25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by contributing reviewer Larissa Kyzer on Jacques Poulin’s Mister Blue, which just came out from Archipelago Books in Sheila Fischman’s translation.

Larissa Kyzer is a regular reviewer for us who has a great interest in all things Scandinavian and Icelandic. Mister Blue doesn’t quite fit that, but it does sound like a really fun book:

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Click here to read the entire piece.

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.

Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”

But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.

In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.
“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”

23 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote on Jacques Poulin’s Translation Is a Love Affair, which was recently published by Archipelago Books. (A Three Percent favorite.)

I wasn’t overwhelmed by the novel itself, but translator Sheila Fischman deserves a ton of credit for all she’s done:

One of the most interesting facets of Translation Is a Love Affair is the brief bio on Sheila Fischman:

Sheila Fischman has published more than 125 translations of contemporary French-Canadian novels including works by Jacques Poulin, Francois Gravel, Anne Hebert, Marie-Claire Blais, Michel Tremblay, and Gaetan Soucy. In 2002, Fischman was named to the Order of Canada in recognition of the quality of her translations and unparalleled contribution to Canadian culture.

One hundred and twenty-five translations!?!? I knew she was an important Canadian translator, but this is Herculean. And tying this into our Making the Translator Visible series, not only is Fischman relatively invisible, but outside of Canada, Quebecois literature tends to be pretty invisible as well. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that very few people reading this have read works by more that two of the authors named in her bio.

Which is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons—like the fact that Quebec borders the U.S. and has a rich cultural history and yet is essentially ignored by U.S. publishers—but not really the point of this review.

What’s is the point of this review is the role that translation plays in this not entirely successful novel. In terms of the plot itself, translation is key: this novel is narrated by Marine, a young female translator who is close friends with Monsieur Waterman, a famous author whose work she translates. Although the title might suggest some sort of coupling between them, this isn’t really that sort of book. Instead, the two get involved in a quasi-mystery involving a young girl, a older woman, and a stray black cat with an S.O.S. message affixed to his collar.

Click here to read the full review.

23 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

One of the most interesting facets of Translation Is a Love Affair is the brief bio on Sheila Fischman:

Sheila Fischman has published more than 125 translations of contemporary French-Canadian novels including works by Jacques Poulin, Francois Gravel, Anne Hebert, Marie-Claire Blais, Michel Tremblay, and Gaetan Soucy. In 2002, Fischman was named to the Order of Canada in recognition of the quality of her translations and unparalleled contribution to Canadian culture.

One hundred and twenty-five translations!?!? I knew she was an important Canadian translator, but this is Herculean. And tying this into our Making the Translator Visible series, not only is Fischman relatively invisible, but outside of Canada, Quebecois literature tends to be pretty invisible as well. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that very few people reading this have read works by more that two of the authors named in her bio.

Which is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons—like the fact that Quebec borders the U.S. and has a rich cultural history and yet is essentially ignored by U.S. publishers—but that’s not really the point of this review.

What is the point of this review is the role that translation plays in this not entirely successful novel. In terms of the plot itself, translation is key: this novel is narrated by Marine, a young female translator who is close friends with Monsieur Waterman, a famous author whose work she translates. Although the title might suggest some sort of coupling between them, this isn’t really that sort of book. Instead, the two get involved in a quasi-mystery involving a young girl, a older woman, and a stray black cat with an S.O.S. message affixed to his collar.

The plot is slight, the pacing uneven, and the narrators voice a bit cloying, but nevertheless, there are some interesting facets to this book, if not necessarily for literary value, but to bring up translation craft related questions. For instance, there’s this bit from a conversation between Marine and her young neighbor:

“Why do you pull out the weeds?”

“Because the water is sticky, poisseuse.

“Does that mean there’s too many fish, poissons?”

I gave her a sidelong glance to see if she was joking, but she wasn’t.

Poisseuse means that the water is a little sticky. I could have said collante. Do you see what I mean?’

Well, maybe. How to translate wordplay like this is an eternal ALTA panel, and in this case, the only way to retain any of the verbal confusion is to keep the French for “sticky” and “fish” in French. The explanation—simply providing a French synonym for “sticky”—falls a bit flat, and is indicative of this novel as a whole.

But for people interested in translation, this book does have its minor joys. There’s a bit in which Marine (who is described obliquely, but in a very sensual, male-fantasy of the hot young female translator sort of way that’s both awesome and a bit creepy) puts on her favorite T-shirt

the one with this declaration by Armand Gatti printed on it in red: “Mastering words is subversive and insolent.”

And more to the translation point, there’s a scene about a translation of an Anne Hebert poem:

Monsieur Waterman asked if I had paid attention to the end of the poem: I read it aloud:

D’ou vient donc que cet oiseau fremit
Et tourne vers le matin
Ses prunelles crevees?

“Now, look at the translation,” he said.

F.R. Scott had translated the last line as Its perforated eyes. The translation was faithful and I thought it was appropriate. He had written a second version that was more or less identical. And then a third, very surprising, which ended with the words blinded eyes. The bird, symbol of the heart, no longer had punctured or gouged or perforated eyes: it was quite simply blind. And even if we agree that the meaning of blinded is weaker than that of blind, we might think that the bird was only blinded in a temporary way . . .

It seemed to me that the translator had softened considerably the image that Anne Hebert had used. I was rather shocked.

“He corrected the author,” I said.

“You might say that. But look a little farther . . .”

Reading on, I soon found the explanation: in the tradition of falconry, the hunter does not put out the falcon’s eyes, but merely drops a hood over its head until the moment when he let it fly away to catch its prey. Could he have thought that Anne Hebert didn’t know that detail . . .

And then, we go back into the old man-young woman dynamic when Waterman explains his hypothesis on what F.R. Scott was trying to do:

“In addition to being a poet, Frank Scott was a professor of law. And he was a good fifteen years older than she was. So I imagine him, an old gent with a white beard, taking the beautiful Anne Hebert by the hand and explaining to her that love isn’t dangerous, that she has no reason to be afraid, that her heart is free and unfettered.”

The focus on language, on words and sounds, that runs throughout the book is palpable, but doesn’t really seem to build to much. And occasionally dips down into the patently obvious. Like then ending to this emotionally poignant scene in which Marine relates a moment from her childhood in which her uncle from Connecticut tries to molest her:

The next morning the uncle and his wife left for Connecticut. The name of that state always reminds me of the clattering of a pair of scissors. Because of the last syllable.

I really wanted to be charmed by this novel, but instead it fell far short. The female voice isn’t all that believable (except in a half-fetishized sort of way) and the overall creation isn’t that compelling as a plotted story or as an atmospheric piece. It definitely has its moments, and it’s a very quick, very smooth read . . .

So I’ll end where I began, and restate how important Sheila Fischman has been to the promotion of Quebec literature.

....
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