Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘Swiss literature’

This week at The Rumpus I reviewed With the Animals by Noelle Revaz – this book was published this year as part of Dalkey Archive’s Swiss Literature Series:

Paul, the narrator and subject of Noëlle Revaz’s With the Animals, is a rustic Swiss farmer with strong opinions but a weak intellect; he is a man of formidable emotion but has a rather small heart, metaphorically speaking. The book asks its readers to sustain an intimate encounter with this difficult and often violent man, an intimate encounter because of the way the reader becomes so tightly locked inside Paul’s narrated vision—the story unfolds in his voice and through the representation of his thinking as Revaz has conceived it. Paul’s voice is exceedingly rustic, so much so that at first it seems the book might be set several decades before its initial French-language publication date of 2002. As the story continues, however, it becomes clear that while the story is contemporary, Paul is a living anachronism – out-of-date even by the standards of other neighboring farmers.

Not only is he wary of modern technology—he has trouble using an ordinary landline telephone, for example—and ultra-conservative in his vision of family and society, he is also attached to his farm and to his animals in such a way that he actually sits just outside the usual polarity of city and rural; he is nearly more animal than he is human. And this set-up leads to the central question of With the Animals– can Paul be humanized?

You can read the entire review here.

And, now, just a quick word, a more personal reaction to the book. In W. Donald Wilson’s short Translator’s Note, he comments that With the Animals isn’t written in any particular French dialect, that it was an invention of Revaz’s. Also, Revaz does not name the Swiss canton where Paul has his farm, but it isn’t hard to narrow down the options. First, it’s a French speaking canton: either Valais, Jura, Geneva, Fribourg, or Vaud. We can cross off the Valais as it’s a mountainous region and mostly Catholic, Fribourg is quite Catholic and so is the Jura (and most farming regions of the Jura are up on a high plateau – the beautiful but anarchist Franches Montagnes – that give a very particular farming and community culture). I mention this Catholicism as an excluding factor because I believe that in With the Animals Revaz is really working with a particular Swiss Protestant aesthetic, a bit of Calvinism gone mad, if you will, and so that leaves the cantons of Vaud and Geneva – basically any of the rural communities that dot the hillsides overlooking Lake Geneva.

So I believe, although cannot prove, that the book is set in the canton of Vaud – this is where Revaz currently lives, although I believe she is originally from the Valais. And this is where I live. I live in a small farming community in the canton of Vaud, and I rent a farmhouse from a local farmer. I read the book in French first and then read Wilson’s translation (which is excellent, as I mention in the review at The Rumpus). Much of Revaz’s French felt incredibly familiar to me – the rustic expressions, the cold awkwardness about matters of emotion and physical sensuality, this strange tenderness toward the animals. It’s all worked into the language of the book, and this language is the Swiss French that I’ve come to listen to most often. (Not to mention the one farmer – about Paul’s age – who comes into our local shops still covered in manure, still reeking of spoilt milk and speaks in a patois I cannot understand at all. I see this man at least once every few weeks and now he’s become Paul to me, a pure embodiment of the book.)

So because of all this, I can’t help but disagree with Wilson – Paul’s unique speech is absolutely drenched in this little corner of Switzerland and its rural culture, it’s tension between modernity and traditional Swiss Protestant ethics and aesthetics. And I think it’s a bit of a shame to play that down.

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Over the weekend I had one of those real-life/literature cross-over moments that had to do with wine and Ramuz. I was visiting my mother-in-law and on Saturday noon we went to some of her friends for an easy lunch. They served us a wine from the canton of Valais; the wine was an Amigne, which I haven’t had in ages, but it’s a lovely and quite sweet white. There are several grape varieties grown only in Switzerland and this is one of them. Another is Humagne. Both are quite nice.

I cannot drink either an Amigne or an Humagne without thinking of Ramuz. In his short story, “Phimonette,” which I translated for the American journal Metamorphoses this past spring, there is a mention of this wine, but it’s done in quite a funny way. I wrote about the story here, but I can say briefly that it is the story of an old woman who believes she’s young again. She’s gone to meet the youth of the Alpine village where they are dancing in an abandoned hayloft and she’s pretending to be waiting for her fiancé who has gone down into the valley to save money for their wedding. The young people tease her because the way she’s lost her grip on reality is somehow funny, but it’s also very sad and the story is, at heart, really heartbreaking.

In any case, there is a moment in the story when the young people are teasing her and it goes like this:

And everyone was beside her asking questions, and among them Justin said, “So you’ve had news then?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “Good news, not like the rest. He’s coming back. Just when, I’m not exactly sure. He told me, ‘Just a bit longer, you know, you’re a brave girl… when I’ll have the money, you know, a full handkerchief or two, for the bed, and a chest of drawers.’ He told me, ‘in eight days, eight and a half days.’”

But Justin had an idea. And as she was still talking, and the others were asking her, “What’s your fiancé’s name?” and she said, “His name is Joseph” and they asked her, “What’s his full name?” and then she hesitated a bit, so Justin suddenly said, “Joseph Amigne, by God! From Umagne.”

It’s such a great line, and although he is teasing Phimonette, it’s more to show off to the group of his peers than really be cruel. She agrees immediately, delighted to have a name for her fiancé and Justin even gives her “news” from Joseph, whom he pretends to have seen the week before. It’s a powerful scene, both lighthearted and deeply serious. I cannot see a bottle of Amigne or Humagne without hearing that last line in my head.

So I sat there with my company on Saturday, and when our host placed that lovely bottle of Amigne on the table, I thought of Ramuz and smiled and had to keep myself from whispering, “Joseph Amigne, by God! From Umagne.”

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The current (Fall/Winter 2011) issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review includes my translation of “If the Sun Were Never to Return,” a beautiful story by C.F. Ramuz. This happens to be one of my very favorite Ramuz pieces, for the reasons I mention in my translator’s note, and so I’m obviously thrilled that Hayden’s Ferry has published it, but I’m even more thrilled that it was selected as one of the online sample pieces from the issue. Ramuz deserves as wide an audience as possible, and now everyone can read this story.

“If the Sun were Never to Return” is actually two stories in one. The first is the story of a village that wakes to total blackness. The villagers slowly realize that the sun is not coming back and that this encroaching darkness means they are all going to die. But the real story starts halfway through, and it’s about having lost in love, about revenge. It is one of Ramuz’s most violent stories, even if no real violence actually occurs.

The village is still sleeping and this reassures him for a moment. Maybe he’s actually woken up at the wrong time, or he’s having a bad dream. But all of a sudden his muscles tighten below his Adam’s apple, pushing it upward; he breathes with difficulty. The need to shut his door comes upon him, he closes it, and he stands behind the door, not knowing what to do, waiting.

Five o’clock rings, and we can see it isn’t yet light out.

Yet this is May. The five bells ring out, and it seems like the sound they make has doubled, even tripled in strength. They ring and echo and echo for a long time, as if they are hitting sheets of metal. It’s impossible for us not to hear them. And Larpin moves his head forward. He rests his forehead against the door panel, he listens, the clock rings again, each new ring quieting in its turn, then a door opens, then a second door, then a long voice calls out in the dark.

He recognizes the voice of a neighbor, and she’s calling her husband, “Julien! Julien!” We hear Julien answer her, “This is the devil’s work.” A third voice comes in from the opposite side, “What’s going on?” And now, from all around, the voices cross and question each other.

Aside from what I write in my translator’s note, one of the other reasons that this story is one of my favorites is because it was the genesis for his incredible novel with the same title. The short story and the novel actually have very little in common – the characters are different, most of the story is different, but the psychology is all there. The fear of living in darkness.

Finally, just a funny note. Living in Switzerland, just a few kilometers from where Ramuz spent most of his life and the fact that I’m obsessed with his work means that I see reminders of him just about everywhere. A few weeks ago, a truck passed me while I walked with the dog and my daughter on a country road. The name on the truck read “Milliquet” which is the name of the café owner in La Beauté sur la Terre. In this Hayden’s Ferry Review short story, Ramuz mentions a man named Larpin, the old man who is up walking around because he doesn’t sleep anymore. Well, my doctor’s name is Larpin and every time I drive past his office (which is just in the village, so I go past at least three times a week) I’m reminded of the scene of Larpin checking his watch and standing at the doorway, staring out on the dark night.

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Eventually, I did not have to restrict my reading of Agota Kristof’s Le Troisième Mensonge, the third book of her trilogy, to daylight hours only. Compared to the first two books, this one was quite tame.

Quick recap:

The first book, Le Grand Cahier, is about two young boys, twins named Claus and Lucas, who are sent to live with their grandmother during World War II. A lot of what happens to the twins is quite horrifying, as is their development and behavior. They are dealing with trauma and with abandonment, and they work very hard to rid themselves of the emotions that make their abandonment painful. A process which turns them, quite simply, into monsters. The book ends with one twin escaping across the border, leaving the other behind.

The second book, La Preuve, is about Lucas, the twin left behind. The novel follows what happens to Lucas living separate from his brother, but it also begins to raise certain questions about the “truth” of the first story. No one in the town remembers Lucas as a twin. Kristof introduces this idea quite ingeniously, quite subtly, but it becomes suddenly clear that the book, which I already knew was taking a sharp look at psychological trauma, is going to go much farther than I expected. This actually makes the ugliness of much of what happens in the story easier to stomach. By the end of La Preuve, Claus, the one who escaped, returns to his hometown to find his twin brother, only to discover that Lucas has vanished upon suspicion of murder.

Now, when Le Troisième Mensonge opens, the real question of the book is no longer what has happened to Claus and Lucas, but whether or not Claus and/or Lucas ever existed and whether or not the stories we’ve been reading about them actually occurred. In terms of story, I will leave it at that. This is one of the more difficult books I’ve ever had the pleasure of writing about, because I don’t want to give anything way.

What Kristof does with this trilogy is fascinating. Not only from a thematic perspective—everything about the books suggest she is dealing with the trauma of war, with oppressive government and the like, but by the end she’s gone very domestic, which is ultimately much more frightening—but also in the details of her writing: the POV shifts, the structure of each book and the simple, no-frills aspect of her prose. The power of her narrative and the ideas behind it kind of sneak up on you, because there is nothing showy about the project.

The trilogy is available in English as one book (Grove Press, 1997) and I’d be curious to hear if anyone has read it, and if so, how her writing worked in translation. For two reasons – because it was done by three different translators, and also because it seems to me her work would translate easily. Her sentences are very simple and spare. Each book gets progressively more complex, but even Le Troisième Mensonge is quite straightforward.

Aside from the trilogy, she has five other books. One is l’Inalphabète, a memoir, which I read over the summer, but the others are novels as far as I can tell. I’m very curious to see her other work and whether it is all as dark and psychologically complex as Le Grand Cahier, La Preuve and Le Troisième Mensonge.

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It takes a lot of courage to read Agota Kristof before going to bed. Or so I am learning. When I read the first novel in her trilogy, Le Grand Cahier (The Notebook), I read it in two sittings, both during the afternoon and there was enough distance between the dark scenes of the story and my bedtime that nothing overlapped. I am quite susceptible to nightmare. And the same thing happened when I read the second book, La Preuve (The Proof). But yesterday evening I sat down with La Preuve to skim through it quickly again in preparation to start the final book in the trilogy, Le Troisième Mensonge (The Third Lie), and realized that the story was too unsettling for that hour of my day.

Kristof’s world is brutal. I’ve read many a book with difficult subject matter (Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down comes directly to mind), but Kristof is absolutely unflinching in her indictment of human nature, especially because her writing is so simple, so undemanding. This is what I wrote about Le Grand Cahier:

Such a deceptively simple little novel. An easy story – two boys must leave the city to live in the safer countryside during the war. Yet, the novel quite simply explodes with little horrors. I tried to find another word to describe it, something other than horror, but I can’t. The book is horrifying.

This whole trick about not knowing what the book is about is key. Of course the book is about WWII, about the separation of families, about violence, about neighbors helping neighbors and neighbors hurting neighbors. It’s a classic war story. But it’s also wholly unique.

Part of what makes Le Grand Cahier so unique (and compelling, if I’m allowed this reviewer cliché) is the perspective, the way it pretends to be written by the boys themselves. They are telling their story as one of a series of imposed exercises, recording events in their notebook. They’ve promised the reader to give nothing but the facts, no interpretation, no emotion. It’s an effective way of giving the reader the “story” but their very lack of emotion or explanation creates this effect where the reader begins to see too much in the boys’ silences, begins to understand what Kristof is actually getting at. And it isn’t nice.

The second novel, La Preuve, picks up the story at the moment the twin boys separate (one having crossed over the border, the other staying behind—how they get across is extremely disturbing) and follows Lucas, the one who stayed behind, for the next fifteen years or so, through two very important relationships, until he is forced to leave the town.

What I found so unsettling about this second novel is how cleanly Kristof depicts her psychopath. There isn’t another word for Lucas. To my standards, he’s a monster. As shown in Le Grand Cahier, he spent so many years exorcising his emotion away that nothing remains. Or at least only the primal impulse. The original want or fear or anger, and then he acts on that original feeling without allowing any other emotion or rationale to mediate. When he wants something—a woman, a young child to adopt—he does the simplest, quickest thing to fulfill the desire. Including murder.

On the other hand, Lucas is capable of infinite tenderness toward the small child he adopts. He does everything in his power to give this little boy a happy childhood. It doesn’t work, of course. The child is miserable for a variety of reasons, and as intense and emotionally frightening as Lucas. Their story can only be a tragedy.

Although I have to be careful about when I sit down to do it, meaning not before sleep, I’m quite eager to read the final book. Despite the difficult nature of the events in each story, I’d like to see where Kristof is going with her meditation on psychological trauma. Lucas isn’t normal, that’s easy to see, but the world around him is nearly as horrific and I’m curious whether she is making an argument against a certain kind of emotional abandonment or about a specific system of political oppression. The trilogy begins during WWII but extends thirty to forty years beyond. War is awful, yes, and the cause of significant personal trauma, but Kristof seems to be suggesting that redemption on any level is never possible.

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Also while I was away, The Quarterly Conversation published my review of Swiss writer Robert Pagani’s The Princess, the King and the Anarchist:

Which is better? An imagined literature which takes a true historical event as its beating heart? Or a richly-detailed but otherwise straightforward account of that same occasion?

Robert Pagani’s The Princess, the King and the Anarchist raises this question in the subtlest and sneakiest of ways, offering itself up as a piece of evidence for the truth of the former. Its claim is based on the idea that every history has an unrecorded element, the part of the moment that can never be precisely known. That element remains hidden in the minds of the witnesses and participants. Historical fiction, by daring to go inside the minds of its characters, can work to uncover this truth, to present certain possibilities, to offer a possible consciousness to what are otherwise facts and chronologies.

This beautiful gem of a book, translated and published by the late Helen Marx in 2009, did not get much attention when it came out and will probably fade away in relative obscurity. That would be very sad. So here is my attempt to give it a little more of the press it deserves.

Click here to read the full review.

 

Yesterday at Necessary Fiction I reviewed Peter Stamm’s Seven Years:

Alex’s narrative is, in essence, a comparison of the two women. Ivona, a simple individual whose devotion to Alex borders on mental illness, and Sonia, a kind but distant partner whose passion for her work outstrips her passion for anyone and anything else. Where Ivona is self-less, Sonia is self-full. That essential difference informs Alex’s connection to each woman.

Click here for the full review.

 

 

My translation of “Pastoral,” a short story by C.F. Ramuz was published in the Winter issue of The Kenyon Review. This is a lovely little story about a young shepherd girl and teenage boy. Ramuz’s particular eye for village life is so clever, so sharp. Here is a short excerpt:

The magpies are carried away like pieces of half-burned paper in a fireplace. They are standing a little below the forest. A pine tree forest. The forest cracks, the forest leans. They watch it tip backward all of a sudden, showing the red of its trunks, and then it leans forward again. It disappears beneath its foliage. The forest is red, the forest is black; it takes turns shifting from red to black. There is an explosion, a crack, and then they stop watching because they’ve thrown their two hands forward against the ground (turning their backs to the forest). The goats stop grazing, astonished at this grass that keeps moving, which seems to escape them like water running up an incline.

Click here to buy the issue.