Why this Book Should Win – The Author and Me by BTBA Judge Michael Orthofer
Michael Orthofer runs the Complete Review – a book review site with a focus on international fiction – and its Literary Saloon weblog.
The Author and Me – Éric Chevillard, translated from the French by Jordan Stump, France
Dalkey Archive Press
Obviously, two-time, back-to-back winner László Krasznahorkai has made the biggest splash at the Best Translated Book Award in recent years, but several other authors have also proven to be more than one-hit wonders. So, for example, former winner (2011, for The True Deceiver) Tove Jansson features on this year’s longlist, as do shortlisted authors from recent years such as Elena Ferrante (2014), Edouard Levé (2013), and Jean Echenoz (2012). One more name that keeps cropping up is that of Éric Chevillard: his Demolishing Nisard was longlisted in 2012, and a year later Prehistoric Times was shortlisted. So is 2015 the year Chevillard goes all the way, on the back of Jordan Stump‘s translation of his novel, The Author and Me?
A book-length rant by a character who is served cauliflower gratin rather than the trout amandine he was expecting – okay, perhaps it doesn’t sound like the most promising material. And yet … what more could one ask for?
Sure, the author admits, in a footnote well into the book, that maybe he’s taking things a bit far:
(R)eally, a whole book against cauliflower gratin, what a ridiculous conceit, it’s not credible, not for a second
He suggests, too:
No, the reader will surely prefer to see all this as an allegory, and will struggle to decipher it: that cauliflower gratin can only be a metaphor for the good old-fashioned novel still stewing in the kitchens of our literature.
Certainly, one can – and probably does well to – read this and more into the protagonist’s arguments. But as in any good allegory, The Author and Me (and the cauliflower/trout debate) functions well on multiple levels: regardless of how deep or shallow the meaning, this is some fine raging on offer here.
Yet there’s more to The Author and Me, too: as the title suggests, this is a novel that also plays some games with questions of the relationship between author and subject. In his Foreword, Chevillard insists he’s out to prove his autonomy-as-author – to show that he’s the one in charge and differentiate himself from a protagonist who, he insists, isn’t just a mouthpiece-cum-alter ego. Just to make things clear, he intrudes in the story-proper – in footnotes explaining his position. Wanting to assert autonomy, and authorial authority – and to show he’s the better man (“The author’s mind is more spirited, bolder, and even more sensitive”, he claims, for example, just to be clear …) – he struggles to differentiate himself from his character. Eventually, he feels he has to put his foot(note) down more firmly, asserting himself in a secondary story (suggested title: My Ant) – a forty-page excursion (all in that single footnote) following … an ant. (No worries, the cauliflower gratin/trout amandine mix-up hasn’t been forgotten: it crops up here as well.)
Oh, and for those who prefer their novels with a bit of a more conventional arc of drama and suspense, The Author and Me also offers … murder! (Some readers may, indeed, wonder, as the narrator rants and rants endlessly along, at what point the Mademoiselle who is his silent, long-suffering audience reaches the breaking point and reaches across the table to start throttling him – or perhaps suspect Chevillard-as-author will assert final authority by doing in his wordy creation himself … but Chevillard follows convention only so far (not very; not very, at all) so there’s some surprise here, too. (Indeed, as he hopefully notes in his final footnote: “He trusts that this twist will leave his reader agape, and, why not, stammering Wha…wha…”.)
The Author and Me is a fairly slim (146-page) albeit occasionally dense (certainly literally so, in that footnote-story-section, some forty pages of fine print …) novel that builds a tour de force on its simple premises – cauliflower vs. trout; author vs. protagonist. Chevillard has considerable fun while he’s at it – and so then does the reader – and shows incredible dexterity in what he does with his story. It’s challenging – in no small part because Chevillard refuses to give in to convention(s) – to put up with cauliflower gratin! – but rewardingly so.
Jordan Stump has been engaged with Éric Chevillard’s writing for many years: the first of Chevillard’s books he translated was The Crab Nebula, in 1997; The Author and Me is the fourth. With its stylistic range and playfulness, Chevillard’s writing, more than most, is surely not something either translator or reader can easily get comfortable with – a 1997 reviewThe Crab Nebula, in The New York Times Book Review by Liam Callanan noting:
“‘Translation is entirely mysterious,’ Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked, and so is Eric Chevillard’s brief novel — his first to be translated into English. The mystery stems not from any conflict between the English text (by Jordan Stump and Eleanor Hardin) and the original French, but more from the translation from thought to page.”
The translation-challenges posed by The Author and Me are different, but no less demanding, and Stump has captured Chevillard’s tone and registers (and the humor to it all) expertly.
Multilayered, though-provoking – and very funny – The Author and Me is a rich work, indeed deserving of serious consideration for Best Translated Book Award honors.