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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Faerie and fungus

From time to time a fairy ring grows beneath my Spruce fir tree. At the moment it’s not a whole circle but more of a semi-circular meandering of mushrooms across the lawn. It’s been growing for about a week and must be following a long root of this tall tree.

On Sunday I noticed one particular mushroom coming up in the nearby garden about five metres from the beginning of the line. It’s like a pop-up house for little people, and evokes Faerie, that land of enchantments and enchanted beings.

Mushroom, Sunday

It’s expanding as it ages, yet the leaf-litter roof is still in place.

Mushroom, Tuesday

The small shelter over the mushroom makes it easy to understand why children could believe there are tiny fairy-folk residing within.

But recently I learnt that not only children have believed in fairies! Writers of Faerie in the 19th century (about 90% of whom were men) expressed a fearful respect for the little winged women, often passing a mention in their tales that fairy love was fatal to men. Male authors were wary of a fairy for she could transform or disguise herself. Small as she was, she could be mistaken for an insect or a bird, she could even become invisible, and, most dangerously, she could turn herself into a real woman. But the rule was that no man could love her and live.

I’ve read a lot of French fairy tales and have found it to be true. In Théodore de Banville’s story “La Chiffonnière”, for example, a fairy becomes an old ragpicker who is almost trampled by horses, but a kind-hearted poet picks her up where she falls, and in his arms she is rejuvenated, now young and beautiful. Though she wants to give him her love as a reward for saving her life, she knows it would kill him. Instead she offers him the finest cigar in the world, and four wishes.

Fairy rings are also things to beware of, to tread carefully around and not through. Men who entered the ring often disappeared and those who were tempted needed to be rescued. It seems the ancient curse has exhausted its power, for I’ve often stepped into mushroom rings in my lawn but have never disappeared…

‘Plucked from the Fairy Circle’, T. H. Thomas, from Wirt Sikes, ‘British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions’

While I know these fairies are not really magical, I also know that, in my garden, suddenly emerging fungi certainly are.

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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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Book cover: Stories to Read by Candlelight

I was searching the internet this week for any mention of a translated book I’m waiting for. It’s my own translation, not yet published. The publisher, Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books, has been working on it, so I wondered if she’d mentioned it somewhere online. Hooray! My search produced a result: I found a cover on Booktopia, and a chance to pre-order the whole book. The link is here.

Here’s a preview of the cover:

The stories are from Jean Lorrain’s small collection, Contes pour lire à la chandelle, first published in 1897 though most of them had appeared in illustrated journals in the previous ten years. A few of these 19th-century illustrations can be seen in my blog posts herehere and here.

The new book will also be illustrated. The silhouette images on the cover give a clue to what will be inside, but they’re not yet ready. You can imagine how eager I am to see how they look!

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Interview

Back in 2016 I had a translated story published by The Cossack Review. I’ve just learnt that this journal exists no more, it has gone the way of a good percentage of literary journals. The story is ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’ by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, a quirky tale about a lonely man in an isolated wintry part of Ukraine, who loses a coat, finds one, and falls in love with it.

‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ in ‘Les Lettres et les arts’, 1st July 1886, first page, illustration by M. Saint-Elme Gautier

It was originally published in 1886 in an illustrated journal, ‘Les Lettres et les arts’. Who wouldn’t want to read a story with a decorative border round the opening paragraph such as this one by Saint-Elme Gautier? (Click the image to see the detail.) There were several illustrations throughout the story but the best one is ‘Contemplation’ by M.H. Gray showing the poor man gazing at the woman’s coat he’d accidentally acquired and wondering what its owner looked like, felt like…

‘Contemplation’ by M.H. Gray

My translation was published in a print journal and, fortunately, I have a copy of it. It was also available online for a time, but has now disappeared. The editor, Christine Gosnay, had asked me some questions for an interview, and those questions and answers are still there, albeit in a basic format without the styling of the original web site. It would be a good idea, I think, to re-post the interview here.

Patricia Worth: Contributor Interview

May 28, 2016


 

TCR: What are you reading now?

Patricia Worth:  Tales of Hans Christian Andersen translated by Naomi Lewis. And All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

 

TCR: How and where did you find out about de Vogüé’s work?

Patricia Worth: A library at the Australian National University has a collection of old French literature that hasn’t been borrowed for decades. Here I found a small dusty book of short stories by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (whom I’d never heard of), and chose it simply for the title ‘Nouvelles orientales’, a title invented by a publisher. Expecting Orientalism and hot Middle Eastern settings, I found instead stories set mostly in wintry Russia and Ukraine. They are nonetheless fascinating. Several had originally been published in de Vogüé’s collection, ‘Les Coeurs russes’ (Russian Hearts), and a few were translated in 1895 as ‘Russian Portraits’, a translation which did not include “Joseph Olenin’s Coat’.

 

TCR: Do you plan to translate any of his other stories?

Patricia Worth: I have translated all the stories in ‘Nouvelles orientales’.

 

TCR: How long did it take you to translate “Joseph Olenin’s Coat’?

Patricia Worth: As I translated the whole book of ten stories, it’s hard to say how long it took me for each one. But, in general, a rough translation of a short story takes me a few days, and then I polish it for a few months, researching details, asking experts for help and getting people to read it and comment.

 

TCR: Can you describe your process for taking somewhat antiquated work from one language to another, especially with respect to diction and tone?

Patricia Worth: De Vogüé was strongly influenced by Russian authors like Turgenev, and as a literary translator I have long admired Constance Garnett’s translations of Turgenev’s short stories, so I looked to her example when working on de Vogüé’s stories. For Garnett, less is more. She generally writes with fewer syllables and fewer words than other translators. In Turgenev’s “The Tryst’, for example, Garnett writes “the hue of an over-ripe grape’, where a modern translator writes “which resembles the colour of overripe grapes’; or “Not one bird could be heard’, against “There was not a single bird to be heard’. When I consider the readability of my work, hers is the brevity I come back to.

It’s also good to read modern English authors who have created a sense of another time, like Joan Lindsay and her ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, published in 1967 but set in 1900, or J. L. Carr, ‘A Month in the Country’, published in 1980 but set in the years after the Great War. These two have also taught me much about making every word count.

Of great help, too, are readers of my drafts who are familiar with older texts. For “Joseph Olenin’s Coat’ a French friend pointed out the subtle words that alert a native speaker to the spirit in the coat that enters Joseph’s life and obsesses him against his will, and to the superior tone used by the Countess when addressing Joseph. A local writer and translator of Proust who reads most of my work also offered corrections and suggestions to take my diction back in time (for example skating, not ice-skating).

When I find myself stuck in today’s English, help is available by entering a French phrase into a search engine which can trigger old pieces where the words are used in other contexts. The search might even produce helpful French translations of English classics by, say, Dickens or H.G. Wells, and then I look for the phrase in the original, and use a variation of it. There are also a number of French and French-English dictionaries from the 1700s and 1800s freely available online; these are invaluable for learning the former meaning of a word. Of course, I read, read, read nineteenth-century English literature, the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy among many others.

 

TCR: Who has had the biggest influence on you as a writer?

Patricia Worth: For translation, I’ve been influenced by the various translators of Hugo’s Les Misérables as well as Constance Garnett’s translations of Russian literature. For writing in general, I find Charlotte and Anne Brontë’s novels compelling, and hold them as my standard. I was also influenced by my father, a volunteer soldier, who wrote poetry in Egypt in 1941.

 

TCR: What authors do you re-read?

Patricia Worth: The Brontës.

 

TCR: What is your next writing project?

Patricia Worth: I’m presently translating a book of French fairy tales.

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PS: I’m surprised to read that I was translating the fairy tales when I responded to this interview. Those fairy tales, Stories to Read by Candlelight, are presently on the production line and should be appearing some time before June this year. I’d forgotten how long I’d been working on them.

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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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