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Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Translated Fiction

Time for Reader in the Wilderness’s meme again.

These shelves contain my paperbacks of fiction translated from languages other than English. Evidence here of my usual suspects – Bohumil Hrabal, Mario Vargas Llosa, Naguib Mahfouz, Diego Marani, Gabriel García Márquez, Irène Némirovsky, Orhan Pamuk, but nearly all of these have been worth reading. In fact I would say there are no real duds here. The English language books on the lower shelf belong to the good lady and are shelved there because they fit into the space:-

Translated Fiction Bookshelves 1

Several really large hardbacks are too big to sit on the above shelves so have to be kept separately. These are not all translations but there is more Orhan Pamuk, more Naguib Mahfouz, more Irène Némirovsky, and then the English language Salman Rushdie. The John Updike omnibus is the good lady’s:-

Large Books Shelf

The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2008, 174 p. Translated from the French L’Affaire Courilof, (Éditions Grasset, 1933,) by Sandra Smith.

The Courilof Affair cover

The narrative here has a prologue set in Nice in the 1920s which acts as a framing device but the subsequent chapters are delivered to us in the form of Léon M’s memoirs. The son of would-be Russian revolutionaries, Léon was brought up in exile, and assigned by the Revolutionary Committee to kill the Russian Education Secretary, Courilof, a notoriously harsh man, known as the Killer Whale. To enable this and to worm himself into Courilof’s household he takes up a position, under the name Marcel Legrand, as Courilof’s physician. At once warming to his charge and disgusted by him, “Legrand” has a ringside seat at the ins and outs of the higher echelons of the pre-revolutionary system, watching Courilof fall from favour as a result of his marriage to his second wife (who has a past) before his restoration following a scandal involving his successor.

Despite Courilof’s elevated position he nevertheless has the capacity to observe, “‘An ordinary man has the right to be greedy, because he knows that otherwise he would starve to death. But these people who have everything – money, friends in high places, property – they never have enough! I just don’t understand it.’” Plus ça change.

This is the only one of Némirovsky’s novels to be set more or less entirely in her native Russia – and (almost certainly non-coincidentally) it is the most concerned with politics and the usage of power. Affairs of the heart are incidental here as it is the wielding of, and manœvring to maintain, influence, and the single-mindedness of those opposing the regime which are the book’s main themes. Léon’s subsequent acts as an instrument of the revolutionary government – a far more implacable proposition than Courilof ever was – are related briefly and quite off-handedly, simply as things that had to be done. Léon’s fall from grace is glossed over, we never quite find out why he ends up living in exile – though we can guess.

This isn’t Némirovsky at the peak of her powers but it is an interesting examination of the mind-set of would-be revolutionaries eager to be seen to be activists (the assassination requires as big an audience as possible) but more in thrall to the idea than the action – as well as, in Courilof, the exigencies of assiduous service to a monarch who doesn’t warrant devotion.

Pedant’s Corner:- “the Pierre and Paul Fortress” (usually Peter and Paul Fortress in English,) hung (hanged, x3, though there was a ‘hanged’ and one of the ‘hung’s on page 168,) Nevsky river, (it’s the Neva river that flows through St Petersburg,) “fishermen ….must have the same feeling as they contemplate their dazzling catch” (catches, surely, since its fishermen, plural,) sterling (as a fish. Is there such a creature?) “A great crowd of people were silently listening to music” (a crowd was silently listening,) Léon as Legrand is referred to in speech as ‘Monsieur Legrand’ (the English would be Mister Legrand, but then back in the day educated Russians spoke French and the speaker thought ‘Legrand’ knew no Russian so would be addressing him in that language,) hiccoughs (hiccups, it’s not – and never has been – a cough of any sort,) “I wanted to lay down right there” (lie down.) In the translator’s Afterword: Camus’ (Camus’s, x2.)

All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky

Chatto & Windus, 2008, 206 p. Translated from the French Les Biens de ce Monde by Sandra Smith. (First published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1947.)

All Our Worldly Goods cover

I have frequently alluded to love, sex and death as the three main novelistic concerns. In All Our Worldly Goods Némirovsky focuses on the first of these but throws class and family dynamics into the mix. Interestingly, despite the scope of the narrative extending over the two World Wars, there are only two deaths explicitly dealt with in the text. (A myriad others occur off-stage of course.)

We start in the first decade of last century, on Wimereux Plage, where the Hardelot and Florent families are spending the summer. Normally not mixing much due to their different social standing, on their annual pilgrimages to the beach such niceties are not so strictly observed. Pierre Hardelot’s fiancée, Simone Renaudin, is also present. The engagement is at the behest of the domineering Hardelot patriarch Charles, owner of the paper mill in their home town Saint-Elme, desirous of Renaudin money for investment in the company but also a stickler for protocol. But grandson Pierre does not even like Simone. He and Agnès Florent are in love but resigned never to be together.

Back in Saint-Elme the planned futures all unravel when someone sees the pair on what they believe is their last meeting in a local wood and their association is revealed. As a result Pierre is cut off by Charles, as he marries Agnès and they go to live in Paris. The ramifications of their attachment will resound throughout their lives and the book, which, despite the passages involving their parents and children, is the story of their commitment.

Along with everyone else’s the certainties of Charles Hardelot’s life are thrown into turmoil by the Great War. Pierre is called up, the women from Saint-Elme join the refugees from the German advance. Charles remains behind and spends the war under German occupation. After the war Saint-Elme and the family business are rebuilt and Simone’s husband, whom she met during the retreat, is taken into the business, along with her money.

The book has several jumps in time in which Némirovsky lays out the history of the Hardelot family and the first half of the twentieth century but the wider world (except in so far as it impinges directly on Pierre and Agnès) tends to remain in the background. Still, the hopes and feelings of the immediate post-Great War period are summed up by Pierre’s thought, “It was the final war. There would never be another. The thirst for blood had been satisfied. Not only was it necessary to forget the war. It had to be vilified in people’s memory,” and the strangeness of the post-war world by, “Paris seemed bled dry.”

One of the episodes concerns the relationship Pierre and Agnès’s son Guy with a woman not known to the family and whose conduct leads to his suicide attempt. Years later in the pre-umbra of a future war Guy falls for his father’s former fiancée Simone’s daughter Rose. This description might make the book appear to be soap-opera like but the reality is far from that.

As Guy marches off to the Phoney War in 1939 Pierre notes that unlike in 1914 there were no flowers, no fanfares as the young went off ….. “’they know that all our sacrifices were useless…. they’ve read, or seen, or heard everything that happened then … how do you think they’re supposed to bear it?’” Perhaps this is Némirovsky’s view on why France’s resistance collapsed so quickly in 1940.

Once again in the turmoil of a German advance the women and the men are separated. During this evacuation, in what struck me as an unlikely coincidence, Agnès encounters the woman who betrayed Guy years before but is magnanimous towards her. Agnès’s struggle to return to Pierre in Saint-Elme underlines the book’s theme of closeness between her and Pierre.

“All our Worldly Goods” seems a bit off the mark as a translation for Les Biens de ce Monde (“The Good Things of This World”) but Sandra Smith gives reasons in her translator’s note as she says the spiritual and material nuances of les biens are almost impossible to translate and she wanted to emphasise the marriage connection.

In the end the book is an affirmation. Irony though it may be given the author’s own fate in Auschwitz in All Our Worldly Goods Némirovsky is telling us that despite all the upheavals to which we may be subjected we must cling to the human.

Pedant’s corner:- Charles refers in August 1914 to the start of a world war. It wasn’t called a world war till later; shimmer-ing (no need for the hyphen in the middle of a line,) a missing comma at the end of a thought quote, both start and end commas missing, or the end one placed externally, at other thought quotes, frugalness (frugality?)

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2007, 159 p plus xii p Introduction. Translated from the French (Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1929) by Sandra Smith.

David Golder cover

This was Némirovsky’s second novel and in it she was to some extent finding her feet but it still exhibits some of the concerns and influences which were to dominate her work.

David Golder is a financier born into poverty in the Russian Empire but who now lives in France. He has a wife, Gloria, who, despite him lifting her out of the same poverty as his, wants his money but nothing else, indeed is unsatisfied with all he has provided for her. They have an indulged flibbertigibbet of a daughter, Joyce, who also only sees Golder as a source of funds. The crisis of the book begins when his business partner Simon Marcus – whom Golder is tired of bailing out – commits suicide after Golder refuses to help him out of financial trouble again. There was something about this that somehow brought to mind the beginning of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Némirovsky’s intent is very different to that of Dickens, though.

There are some similarities to the work of F Scott Fitzgerald as the book is set in a milieu which presents a far from attractive face. Némirovsky demonstrates well the unthinking lack of proportion which comes with affluence apparently easily gained. Both Gloria and Joyce seem to think Golder has not had to make any effort to garner the largesse they squander so profligately on their gold-digging boyfriends and vacuous pursuits.

For against appearances Golder’s financial times are hard. When he suffers a heart attack his wife conspires with the doctor who attends to conceal it from him so as he will not stop work and the money will continue to flow. His crash comes anyway and wife and daughter both leave him.

In one sense it is not surprising that Némirovsky makes Golder Jewish. It was her inheritance after all and Golder’s family bears some resemblance to hers – though we can assume not the vacuous daughter. In another author’s hands it might have tended only to reinforce the stereotype that many French held of Jews. At the time of writing the Dreyfus Affair, though partially obscured by the legacy of the Great War, still hung over Némirovsky’s adopted country. But Golder has a weak spot, Joyce, whom he continues to indulge even at the risk of his life. We find his driving force towards the end of the book, the crushing poverty and anti-Semitism he had endured in his childhood on the shores of the Black Sea.

David Golder isn’t Némirovsky at her peak but it is still worth reading. Once again it is best to leave the introduction (by Patrick Markham) to the end as it discusses features of the plot and of Golder’s character.

Pedant’s corner:- predelictions (the word is spelled predilections,) “now there’s one enemy less” (“one enemy fewer” sounds more natural to me,) “his entire body felt wracked” (racked, it felt crushed, not wrecked,) “‘Once he’d paid for something, he watches over it,’” (either, “once he’s paid for something”, or else, “he’d watch over it”,) “a newspaper that was laying on the table,” (how can a newspaper lay anything? It was lying on the table,) “in the Ukraine” (in dialogue, but the speaker came from there so most likely would have said “in Ukraine.”)

2016 in Books

The best of what I read this year, in order of reading. 13 by men, 8 by women, 1 non-fiction, 5 SF or fantasy, 12 Scottish:-

Ancient Light by John Banville
The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey
Clara by Janice Galloway
A Twelvemonth and a Day by Christopher Rush
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins
In Another Light by Andrew Greig
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst
The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil
This Census Taker by China Miéville
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky
Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Young Art and Old Hector by Neil M Gunn
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
Among Others by Jo Walton

The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2013, 162 p, plus iii p Translator’s Note and iv p Preface to the French Edition. Translated from the French Le Malentendu by Sandra Smith.

 The Misunderstanding cover

This short novel, originally published in 1924, when the author was 21, examines the love affair between Yves Harteloup and Denise Jessaint. Yves is a former soldier, a veteran of Verdun, but his family’s fortunes have been ruined by the war and he has been forced to work for a poor living. Denise is married (more out of a sense of duty than love) but she is still sexually ingenuous when they meet. Crucially though, her husband is well off. The mismatch in her circumstances and Yves’s is not so apparent at the holiday resort where in Denise’s husband’s absence on business they first spend time together but comes to dominate their relationship when they return to Paris. Denise is frustrated by Yves’s failure to say he loves her, Yves by her inability to act as submissively and devotedly as he would wish. Their mutual misunderstandings lead to a dissatisfaction on both their parts. A piece of advice from her mother precipitates their relationship’s crisis.

Even at this stage of her writing career Némirovsky had a firm grip on her subject matter. There are parallels with Madame Bovary here of which Némirovsky was undoubtedly conscious. Despite this being a first novel, her insights into character and attitudes are already well developed. Quite how much force there is in Denise’s cousin’s assertion that, “In the end, there’s no woman on Earth you can’t get over ….. We men know that from birth,” is debatable, though probably true in the vast majority of cases.

Once again (though see below) Sandra Smith’s translation flows smoothly but she is working with the best of materials. Any Némirovsky novel it would seem is well worth reading.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung up (sprang up,) “and white peacocks roamed the grounds were planted with” (seems to be missing a which.)

The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2015, 318 p. Translated from the French Les Feux de L-automne by Sandra Smith. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1957. Returned to a threatened library.

 The Fires of Autumn cover

The Fires of Autumn begins in the bosom of the modestly comfortable Brun family, in that pre-First Word War state of well-being that is soon to be shattered. Thérèse Brun marries her doctor cousin Martial but he is killed when a shell hits his first-aid post. Bernard Jacquelain joins up as soon as he can but the war drives any delusions from him. “The world is despicable. Men are stupid, cowardly, vain, ignorant…. I learned lessons in the war that I will never forget.” His attitude to women is coloured by his experiences, “Everyone said (women) had become easy since the war started. But he thought they had always been like that. It was in their nature: man was made to kill and woman to…” His sentence is not finished. After the war he begins an affair with Renée, wife of Raymond Détang, who in turn brings him into the world of commerce and connections. He also sets his eye on Thérèse but she is still of the old pre-war ways of thought, lamenting, “Men don’t chase after women who turn them down. There are too many other women, and they are far too easy.” Still, Bernard gives up the high life and settles down with her to a life of domesticity and three children. But, for him, boredom soon sets in. When ten years later he encounters Renée again they restart the affair and he re-enters Raymond’s world of corruption and greed. When that all eventually falls apart he finds, “Connections were all powerful in times of success, but weakest when it came to failure,” by which time his son, Yves, thinks of his father as “part of an evil set that out of spinelessness, blindness or deliberate treason is causing the downfall of France.” Here, Némirovsky writes that when it comes to failure, human nature puts up insurmountable barriers of hope. The sense of despair has to remove those barriers one by one, and only then can recognise the enemy and be horrified. In this context Bernard’s complicity in the shady deals whose consequence comes back to haunt him is perhaps a little too pat.

Though they are actually incidental to the narrative, The Fires of Autumn is a brilliant evocation of the effects of the Great War on France and the French and of the forming of the seeds of that country’s demise in World War 2. And those fires of autumn? In one of Thérèse’s dreams her grandmother tells her, “The fires of autumn purify the land; they prepare it for new growth. These great fires have not yet burned in your life. But they will.”

Pedant’s corner:- idoform (iodoform, x2,) once there was a Barnard for Bernard, Peach Melba is described as a “layer of smooth, warm chocolate” that “ covers a kind of hard stone of ice,” – that’s not like any Peach Melba I’ve ever seen, there is an opening quotation mark where no piece of dialogue follows, all powerful (all-powerful?)

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

Bloomsbury, 2012, 429 p.

 Waiting for Sunrise cover

Actor Lysander Rief (whose mother is Austrian) travels in 1913 to Vienna (where else?) to seek a cure for his unusual sexual dysfunction from fellow Englishman Dr Bensimon. At his first consultation, Hettie Bull, a sculptor – she corrects him when he says sculptress – bursts into the waiting room, cadges two cigarettes from him and jumps the queue. Her later invitation for him to “sit” for her leads to an affair which is complicated by her relationship with artist Udo Hoff. Bensimon’s treatment according to his theories of parallelism, combined with Hettie’s attentions, cure Rief’s problem. (The setting being what it is it is no surprise that Lysander has a brief encounter with a Dr Freud in a café. This may be thought a gratuitous touch by the author though.) A fine start then but things take a strange turn when Lysander is falsely accused of rape and has to flee Vienna with the help of British embassy officials.

When the Great War starts he enlists as a private soldier. His past catches up with him when he is asked to repay his debt to the UK Government by travelling to Geneva – via an excursion to the Front – to help unravel a spying operation. The Germans have apparently been forewarned about British attacks on the Western Front. (I found myself beginning to question the narrative here. Troop and matériel build-ups for Great War offensives were difficult to disguise from the enemy. Lack of sufficient ammunition and also of knowledge of how to break down defensive positions – this latter applied to the Germans too – was sufficient to explain the failures of attacks.) For the purposes of story we must take the premise as read though.

What Rief finds in Geneva links back to his time in Vienna and entangles his mother in the plot. Of her and in a curious echo of Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel (which I read recently) we had, “Lysander supposed that if you were an attractive woman in your early fifties you don’t advertise the fact that you have a son who is almost thirty.”

The book is sprinkled with musings on the magnitude of the undertaking – for all the belligerent countries – that was the Great War and of its importance. “Something old was going…disappearing… and something new was inevitably taking its place.”

The phrase “waiting for sunrise” appears frequently through the book, but subtly, as if arising from the particular scene’s narrative.

Boyd certainly knows how to tell a story – and tell it well.

Pedant’s corner:-
Elevator; Rief is (half) English, what’s wrong with “lift?” Gratz for Graz, “thistle down” for thistledown, kicked the mud of his boots, a “span” – though it was in dialogue.

Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2010, 199 p. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith. © Éditions Albin Michel 1940. First published in English as The Modern Jezebel by Henry Holt and Company 1937.

Jezebel cover

I hadn’t intended reading a Némirovsky again for a while but the good lady picked this up in one of our local libraries – there are five within easy distance; one walkable (but not as walkable as Kirkcaldy Central was when we lived there) – so I took the opportunity to delve once more into her œuvre.

At the start of the book Gloria Eysenach is on trial for the murder of a young man whom she visited frequently in the weeks before the shooting. The trial is described along with Gloria’s inadequate efforts to explain her actions. Thereafter the novel tracks back to her earlier life and follows the train of events that led to her being in the dock.

For a while I felt that this wasn’t Némirovsky at her best; things seemed to drag, the set-up felt almost banal. However with the circumstances leading up to the death of Gloria’s daughter, Marie-Therèse, my interest was regained; though by that point the exact identity of the murder victim wasn’t too difficult to fathom.

Perhaps the most affecting sentence in the book is, “Life is sad when all is said and done, don’t you think? There are only moments of exhilaration, of passion…”

Jezebel ends up as a fine portrait of a selfish woman, too vain even to be aware – still less take care – of the interests of her own children. This is something of a theme for Némirovsky and she is perhaps better when she avoids it. Jezebel is still a fine novel though.

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