My authors: Jean Lorrain

Never would I have translated Jean Lorrain if I knew then what I know now.

But that’s the beauty of reading a good book. The reader’s relationship is with the book and the story it tells, not its author.

There’s much I could write about Jean Lorrain that would turn you away from all his work. But as a translator, I choose the writing, not the writer. After I’d read his little collection, Contes pour lire à la chandelle (Stories to Read by Candlelight), certain pieces stayed with me and compelled me to read them again. Before I knew a thing about Lorrain, I was touched by the sympathy he expressed for some of the underdogs of his society, like the odd old woman in ‘Madame Gorgibus’ and the trapped beauty in ‘Princess Mandosiane’.

Gil Blas cover, 1st May 1903, illustration for Madame Gorgibus

A brief bio: Jean Lorrain was born Paul Duval in 1855 and died of decadence in 1906 at the age of 51. He was the only child of a family of wealthy ship-owners. In 1882 he decided to become a writer, disappointing his father who suggested he take on an alias to avoid bringing shame on the family, thus Jean Lorrain was invented. He was a much-published journalist, poet, novelist, and sharp-tongued critic of his decadent peers, despite belonging to their circle.

While his work was well-known in his lifetime, much of it has been forgotten and will probably remain forgotten. But the stories I’ve selected to translate are worth resurrecting for their exquisite prose, particularly some that are in a category entitled ‘Tales for Sick Children’, that are quirky but not decadent like his novels. Their expression is nostalgic and aesthetic, typical of Belle Époque symbolists who rebelled against modern technology and yearned for a return of medieval days and characters in flamboyant gowns and armour.

His tales of knights and princesses, ghostly girls and frightful animated crockery are as masterfully worded as our favourite mythical adventures. What really clinched it for me were the illustrations accompanying several versions in issues of La Revue illustrée and Gil Blas, like the one above. Many of Lorrain’s stories were beautifully illustrated in the art nouveau of the era, not only in journals but also in deliciously decorated books. See this website for some excellent images from his books.

Here’s a taste of the writing that led me to translate it. To set the scene: Princess Mandosiane is embroidered onto a banner once used in grand processions and now stored in the crypt of a cathedral. A mouse tempts her with freedom:

Now, she lent her ear to the counsel of the red mouse, an insidious little mouse, fast as lightning, persistent and wilful, who had haunted her for years.

“Why stubbornly remain a captive, armour‑plated in all these pearls and embroidery holding you so tightly? Yours is not a life, you have never lived, not even during the times when you sparkled on those fine days of proclamations and pealing bells, cheered on by euphoric crowds, and now, you see, your life is oblivion, it is death. If you like, with my sharp teeth I could undo one by one the stitches of silk and gold cord that have held you in place for six hundred years, motionless in this lustrous velvet which, just between us, has lost its brilliance. It will perhaps hurt a little, especially when I unpick the stitches close to your heart, but I’ll begin with the long contours, those of your hands and your face, and already you will be able to stretch and move, and you will see how good it is to breathe and to live!’

Several of my translations of his stories have been published in journals in recent years, but soon the whole collection, “Stories to Read by Candlelight”, will be available. It’s presently being prepared for publication by Odyssey Books, a small Australian publisher.

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My authors: Catulle Mendès

A few weeks ago I wrote about the French author, Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, whose stories I’ve translated (at least, a few). Today I’ll give you some titbits on de Vogüé’s contemporary and fellow countryman, Catulle Mendès, a turn-of-the-century writer who believed in the wonder of imagination to help readers through the barren polluted landscapes of modernity.

Catulle Mendès, poète écrivain

Some years ago while on holidays I translated a book of short stories by Mendès called Bluebirds (in English), which was a rejigging of his collection Les Contes du rouet (Spinning Wheel Stories). It was an enjoyable time-filler and since then I’ve submitted several of the translated stories to literary journals and had them published. Many of them are available online for free! (See my list of his stories and click on the titles to see which ones are freebies.) Once you’ve read them you’ll probably want to know more about Monsieur Mendès. What sort of man wrote these witty fantasies?

A brief bio: Abraham Catulle Mendès was born in Bordeaux, France, in 1841, to a Portuguese Jewish father and a French Catholic mother. He moved to Paris at 17.

His first marriage was in 1866 to Judith Gautier, a daughter of the poet and novelist, Théophile Gautier. Théophile did not attend the wedding, having heard that Catulle had had an earlier mistress and children and was a man of uncontrolled lust.

Judith and Catulle separated and Catulle returned to his mistress, Augusta Holmès, a prolific composer who also had time to give him eight children during and after his marriage to Judith. Three of them are portrayed in a famous painting by his friend, Auguste Renoir: The Daughters of Catulle Mendès (1888).

Augusta Holmès, 1880s, Photo by A. Taponier
The Daughters of Catulle Mendès, Auguste Renoir

In 1897 Catulle Mendès married again. His bride was Jeanne Mette, 30 years his junior, who gave him another son. I’ve read unconfirmed reports of other mistresses and other sons…

He died in a horrific accident in Paris in 1909 when he apparently inadvertently stepped out of a moving train and fell partly onto the track and under the wheels. His body was discovered near the Saint-Germain railway tunnel the next morning.

Gare Saint-Germain-en-Laye, c 1906

He has been described as versatile, prolific, superficial, a poet, critic, novelist and writer of fairy tales and licentious stories. As a young writer newly arrived in Paris, he started a few small magazines in which he pushed the boundaries of decency and published immodest writings that landed him in jail for a while. I don’t tend to translate these.

Catulle Mendès chez lui, courtesy Wikipedia

Yet he was a clever phrase turner and many of his other stories are above board; I’m always tickled by his quite decent fairy tales. Mendès said he treasured fairies, particularly when real people seemed to be so nasty and stupid…

The old fairy tales of Perrault and the Grimms often have a moral for the child reader tacked onto the end, as in, say, Little Red Riding Hood. But Mendès doesn’t need to spell out his message; we readers understand by the end of each of his tales that when the world offers nothing but violence, ugliness and trivialities, we can use our imagination to embellish life and make it bearable. As he says:

Who then would assume the task of writing fairy tales if he didn’t have the right to transform, in the course of his stories, the most hideous women into young ladies, dazzling in their beauty and attire? We all know that, in our tales, the more repulsive one is at first, the prettier one will be later. (From ‘The Three Sowers’, in ‘Les Contes du Rouet’, Catulle Mendès, my translation)

Cover of Les Contes du Rouet (Spinning Wheel Stories)

Mendès deserves to be read. Read him.

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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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