Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Let’s read Romain Gary’

White Dog by Romain Gary

May 8, 2014 42 comments

White Dog by Romain Gary 1969 French version: Chien Blanc.

 If evil things were done only by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.

Gary_CentenaireToday is the 8th of May and Romain Gary would have been one-hundred-year old. For the centenary of his birth, I decided to read the English version of Chien Blanc. The title is literally translated into White Dog but that’s where the literal translation stops. I mean it when I say the English version and not the translation. White Dog has been self-translated by Romain Gary and he took the liberty to change passages, split one chapter in two, change references that were too French, add ones that were more American. From what I’ve seen, and sadly I don’t have time to compare more thoroughly the two texts, the global text is close enough to be the same book but not enough to be called a translation. He just adapted his speech to his American public to better reach out to them.

So what’s it all about? White Dog is a fictional non-fiction book, meaning that it’s a memoir without a journalistic aim at accuracy. Maybe there’s a genre for that, I don’t know. White Dog is focused on the year 1968 in Gary’s life. It’s the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy got killed, the one of the Spring of Prague, the one of the student revolution in France and in other countries too.

The book opens in Los Angeles. Romain Gary lives in Beverly Hills with his wife Jean Seberg while she’s making a movie. Their son Diego Alexandre is six. Romain Gary is an animal lover and specifically a dog person –White Dog is dedicated to his dog Sandy—so when a lost German shepherd lands on his door and seems lost, he takes him in and names him Barka. (“little father” in Russian). A few days later, he realises that Batka is a white dog, a dog that has been trained in a Southern State to attack black people. Gary decides to bring him to Jack Carruthers’ zoo, he wants him to reform Batka. Unfortunatelyn it’s easier said than done.

At the time, Jean Seberg is a fervent militant of the fight to civil rights for black people in America. She gets more and more involved with different groups of black activists, giving them money and support. Gary watches all this with wariness. Her naïve involvement in that cause puts forward their differences: he’s French, she’s American, he’s 24 years older than her and his lucidity, political sharpness and experience in the French Foreign Office make him analyse the situation with more accuracy. She doesn’t want to understand his point of view. White Dog shows how their different vision, not on the rightness of the cause, but on the nature of the black political movement, drives them apart. In White Dog, Gary lets the world know how much he loves his wife, as you can see in this passage, even if they’ll get a divorce in 1970, :

We part, and I walk back home wondering how my America is doing, if Sandy and the cats look after her, if she misses me, if those exquisite features under the short-cropped hair are sad or serene, and if those sweet peepers still look at the world and people with the same belief in something than can never be world or people, and which has always had so much to do with prayers…I miss my America very much.

The book is split in three parts, the first one describing Gary’s efforts to have Barka reformed, the second detailing his stay in Washington DC during riots and his views on the “black problem” in America and the last one picturing Mai 68 in Paris and the student riots.

White Dog is one of Gary’s best books. He’s everywhere in these pages and it helps understanding the novels he wrote. He describes how he liked to spend time in a python’s cage in Carruthers’ zoo and that leads us to Gros Câlin. When he wants to be anywhere else but with himself, he thinks of Outer Mongolia, like Lenny in The Ski Bum. His relationship with Jean Seberg gave us the one between Jacques and Laura in Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. White Dog shows his inner struggles, his need to write off his problems by writing them down in a book. It pictures a man with strong beliefs, ready to stand to his ground even if his ideas are out of fashion. I love that passage about Stupidity.

The black-white situation in America has its roots in the core of almost all human predicaments, deep down within something it is high time to recognise as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle. Stupidity has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over. The latest typical example is the murder of the “spring of Prague” in the name of “correct Marxist thinking”.

Gary_White_DogHe’s an uncompromising moderate. He sees violence as being violence, not a means to defend a cause. He’s disgusted with the so-called good deeds done by the Hollywood circles. He’s appalled to see an old black friend turn into a vindictive and unrealistic activist. He’s a strange mix of a strong will not to give up in human nature and an ingrained cynicism gathered through the years, in spite of him.

His style is brilliant. Funnily, I could hear the French under the English. It doesn’t have the same ring as the passages of French literature translated into English I’ve read. When it’s done by a native translator, the general feeling is that it is an English text. Here, I can hear that English is an acquired language for a French native (or almost) speaker. I spotted mistakes Francophones tend to make when they speak English and turns of sentences that sound like a Frenchman speaking English. It made me smile.

It is risky to re-read a book you have loved when you were young. Will it be as brilliant as the first time? So far, all the Garys I’ve re-read have passed the test of years with flying colours. This one is no exception. It’s thought-provoking, witty and lovely at the same time. Gary has a knack with words and his style shines through and through, even if he’s not aiming at beauty or poetry:

I drive through Coldwater Canyon with enough stones in my heart to build a few more cathedrals.

I’m happy I picked this one for Gary’s centenary. It’s him as a man and him as a novelist too. The mix is potent. Highly recommended, the kind of book your want to share with your friends right away.

PS: I have tons of quotes and I can’t share them all but here’s a last one:

All this must have been happening in a wonderful smell of roses. Whenever I leave Jean alone, I am immediately replaced by bouquets of roses. Dozens of them come to fill the void, all with visiting cards, and I have estimated at various times that my flower value is about a dozen roses per pound. It is flattering and very satisfying to know that as soon as you leave your gorgeous wife alone, an impressive number of people rush to the florist’s in the admirable hope of replacing with roses your sweet-smelling self.

PPS: Another thing: White Dog has been made into a film by Samuel Fuller in 1982. You might have seen it.

Romain Gary Literature Month: let’s get started!

May 1, 2014 23 comments

Gary_CentenaireHere we are! 1st of May! I declare that the Romain Gary Literature Month is open. Back in January, I mentioned that 2014 is the centenary of Romain Gary’s birth. It is an event in France. Le Vin des morts, his first novel written under his real name Romain Kacew has been published. Lectures are organised and Folio publishes La Promesse de l’aube with a cover mentioning the anniversary. I’ve decided it will be the banner for this event. Let’s celebrate Romain Gary! I’ve been showering you with billets and quotes by him since January. I hope you were tempted to try one of his novels; I tried to pick passages from different books.

I will be reading White Dog in English and write a billet here. If you decide to participate, please, leave a comment with the link to your review. I’ll read them all.  If you don’t have a blog and want to publish a guest review on Book Around The Corner, please contact me via email or by leaving a comment. In any case, comments are welcome, I’m looking forward to discovering your thoughts, positive or negative, about my favourite author.

Now, let’s look at covers:

Gary_EnchanteursGary_ChienGary_clair_femmeGary_LadyLGary_RacinesGary_VieGary_adiuGary_calin

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 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 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.

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part two

January 22, 2014 6 comments

Gary_LecturesHello everyone, it’s Wednesday again !

Time for our weekly quote by Romain Gary. Great news! I got help for the translation of the quotes! When I asked on Twitter if an Anglophone who could also speak French fluently would help me with the translation of quotes from the French, Erik MacDonald answered my tweet and came to my rescue. So Erik kindly reviewed and co-translated the quote you’re reading today. You may want to check his blog here.

Today I chose one from the first Gary book I’ve read, Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable, or in English, Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. It was translated by Sophie Wilkins, a “real” translator, not Gary hiding behind a pen name this time. This novel was pulished in 1975, the same year as La Vie devant soi. So he was able to write two books at the same time with very different styles.

Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

Gary_Ticket It is hard to conceive of any subject that would be taboo in the contemporary novel, but Romain Gary’s latest theme, the onset of male impotence with age, attacks the myth of unassailable virility that may well be held sacred by our society Gary’s hero, Jacques Rainier, is a prisoner of his own maturity, of a lifetime of hard-mindedness and of his own highly evolved personal style. In what should be the prime of life, he finds himself facing the humiliation of vanishing manhood. Tycoon and Resistance hero, a man accustomed to power Rainier must suffer the waning of his virility at a time when his country France, must endure the economic upheaval of the energy crisis. His business empire is jeopardized, as is his affair with Laura, a beautiful young woman with whom he is deeply in love. He engages in desperate financial strategies and finds himself in bitterly comic consultations with the medical profession. Then Ruiz enters his life and, more significantly his consciousness. A thief, a foreigner, the embodiment of sexual potency Ruiz may also hold the possibility of release. Rainier’s options range from resignation and fantasy to suicide; his choice, finally is a disturbing one. YOUR TICKET IS NO LONGER VALID is a novel of sexual and financial decline, of the endgame between necessity and desire; but, more profoundly it is an examination of the nature of love which forces a reevaluation, a revision, of ourselves.

I still wonder how Gary reached out to my eighteen year old self with such a plot. Now the quote I want to share with you:

Le racisme, c’est quand ça ne compte pas. Quand ils ne comptent pas. Quand on peut faire n’importe quoi avec eux, ça ne compte pas, parce qu’ils ne sont pas comme nous. Tu comprends ? Ils ne sont pas des nôtres. On peut s’en servir sans déchoir. On ne perd pas sa dignité, son honneur. Ils sont tellement différents de nous qu’il n’y a pas à se gêner, il ne peut y avoir… il ne peut y avoir jugement voilà. On peut leur faire faire n’importe quelle vile besogne parce que de toute façon, le jugement qu’ils portent sur nous, ça n’existe pas, ça ne peut pas salir… C’est ça, le racisme. Racism is when it doesn’t count. When they don’t count. When you can do anything to them, and it doesn’t count because they’re not like us. You understand? They don’t belong. We can use them without demeaning ourselves. We don’t lose our dignity, our honour. They’re so different from us that there’s nothing to worry about, there’s no…there’s no question of them judging us, that’s it. We can have them do whatever lowly task we want because the judgment they pass on us doesn’t exist anyway. It can’t sully us…This is what racism is.

I chose a quote about racism, which is a theme that touched Gary deeply. He was Jewish and it wasn’t easy to be one in France in the 1930s. His mother never ceased to fear deportation when they were in France. He also lived in the USA during the fight for the civil rights and through Jean Seberg, he observed closely the movement of the Black Panthers.

I like this quote because it’s true. Racism is failing to see a fellow human being in someone who looks different. It’s looking down on someone because of the colour of their skin and feeling protected by this difference to do to them what you wouldn’t do to someone you acknowledged as your equal. This is why the Valladolid debate was so crucial.

This is not the place for such debate and I’ll add that there are lighter quotes in that book. Despite Jacques Rainier’s preoccupations being far away from mine, his way of considering love and relationships talked to me in a special way. Plus I fell in love with Gary’s style and unique sense of humour.

Thanks again to Erik for taking the time to review that quote and others to come. I feel grateful and lucky to experience the best that social networks can give.

See you next week!

Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part One

January 15, 2014 19 comments

Gary_LecturesAs I mentioned in my Let’s read Romain Gary billet, we’re going to wait until May for the Romain Gary Literature Month with a weekly quote from one of his books. For our first week, I picked up a quote from Adieu Gary Cooper that makes me laugh. Lenny is the hero of the book, he’s an American ski bum who skies his butt out to forget about himself and his American origin. He stays in the Swiss Alps with other pathological skiers and he has funny ways with the language. When you read Adieu Gary Cooper, you can see that this one and La vie devant soi have been written by the same author. But back to Lenny. We’re in the 1960s, so they experience drugs:

L.S.D., un sale truc, Lenny s’était embarqué la-dedans une fois, mais tout ce qu’il avait vu, c’était la même chose, seulement en technicolor, et le seul moment différent fut lorsque sa verge s’était détachée de lui, avait mis son anorak et pris ses skis, et il s’était mis à hurler et à courir pour les rattraper, il tenait à ses skis comme à la prunelle de ses yeux. Se faire voler comme ça par l’un des siens…On ne peut vraiment plus compter sur personne. L.S.D., nasty stuff. Lenny had tried once but the only thing he had seen had been the same as usual, only in Technicolor. The only different moment was when his penis had detached itself from him, put on his anorak and taken his skis. He had started to yell and run after them, he wouldn’t give his skis for the world. To be robbed like this by your family…Really, no one could be trusted. (my tentative translation)

The English version of Adieu Gary Cooper is entitled The Ski Bum. I’ve read both books and I’m afraid that the English version is a bit toned down compared to the French. It’s definitely not a translation as the passage I translated earlier is not in The Ski Bum. So, here is now a quote from The Ski Bum.

Albert Camus, prophet of the absurd getting killed in an absurd automobile crash, which proves he was wrong and that there is some inner logic in life.

See you next week!

%d bloggers like this: