My authors: Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé

For the past eight years I’ve been translating the writings of a small handful of French authors, and I’ve come to know them quite well.

On my ‘Translated Short Stories’ page (see above) there’s a list of titles mostly from 19th-century metropolitan France, with a few from 21st-century New Caledonia. I took a look at the groupings under author names, and realised that readers might like to know more about each individual writer. So, here I go: today I’m starting with Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé.

It’s been many years since I first translated his stories, yet I still enjoy them today. He’s an author whose books have sat, ignored, on shelves in bookshops and libraries, but they ought not to be collecting dust; they deserve to be read. His writing has taught me much about Russian and Middle-Eastern history that influences the way I hear today’s news from those parts of the world. In his fiction, de Vogüé makes me aware of what has changed, and what, unfortunately, hasn’t.

Portrait of Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (with after-dinner cigar)

A brief bio: Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé was a viscount born in 1848 in Nice; he died in Paris in 1910. His father belonged to one of the oldest French noble families; his mother was Scottish. In his day Eugène-Melchior was famous for bringing the literature of Russian writers to French readers in his 1886 book, Le Roman russe (The Russian Novel). His introduction of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy revealed to new readers the intellectual and spiritual richness of the Russian soul.

His love for Russian writing developed during his appointment as a French diplomat to St Petersburg from 1877 – 1882, and his interest really bloomed with his marriage to a Russian aristocrat in 1878, and with later time spent in Ukraine.

Previously he’d had diplomatic postings to Constantinople and Egypt and had written accounts of his experience there in various Oriental tales. ‘Syrie, Palestine, Mont-Athos’ and ‘Vanghéli’ were just two.

Vanghéli, E-M de Vogüé. A small book I’ve translated but not published.

But once he’d fallen in love with a Russian and Russia, de Vogüé developed a desire to help France, to save her from literary, political and spiritual crises. This desire is a thread running through all his writing. He believed his country could be saved by adopting the sentiments found in Russian orthodoxy, such as sympathy and love.

Coeurs russes, title page

In 1884 he began publishing short stories set in Russia and Ukraine, in a style influenced by Turgenev. One I’ve translated and published, ‘Histoires d’hiver’ or ‘Winter Tales’ is a long short story that appears at the beginning of the collection, Cœurs russes (Russian Hearts). It’s a nest of short tales told to the narrator during his visit to a friend, Michaïl Dmitrich P— , a landowner who has invited him on a wolf hunt in provincial Russia.

A Wolf Hunt in Russia, c1913. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The hunt being unsuccessful that day, the two men return to the house and engage in a dialogue on the situation of peasants and former serfs now that serfdom has been abolished. Michaïl Dmitrich P— has recently retired on his inherited provincial property, where he “dabbled a little in agronomy with no great illusions about the results of such a pastime.”

Nikolai Nevrev, The Bargain. Sale of a Serf Girl. 1866. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Let me give you a taste of de Vogüé’s writing in this excerpt introducing Monsieur P—, a landowner and former serf owner:

He devoted himself to the study of economic questions, that is, he mulled them over, smoking his pipe and discussing them for entire evenings with the Maréchal de Noblesse or the justice of the peace. The first being a ferocious reactionary and the second a confirmed red, Mikhail Dmitrich had for each problem an authoritative solution and a liberal solution which prevailed by turns in his mind, depending on who had spoken to him the day before. When he was too troubled by the contradictions of social problems, Monsieur P— would read over a chapter from Kant or the ‘Introduction to Negative Synthesis’ by Professor Verblioudovich. His mind if I may say found a digestive aid in these readings, a mixture of something both soothing and lightly stimulating, of the kind an after‑dinner cigar provides. His intelligence enjoyed these vapours of thought as his body enjoyed the vapours of the Russian bath, in the lukewarm atmosphere which is neither water nor air, but a soft fog.

You can find this little ebook or paperback, ‘Winter Tales’ , at Amazon. I’ve also published it as an ebook with Kobo Writing Life.

If you’d like a free taste of de Vogüé, my translation of his story, ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’ is available online at The Cossack Review here, where you can read about a lonely man in a cold and isolated part of Ukraine, who loses a coat, finds one, and falls in love with it.

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To finish my praise of Monsieur de Vogüé, I must mention a new book by a French researcher, Anna Gichkina, just published in 2018: Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé ou comment la Russie pourrait sauver la France. (E-M de V or How Russia could save France). It’s on my To Read list.

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Six degrees of separation: The French Lieutenant’s Woman to Ethan Frome

A prompt from booksaremyfavouriteandbest – Begin with The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, let it trigger the memory of another book, and another and another until there are six.

I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman when I was about 23, couldn’t put it down, and even read it under my desk at work when no one was watching. I’ve obsessively watched the movie seven times. Sarah Woodruff, the protagonist, touched me with her helplessness as a rejected woman of a lesser class who couldn’t seem to rise above it in anyone’s eyes.

My much-opened copy of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’

Here are the six:

1. Bluebeard: It’s not a book, it’s a story in Perrault’s Fairy Tales, one of my Christmas presents, but here’s the connection: when I took the cover photo (above) for this blog post, I also took a photo of Perrault’s Fairy Tales to send to my son. As for the tale of Bluebeard, a story of a husband who killed seven wives for being curious, I was reading it at breakfast this morning, the first of 2019, while my neighbours were roaring at each other from either side of a locked door, the wife having driven her husband out of the house. He was shouting threats of a bashing while I was reading of Bluebeard’s threat to cut the throat of his eighth wife. Mrs Bluebeard was saved in the nick of time when her brothers arrived. My neighbour’s wife was saved by the police coming to take her troublesome husband away.

2. Jane Eyre: Thinking again of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I see a connection with my neighbour in the housing flats across the street. They are both women of a lower socio-economic group. I’d been equally moved by the situation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, never good enough in the eyes of richer folk.

3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: This novel by Charlotte’s sister Anne Brontë was recommended by a student whose PhD I was typing. The story rang true to me, but you wouldn’t want to know why.

4. A Month in the Country: It was the same student, now a friend, who bought me the gift of a Folio Society edition of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country in a slipcase. Loved it. Read it twice. A former WW1 soldier tries to restore a church fresco while battling post-war trauma. Having learnt of my grandfather’s misfortunes in WW1, this kind of story appeals to me.

5. Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort: This small book by Edith Wharton then came to mind. I bought it in October in the heat of the commemoration of the end of the ‘Great’ war. It deals with WW1 through a woman’s eyes. Wharton’s writing is exquisite.

6. Ethan Frome:  I’d earlier read another novel by Wharton, Ethan Frome. It blew me away. Her gift is the ability to evoke compassion in the reader, even for a character who is making a rod for his own back.

I was surprised and delighted to see The French Lieutenant’s Woman was the prompt book for this month. It’s been a favourite for so long that I was more than happy to play with it for “six degrees of separation”.

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Six degrees of separation: A Christmas Carol to The Little Red Writing Book

A prompt from booksaremyfavouriteandbest – starting with A Christmas Carol I’ll recall six books I’ve read, triggered by the memory of Dickens’ wonderful never-fading tale.

1. Straightaway I think of another Christmas story by Dickens: The Chimes, a Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. It comes with magical illustrations. I wrote a post about it because of the opening line of one of its chapters. Exquisite.

2. Goblins remind me of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market illustrated by Arthur Rackham. It’s been said that Goblin Market has sexual references between its lines and was therefore intended for adults. But Christina Rossetti said it was for children, to show the importance of sisterly love.

3. On the other hand, the old fairy tale writers produced stuff intended for adults but it was read to children and that now scares some modern parents, apparently. Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head by Liz Evers is an excellent read that reveals the dark side of some children’s stories.

4. A collection of stories from the French Decadent era, also mostly unsuitable for children, is Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned edited by Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert.

5. Both books 3 and 4 have cool illustrations including images by Arthur Rackham who also illustrated Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens which I recently read some of. ‘Becfola’ is my favourite and is accompanied by a picture of her up a tree shrinking away from hungry wolves.

6. Of course thoughts of a hungry wolf take me to Little Red Riding Hood, but then to The Little Red Writing Book by Mark Tredinnick. An excellent play on words. And an excellent writing guide by an Australian writer. I’ve read it again and again.

By coincidence I’ve selected book covers in Christmas colours!

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A rainy day story

Have you ever gone to a place for the first time because you read about it in a story?

I recently read ‘On the Edge’ by an Australian writer, Ashley Hay. I came at it the long way round, beginning with ‘The Little Red Writing Book’ by Mark Tredinnick, a beautifully written, exceedingly helpful Australian book for writers who write like public servants but want to break away from that stilted language. Early in the book Tredinnick praises the writing of Barry Lopez, an American, and recommends Lopez’s writing about nature. So I went searching and saw Lopez’s name come up as an editor of ‘Where the Rivers Meet’, an Australian collection of short stories about our land, the nature of it, the history of it. ‘On the Edge’ was in it.

Ashley Hay wrote about the city of Wollongong, south of Sydney, built between the coastal mountains and the ocean and necessarily spreading north and south but never east or west. The whole city is ‘on the edge’ of Australia. She remembered being taken for a drive, as a teenager, along the road that once precariously hugged the steep cliffs prone to rockfalls, and compared it with the bridge that has replaced that road, the SeaCliff Bridge, a cantilevered serpentine bridge that follows the same coastline but in an open space over the ocean.

I tried to imagine it. I looked at the photos online, but I wanted to feel it, to see it.

Today, I’m in Wollongong, and am being driven to the bridge. It’s pouring, a deluge of rain that began at 5am and hasn’t stopped since. We’re on the bridge, three tourists in brightly coloured raincoats are taking photos of each other joyously holding their arms out as the rain beats down. Not another soul can be seen, and barely another car.  I’m not as bold as the tourists, I can’t get out and walk in this weather, so we continue along the road up to Bald Hill Lookout where the cloud is low and the wind is gusting and whoomping the car. The view is supposed to look as it does in this advertisement for the new seats by Outdoor Design :

Bald Hill Lookout, photo courtesy https://www.outdoordesign.com.au/

But today the view looks like this:

The sea is invisible, can’t open the windows, no point staying. We turn back towards the bridge and search for a place to stop so I can get out, stand still, and take in the view of this bridge I have only known in a story. The car parks are some distance away but I want to see what it’s like to walk on the bridge. I’ll need to take a photo and won’t be able to hold my umbrella steady in this wind, let alone a camera. It’s too hard, I give up and take a happy snap through the windscreen of our moving car.

The view was so blurred by the torrents of rain that if I hadn’t seen photos of the SeaCliff Bridge I still wouldn’t know what it looked like. So what have I gained by wanting to get inside someone else’s story?

Perhaps tomorrow will not be a rainy day.

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The Wolf

Today I can say, at last, that my translation, ‘The Wolf’, by Marcel Aymé, has been published by Delos Journal at the University of Florida.

I came across the original story, ‘Le Loup’, one lunchtime as I was eating my sandwich in the sun. It’s rare for a story to keep me reading all the way to the end in one sitting, but ‘Le Loup’ did it for me. When I’d finished the story, and my lunch, I began translating it immediately.

That was a couple of years ago. Publication of the piece has been a long time coming. In the world of literary translation and publishing (or any writing and publishing really), progress is often at snail pace and this is a good example.

First there was the enquiry to the French publisher, Gallimard, to see if the rights to publish a translation were available.

Months passed without a response, but prompting them brought a yes.

Second, there was the submission to journals. Many journals said No. But Delos said Yes! That was two yeses!

Then it was back to the French, who in turn had to put the question to the rights holder of Marcel Aymé’s estate. It was the beginning of a looooong negotiation process to buy the rights. Three months I waited, anxious that the journal might give up. There was no response.

But the journal editor, bless her, offered to write to the French publisher on my behalf. And I suppose it’s not surprising that she was answered tout de suite…

Weeks passed again while we waited for a response from the rights holders. Finally they quoted a price so high that I was sure my translation would really never see the light of day.

Now, in the world of literature there are people who care, good people, and one of them came to my rescue with some of the funds, but it wasn’t enough. I scraped together a bit more, and made an offer to the French. And waited. Again. The journal deadline came and went, I had no response to my (low) offer, and Delos and I agreed to drop the whole project.

Then, that very night, there was a miracle. The rights owners accepted my figure, and it was full steam ahead for ‘The Wolf’.

The editor offered to find an illustrator for the story, and with my childlike adoration of illustrations, it was a bonus thrill for me.  Most French editions are illustrated with sweet images like this one showing three good friends hugging, laughing and trusting one another:

And in a past translation of ‘Le Loup’, there was even an illustration of an incident which never occurred in the story. The translator had partly tweaked the narrative to protect little readers from the truth that wolves are carnivores. In reality, the wolf didn’t miss out, he got lucky, and the girl was not dark-haired but blonde, because wolves prefer blondes:

Illustration by Geoffrey Fletcher, 1954

But for the Delos issue, the editor’s daughter drew a terrifying image in pen and ink of the wolf chasing two small girls, which now accompanies my new translation. I can’t show you; it’s in the journal which is behind a paywall. But I read some pieces from archived issues when the journal was free, and can recommend it. The table of contents for the latest issue is here.

The next translation to be published will be a whole book of stories from the Belle Époque, currently being prepared for publication by Odyssey Books. Again, it’s taking a long long long time. Early next year I expect it to come out. I’ll keep you posted.

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Six degrees of separation: Vanity Fair to Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Booksaremyfavouriteandbest invites us each month to find six degrees of separation between books. November’s starting point is Vanity Fair by Thackeray.

1.  I haven’t read Vanity Fair but the name of William Makepeace Thackeray immediately brought George Sand’s Spiridion to mind because Thackeray said, in relation to her novel Spiridion (that I translated), that she was “the most elegant writer, I think, that her sex ever produced.”

2. Thinking of Spiridion leads me to Cœurs russes (Russian Hearts) by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé which I’ve also translated. It’s a book of short stories written by a French ambassador to Russia in the 1880s, set in Russia and written in the style of Turgenev and Tolstoy.

3. Now I’m remembering the pleasure of reading A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev, especially the short story ‘The Tryst‘.

4. I’ve used ‘The Tryst’ several times when tutoring migrants in English because of its delicious descriptions. One student who enjoyed it has now asked for us to read Picnic at Hanging Rock together. I can’t believe my luck, I love this book.

5. Of course the images in my head now are from the movie of the same name, where floaty, pure, muslin-robed girls wander over forbidding boulders, as though returning to their fairy homes. This triggers a memory of Théodore de Banville’s story ‘L’Enfant bossue’ (The Hunchback Girl) in Contes féeriques (Tales of Faerie) about a convent girl who wants to return to her fairy parents.

6. I’ve got fairies on the brain, having translated a great number of French fairy tales in the last few years and read several illustrated books of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Four of these six books are collections of short stories, which says something about my translating life: stories are more likely to be accepted by publishers than novels. But they’ve made me love 19th-century literature even more.

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The Lame Angel

This week Peacock Journal published “The Lame Angel”, my translation of Catulle Mendès’ short story, “L’ange boiteux”. You can read it for FREE on their website. As part of their mission – Beauty First – Peacock Journal‘s editors add beautiful images to every story they publish. Knowing this, and having been published by them previously, I prepared myself for an image of an angel. So this one had me guessing for a while:

Raphael, “The Parnassus”, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

They never caption their images, so all I could go on was an assumption that this fresco was by Raphael. It was enough information for Google which immediately threw a few images at me, including this one. Bingo! It’s one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Palace of the Vatican, an image of poets on the mythological Mount Parnassus. But where’s the connection with a lame angel?

There isn’t one. But there is a connection with the author, Catulle Mendès. He was allied with the Parnassian poets at the end of the 19th century whose literature was a reaction against emotionalism and Romantic imprecision. The Parnassians preferred restraint and self-discipline, and often selected classical subjects (eg angels…). Mendès wrote and reworked a number of fairy tales aimed at a Decadent adult readership. There are no fairies in this tale but it does have another mystical winged being, a very sad angel.

If you’d like to read more Catulle Mendès in my English translations, Peacock Journal published another one last year, “The Enchanted Ring”.

And in 2016 The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation published “The Only Beautiful Woman” .

Any of these three stories will put a Mendès smile on your face!

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Winter Tales

Presently I’m waiting for a number of my translated stories to come out. Progress in the publishing of even one short story can be truly glacial, so I was surprised at the result of my experiment last week with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP); in just a few days a book (or rather novella) I had translated years ago, and had unsuccessfully proposed to many publishers, had become a published e-book. Reading other literary translators’ reports of positive experiences with self-publishing convinced me to give it a go.

The novella that I think is worth the risk is Winter Tales by the French author Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, a small collection extracted from a larger book of stories, Cœurs russes (Russian Hearts). If you’re a lover of Russian novelists like Turgenev and Dostoevsky, then you’ll enjoy these 19th-century tales set in Russia. This is the first English translation in 123 years.

Winter Tales by [de Vogüé, Eugène-Melchior]

Winter Tales is a little like a Russian doll: there’s one main story with several smaller stories tucked inside. The narrator visits a former serf owner who tells of the ups and downs in the lives of individual peasants struggling to live freely after serfdom is abolished.

Various publishers and one agent had said they liked it, but didn’t think it would be profitable enough to publish. The stories are old, a wee bit quirky, and one is quite grim. But I feel the novella hasn’t been totally rejected, and so to fill in time while I wait for my work to appear in traditional journals and books, I’ve learnt the ropes of KDP. And now it’s out there. I published it a few days later again with Kobo. Self-publishing is free with both KDP and Kobo.

The experience on these platforms was not too draining. I began on Wednesday and by Saturday night Winter Tales was there on the Amazon web site, and then I repeated the process on Kobo. For Kindle I simply had to upload my story prepared with Word, format it into a book with their user-friendly styling buttons, have fun making a cover, give Amazon some account details, and press ‘Publish’. Kobo didn’t have the cover-making facility so I re-used the one from KDP.

There’s a feast of images on Creative Commons that suited my theme of a Russian winter, and when choosing a 19th-century painting I was like a girl in a French chocolaterie. At last I settled on the cover image you see above because of the vast sky where I could put the title and the snowy ground for the author’s name. Not to mention the peasants and ox cart in winter, a scene that could have come from one of Vogüé’s stories.

Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé

You can read a Kindle preview here. The preview is not as bookish as the actual e-book, but the words are the same.

May I encourage you to leave a review on Amazon or on my blog if you read Winter Tales?

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Six degrees of separation: The Outsiders to Sweet Water – Stolen Land

For the challenge by Booksaremyfavouriteandbest to find six degrees of separation between books, this month’s starting point is The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.

1. At first I thought it was The Outsider (singular), one of the English titles given  to Albert Camus’ L’Étranger. But reading the author’s name made me look again. I noticed the plural in Hinton’s title and recalled my sons reading this book at high school and then reading it myself. However, I had immediately thought of Camus’ book and its opening line, ‘Aujourd’hui maman est morte’, much discussed by translators. In Stuart Gilbert’s translation, The Outsider,  it becomes ‘Mother died today’.

2. This led me to think of another opening line disputed and revised by translators, the first line of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early.’ So many ways to say this.

3. And the first line of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, translated by Constance Garnett: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

4. And from there my mind went to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, currently showing as a TV serial. I have the book, a gift from my daughter-in-law who works in a bookshop, but I haven’t tackled it.

5. However, I have decided to tackle another hefty Russian novel, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, only because I found a pocket-size edition in a 2nd-hand shop.

6. I took a break from Crime and Punishment after a few chapters and picked up a shorter novel, Sweet Water – Stolen Land by Philip McLaren. What surprised me after reading a description of a gruesome murder in Dostoevsky’s novel was to read a number of such scenes in McLaren’s.

Of these six books I’ve read three wholly and three in part, but enough to remember them.

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The Wolf as Illustration

Soon a story written by Marcel Aymé, Le Loup, translated into English as The Wolf (by me) will be out in an illustrated edition of Delos Journal. The editor’s decision to illustrate it really blew me away. Life for me is much easier to bear when I’m reading an illustrated book.

Now, in anticipation of the Delos wolf, I’m wondering whether he’ll be fierce or deceptively gentle. In my tall piles of books about fairies and fantasy there are many wolfish images from the 19th and 20th centuries that leave me dreaming about ideal illustrations for my translated tales. Today I pondered over a few of the images that have taken my fancy.

Illustrated fairy tale collections published for children since the 19th century are usually delicate, refined, unreal and rarely violent despite the brutal stories they represent. Take, for example, Arthur Rackham’s fine drawing in which the wolf doesn’t look particularly threatening:

When she got to the wood, she met a wolf. Arthur Rackham, ‘The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm’, 1909

Aymé was clearly inspired by that guilty wolf we’ve all met in fables and fairy tales if not in real life. In his little story (which I hope you’ll read when it comes out later this year…) two little blonde girls remind their visitor, the wolf, that he’s never been good, he’s always been bad, and as an example they evoke La Fontaine’s fable about the wolf and the lamb, depicted here by Gustave Moreau, where the wolf appears a little hungrier than Rackham’s:

Gustave Moreau, Le Loup et l’agneau, in Les Lettres et les arts, 1889

Aymé’s wolf claims to have changed his ways, he denies he ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother though we’ve been led to believe otherwise by this illustration by another French Gustave.  Gustave Doré depicts the moment just before the wolf is about to take his first bite, his long tongue lolling as Grandma realises her terrible fate.

Gustave Doré, illustration for Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, courtesy Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale de France

While Doré’s image would be a wee bit scary for a child, a stretch of the imagination might be needed to associate animal instincts with Shaun Tan’s little sculpture. Today I discovered his illustration for a very abbreviated version of ‘Little Red Cap’ by the Brothers Grimm. It has none of the pretty trees and tendrils of Rackham’s image, but neither does it have the drooling wolves of Moreau’s and Doré’s sketches. It’s composed of two tiny solid characters crafted from clay with the simplest features.

Little Red Cap, Shaun Tan, 2015, in ‘The Singing Bones’

My favourite wolf image this week is one which depicts the kind of wolf you’ll find at the end of Aymé’s story. It’s by Rackham but it’s a far scarier drawing than we saw above. Here, Becfola, of an Irish fairy tale, is perched on branches just out of reach of hungry mouths. It instils in me exactly the kind of fear I’d have if a wolf had chased me up a tree.

“She looked with angry woe at the straining and snarling horde below, seeing many a white fang in those grinning jowls, and the smouldering, red blink of those leaping and prowling eyes.” The Wooing of Becfola, Irish fairy tale by James Stephens, illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1920

I’m anxiously awaiting the appearance of Aymé’s The Wolf. You can be sure I’ll be blogging about it the moment I hear it’s out.

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