A character says in the story ‘Couch’: ‘Life isn’t supposed to hurt all the time.’
My previous post gave an introduction/background to this collection of 37 very short stories by two authors, but translated by 37 different translators. The identity and method of each one isn’t revealed until you’ve had time to absorb the story.
Last time I mentioned a central theme in many of them: talking or not talking – ‘In the end I didn’t talk about it’, says the speaker in ‘Cupcakes’, avoiding the tragic subject that fills the room. ‘There’s no point talking about it’, says the voice in ‘Trolls’, this time about the love and death of a much-loved grandmother.
The first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Anglo-Australian literary reviewer Tony Malone (I recommend his site – Tony’s Reading List for its coverage of translated literature; this is his first effort at translation – brave chap!) opens with the words that give this anthology its title.
Photo of one of the two authors of the story collection, Véronique Côté, by Maude Chavin, from the QC Fiction website
Several stories start with this cryptic kind of reference – you have to read on to find out what the ‘it’ is and who the ‘I’ is who refuses to talk about ‘it’. It turns out to be a particular kind of obsession, and this is a feature in several of the stories. The speaker/monologuist (for these were all originally promenade theatrical monologues performed in the streets of Quebec City) is presumably female, for she mentions one or two personal female-specific details (the gender/identity of the speakers in most stories is not usually identifiable; it’s what they say that matters). She’s conflicted about her obsession, which she denies is OCD, and insists ‘I’m normal, I think’ – not entirely convincing. She claims to be adept at concealing it. In paragraph one she says:
It’s humiliating, totally. I don’t want the people I love to notice, I don’t know how I’d be able to go on afterwards.
Later: ‘It disturbs me.’
This confusion, desire to be different or complete, inability to fit in, to understand herself or others, is a recurring feature in these stories. That’s why talking – or not talking – about such things is so crucial, and features so often in them. For what do we talk about when we talk about, or don’t talk about, our anxieties, obsessions, relationships?
Her parents, she believes, should have taught her one thing in life:
that nothing is missing. Like Buddha, or a monk, or a poem would say, nothing is missing, life has absolutely everything, everything is here, I mean: I’ve never wanted for anything, why am I so scared that all that might change?
The translator here adopts the stream-of-consciousness style that of most of the other stories here, choosing to render what he calls ‘essentially a spoken text’ at a level that’s not ‘too high’ in register and tone (I talked about this at greater length in my previous post). He tries to get the ‘voice’ as close to the original French as possible. I think he’s done a pretty good job. That voice shows pain, regret and longing, and a strong desire to feel impenitent, less ‘scared’ – how many of us haven’t felt that way before? The run-on sentences and comma splices represent the rhythms of the voice of a character who’s floundering, hurting, and trying to limit the damage of life’s experiences.
So who is she addressing here, if she ‘doesn’t talk about it’? The reader. Which positions them in the role of confessor – a highly privileged one, but demanding (and in most cases in this collection, rewarding). For we don’t have the capacity to absolve or forgive (if this is needed). All we can do is try to understand. Which is surely one of the main reasons we read? To broaden and deepen our understanding of human nature.
The other author, Steve Gagnon, attributed to France-Larochelle, from the QC Fiction website
Not all of the stories do this; some are lighter, humorous, lubricious – there’s some pretty graphic sex and talk about sex – or downright revolting; I found the story about a person whose obsession is eating their own snot pretty hard to stomach. And there’s quite a lot of vomiting going on.
But mostly these are wonderful snapshots that reveal a whole life of a spectrum of individual types, from the panic-stricken, the defeated and the ‘social misfit’ to the woman who appears to have everything, but has really ‘passed myself by’. Often there’s an auspicious or disastrous epiphany. Translators talk about the polish and elegance of the prose of their originals, and mostly they reproduce this skilfully in their renditions.
It’s always difficult to convey the feel of a story collection in a brief post – especially a collection with so many variables (authors, translators). So I’ll just pick out a couple of my favourites.
Children’s fraught relationships with parents or other family members, some of whom die, walk out or become estranged, are the basis of some of the strongest, subtlest stories. Often their love for each other goes unacknowledged, unexpressed, or talked about with honesty too late – and this can be ‘sad’ and ‘a shame’ (from ‘Attic’, in which a mother’s curt, posthumously delivered postcard brings a kind of confirmation but not consolation).
In ‘Wrestling’ the speaker reflects fondly on his (I think this a ‘he’) loving ‘fights’ with his dad when he was a kid. Language, words, talk are again the point here:
I never needed words to say that I loved him, and he never needed them either, we had other ways…My dad and me, we don’t wrestle any more. [My ellipsis]
And he misses these fights, which arose not out of ‘rage’ but love, pride and admiration:
I never talked about this with my dad. Probably because we never managed to develop a common language, we never got used to the fact that there were words between us.
What a wonderful sentence that last one is. And his closing words to the story bring a surprising shift in emotional tone. Language brings us together, but it can also keep us apart. This is another deeply moving monologue, honest and raw.
Daniel Grenier, who translated this story, has one of the 37 translators’ most interesting and revealing explanations for his approach to his task. He says it’s ‘destabilizing’ to translate in a language that is not your own:
To understand something is quite different from saying it, or even repeating it…English…is so subtle, so difficult, it’s as difficult and hard as a diamond. [My ellipsis]
‘Light’ is a tender, passionate account of a parent’s fear when contemplating their child’s vulnerability, and the powerful need to protect them, to tell them not to give up (the woman in ‘Olives’ could do with a parent like that).
In ‘Nightmares’ there’s another parental bereavement, and the child’s response is beautifully, poetically conveyed in the translated prose.
‘Dishes’ and ‘Notebook’ deal unsentimentally and innovatively with the notions of reading, writing and humility (‘Hell is being the only person to truly know yourself’).
‘Looks’ is about the impact on a non-academic child of growing up in a bookish family of intellectuals and teachers:
I’m looking for peace. I want peace and literature is the opposite of peace.
I’m out of time. Let me end by just recommending this collection for its unique take on the nature of translation by providing some excellent, brief but powerful stories and some thoughtful, stimulating translators’ insights.
I Never Talk About It: QC Fiction, 2017. First published in 2012 as Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir by Les éditions du Septentrion
Most books of translated fiction foreground (not surprisingly) the original author; the translator – if they’re even mentioned – will get a tiny credit somewhere near the front, probably not on the front cover.
Quebec-based QC Fiction, an imprint of Baraka Books based in Montreal, was set up last year to do things differently, to publish exciting new Québecois voices with translations that are as original and vibrant as the source texts.
I Never Talk About It, published 1 September, is even more daring and innovative than QC’s usual output: 37 stories written by actor-authors Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon are presented with no attribution – we can’t tell for sure which author (maybe both?) wrote which story (it’d be easier in French, I suppose, because of the use of gendered nouns, etc.) OK, some stories are clearly narrated by a woman or man, but that doesn’t necessarily signify the gender of the author.
Here it’s the translators who take a more central position. This is what QC say about the project on their website:
This project aims to show there are all kinds of ways to bring across an author’s voice in translation… at least 37 of them! Translators include literary translation students, first-time and up-and-coming literary translators, world-renowned translators who have won major international prizes, some of Montreal’s best writers and translators, a retired high-school French teacher in Ireland, and francophone authors translating into their second language. There are even people in there who (armed only with a dictionary and the priceless ability to write a beautiful sentence) barely speak French.
As Peter McCambridge, fiction editor of the imprint, says in his Introduction, ‘readers want to read faithful translations, don’t they?’ His question raises some familiar if important points about translated literature. What if readers want something more, something like ‘a different sort of artistic creation’? This volume doesn’t exactly provide answers to that question, but it does offer some textual examples (stories) and commentaries on them to provide some implicit suggestions.
So: ‘let’s start a conversation’, he suggests. ‘Let’s talk about the types of translators and translations you’ll come across in this book.’ The anthology’s title is taken from the opening line of the first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Tony Malone (and found again, in the past tense, in ‘Wrestling’, and with other variations in other stories). And talking – or not talking – is a central theme in many of the stories in the collection, another indication, surely, of their origins in oral-theatrical performance.
Every story is only a few pages long, more Flash Fiction than ‘short story’ – and it’s apparent that each translation is a sequence of personal interpretations and decisions, linguistic leaps, deviations or distortions, however well intentioned. How much of their own personality or ‘reading’ of the story is apparent, and how does that affect our own reading of the text?
Each story is translated by a different person, each with their ‘own unique approach.’ Their identity is only revealed after each story, so as not to influence the reader’s experience beforehand; they were invited to apply a single adverb to describe that approach, and to give a brief account to reveal how and why they completed their task.
The stories’ origin as spoken texts – monologues, in fact – is an important factor. The two writers produced their scripts, which were then performed in various locations across Quebec, and the audience followed the performers as they moved across the city. The stories therefore read differently from the usual literary type, and as readers we can’t reproduce the exact experience of the original audience, watching the actor in a particular urban setting .
The translators frequently refer to their attentiveness to ‘voice’, ‘register’, ‘tone’, ‘rhythm’, ‘pace’. They comment on the intimate or ‘confessional’ nature of the narrative voice, of following the ‘spirit’ not the ‘letter’, striving for a ‘fluid’ style, not ‘forced’. Many refer to the difficulties of rendering the original punctuation, which tends to be looser in French – especially in colloquial texts created to be orally delivered, many of them in stream-of-consciousness mode, which doesn’t lend itself easily to conventional written orthographical and syntactic conventions.
Comma splices, run-on sentences: these posed problems for the translators that wouldn’t have been so apparent to the original audiences, listening to the words spoken in the streets of the city. Every punctuation mark in a written text is a function of a different mode and level of discourse from spoken texts. Is there such a thing as a semi-colon in spontaneous speech?
Some translations are, as one might expect, more successful than others when coping with these matters.
Of course it’s a matter of personal taste how you judge this. I found the stories with typographical quirks – text laid out like poems, say – more distracting than exciting. A bit too overtly “edgy”.
I’d like to say more about the content of the stories and the nature of these translations in more detail next time; I find that I’ve gone on too long already. Note the high-register use of the semi-colon there.
Paperback (advance reading copy).
Links to my posts on other QC Fiction texts:
Brothers, by David Clerson
Listening for Jupiter, by Pierre-Luc Landry
[Of the Professor v. Felix:] The difference between them, after all, was that the Professor truly believed he was the first mortal to set foot in the mind, and like every true colonial assumed that mere priority allowed him to name it and submit it to his laws.
Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s (Iulus) talks endlessly about his father, Felix (Protestant ‘Marxisant’ and advocate of ‘hands-on mysticism’, who ‘liked it out there on the edge…where one could write in order to stop thinking, and lose the shame of being an author’); here’s some of his advice to the boy:
1. Neither marry nor wander, you are not strong enough for either. 2. Never believe any confession, voluntary or otherwise. And most importantly, 3. [In Latin first, then in English:] Everyone has a cleverer dog than their neighbor; that is the only undisputed fact.
An illustration from Psalmanazar’s phoney account of the people of Formosa – as fantastic a fake memoir as those of Felix and Iulus. Picture via Wikimedia Commons
Then there are the Pynchonian names of the central characters: Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, the ‘Hauptzuchtwart [dog-breeder] Supreme’ and ‘historian of the Astingi’ – a fictitious tribe of the central European plains, in the country of Cannonia (where at dusk ‘everything is the colour of a runaway dog’!), loosely equivalent to Hungary – alludes to the French impostor or con-man, Georges Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who became a brief sensation in Augustan England with his exotic traveller’s tales of ‘Formosa’ and his fake memoirs – a prototype Felix (or Newman).
Much of the novel consists of long, Socratic ‘savage debates’, a ‘battle of the polymaths’, a ‘rhetorical onslaught’, between the sceptic-stoic Felix (who claims, in a typical paradox, that ‘Dialectics do not interest me, though like ballsports, I am good at them’) and his soulmate-antagonist, the Professor, ‘the master speculator’ as Felix provocatively calls him, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud, who brings a series of disturbed dogs to be analysed and trained by the renowned dog-trainer/breeder – a clear dig at the failings of psychoanalysis, for the Professor can’t cure (or even understand) his own neurotic dogs (see the quotation at the head of this post, which sums up the philosophical difference between them):
“You’re no Jew, Berganza,” he often giggled, “just a Calvinist with a sense of irony.”
Another of those literary allusions with multiple levels of significance is Felix and the Professor being likened for these endless Socratic disputes by Felix’s wife, Ainoha (possibly a name derived from a Basque place-name known for its image of the Virgin Mary, and girl’s name, Ainhoa; or is it just a pun on ‘I know her’?) to Scipio and Berganza: these are the two dogs whose satiric colloquy, with its rhetorical-polemical format based on Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, forms one of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes (1613).
I could say so much more about this novel, with its multiple layers and highly charged prose, and wide-ranging, esoteric-comic material, such as the Astingi people’s culture and religion – ‘savage and disconcerted’, Felix calls them), or aphorisms like ‘You can get away with murder in America, but only in Europe can you be really bad’. But it’s more than just a clever puzzle or palindrome of wordplay (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – there’s some interesting insight into Newman’s views on the writing (and reading) process, with which I’ll end (having touched on it briefly in my previous post).
In a chapter called ‘Ex Libris’ Newman gives Felix’s son Iulus’ account of Felix’s huge literary project: to write a history of the Astingi disguised as a Traveler’s Guide ‘in order to make a market for it’ – which sounds like a dig at American publishers. His description could serve as a heartfelt insight into Newman’s own obsessive, meticulous, never-ending collector’s writing methods and technique:
Working at top speed, he usually produced about one hundred and twenty sentences of impossible terseness per night.
He goes on with what looks like a self-portrait, and a grim discussion of what In Partial Disgrace cost to write:
Writers are people who have exhausted themselves; only the dregs of them still exist. Writing is so real it makes the writer unreal; a nothing. And if one resists being a nothing, one will have the greatest difficulty in finishing anything.
Nor did I know that in his hyperfastidious, shamelessly private mind, he was envisioning a nonexistent genre. For no one ever writes the book he imagines; the book becomes the death mask of creation, it has its own future and survives like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. And the spy knows this better than anyone; to write anything down is to take colossal risk. In life you can mask your actions, but once on paper, nothing can hide your mediocrity.
Later, when shadowy CIA spook Rufus is reflecting on his (triple) agent Iulus’ reports, this is his conclusion:
Of course, there will be those who will ask how far can we trust such a narrator? This is rather like asking the question: can one trust a sonata?
Perhaps Rufus has come to see, after his time in the ‘inchoate’, counterintuitive province of Cannonia, that the usual modes of perception, representation and philosophy don’t apply. And that goes for the ways we interpret written texts: genre and verisimilitude are irrelevant, delusions. Here he considers how the Cannonians and ‘their Astingi comrades’ love ‘puzzles and the darkest riddling’:
…for thinking in their view is not real thinking unless it simultaneously arouses and misleads one’s expectations of symmetry. But their love of riddles has a moral dimension which is easily missed; games for them are also always ethical tests.
When Iulus hears the final colloquy of the Professor and Felix, in which his father, whose life’s literary work has blown away on the wind, fiercely denounces conventional historians (and warrior-thinkers like Marcus Aurelius), he (Iulus) is deeply impressed:
Thus ended my aristocratic education. I had learned everything I needed to know for my career. For life with friends and lovers is essentially this: that we assist each other in recovering and rewriting the book which is always blowing away, when the words don’t mean what you say.
An equally apt summary of the novel and novelist is given with Rufus’ verdict on Iulus and his writings, who he knows to be more than just ‘turncoat, nor a cipher, cryptographer…dissembler, or counterfeit’; he’s reflecting, as most of this novel does, on the nature of narrative:
How I would miss his profound but smiling pessimism, his nacreous intelligence, this fideist to the school of gliding. He was one of those strange people who, having rectitude, didn’t need freedom. Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.
Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. Paperback.
The best I could do was to put real people into situations that probably did not exist, which after all is what history is all about.
This is an extraordinary novel, and will need more than one post. This one will be a sort of introduction.
Charles Newman (1938-2006) had produced several novels by the time he started In Partial Disgrace [IPD], late in the 1980s. As Joshua Cohen explains in his introduction to the Dalkey Archives edition, he excelled as a young man at sport, later at sexual promiscuity, drinking, breeding hunting dogs, and writing (characteristics found in his character Felix, his alter egotist, about whom more shortly).
After university (Yale, Oxford) and military service he reluctantly entered upon an academic career, turning the standard Northwestern campus magazine TriQuarterly into a stellar fixture in American literary life, championing such writers as Borges, Barth, Coover, Gass and Márquez. Their experimentalism (postmodernist, perhaps) was to inflect his own writing.
He visited Hungary frequently, and riskily translated and published there. The setting of IPD is the invented, economically struggling province of Cannonia in the kingdom of Klavierland (more on that later, too), a fantastic land of swampy plains and forests, bounded by a meandering river like the Danube, a setting very like Hungary – but also like a Viennese piano. It’s that kind of novel.
Photo of Newman: attribution – By Harold Doomsduck – vacation, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Newman may have been able to travel so freely behind the Iron Curtain because of murky connections with agencies of espionage – another central theme in this novel, as we shall see.
He spent decades revising and expanding this wayward novel. His nephew, Ben Ryder Howe, tells us in an editor’s foreword of Uncle Charlie’s chaotic, obsessive methods. Slips of paper, many containing just single words, short phrases or ‘mystically oblique’ sentences, were taped into notebooks or tacked on the walls. This collection of papers expanded as his magnum opus, part Cold-War spy-thriller, part fake memoir/history/philosophical-rhetorical tract, reflected the fact that Newman was becoming bogged down in research (a trait familiar to anyone who’s ever written anything) – arcane diaries, memoirs, letters, folktales, histories… All turn up in various guises in IPD.
Eight years after his uncle’s death Howe found in Newman’s New York office another vast jumble of papers and obscure source texts. The MS was stuffed in boxes, envelopes and elsewhere, innumerable, jumbled drafts. Howe had somehow to rearrange and edit this deluge of papers into some kind of coherent order. (I’m reminded of the task facing the editors of the various redactions of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, which IPD resembles slightly in tone, fragmentary structure and elegant literary style.)
Newman’s original ambitious plan was for a massive sequence of maybe nine novels divided into three volumes. The first was to contain the story of Felix, the bankrupt Cannonian aristocratic owner of an abandoned, decaying former royal hunting estate called Semper Vero (a typical Newman joke: “eternal truth” is not a highly valued principle with Felix). He’d turned to being a ‘breaker of crazy dogs and vicious horses’ (hence his title of Hauptzuchtwart Supreme) to try to offset his debts. Vol. 1 was to feature his fractious friendship with the Professor, a psychoanalyst clearly based on Freud. It is set around the time of the close of WWII and the years of Cold War that followed. This is what was to become IPD.
Volume two would continue the story a decade later in Russia, relating Felix’s relationship with Pavlov, followed in volume three by his emigration to America. Newman became hopelessly enmired in a huge, rambling introduction to this vast work. All was description of setting and background; very little happened, and characters were hazily deployed. Rufus, the CIA agent, opens the novel in Howe’s recension by parachuting into this ‘hermit kingdom’ on a spying mission (America has declared war on Cannonia, and Felix’s son Iulus, a double or maybe triple agent, is his contact) — then he disappears for long periods.
He is the putative ‘editor’ and translator of the various narratives in the text, and tries (like Newman’s nephew – life imitates art) to summarise Felix’s 10,000-page MS, alongside the papers of Iulus, another redactor of his father’s work, which is the quixotic basis of IPD:
A memoir without hindsight? A meditation on the inherent wildness of history? A novel for people who hate novels?
This vast opus of Felix was thinly disguised by him as a ‘Traveler’s Guide to Cannonia’ – clearly a doppelganger of IPD, consisting as it does as a massive stash of random papers which at a key point are dispersed by the wind, many to be lost, those retrieved proving impossible to reassemble coherently. Felix himself, with characteristic, paradoxical disdain, describes it as an attempt to rescue Nietzsche from being “so damned Nietzschean”, a history of ‘the only people without a history’.
Howe has done a fine job in trying to create some kind of narrative order and logical structure from this disparate, enigmatic raw material – but the key weakness of the novel he’s reconstructed is its erratic or absent plot (although that’s also, arguably, its main strength: it’s about itself). That lack of action and tension noted earlier is mitigated, but there are still sections that come across as self-indulgent and inert – although even these are never completely tedious. Newman has a tendency to indulge his passion for elaborate Borgesian catalogues of imaginary, bizarre or everyday objects or concepts, or for eccentric zoological taxonomies like the anti-Darwinian ‘Scale of Being’ and ‘Tree of Life’ (in which dogs tend to appear at the top, not surprisingly in a canicentric novel).
IPD is then one of those novels which appear to conform to the conventions of prose fiction, in that they are not ostensibly ‘difficult’, but which are nevertheless cryptic or elusive, or which have surreal or non-realistic or fantastic/postmodern elements; Kafka and most of the novels of Pynchon fall among these categories, or the later works of Calvino (Invisible Cities). Gerald Murnane (another who feels an affinity for the plains of Hungary) comes to mind. And there are many more.
But the seminal work of this kind, and surely an influence on IPD, is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67), also highly innovative, non-linear/fragmentary, eccentrically digressive (it takes three volumes for its protagonist to be born) and unconventional, yet heavily dependant on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621, subsequently revised). Anatomy, as its name suggests, is another playfully earnest text of compilation, classification and erudite assimilation, not a coherent ‘narrative’. It, in turn, was influenced by the sprawling, endlessly accreting, fragmentary and digressive narratives of Rabelais and Cervantes.
Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s character Iulus talks endlessly about his father, Felix (whose name in Latin signifies the opposite to the ‘sadness’ implicit in Tristram’s name).
IPD owes much of its style and method to such texts, and also to Newman’s idiosyncratic methods – hence its meandering structure, digressions, puns and paradoxes (time, like the Cannonian border river Mze, runs both ways, unpredictably), playful learned allusions (Marcus Aurelius and Heraclitus pop up regularly, wittily), disquisitions on all kinds of arcane and mundane topics, from venery (in both senses) to dog-training theory, psychotherapy to topography and military history), and so on.
So far, if you’ve stayed with me, you might be thinking this sounds terribly cerebral and obscure – but it isn’t, at least, not in a bad way.
Take it in small chunks, don’t binge. It doesn’t lend itself to rapid consumption; each rich phrase has to be weighed, sampled, savoured. Take for example the frequent aphorisms that adorn the text with little intention of making conventional sense or advancing the narrative, but which contribute to the novel’s own uniquely rewarding ambience, adding a kind of self-referential commentary on what the reader is engaged in reading, and the writer, writing:
I neither write a system nor promise a system, nor do I subscribe or ascribe anything to a system.
For a landscape to have grandeur, it must have a bit of nonsense.
History is driven by failed artists.
A man is nothing but a handful of irrational enthusiasms, and nothing in this world can be understood apart from them.
Next time I hope to examine characters, setting and style more closely.