Every big city has its hip district. Canberra adopted this concept not too long ago, creating one in Braddon, right next to the city centre. Of the many cafés here, Lonsdale Street Roasters is my favourite. What does it have to do with winter? Well the coffee machine is close to the door that’s constantly opening and closing from 6.30am with the flow and ebb of coffee addicts, so on chilly July mornings even the barista wears long johns under his shorts.
And the barista’s mother sits in her house with a large gas heater at her back, playing with pens and inks, writing out the slogan for the 21st-century coffee culture which she is happy to be part of.
Théodore de Banville. Prolific poet and writer, frequenter of the most anti-conformist Parisian circles. Proponent of ‘art for art’s sake’:
« Il n’y a de vraiment beau que ce qui ne peut servir à rien, tout ce qui est utile est laid. »
[There is nothing truly beautiful except that which serves no purpose; everything useful is ugly.]
Banville was an enemy of realism and had nothing good to say about technology that produced smoke or steam. He was among a number of writers who scorned the introduction of electric lighting and mechanised production in factories, as well as the fad for stock markets and wealth-making. He believed that humans are better when they surround themselves with beautiful antiques and ancient masterpieces of art and literature than when they pursue capitalist, bourgeois progress.
Parisian by choice, not birth – he loved the city of Paris and said it is filled with the smiles of fairies – Banville came originally from the French region of Auvergne, further south. While still young he went to Paris and published his first volume of verse, Les Cariatides, at the age of 19. His best work was Odes Funambulesques (Tightrope Walking Odes, or, in Banville’s own words (translated), odes composed with the care, rigour and comic element of tightrope walking). By the age of 30 he was producing poetry, tales and reviews to the great praise of other men of letters, among them Victor Hugo. In his later life Banville wrote mostly colourful and comical prose about the elegant, artificial, unreal Parisian world.
More importantly for me and my search for fantastical French short stories, Banville was one of a few late 19th-century French writers to bring the genre of the fairy tale back into fashion. Very little of his prose has been translated into English, but I’ve got the ball rolling with my translation, “The Lydian”.
Scottish writer, Andrew Lang, translated some of Banville’s poetry at the end of the century, and later wrote about it:
Poetry so fresh seems to make us aware of some want which we had hardly recognised, but now are sensible of, at the moment we find it satisfied.
My own feelings, precisely. When I first read Banville’s tales of Parisian life in Contes féeriques, I was blown away by the observations he made about his fellow city dwellers and their hastiness, their jealousies, their yearning to electrify and mechanise and modernise life and their tendency to curl the lip at old simple pleasures like candlelight and artisans’ workshops.
Banville married Marie-Élisabeth Rochegrosse when she was 47 and he was 53, and he adopted her son Georges Rochegrosse who was inspired by his stepfather the poet, and became famous himself as an artist.
Two sculptures of Théodore de Banville ensure he will not be forgotten. One is a bust in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. (I like the lyre resembling a face…)
The other, in his birthplace of Moulins, is based on the drawing of Banville by his stepson Georges Rochegrosse (top of this page). Note the dog, Zinzolin, in the drawing and in the sculpture… In March 1944 this statue mysteriously disappeared from the park. The occupying Germans had stolen it with the intention of melting it down for weaponry, but fortunately the war ended before they got around to it. The statue was restored to the park in April 1945.
Banville died at 68 in 1891 and is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
I stumbled on a reading challenge by my local ACT library this week, and at first I dismissed it as I do with challenges generally. But the list of categories looked manageable for what remains of 2019 and the thought occurred to me that I could tick them off, no worries. It came to me a few days after I found a new library in the small Australian Catholic University around the corner from me that has a very welcoming wall at the entrance. Here it is. Zoom in (click and click again) to read students’ stick-it notes…
Here I picked up a book I’d always avoided for no good reason, The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay, an early Australian classic, which fits one of the categories of the challenge, ‘Something you regret not having read yet’.
And then this morning, I cast my eye quickly over the pop-up library outside a local café. Zoom in to see what sort of books Canberrans read…
There on the shelf was a book that someone once highly recommended, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I’ve brought it home, except now I remember having read it, but it fits another challenge category, ‘Something you want to re-read’.
That’s two. But I have a third book that fits the category ‘Set in an imaginary world’: Contes féeriques (Faeric Tales) by Théodore de Banville. The title page is illustrated by Georges Rochegrosse, his stepson. Note the age spots, it’s an old one. Zoom in to see the fairies floating around the amorous couple…
Banville wittily gives it the subtitle ‘Scenes from Life’, but every tale revolves around the intervention of a fairy, magician or other supernatural figure! I recently had a translated story published that comes from this collection, ‘The Lydian’ which you can read for free if you click the link, and if you click here you can read more about it. But I haven’t yet read every story in the book, so it’s going on my challenge list.
That’s three, and only seventeen more to find to tick off everything on the challenge list. It should take my reading to the end of this year:
I was searching the internet this week for any mention of a translated book I’m waiting for. It’s my own translation, not yet published. The publisher, Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books, has been working on it, so I wondered if she’d mentioned it somewhere online. Hooray! My search produced a result: I found a cover on Booktopia, and a chance to pre-order the whole book. The link is here.
Here’s a preview of the cover:
The stories are from Jean Lorrain’s small collection, Contes pour lire à la chandelle, first published in 1897 though most of them had appeared in illustrated journals in the previous ten years. A few of these 19th-century illustrations can be seen in my blog posts here, here and here.
The new book will also be illustrated. The silhouette images on the cover give a clue to what will be inside, but they’re not yet ready. You can imagine how eager I am to see how they look!
Back in 2016 I had a translated story published by The Cossack Review. I’ve just learnt that this journal exists no more, it has gone the way of a good percentage of literary journals. The story is ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’ by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, a quirky tale about a lonely man in an isolated wintry part of Ukraine, who loses a coat, finds one, and falls in love with it.
It was originally published in 1886 in an illustrated journal, ‘Les Lettres et les arts’. Who wouldn’t want to read a story with a decorative border round the opening paragraph such as this one by Saint-Elme Gautier? (Click the image to see the detail.) There were several illustrations throughout the story but the best one is ‘Contemplation’ by M.H. Gray showing the poor man gazing at the woman’s coat he’d accidentally acquired and wondering what its owner looked like, felt like…
My translation was published in a print journal and, fortunately, I have a copy of it. It was also available online for a time, but has now disappeared. The editor, Christine Gosnay, had asked me some questions for an interview, and those questions and answers are still there, albeit in a basic format without the styling of the original web site. It would be a good idea, I think, to re-post the interview here.
Patricia Worth: Contributor Interview
May 28, 2016
TCR: What are you reading now?
Patricia Worth: Tales of Hans Christian Andersen translated by Naomi Lewis. And All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
TCR: How and where did you find out about de Vogüé’s work?
Patricia Worth: A library at the Australian National University has a collection of old French literature that hasn’t been borrowed for decades. Here I found a small dusty book of short stories by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (whom I’d never heard of), and chose it simply for the title ‘Nouvelles orientales’, a title invented by a publisher. Expecting Orientalism and hot Middle Eastern settings, I found instead stories set mostly in wintry Russia and Ukraine. They are nonetheless fascinating. Several had originally been published in de Vogüé’s collection, ‘Les Coeurs russes’ (Russian Hearts), and a few were translated in 1895 as ‘Russian Portraits’, a translation which did not include “Joseph Olenin’s Coat’.
TCR: Do you plan to translate any of his other stories?
Patricia Worth: I have translated all the stories in ‘Nouvelles orientales’.
TCR: How long did it take you to translate “Joseph Olenin’s Coat’?
Patricia Worth: As I translated the whole book of ten stories, it’s hard to say how long it took me for each one. But, in general, a rough translation of a short story takes me a few days, and then I polish it for a few months, researching details, asking experts for help and getting people to read it and comment.
TCR: Can you describe your process for taking somewhat antiquated work from one language to another, especially with respect to diction and tone?
Patricia Worth: De Vogüé was strongly influenced by Russian authors like Turgenev, and as a literary translator I have long admired Constance Garnett’s translations of Turgenev’s short stories, so I looked to her example when working on de Vogüé’s stories. For Garnett, less is more. She generally writes with fewer syllables and fewer words than other translators. In Turgenev’s “The Tryst’, for example, Garnett writes “the hue of an over-ripe grape’, where a modern translator writes “which resembles the colour of overripe grapes’; or “Not one bird could be heard’, against “There was not a single bird to be heard’. When I consider the readability of my work, hers is the brevity I come back to.
It’s also good to read modern English authors who have created a sense of another time, like Joan Lindsay and her ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, published in 1967 but set in 1900, or J. L. Carr, ‘A Month in the Country’, published in 1980 but set in the years after the Great War. These two have also taught me much about making every word count.
Of great help, too, are readers of my drafts who are familiar with older texts. For “Joseph Olenin’s Coat’ a French friend pointed out the subtle words that alert a native speaker to the spirit in the coat that enters Joseph’s life and obsesses him against his will, and to the superior tone used by the Countess when addressing Joseph. A local writer and translator of Proust who reads most of my work also offered corrections and suggestions to take my diction back in time (for example skating, not ice-skating).
When I find myself stuck in today’s English, help is available by entering a French phrase into a search engine which can trigger old pieces where the words are used in other contexts. The search might even produce helpful French translations of English classics by, say, Dickens or H.G. Wells, and then I look for the phrase in the original, and use a variation of it. There are also a number of French and French-English dictionaries from the 1700s and 1800s freely available online; these are invaluable for learning the former meaning of a word. Of course, I read, read, read nineteenth-century English literature, the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy among many others.
TCR: Who has had the biggest influence on you as a writer?
Patricia Worth: For translation, I’ve been influenced by the various translators of Hugo’s Les Misérables as well as Constance Garnett’s translations of Russian literature. For writing in general, I find Charlotte and Anne Brontë’s novels compelling, and hold them as my standard. I was also influenced by my father, a volunteer soldier, who wrote poetry in Egypt in 1941.
TCR: What authors do you re-read?
Patricia Worth: The Brontës.
TCR: What is your next writing project?
Patricia Worth: I’m presently translating a book of French fairy tales.
PS: I’m surprised to read that I was translating the fairy tales when I responded to this interview. Those fairy tales, Stories to Read by Candlelight, are presently on the production line and should be appearing some time before June this year. I’d forgotten how long I’d been working on them.
Never would I have translated Jean Lorrain if I knew then what I know now.
But that’s the beauty of reading a good book. The reader’s relationship is with the book and the story it tells, not its author.
There’s much I could write about Jean Lorrain that would turn you away from all his work. But as a translator, I choose the writing, not the writer. After I’d read his little collection, Contes pour lire à la chandelle (Stories to Read by Candlelight), certain pieces stayed with me and compelled me to read them again. Before I knew a thing about Lorrain, I was touched by the sympathy he expressed for some of the underdogs of his society, like the odd old woman in ‘Madame Gorgibus’ and the trapped beauty in ‘Princess Mandosiane’.
A brief bio: Jean Lorrain was born Paul Duval in 1855 and died of decadence in 1906 at the age of 51. He was the only child of a family of wealthy ship-owners. In 1882 he decided to become a writer, disappointing his father who suggested he take on an alias to avoid bringing shame on the family, thus Jean Lorrain was invented. He was a much-published journalist, poet, novelist, and sharp-tongued critic of his decadent peers, despite belonging to their circle.
While his work was well-known in his lifetime, much of it has been forgotten and will probably remain forgotten. But the stories I’ve selected to translate are worth resurrecting for their exquisite prose, particularly some that are in a category entitled ‘Tales for Sick Children’, that are quirky but not decadent like his novels. Their expression is nostalgic and aesthetic, typical of Belle Époque symbolists who rebelled against modern technology and yearned for a return of medieval days and characters in flamboyant gowns and armour.
His tales of knights and princesses, ghostly girls and frightful animated crockery are as masterfully worded as our favourite mythical adventures. What really clinched it for me were the illustrations accompanying several versions in issues of La Revue illustrée and Gil Blas, like the one above. Many of Lorrain’s stories were beautifully illustrated in the art nouveau of the era, not only in journals but also in deliciously decorated books. See this website for some excellent images from his books.
Here’s a taste of the writing that led me to translate it. To set the scene: Princess Mandosiane is embroidered onto a banner once used in grand processions and now stored in the crypt of a cathedral. A mouse tempts her with freedom:
Now, she lent her ear to the counsel of the red mouse, an insidious little mouse, fast as lightning, persistent and wilful, who had haunted her for years.
“Why stubbornly remain a captive, armour‑plated in all these pearls and embroidery holding you so tightly? Yours is not a life, you have never lived, not even during the times when you sparkled on those fine days of proclamations and pealing bells, cheered on by euphoric crowds, and now, you see, your life is oblivion, it is death. If you like, with my sharp teeth I could undo one by one the stitches of silk and gold cord that have held you in place for six hundred years, motionless in this lustrous velvet which, just between us, has lost its brilliance. It will perhaps hurt a little, especially when I unpick the stitches close to your heart, but I’ll begin with the long contours, those of your hands and your face, and already you will be able to stretch and move, and you will see how good it is to breathe and to live!’
Several of my translations of his stories have been published in journals in recent years, but soon the whole collection, “Stories to Read by Candlelight”, will be available. It’s presently being prepared for publication by Odyssey Books, a small Australian publisher.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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”.
‘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.
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!
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.