Home > 2010, 21st Century, French Literature, Novel, Pennac, Daniel, Translation Tragedy, Translations > Until the end, we are our body’s child. A puzzled child.

Until the end, we are our body’s child. A puzzled child.

Le Journal d’un corps by Daniel Pennac. (The Journal of a Body)

I wrote that billet in French back in October 2013 and said that if anyone needed a translation, they should just ask for it in the comment section. Well, Sophie left a message asking for one, so here it is. A billet in French was a first, self-translating it is another first. For the original French, click here. So enjoy!



I was reading this book and I was thinking I won’t be able to write about this book in English, I don’t have the words. Then I thought that since most of the regular readers of this blog can read in French, I’d write in French for a change. I’m a bit intimidated, I must say. I’ve never written any billet in my native language. And the human brain is a strange thing, it compartmentalizes our experiences, learns, makes inventories and settles patterns. My brain is used to writing billets in English. This activity has been in English from the start and for my brain, switching from one language to the other is a bit against nature. But it’s not to ramble about my brain or my body that I cross that path today, it’s for Daniel Pennac.

Life is a grand theatre and we make out little performance every day, walking out on stage in the morning, as soon as someone lays eyes on us. The look of others makes our inner actor stepping in because as soon as we’re no longer alone, the other expects something from our presence, a certain behaviour, a feedback or simply reassurance. Writers like to show us what’s behind the curtain of that theatre and unveil the thoughts and feelings of the characters. With his Journal of a Body, Daniel Pennac chose to shed some light backstage. Our body. An unusual project, I have to admit.

When he turns twelve, a boy decides to control his body that betrayed him, giving away his fear. A paralyzing fear took his body and his sphincters abdicated, a real disaster in his pants. This child is the son of a Great War soldier, weakened and eventually led to death by the consequences of the toxic gas inhaled on the front. The father fades away, betrayed by his body. A little while after his death and this intestinal debacle, the son takes himself in hand. We are in 1936 and until his death, he will write the journal of his body, his life companion. The book is constructed as a diary and no significant event is written in it unless it has a bodily impact or unless it can be described through an alteration of his body. We guess what is happening in his life because some furtive words here and there unravel his great moments. After all, these events affect his body. The death of his nanny, Violette. His first lover. The first time he sees Mona, his future wife, love at first sight. And now, he’s a father:

To become a father is to become one-armed. I’ve only had one arm since a month; the other holds Bruno. One-armed from one day to the other, you get used to it.

The Journal of a Body is a funny book that talks about what cannot be said, what cannot be written. There is no deep analysis of feelings here, just the sensations of a body. Some are familiar to me like yawning, feeling fear squeezing your guts, dizziness, water on your skin in the shower, the dazzling attack of a tooth ache. Some are foreign to me since I’m a woman; I know nothing about the pleasure of a good shave in the morning. Some of the sensations reveal his feelings, show what’s happening on stage, where our man interacts with his public, his colleagues, his employees, his family.

I love Pennac; his ten inalienable rights of the reader are in a visible pad on my blog and the Malaussène series is a wonderful memory of reading. I love his humour, his warmth, his joie de vivre. His style is gourmand and gourmet, blunt but never vulgar. (“Love punctuation by Mona: give me that comma to turn it into an exclamation mark”) He intertwines poetry and mundaneness with a happiness that smells like childhood, cheeks reddened by games and the absence of ulterior motives. (“Our voice is the music that the wind makes when it goes through our body –well, when it doesn’t go out through our backside”) He never takes himself seriously. (You can scratch yourself to ecstasy but tickle yourself as long as you want, you’ll never make yourself laugh) His strength is that he doesn’t only describe his body as the recipient of stolen pleasures; he goes through everything, the good and the bad. This visible lightness, this sensorial badinage doesn’t prevent Pennac from serious thinking about the place of our body in society.

We spend our time comparing our bodies. But after childhood, only in a furtive, shameful manner. At fifteen, on the beach, I compared the biceps and abs of the boys of my age. At eighteen, I compared the bulge in their bathing suit. At thirty, forty, men compare their hair. (Poor bald ones!) At fifty, they look at pot bellies (Don’t have one), at sixty, they check teeth (don’t lose them). And now, in the assemblies of old crocodiles that are our supervisory bodies, they check backs, steps, the way you wipe your mouth, you get up or you put your coat on. Old age, actually, just old age. John looks older than me, don’t you think?

It’s so true, we do it without thinking. This story is both universal and unique. I’ve described the universal moments. But this man has also a relationship with his body that tells about his generation. We feel him a bit stiff, this father whose children never see him in pyjamas. At some point, he says he’d like to read the journal of a woman’s body to have a glimpse at this intimacy and understand, among other things, what it is to have breasts. Intriguing for a man, I assume. He describes his little miseries, his illnesses and his curiosity for a body that we only pay attention to when it violently or repeatedly reminds us of its presence. He makes experiments with his body like yawning in a meeting to see if it generates a yawning wave among the audience. This novel is brilliant, tender and sad at the same time. We discover a traditional, deadpan and generous man. A successful man, a faithful husband, a somewhat distant father, an affectionate grand-father. A man who sees his body as a roommate, in for life.

I really like this text and unfortunately, it’s not been translated into English for the moment. It was published in 2012, it may be available in English later. It’s probably a good book to buy for someone who’d like to work on his/her French. It’s a journal, composed of tiny moments; it allows a disjointed reading

Well, the billet comes to an end and to be honest, writing in French isn’t easy. The English language kept on coming to my mind; it’s become my language to write about literature. My brain switches to English when I want to express my thoughts about a book. I had to delete Anglicism (you don’t say “compartimentaliser” in French, but “compartimenter”) or false friends (you don’t say “caractère” for “character” but “personnage”) and I had to translate a few adjectives that came in English first. Bizarre, je sais.

  1. April 8, 2014 at 3:32 am

    I’m not sure I’d like this one to be honest…


    • April 8, 2014 at 5:43 am

      It’s all in the style. Without Pennac’s style, that kind of book could be a disaster. It’s not.


  2. April 8, 2014 at 6:28 am

    In English or in French, I appreciate your appreciation of this book. I’ve loved the Pennac books I’ve read so far – he’s really an institution, isn’t he? This one has been on my list since it came out. I’ll pick it up next time.


    • April 8, 2014 at 9:24 pm

      Thanks Scott. I’m not sure he’d want to be an institution but he’s a famous part of the literary landscape. He’s not tagged as a genius like Houellebecq. He’s more like the teacher we’d like to have and he’s also very casual with great literature. For him literature shouldn’t be daunting.
      Let me know when you read it so I don’t miss your post.


  3. April 8, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! Thanks for taking the time and translating your French billet into English. I loved your French billet and now I love your English billet equally well. I hope this book gets translated into English. I would love to read it.


    • April 8, 2014 at 9:26 pm

      Thanks Vishy. I hope it’ll be translated too.


  4. April 9, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    I wonder what your billet would have been like if you’d written it in English first, instead of in French and then translating to English. Do you think that writing in French first made you write differently? I’m always fascinated by translation issues.


    • April 9, 2014 at 10:17 pm

      Unfortunately, I kept fighting the English when I was writing in French. The translation was quick and easy which makes me think the English was under the French all the time. I wasn’t kidding when I said my brain is trained to write billets in English. I’ve never written anything in French before except essays for school or memos at work. It’s a strange thing. I spend a lot of time reading, blogging, writing billets in English. I speak and write in English at work too. So I’m constantly in an English-speaking atmosphere. Sometimes the English comes before the French.

      The topic of the book is easier to deal with in French though. Bodily things are easier to describe in French and there’s something so typically French in Pennac’s warm style that I can’t really describe in English. There’s this appetite for life, this capacity to cherish small things, to embrace life and take pleasure in small things. It’s something you find in Philippe Delerm’s Small Pleasures of Life or in Zola’s description of food in The Belly of Paris.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm

        Fascinating to hear how the English infiltrated the French version. It must be wonderful to have such intimacy with both languages, and be able to compare them to see subtle differences like the ones you highlight in your second paragraph. Living abroad helped me see British culture in new ways, and I’d guess that being fluent in another language does a similar thing for the way you see your own language.


        • April 16, 2014 at 9:38 pm

          I think you overestimate my intimacy with the English language. I keep stumbling upon words I don’t know and the more I read, the more I think I have a lot to learn.
          I work for someone who’s fascinated by English popular expressions, like “pigs might fly”. She teaches me the English ones and I teach her the French ones. I always wonder who coined them or where they come from.


  5. April 16, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    It does sound very good. I’m surprised by how much of the original French I understood. I always got to about the three quarters mark and then got lost, but seeing the English it doesn’t get more complex which suggests the issue was one of sustained reading in French rather than basic comprehension. Interesting.

    Hopefully it will be translated. It would need a good translator though, since evidently it’s all in the style, the warmth.


    • April 16, 2014 at 10:00 pm

      See, your French is better than you imagined. (although, it’s only me writing and not Balzac or Le Clézio…)
      I hope it will be translated. Do you think it would be a success? Something tells me it’s a bit too candid about some bodily realities and I don’t see it being a hit in UK or the USA.


  6. Linda Haines
    January 9, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    Is this book available in English?


    • January 9, 2016 at 5:33 pm

      It will be released in English (UK) on February 6th 2016. Available on pre-order.


  1. June 26, 2014 at 10:01 am

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