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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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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‘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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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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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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Six degrees of separation: Vanity Fair to Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Booksaremyfavouriteandbest invites us each month to find six degrees of separation between books. November’s starting point is Vanity Fair by Thackeray.

1.  I haven’t read Vanity Fair but the name of William Makepeace Thackeray immediately brought George Sand’s Spiridion to mind because Thackeray said, in relation to her novel Spiridion (that I translated), that she was “the most elegant writer, I think, that her sex ever produced.”

2. Thinking of Spiridion leads me to Cœurs russes (Russian Hearts) by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé which I’ve also translated. It’s a book of short stories written by a French ambassador to Russia in the 1880s, set in Russia and written in the style of Turgenev and Tolstoy.

3. Now I’m remembering the pleasure of reading A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev, especially the short story ‘The Tryst‘.

4. I’ve used ‘The Tryst’ several times when tutoring migrants in English because of its delicious descriptions. One student who enjoyed it has now asked for us to read Picnic at Hanging Rock together. I can’t believe my luck, I love this book.

5. Of course the images in my head now are from the movie of the same name, where floaty, pure, muslin-robed girls wander over forbidding boulders, as though returning to their fairy homes. This triggers a memory of Théodore de Banville’s story ‘L’Enfant bossue’ (The Hunchback Girl) in Contes féeriques (Tales of Faerie) about a convent girl who wants to return to her fairy parents.

6. I’ve got fairies on the brain, having translated a great number of French fairy tales in the last few years and read several illustrated books of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Four of these six books are collections of short stories, which says something about my translating life: stories are more likely to be accepted by publishers than novels. But they’ve made me love 19th-century literature even more.

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Tears on the Sword, at last

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.

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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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Six degrees of separation: The Outsiders to Sweet Water – Stolen Land

For the challenge by Booksaremyfavouriteandbest to find six degrees of separation between books, this month’s starting point is The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.

1. At first I thought it was The Outsider (singular), one of the English titles given  to Albert Camus’ L’Étranger. But reading the author’s name made me look again. I noticed the plural in Hinton’s title and recalled my sons reading this book at high school and then reading it myself. However, I had immediately thought of Camus’ book and its opening line, ‘Aujourd’hui maman est morte’, much discussed by translators. In Stuart Gilbert’s translation, The Outsider,  it becomes ‘Mother died today’.

2. This led me to think of another opening line disputed and revised by translators, the first line of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early.’ So many ways to say this.

3. And the first line of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, translated by Constance Garnett: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

4. And from there my mind went to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, currently showing as a TV serial. I have the book, a gift from my daughter-in-law who works in a bookshop, but I haven’t tackled it.

5. However, I have decided to tackle another hefty Russian novel, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, only because I found a pocket-size edition in a 2nd-hand shop.

6. I took a break from Crime and Punishment after a few chapters and picked up a shorter novel, Sweet Water – Stolen Land by Philip McLaren. What surprised me after reading a description of a gruesome murder in Dostoevsky’s novel was to read a number of such scenes in McLaren’s.

Of these six books I’ve read three wholly and three in part, but enough to remember them.

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The Wolf as Illustration

Soon a story written by Marcel Aymé, Le Loup, translated into English as The Wolf (by me) will be out in an illustrated edition of Delos Journal. The editor’s decision to illustrate it really blew me away. Life for me is much easier to bear when I’m reading an illustrated book.

Now, in anticipation of the Delos wolf, I’m wondering whether he’ll be fierce or deceptively gentle. In my tall piles of books about fairies and fantasy there are many wolfish images from the 19th and 20th centuries that leave me dreaming about ideal illustrations for my translated tales. Today I pondered over a few of the images that have taken my fancy.

Illustrated fairy tale collections published for children since the 19th century are usually delicate, refined, unreal and rarely violent despite the brutal stories they represent. Take, for example, Arthur Rackham’s fine drawing in which the wolf doesn’t look particularly threatening:

When she got to the wood, she met a wolf. Arthur Rackham, ‘The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm’, 1909

Aymé was clearly inspired by that guilty wolf we’ve all met in fables and fairy tales if not in real life. In his little story (which I hope you’ll read when it comes out later this year…) two little blonde girls remind their visitor, the wolf, that he’s never been good, he’s always been bad, and as an example they evoke La Fontaine’s fable about the wolf and the lamb, depicted here by Gustave Moreau, where the wolf appears a little hungrier than Rackham’s:

Gustave Moreau, Le Loup et l’agneau, in Les Lettres et les arts, 1889

Aymé’s wolf claims to have changed his ways, he denies he ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother though we’ve been led to believe otherwise by this illustration by another French Gustave.  Gustave Doré depicts the moment just before the wolf is about to take his first bite, his long tongue lolling as Grandma realises her terrible fate.

Gustave Doré, illustration for Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, courtesy Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale de France

While Doré’s image would be a wee bit scary for a child, a stretch of the imagination might be needed to associate animal instincts with Shaun Tan’s little sculpture. Today I discovered his illustration for a very abbreviated version of ‘Little Red Cap’ by the Brothers Grimm. It has none of the pretty trees and tendrils of Rackham’s image, but neither does it have the drooling wolves of Moreau’s and Doré’s sketches. It’s composed of two tiny solid characters crafted from clay with the simplest features.

Little Red Cap, Shaun Tan, 2015, in ‘The Singing Bones’

My favourite wolf image this week is one which depicts the kind of wolf you’ll find at the end of Aymé’s story. It’s by Rackham but it’s a far scarier drawing than we saw above. Here, Becfola, of an Irish fairy tale, is perched on branches just out of reach of hungry mouths. It instils in me exactly the kind of fear I’d have if a wolf had chased me up a tree.

“She looked with angry woe at the straining and snarling horde below, seeing many a white fang in those grinning jowls, and the smouldering, red blink of those leaping and prowling eyes.” The Wooing of Becfola, Irish fairy tale by James Stephens, illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1920

I’m anxiously awaiting the appearance of Aymé’s The Wolf. You can be sure I’ll be blogging about it the moment I hear it’s out.

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