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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21

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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A sunny day story

On Wednesday the weather put a dampener on my holiday, bringing ceaseless heavy rain that made it impossible for me to see a particularly interesting sight, the SeaCliff Bridge in Wollongong.

On Thursday the rain eased enough for me to try again. But shortly after walking onto the bridge and taking a photo or two, the rain came down again and I scampered.

Today is Friday and the sun is shining. Now I’m in Sydney, still in search of sights I’ve never seen. My host recommended I go to Palm Beach Bible Garden for a magnificent view of the land and sea, and an exploration of a unique garden. The garden and its view were generously donated to the public in 2006 by the trustees of Gerald Hercules Robinson who established it back in 1966.

Everyone else in this street has a similar view of Palm Beach and the isthmus joining it to Barrenjoey Headland, but they (probably) purchased theirs for multiples of millions of dollars. This is a place of affluence. Thanks to Mr Robinson, we the ordinary public can enjoy it for free, and in peace.

The concept of this garden is to grow only plants mentioned in the Bible. Every plant is accompanied by a small sign with its botanical name, common name, and the Bible reference where it can be found. The garden is a lovely place that’s carefully tended by volunteers, and indeed there was a woman pruning shrubs when we visited. It’s managed by the Pittwater Council in Sydney and can be booked for special events.

Here’s a sample of the many plants that grow surprisingly well here in Sydney, far from their ancient origins:

Hint for viewing my blog photos: I don’t understand why, but a better view of any of my photos can be obtained if you click once on any of them, then click again, then click yet again. You’ll end up with a full screen view in greater detail.

Seeing this garden was the highlight of my day. Tomorrow I’m marching further north, ever in pursuit of eye feasts.

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A rainy day story

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

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

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

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

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

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

But today the view looks like this:

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

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

Perhaps tomorrow will not be a rainy day.

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30

The Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Geoffrey Fletcher, 1954

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

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

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Digital family history and the centenary of the armistice

It’s because of the advent of digitised records – birth, death, marriage and war service records – and family tree web sites, particularly Ancestry, that I know now what I didn’t know a short time ago. I’d heard about my father’s time in Egypt as a WW2 soldier and I’d heard about his own father’s time in France as a WW1 soldier.

But I’d never heard of the family members who were killed in action.

My grandmother had two cousins, the Burley brothers, James and Frederick, who were killed in Northern France.

Can you imagine losing two sons who voluntarily went to war?

Now imagine losing three sons.

My grandfather had three cousins, the Shaw brothers, George, D’arcey and Frank, who were also killed in Northern France.

D’arcey, Frank and George Shaw (W.R.N. Shaw should be D.R.N. Shaw)

But because their cousin, my grandfather Ernest Bruce, survived gassing and a concrete wall falling on top of him, he returned to Australia to produce my father, who in turn produced me.

I’ve discovered most of this information through online records and family history websites. Many many family historians are using these resources now. This means that the great numbers of people commemorating the centenary of the armistice today, 11th November 2018, have learnt, like me, that they are the descendants of the ones who returned.

I have three sons. I feel absolute anguish for the parents who lost two or three of their children in war.

And I now have a greater appreciation of the struggles of Australians trying to build our nation a hundred years ago when the total population was 5 million, and 62,000 of their young people had been killed, and 156,000 were wounded, and many like my grandfather were unable to work again.

This building in the photo below, the Australian War Memorial, is ten minutes from my home. I’ve visited it countless times, and in the past few weeks as the crocheted and knitted poppies were displayed, and as I’ve read and heard so many stories from descendants of soldiers like me, I realise how fortunate I am that I have a comfortable home, enough food to keep me healthy, and a family that is gainfully employed. And I realise that WW1 was not the war to end all wars, there have been many wars since then, and I must not take my fortune for granted.

This new knowledge is greatly due to the digitisation of historical records, a technology I’m very grateful for.

Special open evening at the Australian War Memorial last night (10th November) for the centenary of the armistice

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