Archive for February, 2014

Reality show, pre-TV era

February 28, 2014 14 comments

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. 1935 French title: On achève bien les chevaux.

Now I know you can be nice and be a murderer too. Nobody was ever nicer to a girl than I was to Gloria, but there came the time when I shot and killed her. So you see being nice doesn’t mean a thing. …

The man speaking that way is Robert Syverten. He’s in court waiting for the verdict in his trial for murder and he relates what led him there.

We’re in 1935, in California. Robert accidentally meets with Gloria. She’s an aspiring actress and not surprisingly, she’s broke. He’s an aspiring film director, and not surprisingly, he’s broke. They have cinema and poverty in common. They need food and being noticed by someone influent in the film industry. Gloria suggests that they take part in a dance marathon as the organizers provide the participants with free food and there are cinema people in the audience. The rules of the dance marathon are quite simple: you dance non-stop, or at least, you have to keep moving.

One hundred and forty-four couples entered the marathon dance but sixty-one dropped out for the first week. The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten-minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

As if dancing wasn’t providing the spectators with enough entertainment, derbies are organized to spice it up.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Rocky announced, ‘most of you are familiar with the rules and regulations of the derby – but for the benefit of those who are seeing their first contest of this kind, I will explain so they will know what is going on. The kids race around the track for fifteen minutes, the boys heeling and toeing, the girls running or trotting as they so desire. If for any reason whatsoever one of them goes in the pit – the pit is in the centre of the floor where the iron cots are – if for any reason one of them goes in the pit, the partner has to make two laps of the track to count for one. Is that clear?’

Doesn’t it sound awful? Robert describes the marathon, the atmosphere. He explains the little tricks Gloria and he gathered to survive and keep going.

Gloria and I had been tipped off by some old-timers that the way to beat a marathon dance was to perfect a system for those ten-minute rest periods: learning to eat your sandwich while you shaved, learning to eat when you went to the John, when you had your feet fixed, learning to read newspapers while you danced, learning to sleep on your partner’s shoulder while you were dancing; but these were all tricks of the trade you had to practise. They were very difficult for Gloria and me at first. I found out that about half of the people in this contest were professionals. They made a business of going in marathon dances all over the country, some of them even hitchhiking from town to town. The others were just girls and boys who came in like Gloria and me.

mcCoy_HorsesThe style is very cinematographic something you could expect from a book that was first written as a scenario. I saw the place and the people in my mind. We follow Robert and Gloria along the way, see their interactions with other contestants and some spectators. We have a glimpse at their lives. Most of them are poor fellows who are after the prize. I was surprised to read about “professional” marathon participants. I wondered how desperate someone could be to enrol more than once in that kind of circus. The first time is an error of judgement, the others border to stupidity or desperation.

I found incredible that such shows existed. He talks about the other contestants, the anchor men and the spectators. People paid to see this and it was advertised in newspapers. Companies sponsored couples, giving them clothes and shoes with their logos. In the afterword, it is said that Horace McCoy had worked as a bouncer for such a contest. He knows what he was writing about. I could say I can’t believe such degrading events existed but living in the era of reality shows on TV, I’m perfectly aware that some fellow humans would do anything for fame and money. I still don’t know who I pity most: the participants who are desperate enough to accept this or the spectators who pay to see this show. There’s no end to human voyeurism.

In addition to the vivid picture of the contest, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is also a psychological novel and the relationship between Robert and Gloria is central in the story. The dancers stay inside of the building and after a while, Robert would do anything for a bit of sun. They are well-fed but lack of sleep. As exhaustion gets at the dancers, the atmosphere heathens. As days pass, the relationship between Gloria and Robert deteriorates. She’s moody, impolite and more importantly, she’s gloomy. She wants to die but doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide. She’s spiteful and keeps moaning about being alive. She’s obnoxious. Her temper weighs on Robert’s patience. She’s the kind of person you don’t want chained to your ankle because you know she’d make you sink and drown. She adds mental fatigue to Robert’s physical exhaustion from the dancing. She wears him down until he relieves her from her life. Out of mercy. They shoot horses, don’t they?

The novel isn’t suspenseful, you know from the beginning what Robert did. It’s worth reading for the description of the dance marathon, the side characters and the ups and downs of the contest. Robert is a good guy who found himself in a wearying situation. Gloria is a curse and despite the warning bells ringing in his head, he sticks to her. I wondered why he didn’t drop out of it and let her fend for herself. I guess he was still hoping for a positive outcome, money or a push for his career. It’s a good example of how we are led to acting out of character or are swept along a path that we didn’t really choose. It’s Great Depression in all its glory, economical and mental.

I have to thank Guy and then Caroline for reviewing this book. Their posts are here and here.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Seven

February 26, 2014 2 comments

Gary_LecturesRomain Gary wrote Education européenne in 1943. He was in England at the time, an aviator in the Lorraine squad that had just been included under the commandement of the RAF. He wrote this novel between battles, in a climate of fear and brotherhood. Education européenne was published in early 1945 and won the Prix des critiques. It was Gary’s first success and the book was translated in more than twenty languages. It’s a coming of age novel about a young Polish, Janek, who joins the resistance in the forest at the time of the battle of Stalingrad.

It’s written during the war and about the war. World War II changed Romain Gary forever. His mother passed away during these years, a lot of his family died in camps and he joined the French resistance early in the war, first in North Africa and then in England. His novels reflect his time and he tackles with the hot topics of these years: How does humanity recover from the atrocities of the extermination camps? What does it mean about human nature? Why are men tempted by Communism and ready to sacrifice for a cause? Are high ideals worth the sacrifice?

Freshly appointed as a diplomat in Sofia, Gary witnessed first-hand the way Communists took power in Bulgaria. Contrary to a lot of French intellectuals or artists, he was never a member of the Communist party. He wasn’t blind and I like him for that. He was against extremism in every form, believing that reality is always grey and messy. Extremism only knows two colours, black or white. There’s no room for empathy, grey zones and multi-coloured areas. He was wary of passionate heroism and grand speeches, just like here:

Lorsqu’ils affirment que rien d’important ne meurt jamais, tout ce que cela veut dire, c’est qu’un homme est mort ou qu’on est sur le point d’être tué. When they say that nothing important ever dies, it only means that a man just died or you’re about to get killed.  

He was always keen on unravelling heroic messages and pointing out how empty they could be or how they just hid an ugly truth. Beautiful ideas about freedom become a prison for the mind. But we’ll discuss this later when I write my billet about Lady L.

See you next week!

As efficient as a Swiss clock

February 20, 2014 25 comments

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes 2011 French title: Une fille, qui danse.

This month our Book Club picked The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I had read reviews about it and knew one of the themes was memory. That’s all I remembered, how ironic.

Barnes_senseOur narrator is Tony, he’s in his sixties, retired and in the first part of the book, he relates his years in high school and university. He pictures his friendship with Alex and Colin and how Adrian came into the group. They went to college separately and tried to keep in touch. Tony studied in Bristol and stayed a year with his girlfriend Veronica and he even introduces her to his friends. They eventually break up and he later receives a letter from Adrian, saying he’s dating Veronica. After graduation, Tony leaves the UK to travel in America and when he returns, he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. He planned it at perfection and made of it a way of living and leaving according to his theories. Tony thinks highly of him to have put into practice all his reasoning about life and to have gone all the way through to be faithful to his principles.

In the second part, we fast forward to the present. Tony had a career, married Margaret, got a divorce, had a daughter Susie, who’s now in her thirties. He’s a grand-father and lives the orderly life of a common citizen. No ups and downs. He’s friend with his ex-wife. Small life, safe life, no big emotion. This comfort is disrupted when he receives a letter from an attorney saying that Veronica’s mother died and left him £500 and Adrian’s diary in her will. This leads Tony to meet with Veronica again and she shows him the spiteful letter he had sent to Adrian after he learnt he was with her. Tony is confronted with his younger self and the way his memory amended the events to picture him honourably. He feels ashamed and starts a crusade to atone his meanness.

This forced march down to memory lane won’t do him good.

Honestly, I’m not thrilled about The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes portrays beautifully the impact of ageing, explores with great intelligence the tricks our brain does to us. I have tons of quotes. The structure of the book is masterfully crafted. He drops clues here and there and everything makes sense in the end. Perfect construction. Perfect language. Perfect little thoughts about life. Too perfect to be lively. Too perfect to be true to life because life is messy. To me, it remained a sort of cold work of art, a designer suit perfectly cut but with visible seams.

It also felt like déjà vu. The ending, although I hadn’t seen it coming, is a bit stretched and clichéd. The guilt trip Tony is taking seems over the top. The poor man just takes himself too seriously. What a bore!

Sure, Julian Barnes made me think. I don’t imagine this book written by a younger author. Life experience seeps through every page and I wonder how much of himself Julian Barnes put into this.

After all, wasn’t ‘back then’ the Sixties? Yes it was, but as I said, it depended on where – and who – you were. If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.

That’s what the Sixties were for my parents and that’s why they missed The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, and Janis Joplin to listen to Frank Alamo or Sylvie Vartan.

All the thinking about memory was interesting but not really new.

We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.

Yes, our mind transforms memories until what we recall faintly resembles the truth. And what is truth, really? Julian Barnes makes it sound a bad thing. However, without that coping mechanism, we wouldn’t survive to pain or shameful moments. We’d be hurting all the time, we wouldn’t move on. We’d all be a walking bundle of raw wounds.

Julian Barnes also seems to share with Romain Gary the idea that “truth dies young”, meaning that you see yourself and the world clearly when you’re young and everything goes downhill from there. Years bury your young self under layers of habits and resignation as you settle in life. In both cases, there’s nostalgia for adolescence and especially for these years of illusions and undefined future. Personally, I don’t miss that part of my life. Do I want to go back there and spend my days half-drowning in an ocean of shyness? No thanks, I’m better off now.

I do agree with Julian Barnes on a lot of things he writes and especially with that quote:

Yes indeed, if Tony had seen more clearly, acted more decisively, held to truer moral values, settled less easily for a passive peaceableness which he first called happiness and later contentment. If Tony hadn’t been fearful, hadn’t counted on the approval of others for his own self-approval … and so on, through a succession of hypotheticals leading to the final one: so, for instance, if Tony hadn’t been Tony.

For me, it’s no use regretting missed opportunities or thinking you didn’t live your life to your best potential. Because, who really sabotage themselves consciously? We all make what we think is the best decision at the moment we make it, we all let go of possibilities because we don’t have it in us to take a risk, face our families, risk pain or act out of character. If we hadn’t been ourselves…

There are lots of excellent things in that novel. If The Sense of an Ending were a human, it’d be a top model. Beautiful but aloof, perfect but a bit fake, so polished that it’s not real anymore. You know what? Top models don’t make me swoon.

Don’t bother

February 19, 2014 10 comments

Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger. 2012. Not translated into English.

Leger_LodenI’m supposed to be on a book buying ban but I had a too rare moment in town for myself and I couldn’t resist visiting my favourite book store. I bought Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger because it was short and had won the Prix du Livre Inter. This literary prize is awarded by readers who are selected by France Inter (the French public radio) after they apply to be in the jury. The applicants have to write a letter saying why they love literature and the journalists of the station pick up the jury members among them. So common readers like us get to read a selection of books, debate about them and decide which one they preferred. It’s a good prize, away from the Parisian literary coterie and pressure from publishers. Obviously, I don’t have the same reading tastes as the 2012 jury.

I started to read this in the theatre, before Chapters of the Fall began. The man sitting next to me was reading an essay about eroticism in Western countries. I’m sure his book was more interesting than mine. This slim novel(?) is a first person narrative and the narrator is Nathalie Léger herself. She has to write a short note about Barbara Loden for a cinema anthology. She watches Wanda, Loden’s only film as a director. She relates her research about Barbara Loden. It’s interlaced with moments of her personal life. She sort of tries to find Barbara Loden, the woman, behind the character Wanda. She sort of tries to understand why she’s taking such a sudden interest in Barbara Loden. She sort of tries to link Barbara, Wanda and her mother or herself through I don’t know what. I was bored out of my mind and abandoned it at page 74. The remaining 40 ones were too much to bear.

It’s written in pseudo-intellectual rambling and it didn’t make any sense to me. It’s a succession of vignettes about what Wanda does in the film, what Barbara did in her life and what Nathalie and her mother do in theirs. Fascinating stuff. It may be autofiction, I’m not sure about the tag. Anyway, the best thing about it was its cover and it confirms the saying: you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Six

February 19, 2014 1 comment

Le mercredi, c’est Gary! (It’s better in French, it rhymes)

Rien ne vous isole plus que de tendre la main fraternelle de l’humour à ceux qui, à cet égard, sont plus manchots que des pingouins. Nothing is more isolating than to hold out the brotherly hand of humour to people who are, in this respect, as awkward as auks. Translation by Erik McDonald.

Gary_LecturesThis quote is difficult to translate and I owe it to Erik to have found a good translation. In French, a manchot is a one-armed man, a penguin and a clumsy person. A pingouin is an auk. In this quote, Gary means that someone who lacks a good sense of humour is like a one-armed man. They’ve got a disability that prevents them to shake hand with someone reaching out offering humour and fun. They are missing out on a vital part of life and they are clumsy because they can’t navigate through life as easily without that help. I love the imagery in this quote. I picture someone who’s clumsy, wobbling through life and lacking dexterity in their dealings with life. If anyone finds a pun to replace the plus manchots que des pingouins, leave a suggestion in the comment section. It’s been nagging at me for a while but my English isn’t good enough to find a good one.

Humour is a theme often mentioned in Gary’s books. A good sense of humour is precious. It’s a weapon against others who take themselves too seriously. It’s an asset for someone who’s in a predicament as it helps you distancing yourself from the situation you’re in. It’s a medicine to heal when reality is falling hard on you. Self-deprecation is a jack to put you out of your misery. Gary has a sense of humour à la Woody Allen. You find Woddy Allen comical? You think Philip Roth is funny? You’ll like Romain Gary too and you’ll see what I mean about Gary and humour if you join us to our Let’s read Romain Gary event in May.

Chapters of the Fall by Stefano Massini

February 16, 2014 26 comments

Chapters of the Fall. Saga of the Lehman Brothers by Stefano Massini.

chapitre_chuteStefano Massino is a young Italian playwright and his Chapters of the Fall details in three chapters the saga of the Lehman brothers. The first chapter Three Brothers, covers the years from 1844 to 1867. The second one, Father and Son relates the span of 1880-1929 and the last one The Immortal, goes from 1929 to 2008. The first chapter describes the arrival of Henry Lehman in Montgomery, Alabama, where he founded a store selling fabric and clothes. His brothers Emanuel and Mayer soon emigrate to America too and they join their forces to develop their business. Soon they start selling raw cotton to  Northern businessmen and settle in New York. The second chapter describes how Philip Lehman, Emanuel’s son develops Lehman Brothers, which is now a bank. The third chapter is about Robert Lehman, the last member of the family to operate the bank and the subsequent change in management eventually leading the bank to its fall.

Apart from the saga of this specific family, the play recounts the history of capitalism in America. Sure, there aren’t many details. But still, the big moves and changes are visible. The Lehman Brothers start by selling cloth and goods needed in plantations. It’s tangible. Then, they accept raw cotton as payment for goods and start selling raw material. They shift their profit towards a trading activity, working as middlemen between the North and the South. The Civil War destroys this business but they manage to float and come out of it unscathed. They relocate in New York because the trading is done there. They participate to the creation of Wall Street, know Mr Dow and Mr Jones who will create the Dow Jones. They accompany the changes in the economy. They turn from revenues from agriculture to revenues from industries and then from financial markets. They turn their back to the South and invest in the West through railroads. Philip Lehman will be the one to invest in railroads and to forever change the company into an investment bank. Supporting weapon industries helped the bank surviving several crisis and the Lehman involved the bank in financing innovative parts of the economy. (Cinema, television, electronics)

The first chapter is very clear. The second shows well the modernization of society and how the economy bolted and crashed in a wall in 1929. It pictures how greed and easy money turned people into madmen wanting more. The New Deal was voted and the State started to regulate the economy, to Robert Lehman’s dismay. The third chapter is more blurred. After Robert Lehman’s death, the bank is more and more driven by stock markets and traders take control of the company. Robert Lehman died in 1969. To me, the 1970s were the decade that paved the road to power to politicians who deregulated everything, at least in the USA. The 1929 crisis was a bit forgotten and greed was again a way of living. Until the fatal crisis of 2008.

When the theatre warned us that Chapters of the Fall would last 3:50 hours, I thought “Oh, dear, I hope it’s gripping.” And yes, it is. If you ever have the opportunity to watch this play, go for it. It’s entertaining and educational. It gives a good overview of the construction of capitalism. It’s not judgemental. It states facts and pictures how a family turned a growing business into an empire by adapting quickly to the changes in their environment. The play is really well written. The story is told by the brothers in a light tone. They are storytellers, using repetitions in the text like magic phrases in a fairy tale. It was directed by Arnaud Meunier and he managed to create the right atmosphere and he picked wonderful actors. It lasted 3:50 and my attention never failed. The stage set was sober and the images on a screen behind the stage brought the spectators to New York, to Wall Street and to a trade room. Societal changes seep through the text when the men evoke their marriages and wives. Emanuel and Mayer simply fall in love. Philip chooses a wife like he’s doing a merger or picking a good horse. Robert marries three times since divorce is accepted. The progressive loss of rituals when a Lehman dies pictures the loss of values. When Henry dies, the business is closed for a week and all the Jewish rituals are respected. When Emanuel dies, Philip doesn’t imagine closing the bank for more than a day. Life doesn’t stop on stock exchanges, even for the death of a founding partner.

I’ve read L’Argent by Zola and he describes exactly the same mechanism. Money calls for more money. People are focused on stock exchanges and stock rates. They put more money than they should in stocks and follow anxiously the outcome. They lose sight with the brick and mortar economy and live on the illusion that the market can rise forever, and of course it can’t. Robert Lehman had seen the 1929 crisis coming but Philip Lehman was in too deep to act and prevent the catastrophe. It seems we are unable to learn from our past mistakes and keep on believing in illusions. There were severe downturns in the stock markets in the 19thC too. The 1929 crisis brought havoc to the world and still, we forgot. I always wonder how we can be so forgetful. History recalls what it wants and the human mind accommodates their memories until they are liveable. But wait, that’s for the billet about The Sense of an Ending…

Wednesdays With Romain Gary – Part Five

February 12, 2014 8 comments

Gary_LecturesLife is a serious matter because of its futility. That’s what M. Cousin says in Gros Câlin. (1974). I have written two billets about this bittersweet tale of a sensitive and lonely man who lives with a python named Gros Câlin. Câlin is a word that means cuddle. The accent on the a makes the a last a bit longer. It sounds like the softness of a mother, the tenderness of a lover and it evokes warmth and happiness. Strange that a python might be named like this. It’s one of my favourite Gary and if you’re really fluent in French, it’s worth reading. It’s beautifully written and totally different from anything you’ve read before.

The first quote is about brotherhood, a theme often present in Gary’s books. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood) is France’s motto and the immigrant Roman Kacew still hiding behind Romain Gary believed in that slogan. Gary was also scarred by war and he had a strong experience of brotherhood in his combat unit. (He was in England, in an airplane squad.). It’s important to him, so I picked that quote:

Je pense que la fraternité, c’est un état de confusion grammaticale entre je et eux, moi et lui, avec possibilités. I think that brotherhood is a state of grammatical confusion between I and them, me and him, with possibilities. Translation kindly reviewed by Erik McDonald.

I love the way he pictures the feeling and twists the language on his way.

The second quote is typically Gary too. Gros Câlin is about loneliness. Cousin is isolated, anonymous in a big city and Gary nails down the feeling when Cousin describes his hesitation about beds:

Les lits m’ont toujours posé des problèmes. S’ils sont étroits, pour une seule personne, ils vous foutent dehors, en quelque sorte, ils vous coupent vos efforts d’imagination. Ca fait I, sans ambages, sans ménagement. « T’es seul mon vieux et tu sais bien que tu le resteras » Je préfère donc les lits à deux places, qui s’ouvrent sur l’avenir, mais c’est là que se présente l’autre côté du dilemme. Les dilemmes sont tous des peaux de cochons, soit dit en passant, j’en ai pas connu d’aimables. Car avec un lit pour deux chaque soir et toute la journée samedi et dimanche, on se sent encore plus seul que dans un lit pour un, qui vous donne au moins une excuse d’être seul. Beds have always been a problem for me. If they’re narrow, single beds, they throw you out, in a way; they cut short all your efforts of imagination. It makes an I, without beating around the bush, bluntly. “You’re on your own, my friend, and you know you’ll stay that way.” I therefore prefer double beds, which are open to the future but that’s where the other side of the dilemma comes in. Dilemmas are bitches, by the way, I’ve never known a nice one. Because with a bed for two, every night and all day Saturday and Sunday, you feel lonelier than you would in a bed for one, which at least gives you an excuse for being alone.  Translation kindly reviewed by Erik McDonald

This is Gary at his finest: funny and serious, talking about a serious matter through a futile preoccupation.

Please, can a publisher contact Alexandre Diego Gary who’s in charge of his father’s work and acquire the rights to translate this wonderful novel into English? Meanwhile, for other readers, it exists in German (Monsieur Cousin und die Einsamkeit der Riesenschlangen.), in Italian (Mio caro pitone), in Spanish (Mimos) and probably in other languages too. What is the Anglophone world waiting for?

Lust at first sight and to hell with the consequences.

February 10, 2014 15 comments

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. 1934. French title: Le facteur sonne toujours deux fois. Translated by Sabine Berritz.

Next thing I knew, I was down there with her, and we were staring in each other’s eyes, and locked in each other’s arms, and straining to get closer. Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it. I had her.

Cain_facteurFrank Chambers is our narrator. He’s in his twenties, has lived across the country as a hobo and ends up at Twin Oaks Tavern, a diner and gas station along a road. The owner Nick Papadakis needs help and hires him to serve gas and take care of cars. Frank isn’t interested in the job but the food is great and he needs a place to crash. That’s until he spots Cora, Nick’s wife. Between them, it’s lust at first sight. He discovers that she married Nick to have a place to live in. She doesn’t love him at all and she’s even disgusted by him. Frank and Cora have an affair and eventually decide to murder Nick.

To me, Frank and Cora are like wild animals. They don’t think about the future, they act to satisfy their immediate needs. He stays at the diner’s for food, she marries Nick to be off the streets. Once their need changes, they change of attitude. They have no gratitude, no moral compass. Nick is a nice guy, generous, welcoming. He may sound a little stupid but he’s a good man. Cora and Nick call him The Greek and look down on him because of his origin. (She doesn’t want to be called Mrs Papadakis) Racism is rampant there, and their attitude towards him illustrates what Gary said about racism. It’s when they don’t count. Nick doesn’t count. His death doesn’t count, he’s not their equal, is that so morally reprehensible to kill him? I saw Frank and Cora as cold blooded murderers and not at all as people accidentally led to crime. That’s what happens in Build my Gallows High, not in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

As always, I have trouble writing about crime fiction. I have things to say but most of what I’d like to write about the plot and the characters is full of spoilers. My rule is not to ruin the book for another potential reader, so spoilers aren’t an option.

However, I have things to say about the French translation. I bought a paperback copy published by Folio Policier and the translation by Sabine Berritz dates back to 1936. I’m not judging Ms Berritz, she probably did her best given the context. It was a time when crime fiction like this was trash literature, when publishers didn’t hesitate to accommodate books for their public and when translators might not have had the wages and time necessary to do a thorough job. I’m just disappointed that Folio sells that great novel in such a poor translation. They could afford a new one, the book is less than 150 pages long. It’s not like retranslating War and Peace! When I reached page 16, I went to the Kindle Store to buy the original. The French version was unbearable. I switched between the electronic version in English and the paper version in French as I was on a plane and e-books aren’t allowed during take-off and landing. The French translation is bad, there’s no other word. Some things are ludicrous now but forgivable. For example, words like corn-flakes or bacon are in English and in italic, like miso in a book translated from the Japanese. Now, we have adopted these words in French. What made me really laugh out loud is the footnote to explain what Coca-Cola is. I had the same experience when I read On the Road in a 1950s translation. Again, it reminded me how our country got americanised during the 20thC. At least, that’s understandable given the time and even interesting, from a “historical” point of view. But what is absolutely unbearable is the tone of the translation: the overabundant use of argot that didn’t age well (boustifaille, c’est bath…); the explosion of exclamation marks when there are none in the original and worst of all, paragraphs mixing different levels of language for no reason.

« Ça n’me creuse pas l’estomac, ça! Ça n’me fera pas m’arrêter ici pour essayer de croûter. Elle vous fait perdre de l’argent cette enseigne et vous n’en savez rien » when the original is “Well, Twin Oaks don’t make me hungry. It don’t make me want to stop and get something to eat. It’s costing you money, that sign, only you don’t know it.” The “vous n’en savez rien” doesn’t agree with the previous “ça n’me fera pas”. A “vous en savez rien” would have been better, in my opinion. Then I noticed a « Je m’en retourne », which sounds like 19thC French poetry, not crime fiction, when the original is a simple “I’m going back”.

There are crimes in this book but the translation is almost a crime to literature as well. Please Folio, have someone retranslate this! This book is fantastic in the original and doesn’t sound as fantastic in French.

Max has read it recently and he’s a bit more positive than me about the characters. Have a look at his excellent review here.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Four

February 5, 2014 12 comments


Gary_LecturesWednesdays With Romain Gary is back! This week I want to share with you a quote from Lady L. which was first written in English before a French version was made. It was published in 1963. Gary’s first wife was the British writer Lesley Blanch (Lady L., like Lesley?). 1963 is the year he divorced Lesley to marry Jean Seberg. I read Lady L. a long time ago and what I remember most about it was an incredible style and a furious sense of humour. It is is told from the point of view of the said Lady L. who is now quite old and sees life through a curious and rebellious lense. I loved that character, probably because of her nonconformist mind. She doesn’t like weaknesses, see what she thinks of tears:

Les larmes sont des filles faciles et soixante ans d’ironie, d’humour glacé et d’Angleterre n’avaient pas encore appris à ces trotteuses indécentes un peu de retenue. Tears are loose women and sixty years of irony, ice-cold humour and England had not yet taught these indecent wanderers the least bit of restraint. (translation reviewed by Erik McDonald)

 I have a copy from 1963 and the blurb is actually a word by Gary himself about the book.

J’ai toujours été fasciné par un certain côté terroriste de l’humour anglais, cette arme blanche froide qui rate rarement son but. On rencontre souvent dans l’aristocratie britannique une sorte de tolérance universelle non dépourvue d’arrogance et que seuls peuvent se permettre des gens que rien ne saurait menacer. Dans Lady L., je me suis efforcé d’explorer ce thème et de faire en même temps le portrait d’une très grande dame qui a bien voulu me faire quelques confidences. Je me suis permis également de me peindre moi-même sous les traits de son compagnon et souffre-douleur, le Poète-Lauréat, Sir Percy Rodiner. Et comme les idéalistes m’ont toujours paru être, au fond, des aristocrates ayant une très haute et noble conception de l’humanité, cette autre très grande dame, l’histoire d’Armand Denis et de son extraordinaire amour ne pouvait manquer de m’intéresser. J’ai essayé de la raconter en respectant dans toute la mesure du possible la vérité historique. A ceux qui seraient un peu choqués par la façon dont finit mon récit, je dirai d’abord que je n’ai rien inventé et ensuite que le terrorisme passionnel a toujours été jugé chez nous avec indulgence. Humanité, humanité, que de crimes on commet en ton nom ! I’ve always been fascinated by a certain terrorist side of the British sense of humour. It’s a cold knife that rarely misses its target. One often meets among the British aristocracy a sort of universal tolerance not lacking of arrogance and that can only afford people to whom nothing can happen. I tried to explore this topic in Lady L. I also wanted to portray a great lady who confided in me. I also indulged in portraying myself under the traits of her partner and scape-goat, the Laureate-Poet Sir Percy Rodiner. Since I’ve always thought that idealists are aristocrats who have a very high and noble opinion of mankind, this other great lady, the story of Armand Denis and his extraordinary love couldn’t fail to interest me. I tried to tell this story and respect the historical truth as much as possible. To those who might be shocked by the ending, I’ll say that I didn’t invent anything and that love terrorism has always been judged with indulgence here. Humanity, humanity, how many crimes are committed in your name! (My clumsy translation)

Just typing and translating this makes me want to read the book. Used copies are available in English and it was been made into a film directed by Peter Ustinovn, starring Sophia Loren and Paul Newman. I haven’t seen it. Perhaps the second semester of 2014 should be dedicated to Gary’s books made into a film. What do you think?


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