Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘Swiss literature’

In the last two weeks, I’ve spent many hours on trains, and I had the luck to read on one of those trips a particularly suitable train narrative called De second classe by Janine Massard. It’s really two essays put together—one about an eastward journey, and the other about a westward journey. The essays were originally published in the late 1960s, and although they definitely felt rooted in their time period (crossing borders during the Cold War), they also felt delightfully contemporary.

In the eastward journey, the narrator is riding from Belgrade to Baghdad, sleeping in the overhead rack when he can, drinking vodka at 9am, smoking with his fellow passengers… the smoking provides an interesting passage from this first essay when the narrator offers an American cigarette to his seat mate (after receiving a gift of food to share, despite the neighbor’s evident poverty). The man smokes his cigarette with appreciation and asks the neighbor if he’s American. The narrator then waffles—What to do? Admit that he isn’t and ruin the authenticity of this American cigarette (perceived as higher quality than an Eastern European variety), or lie to smooth the moment over? The narrator finally admits he is Swiss, but the other man doesn’t understand at first because the narrator has said, “niet, svetsi” a word he concedes he’s probably invented in an attempt to say “Swiss” in Serbian. He tries Italian “Swizzera”, he tries French, “Suisse”, neither work, and eventually:

…tu essaies : Switzerland à cause du fameux made in Switzerland, produit d’exportation de haute qualité, mais il ne connait pas made in Switzerland, lui, l’homme à la bouche édentée, il ne la possède pas sa montre suisse, cet homme aux joues creuses. Et à cet instant, tu réalises que, parce que tu appartiens à un pays riche, tu viens, avec ton Switzerland, de dire quelque chose dont les prolongations débouchent sur l’impossibilité du dialogue.

… you try: Switzerland because of the famous Made in Switzerland, high-quality export goods, but this man with his toothless mouth doesn’t know Made in Switzerland, this man with his sunken cheeks doesn’t have his own Swiss watch. And just then you realize that because you come from a rich country, you’ve just said something, with your Switzerland, that can only lead to the impossibility of dialogue.

(Excuse the hasty translation, could fiddle with those commas and that last sentence for a while…)

They finally find a language to speak together, German. And the encounter gathers a different kind of depth. Massard is really skilled at playing with this tension, how language filters culture and how strangers find ways to inhabit their shared space for the length of a journey.

The Westward journey is much longer, and the narrator plays a pivotal role in translating for different groups of strangers. In this essay, the narrator occupies a privileged position as the person who can speak English, French, German, and Italian (and possibly more languages – I’d have to go back and check). There are several stories swirling around the train compartment. My favorite was of an older Italian woman who has left her island (which now belongs to Yugoslavia) for the very first time to travel by train all the way to Helsinki to help her son because the latter sent her a simple telegram: NEED YOU IMMEDIATELY. And so she is on her way, without any idea how to actually get to Finland. The multiple conversations to help her are touching, many different passengers pitch in. There is also the lazy American who receives money from the desperate Russian violinist obviously trying to escape his country, and the British couple on their sweepstakes holiday… and many more.

Massard’s language is rhythmic as well – suitably rolling to mimic the movement of the train, but also the coming and going of different passengers and the image of a long twisty train, one compartment after another. I loved reading it. I imagined translating some of it and got quickly stumped on small choices of syntax and imagery. Take this sample sentence for example.

When the train finally arrives in Lausanne, in the early pre-dawn, the narrator has been speaking with a migrant worker from Calabria, returning to Switzerland after a holiday at home, and he writes a sentence I’ve been trying to translate for the last thirty minutes and am now giving up:

Et pendant un long moment vous regardez, tous les deux, défiler les maisons silencieuses où restent suspendues, presque sans force, les lumières de la nuit.

I can begin this with: And for a long moment the two of you watch a parade of silent houses…

But what exactly are “lumières de la nuit”? Streetlamps? Lights inside the dark houses? Small lights outside the darkened houses? I’m not sure…

And why or how are these lights “hanging”? And what does Massard mean by “presque sans force” – are they dim? Are they feeble or flickering? Is the darkness too dark for the lights to stand out against? I can make some guesses, or eventually just decide to make the image more concrete in a coherent way – giving my own interpretation.

And for a long moment the two of you watch a parade of silent houses, their lights, nearly extinguished, poised in the darkness.

(I know, I know, that’s a bit much… I don’t like extinguished… and I’ve kept the weird French syntax, but ending with darkness is just too tempting…)

In French, though, the image is fleeting and vague – appropriate for its moment as the train is moving more slowly as it pulls into the city. I don’t mind that I just have an illusory sense of darkness punctuated by small lights. The syntax works well, too, with those four commas and the lovely four beats before the sssss of “sans force” and the uplift of “les lumières”.

I secretly love this, though. It’s one sentence of a 100 page book, and I could play with various solutions for quite some time… any ideas?







I’ve written before about Agota Kristof—a Swiss writer, originally Hungarian, who escaped to Switzerland in 1956 and made her life here as a writer and playwright. If you don’t already know it, her work is brutal and provocative. Often difficult to read but yet intense and hard to put down, she is most famous for her trilogy The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie.

I discovered, quite by accident, a small collection of her short stories that came out in 2005, C’est egal. The collection contains 25 very very short and sometimes cryptic pieces. As far as I know, the collection has not been translated into English, although perhaps some of the stories have in different publications. Something I love about her work is the anger in it. It’s palpable and rises up off the page, with sharp teeth. The first story here, “The Axe” is written in the voice of a woman, explaining (innocently? naively? insanely?) to the doctor she’s just called, why she woke up to find her husband dead, his head split in two with an axe. The collection continues in much the same vein.

The title, by the way, comes from one of the pieces and given the context of that story could be translated as It doesn’t matter, or Whatever, or Who cares. This gives an pretty clear indication of the tone of the collection.

In any case, I couldn’t help myself, and have translated two of them here:

The mother

            Her son left home very young, when he was 18 years old. Several months after the death of the father.

She kept on living in the two room apartment; she was on good terms with her neighbors. She did housecleaning, mending, ironing.

One day her son knocked at the door. He was not alone. With him was a young girl, fairly pretty.

She opened her arms to them.

She hadn’t seen her son for four years.

After supper, her son said, “Mother, if it’s all right with you, we’ll both stay here.”

Her heart leapt with joy. She prepared the largest room for them, the most beautiful. But they went out around ten o’clock that night.

She told herself that they had surely gone to the movies, and she went to sleep, happy in the little room behind the kitchen.

She was no longer alone. Her son was living with her again.

In the mornings, she went out early to do her housecleaning and the small jobs that she didn’t want to give up because of this change in her situation.

At noon she cooked them good meals. Her son always brought something. Flowers, a dessert, wine, and sometimes champagne.

The coming and going of the strangers she sometimes passed in the hallway did not bother her.

“Come in, come in,” she said, “they’re in the room.”

Sometimes, when her son was not at home, and so the two women took their meals together, her eyes would meet the sad, battered eyes of the girl who was living with her. And so she would lower her own eyes, and murmur, while massaging a little ball of the soft white flesh from a piece of bread, “He’s a good boy. A nice boy.”

The girl would fold her napkin—she had manners—and walk out of the kitchen.

So much is left out of this story, so much implied. Kristof does this with a lot of her work, leaving implication and insinuation as the largest spaces for the reader to situate themself in, which can be uncomfortable or exciting, depending how you look at it.

The second story has a strange narrator, which is hard to pin down. I quite like that, avoiding the easy interpretations and thinking about this piece in terms of its relationship to the rest of her work–which spent more of its time on issues of war and totalitarianism and psychological oppression, than it did on religion.

The Great Wheel

            There is someone that I haven’t yet wanted to kill.

It’s you.

You can walk in the streets, you can go drinking and then walk the streets, I won’t kill you.

Don’t be afraid. The city isn’t dangerous. The only dangerous thing in the city is me.

I walk, I walk all throughout the streets, I kill.

But you, you don’t have anything to fear.

If I’m following you, it’s because I like the way you walk. You totter. It’s lovely. It’s almost like you limp. A bit like you’re hunchbacked. You’re not actually hunchbacked. From time to time you pull yourself up and you walk straight. But I really love you when it’s late at night, when you’re weak, when you trip, when you hunch yourself over.

I follow you, you tremble. From the cold or from fear. Although the weather is hot.

Never, nearly never, maybe it has never been so hot in our city.

And what is it that could make you afraid?


I’m not your enemy. I love you.

And no one else is able to harm you.

Don’t be afraid. I’m here. I’m protecting you.

I’m also suffering, you know.

My tears—fat drops of rain—run down my face. The night covers me. The moon lights me up. The clouds hide me. The wind tears me apart. I feel a kind of tenderness for you. Sometimes this happens to me. Only rarely.

Why for you? I have no idea.

I want to follow you for a great distance, everywhere, for a long time.

I want to see you suffer even more.

I want you to have had enough of it all.

I want you to come begging to me to take you.

I want you to desire me. Want you to want me, to love me, call out to me.

And so I would take you in my arms, I would hold you close against my heart, you would be my child, my lover, my beloved.

I would take you away.

You were afraid to be born, and now you are afraid to die.

You are afraid of everything.

You shouldn’t be afraid.

There is just a great wheel turning. It’s called Eternity.

I’m the one turning the great wheel.

You do not need to be afraid of me.

Nor of the great wheel.

The only thing that can make you afraid, that can hurt you, is life, and you already know it.


A lovely parcel arrived in the mail today, with my copies of WHAT IF THE SUN…

I love this cover so much – a huge thank you to Onesuch Press for choosing so carefully. It suits the mood of the book. It’s gray here in Switzerland today, which is fitting for the book’s story of a village waiting and hoping for the sun to reappear after months and months of no direct sunlight, and a prediction from a village elder who has told them all that this year, the sun won’t come back to them.

Here is a long passage from early on in the book, when one of the young men from the village climbs up higher into the mountain, despite the snow and the bad weather, to see if he can get a glimpse of the sun and prove to himself and the others that it’s still there…

He kept telling himself that the sun was above him. And, indeed, it seemed that the sun must show itself soon, because above Métrailler was a thinning of the clouds like a cloth whose weave has loosened. And, on the other side of the ridge, a reddish tint had begun to appear. Métrailler raised his head and, growing prideful now with his solitude, said, “I’ll show Tissières, I’ll show everyone!” He arrived at Grand-Dessus, which was a kind of platform jutting out like a peak from the ridge. In good weather, the view extends from there for more than 100 kilometers on both sides. Nothing could be seen, but Métrailler was not looking to see anything in terms of a view. He held his gaze now toward the sky. He sat down on the frozen snow and lifted his head with astonishment toward a window that had just appeared a little above him and to the south through the thinning canopy of fog, on the other side of a great ridge of mountain that we began to be able to see. It was there, indeed, where it came out—the sun—or something that could have been the sun, and it was there that it must have come out from behind the mountain, just in time to hide itself again.

But it had grown red and the rock where Métrailler was standing became red; and the sun up above had not shown itself, although it seemed that we had shown it; it had not risen, although it seemed that we had lifted it: disheveled, and all wrapped up, entwined with clouds which were themselves like clots of blood.

Exactly like a severed head around which the beard and hair still hung smoking; that we lifted in the air a moment, only to let fall again. And already the fog and the darkness had come back to their place.

The book is available from Indiebound, Amazon, and you can always order it from your local bookshop.



Working to finalize a translation this morning, and have finally polished up a short passage that has been giving me trouble. It’s a simple moment in the story, really—a short scene following the death of an old man, a minor character. But what happens in these two paragraphs reflects much of the struggle at the heart of the book. I wanted to get it right. I may still fiddle with this (in fact, I’ve fiddled with it just looking at it here again), but here it is for now:

The woodworker had finished putting in the nails. The woodworker began to paint the coffin black. And the next morning, they left for Lower Saint Martin where the dead are buried in the small cemetery that encircles the church. The frost was still hard; the snow beneath the bearers’ footsteps complained like an ailing child. The road had been opened up with a shovel once again; it was bordered in places by walls over a meter high and it wasn’t very wide; so they raised the coffin as high as they could and the black box rocked backward and forward, looking like a little boat on a little sea amidst the softness of the snow.

Was it to show you the countryside one last time, Métrailler, so vast and beautiful when seen from up here? Was it so that you could see it from above, as if you were soaring, as if you were in the air, like when the bird with his unfurled wings has all that great blue emptiness below him? —but we couldn’t see anything, we kept on not being able to see anything. And the ground at the cemetery was still so frozen that, waiting for it to thaw, they had to put the coffin in a great mound of snow and into that they stuck the cross.



Here is something that happens (often) when I’m checking and re-checking a full draft Ramuz translation. Today it goes like this:

On page 77, Ramuz uses a word I’ve never seen before (other times it’s a word I’ve seen, but he uses it in an odd way). In this case the scene shows two men walking down from a high alpine village to a lower alpine village (the relationship between these two men is one of the funniest and saddest of the whole novel) and one of them stops and points toward the steeply descending valley. He says,

“There, beside the pine tree, do you see it? It’s square, it’s gray, it looks like a large stone. You know what it is? It’s the doctor’s car, celui qui s’est déroché l’année dernière.”

There’s two things about this. First, I’m immediately stopped on that verb dérocher. I’ve never seen it before but it doesn’t look difficult. Rocher is rock. But the second thing is that when I first read this little phrase, I missed something. It would seem – following that comma – that the clause refers to THE CAR. And I nearly translated it like that. But then looking at the whole phrase:

En bien, tu sais ce que c’est? la voiture du docteur, celui qui s’est déroché l’année dernière.

That’s a celui which is masculine, and la voiture is feminine, so they are not connected. That celui is referring to the doctor, which makes dérocher a little more tricky.

It’s the doctor’s car, the one who [s’est déroché] last year.

Dérocher seems simple enough, doesn’t it? When reading the sentence, I just assumed it was a way of saying the car had slipped from the road and fallen down into the ravine. And my first thought was that it might be a Swiss particularity – mountainous country, with a specific verb to explain this kind of accident. But I looked it up to be sure. It wasn’t in my Larousse and it wasn’t in my beloved Robert Historique (if you enjoy reading dictionaries – not saying I might enjoy this, ha ha – this one is wonderful, with detailed etymology and first literary references), so I had to look it up online and ask some mountaineering/rock climbing friends. But in any case, it appears to be a mountaineering term that can be translated either as “falling from rocks” or “to let go” or “lose your grip.”

So now I’m hesitant to make it a common word for a kind of snowy, mountainous car accident (which it could still be), or to give it some notion of the doctor driving his car off the road on purpose. And it’s just one sentence, and the doctor doesn’t exist in the story. It’s a tiny side story… except it isn’t. Because one of the men in this conversation is trying to convince the other man (who is depressed) to give him something. The one man wants the other to wallow in his depression and give up – because it will lead to a financial gain for the first man. What he points out to this man while they walk down the mountain is now very interesting.

And so now, how I translate this single verb (se dérocher… reflexive even!) is suddenly quite important…


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.

Outside of Switzerland, Ramuz is not very well-known but in the country he is really and truly considered one of the “fathers” of Swiss literature. This fact explains why the Swiss radio invited me this week to talk about my translation of Beauty on Earth on one of their cultural programs. (I’m a huge fan of this program by the way – every morning from 7 to 9 on Espace 2).

But because this is an English-translation we were talking about (in French) and this book is meant for English-language readers, I thought it might be useful/interesting to write out a transcription & translation of our short conversation.

Two things I learned from writing this out:

  • it is difficult to make a transcription like this read like a normal conversation
  • introverts (like me) do their best thinking in quiet spaces and not on national radio programs (but there are a few things about Ramuz I’m happy to have said)

Here is the link to the interview, which will only be available for a few more weeks.

Florence Grivel: It is 8h21, hello Michelle Bailat-Jones.

Michelle Bailat-Jones: Hello.

FG: You are a Swiss-American writer and you’ve just published a highly-anticipated English translation of CF Ramuz’s Beauty on Earth with Onesuch Press. This is a highly anticipated book because, if what I’ve heard is correct, it has never before been translated except for an unsigned version published just after its French publication, in, I believe, the beginning of the 1930s.

MBJ: 1929

FG: We’re going to come back to this, but first I’d like to ask you something I’m really curious about. You live in Puidoux, in the hills above Lake Geneva, in the very countryside Ramuz speaks so much about. Is this one of the reasons you wanted to translate this author?

MBJ: Yes, exactly. When I first arrived in Switzerland, people gave me a number of Swiss books and Ramuz was obviously one of the first I received (in fact it was my mother-in-law who gave him to me). And I discovered in this book a vision of Switzerland that I didn’t know before, a vision I found extremely beautiful. So I very much wanted to translate Ramuz, to throw myself into his world, to discover his universe.

FG: When you say a beautiful vision of Switzerland, what does that mean more precisely?

MBJ: On the one hand, it’s a pastoral vision – with the lake and the mountains

FG: The background of a painting.

MBJ: Yes, exactly. There is this aspect of his work. And then what I love about Ramuz is how he looks in detail at people, (he has) a very particular way of creating detail… (mumbles about the story taking place in the past and how beautiful the book is – totally lost my train of thought)

FG: The story of Beauty on Earth is the story of Juliette, a young 18 year old orphan who arrives one day in a village in Vaud. She is from Cuba. And she lives at first with her uncle, a café owner, who remains her only family. And her beauty, her difference, will radiate in a way that ends up hurting the village…

MBJ: Yes, her beauty destroys the village,

FG: Exactly, and this novel, published in 1927, remains relevant even today. Maybe this is what fascinates you about this book?

MBJ: Yes, I think that the idea that a foreign person who comes to a new country, someone who is very exotic, who upsets the mores and attitudes of the people (in this new country), this is something that happens even today.

FG: Especially today.

MBJ: Exactly, this is very much a topic that we can still really discuss.

FG: A translation is something anchored in its time period, in the 30s Ramuz was translated into German, for example, and there was a kind of polemic because of its relationship to traditions/customs was something that spoke to the nationalist propaganda of the time. Ramuz translated into English in 2014, what kind of story does that tell?

MBJ: Hmm, that’s a very good question. I think the thing that surprises me a lot with Ramuz is that this is an author who is extremely modern. He deals with “modernist” themes in the sense that he is looking at the difficulties between the two wars, for example, the psychology of people between the two wars, and this is something that is still relevant for us today. So then to put this into English, I think this is still meaningful today. Despite the particularities of his French, I believe this is a text that resonates in English.

FG: Michelle Bailat-Jones, Ramuz’s writing is very particular, as you’ve just said, there is both “plomb and celeste” (NB: a particular way of describing his style, both weight and weightlessness might be one way of translating this) in the way of fashioning the words. What did you discover, as a young woman, when working through this text?

MBJ: For me, what I find in Ramuz’s work is that he has a completely fascinating way of moving the narrative framework between the reader, the narrator, the characters, and even him… because I think that Ramuz himself is also there inside the text. So, there is this frame that is changing all the time, the size of the frame changes between the “we” of the village, and the characters and the people he is describing. I find this to be completely unique. It is only in Ramuz’s texts, in his style, that we find this way of— I don’t know how to say it—this way of maneuvering throughout the story. And this is something I found to be extremely beautiful. While translating this book, and I really wanted to keep this in the English text. It’s destabilizing for (Francophone) readers, and I wanted English readers to be just as…

FG: Immersed in this.

MBJ: Yes.

FG: Something interesting, at least something that interested me about this idea of translating Ramuz into English is that English is an efficient language…it has absolutely nothing to do with Ramuz’s French, how did you render this language, beside this idea of a moving framework?

MBJ: I really tried to remain extremely faithful to Ramuz’s French, by doing this I think that I created an English that is not exactly a normal English, and because of this I’m asking the readers of this English translation to keep their minds open to this. I kept faithful to Ramuz’s movement, to his grammar, which means in turn that the English is also changed… and so it’s actually a much less-efficient English.

FG: And what about the regional expressions, the traditional/local words, how do you work those into the text, how do you make them come alive in English?

MBJ: I tried to find the same kind of pastoral, bucolic words, things like that – for the plants, and the flowers, all that, just being very specific, and sometimes I kept a word or certain small expressions in French.

FG: Like what, for example, do you have something in mind?

MBJ: Sorry, not off the top of my head…

FG: Michelle Bailat-Jones, how does one approach Ramuz, how does a translation begin?

MBJ: In reading, for me it is about a deep reading, reading the text over and over. I have to find a way to get Ramuz’s voice into my head. So now I have this little Ramuz voice in my head—I hope it’s really his although I can’t be sure. I think I read this book at least five or six times before even starting the translation, at that point I began to play a little bit with paragraphs and words. Also in re-writing a lot. I think that I re-wrote the beginning, the first three chapters, two or three times, until I found the right narrator, the narrator that worked alongside Ramuz’s narrator but in English… it was a kind of detail work.

FG: This fairly pessimistic vision that moves throughout the book…

MBJ: Yes, it’s sad…

FG: Sad, isn’t it? But is this also something that interested you?

MBJ: Yes, a lot. I really like… in fact, this is what I mean by Ramuz’s modernism. In the sense that everyone in the book is extremely sad, everyone is angry… they have trouble with their neighbors, with the village, their relationships…

FG: Yes, it’s like the lightness or the beauty of this young woman…hmm, I’m not sure how to say it, it’s as if everyone is confronted with their inner darknesses.

MBJ: Exactly, no one can stand the beauty of this woman… and everyone falls apart, everything destroys itself.

FG: Would you like to translate more Ramuz? I know that before Beauty on Earth, you translated a few of his short stories. Would you like to start another Ramuz project?

MBJ: Yes, absolutely. I am currently working on Si le Soleil ne Revenait Pas which is also an exceptional book… but I still need to find a publisher.

FG: (laughs) Ah, so here’s a call out to publishers!

MGJ: Yes!

FG: Have you had any commentary coming back from the English reading public?

MBJ: Yes, it’s coming slowly. I’ve heard from people who have read him now in English, who are experiencing him for the first time. This is a real pleasure (for me) to hear people express their surprise that they’ve never heard of him before, and especially someone of his level. So I’m hoping this (translation) will start to have an impact, to make some noise.

FG: Thank you (etc etc) and good luck to this translation.

MBJ: Thank you.

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.


I am not sure why this has only occurred to me, perhaps because there is a new Robert Walser translation just out (A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, NYRB Classics). This is excellent news, of course. I love Walser’s work, and I think Jacob von Gunten one of the most fascinating pieces of literature I have ever read. But this new translation reminds me that so many people think of Walser when they think of Swiss literature. This is interesting to me simply because of my work with Ramuz —whom most people have never heard of.

Walser was born in 1878 and died in 1956. Ramuz was born in 1878 and died in 1947. These men were perfect contemporaries, writing incredibly avant-garde literature (although both in their own unique way) at exactly the same time. They both started publishing their work around the same time, and had similar professional trajectories in that they lived both inside and outside of Switzerland, were befriended by various “high-up” literary people, lived both reclusively and in the company of others. The biggest divergence between them would be Walser’s continuing mental troubles.

What is so curious for me when comparing these two men is how one came to be “exported” and not the other. You could even argue that at the time they were publishing, Ramuz was the more famous and had much more of an international audience. Ramuz was translated into German and a few other languages during his lifetime, including a handful of English translations that were done in the 20s (three, I think, not more). But Walser, with only one book translated into English in his lifetime, has become the canonized writer (in an international way) and Ramuz not. Although Ramuz is on Switzerland’s 200 franc bill, so symbolically he is a “national treasure.” I am genuinely curious about the how and the why of this, and can only explain it to myself with the idea of an accident of history.

I’ve been reading Ramuz’s journals again – slowly, and loving them – and yesterday, in the middle of an antique book shop where I’d gone to hunt down some Julia Daudet and Clarisse Francillon (but found neither), I got stuck inside two volumes of Ramuz’s letters. I have found no mention of Walser in the letters or the journal. Did Ramuz know of Walser? Did he read him? I have no idea if Walser was translated into French in his lifetime. But Ramuz made it into German. So did Walser read Ramuz? These things are fun to think about. They were, in a way, both writing about similar ideas, both obsessed with individual solitude and nature’s effect on that individual. Walser much more interested in bureaucracy and institutional questions, Ramuz much more focused on nature and village life.

I assume that somewhere out there – in Switzerland or beyond – there are academics looking at these two men in parallel. I think it would make for a fascinating comparison – from a critical perspective as well as biographical.


This week I am finishing up what I hope will be the final revisions on this long Ramuz translation—and it is a pure joy to go through this text again, for the third or fourth time, word by word, reading most of it aloud, looking at the way the sentences work in a series, work against one another, and marveling at how quickly Ramuz wrote this book. A draft completed in only a few months, rewritten again over another few months.

But today I find myself pausing on a particular scene. This happens just after Juliette is settled into Rouge’s house, at the most idyllic point of the novel, when everything seems to be falling in place (and obviously just before everything begins to fall apart). It is a Sunday morning and the entire population of this lakeside village is out singing and walking and enjoying the sunshine. Juliette and Rouge and Décosterd have just finished their breakfast and are out walking along the shoreline, and Maurice (the mayor’s son) is spying on them from a hiding spot beneath some bushes up the hillside. What is also important about this scene is that Juliette has just changed out of her black mourning dress into a brightly colored Caribbean-style dress.

Lui, là-haut, regarde toujours. Il a vue que les montagnes en ce moment avaient été atteintes sur leur côté par le soleil qui descendait, en même temps que sa lumière était moins blanche ; il y avait comme du miel contre les parois de rocher. Plus bas, sur la pente des prés, c’était comme de la poudre d’or ; au-dessus des bois, une cendre chaude. Tout se faisait beau, tout se faisait plus beau encore, comme dans une rivalité. Toutes les choses qui se font belles, toujours plus belles, l’eau, la montagne, le ciel, ce qui est liquide, ce qui est solide, ce qui n’est ni solide, ni liquide, mais tout tient ensemble ; il y avait comme une entente, un continuel échange de l’une à l’autre chose, et entre toutes les choses qui sont. Et autour d’elle et à cause d’elle, comme il pense et se dit là-haut. Il y a une place pour la beauté…

[Up on the mountain, he was still watching. He had seen that at this moment the mountains were touched on their side by the sun dipping down, at the same time the light turned less white; there was a color like honey between the walls of rock. Lower down, on the slope of the fields, it was like powdered gold; above the woods, like warm cinders. Everything was making itself beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry. All these things making themselves more beautiful, always more beautiful, the water, the mountain, the sky, all that is liquid, all that is solid, all that is neither solid nor liquid, but it all holds together; it was like an agreement, a continual exchange from one thing to another thing, and between everything that exists. And around her and because of her—what he is thinking and telling himself up there. There is a place for beauty… ]

Ramuz does so much with this idea of Juliette as a figure of nature. She is so much more than a person, she is more-than-human. In this scene she is adding to the natural setting, she is a part of it, but later she will both create the atmosphere and be destroyed by it. She is absolutely enmeshed with the natural setting and this is something Ramuz does particularly well – his characters are never separate from their surroundings, but fundamentally altered by the mountains, the sun, the snow, the fields and all the workings of the natural world. I do not know of another writer (off-hand) who does this in quite the same way.