is a beautiful idea, a true idea. She is just about 21 years old in this interview, by the way, and now I’m hunting about for a similar discussion/interview/essay from her when she’s older. It would be interesting to compare her thoughts on art and writing, etc, at the end of her life.

My French book group meets this coming Monday evening, and this month we selected Delphine de Vigan’s 2009 novel – Les Heures Souterraines. De Vigan has six novels to her name, although this is my first experience reading her. Les Heures Souterraines was a Goncourt finalist and translated into English as Underground Time (Bloomsbury).

The book follows two desperately unhappy people—Mathilde and Thibault—for exactly one day. Their unhappiness stems from two very different situations. Mathilde (who is a widowed mother of three boys) is being bullied at her job. The bullying is pretty horrific, so horrific in fact that it starts to undermine the book’s verisimilitude. Mostly because about halfway through, it becomes very hard to understand why Mathilde has even stayed in this office – unless we are to assume that it would be otherwise nearly impossible for her to find another job. This is a detail, perhaps, but one which the author could have easily dispensed with and didn’t, and so it weakened my otherwise intense sympathy for Mathilde.

The bullying, however, was expertly done. And quite frightening. Les Heures Souterraines draws an extremely realistic portrait of a kind of harassment—not at all sexual—that gave me chills. After daring to publicly contradict her boss (at a moment when she was “in favor” with this vain and power-hungry man), Mathilde is subsequently ostracized and then repeatedly set-up to fail or disappoint. The day the novel follows her she is at the breaking point.

Thibault’s unhappiness is less defined. He’s recently realized that the woman he’s been seeing will never love him back, in fact, she finds pathetic, even enraging, the whole idea of his loving her. There is more, namely a drunken argument fifteen years ago that resulted in the loss of two fingers and wrecked his chances at becoming a surgeon. So when we meet him, he’s been working for years as an on-call emergency doctor in Paris, a stressful and unsatisfactory job.

Les Heures Souterraines is a work novel in many ways, and it spends a considerable amount of time exploring how our professional life, separate as we may keep it from our personal life, becomes a strong and unavoidable reflection of a person’s identity. What happens to Mathilde is so unexpected, a completely unforeseen violence and an attack on who she believed she was, that she becomes paralyzed, and by the time she realizes that she must act, do something to change what is happening, it is already too late. For Thibault, the disconnect between the person he wanted to be and the person he finds he has become is so great that he has simply become numb.

De Vigan sets up the expectation that Mathilde and Thibault are destined to meet on the day in question and that this meeting will change the course of their lives. I won’t give anything away, except to say that de Vigan both fulfills this expectation and completely subverts it. That dual result is as frustrating as it is thought-provoking—I suspect my book group will have much to discuss.

Although I read this book in two sittings, and last night I literally could not put it down, I also found myself mostly reading for Mathilde’s story and quite uninterested in Thibault, except as a possible catalyst for Mathilde getting out of her difficult situation. I don’t think this was an inherent problem of the novel’s dual narrative, a technique I usually like, but more because of the contrast between Mathilde and Thibault, which could easily be described as active and passive. Some of the problem comes from Thibault’s psychological state on the day in question—he is so numb that he is difficult to access—but it’s also because de Vigan seems content to leave him more of a sketch compared to the intricately detailed portrait she creates of Mathilde.

After this first experience, I’ll be interested in reading more de Vigan. She is apparently best known for an earlier novel, No et Moi. Her other books include both autobiographical works and true fiction. I’m always quicker to pick up fiction, and her novels seem to favor urban-setting solitude narratives, something I feel (although I’m saying this off-the-cuff and could be wrong) that not many contemporary women writers take as their subject. Loneliness in a domestic setting, yes, loneliness within a couple or because of a broken family setting, yes, but a book that explores the loneliness of the greater urban world seen through a female protagonist strikes me as relatively unique.


I’ve recently come across three excellent articles, all about matters close to my own heart. I’ll mention the first one today and get to the two others either tomorrow or Monday.

The first is Julian Barnes’ Writer’s Writer and Writer’s Writer’s Writer from last week’s London Review of Books. This is not only a thorough and excellent review of Lydia Davis’ much-celebrated and much-discussed new translation of Madame Bovary, it is also a careful discussion of what literary translation is all about and what kind of choices translators must make.

With careful and good-natured severity (the best kind), he explains many of Davis’ choices and compares them to other, previous English versions of Madame Bovary. These comparisons are wonderful for a details enthusiast like me, as each reveals how the various translators interpreted or compromised the original.

I haven’t read Madame Bovary in translation, and I didn’t really plan to until reading this article, but as a translator I am now extremely interested in the choices that its previous translators have made. One choice that Davis made came as a surprise to me – she wanted to mirror Flaubert’s grammar and sentence structure as much as possible. This is a curious choice. Often a French sentence is a little turned around compared to an English sentence, not in terms of subject/verb or the big important parts of the sentence, but in terms of the little clauses and the commas. This is part of the musicality of French, and something that English doesn’t necessarily have.

As Barnes suggests, and I would agree, to keep Flaubert’s grammar in English is a risky decision. It keeps the translation accurate in one sense, but opens up a separate claim to inaccuracy. If a sentence reads awkwardly once it has been transformed into another language, this is a deep betrayal of a writer like Flaubert whose prose is anything but awkward. Which obviously makes Flaubert a most difficult writer to translate.

Barnes’ final critique of Davis is that she isn’t a great fan of Madame Bovary and he wonders whether it is possible to create a truly masterful translation when you are “out of sympathy” with the work. This is an excellent question. I would tend to say no. If you cannot find the beauty of the work in the whole, and not just on a sentence per sentence basis, I suspect your readers won’t either. But Barnes is ultimately fair with Davis, however, calling her translation “more than acceptable.”

For those of you who have read Davis’ translation, or any others, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

A short break from work today to reveal my conflicted heart to you…

Why I love C.F. Ramuz (as a reader):

He has brought Switzerland into closer focus for me, with his intricate details of traditional village life, his sly view of social failure, and his careful dissection of personal vice and caprice

His language is a pure pleasure to read, filled with extraordinary descriptions and unconventional metaphor

He is as thorough as Balzac in his attempt to catalogue daily life. It is clear to me that he literally lived to observe the world around him and then worked extremely hard to distill what he observed into a kind of perfect, polished artifact

He is as devoted to the natural world as he is to the human world, rendering both with an unusual acuity

Why I hate C.F. Ramuz (as a translator):

Too many semicolons

He loves to switch tenses, using a particular narrative authority (like an invisible storyteller) that moves fluidly from looking back upon an event (a more formal past-tense stance) to bringing the reader inside the event, despite it being in the past (a more informal present-tense stance)

His absolute preference for the French pronoun “on” is distracting at best, most of the time it is a nightmare…the last paragraph I worked on used “on” to mean “everyone in general” at first, then later “a group of young persons” but from their own collective perspective and then later he uses it in reference to one woman’s thoughts which is the most unconventional use of “on” I’ve ever seen and he gets away with it only because he’s melding the telling of her story with an omniscient invisible storyteller who is “sharing” the voice with her

And now back to work!