My authors: Théodore de Banville

Théodore de Banville, sketch by his stepson Georges Rochegrosse

Théodore de Banville. Prolific poet and writer, frequenter of the most anti-conformist Parisian circles. Proponent of ‘art for art’s sake’:

« Il n’y a de vraiment beau que ce qui ne peut servir à rien, tout ce qui est utile est laid. »
[There is nothing truly beautiful except that which serves no purpose; everything useful is ugly.]

Banville was an enemy of realism and had nothing good to say about technology that produced smoke or steam. He was among a number of writers who scorned the introduction of electric lighting and mechanised production in factories, as well as the fad for stock markets and wealth-making. He believed that humans are better when they surround themselves with beautiful antiques and ancient masterpieces of art and literature than when they pursue capitalist, bourgeois progress.

Parisian by choice, not birth – he loved the city of Paris and said it is filled with the smiles of fairies – Banville came originally from the French region of Auvergne, further south. While still young he went to Paris and published his first volume of verse, Les Cariatides, at the age of 19. His best work was Odes Funambulesques (Tightrope Walking Odes, or, in Banville’s own words (translated), odes composed with the care, rigour and comic element of tightrope walking). By the age of 30 he was producing poetry, tales and reviews to the great praise of other men of letters, among them Victor Hugo. In his later life Banville wrote mostly colourful and comical prose about the elegant, artificial, unreal Parisian world.

Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui, c1880. Banville is depicted with the toga and lyre of ancient authors who were his inspiration.

More importantly for me and my search for fantastical French short stories, Banville was one of a few late 19th-century French writers to bring the genre of the fairy tale back into fashion. Very little of his prose has been translated into English, but I’ve got the ball rolling with my translation, “The Lydian”.

Scottish writer, Andrew Lang, translated some of Banville’s poetry at the end of the century, and later wrote about it:

Poetry so fresh seems to make us aware of some want which we had hardly recognised, but now are sensible of, at the moment we find it satisfied.

My own feelings, precisely. When I first read Banville’s tales of Parisian life in Contes féeriques, I was blown away by the observations he made about his fellow city dwellers and their hastiness, their jealousies, their yearning to electrify and mechanise and modernise life and their tendency to curl the lip at old simple pleasures like candlelight and artisans’ workshops.

Banville married Marie-Élisabeth Rochegrosse when she was 47 and he was 53, and he adopted her son Georges Rochegrosse who was inspired by his stepfather the poet, and became famous himself as an artist.

Two sculptures of Théodore de Banville ensure he will not be forgotten. One is a bust in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. (I like the lyre resembling a face…)

Bust of Théodore de Banville, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, by Jules Roulleau

The other, in his birthplace of Moulins, is based on the drawing of Banville by his stepson Georges Rochegrosse (top of this page). Note the dog, Zinzolin, in the drawing and in the sculpture… In March 1944 this statue mysteriously disappeared from the park. The occupying Germans had stolen it with the intention of melting it down for weaponry, but fortunately the war ended before they got around to it. The statue was restored to the park in April 1945.

Statue of Théodore de Banville, Moulins, France, by Jean Coulon

Banville died at 68 in 1891 and is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

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Hundreds of views: a mystery

It’s a mystery. How do we offer something on the internet that pleases more than a few odd readers? In January I joined a Facebook group interested in the golden age of illustration which sort of extends from the mid 1800s to the 1970s. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the exquisite coloured drawings that people were posting, most of which came from long-forgotten books, but I also saw it as a group I could contribute to. Plenty of the French stories I’ve read in old journals and collections were illustrated and I knew where I could get my hands on them. So I thought I’d post a picture or two.

In the first few months of this year I posted three illustrations, and the reception ranged from 5 to 18 ‘likes’. This week, flicking through a book I’ve had for a few years, I lingered long over one of the full-page illustrations, thought it would suit the group’s interests, and posted it. I truly didn’t care if 5 or fewer people acknowledged it, because I knew those 5 would appreciate the image for its touching humour.

Completely blowing away my low expectations, the post has since attracted 622 ‘likes’, a large number of comments, and has been shared 240 times! (Updated Wednesday)

Even though the images I posted earlier were equally interesting, they didn’t tickle the fancy of viewers as this one has. There’s no way of knowing what will!

Here’s the image. It’s by Marcel Pille, illustrating a moment in ‘La Mandragore’ by Jean Lorrain, a story I’ve translated as ‘The Mandrake’, published in Belmont Review. Not that any of this mattered, since people gave their own interpretations of the image without any knowledge of the story.

Some of the reactions were emotional, some humorous, some surprised. So, here, I guess is the answer to my own question: how do I attract the interest of internetters? With something, preferably an image, that evokes emotion, humour and surprise, all at once!

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Taking the Reading Challenge

ACT Libraries reading challenge banner

I stumbled on a reading challenge by my local ACT library this week, and at first I dismissed it as I do with challenges generally. But the list of categories looked manageable for what remains of 2019 and the thought occurred to me that I could tick them off, no worries.  It came to me a few days after I found a new library in the small Australian Catholic University around the corner from me that has a very welcoming wall at the entrance. Here it is. Zoom in (click and click again) to read students’ stick-it notes…

Here I picked up a book I’d always avoided for no good reason, The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay, an early Australian classic, which fits one of the categories of the challenge, ‘Something you regret not having read yet’.

And then this morning, I cast my eye quickly over the pop-up library outside a local café. Zoom in to see what sort of books Canberrans read…

There on the shelf was a book that someone once highly recommended, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I’ve brought it home, except now I remember having read it, but it fits another challenge category, ‘Something you want to re-read’.

That’s two. But I have a third book that fits the category ‘Set in an imaginary world’: Contes féeriques (Faeric Tales) by Théodore de Banville. The title page is illustrated by Georges Rochegrosse, his stepson. Note the age spots, it’s an old one. Zoom in to see the fairies floating around the amorous couple…

Banville wittily gives it the subtitle ‘Scenes from Life’, but every tale revolves around the intervention of a fairy, magician or other supernatural figure! I recently had a translated story published that comes from this collection, ‘The Lydian’ which you can read for free if you click the link, and if you click here you can read more about it. But I haven’t yet read every story in the book, so it’s going on my challenge list.

That’s three, and only seventeen more to find to tick off everything on the challenge list. It should take my reading to the end of this year:

2019 Libraries ACT Reading Challenge

  • A genre you’ve never read before
  • Something that makes you laugh
  • Has a one-word title
  • Features time travel or time slip
  • Written under a pseudonym
  • That celebrates diversity
  • Set in an imaginary or alternate world
  • Crime fiction
  • Features food
  • Something you can read in a day
  • Has a green cover
  • An eBook or eAudiobook
  • Set in Africa
  • A gothic story
  • Something you want to re-read
  • Something you regret not having read yet
  • Recommended by family or friend
  • From/about antiquity (before Middle Ages)
  • Epistolary (letter or diary format)
  • Recommended by library staff

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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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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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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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The Lydian

Today my translation of Théodore de Banville’s ‘La Lydienne’ (The Lydian) was published by Black Sun Lit on their web site.

The Lydian is a statue of Queen Omphale, queen of Lydia in Greek mythology. Théodore de Banville’s story is about a sculptor who creates a marble statue of her and falls in love with it. With her. His love is so powerful that she comes to life…

There are a few real sculptures of her in the world and even more paintings, particularly accompanied by Hercules who was her slave for a year. This sculpture by Constantin Dausch is my favourite of all those I’ve seen online:

Omphale by Constantin Dausch

It’s been more than a year since I’ve had any of my translations published, so I’m having a very good day.

The original was written in 1882. For me the second half of the 19th century was one of the greatest eras for literature. If you too enjoy fantasy and “art for art’s sake” (Banville’s literary philosophy), this story will be a good one for you.

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Translating is hard work!

Today it’s a month since I last wrote on my blog. I think that in six years of blogging this has been the longest break.

When I reached my hundredth Great Opening Line I had a plan to write about the forthcoming publications of a few of my translated stories. Two journals offered to put my work out there in May and July, but I’m still waiting. The editors aren’t answering my queries so, unfortunately for us all, I’m in the dark. The translations are ‘The Lame Angel’ and ‘Tears on the Sword’ by Catulle Mendès’. I’m particularly hoping the latter will eventually appear in an anthology: Fairytale Riot produced by the Agorist Writers’ Workshop. They have a delightful cover ready, which looks promising:

Translating stories is hard hard work. The first draft is easyish, then there are months of redrafting and tweaking before submitting them to publishers and journals. What follows is a long wait. And while I wait I translate more stories: draft, redraft, tweak, submit. And after that, there’s marketing and promotion…  When an editor promises to publish a story and then doesn’t deliver, it’s hard to know whether to promote or forget. Ever the optimist, I’m going to promote another project: Stories to Read by Candlelight.

My translation of Jean Lorrain’s small book of stories, Contes pour lire à la chandelle, was accepted by Odyssey Books back in September 2017, and I’ve now discovered my name on their list of forthcoming publications for September 2018. That’s next month!

It will be illustrated, which is a bit thrilling for me, since the stories are 19th-century fairy tales, some of which I’ve read in illustrated 19th-century journals, as you see in the example below, and which I’ve imagined in a 21st-century edition. It was very exciting when the Odyssey Books editor, Michelle Lovi, offered to decorate the pages of the new book.

Alfred Daguet, page decoration for ‘La Princesse Mandosiane’ by Jean Lorrain. This illustration was included in ‘Les périodiques illustrés (1890-1940)’, a small book that was hard to hold open with one hand!

I’ll keep you posted on any of my work that makes it out into the wider world. All going well, there should be a new book of old tales available soon in bookshops, real and electronic.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 31

It was late, and Holofernes’ guests quickly withdrew. Bagoas closed the tent from the outside, dismissed the attendants, and everyone went to their lodgings to sleep, tired from too much drinking. Holofernes had collapsed onto his bed, completely drunk. Judith was left alone with him in the tent.

Opening of Chapter 13 of the Book of Judith

Judith and Holofernes, Jan de Bray, 1659, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I like the opening of this chapter, which in many versions of the book of Judith is given the title ‘Judith beheads Holofernes’. Even if this spoiler is present, the opening sentences contain enough intrigue to keep us reading. Holofernes is dead drunk, passed out, and all his guests have been asked to leave, except for Judith…

As an art history student I studied a few paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes, but when I viewed this one at the Dutch Masters exhibition in the Art Gallery of New South Wales last month, I thought I’d do well to read the story. It’s a good one. I recommend it. One thing I learnt is that the maidservant who is most often present in the artworks as a tense witness, was in fact asked by Judith to wait outside the tent. As the opening lines say, she remained alone with Holofernes. Like his fellow Baroque artists, Jan de Bray has included the maid, but I was drawn to this painting because of what he excluded. He portrays Judith in the moment before she brings the sword down on his neck, in contrast to painters who preferred the following moment with all its gore.

Judith was a beautiful Hebrew widow who convinced an evil general of Nebuchadnezzar that she could help him to kill the Jews in her town. She was lying. He invited her to his banquet, and under the spell of her beauty, he drank more than he’d ever drunk on any day of his life, and collapsed. Judith dispatched her enemy and saved her town.

The lines quoted above are my translation of a French translation from a 1997 bible published by the Société biblique française.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 23

Two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.

First line of the story ‘Solomon’s Wise Judgement’, 1 Kings 3:16

The lowest of the low approach the highest of the high. It’s an extraordinary situation evoked by concise, simple language. I try to imagine two prostitutes approaching Queen Elizabeth and demanding a hearing, but I’ve immediately restricted the meaning to my own experience, and, voilà, the opening line has hooked me in. (A little research later reveals that ancient Eastern monarchs often sat in judgement at the city gates and anyone could appeal directly to them for a legal decision. But it’s too late, I’m already curious and reading on…)

This story from the second half of Chapter 3 of the first book of Kings in the Bible was frequently chosen as a subject by artists up until the 1700s, obviously drawn in by the first line!

The painting below is one of my favourites because of its Caravaggesque chiaroscuro and drama, and the emotion of each player evident on his or her face. The essence of the story: two prostitutes each have a baby boy, one accidentally smothers hers while she sleeps; she steals the other baby, claiming it’s hers. Now the women are before King Solomon, arguing over ownership of the boy. The king asks for a sword to be brought to divide the live baby in two so each woman can have half. The real mother, whose love is greater, tells him to give the other woman the baby rather than have it cut up. The child lives because of Solomon’s wisdom.

Solomon’s Judgement, José de Ribera, c1610, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, abounds with stories that are short and to the point, and therefore get straight into the main idea in the first sentence. It’s a good source for great opening lines.

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