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Wednesdays with Romain Gary: the end

April 30, 2014 12 comments

Gary_LecturesThis is our last Wednesday with Romain Gary. Gary loved women and was a womaniser. Being successful with the ladies was a proof of a good education by his mother’s book. A man had to be charming. He wrote wonderful pages about love, attraction and relationships in many of his books. For our last week, I picked a quote from Les clowns lyriques about perfume:

Le parfum à peine perceptible, à peine esquissé, est comme un murmure prometteur du corps ; lorsqu’il insiste trop, il ne parle plus que de lui-même, ne livre plus que son propre nom. A perfume that is barely perceptible, barely hinted at is like a promising murmur of a body; when it is too persistent, it no longer speaks about anything except itself, it reveals nothing but its own name. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

Isn’t that entirely true? I’m sensitive to smells and scents and I hate to have my personal space invaded by a strong perfume. Like in offices, lifts, train carriages or other closed spaces. Some cologne scream “I’m cheap” and I always think that nothing would be better than this too-much. Some perfume scream “Look at me” and I’m not sure they bring the looks they meant to capture. I associate perfumes with the people who wear them and I wouldn’t want my husband to use the same cologne as my father. Some perfumes remind me of teachers because a classroom is exactly the kind of place where you smell perfumes, which reminds me there’s a funny scene in Straight Man by Richard Russo where the main character acts crazy after a colleague’s heady perfume meddled with his sanity.

But perfumes are also familiar scents, bringing comfort because they belong to someone you love.

I hope this series of billets encouraged you to read Romain Gary. See you tomorrow with the official opening of Romain Gary Literature Month.

I can’t resist: a last quote for the day!

[C’était] un de ces bouquets de fleurs qui partent toujours à la recherche d’un cœur et ne trouvent qu’un vase.Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable. [It was] one of those flower bouquets that always reach out for a heart and only find a vase.In Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid.

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fifteen

April 23, 2014 8 comments

L’angoisse du roi Salomon by Romain Gary. 1979. English title: King Solomon. (OOP, used copies available)

Gary_LecturesL’angoisse du roi Salomon is the last book by Romain Gary and it was published under the pen name Emile Ajar. The narrator of the story is Jean, a young cab driver who met Monsieur Salomon his taxi. Monsieur Salomon is eighty-five years old and made a fortune in the clothing industry. Now, he’s doing good deeds by welcoming SOS Bénévoles (“Mayday Charity”) in his home. When Jean explains that he borrowed money with two friends to buy the taxi, Monsieur Salomon gives him the money to reimburse the loan on condition that Jean takes care of home calls for people who need assistance. Jean will meet with Monsieur Salomon’s former lover and will discover the old man’s past.

This week, I’d like to share this quote with you:

Le silence aussi a des variétés. Ou bien il ronronne, ou bien il vous tombe dessus et vous ronge comme un os. Il y a des silences qui sont pleins de voix qui gueulent et qu’on n’entend pas. Des silences SOS. Des silences comme on ne sait pas ce qui leur arrive, d’où ça vient, il faudrait des ingénieurs. On peut toujours se boucher les oreilles, mais pas le reste. Silence also comes in many varieties. Either it purrs or it falls down on you and gnaws on you like a bone. Some silences are full of bawling voices that nobody hears. SOS silences. Silences like you don’t know what happened to them, where they come from, you’d need engineers. You can always shut you ears but not the rest. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

Silences have different textures according to the moment, the place or who you share them with. Silences can be as warm as a comfortable blanket or as cold as a North wind. They can be peaceful or disquieting, meaningless or loaded with repressed emotions. We’ve all tasted these different types of silences. Gary has his way to describe them.

Next week will be our last Wednesday with Romain Gary and May will be Romain Gary Literature Month on this blog.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary, Part Fourteen

April 16, 2014 13 comments

Les Racines du Ciel. 1956 English title: The Roots of Heaven.

Gary_LecturesRomain Gary won his first Prix Goncourt with Les Racines du ciel. It was published in 1956 and it’s the story of Morel who is in Africa to save elephants. Great challenge. This novel is an ode to wilderness and a plea to humanity to preserve natural resources. Gary advocates that preserving natural beauty is a way for humanity to prove its superiority to its basic instincts. Elephants are at stake, but there’s more to the story than preserving elephants and stopping illegal hunting. Morel is an idealist, a type of character Gary liked to explore. I picked a quote that sums up Morel’s fight and vision of nature:

Est-ce que nous ne sommes plus capables de respecter la nature, la liberté vivante, sans aucun rendement, sans utilité, sans autre objet que de se laisser entrevoir de temps en temps ? Are we no longer able to respect nature— freedom in living form —, which offers no yield, no usefulness, which has no other aim than to let itself be observed from time to time? Translation more than reviewed by Erik McDonald.

I had a lot of trouble translating this; the French sentence with all the commas isn’t easy to put together in English. Many thanks to Erik for his help. That quote asks the ultimate question: are we still able to admire and respect beauty for free.  Where is our civilisation going if we can’t value beauty for itself not for what it brings us?

Les Racines du Ciel was written nearly sixty years ago and I can’t help wondering what Morel would do about global warming. The preservation of elephants is the cause Morel fights for. Gary takes advantages of his character’s presence in Africa, in the soon-to-be former French colonies to discuss decolonisation and more importantly, its aftermath. He always has a sharp analysis of the world he lives in. These regions will be free from the French in the early 1960s and Gary already sees the dictatorships coming. I admire Gary for his capacity to decode the world around him. He’s sharp about politics but he also feels the trends in society in France or abroad. White Dog, Lady L, The Ski Bum, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid…a lot of his books have that side analysis seep through the pages.

In my opinion, The Roots of Heaven is an excellent book but perhaps not the one I’d choose for a first Gary. It’s been made into a film which I haven’t seen.

PS: The celebration of Gary’s centenary continues in France and you’ll find useful links here, in Delphine’s post. I really want that version of Promise at Dawn illustrated by Joan Sfar. It weighs two kilos so it’s not very handy but I’m really curious about it.

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part thirteen

April 9, 2014 6 comments

Les Enchanteurs 1973. (The Enchanters).

Gary_LecturesI’m not sure this one has been translated into English and to be honest, this is not my favourite Gary. A lot of readers love it but I’m not drawn to magical realism. The narrator of Les Enchanteurs, Fosco Zaga is an old man. He’s more than two hundreds year old and he cannot die until someone else loves a man or a woman as deeply as he loves Teresina. He talks about her because if he stops, she’ll really die. The book is set in Russia when Catherine the Great was ruling the country. Fosco Zaga grew up in a family of enchanters and of travelling entertainers of Italian origins and he resurrects Russia in the 18th century with his memories. Fosco is a dreamer, an illusionist that bathes in dreams:

Je vais vous avouer qu’il m’arrive souvent de donner une préférence au rêve, ne laissant jamais à sa rivale la Réalité plus de cinquante pour cent des bénéfices, ce qui explique peut-être ma longévité, dont tant de gens s’étonnent, car ne vivant vraiment qu’à moitié, il est normal que ma ration de vie s’en trouve doublée. I must admit that I’m often in favour of dreams, only giving away to their rival Reality barely fifty per cent of the profits, which might explain my longevity. It surprises a lot of people but as I only half-live, it is quite normal that my life ration be doubled. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

That’s Gary’s logic.

We only have three Wednesdays left before May which will be Romain Gary Literature Month. Several of you were interested in participating back in January, I hope you’ll still be there and willing to celebrate this wonderful writer with me.

Let’s read Romain Gary!

Gary_Enchanteurs

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Twelve

April 2, 2014 8 comments

Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou. 1962 English title: Birds in Peru.

Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou is a collection of short stories and a film directed by Gary himself, starring Jean Seberg. The film is notoriously bad, so don’t bother. I picked this quote from the first short story of the collection:

Il faut espérer que l’âme n’existe pas : la seule façon pour elle de ne pas se laisser prendre. Les savants en calculeront bientôt la masse exacte, la consistance, la vitesse ascensionnelle… Quand on pense à tous les milliards d’âmes envolées depuis le début de l’Histoire, il y a de quoi pleurer. Une prodigieuse énergie gaspillée : en bâtissant des barrages au moment de leur ascension, on aurait eu de quoi éclairer la terre entière. L’homme sera bientôt entièrement utilisable. On lui a déjà pris ses plus beaux rêves pour en faire des guerres et des prisons.

Let’s hope that the soul doesn’t exist, it’s the only way for it not to get caught. Scientists will soon compute its exact mass, its consistency, its rate of climb… When you think about the billions of souls that have ascended since the beginning of times, you have good reason to weep. Such a tremendous amount of energy wasted: if we had built dams at the moment of their ascent, we would have had enough energy to light up the entire planet. Humanity will soon be entirely usable. Their best dreams have already been taken away from them to start wars and build prisons.

Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

Gary_LecturesFor me, this quote shows two of Gary’s obsessions. The first one is that everyone should keep their part of mystery. It’s not necessary to know everything, to explain everything with science or rationally. We live better if there’s room for dreams and imagination in our lives. Love isn’t that magical if you think of it in terms of hormones.

The second idea is that humans can’t be disposable goods. He rejects the trend considering that anything is marketable. Not everything is marketable. Humans are not. Wilderness should be protected and also everything related to art. Not every human activity should be evaluated according to its return on investment or its usefulness. I wonder what he’d think of surrogate mothers, fights to exclude films and books from international trade agreements and in general of how money has become the unique compass to assess someone or something’s worth.

Any time a noble and generous idea inflates until excessiveness, it becomes narrow-mindedness.

March 29, 2014 20 comments

Lady L. by Romain Gary. 1963

Gary_LadyL2Back in February, when I prepared the fourth Wednesday with Romain Gary post, I felt the urge to reread Lady L and I wasn’t disappointed You’ll find additional information about the book in that post so now, let’s dive into the review.

When the book opens, Lady L. is celebrating her 80th birthday. She lives in England, is the matriarch of an affluent aristocratic family and is of French origin. A great party with her children, grand-children and friends is taking place at her house. Right from the start, we gather that Lady L. is rather, um, unconventional. She looks at the spectacle around her, inwardly cringes about all the attention she gets due to her rank and her age. She sees them all as stiff shirts, solidified in their good manners and respectable ways of thinking. She’s making a tour of the place, in company of Sir Percy official poet. Percy is her knight in shining armour and although she likes him, he irritates her. She’d like him to be less honourable and less good-hearted:

Il y avait longtemps que ses espoirs s’étaient évanouis devant l’évidence d’une intégrité morale à vous soulever le cœur, qui émanait de Percy comme une sorte de funeste radiation. C’était vraiment un homme honorable et comment la poésie était allée se fourrer là-dedans, Dieu seul le savait. C’était d’ailleurs le seul homme qu’elle eût connu qui ait un regard de bon chien tout en ayant les yeux bleus.

Her hopes had vanished a long time ago, confronted to the moral integrity solid enough to make you sick that oozed out of Percy like a dreadful radiation. He really was an honourable man and how poetry had ended up there, only God knew. By the way, he was the only man she’d ever known who had the look of a good dog while being blue-eyed.

See what I mean about unconventional? During the party, she learns that her pavilion where she hides all her favourite things will be destroyed because the land is needed to build a motorway. This prompts her to bring Percy over there and tell him the truth about her origin and her life. Poor Percy is in for a hell of a journey.

Lady L was born Annette Boudin, a poor girl living in the slums of Paris. Her father was an activist and an anarchist. She was raised with bottles of revolutionary theories while her mother struggled to make ends meet.

Sa mère peinait dans la cour, son père parlait de justice, de la dignité naturelle de l’homme, de la réforme du monde : peut-être eût-elle gardé un souvenir moins pénible de ses leçons s’il était descendu dans la cour pour donner un coup de main à sa femme.

Her mother was working hard in the courtyard and her father was speaking of justice, of the natural dignity of humanity, of the reform of the world. She might have remembered these lessons more fondly if he had went down to the courtyard and given a hand to his wife.

This behabiour rooted in her a solid weariness towards grand theories to improve the welfare of humanity. Humanity is demanding, appeals to high ideals and makes a man forget about the needs of everyday life. Annette grows into  beautiful and starts working as a prostitute. This is how she meets Alphonse Lecoeur, prince of the Parisian crime scene and financer of Armand Denis’s fight against the establishment. Armand Denis is a charismatic anarchist. He believes in his cause; he wants to save humanity and is ready to do anything for that. At the present, anything means training Annette to behave like an aristocrat, introduce her in high society and use her as an informer. The objective: bombings, killing of key people and burglaries to finance The Cause. Despite her previous knowledge of the inner workings of an activist’s mind, she falls head-over-heels in love with Armand. They become lovers but where Annette would be happy with a normal life, Armand cannot give up The Cause:

Mais il y a une chose que je ne comprends pas. Tu dis que tu m’aimes. Comment peux-tu aimer quelqu’un sans l’aimer tel qu’il est ? Comment peux-tu m’aimer et me demander en même temps de changer complètement, de devenir quelqu’un d’autre ? Si je renonçais à ma vocation de révolutionnaire, il ne resterait plus rien de moi : tu ne peux pas me demander à la fois de renoncer à ce que je suis et de demeurer celui que tu aimes. Ce n’est pas facile, tu sais, d’être dans ma peau. Ce n’est pas facile d’être Armand Denis. C’est très précaire. On se réveille parfois le matin tout surpris de se trouver encore là. Tu devrais être ma force, ne pas essayer de miner ma volonté, mes convictions.

But there’s something I don’t understand. You say you love me. How can you love someone and not love him the way he is? How can you love me and at the same time ask me to change completely, to become someone else? If I abandoned my calling as a revolutionary, there wouldn’t be anything left of me. You can’t ask me to renounce to who I am and still be the man you love. It’s not easy to be in my skin. It’s not easy, you know, to be Armand Denis. It’s very instable. Sometimes you wake up in the morning, all surprised to be there, still. You ought to be my strength, not to try to undermine my willpower, my beliefs.

Humanity is like a mistress in their couple. In French, « humanité » is a feminine word, which explains the metaphor Gary uses. Annette fights with limited weapons against a powerful opponent. Armand won’t give up his cause. He’s ready to die for humanity. And as he points out, would she still love him if he changed that much? Who will win the fight? The flesh and blood lover or the demanding and idealistic mistress?
Along with Annette’s story –how did she go from slumming to Lady?—Gary explores the theme of passionate devotion to a cause. He shows that activists become slaves of their idea and end up being as narrow-minded as the people they’re fighting against. He sees humanity as a bloodthirsty mistress that takes men into her nets and makes them her slaves. Their passionate love for her might change them into monsters, without their realising it until it’s too late.

La soif d’absolu, un phénomène très intéressant, d’ailleurs, et assez dangereux : cela donne presque toujours de beaux massacres. C’est un de ces grands passionnés de l’humanité qui finiront bien par faire disparaître un jour leur bien-aimée dans un crime passionnel, par dépit amoureux.

The thirst for the Absolute, a very interesting phenomenon, by the way, and rather dangerous. Most of the times, it ends up in big massacres. One of these great devotees to humanity will eventually kill their beloved in a crime of passion, out of unrequited love.

Armand Denis fights for more freedom and yet, he’s a prisoner of his ideas. He turns into a fanatic; he loses perspective. Gary advocates that it is difficult to have enough inner fire to keep on fighting and believing and at the same time keep things in perspective. On the one hand, you need passion to go on and on the other hand, you need to cool that passion to prevent yourself from committing injustices in the name of your fight for justice. That’s a catch 22 situation.
Needless to say I highly recommend Lady L. Gary’s style is excellent, witty, lively and full of wonderful images. The ending is quite surprising and the passages about activism are thought-provoking. A potent combination of great style, gripping plot and deeper thoughts.

PS : I translated the quotes myself, so please, be indulgent. Something else, I used to copy-paste tables from Word with the biligual quotes, but something has changed in the WP features and I can’t do it anymore. That leaves me with the blog quotes. If anyone knows how to fix this, I’ll be glad to hear it.

 

 

 

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part eleven

March 26, 2014 4 comments

La Tête coupable (1968) English title: The Guilty Head.

Gary_LecturesLa Tête coupable is the third volume of a trilogy. The first volume, Pour Sganarelle, is an essay about novels, novelists and literature in general. The second one is La danse de Gengis Cohn and you can read my sloppy billet about it here. The last one is La Tête coupable. It’s out of print in English but you can get really cheap used copies online. I haven’t read Pour Sganarelle — yes, there are some Garys I haven’t read. Regular readers know I’m not good at reading essays, so it’s not a surprise that this one is on the shelf, unread.
I have read La Tête coupable a very long time ago. We find again the character Cohn. He’s now living in Tahiti under the protection of Bizien, the Napoleon of tourism. He apparently lives a peaceful life with a Tahitian woman. Sometimes he cons people into paying a Gauguin tax, surfing on the guilt the island feels towards the painter. As I’m browsing through the book, picking paragraphs here and there, I can feel the energy of Gary’s writing, his fantasy. I don’t remember the plot but it sure sounds totally crazy with snippets of insight about the world’s affairs. It’s hard not to think about William Somerset Maugham.
Cohn is a cynic and a picaro. Sganarelle is a character of the comedia dell arte and a famous facetious valet in Molière’s plays. Gary is going towards comedy there but as always he uses humour and laughter to cover his traces. Cohn is a histrion with a sad side.

Un cynique (…) est en général un homme très vulnérable qui tuerait père et mère pour essayer de se désensibiliser.

A cynic (…) is usually a very vulnerable man who would kill his own father and mother to try to desensitise himself.

Or:

Un cynique (…) est en général un homme très vulnérable qui tuerait père et mère pour essayer de se désensibiliser.

A cynic (…) is usually a very vulnerable man who would kill his own father and mother to try to keep himself from feeling. (Translation reviewed by Erik Mc Donald.)

The first one is my translation, I wanted to keep the verb “desensitise”. In French, “se désensibiliser” is not really used in the sense Gary uses it. It’s a medical term. He applies it to emotions. I wanted to keep it because it represents Gary’s ways with the French language. Using a word in a close but in a different meaning and always surrounded by other words that make its new use sound perfectly natural. It brings wit in the text and also a lightness that contradicts the seriousness of the message.
Shuffling through the pages of La Tête coupable, one word comes to my mind: déjanté. That’s the word for a special brand of French craziness for which I still haven’t found an equivalent in the English language. Feel free to throw ideas around.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part ten

March 19, 2014 2 comments

Gary_LecturesFor newcomers, we’ll be celebrating Romain Gary’s centenary in May and there will be a Romain Gary reading month at Book Around the Corner. Every Wednesday, I share with you one or two quotes from a book by Romain Gary. This week, it’ll be from Clair de femme (1977), a poignant novel.

Michel whose wife just died bumps into another broken soul, Yannick. They will spend the night together, talking, healing. Clair de femme is a hymn to love and to the strength we have in us to recover from hardship. Sounds corny but it’s Gary, and it’s not. There could be an easy love relationship between Michel and Yannick (a woman) but Gary doesn’t go for the obvious. Hollywood stories aren’t his line of work. It’s sad but not bleak, because there’s always this touch of hope, Gary’s trademark.

Il ne faut pas se fier aux cheveux blancs, à la maturité, à l’expérience, à tout ce qu’on a appris, à tous les coups qu’on a pris sur la gueule, à ce que murmurent les feuilles d’automne, à ce que la vie fait de nous quand elle essaie vraiment. Ça reste intact, c’est toujours là et ça continue à vivre. You can’t rely on white hair, maturity, experience, on all you’ve learnt, on all the times you’ve been punched in the face, on what the autumn leaves murmur or on what life does to us when it really gets at it. It stays intact, it’s still there and you keep on living. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

In this quote, we find one of Gary’s line of thoughts. Hope and youth stay intact in us when we get older. Despite what we’ve been through, “it” stays intact. “It” is your spunk, your hope for a better future, your appetite for life, your capacity to fall in love and in a way, the illusions about life that you had when you were younger. It refers to the spark of youth that never dies in us, even when our body betrays us and gives away our age.

Here is another quote from Clair de femme:

Les vérités ne sont pas toutes habitables. Souvent il n’y a pas de chauffage et on y crève de froid. Le néant ne m’intéresse pas, précisément parce qu’il existe. Truths are not always liveable. Often there’s no central heating and it’s freezing cold. I’m not interested in nothingness, precisely because it exists. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald

I think it’s true. Looking at things objectively can be really cold and a lot less comfortable than entertaining dreams or half-truths. Self-delusion is more comfortable than blunt lucidity. Gary is affected by acute lucidity and he deals with it by tempering the North wind it brings on his life by the South wind of humour.

I’ll leave you with news about the celebration of Gary’s centenary in France gathered by Delphine, from Romain Gary et moi. For once, I wished I lived in Paris.

PS: Clair de femme has been made into a film, directed by Costa-Gavras.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Nine

March 12, 2014 3 comments

Gary_LecturesLa Vie devant soi or Life Before Us is probably one of the most famous book by Romain Gary. It has been made into a film and into a play. Gary won his second Goncourt Prize with this novel under the pen-name Emile Ajar. This was an extraordinary literary mystification as a relative –Paul Pavlowitch – impersonated Emile Ajar. If you want to know more about that, read Litlove’s excellent post here.

La Vie devant soi is set in Paris, in the 19th arrondissement. This is a very multicultural arrondissement, even today. The narrator is a child, Momo as in Mohamed. He’s an orphan of Arab origin and he’s living with Madame Rosa, a Jewish old woman. Momo’s voice is unique. As a child he’s a mix between naiveté and perception. He doesn’t understand everything but his perceptions are spot on. That’s often how it is with children, they don’t have the conventional words to express what they think or feel but they still have an accurate insight. Momo has a fresh voice, full of ingenuousness and this is what I wanted to share with you in this quote:

Je sais qu’il y a beaucoup de gens qui font du bien dans le monde, mais ils font pas ça tout le temps et il faut tomber au bon moment. Il y a pas de miracle. I know there are a lot of people in the world who do good deeds but they don’t do them all the time and you need to be there at the right moment. No such things as miracles. Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald.

The part « Il y a pas de miracle » translated as “No such things as miracles” is an expression we often use in French to say “so it goes” or “expecting too much is like believing to miracles”. This quote represents Gary’s ambivalence towards Humanity. There are good people but they’re not always leading the game and you need a bit of luck to cross paths with them. One can’t give up on humanity because of these good people and they sustain Gary’s hope in humanity. Gary’s belief is that hope is indestructible in a human and it’s both a strength and weakness. It makes one stronger; it fuels one’s resistance, helps persisting in something important and fighting against despair. And it’s a weakness because it prevents one from cutting their losses and abandon something that obviously won’t work, be it a relationship, a cause or a pursuit. It’s a recurring theme in Gary’s work.

I leave you until next week with a last quote from La Vie devant soi:

Les cauchemars, c’est ce que les rêves deviennent toujours en vieillissant. Nightmares, that’s what dreams always become when they get older.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Eight

March 5, 2014 8 comments

Gary_LecturesThis week I’d like to share with you a quote from Promise at Dawn. It’s one of Gary’s most famous book, a memoir, an ode to his mother Nina. As Gary’s biographers will point out later, he took some liberties with the truth and rewrote certain parts of his personal history. But still. Promise at Dawn remains a beautiful book about the unconditional love of a mother for her son and an exceptional ode to France, his adoptive country.

There are dozens of wonderful quotes in Promise at Dawn. I’ve chosen one that represents Gary to me:

Je crus mourir de honte. Il va sans dire que j’avais alors beaucoup d’illusions, car si on pouvait mourir de honte, il y a longtemps que l’humanité ne serait plus là. I thought I’d die of shame. Needless to say I had a lot of naive ideas then because if one could die of shame, humanity would have disappeared a long time ago. (Translation reviewed by Erik McDonald)

In two sentences, he mentions a deep personal feeling (I thought I’d die of shame or of embarrassment since honte covers the two meanings in French), makes fun of himself and branches out on a thought about mankind. He goes from the intimate at human size to consideration about humanity with a hint of self-deprecating humour. Talented man. He has a way to put things in perspective. No need to dwell upon your little miseries, they’re nothing in the grand scheme of things and you’ll move on and feel better.

I know that some of you will read Promise at Dawn in May. I’d love to know if this quote is in the English translation/version of the book and how it’s been translated. Let me know if you come across that part.

PS: As I’m writing this, my husband is watching a program about Khrushchev’s visit to Los Angeles in 1959. He started yelling, I turned my head towards the telly, and guess who was in the audience? Romain Gary.

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!

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.

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?

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Four

February 5, 2014 12 comments

Hello,

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?

Gary_LadyL

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part three.

January 29, 2014 4 comments

Hello,

Gary_LecturesTime for our weekly Gary quotes. Today I’ve chosen two quotes from Les Cerfs-volants. (1980). It’s Gary’s last book and I don’t think it’s been translated into English. The title means Kites. It’s a story of love, hope and war from 1930 till after WWII and from Normandy to Poland.

Like last week’s quote, Erik McDonald helped me with the translation. The quotes I picked are short but triggered exchanges about their translation. I found it fascinating that we both struggled with the same words or expressions and that we had so much hesitation to translate such short passages. It gave me a tiny glimpse of what it must be to translate a book; the exchanges between writers and translators must me interesting and I wonder how translators of dead writers do to make all the choices they have to make every sentence along the way.

First quote:

Je comprends qu’on meure d’amour parce que parfois, c’est tellement fort, que la vie n’arrive pas à tenir le coup, elle craque. I understand how you can die of love because sometimes it’s so powerful that life can’t stand it and it shatters

Our problem was about the translation of “elle craque”. I had initially written “it breaks down”

Erik commented: I would suggest “bursts,” or perhaps “breaks apart” or “splits open” or “shatters,” if “craquer” sounds like a metaphorical use of the physical meaning (pants splitting, for instance). “Breaks down” works for “craquer” in the sense of “be unable to resist,” but in this short phrase I would take “break down” to mean “stop working,” the way a car can break down.

I answered:I had trouble with “craquer”. I went for “breakdown” because of the word “mourir” at the beginning of the sentence and also because “craquer” is a word you use for “to have nervous breakdown”. Perhaps “breaks apart” is the best or “falls apart”? Or “shatters”? It’s difficult because “craquer” means both mental and physical. You can use “craquer” for “pants splitting” as well. So maybe “shatters” is the best, eventually. (I’m writing and thinking at the same time)

In the end, I settled for “shatters” but it’s not exactly the same meaning as “elle craque”. For me, “to shatter” is more violent than “craquer”. What do you think?

The second quote is the following:

Le rêve a touché terre et ça fait toujours des dégâts. Même les idées cessent de se ressembler quand elles prennent corps. The dream has landed and that always causes damage. Even ideas stop seeming like themselves when they take on flesh and blood.

This is a recurring theme in Gary’s work, how good or nice ideas can become ugly when someone tries to put them into practice. I had first translated “a touché terre” by “has landed” and “prennent corps” by “embodied”

Erik changed them into “run aground” and “take on flesh and blood”. I agreed immediately about “take on flesh and blood”, I knew “embodied” sounded strange but I couldn’t find anything better. However I wasn’t so keen on “run aground”.

Here are Erik’s arguments: “Run aground” sounds like a ship metaphor: the ship gets into water that’s too shallow and hits bottom. That would cause damage. I first took “toucher terre” to be an airplane metaphor, in which case “has landed” or “has touched down” would work, but it would then be unclear what causes the damage.

And this is my answer: I prefer “has landed” because in French you don’t use that for ships. (You’d say “échouer”) and because Gary was an aviator. Airplane metaphors are more probable. And dreams are in the sky. (Day dreaming is « avoir la tête dans les nuages », “to have one’s head in the clouds”) What causes the damage? A dream is not supposed to land to remain intact. It can’t land without crashing and being damaged. That’s what he means.

I wanted to share our exchanges with you because I found it interesting that we had so much trouble translating passages as short as these. I hope you enjoyed this and I’m curious to know if you have other suggestions.

Thanks again for your help, Erik.

See you next week with quote from Lady L.

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