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.
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:
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.
At least two hundred poor beggars were counted sleeping out on the pavements of the main streets of Sydney the other night – grotesque bundles of rags lying under the verandahs of the old Fruit Markets and York-street shops, with their heads to the wall and their feet to the gutter.
‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’, Henry Lawson, 1896
The economic recession and strikes of the early 1890s forced a lot of Australia’s country people off the land and into urban areas, only to find there were no jobs there either. ‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’ is a short story that paints a clear picture of the poverty of poor beggars who had been sleeping in the park but were driven out by rain, onto the streets, under the verandahs.
The title refers to ‘dossing out’ in the city and ‘camping’ in the bush, two different ways of living with no money. In the bush, Lawson writes, you can light a fire, boil the billy, make tea, catch a sheep and fry a chop, wash your shirt, wash yourself, whistle and sing by the camp fire, breathe fresh air and make poetry.
In the city, when you doss out, there’s no possibility of lighting a fire to cook over. And a man is generally too hungry to make poetry.
The story ironically appeared in the collection While the Billy Boils.
When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions.
1 Kings 10:1
I have this painting on my living room wall. When I first saw it in the Art Gallery of NSW I fell in love with it, already being enamoured of Orientalism with its hot, deep colours and ancient drama and mystery. This painting is massive; it’s exhibited in an equally impressive broad gold frame, but even unframed, the painting measures 2.3 x 3.5 metres. Perhaps it was the size of it that had me suspending disbelief and imagining myself as a spectator in King Solomon’s court. I bought the print from the gift shop, had it framed, and over the years have put it up and taken it down. I’ve developed an occasional discomfort with the bare-breasted queen, lower in the space than the king, and approaching only because he bids her. Right now it’s up.
However, reading the opening line of this biblical story leaves me more impressed with the Queen of Sheba. After all, she was there to test the king with ‘hard questions’. This is good, it got me in, it’s exactly the kind of opening line that makes us read on.
She is, in a few alternative English translations of just this one verse, portrayed as quite a powerful and mysterious queen. Some translators have her trying him with subtle questions, with difficult questions, with riddles, or with enigmas. I particularly like this one in the Wycliffe bible:
But also the queen of Sheba, when the fame of Solomon was heard, came in the name of the Lord to assay him in dark and doubtful questions.
Can you imagine what kind of question would be dark and doubtful? Edward Poynter was evidently taken in by this opening line, whichever version he read (probably the King James bible). From the first, he was drawn into the story and stimulated to paint it for us all. May you read a great opening line like this, and may it lead you to an even greater achievement.
From the fourth Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke
– translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, an epigraph opening Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
This post is about a great opening line, but also about a great title.
When I was twenty, I watched a movie with Mum. An average Friday night movie, with cups of tea, relaxing together in the loungeroom I spent so much of my life in. The movie was Sophie’s Choice, with Meryl Streep in the role of Sophie, based on the novel by William Styron. When the story turned to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz and the gassing and systematic elimination of Jews, I turned to Mum and said “Did this really happen?”. Of course she said yes, but nothing more.
There had been plenty of talk in our household about wars. My father was a soldier in the second world war, his father was in the first. Various uncles and older relatives had also played their part. I had only heard them talk about fighting against the Germans, you know, gunfights and bombings on battlefields. Why had I never heard about concentration camps and the wilful destruction of Jews and various other unwanted people? Mum didn’t say much after this (she never talked about anything dark) and I was so horrified at my fellow humans that I asked no more questions.
The words Sophie’s Choice will always remind me of that night, that piece of knowledge I acquired. I’ve since read the book, a hard read, some of which I skipped. The climax is in this exchange between a Nazi doctor and Sophie, his victim, a mother of two:
…the doctor said, ‘You may keep one of your children.’
‘Bitte?’ said Sophie.
‘You may keep one of your children,’ he repeated, ‘the other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?’
‘You mean, I have to choose?’
‘You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege – a choice.’
Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. ‘I can’t choose! I can’t choose!’
This week I was casually browsing The Canberra Times when I came across the entertainment guide, with this on the cover:
The article inside about a woman named Sophie Monk is written by the journalist Michael Lallo. The opening line is not one of the great ones that will make my collection, but is worth quoting here:
When Sophie Monk did her first bikini shoot, for a men’s magazine, she cried in the bathroom.
And what choice did this particular Sophie have to make? Lallo writes:
She began to question previous choices. ‘Why not?’ she thought, when Playboy made its umpteenth approach.
Michael Lallo has taken Styron’s title and made it his own, rather than making up his own. It might be forgivable if the topic of his story had some relevance to the original. I guess he used it because it had already made a big impact, and I suppose it got my attention. If Lallo wanted me to reflect on life, then it worked. I reflected immediately on literary appropriation and Nazis torturing and gassing people.
This is a writing lesson for me. Be careful not to inappropriately use analogies.
My translation of Claudine Jacques’ short story Le Masque has just been published by Volkeno Books, Vanuatu, in a bilingual edition. Hold the book one way to read the original French story, then flip it over to the back to read it in English.
The setting is a fare ofe, a bamboo house in New Caledonian bushland. The protagonist sees it as exotic and inspirational, just the impetus she needs to begin her writing career. She talks to a tribal mask left behind by a previous tenant, and it responds…
Available to order at noiraublanc.fr, here: http://noiraublanc.fr/index.php?route=product/category&path=62
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
My translation of Claudine Jacques’ Condamné à perpétuité, “Life Sentence”, has today been published by Southerly, the journal of the English Association at Sydney University. The journal is available to purchase in print or digitally.
Southerly is dedicated to publishing new Australian literature. I feel honoured to have had my work selected, given that the author I’ve translated lives in New Caledonia, a French island about two hours off the coast of Queensland. However, I’m Australian and the English is mine. The story has much in it that was familiar to me as a child in Queensland: tropical flora, heat, ocean. But one thing I’m not familiar with is leprosy, the topic. There’s a little island clearly visible from Brisbane called Peel Island, which in the past when anyone asked was always quickly identified as the leper colony. The question was a good conversation killer. All we knew was that those who lived there had been expelled from the mainland. No one actually knew what it was like to be there.
Reading Condamné à perpétuité gave me a bit of an insight into life on an Island of Lepers.
To encourage you to read the translation, I’ll reveal that “Life Sentence” has a happy(ish) ending.
I feel especially fortunate that Southerly has published it since the theme of their current issue is Persian literature! “Life Sentence” is one of the few stories included that are outside the theme. Thank you Southerly.
(Be assured this is the latest issue despite the 2016 date.)
Once, I read two sentences that had a silent “Oh wow” effect on me; they were by Turgenev, in his story “The Tryst”. I had never read Turgenev, but now I wanted to know him better. I met Turgenev through Rebecca McClanahan in her very useful book, Word Painting. She quoted from “The Tryst” to illustrate description-by-negation, or rather she quoted from Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation of Turgenev’s story, without crediting Hapgood. But she should have, for without the translation she would not have known about Turgenev’s skilful repetition in “It was not … not … not”, describing the sound of rustling leaves. Ivan Turgenev’s sketches of provincial Russian life are stories I’ve read and read again in English. Not only are they compelling vignettes of a country I’ve never been to, but his descriptions of closely observed Russian hunters and other forest frequenters hold my attention from beginning to end.
Wondering whether the beauty lay in the translator’s words or the author’s, I went searching for other translations of the same passage. Here are four versions of Turgenev’s description, followed by the translator’s name:
The leaves faintly rustled over my head; from the sound of them alone one could tell what time of year it was. It was not the gay laughing tremor of the spring, nor the subdued whispering, the prolonged gossip of the summer, nor the chill and timid faltering of late autumn, but a scarcely audible, drowsy chatter. (Constance Garnett, 1897)
The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner overhead; from their sound alone one could tell what season of the year it was. It was not the cheerful, laughing rustle of spring-time, not the soft whispering, not the long conversation of summer, not the cold and timid stammering of late autumn, but a barely audible, dreamy chatter. (Isabel F. Hapgood, 1903)
The leaves scarcely rustled above my head; by their very noise one could know what time of year it was. It was not the happy, laughing tremolo of spring, not the soft murmuration and long-winded talkativeness of summer, not the shy and chill babblings of late autumn, but a hardly audible, dreamy chattering. (Richard Freeborn, 1967)
The leaves were whispering faintly over my head: you could have told the time of year from their whisper alone. It was not the gay, laughing shiver of spring, nor the soft murmur, the long discourse of summer, nor the cold, frightened rustling of late autumn, but a scarcely perceptible, drowsy converse. (Charles and Natasha Hepburn, 1992)
Which is the best?
Garnett: Her choice of ‘not … nor … nor’ is as good as Hapgood’s ‘not … not … not’. Each word in the two sentences is individual, and most consist of one or two syllables.
Hapgood: While it’s the translation chosen by Rebecca McClanahan to illustrate the suspense in ‘not … not … not’, it would be better if Hapgood hadn’t used ‘barely audible’ in two consecutive sentences. And ‘rustling’ and ‘rustle’.
Freeborn: Yes, he uses ‘not … not … not’, but there are too many words of three or four syllables, like ‘long-winded talkativeness’. But then ‘The leaves scarcely rustled’ is more concise than Hapgood’s ‘The leaves were rustling in a barely audible manner’.
The Hepburns: They repeat ‘whispering’ and ‘whisper’ in the first sentence, and later in the same sentence their choice of ‘you’ is less literary, less poetic, than ‘one’ which keeps the reader at a distance. Also, ‘could have told the time’ at the beginning of this clause had me thinking of hours; I had to read it again.
So, for this little exercise, Constance Garnett is the better translator, and the one I admire. Or is it Turgenev I admire? Since I can’t read Russian, I’ll never really know. What I do know is that comparisons of translations often send me back to Constance Garnett.
P.S. I’m writing this in autumn, but not in Russia. There are no shy and chill babblings nor is there a cold, frightened rustling. It’s a stunningly beautiful day here in Canberra where the only rustling is from the currawong, shifting branches as he eats my figs!