22 July 08 | Chad W. Post

Last week Vulpes Libris put together a special week with reviews, interviews, and guest essays all revolving around French literature. (This week is dedicated to ferrets, so don’t be surprised when you click on the above link—just scroll down.) The review of Marguerite Duras’s Summer Rain is definitely worth reading, as are the two guest articles that Leena Heino brought to my attention.

The first is by Jane Aitken, Managing Director (and co-founder) of Gallic Books a relatively new UK press doing all French books in translation. She wrote about the difficulties of marketing French literature, and although I don’t agree with all her points (like the 3% figure being anywhere near accurate when you’re talking about fiction & poetry), the piece is pretty interesting:

For many of us, our unfamiliarity with other languages has traditionally been a barrier to picking up a novel by a foreign author. And I would argue that it is not our fault that many of us in the UK never manage to master another language. We are surrounded by English wherever we go and it is often used as the common language by people whose first language is not English. Whilst there has always been a market for foreign fiction – Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera to pick out a few – the general perception has been that foreign fiction was literary, high-brow and not commercially successful.

But this perception is changing. The popularity of Haruki Murakami, of Shadow of the Wind and of the many bestselling foreign crime novelists, Henning Mankell, Andrea Camilleri, Fred Vargas and Boris Akunin for example, means that foreign fiction is no longer just a literary niche. [. . .]

But there have been developments in French fiction that the UK market has not wanted to follow. The first started in the 1960’s and 1970’s when a group of French authors advocated the Nouveau Roman, which rejected traditional linear story telling, and all other literary, political or moral constraints. And the second is ‘auto-fiction’ a term coined in 1977 by Serge Doubrovsky to refer to a form of fictionalised autobiography. As a result of these two influences, some modern French fiction is highly introspective – a first person narrator demands the reader be interested in their intimate soul-searching but without the framework of a plot or a reason to be interested in the character. I feel that this kind of novel would not be well received by the UK market.

Which in many ways is unfortunate . . . Duras, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Pinget, all wrote really incredible novels and have had a lasting impact on fiction. (See Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.) Sure, some of the followers to the original group were nearly unreadable or too cerebral to be of much interest, but it always bugs me when a country’s “experimental” (read “unreadable,” read “difficult”) tradition is blamed for said country’s lack of commercial success in translation. There are so many problems with that, not the least of which is that commercial appeal is linked with success . . .

Nevertheless, Gallic Books looks really promising—they’re doing the UK edition of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery,= which Europa is doing here in the States—and it’s always cool to find another press dedicated to literature in translation.

The other interesting guest article was by Kit Maude, Sales & Marketing Director for Marion Boyars Publishers, about the publication of Banquet of Lies by Amin Zaoui, a bilingual novel M.B. recently published.

Banquet of Lies is a novel originally written by the Algerian writer Amin Zaoui in French, which we had translated into English by the acclaimed translator Frank Wynne and then published in a bi-lingual edition in May of this year. This was an unusual thing to do. You won’t find many bi-lingual books, unless you count dictionaries, in your local bookshop. There’ll be some poetry perhaps, but no novels. Why would we do this? English readers want to read in English don’t they? It’s already been published in French hasn’t it? Well, yes and yes, but it’s never been published in translation.

We had been looking to do this for a while. We (Marion Boyars Publishers) have been trying, along with others, to raise the profile of literature in translation in various different ways. To actually publish not just a translated book but the translation itself seemed to be a logical extension of this policy. We did have precedent: Marion Boyars has published Paris by Julian Green (freshly reprinted ­- one of the best books on Paris to be found; it describes the great city as it was, and perhaps, if you care to follow me, as it might one day be again) very successfully over a number of years in a bilingual edition, so we knew that the idea could work.

Part of the problem was finding the right book: obviously it needed to be fairly short, a three hundred page novel printed twice comes to six hundred pages which will look a little off-putting in a bookshop. It also needed to be something that would be interesting to translate – a straightforward text (He moved over to the table. He picked up the glass. He drank. Slowly) wouldn’t really make for much cross-textual discussion. Banquet of Lies, a hundred and fifty page, gloriously playful book that’s both a meditation on the painful beginnings of independent Algeria and a slightly psychotic celebration of the allure of older women, fit this criteria.

It is pretty unusual to see a bilingual novel . . . but pretty interesting as well. And the book sounds like something we should be reviewing . . . Overall, it’s cool that Vulpes Libris ran a week of all things French. Hopefully there will be similar features in the future . . .

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