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.
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).
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.
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.
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)
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.
I’d be extraordinarily happy if you read it and commented below.
I have another translated short story to announce!
Six months ago my translation of ‘Les Larmes sur l’épée’ by Catulle Mendès – ‘Tears on the Sword’ – was accepted by the Agorist Writers Workshop for the anthology FairyTale Riot. At last! It’s available as an ebook or print copy here: Amazon.
The Agorist Writers Workshop is a small group of liberty-minded individuals with an interest in creative writing. (I’m not sure what ‘liberty-minded’ means but I’m definitely interested in creative writing!) This is their 4th anthology. Fortunately for me they were looking for fairy tales, fables and folklore, and I happen to have a stash of them in my metaphorical bottom drawer. It was a big thrill to find an anthology seeking my kind of story and a bigger thrill to be accepted. They even found an illustration appropriate to the story and put it on Facebook: Roland, the protagonist, a fabled heroic figure of French history, is blowing his horn to call for help when almost all of his men are dead.
While Roland in ‘Tears on the Sword’ doesn’t blow his horn, the image on Facebook is nevertheless of Roland and his dead soldiers. It’ll do.
Roland’s story is composed of a little truth and much invention. His sword, Durandal, was so strong that when Roland worried that some other soldier would take it after his death, he cried over it and tried to break it on a solid porch step, but the sword broke the step! Durandal remained undamaged.
But in Mendès’ tale, Roland cries over the sword for a different reason. Read it in FairyTale Riot and discover why he cried and what the connection is with liberty-seekers.
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:
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”.
In the past few months I’ve had four translated stories accepted by journals. In my last post I lamented the silence of two of those journals, but, good news!, one has announced the story will be published in September. And two more have promised to publish another couple of stories, so I’m hoping that all will go well for those journals.
As a lover of Great Opening Lines, I thought I’d include their first lines here as excerpts from the three forthcoming stories.
Hiding behind the hedge, the wolf was patiently watching the house.
Opening line, ‘The Wolf’, Marcel Aymé, translated by me, forthcoming in ‘Delos Journal’
A story for children and adults about a wolf that wants to be good and kind but deep down he’s still an animal …
Not long ago and not far away, a sculptor in love with his statue as in the days of Pygmalion the King of Cyprus, reproduced the same miracle and brought her to life, transforming the marble into living flesh through which glorious blood flowed by his will and the force of his overpowering desire.
Opening line, ‘The Lydian’, Théodore de Banville, translated by me, forthcoming in ‘Black Sun Lit’
The Lydian is the mythological Queen Omphale who was given Hercules as her slave for a year (his punishment for a murder). She wore the skin of the lion he had killed, and carried his club. Banville’s story tells of a sculptor who produced a statue of Omphale that came to life. He thought his dreams had come true…
Once when the valiant knight Roland was returning from fighting the Moriscos, he was letting his horse catch its breath in a Pyrenean pass when he heard a shepherd tell of an enchanter, not far from there, who was making himself odious to the whole country by his tyranny and cruelty.
Opening line, ‘Tears on the Sword’, Catulle Mendès, translated by me, forthcoming in ‘The Clarion Call’ anthology
A fantasy about the French medieval hero, Roland, who revels in fights with lances and swords but now must defend his country against a sorcerer who has invented a diabolical weapon that allows cowards to kill from afar.
Keep checking back to this blog to hear news of the stories making it into print.
The Agorist Writers Workshop has just announced the titles of stories for their new anthology, Fairytale Riot. I’m very fortunate to have one of my translations included, “Tears on the Sword”, originally “Les Larmes sur l’épée” by Catulle Mendès. The theme for this, their 4th anthology, is libertarian retellings of classic folklore, fables, and fairy tales. Mendès, who reworked a large number of fairy tales during the Belle Époque, fits the bill.
This morning I discovered memes on their Facebook page for each of the 28 stories, teasing little images that give you a taste for each one. They’ve chosen fairy tale illustrations that seem appropriate to each title. Here’s the meme for mine:
Release of the printed anthology and ebook will be in July 2018. I’m so pleased knowing someone wants to publish my work! There’s such a lot of effort goes into a translation and then finding an editor who wants to show it to the world. It’s a good day today!
The digital literary fiction journal, Brilliant Flash Fiction, has just published “The Half-Veil”, my translation of “La Voilette”, a Catulle Mendès short short story of 1884. Click on the link and scroll down through other brilliant flash fiction till you see this cool photo added by the editor.
Header image: La Modiste sur les Champs Élysées, Jean Béraud (1849 – 1935), courtesy Wikimedia Commons
For an idle literary translator, what’s a good place to search for foreign fiction? Anthologies and best-seller lists, web wish-lists of books that ought to be translated? Old bookshops where floor-to-ceiling shelves are laden with literature from decades or centuries ago? All good suggestions. But there’s another source which can prove fruitful. If your local university library is like mine, there’s a mass of French fiction, purchased in the sixties or fifties, sitting neglected, waiting for a borrower. Each volume is now ageing beneath a grey layer of dust settled in the nook of its page tops.
Here you can find old French books filled with tales far removed in time and unlike anything in contemporary fiction. Read between the lines of these stories and you’ll see writers disappointed with things unchanging, say, in rigid religious traditions that influenced the behaviour of believers and atheists alike, or writers disappointed with too many changes: the advance of technology, the end of manual labour, the taste for realism versus fantasy. They were authors reluctant to let fairies die, who wanted to revive the Medieval world and the era of monarchs and superstitions.
Libraries are a gift to mankind. And womankind. Their shelves are treasure-laden and cost-free. Yet there are book lovers who never go near them. They read only books they can keep, preferring to build their own personal collection, all the while asserting that libraries are an endangered literary species. Once, a young French exchange student at my old university, searching its library for something from the twenty-first century and finding only these old tomes, curled his lip and declared it a museum.
Now, for a translator with an itchy writing hand, old books are a rich source of literature begging to be translated. Perusing the shelves, I suspect that many of them have not been translated in a hundred years, if ever, and now the dust seduces me. I dirty my fingers flicking through the yellowed pages. Opening the covers back too far breaks the aged connection between pages and spine, and I half close the book in sympathy, tilting my head to read inside the triangular space.
One little book, George Sand et le rêve monastique : Spiridion by Jean Pommier, about Sand’s novel, Spiridion, leads me to the novel itself, not far away on another shelf. Sand wrote two versions with different endings. Choosing the second version, I translate it and send it to SUNY Press. Sand’s gothic, philosophical novel set in a monastery, excluding all women bar the author and her translator, is the right choice for me: for the first time I become a published translator.
Tickled by this success, I return to the library and pull out a fragile, hand-sized, brown-covered book, Jean Lorrain’s Contes pour lire à la chandelle, ‘Stories to Read by Candlelight’. As I turn the pages I imagine sitting beside a storyteller in a candlelit corner, listening to tales about a haunted house or an ill-treated woman or a hallucinating boy. For a year I borrow and re-borrow the Contes, translating the stories in no particular order, according to my mood. With each opening of the book another page comes loose and corners flake away. Poor book! When my work is finished I return it to the librarians for conservation, and send six stories to journals to see if they like nineteenth-century French fiction. They do. Lorrain’s small stories are now available in print in Eleven Eleven Journal, and online at The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation,Danse Macabre and Sun Star Review.
My addiction has me hurrying back to the ‘museum’. Kneeling on the floor, I bend my head to read the spines along the bottom shelf, down where the dust is thicker. A small gem, Nouvelles orientales by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, appeals by its title; I blow across its top, give the heavier lint a push, read the first page, skip to the middle and scan a few lines. This little number has shortish French stories set in various non-French lands. It comes home with me.
I like some of the stories but not all. The wintry ones are the author’s better work, they make me forget I’m reading. I form a short list, for now avoiding the one that ends in a suicide. Another year passes as I translate the Nouvelles, draft after draft, renewing the library loan a dozen times. When three stories are polished, I send them off. One, my very favourite, is accepted by The Cossack Review: ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, about a lonely man in Ukraine who falls in love with a perfumed pelisse.
Research about Jean Lorrain leads me to his Decadent peer and a great creator of fairies, Catulle Mendès, whose collection Les Contes du Rouet is available online. It’s a thoroughly pleasurable exercise to translate Mendès. A tale about a selfish princess, ‘The Only Beautiful Woman’, makes it into The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation. This is an online to online conversion, but I’m eager to work from a physical book, and am thrilled to find, back at the library, two more collections by Mendès, and I borrow them both. As you can imagine for a book entitled ‘To Read in the Bath’, and another, ‘To Read in the Convent’ (a deceptive title which would have drawn pretty young things into Mendès’s naughty fantasies), I read them with the amusement and occasional dismissal they deserve. My translation of La bague enchantée, ‘The Enchanted Ring’, has been transported to new readers via Peacock Journal.
While it’s true I translate only stories I’m pretty sure will please other readers, there has been the odd dusty book that clicked with me but by the time I reached the end of the first draft, I wasn’t convinced that anyone else would eagerly turn its pages. Henry Gréville’s Sonia was such a book. After months of work, I filed the translation manuscript at the bottom of my drawer.
It’s thanks to the library’s stubborn persistence in holding on to these books that I’ve discovered and translated bits and pieces of them. Yet, in this same university library, no searchers will ever pull Spiridion in our language from a shelf in the way I’ve picked up a few pearls simply by browsing. It is in the library catalogue, but only as an e-book. The National Library of Australia has also acquired only the e-book. Disappointing but not surprising.
Still, e-books and digital journals are here to stay and I must be grateful and push on. As Lorrain led me to Mendès, Mendès has led me to Théodore de Banville. The library has a copy of his Œuvres. I’ve translated a number of his stories and can tell you that he is indeed a witty and entertaining writer. One of my patient draft readers has declared him superior to my previous authors, though I myself love them all equally. Indeed, de Banville has driven me to purchase one of his old volumes. I’ve also bought originals by Sand, de Vogüé, Mendès and others I’m keeping for a rainy day. Yes, I’m starting a collection, but I would never have met these books and their authors if the library had not kept them under cover of dust, despite calls to dispose of them. Long live libraries of the physical kind.
Today a new story has been published in Peacock Journal online, “The Enchanted Ring”, written by Catulle Mendès in 1887, translated by me. The story is in his collection, Pour lire au couvent (To Read in the Convent), which might surprise since it’s a wee bit spicy for innocent convent girls and only a little less risqué than his tales in Pour lire au bain (To Read in the Bath).
To set the scene, the Peacock Journal editors have illustrated the story with Claude Monet’s impression of Vétheuil in the outer regions of Paris in 1879. This will give readers a hint that the story works its way towards a country inn where three rich and handsome princes are resting for the night (only one of them is asleep…).
Another of my Mendès translations, “The Only Beautiful Woman”, appeared recently in The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation which you can read about in my blog post here where you’ll see a photo of Catulle Mendès standing casually in his study reading a story. Or a poem. If you don’t recognise Mendès, you might recognise his daughters from this painting by his friend Auguste Renoir in 1888, now in the Met Museum, New York:
Peacock Journal has a theme: beauty. The editors search for it in every submission. I feel fortunate and chuffed that they found it in “The Enchanted Ring”. Make your day better by popping over to read this and other stories about beauty.
… is the title of my newest translated story, published yesterday by The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation. You can read the story online: go to the website, scroll down to the translator’s note (that’s me, of course) then click on “click here to read”. You’ll then be able to enjoy The Only Beautiful Woman by Catulle Mendès, originally “La Belle du Monde” in his collection Les Oiseaux bleus.
Like Perrault and the Grimm brothers, Mendès was a great creator of fairies. In “The Only Beautiful Woman” the incurable selfishness of humans is embodied in a trifling, time-wasting princess who frightens even the mirrors that reflect her beauty.
I’m very grateful to The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation editors for publishing my work, especially since this is my second appearance in their journal. In 2015 they published my translation of Madame Gorgibus by Jean Lorrain, another story in which one character suffers from another’s selfishness. But Mme Gorgibus never sees the victory of good over evil; her story is less of a comedy than Mendès’ little tale in which mirth predominates and the ending is happy.
I invite you to read these tales; they’re old and short but memorable! If you enjoy them please let me know.