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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Winter Tales

Presently I’m waiting for a number of my translated stories to come out. Progress in the publishing of even one short story can be truly glacial, so I was surprised at the result of my experiment last week with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP); in just a few days a book (or rather novella) I had translated years ago, and had unsuccessfully proposed to many publishers, had become a published e-book. Reading other literary translators’ reports of positive experiences with self-publishing convinced me to give it a go.

The novella that I think is worth the risk is Winter Tales by the French author Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, a small collection extracted from a larger book of stories, Cœurs russes (Russian Hearts). If you’re a lover of Russian novelists like Turgenev and Dostoevsky, then you’ll enjoy these 19th-century tales set in Russia. This is the first English translation in 123 years.

Winter Tales by [de Vogüé, Eugène-Melchior]

Winter Tales is a little like a Russian doll: there’s one main story with several smaller stories tucked inside. The narrator visits a former serf owner who tells of the ups and downs in the lives of individual peasants struggling to live freely after serfdom is abolished.

Various publishers and one agent had said they liked it, but didn’t think it would be profitable enough to publish. The stories are old, a wee bit quirky, and one is quite grim. But I feel the novella hasn’t been totally rejected, and so to fill in time while I wait for my work to appear in traditional journals and books, I’ve learnt the ropes of KDP. And now it’s out there. I published it a few days later again with Kobo. Self-publishing is free with both KDP and Kobo.

The experience on these platforms was not too draining. I began on Wednesday and by Saturday night Winter Tales was there on the Amazon web site, and then I repeated the process on Kobo. For Kindle I simply had to upload my story prepared with Word, format it into a book with their user-friendly styling buttons, have fun making a cover, give Amazon some account details, and press ‘Publish’. Kobo didn’t have the cover-making facility so I re-used the one from KDP.

There’s a feast of images on Creative Commons that suited my theme of a Russian winter, and when choosing a 19th-century painting I was like a girl in a French chocolaterie. At last I settled on the cover image you see above because of the vast sky where I could put the title and the snowy ground for the author’s name. Not to mention the peasants and ox cart in winter, a scene that could have come from one of Vogüé’s stories.

Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé

You can read a Kindle preview here. The preview is not as bookish as the actual e-book, but the words are the same.

May I encourage you to leave a review on Amazon or on my blog if you read Winter Tales?

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46 Great Opening Lines: 46

This is it, 46 of 46. More importantly, together with the 54 Great Opening Lines I posted a couple of years ago (click on ‘categories’ to go there), now there are a hundred all together.

This last opener is from my (unpublished) translation of a book of short stories. Here today in Canberra it’s mid-winter, about 10 degrees celsius with an icy breeze that spoils a good walk. Winter Tales came to mind not only because of the weather but because, as a translator, I’ve been reading it so closely for so long that I want to show you a little of its magic.

Tom River Valley, near Tomsk, western Siberia, courtesy Andrei Zverev, Flickr

It was Christmas, a few years ago. I had been invited to join a wolf hunt in a province of the Russian interior. The morning was superb: ten degrees of frost, a bright sun in a blue sky, not a breath of wind; plains stretching to the horizon, everything a raw white with pink glints and hints of gold; a dead world gleaming like old bone china.

First lines, Winter Tales, Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, 1893, my translation

Certain words of the first two sentences had my attention from the start: Christmas, wolf hunt, Russian interior.

Set in Russia and Ukraine, these tales are the writing of a French diplomat who lived there for seven years and married a Russian aristocrat. His unnamed narrator, invited to join the wolf hunt, was staying with a host who had lived through the times of serfdom and its abolition. The host tells stories of former serfs, beginning and ending with his own story as a property and serf owner during this era.

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And that, my friends, is my last offering to the list of Great Opening Lines. I do hope you’ve been inspired to hunt down some of these books, particularly the less-known novels and collections. If you have, please leave me your kind reflections on them.

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Joseph Olenin's Coat

By coincidence, a literary journal named The Cossack Review has accepted my translation of a story set in Russia and Ukraine. There are no cossacks in the story, but there is a quirky Russian man who falls in love with a coat. He is alone, winter is long, his sojourn in the Russian countryside is monotonous and tedious, and now he is besotted with a velvet and sable coat that is not his.

You can read ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, my translation of ‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (or Marie-Eugène-Melchior, Vicomte de Vogüé!), in Issue 6 of The Cossack Review, out now. The original was published in 1886 in an illustrated review, Les Lettres et les Arts. Above, in the header, is a part of the decorative first page as it appeared in the Paris journal. And here’s one of the images that appeared mid-story:

'Contemplation' by M. H. Gray, illustration in 'Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine' in 'Les Lettres et les Arts', Paris, 1 July 1886
‘Contemplation’ by M. H. Gray, illustration for ‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ in ‘Les Lettres et les Arts’, Paris, 1 July 1886

And here’s the cover of the spring 2016 issue of The Cossack Review (not from Paris, nor from Russia, but from America):

Issue 6 features new prose, poetry, and translation from twenty-five contributors and three translators.

A few weeks ago I told a friend that I do read Facebook but I never write on it. Well, today – never say never – I wrote on it for the first time, after reading, somewhere, recommendations for promoting one’s own writing. Apparently I was mad not to be taking advantage of it.

I much prefer blogging. I’ve enjoyed writing this post today, hunting down the picture and thinking about my words. Facebook seems too narrow by comparison; but perhaps I should look at it like one of those poster pillars we see in city centres, where people can legally post bills. So today, I posted a bill advertising the journal that has very kindly published my translation.

If you read ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, let me know.

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