Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust
For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France, Melville House)
One of the reasons this award is so much fun is the fact that someone like Marcel Proust can be on the same list as someone like Celine Curiol. Although I have to admit, I had no idea that there was anything from Proust that hadn’t already made its way into English . . . especially nothing this interesting.
The Lemoine Affair is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, a collection of classic novellas by classic authors, such as Joyce’s The Dead, Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs, Balzac’s The Girld with the Golden Eyes, and Melville’s Benito Cereno. (MHP also does an Art of the Contemporary Novella series, which will be featured later this month in relation to Zambra’s Bonsai.)
This novella is a very unique, very playful book. It was written shortly after the “Lemoine Scandal,” a scam explained by Proust in the “Author’s Note”:
The reader may have forgotten, since ten years have now passed, that [Henri] Lemoine, having falsely claimed to have discovered the secret of making diamonds and having received, because of this claim, more than a million francs from the President of De Beers, Sir Julius Werner, who then brought action against him, was afterwards condemned on July 6, 1909 to six years in prison. This legal affair, which, although insignificant, enthralled public opinion at the time, was selected one evening by me, entirely by chance, as the common theme for a few short pieces in which I would set out to imitate the style of a certain number of writers.
As a series of pastiches written around a central event, this isn’t your typical novella. And that’s one of the things that makes it so intriguing. As Charlotte says in the interview below (more in a second), it’s Proust doing Balzac, doing Flaubert, doing Saint-Simon!
In order to celebrate this novella’s inclusion on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist I interviewed Charlotte Mandell, who, in addition to translating this book has translated Balzac’s _The Girl with the Golden Eyes, Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, and most recently Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, along with many, many other titles:
Chad W. Post: When I first heard about The Lemoine Affair, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was something of Proust’s that hadn’t made its way into English. How did this project come about? Did you bring it up with Melville House, or did they contact you?
Charlotte Mandell: The Proust project was my idea—Dennis and Valerie had asked me for some French ideas for their novella series, so I came up with three: Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes (which has been translated a number of times, but not to my liking), Jules Verne’s The Castle in Transylvania (_Le Château des Carpathes_, which was translated as The Carpathian Castle a while ago but is now out of print), and Proust’s Pastiches. (I had already translated Flaubert’s A Simple Heart and Maupassant’s The Horla for Melville House.) My friend Mark Cohen had given me a copy of Pastiches et mélanges a year or so before that, and while I knew the Mélanges (a collection of essays on art and literature) had been translated and published as Against Sainte-Beuve, I couldn’t find any published translation of the Pastiches. Which is sort of shocking, considering what wonderful material it is—Proust writing as Flaubert and Balzac!—but then again, it is a difficult piece to translate, so maybe no one wanted to tackle it before.
CWP: It really does seem like a difficult book to translate—everything’s so precise, and to really work you have to capture the voice of a number of different authors. Is there anything in particular you did to prepare for this translation? Reread bits of Balzac and Saint-Simon?
CM: Any good text speaks for itself, so if a text is well-written, and its narrative voice is convincing, there really isn’t any need for the translator to do anything but stay true to the text. And since Proust is a master stylist, he imitates each author’s style so well that it needed no help from me. That said, I did do some research as I was translating the book: I read a bit in Saint-Simon’s memoirs. And since Proust put many of his own friends into the Saint-Simon chapter, and since these same friends would later figure as characters in Remembrance, I read several biographies of Proust (the most helpful of which were William Sansom’s Proust and His World; The World of Marcel Proust by André Maurois; and A Proust Souvenir by William Howard Adams, with period photographs by Paul Nadar).
CWP: Was there a section that was particularly tricky?
CM: The most difficult pastiche to translate was definitely the Saint-Simon chapter, because it blends obscure 18th century court intrigue with Proust’s own intricate style and Saint-Simon’s interminable sentences, and places Proust’s friends in the court of Louis XIV. Proust admired Saint-Simon as a writer; I think one of the reasons the Saint-Simon pastiche is the longest one is that Proust got a little carried away with it, and it began to sound more like Proust than like Saint-Simon (the long sentence describing Proust’s close friend Robert de Montesquiou, the Symbolist poet and one of the models for Charlus, on pp. 79-80 sounds like pure Proust at his best). Proust said he wrote the pastiches partly to purge these authors from his system, so that when he began his great work, A la recherche du temps perdu, his voice would be entirely his own. I think Saint-Simon was the hardest author for him to exorcise!
CWP: In the piece you wrote about the book, you mention that the pastiche was a popular exercise back in the 1890s. It’s a really fun form, one that would have interesting results in just about any day and age. Which other famous pastiches as compelling as this one? (I’m mostly just curious. It seems to me like something the Oulipo would revive . . . )
CM: Rabelais was the first author I know of to write pastiches—The Third Book of the Pantagruel features a lot of pastiches written in the style of authors of his day. Alexander Pope, who spent years translating (or sub-contracting) Homer, did our most famous pastiche of the epic form in The Rape of the Lock. Henry Fielding’s Shamela is a much shorter parody and pastiche of Samuel Richardson’s commercially successful but interminable Pamela. Mark Twain has the Duke do a hilarious Shakespearian pastiche in Huckleberry Finn. La Bruyère pastiched Montaigne, I think. Max Beerbohm parodies different literary styles (H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and many others) in A Christmas Garland. The French author Paul Reboux, in collaboration with his friend Charles Müller, wrote many volumes of pastiches, titled A la manière de . . .; Proust is pastiched in it, along with his friends Alphonse Daudet and Anna de Noailles, as well as Tolstoy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sartre, Jean Jaurès, Mallarmé . . .
It’s interesting you mention Oulipo – Raymond Queneau’s wonderful Exercices de style is a form of pastiche, since it tells the same story in 99 different styles (Umberto Eco translated that into Italian). That work spawned a number of other pastiches: Stéphane Tufféry’s Le style, mode d’emploi, in which he pastiches Balzac, Hugo, Verne, and Flaubert, among others; Lucien d’Azay’s Nouveaux exercices de style, in which he pastiches Duras, Echenoz, and Le Clézio, to name just a few; and the Oulipian Hervé Le Tellier, who presents 100 different views of the Mona Lisa in his Joconde jusqu’à cent, then 100 more in Joconde sur votre indulgence.
CWP: For readers unfamiliar with French literary history, this book could seem a bit heady or daunting with all the references and whatnot. Personally, I found it really enjoyable and entertaining, even in the sections where Proust was imitating someone I hadn’t read. Is there anything you would tell a potential reader in advance to increase his/her pleasure when reading this?
CM: Relax! Don’t worry about not getting all the references—just sit back and let the text lead you where it will. I’ve never read Henri de Régnier, but I felt I knew him perfectly after reading Proust’s pastiche—and I laughed out loud as I was translating it. All those endless parallel constructions (it was not this, but that . . .), the redundant and outrageous use of symbolism (Hermes’ caduceus, mucus resembling a diamond) . . . The wonderful thing about Proust is his ability to capture a particular author’s style and encapsulate it in just a few pages, or in some cases (as in the heartbreakingly beautiful end of the Flaubert pastiche) in just a few sentences. The pretended diamond is a fitting subject in this case, since each pastiche is a brilliant artificial gem of insight and style, and each one stands out and sparkles on its own. (It’s interesting to compare a Proust pastiche to a Beerbohm pastiche: Beerbohm is obviously Beerbohm writing in the style of . . . , whereas Proust becomes that author so convincingly you can forget you’re reading Proust. I think that wonderful ability to see through the eyes of another author is one of the things that makes Proust so great: as we read A la recherché, each character is so real that we become the narrator interacting with these characters, so that by the end of the book we feel as if all these characters were intimate friends of ours, and the narrator’s life and thoughts were our own.)
CWP: We (Three Percent and Co.) recently released our “Best Translated Book of 2008” fiction longlist, which includes Proust’s The Lemoine Affair. Assuming you think this book deserves to be on the list, are there any other translations you read/worked on this year that you’d like to recommend?
CM: I’m really pleased The Lemoine Affair made your longlist! I think I had six translations published in 2008, but the Proust is my favorite by far, and the one I’m most proud of, since it’s never been translated before (to my knowledge). A few other books of interest: Peter Szendy’s Listen: A History of Our Ears, an impassioned and erudite musicological look at the history of listening and who exactly “owns” the rights to classical music, and Balzac’s weird tale The Girl with the Golden Eyes. Jean Paulhan’s On Poetry and Politics is worth taking a look at, since Paulhan is an important figure in French letters and these essays are appearing in English for the first time. Also Pierre Bayard’s Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, in which Bayard argues that fictional characters have lives of their own (as in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds or any of the Jasper Fforde novels), and are capable of doing things (including murder) without the author (or the author’s star detective) knowing it. Most beautiful of all perhaps is Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Fall of Sleep, which is coming out next year—an extraordinary instance of theory as lyricism.
CWP: What projects do you have lined up for the future? Are there any other gems like this that you’d love to work on but haven’t found a publisher for yet?
CM: The book I’m most excited about at the moment is Mathias Énard’s Zone, which you’ll be publishing! I think it’s the next Great Book, and I can’t wait to start work on it. As for other unpublished or out-of-print books, I’d love to translate Jules Verne’s Le secret de Wilhelm Störitz, about a mad scientist who turns a woman who spurns him invisible. I’d also like to translate Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale someday, since I don’t know of any translations that do it justice.