By the sea all worries wash away

I recently had a bathroom renovated and had to remove this sign which had been stuck to its wall for years. (I don’t live near the sea.)

I haven’t put it on the new wall, so now it sits abandoned in a bedroom where I read it every time I walk past. I’ve never stopped believing what it says.

In recent months I’ve spent time on the beautiful beaches of New South Wales, and just this last weekend as I walked the length of Lilli Pilli beach, I thought of my sign and realised that it was true, all my pitiful thoughts were washing out with the waves.

There were rewards even for resting my eyes on the water in this shallow bay of Lilli Pilli Beach where the sea near the shore is turquoise.

By the sea, natural beauty fills my head and heart to the brim. There’s no room for anything negative, only praise. Just look at these three tubes protruding from the sand. I know little about them but a search leads me to believe they were built by worms. Amazing, fragile structures.

Further up the coast is Kiama and the Devil’s Blowhole, a gap in the cliff rocks where waves come rushing into a cave below and shoot up through the hole like a fountain. The spout has taken a few lives over the centuries, but today a fence ensures that as long as I stay behind it, my worries will be washed away but I won’t!

Even when the sea is not turquoise or even blue, it can still have a unique beauty. This steel grey rock pool at Coledale in Woollongong, the biggest rock pool I’ve ever seen, reflects the expanse of grey clouds in its smooth grey surface and takes my breath away. One old man was swimming in the sea baths while I was there. It wasn’t a warm day. But he had the whole baths, this whole part of the ocean, to himself.

While we all leave our footprints on the beach – the loneliest stroller is aware of all those who strolled before her – sometimes humans can leave behind something admirable. Like wandering minstrels, wandering artists can enhance nature, and out of the kindness of their hearts make a sand sculpture, a piece of public art, temporal as it will be. I passed this crocodile at the water’s edge in Port Stephens late one afternoon and felt very lucky to catch it before the incoming tide broke it up completely.

But the best moments are when I see real creatures on the beach. On a shore near the old Nelson Bay lighthouse (now the Inner Light Tea Rooms!) these pelicans and seagulls made my day with their sleepy poses and big doll eyes.

Back in the city, far from the sea, all I have left is my sign to remind me that worry is inevitable but relief can be had if I can get to a beach. (The nearest one is just two hours’ drive away…)

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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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Heatwave

It’s presently the fourth day of 40+ degrees celsius outside and 30+ in my house and I’m too weary to translate stories, a task that requires a cool unflustered mind. But I can show you what it’s like at my place in this heatwave where even the birds and bees are too hot to fly…

A crested pigeon pair beside the wilting zantedeschia lily
A bee that seems to be sucking moisture out of the concrete bird bath that I’d just filled.

As the temperature climbed this afternoon, I started to melt, and turned the fan on without a thought for the consequences. I might as well have cast my neatly stacked, unbound manuscript to the wind…

Too hot and bothered to face this papery mess, I retreated to the kitchen to find something cold. The fridge is a friend on days like these, and as I opened its door, the freezer offered up a consoling box of Weis bars that I’d bought to take me back to my Queensland childhood.

While the disorderly manuscript was waiting on the floor for me to cool down, the ever-turning fan blew even more pages down onto the pile. I picked it all up and dumped it on the lounge, to deal with in the cool of the evening (which this week has been about 3am). Fortunately the pages are numbered, a trick I once learnt after dropping a longish story, its pages loose and unnumbered.

It’s now 7.30, the light is failing, it’s 30 degrees out and 30 in. My house holds its heat, a desirable eco feature in winter but not in a summer heatwave. An hour ago the sky clouded over, and out of it some pathetic rain drops fell for a few minutes and stopped.

Sigh.

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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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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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The Last Post

This is my last post for the year.

It’s a hot Christmas week here in Canberra, and to defeat the heat we’ve been for a couple of walks where trees are green and water is present if not plentiful.

Late in the afternoon we went to Dickson Wetlands where the water level was way down and was even a wee bit stagnant in places, but was as still as a millpond and good for reflecting (lol) on Christmas and the year that’s coming to a close.

Pond in Dickson Wetlands just before a duck landed and shattered the reflection into ripples

As I flitted here and there photographing whatever turned my head, my husband sat on a rock and read War and Peace on his phone. He’s 22% of the way through it after several weeks, but clearly it’s more compelling than the wetlands.

Husband on rock with phone

Then this morning we went to the Botanic Gardens to walk in its cool rainforest (a great creation in a city where it doesn’t often rain). Water dragons were basking on the bitumen at the top of the stairs leading down into the tropical zone. They’re patient lizards, happy to be photographed.

Water Dragon, Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra

As I turned to descend the stairs I hesitated. This was all I could see:

The mist was thick and white as a cloud, thanks to the misting system that makes a normally dry forest wet. I feared going forward, though my husband promised me I wouldn’t fall. How cool it was! Many degrees lower than up on the road. The lizard didn’t know what he was missing.

The stuff of fantasies was everywhere on the forest floor. I passed this moss-covered fern-tree stump just as the sun broke through the canopy and lit it up.

 

But all is not fairy tale magic in the forest. Just when we were really enjoying ourselves we came across the snake warning and turned back – a snake can spoil a good walk. Brown snakes, one of the reptiles commonly seen in these Gardens, apparently eat the water dragons. And the dragons eat the frogs. That’s why there’s no photo of a frog.

But water dragons can elude snakes and that’s why I found this lovely lizard waiting for us when we ascended the stairs.

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When I began blogging seven years ago, I loved showing WW2 photos from my father’s collection, many of them unique, surprising, moving, even amusing. I’ve just stumbled on a few that I think I blogged about and then deleted for some obscure reason that I no longer remember. Here’s one that suits my mood today with its large pond of water set in a peaceful Cairo public garden where palm fronds frame a white swan and a black duck swimming peacefully, ignorant of the war.

Helwan Gardens, Cairo, 1941

Happy New Year to all my readers. In 2019, may you stay cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s not.

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‘Bitter Secrets’ for Christmas

Mt Yasur volcano erupting, Tanna, Vanuatu, photo Jocy H, Wikimedia Commons

Bitter Secrets‘, believe it or not, is my Christmas present this year (I’m hoping it’s not the only one).

It’s my translation of ‘Secrets amers’ by Claudine Jacques, and today it has been published in the latest issue of Transnational Literature at Flinders University, Adelaide, (despite the editors having, just days ago, told me they’d forgotten to read it and therefore had to reject it).

Yesterday I got a surprising message to say they’d quickly retrieved it, read it, liked it and wanted to include it. And since it’s an online journal, they could slip it in at the last moment.

Yay!

The setting for the story is the island Tanna in Vanuatu. If you like a story with a volcano, some white commerce, and a romance accompanied by unresolvable cultural conflict, then this one is for you. And you can read it for free!

Mt Yasur, Tanna, Vanuatu, a significant element in the setting of both ‘Bitter Secrets’ and ‘Tanna’, photo Philip Capper, Wikimedia Commons

An Australian-made film, Tanna, and Claudine Jacques’ ‘Bitter Secrets’ are surprisingly alike, though she had written the short story several years earlier. The film’s setting is Tanna, there’s a volcano, and it deals with lovers who cause conflict among their people. Even if the film is based on a true love story, the similarities between the two make me wonder if the filmmaker, Bentley Dean, had read the original in French.

By coincidence this film was shown here in Australia on SBS on Saturday night, just after I’d received the message about my translation being published!

If you’re wondering where you’d find Tanna, here’s a map of the island in the archipelago of Vanuatu, from Wikimedia Commons

Now, after writing the word ‘bitter’ several times I’d like to say something sweet:

Merry Christmas to all of you who read my blog posts. May you be blessed greatly in 2019.

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Golden Kisses

I’ve been keeping an eye on a web site called Fairytalez for most of this year with some enjoyment and a certain degree of frustration. It’s an appealing site with a variety of illustrations and a mass of information related to classical fairy tale telling and tellers. There’s an invitation to readers not just to read fairy tales from all over the world but also to publish their own.

Now, I have a number of such tales I’ve translated over the past five years and have long been looking for a home for them. The problem was that I could read the stories that were already published on the site but could not get a response from the site owners when I asked if my translations would be accepted. This week they contacted me at last after 10 months. It turns out that Fairytalez has had trouble with site maintenance for most of this year…

Once it was fixed I asked my question, and I got a Yes!

Today I submitted a tale that includes the mandatory fairy, ‘Golden Kisses‘, originally ‘Baisers d’or’ (1885) by the French author Catulle Mendès.

It’s a delicious little piece about two musical starvelings who grow up together yet alone, for they have no family or friends. They discover the pleasure of kisses and are happy enough with their poor but simple life until a fairy, out of pity, offers to change things.

You’ll find ‘Golden Kisses’ under this banner on my Fairytalez profile. Illustration by Kay Rasmus Nielsen.

I’d be extraordinarily happy if you read it and commented below.

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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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