George Carroll is the World Literature Editor of Shelf Awareness and an independent publishers’ representative based in the Pacific Northwest.
Street of Thieves – Mathias Énard, Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Open Letter Books
Last year, I advanced Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God, tr. from the French by Lulu Norman, for The Best Translated Book Award a book that follows the lives of a group of teenage soccer players from Sidi Moumen who become Islamist martyrs, suicide bombers in the 2003 Casablanca attacks.
This year I’m championing Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, in which one of the main characters becomes involved with an Islamist group turned Jihadist.
I hope that I’m not developing a pattern – not the French translation part, the radicalism part.
Street of Thieves is a coming-of-age story of two childhood friends set mostly in Tangiers during the Arab Spring. Lakhdar, the narrator, wants freedom – to travel, smoke weed, earn money, read French noir detective novels, have sex with Spanish women. His friend, Bassam, introduces Lakhdar to the “Group for the Propagation for Islamic Thought” for whom he becomes their seller of books and pamphlets.
After the organization severely beats a neighborhood bookseller, their paths split, Lakhdar moves away, Bassam gets deeply into the group. Bassam might be involved in a stabbing in Tangiers, a bombing in Marrakesh, and ultimately an assassination.
“Men are dogs,” says Lakhdar, “they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it…” Exiled from his family because of an indiscretion with his cousin, Lakhdar starts with nothing, lives on the street, takes a series of jobs, goes on the run, falls in love, and ends up in a Barcelona neighborhood of junkies and prostitutes, the Street of Thieves.
Lots of big words – fate, fear, corruption, revolution, liberty, love and loyalty and tragedy, but no theme bigger than identity. Is Lakhdar more than his religion? More than his nationality? In the final pages of the book, he testifies “I am not a Moroccan, I am not a Frenchman, I’m not a Spaniard, I’m more than that . . . I am not a Muslim, I am more than that.”
Love of language, the study of language, the beauty of language are all manifested in the book. Love of books – “which is the only place on earth where life is good” – certainly won this judge over.
Street of Thieves should win The Best Translated Book Award because Énard has filtered multiple complex social issues through the eyes of a wonderfully likable narrator. If I’ve made that sound dreadfully serious, it’s my mistake.
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Zone by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell
Publisher: Open Letter Books
Why This Book Should Win: It’s a 517-page one-sentence novel. (Kind of.) How many other 517-page one-sentence novels have you ever heard of? That’s the kind of monumental project that should be rewarded.
Like with My Two Worlds, this Open Letter title has a pretty fun backstory. I heard about this via a review online and a quote from Claro claiming that it was “the novel of the decade, if not of the century.” (Realizing now that I’m sort of a sucker for respectable authors using that “X is the X of this [long time period]” mode of recommendation. Hmm.)
Anyway, based on a review, a hyperbolic blurb, and a relatively short sample (which erroneously ended with a period, but the less said about that the better), we made an offer on the book right before the Frankfurt Book Fair. Of course, the French publisher was hoping for a bidding war (they always are) and some Exorbitant Big Press Advance (who isn’t?), so they held our offer in check. Aannnddd then the economy collapsed and the Jonathan Littell book underperformed and the idea of a 517-page one-sentence novel sounded like a Bad Business Decision.
Which was awesome for us. Rights secured, we told Publishers Weekly who ran this as a notable Frankfurt acquisition, which led to the Chicago Tribune running this piece, cautiously titled: “The Longest Literary Sentence,” and which contained the dumbest quote (or at least one of the ten dumbest?) I’ve ever given:
But is the record-setter gibberish? Not at all, says Post.
“It’s told from inside this guy’s mind as he takes a train trip,” he says. “It has a lot of commas.”
Lot of . . . Jesus. Well, it does have commas by the truckful, and semicolons, em-dashes, and a whole slew of non-period punctuation. (Except the hyphellipses. If only . . .)
Anyway, that all happened well in advance of publishing the book. And in terms of the book itself, this truly is Epic Literature. It’s about the violence in the latter part of the twentieth century and is narrated by a former information agent who has decided to give it all up and is on a 517-kilometer long train ride to hand over all his secrets to the Vatican. During the train ride he has a little time to think, about his wartime experiences, about info gathering, about women he’s been with, about, well, basically everything. He also reads a book while he’s on the train, which serves as the sort of clinamen to this whole “one-sentence” thing.
But speaking of that—I may have praised it above, using this unique trait as a reason why this book deserves the BTBA, but in a way, I wish we never had to talk about it. Zone is not a gimmick. It is a fully realized, amazingly ambitious novel. As you read it and fall into Francis Servain Mirkovic’s mind, you witness an author going for it all, like authors never seem to do anymore . . . which is really why this book deserves the award.
Here’s what Stephen Burn said about it in the New York Times:
Near midnight on a Friday in April 1854, Gustave Flaubert wrote one of his many letters to Louise Colet. Flaubert had spent days hidden away in his Croisset retreat, researching theories of clubfoot and discarding pages from the manuscript of “Madame Bovary,” and he told Colet that he had come to the conclusion that “the books from which entire literatures have flowed, like Homer, Rabelais, are encyclopedias of their time. They knew everything.” This conception — the novel that knows everything — would come to obsess Europe’s modernist writers, who dreamed that a narrative of infinite detail and esoteric knowledge could blur the boundaries between traditional genres, with fiction shading into nonfiction, poetry bleeding into history.
At other times and in other places, similar ambitions can be found, but it is a specifically modernist legacy that obsesses the French writer Mathias Énard in his novel “Zone.” Like Flaubert and James Joyce, Énard seems to have found a model for his omnivorous novel in the Homeric epic, while Ezra Pound’s ghost also haunts “Zone.” Énard describes Pound’s “Cantos” as “magical,” and it seems significant that in a canto beginning with an invocation to “poor old Homer,” Pound reflects on a voice “weaving an endless sentence,” because in “Zone” — aside from three excerpts from an imagined Palestinian fiction — Énard takes up the challenge of writing an endless sentence by including only one period in his long novel. This ambitious gamble won Énard considerable praise in France, and now, with Charlotte Mandell’s lucid translation, readers of English can evaluate his text and larger mythic framework.
But don’t take our collective words for it, check out this sample to get a sense of this amazing novel.
Or just watch this:
This is a bit of an interlude post in the series. I don’t have a picture of Charlotte—she wasn’t at the ALTA conference—so I’m hardly following through on the “visible” aspect of these entries, but after writing about the “most published translators” of the past few years, it was brought to my attention that Charlotte Mandell should basically top this list.
Which is true. Over the past two years, she’s translated:
Abdelwahab Meddeb, Tombeau of Ibn Arabi and White Traverses, with an afterword by Jean-Luc Nancy. (Fordham University Press, 2009)
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep. (Fordham University Press, 2009)
Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones. (HarperCollins, 2009)
Pierre Bayard, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles. (Bloomsbury, 2008)
Jean Paulhan, On Poetry and Politics (co-translated with Jennifer Bajorek and Eric Trudel). (University of Illinois Press, 2008)
Marcel Proust, The Lemoine Affair. (Melville House, 2008)
Peter Szendy, Listen: A History of Our Ears. (Fordham University Press, 2008)
Pierre Birnbaum, Geography of Hope. (Stanford University Press, 2008)
Honoré de Balzac, The Girl with the Golden Eyes. (Melville House, 2008)
Mathias Enard, Zone. (Open Letter, 2010)
Which is phenomenal, impressive, Herculean even. Just in terms of total pages, this is impressive (Zone’s a long book, but not nearly as long as The Kindly Ones), but in terms of overall quality, difficulty of the texts, etc., this is an incredible feat.
And just to explain: The reason Charlotte didn’t pop up on the list yesterday is because a number of these are works of nonfiction, which aren’t logged into our database. I wish we could track nonfiction to, but we’re only three people (and honestly, I’m the only one who enters stuff into the database), who also have to run a publishing house, write grants, sell books, teach interns, etc., etc. But one day! One day when we receive a healthy-sized grant from a progressive foundation/individual/government organization who realizes the true value of this study, we’ll be able to add on nonfiction, kids books, graphic novels . . . And go back in time so that we can better identify translation/publication trends. So if you know anyone with a little extra money . . .
Anyway, since I can’t make her visible with an ALTA pic, instead I’ll just repost this video of a conversation between Charlotte and E.J. VanLanen that took place here in Rochester a couple months ago and features a very odd moment of chair theft:
And Charlotte—keep up the amazing work!
Zone has been getting a lot of attention recently, such as this review in the New York Times and in the recent issue of N+1. (I also found a copy on display at the Bay City Public Library—my hometown library—and someone had actually checked it out!)
One of the first reviews of Zone actually appeared in the Quarterly Conversation last year (or maybe even in 2009 . . ), and to celebrate the launch of the English-language version, Scott Esposito interviewed translator Charlotte Mandell:
Scott Esposito: According to the information on your website, you’ve translated some 28 books since 2001, including The Kindly Ones, which is nearly 1,000 pages. How long were you working on Zone, and how did it compare, in terms of difficulty, rate of progress, etc to other books you’ve translated?
Charlotte Mandell: Good grief! I thought that was a mistake when I read it–28 books in 10 years does seem like a lot . . . It took me about 6 months to translate Zone, and then a few more months to revise it. I’ve almost always worked under pressing deadlines, so I’m used to working fast, and once I’d started translating Zone it was honestly very hard to stop. For one thing, there are no obvious resting places, since there are no periods! So I had to mark out ahead of time where I would stop for the day, so that I didn’t overdo it. It was really a joy translating Zone, since it felt like a long prose poem in which I could give myself free rein.
SE: Funny that you mention that. I felt that unstoppability while reading (and others have told me they did too), and it seems it works the same for translating the book. Like you, I had to tell myself to slow down, and one way to do it was to look up just a fraction of the references in this book. There are tons! At the end of the day, the book feels like a cross between a postmodern novel of information and a modernist stream of conscious novel, maybe something William Gaddis would have come up with. How do you classify it, and do you see any novels in the French landscape that resemble or contextualize it?
CM: I suppose the first book that comes to mind as a sort of precursor to Zone is Michel Butor’s La Modification (published in English as Second Thoughts1). It too is about a man on a train journey, and it’s narrated solely in the second person. The entire narration revolves around the narrator’s thoughts and memories, and nothing actually “happens” in the book (except that the narrator changes his mind—hence the title—by the end of the book).
You’re right, there are a lot of references, and I think all the books mentioned in Zone influence Enard’s narrative in subtle but meaningful ways: Tsirkas’ Drifting Cities; William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch; Pound’s Cantos; Finnegans Wake; Apollinaire’s Zone; Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night; and especially Malaparte’s masterful Kaputt, one of the most underappreciated (and well-written) war novels I can think of, narrated from the point of view of the losing side.
In terms of the contemporary French literary landscape, I think Zone shares a lot of similarities with The Kindly Ones: in fact I can think of no other French novel today that mentions Bardèche, Brasillach, and Burroughs!–though I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Kindly Ones . . . Both narrators are fascists (a recovering fascist in the case of Zone, but a fascist nonetheless), and both are consumed by their respective wars. Also, both The Kindly Ones and Zone incorporate dreams, fantasies, and memories into the narrative in interesting ways–the boundaries between fantasy and reality are often blurred.
I think Enard and Claro also have some things in common, in the risks they take in terms of narration and style. Claro’s recent Madman Bovary comes to mind, if only for its narrative inventiveness, and for its way of portraying a narrator consumed by a book (the way _Zone_’s narrator is consumed by a briefcase). I heard that Enard and Claro traveled around Europe once performing a magic show–I’m not sure if I dreamt that, but it sounds very apt!
The other four questions are even more interesting, and definitely worth checking out . . .
1 Actually, I believe the American edition was A Change of Heart. Just a footnote for those interested in reading this very interesting Butor book . . . though maybe not as interesting as Passing Time.
I feel like this is a week of individual themed days . . . Yesterday was all Japanese literature and Michael Emmerich, today is all Zone . . .
Publishers Weekly‘s Indie Press Sleepers list for the fall came out yesterday, featuring twenty titles from independent presses that may be slightly less hyped than Franzen’s Freedom, but have a real shot at “breaking out,” capturing the imagination and interest of the reading public, and selling thousands of copies thanks to great indie stores, solid reviews, word-of-mouth, etc.
These lists are always fascinating, especially when they include one of our titles (the only translation included on the list . . . at least the one in the magazine. There are 20 additional titles featured online, including Laurence Cossé‘s A Novel Bookstore, translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions):
Zone by Mathias Énard, trans. from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Open Letter)
This 517-page novel, winner of the Prix du Livre Inter and the Prix Decembre, has an unusual conceit; it’s told in a single sentence. Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat, travels by train from Milan to Rome with a briefcase, whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican. It contains information about the violent history of the Zone—lands of the Mediterranean basin: Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy. Over the course of a single night Mirkovic visits the sites of the tragedies of these lands in his memory and recalls how his own participation in that violence has wrecked his life. Author and translator Christophe Claro acclaims it as “the novel of the decade, if not the century.”
Not to jinx anything, but there is a lot of momentum for this book, so, fingers crossed . . . (I actually have a dream that one day I’ll see someone on the subway reading one of our titles, and I have some hope that it’ll be Zone.)
On a less self-promotional note, here are some other interesting titles from the list:
The Instructions by Adam Levin (McSweeney’s)
This massive 1,026-page debut novel covers four days in the life of 10-year-old Gurion Maccabee, a potential Messiah and accused terrorist, possibly both, who was ejected from three Jewish day schools. “This is wonderful in a quirky way,” says Sheryl Cotleur, at Book Passage, who is considering it for her Buyers Bookmark Club. “I see a great future for this author and really hope this book catches on. I’ll do my part!”
The Report by Jessica Francis Kane (Graywolf)
During WWII, tube stations across London have been converted into bomb shelters; immigrants and East Enders alike sleep on the tracks and wait. But on March 3, 1943, as the crowd hurries down the staircase, something goes wrong, and 173 people lose their lives. When the neighborhood demands an inquiry, the job falls to a young magistrate, who is forced to revisit his decision decades later. “The Report is a stealthy, quiet page-turner that understands there is as much tension in reckoning a disaster as there is in the disaster itself,” says Elizabeth McCracken.
Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin (Coffee House Press)
“Through the eyes of three outsiders, Extraordinary Renditions takes the reader deep into the heart of Budapest, both its past and present,” says Stewart O’Nan. “The whole city is here, the banks of the Danube brimming with history, intrigue, art, food, drink, and most important of all, music. His characters may be lost—even the one native is a foreigner—but Andrew Ervin is a sharp-eyed, sure-handed guide.”
Richard Yates by Tao Lin (Melville House)
This could be Lin’s breakout book. Although the title of this novel comes from the real-life writer Richard Yates, it has little to do with him. Instead, it tracks the relationship between a young writer in his 20s and his 16-year-old lover. Clancy Martin calls Lin “a Kafka for the iPhone generation. . . . [He] may well be the most important writer under 30 working today.”
I only found out about this recently, but I’m really impressed with Art Works, the blog of the National Endowment for the Arts. Great way to highlight works of art, artists, and artistic organizations—and the interviews are remarkably perceptive.
The most recent addition is this interview with translator Charlotte Mandell, which focuses on her translation of Mathias Enard’s Zone, the somewhat infamous 517-page, one-sentence novel that we’ll be bringing out in December. (And which will be excerpted in the next issue of N+1.) Zone is absolutely amazing (see this excerpt), and Charlotte’s translation (which was awarded a NEA Translation Fellowship) is equally brilliant.
Anyway, here are a few excerpts from the interview:
NEA: Zone offers a unique challenge with its one-sentence format. Why did you decide to take on this translation?
MANDELL: There’s nothing else like it out there! Especially not in French. One of my favorite novels is Joyce’s Ulysses, and Zone reminds me a little of that, and a little of another of my favorites, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, with some Apollinaire and Burroughs and Pound thrown in for good measure. Translating a 500-page sentence combines the creativity of translating poetry with the challenge of translating difficult prose. Zone is narrated on a train, and it has the rhythmic, slightly lulling feeling of being on a train, but it also has a sense of urgency and inevitability in French that I wanted to recreate in English. I loved the continuity and flow of the text, and I really loved the experience of translating it—I was always mid-sentence, no matter where I stopped for the day! I never read ahead when I translate, so I was always wondering what was going to happen next in the story. Translating Zone was one of the most enjoyable translation experiences I’ve ever had. [. . .]
NEA: How is the work of the translator and the writer similar; how is it different?
MANDELL: That’s such a good question! No one has ever asked me that before. All translators have to be writers, since we’re basically re-creating the text in another language, and in order for it to be convincing and authentic-sounding the translator has to be a good writer. Conversely, all writers are really translators too, since they’re translating their thoughts and ideas into words on the page. While I think it’s true that all texts lose something in the translation, I think they also gain something in being rendered in a different language: take Baudelaire’s translations of Poe, for instance, which sound so much better in French than the original poems, or Beckett’s translations of his own work, which are masterpieces of English.
Translating is different from writing in that the translator has the text already ready to hand; our task is to recreate that same text in our own language, just as the writer’s task was to create that text in his/her own language. The translator’s challenge is to make sure the translation never sounds like “translationese”—like something that has been translated from another language. It should sound as original and new in the translation as it did in the original.
In some ways, the books we publish are like having children—the newest one always smells the best, is the most EXCITING THING EVER, and is that much more aesthetically refined, er, more adorable, or whatever. But seriously, when I read our titles for the final proof, I frequently fall in love all over again, getting all exciting about sections I want to talk about with my friends, which, well, isn’t quite possible in the traditional sense, seeing that I’m reading books that haven’t been published yet . . . Which is why this whole blogging thing is fricking awesome.
Zone is due out in December, but has already been written about by the Chicago Tribune (an article that also featured the dumbest quote I’ve ever given a reporter) and in The Quarterly Conversation. Yes, this book is kinda sorta a 517-page sentence, but that’s not really the point. This book is fucking good. It’s aesthetically daring, ambition, important, artistic, impressive, erudite, and a host of other words that could be capitalized.
Anyway, here’s a spectacular bit I came across last night. Not that you need a lot of set-up, but Francis Servain Mirkovic, who fought for the Croatians in the Yugoslav war, is on a train headed to Rome to sell a briefcase of info he’s gathered over his years as part of the French Intelligence Service. Enjoy!
the landscape of the Po plain is very dark also, little fireflies of farms and factories are disturbing ghosts, in Venice at the Santa Lucia station I had wondered for a while about going back to Paris, another night train was going south at around the same time, headed for Sicily, terminus Syracuse, a journey of almost twenty-four hours, I should have taken it, if there had been someone on the platform to guide me, a demiurge, or an oracle I would have taken the train to Syracuse to settle on the rocky island on the slopes of Etna home of Hephaestus the lame, who often sprinkles lava onto the peasants and Mafiosi taking cover in the countryside, maybe it’s because of that volcano that Malcolm Lowry settled in Taormina in 1954, in that village that looks so pretty it seems fake, he had written Under the Volcano ten years earlier, maybe it was his wife Margerie who chose the destination, a change of air, Lowry the drunkard had definite need for a change of air, he joined the contingent of Anglo-Saxons who peopled the Zone, Joyce, Durrell, Hemingway, Pound the fascist and Burroughs the visionary, Malcolm didn’t let go of his bottle as he watched the swordfish gleam in the Bay of Naxos, he got drunk morning to night with a serious steadfastness, their little flower-covered house is too beautiful for him, he says, it’s all too beautiful, too brilliant, too luminous, he can’t manage to write, not even a letter, his eyes dazzled by the too-blue Mediterranean, Margerie is happy, she goes for walks all day long, she visits the archeological sites, the steep inlets, she returns home to find Malcolm drunk, drunk and desperate, holding a copy of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake that he can’t manage to read, even drink doesn’t console him, the pages of his notebooks remain desperately blank, life remains empty, Margerie, fed up, decides to lock up all the alcohol in the house, so Lowry goes out to stroll through the little streets, he climbs up to the ruins of the Greek amphitheater and watches the spectacle of the stars on the sea beyond the stage wall, he feels a powerful hatred, he wants to drink, he wants to drink, everything is closed, he almost knocks on the first house he sees to beg for a glass of grappa, one drink, to drink one drink, anything, he goes back home, he’ll try to break open the hutch where his wife has locked up the liquor, he works away at the little wooden door, nothing to be done, he’s too drunk already, he can’t manage it, it’s her fault, it’s his wife’s fault, Margerie’s who’s sleeping after being stupefied by sleeping pills, she’ll give him the key, she’ll pay, Margerie who’s pumping all the talent out of him, who’s preventing him from writing, Lowry goes into the bedroom, his wife is stretched out on her back, her eyes closed, Malcolm goes over to her to touch her, he’s standing up, he’s thirsty, with an infinite thirst, an infinite rage, he stammers out insults, she doesn’t wake up, he feels as if he’s shouting though, the bitch is sleeping and he’s dying of thirst, she’ll see, he puts his hands around her neck, his thumbs against her Adam’s apple and he squeezes, Margerie instantly opens her eyes, she fights Lowry, presses harder and harder, he squeezes, he squeezes the carotids and the trachea, he’ll kill her, the more he squeezes the weaker he feels, he looks at Margerie’s eyes rolling in terror, her arms thumping him weakly, he is strangling Margerie and he’s the one who is out of breath, the harder he presses the more he observes his wife’s face becoming purplish-blue the more he feels sick, he doesn’t loosen his grip, despite her pummeling him with her fists and knees, he’s the one he’s in the process of killing, it’s no longer Margerie’s neck he has in his hands but his own, his own face as in a mirror, he is asphyxiated, he is asphyxiating himself, his fingers let go, his fingers let go little by little and he collapses on the floor, unconscious, while Margerie tries to cry and get her breath, in the saffron-yellow dawn that’s showing through the Persian blinds: in Sicily deadly island Lowry and his wife lived eight months of hell under the shadow of their second volcano, every other day the villagers were obliged to carry Malcolm home on their back, when the fishermen discovered him, at dawn, collapsed in a street, conquered by the steep slope and by sleep, in the end maybe I did well not to take the train to Syracuse, who would I have strangled in the Sicilian night, grappling with the bottle and my savagery—my father, whenever, as a child, I broke something or mistreated Leda my sister, always said to me you’re a savage, and my mother intervened then to chide him, no your son isn’t a savage, he’s your son, and now a little closer to the end of a world I wonder if the great thin man my pater wasn’t right, as the train is approaching Reggio capital of Emilia with the gentle name, I am a savage, brutal and coarse, who despite all the civilized threads that all the books I’ve read have clothed me in remains a wild primitive capable of slitting an innocent person’s throat of strangling a female and eating with my hands,
Totally biased, but I think this is one of our strongest seasons yet, what with Zone, the new Bragi Olafsson novel, the first of a million or so Juan Jose Saer books (one of my absolute favorites! If you can’t wait for our book, check out The Event from Serpent’s Tail—absolutely incredible), and our first poetry title . . . You can download a pdf of the catalog by clicking the link above, but here are links to each of the books, along with their respective copy:
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina)
It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Rosario who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.
One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.
Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.
Zone by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France)
Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat who has been working for the French Intelligence Services for fifteen years, is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. He’s carrying a briefcase whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican; the briefcase contains a wealth of information about the violent history of the Zone—the lands of the Mediterranean basin, Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy, that have become Mirkovic’s specialty.
Over the course of a single night, Mirkovic visits the sites of these tragedies in his memory and recalls the damage that his own participation in that violence—as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars—has wreaked in his own life. Mirkovic hopes that this night will be his last in the Zone, that this journey will expiate his sins, and that he can disappear with Sashka, the only woman he hasn’t abandoned, forever . . .
One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Mathias Énard’s Zone provides an extraordinary and panoramic view of the turmoil that has long deviled the shores of the Mediterranean.
The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Catalonia)
Collected here are thirty-one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most moving and challenging stories, presented in chronological order of their publication from three of Rodoreda’s most beloved short story collections: Twenty-Two Stories, It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories, and My Christina and Other Stories. These stories capture Rodoreda’s full range of expression, from quiet literary realism to fragmentary impressionism to dark symbolism. Few writers have captured so clearly, or explored so deeply, the lives of women who are stuck somewhere between senseless modernity and suffocating tradition—Rodoreda’s “women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty” (Natasha Wimmer).
The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson. Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith. (Iceland)
Sturla Jón Jónsson, the fifty-something building superintendent and sometimes poet, has been invited to a poetry festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, appointed, as he sees it, as the official representative of the people of Iceland to the field of poetry. His latest poetry collection, published on the eve of his trip to Vilnius, is about to cause some controversy in his home country—Sturla is publicly accused of having stolen the poems from his long-dead cousin, Jónas.
Then there’s Sturla’s new overcoat, the first expensive item of clothing he has ever purchased, which causes him no end of trouble. And the article he wrote for a literary journal, which points out the stupidity of literary festivals and declares the end of his career as a poet. Sturla has a lot to deal with, and that’s not counting his estranged wife and their five children, nor the increasingly bizarre experiences and characters he’s forced to confront at the festival in Vilnius . . .
Bragi Ólafsson’s The Ambassador is a quirky novel that’s filled with insightful and wry observations about aging, family, love, and the mysteries of the hazelnut.
Lodgings by Andrzej Sosnowski. Translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff. (Poland)
Lodgings is the first representative selection of Sosnowski’s work available in English. Spanning his entire career, from the publication of Life in Korea in 1992 to his newest poems, this is a book whose approach to language, literature, and the representation of experience is simultaneously resonant and strange—a cocktail party where lowlifes and sophisticates hobnob with French theorists and British glam rockers, unsettling us with the hard accuracy of their pronouncements.
One of the foremost Polish poets of his generation, Andrzej Sosnowski’s work demonstrates a dazzling range of influences and echoes, from Ronald Firbank and Raymond Roussel to John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop. Also an influential editor and critic, he has received most of the literary honors available to poets in Poland, including the prestigious Silesius Prize.
French Voices is a program that started a few years ago as a way of promoting contemporary French fiction and non-fiction. The goal is to select ten works a year that were published since the year 2000 that represent “new trends in fiction and under-represented perspectives or points of view in non-fiction works” and support these books with a $6,000 translation grant.
Here are the lists of recipients from 2006, 2007, and 2008. Interestingly, a few of these titles have wound up on the Best Translated Book Award longlists, including In the United States of Africa, by Abdourahman Waberi.
Anyway, we received notice yesterday that Mathias Enard’s Zone has been selected as one of this year’s grantees! This is very exciting, and helps ensure that the book will get some extra attention. And that it will include an interesting introduction . . .
Here’s the rest of the recipients with the original French publisher and date of original publication:
Not sure if there are American publishers already lined up for these—except for the Toussaint, which is already available from Dalkey Archive as Running Away.
Video is now up from our Reading the World Conversation Series event with the acclaimed French-to-English translator Charlotte Mandell. It’s in seven parts, and there’s interesting stuff throughout—with parts 1-3 comprising the reading and parts 4-7 comprising the questions/answer portion (conducted with aplomb by our own senior editor, E.J. Van Lanen).
About the event:
Oct. 6 2009 – The French translator of Balzac, Proust, Flaubert, and others reads from her new translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone (forthcoming from Open Letter) and takes questions about literary translation. Zone has already been called “The novel of the decade, if not of the century” (Christophe Claro). In short, it is a 517-page, one-sentence novel about a spy, a train ride, a briefcase, and the pervasive violence of the twentieth century.
Charlotte Mandell is one of the great French-to-English translators, and has translated such prominent works as: The Girl with the Golden Eyes by Honoré de Balzac, The Book to Come by Maurice Blanchot, A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert, The Horla by Guy de Maupassant, Listening by Jean-Luc Nancy, and The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust.
(This event is hosted by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. It is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.)
To all those in the Rochester area, don’t forget that—today at 5:00 p.m. at the University of Rochester—celebrated French translator Charlotte Mandell (Balzac, Flaubert, Proust, et al.) will be reading from her new translation of Zone by Mathias Énard (a 517-page, one-sentence novel, forthcoming from Open Letter) and talking about the art of translation.
Here’s the Facebook link.
Or just click on the flyer below to get all the primary details.
I know we just announced the new RTWCS events, but we’re already on the heels of the first one next week(!), featuring the incredible French translator Charlotte Mandell. Anyone and everyone is welcome to attend. Here’s all the info:
OCT. 6, 2009
Sloan Auditorium (in Goergen Hall)
University of Rochester
(free and open to the public)
Charlotte Mandell—the French translator of Balzac, Proust, Flaubert, and others—reads from her new translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone (forthcoming from Open Letter) and takes questions about literary translation.
Zone has already been called “The novel of the decade, if not of the century” (Christophe Claro). In short, it is a 517-page, one-sentence novel about a spy, a train ride, a briefcase, and the pervasive violence of the twentieth century.
Charlotte Mandell is one of the great French-to-English translators, and has translated such prominent works as:
(This event is hosted by Open Letter and University of Rochester Arts & Sciences. It is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.)
Last week we posted about a new story of Mathias Énard’s that appeared in Le Monde. Énard, as you may already know, is the author of Zone, a critically acclaimed, award-winning 517-page one-sentence novel that we’ll be bringing out next year. Well, in the meantime, superstar translator—and recent NEA translation fellowship recipient—Charlotte Mandell translated “Migration,” the story that appeared in Le Monde and which you’ll find below. Enjoy!
This story comes from the Jebel al-Arab, the black volcanic mountain that stretches, in southern Syria, between the towns of Shahba and Salkhad. A mysterious, wild massif, dotted with ancient ruins and inhabited by the Druze, who in years gone by have been described as just as mysterious and wild as their rocky hills. In the winter, snow is frequent, and villages in the center of the region can be isolated for days on end. Electricity is uncommon there and telephones usually absent. This afternoon, around five o’clock, when the engineer Mohsen climbs into his Toyota pickup to go back to town, it is already pitch black out. Snowdrifts outline white piles against the low houses and walls; the basalt horizon makes the darkness even more opaque. The leafless apple orchards look alive, like fields of hanged men in the glow of the headlights.
The engineer Mohsen has as his only company a thermos of tea, a cassette of Amr Diab songs on his car radio, and the shrill cries of jackals. The engineer Mohsen is not afraid. The engineer Mohsen knows this country well, he comes here often to check or repair the capricious little generator that supplies the region with electricity. He knows the crisp smell of snow mixed with the odor of fuel oil spreading from aluminum chimneys and he is well acquainted with the silence, the immense silence of this car-less region that the constant yelps of the jackals only deepen. The engineer Mohsen knows that it will take almost an hour to cover the forty kilometers that separate him from town, following the narrow, poorly plowed roads where paving is infrequent. The engineer Mohsen knows that he will not meet a single car, apart maybe from a motorcycle or a delivery vehicle jolting along driven by a mustachioed man wrapped in a red keffieh. The engineer Mohsen takes his time. He waits patiently for the engine (and in consequence the car’s interior) to warm up, drinking a glass of tea. A freezing wind has started to blow. It will be better lower down. The engineer Mohsen shifts into first and begins his descent.
It’s as he is leaving the second village that he glimpses her. The girl (how old could she be? Twelve, who knows?) seems to be signaling to him, standing on the side of the road, in a coat the color of dirty snow. The engineer Mohsen is surprised. He stops and opens the passenger door. The girl leaps into the doorway and settles on the seat, trembling. She has a pretty face. She asks in a somewhat timid voice if the engineer Mohsen would have the kindness to drive her to the next village. The engineer Mohsen is a man from town, he replies yes, of course, without asking any questions, and starts up again. What could a child possibly be doing, out alone at this hour in such cold? True, it is winter, it’s still early. But it’s dark out and freezing. Still. The little girl remains silent, she seems to be scrutinizing the darkness, hypnotized by the light of the headlights. She is absolutely motionless, one hand resting flat on her thigh.
The engineer Mohsen turns up the music. In the half-light of the car, he has the impression that the beautiful profile of his passenger is glowing with a bluish light that seems to be oozing from her temple, streaming down her cheek, onto her neck. As if she were sweating. Or melting. The engineer Mohsen glances at the little hand calmly resting on her jeans. Despite the darkness, he thinks he can see drops pearling up on the surface of the white skin, sliding down her pants onto the seat.
The engineer Mohsen accelerates. The engineer Mohsen lowers the heat and opens the window a crack, without really knowing why; he looks straight in front of him at the road and the last curves separating him from the village where she (he doesn’t know what to call her) will get out. The wind stings his eyes, unless it’s emotion and fear; the tape has stopped and he can hear clearly, now, the regular plop plop plop of little drops on the floor resounding like a big clock despite the noise of the engine. He attacks a bend a little too quickly and is forced to cling to the steering wheel with all his strength so the Toyota doesn’t hit a low wall. The girl hasn’t budged an inch; the centrifugal force and the braking have just flung a little of that weird sweat onto the engineer Mohsen who is overwhelmed with a shudder of terror and almost cries out in surprise upon discovering that this liquid is icy, as icy as the expression on the face of his cold passenger and the heap of snow into which, after having skidded for several yards, the pickup has gotten embedded. The child has remained impassive; all that has happened is that a few drops of water (the engineer Mohsen is convinced now that it is water) have splattered the windshield. The engine has stalled. The first houses of the village are nearby. The child opens the door. She thanks the engineer Mohsen for dropping her off and gets out. The engineer Mohsen notices the moist halo that the girl has left on her seat and, perhaps because he is an electrician and because electricity has trouble admitting the existence of ghosts, or perhaps on the contrary because he is a Druze and hence used to strange phenomena, the engineer Mohsen shouts “Wait!”, leans quickly over the gearbox and manages at the last minute to grab his passenger’s left hand; he feels intense cold between his fingers, a wet cold, then, without a crack, as the girl is already disappearing into the night, he finds he is holding a child’s arm, a useless arm of ice that he drops onto the seat. Without knowing how, he gets out of the car and plops down in the snow. The engineer Mohsen’s scream sounds like the panic-stricken shrieking of a jackal.
When the engineer Mohsen has pulled himself together and returned to his truck, the arm has disappeared. Either it has melted, or it never existed. Only the wetness of the cloth tends to make the engineer Mohsen incline to the first explanation.
All around, the village is silent, the chimneys gently spewing the thick smoke of oil-fired stoves.
The next morning, after a night spent trying to find sleep, stupefying himself with arak, the engineer Mohsen is on the whole relieved to learn from the newspaper that a twelve-year-old child died at around five o’clock in the village of X, from pneumonia. On the other hand, he’s terrified by the next news item, which reveals that at the same instant, or almost, a little girl was born a few kilometers lower down: this birth would no doubt not have attracted the attention of either the journalists or the engineer Mohsen if the baby, a rare thing, hadn’t been born with only one arm.
To complement all the review coverage that Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones has been receiving, Ron Hogan from Beatrice, has posted a piece by Charlotte Mandell about translating this controversial novel:
People talk about ‘free translation’—and they usually mean something that I’d judge sloppy or pretentious. For me, my real freedom as a translator is to follow strictly, alertly, joyfully, the moves and rhythms of the original text. I want the reader to know exactly what the author thought—and when he thought it. That means I want the translation to present ideas, images, events in as close as humanly possible to the order in which those ideas, images, events occur in the original. I want the reader to hear the author think.
And to do that, I have chosen to translate right from the start of the text: I do not read ahead. I don’t read the book before I translate it. I don’t want to know what it means before I go through the actual formation of its meaning word by word. In that way, I not only try to keep the reader in mind (so that if I come to a puzzling passage I can guess the reader will be puzzled too, and I’ll try to find the best words to make the passage clear), but I also have the tremendous experience of, so to speak, accompanying the author in the act of composition. I follow at his pace, and go through his discoveries. [. . .]
As Littell pointed out in an interview, we have heard the victim’s story over and over. Now we need to hear the perpetrator. We need to try and figure out his motives, his excuses. And what a perpetrator Max is—his keen aesthetic sense constantly lures us into his mind. And then again and again we have to make our own choices, our own abstentions. What a moral workout the book puts the reader through—and that is a large part of its greatness, and my own satisfaction in what could otherwise have been a horror show. This is not the One Good Nazi of the sentimental (and to me disgusting) movies. This is the Evil Nazi, and we are in him for a thousand pages, and have to make our own way out. No consolations, no forgivenesses. I think about Paul Celan’s famous question, and realize we have to become the ones who witness the witness.
The whole piece is definitely worth reading, especially since Charlotte knows this book on such an intimate level.
Our own Charlotte Mandell (she’s doing Zone for us) is interviewed on Maitresse:
The translator Charlotte Mandell did the heavy lifting for two of the more exciting imports from France: this year’s The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, and next year’s Zone, by Mathias Enard. Mandell, who lives in Upstate New York, is also the virtuoso translator behind Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, a collection of literary parodies of writers like Balzac, Flaubert, the Goncourt Brothers, and Saint-Simon.
M: Were there any particular challenges to translating The Kindly Ones? What about Zone?
With The Kindly Ones, the main challenge was the time constraint: I was working against a deadline, so I had to finish the translation in about nine months. That’s not a lot of time for a thousand-page novel! In way, though, that very urgency worked for me, since I just had to dive into it and try to inhabit Max’s voice, and I could put all other projects aside for those nine months. With Zone, the challenge is to reproduce the style of the narrator’s stream-of-consciousness: the novel is written around one long sentence, and I need to keep the reader’s undivided attention in English in the same way that the French does – it’s a sort of breathless, urgent, spontaneous, but also deeply erudite style that works wonderfully well in the original. I hope I can maintain that momentum in English – when you’re reading it you feel as if you’re on the train with the narrator, being pulled inexorably toward some unknown goal.
Over at Ready Steady Book Mark Thwaite has posted the “Books of the Year 2008 symposium” featuring recommendations from a host of authors, translators, and reviewers, including Scott Esposito (who recommends Adolfo Bioy Casares and others), Charlotte Mandell (who is all about Flann O’Brien), her husband Robert Kelly (who recommends Littell’s The Kindly One, Marias’s Dark Back of Time, and Nadas’s The Book of Memories), and Tom McCarthy (whose only recommendation is Toussaint’s Camera) among others.
Definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for good recommendations to kick off 2009.
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.
Thanks to Michael, for pointing out that Zone made Lire‘s 20 best books of 2008 list. According to my pidgin French, they say that it “possesses a scope that is rare in the French novel” and that it’s “difficult, but great.”
PW also noted our acquisition:
What’s in a period? That might be the question Chad Post, at Open Letter Press, was asking himself when he acquired the French novel Zone. The book, about a traveler making his way to Rome via train, is a study in, among other things, grammatical experimentation; it unfolds over 500 pages, in a single sentence. Open Letter, which submitted a bid for the book shortly after the Frankfurt Book Fair, is planning to publish the book Stateside in 2010; the title is published in France by Actes Sud and was written by Mathias Enard. Charlotte Mandell (who just finished The Kindly Ones) is doing the translation.
Unfortunately, my French isn’t up to it yet (I’m working on it!), so I’m anxiously awaiting—along with the rest of you, I hope—Charlotte Mandell’s translation.
Yesterday afternoon, Publishers Weekly sent out an e-mail alert regarding Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to “temporarily” (their quotes, not mine) pause acquisitions. Which doesn’t sound very good:
Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” across its trade and reference divisions. The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.
Wonder if any other companies will follow suit . . .
In contrast, yesterday our bid for Mathias Enard’s Zone was accepted by Actes Sud. A 500-page, single-sentence French novel, Zone has been getting a lot of great attention. Translator and author Christophe Claro said it’s the novel of the decade and it recently won the Prix Decembre. Brian Evenson e-mailed me recently about how impressive this novel is, but it was this quote from Conversational Reading that set the ball in motion for us:
Zone is considered by some to be the most ambitious novel to be published in France this year. Proust, Celine, Joyce and The Iliad are mentioned as the inspirations behind it. According to the editor’s description at amazon.fr the novel features such characters as Genet, Pound, Burroughs, Cervantes, Hannibal, and Napoleon.
That quote and this excellent excerpt that Charlotte Mandell (who will be translating the whole book) did for Fiction France.
Right now, we’e looking at a summer 2010 pub date . . .
Back a couple years ago, Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes was all the rage. The son of Robert Littell, Jonathan has dual-citizenship here and in France, and, in an unusual move, wrote this 900-page novel of a former Nazi officer in French.
In this article by John Litchfield, Littell explains his decision:
Littell, who also speaks English, Russian and Serbo-Croat, says that he chose to write in French because it was the language of his literary heroes, Flaubert and Stendhal. French is also the adopted language of the fictional narrator of his novel, Max Aue, an intellectual turned SS officer and mass murderer who has taken refuge in France under a false identity after the war.
Anyway, the book won the Prix Goncourt and was universally (or almost) loved by French critics. Unknown and a bit of a recluse, Littell went from obscurity to stardom so fast that rumors floated that either his editor at Gallimard, or his father, actually wrote the book. It was a huge Frankfurt book, went to auction, was sold for a lot of money (six, seven figures?) to HarperCollins, and is finally coming out in English in March. Translated by the extremely talented Charlotte Mandell (see Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes, etc. We’re actually going to run an interview with Charlotte sometime in the next week or so.)
Yesterday, we received our galley, which is very impressive and well-made:
I’m particularly excited about the “Reader’s Introduction to The Kindly Ones.” This booklet (which is almost 100 pages long) is made up of a couple of interviews with Littell (more on that in a minute), a review from Le Monde, excerpts of other French reviews, a letter from Littell to his translators, and an excerpt from the book. This is the sort of “extra material” I wish all publishers (Open Letter included) sent along with their galleys. It’s so useful in introducing readers/reviewers to the book (this would have an even bigger impact if it was for a more obscure author) and can also be quite entertaining in its own right. Like the Littell interviews:
_Have you recognized yourself in the various portraits that have appeared in the press?
Not at all! Some of them were complete nonsense. I have been stunned by French journalists’ ability to make things up. I have discovered lots of things about myself. Apparently, I survived a massacre in Chechnya. Astounding. They must have just typed my name into Google and read the New York Times articles which mention an incident—in no way a massacre—that I experienced in Chechnya. In the French version, it sounded as if I had had to crawl out of a ditch from beneath a heap of bloody corpses! Fact checking doesn’t seem particularly popular in France. And I’m talking about simple facts: Apparently I have worked in China, am married, live in Belgium, speak German, and have a French mother. None of which is the case.
_As soon as it came out, Les Bienveillantes was praised to the skies; the loftiest comparisons were drawn. Were you flattered or freaked out?
Neither. Let’s take the comparison between my book and War and Peace. The people who make it haven’t read my book properly, or Tolstoy either, for that matter. They are different kinds of literature. Firstly, in War and Peace there is peace, whereas in my novel there is only war. And then there’s a whole other level of complexity in Tolstoy’s novel, an infinitely superior toing and froing between war and ordinary life.
In case you’re interested, the HarperCollins jacket copy references the fact that critics compared The Kindly Ones to War and Peace . . .
I have no idea how good this book is (the Germans didn’t seem to much care for it, but well, there might be extra-literary reasons), but regardless, Littell’s interviews and author appearances should be a lot of fun . . .
Not the most common of connections, but that’s the angle that Bloomberg‘s Robert Hilferty takes in his review of Proust’s The Lemoine Affair:
A hundred years ago French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) lost money in the stock market, too. And as he would in the epic In Search of Lost Time, he converted the stuff of life into art. [. . .]
Translated by the super-talented Charlotte Mandell, this is the first time The Lemoine Affair is available in English, and it’s part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. (Which has been getting a lot of play here the past few days.)
As described on the Melville House site, this novella is a series of pastiches in which Proust imitates the writing styles of other famous French authors, such as Flaubert and Balzac. Based on this alone, I still can’t believe this never came out in English before. And the story behind the novel just adds to my disbelief:
A Parisian engineer named Henri Lemoine claimed to have invented a method of manufacturing diamonds from coal. He convinced the London-based president of the De Beers diamond empire, Sir Julius Wernher, to underwrite the process. The executive invested about a million francs before the fraud emerged.
After De Beers stock plummeted because of the scandal, Lemoine bought shares expecting to profit when the stock recovered. The ruse was discovered and Wernher sued Lemoine, who was tried and imprisoned in 1908.
Proust had inherited De Beers stock from his parents and fretted that the scandal would erode his portfolio. At the same time, he was inspired by the literary potential of Lemoine’s intrigue and hit upon an ingenious way to retell it — that’s the true alchemy here.
Add this to the growing list of Melville House novellas we’ll be reviewing over the next few weeks . . .
Emprise Review has a nice interview with French translator Charlotte Mandell, who has translated a number of classic authors (Balzac, Proust, Flaubert) along with more contemporary works (Genet, BHL, Littell). She recently completed an excerpt of Mathias Enard’s Zone (which I have in my hands right now), which is becoming one of the most hyped French books since The Kindly Ones.
What attracts you to the craft of translation?
I love reading, and I think translating is the truest form
of reading. People are always asking me if I write my ‘own’
work. I find it hard to convey to them that I feel no need
to write—I would much rather ‘be’ a lot of different authors by translating them. I never read ahead when translating,
so translating for me feels like more of a creative process:
I have no preconceived notions of how the book will end,
and can put myself in the author’s place by trying to
imagine what will come next.
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