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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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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46 Great Opening Lines: 15

There were 700 or 800 of them at least. Of medium height, but strong, agile, supple, framed to make prodigious bounds, they gambolled in the last rays of the sun, now setting over the mountains which formed serried ridges westward of the roadstead.

Opening lines of Gil Braltar by Jules Verne, 1889, translated by I.O. Evans, 1965

Can you guess what they are, these gambollers? Perhaps if you’ve been to Gibraltar you’ll know they are monkeys. The title of this fantastical tale, ‘Gil Braltar’, is also the name of the main character, an ugly Spaniard who resembles the macaque monkeys that possess the great Rock. To convince them to follow him as their leader, Gil dons a monkey skin, fur side out. He tries to recapture Gibraltar from the British, but fails, defeated by an Englishman, General MacKackmale, a pun on the French words macaque mâle.

When Verne’s science fiction/fantasies were first published in French, they were quickly followed by English translations. But not this one, which wasn’t translated until 1965. Hmmm. Clearly, Verne’s satire on the British claim to the Rock didn’t impress British publishers. But like many things that at first feel unpleasant, we find a few decades later that perhaps there are interesting elements, after all.

In my previous post I wrote about Dr Trifulgas. This and Gil Braltar were both written by Jules Verne in his house in Amiens, France, which I visited earlier this year. While the ground floor is elegant and nothing out of the ordinary for a 19th-century French house, a climb up the spiral staircase takes you to Verne’s writing world, where at the top of the stairs there is an improvised ship’s deck, a larger space filled with exhibits, and a compact study-cum-bedroom where Monsieur Verne wrote many of his famous stories. There’s even a list in English of stories written in this house – if you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see Dr Trifulgas (Frritt Flacc in French) and Gil Braltar.

It’s funny that I’ve read so many stories by Jules Verne recently; I once had no time at all for science fiction. After visiting his house and seeing the upstairs space filled with books and maps and puppets and posters, not forgetting the ship’s deck, I had a whole new appreciation for the work that goes into producing an imaginative piece of literature. As a translator, I had not thought long about it until then.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 13

The men of the twenty-ninth century live in a perpetual fairyland, though they do not seem to realise it.

Opening line, In the Twenty-Ninth Century, by Michel and Jules Verne, 1889, translated by I.O. Evans, 1965

The full title of this short story which is mostly the work of Jules Verne’s son, Michel, is In the Twenty-Ninth Century. The day of an American journalist in the year 2889. The story was originally written in English by an uncredited translator working with Michel Verne, and was later improved by Jules and published in French. (Michel’s English was too poor to write a publishable story.) It appeared in a New York periodical, The Forum, in 1889, a thousand years before the events depicted.

I had an ‘Ah!’ moment when I recently read the story in a Jules Verne collection. Near the end, a scientist tries to hibernate for 100 years, for pure love of science, by exposing himself to a cold of 172 deg Centigrade and then being shut up in a tomb. On the appointed day for his resurrection, the coffin is opened and the body is still mummified. Nothing brings it back to life. It’s concluded that the method ‘still needs to be perfected’.

But I had already suspected that Verne had written something about the dead returning to life because of this postcard I bought at his house (now a Jules Verne museum) in Amiens earlier this year, which was definitely more interesting than any tomb. As you see, he’s bursting up out of his grave, alive again, though only in a sculpture that was added two years after his death in 1905.

Tomb of Jules Verne, Amiens, France

An amusing foresight in the story is the phonotelephotic apparatus used by the characters Francis and Edith Bennett, who like to have lunch while in two separate places, talking to each other on the screen while eating. A video phone, we might call it. It’s a part of the fairyland mentioned in the opening line, but it’s also a good prediction on the part of Jules’ son Michel.

And it’s elements like these in old science fiction that make the stories fun to read, picking out what has actually come to pass and what is yet to be ‘perfected’.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 12

I had never seen so many white coats in my little room.

Opening line of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated by Jeremy Leggatt

When Jean-Dominique Bauby wakes from a coma after a stroke, he’s surrounded by medical staff. He can’t move much of his body, just his head and one eye. By blinking it, he communicates with a speech therapist and dictates this book.

The diving bell represents his body confined and greatly restricted with Locked-in Syndrome. The butterfly is his mind taking flight, as it used to before the stroke when he was the chief editor of Elle, a French fashion magazine.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is amazing. Short and elegant, both the original and the translation. Highly recommended.

I thought about butterfly freedom this morning when I came across these two embracing beauties clinging to the fig branch in my garden. You see? Sometimes even a butterfly can be confined and restricted.

Orchard swallowtail butterflies, Papilio aegeus

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46 Great Opening Lines: 8

A ridiculous rumour is going round the neighbourhood about new restrictions. In order better to anticipate shortages and to guarantee improved productivity in the working portion of the population, the authorities are going to put unproductive consumers to death; unproductive meaning: older people, retirees, those with private income, the unemployed and other superfluous mouths.

Opening lines of “Tickets on Time” by Marcel Aymé (translated by Sophie Lewis)

Another story by Marcel Aymé. In this one, “La Carte” in French, the reader must accept the assumption of time-rationing. It’s like food rationing in wartime, and indeed the story is set during the occupation of France in the early 1940s. But now the consumer is forced to ration his time, having the right to only a certain number of days per month, and will be temporarily put to death according to his entitlement. Aymé makes mischievous fun of his own profession as a writer: his main character, Jules Flegmon, is horrified that writers have been lumped together with painters, sculptors and musicians as consumers decreed to be unproductive for the State and returning less than their upkeep.

Aymé’s fictitious character died for 15 days each month. But the real writer Marcel Aymé lived every day of his life until he died in 1967. He lived in Montmartre and has a Place named after him (see header photo of the Place Marcel Aymé), and he’s buried in Montmartre where his character Jules Flegmon lived, died and lived until the decree was abolished.

Grave of Marcel Aymé – Saint-Vincent Cemetery, Montmartre, Paris

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46 Great Opening Lines: 7

In Montmartre there lived a poor fellow named Martin who existed only every second day.

From Dead Time by Marcel Aymé, 1936, translated by me!

This is the opening line of another short story by Marcel Aymé, Le Temps mort in French, Dead Time in English. The main character, Martin, who is alive one day and dead the next, falls in love with a woman who at first doesn’t have a problem with his absences, but eventually finds them expedient.

I’ve translated a bit more than the first line, and when I get to the end I’ll send it out into the world to see if someone would like to publish it.

I’m writing this in an airport lounge, waiting for a flight that doesn’t leave for two hours. A satisfying way to fill dead time.

My previous post about Great Opening Lines was in praise of Marcel Aymé’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls, another of his excellent fantastical stories for children and adults. All of them highly recommended. Here he is at his desk:

Marcel Aymé, 1929. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

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46 Great Opening Lines: 6

In Montmartre, on the third floor of 75b Rue d’Orchampt, there lived an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all.

From The Man Who Walked Through Walls, 1941, Marcel Aymé, translated by Sophie Lewis

In my previous post about a great opening line I introduced the French author, Marcel Aymé, and his short story, The Wolf, written for children albeit with a pretty scary moral. Aymé also wrote fantasy for adults, and is possibly most famous for his tale about a man who walked through walls. There are several English translations around, but this one (above) is the best I could lay my hands on.

Man in the Wall, tribute to Marcel Aymé, photo courtesy of www.briansolis.com

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20

46 Great Opening Lines: 1

At dusk they pour from the sky.

Opening line, All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

There’s a chair at the kitchen table that I sit on for hours some days. Reading my own work forwards and backwards – backwards is a trick I learned in translation school – I’m forever searching for better ways to say everything. To get an editor’s tick, I have to stay on the chair. So I stay until the job’s done, or until life interferes.

Right now, a book of French fairy tales keeps me here. The repetitive acts of translating, reading, editing and reading again, in the hope of arriving at the perfect story, are driving me into an unproductive blankness. So here I am, writing on this blog, writing just for the distraction of it, analysing what makes writing work well.

My story has to make it further than an editor’s slush pile, and one element, more than any other, is the lure: the very first line. If it’s not great, he might not read the second.

Once, because I was 54 years old, I wrote 54 blog posts about opening lines (click the category link…). It was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise that taught me a lot. Now, as I have in life, I’m going on from 54 to see how many more I can find. It won’t be simple, for not all the stories on my bookshelves begin with a great opener. But I’ll challenge myself even further, now and then, to find great translated opening lines. You know, the sort of oft-quoted line such as “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.

Today I won’t begin with translation but with a novel originally written in English. I found this great opener that immediately had me hooked in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, on a page entitled ‘Leaflets’:

At dusk they pour from the sky.

The story is set in World War Two in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. Fascinating. A page-turner. Great to read aloud.

Saint-Malo, Brittany, France, image courtesy  CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183293

It shouldn’t be hard to get to 100 (blog posts that is…). I’ll write about great opening lines whenever I need a break, which happens every few days! Please tell me if you know of any yourself!

 

Header credit: Jean-Christophe Windland, on Wikimedia Commons

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