From the Archives: Le Grand Meaulnes

Kicking off “Summer in Other Languages” at my other blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle, I’m reposting a review in which I considered the problems of translation. I am planning to reread this book in French this summer (thanks to Emma of Words and Peace for hosting a discussion group!) so it will be very interesting to see what my thoughts are after that.

This post originally appeared on The Emerald City Book Review on October 3, 2014. Linked up in Throwback Thursday at The Chocolate Lady’s Book Reviews.

Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

Alain-Fournier French novel

It’s been a while since I read a novel in translation. As I read Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the most acclaimed and popular novels that came out of the past century in France, I pondered the various aspects of the writer’s art, and how they can or cannot be translated from one tongue into another. There’s the basic plot and character framework, the general raw materials of fiction; this element, I think, can be translated, because it can be understood independent of the language used. Then there’s how these materials are worked with: how the plot is structured, how the narration works, what kinds of images are chosen, how description is balanced with plot development. This also can be translated to a certain extent.

But the third element, the actual sound-sculpture of the language, which gives color and emotional resonance to the story, is not translatable. A translator may come up with a new creation that has some parallel relationship with the original, hoping to evoke similar feelings and experiences through the second language, but they cannot ever be truly the same, because they live in a realm beyond intellectual meaning. The need to convey meaning on the first two levels hampers the translator, because it limits him or her in the words that can be chosen, and the ones that are available inevitably color the translated work in a new way. Perhaps the most honest approach would be to discard the original work altogether and try to create a new one, new in plot, structure, and diction, that approaches the essence of the original. But this is not what we call translation.

Given these limitations, how do we appreciate a novel that we are reading in a language not its own? I felt I could only judge Le Grand Meaulnes for its basic ideas and structure, which are no more than its bones, and that I was missing the most vital, intangible element, its animating spark of life. The result was a rather frustrating experience, like trying to see a scene of magical beauty through a thick distorting glass.

To summarize the “bones”: A young man, the Meaulnes of the title, wanders by accident into a mysterious domain where costumed revelers, many of them children, are preparing for the son of the house to return with his bride. Their celebration is abruptly ended without the expected wedding, but not before Meaulnes has met and fallen in love with the daughter of the house. He returns to school without knowing where the domain is, and spends the next months and years trying to find it and his lost love; he also becomes involved in the affairs of the other unhappy couple, which tragically intersect with his own.

All of this is narrated not by Augustin Meaulnes himself, but by a younger boy who was enchanted by “le grand Meaulnes” when he entered the country school run by his father. As he tells the story sometimes in his own voice, sometimes by piecing together his friend’s journals, letters, or narratives, he stands as the reader’s surrogate, trying to comprehend events that he cannot fully participate in, and make a whole out of fragments of experience.

The translation I read was by Frank Davison; a more recent one by Robin Buss exists, but I didn’t have access to it in full. I found a couple of examples, however, which provided some instructive contrasts. The Davison translation struck me as rather stiff and formal; the Buss translation appears to dispense with some of the elaborate language but in the process becomes more pedestrian and everyday. Which of these is more true to the French original I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that they are two different attempts at solving an impossible problem.

The advent of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding as it did with my recovery from the ailment, marked the beginning of a new life. (Davison
The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding with my being cured of the disability, was the start of a new life. (Buss translation)

* * *

Meaulnes was in haste to find someone to give him a lift, in haste to be off. He had now a deep-seated dread of being left alone in the domain and shown up for a fraud. (Davison translation)

He was in a hurry to leave. Deep inside him, he was worried that he might find himself alone on the estate and his deception be revealed. (Buss translation)

I confess to not finding either of these treatments very artistically satisfying. With more evocative language, I might have been more easily captivated by the story of Meaulnes and his strange, restless journeying; as it was, I often felt a bit baffled. It was hard for me to become interested in the romantic yearning of Meaulnes and Yvonne, who exchange fewer than a dozen sentences from the time they meet to the time they marry, and the complicated mystification which parts them in the last section seemed to me unnecessary, when with some logic and patience the problem could be solved without all the agony. It’s all very French, I suppose — which is why if it were in French it might make more sense.

It seemed to me as I read that a cinematic “translation” might actually be more appropriate. (At least two films have been made of the novel, that I know of, though I have not seen either of them.) The heart-stopping beauty of the landscape, the relationships forged more through glance and gesture than through speech, the dreamlike nature of the lost domain and of the quest to find it again, all seem good candidates for a visual treatment. If the author had been born a bit later, or had not been killed so young in the First World War, he might even have found an artistic affinity to film-making himself.

On the other hand, at times the emotional fervor of the author breaks through the clumsiness of the English words, and one can catch a glimpse of what has become lost in translation.

She was asleep, so still and silent that she seemed not to be breathing. He thought: that’s how birds must sleep. For some time he stood looking at her sleeping, childlike face, so perfectly tranquil that it seemed a pity it should ever be disturbed. 

 * * *

At each step, with this burden on my breast, I find it more difficult to breathe. Holding close the inert, heavy body, I bend over her head and take a deep breath, drawing into my mouth some strands of golden hair; dead hair that has a taste of earth. This taste of earth and of death, and this weight on my heart, is all that is left to me of the great adventure …

“But how can a man who has once strayed into heaven ever hope to make terms with the earth?” Meaulnes cries at one point. Le Grand Meaulnes is an attempt to express something almost inexpressible, to give us a picture of the deepest longings of the human heart. Even though translation may dim its full radiance, its scenes and images still resonate.

It has been suggested that The Great Gatsby owes something of its genesis to Le Grand Meaulnes, with its parallel, pitch-perfect title construction (the French could not be literally translated without sounding like “The Great Moan”) and the use of a passive narrator on the sidelines of a great love story. Perhaps this is an instance of what I mentioned at the beginning, a “translation” that takes some of the essence of a work but re-creates it anew for a new language, culture, and sensibility. There’s no direct evidence of this — no record of Fitzgerald having read or spoken of Alain-Fournier — but now that I’ve met Meaulnes, I’ll be very interested to take another look at Gatsby.

Classics Club List #39
An appreciation by David Mitchell

A spontaneous challenge: Summer in Other Languages

As part of my personal language learning goals, I’ve decided to challenge myself to read only French for my pleasure reading in the month of July. I’m pleased the lovely Emma of Words and Peace has agreed to join me for a buddy read of Complètement cramé by the popular contemporary novelist Gilles Legardinier. Paris in July, hosted by Thyme for Tea, is an annual celebration of all things French, so I’m going to join in that for some inspiration and companionship as well.

Some other books I have on hand to choose from:

  • Toucher la vie by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Ta deuxième vie commence quand tu comprends que tu n’en as qu’une by Raphaëlle Giordano
  • Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • L’étranger by Albert Camus
  • Les plus belles contes de Suisse by Edith Montelle
  • Le chien jaune by Georges Simenon
  • Candide by Voltaire

I’m sure I won’t get to all of these, but to complete even one or two within a month would be an accomplishment for me. I shall also be trying to read more articles, blog posts and such, in an effort to boost my compréhension du français.

It occurred to me that perhaps you’d also like to challenge yourself to something else in a language other than your mother tongue, and reflect on the experience. That could of course be English — I know there are a lot of you amazing multilingual bloggers out there — or it could be a language you’re currently learning or learned in the past. It would be wonderful to hear from a variety of perspectives, and to celebrate many linguistic streams. Vive la différence!

So here is an invitation to read something in another language this summer, and if you wish, challenge yourself to meet one of the following goals:

Level 1: Tourist
Read one book in a language other than your mother tongue.

Level 2: Long-term visitor
Spend an entire month reading books in another language (total of two or more).

Level 3: Immersion
Spend the whole summer reading books in another language.

Does this challenge appeal to you at all? What would you read, and in what language? What level would you aim for? I hope you’ll share your plans with us, and let us know how you did at the end of the summer. I’ll be checking in to see how it’s going and to share my own progress.

Classics Club Spin: Don Quixote, Part I

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part I (1605)

For the last Classics Club spin book, I drew Don Quixote, which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. I did read an abridged version in high school, but I remember absolutely nothing about it except the Quentin Blake drawing on the cover. (Does anyone else have an amazing memory for book covers, as opposed to their contents?) I felt I had to make an effort to appreciate what is often called the first and perhaps the greatest modern novel, and the acclaimed new translation by Edith Grossman seemed a good place to start.

Given the kind of December that I had, there was no way I was going to make it through the whole 900-page tome, so I decided to be kind to myself and do it in two parts. These were in fact published 10 years apart, in 1605 and 1615, so I feel quite justified in treating them as two separate books.

Part I, as probably every semi-literate person knows, starts off with the titular Don of La Mancha being driven mad by reading too many books of chivalry, and deciding he’s going to go off and be a knight errant himself. Capers ensue in which he attacks the innocent and frees the guilty, insisting that wineskins are giants and a barber’s bowl is a magic helmet, while his hapless squire, the peasant Sancho Panza, trails along in hopes of being made rich by his noble master. There’s a lot of bawdiness and slapstick, as well as much rhapsodizing on the charms of his lady love, Dulcinea (a wench from a nearby village who never appears in person).

This was all more or less what I expected, and contained some interesting revelations of how long the “post-truth” phenomenon has actually been around; near the end of the book Don Quixote makes a fierce argument that whatever he thinks must be true, because he likes it that way, and he’ll pound anybody to a pulp who says otherwise. Yup, sounds familiar.

What surprised me somewhat was that about two thirds of the way through the Quixotic quest narrative comes to a screeching halt while Cervantes interlayers in a whole lot of boring romance plots with utterly flat, unmemorable stock characters (the wronged wife, the rake who is forced to go straight, the Moorish maiden who wants to convert, the loyal, lowborn lover of a noble lady…) These include a forty-page “interpolated novel,” derived from some random manuscript found in a chest at the inn where the main characters are staying — in a meta-fictional touch, this may have been left by Cervantes himself.

There are also a bunch of characters encountered while Quixote the madman has decided to pretend to go mad in a deserted place, in emulation of one of his chivalric heroes (one of the funnier bits). These end up tagging along for quite a while, and then there are some others met along the way who have to tell their backstory for another thirty pages,  plus another group that turns out to be related to the second bunch… At the very end, when I thought we’d gotten back to the main story, there’s a goatherd-who-is-really-a-wronged-lover-in-disguise, who has to tell HIS tale of woe for a whole chapter. I admit to cheering when Don Quixote gave him a good thumping.

What the heck was Cervantes up to with all this? In terms of composition and structure, I can’t say that I would call this mess a great novel compared with Pride and Prejudice or The Scarlet Letter or even Ozma of Oz. I suppose he was still trying to figure out what a “modern novel” was or could be, and was just mixing in all kinds of narrative styles current at the time, without much rhyme or reason. (It’s not unlike a lot of Shakespeare plays mashed up together, actually.)

The result, for me, was that the narrative momentum was somewhat diffused and lost, leaving me dissatisfied that things were not tied together in a more conscious way. While the character of Don Quixote was brilliant in its comedic irony, and highly relevant, again, as a comment on our modern muddled thinking, these other threads failed to compel in the same way. I’m assuming this is largely what got abridged out of the edition I read earlier.

At any rate, I made it through, and Don Quixote has now returned to his village without having changed or learned anything whatsoever (another element one would find a failing in most novels today). I do wonder what will happen in book II, and whether during the intervening decade Cervantes will have figured out how to write a novel more like the ones I would call “great.” After a short break, I’ll look forward to returning to La Mancha and finding out.

Classics Club List #71


Around the World project so far

This project is an open-ended one, with the intention to read books from or about at least fifty different countries of the world. Here’s what I read this year so far:

  • War Diaries by Astrid Lindgren (Sweden) – January 2017
  • I Was a Stranger by John Hackett (Netherlands) – January 2017
  • Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (China) – March 2017
  • The Praise Singer by Mary Renault (Greece) – June 2017
  • The Gilded Chalet by Padraig Rooney (Switzerland) – July 2017
  • The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer (Cambodia) – July 2017
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) – July 2017
  • An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Lebanon) – August 2017
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (Mexico) – September 2017
  • One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi (Afghanistan) – September 2017
  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Sahil (Sudan) – November 2017


I reviewed Bronze and Sunflower already, and I’m a little unsure whether to count The Praise Singer (a historical novel about ancient Greece) but here are mini-reviews of the other books on my list. It’s been a truly wonderful tour!

I started out with two first-hand accounts of World War II. I Was a Stranger, British Brigadier General Hackett’s memoir (one of the lovely Slightly Foxed series) is a moving and harrowing account of his escape from German hands through the bravery of Dutch resistance workers and their families. Meanwhile, in War Diaries (elsewhere titled A World Gone Mad) we have the journal author Astrid Lindgren kept as a young wife and mother in neutral Sweden. She provides a record of the up-and-down thoughts and feelings of someone on the edge of the action, enjoying the benefits of not being in a country torn by war, while deploring its evils. For anyone interested in the time period, these two books will bring unique insights into the authors’ experiences. (I was a bit disappointed, though, that Lindgren’s diaries contained little reference to the genesis of Pippi Longstocking, which occurred during this period — but she considered other things more important at the time perhaps.)

Another neutral country is covered in The Gilded Chalet. Looking at books that were written about or in Switzerland (including Frankenstein, Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, A Farewell to Arms, and Tender Is the Night, along with a good many spy novels and noir fiction), longtime resident Padraig Rooney gives us a dark-edged view of a land that is more complex than its popular image would suggest. Rooney makes no secret of his prejudices and blind spots (the Chalet school books and Rudolf Steiner are rudely dismissed, while Heidi is barely mentioned) and blithely admits to not bothering to finish books or visit museums when he doesn’t feel like it. His use of outdated pop culture references made me roll my eyes at times as well, and I wouldn’t take his opinions for gospel. Still, I enjoyed this quick slalom through a certain subsection of Swiss literature and history, particularly the seamier side.

Moving on to more unfamiliar territory for me, The Last Gods of Indochine draws on the real and imagined history of Cambodia, focusing on the mysterious temple complex of Angkor Wat and alternating between two streams of time. Ferrer imagines the granddaughter of a real-life Victorian explorer who goes on her own journey of discovery in 1921, becoming strangely intertwined with a boy from centuries earlier who is caught up in religious and political turmoil. There were some especially strong passages about mystical experiences that convincingly got into the mindset of an earlier age, but an unnecessary and non-historically-based love interest, and an abrupt “hooray for science!” ending somewhat marred for me what otherwise was a very interesting trip into the past.

Back to the present with Americanah, a book that was mentioned several times when I asked for contemporary fiction recommendations. This is another journey, away from and back to the heroine’s country of Nigeria and her childhood love, along the way sharing with us her brutal, enlightening, comical, destructive, empowering experiences. An annoyingly didactic tinge crept in at times, but Adichie’s beautiful writing and powerful sense of place pulled me along.

The title character of An Unnecessary Woman, meanwhile, journeys mainly within the walls of her Beirut apartment, obsessed with creating Arabic translations of world literature that no-one will ever read, and circling through memories — of childhood and war; of her detested former husband; of his sister, her best friend; and gradually of long-hidden secrets that break open into a new chapter of her life. This rambling, chapter-less book is more an extended personal essay than a novel, and takes patience to follow, but may reward a patient reader with its insights into this neglected woman’s world.

After these dense and somewhat heavy books Esperanza Rising, a well-received children’s book about migrant workers, was a much quicker and lighter read that also tackled some difficult issues. The title character (based on the author’s grandmother) is a young girl displaced from Mexico to California during the Depression, and having to adjust to the loss of wealth and family. This is a thoughtful, beautifully observed book for young readers that will help them understand some of the difficulties faced by immigrants.

One Half from the East took me into the world of another young girl, this time in Afghanistan, whose family is also rocked by tragedy. When Obayda’s father loses his legs in a bomb explosion, she is transformed into a bacha posh — a temporary boy — to bring luck and hopefully a new male baby to the family. The exploration of gender roles was fascinating and timely, as Obayda at first hates her disguise but then embraces the freedom it brings her and dreads losing it. No easy answers are to be found, but these are questions we must explore with girls (and boys) from a young age if we are to move into a more equitable future.

Finally, Season of Migration to the North was a true classic in translation, a rare book available to us from Sudan — the author worked closely with the translator to produce a work that is as beautifully written in English as in Arabic, the language in which it was originally published in 1966. An unnamed narrator, returned from study in the West, meets another former expatriate who confides in him a mysterious and brutal past life, then disappears. Coming to terms with this strange encounter forces the narrator to wrestle with the challenges and contradictions of post-colonial life, and we as readers are enriched and shaken by his journey.

I’ve absolutely loved this journey so far, and will look forward to visiting more countries next year. Have you traveled around the world in books? What places have drawn you most?

New Release Review: Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan, Bronze and Sunflower (Candlewick, 2017)

A Chinese children’s classic finally comes to the English-speaking world with this gently absorbing tale of sorrow, friendship, and growth. Set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution, it centers on the relationship between Sunflower, a city girl who has come to the country with her artist father, and Bronze, a mute boy from the village whose family takes Sunflower in when tragedy strikes. Their immediate bond only grows stronger as it is tested by poverty, unsympathetic neighbors, and natural disasters.

With its depiction of rural life, from detailed descriptions of making shoes out of reeds to the terrible depredations of a plague of grasshoppers and the resulting famine, Bronze and Sunflower strongly reminded me of the Little House on the Prairie books, and should appeal to the same audience. Tradition and family loyalty are extremely important, foundational as they are in Chinese culture, but the love between Bronze and Sunflower goes beyond that. The mute boy and the orphaned girl show how the flower of true humanity can blossom in the unlikeliest of places, and though separation threatens at the end, what they have gained from one another cannot be destroyed.

The Communist regime is only obliquely referred to — Sunflower’s father was part of the “Cadre School” program of re-education that sent city folk to do hard manual labor in the countryside. The political significance of this is not dwelt upon, nor do the characters occupy themselves much with what is happening elsewhere in China, concerned as they are with merely surviving another winter. The themes and incidents are both specific to a certain time and place, and strongly archetypal, linked to eternal natural cycles of growth, harvest, and decay. For this reason, the book could be a good starting point for a broader study of China with older children, or can be experienced on its own with no special knowledge or background necessary.

Here is an interesting interview with the translator, Helen Wang, who won a major prize for her work on this book (which was only her second translation). Wang has done an excellent job of preserving some of the special character of Wenxuan’s leisurely prose while making it accessible for an English audience. I hope there will be more to come from both author and translator.


A Dance with Tradition: The Makioka Sisters

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1943)

makiokasistersI’m not very well-versed in world literature, and when I do read works in translation they tend to be from Europe. But I really want to do something about that, and as I looked for great novels from other continents to broaden my horizons, The Makioka Sisters kept coming up. As I started reading, it struck me as a strange mixture of familiar and foreign; the family of sisters, the marriage-centered plot, the importance placed on family and social class, all invited comparison to the novels of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. But though the story is set in the 1930s, not the 1800s, these Japanese sisters are even more heavily bound by centuries of tradition than Austen’s heroines, who at least are allowed to marry for love.

The central dilemma is simply stated: of the four sisters, the older two are married, the youngest is champing at the bit, but the third sister has been unable to find a husband, and custom dictates that she must marry before her younger sister does. The proud but no longer prosperous Makiokas started out by rejecting candidates as unsuitable, but as Takiko ages she undergoes the humiliation of being the one rejected, and her next-oldest and closest sister, Sachiko, suffers with her. Takiko doesn’t protest the system of arranged marriage (unlike the youngest, Taeko, who is starting to cause scandal and unrest with her unconventional behavior), but stoically goes through the rituals of presentation and withdrawal, approach and retreat, as the years pass.

In spite of the superficial similarities there’s not a trace of Austen’s wit and humor here, or of Trollope’s biting satire, unless I’m missing something that was lost in translation. Instead, we have a narrative painstakingly constructed of small domestic details and everyday routines, with the occasional lyrical passage that evokes the Japanese sense of beauty: the annual cherry blossom pilgrimage, a firefly hunt in the country, a set of poems written to an absent sister. There are some major upheavals, including a devastating flood that really did hit Osaka, but mostly there are just small hopes and disappointments, a round of ordinary concerns that some might find dull, others true-to-life. (It’s telling that we are able almost to forget the impending war, as the characters themselves seem to do, seldom referring to it except in brief comments about “the China problem.”)

The iron-clad tradition of the order of marriage is only one of the customs that define the sisters and their world. There are also lucky days and unlucky years that must be taken into account, funeral observances, subtle variations of dress, makeup and hairstyle, the finer points of arts like calligraphy and dance, and much more. To a western mindset, it feels extremely confining, but is also fascinating in its elaborate attention to rules and rituals. In my ignorance before starting the novel I had assumed the author was a woman — but Tanizaki’s gender doesn’t prevent him from creating a highly convincing and finely observed picture of a very feminine world. By the end, I felt as though I had truly experienced something of what it meant to be a Japanese woman in that time and place.

The contrast between traditional Osaka, where the Makiokas have their roots, and the brash new urban center of Tokyo, where the elder branch of the family has been obliged to relocate, is a major preoccupation for the Japanese that is somewhat lost on the outsider; the translator has to tell us when Osaka dialect is being used, for example, while a native reader would be able to simply experience the difference. One can’t help regretting the inability to appreciate such facets of the original language, but also appreciating how much Tanizaki in translation is able to convey the essence of Japan and its people.

Classics Club List #32
Japanese Literature Challenge
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


Paris in July: Four French Delights


Paris in July is an event hosted by Thyme for Tea that encourages us to enjoy and blog about all things French — books, movies, food, what have you. In a burst of synchronicity, when I learned of this event I already had not just one, but four books on my shelf to go with the theme, including several newly published or reissued translations from French, and one debut novel in English. I had a fabulous time immersing myself in French history, culture, and atmosphere with these books, and I hope you will too!



The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Lego and Denis Lepee, translated by Sue Dyson
This historical novel is set during the early years of the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. A highly complex tapestry of voices, and plot threads, it seems to attempt to put a “Da Vinci Code”-type spin on French history, with mixed success. For me the first half, which we spend waiting for the death of Cardinal Mazarin, the real power behind the throne for many years, dragged a bit. The second half, when Louis comes into his own and some fortunes rise while others fall, was more exciting, but the concluding reveal of the great conspiracy that had been anticipated throughout the book was a letdown — silly and unconvincing. The large cast of characters and short chapters, with their abrupt scene changes, could also be confusing. Still, I enjoyed the panoramic view of a time and place about which I had previously read very little, even though the perspective on certain historical characters and events should be taken with a large grain of salt.
Gallic Books, April 2016 (reissue) • Source: ARC from publisher

Constellation by Adrien Bosc, translated by Willard Wood
On October 27, 1949, the Air France aircraft Constellation-BAZN took off from Orly airport with 48 souls. In the early hours of October 28, as it was landing for refueling in the Azores, the plane disappeared. In this short novel, Bosc gives voice to some of the individuals who perished, both famous and unknown, as well as retracing the response of the world to the tragedy, and even giving some insight into his personal research journey. Structured as brief vignettes that switch from one topic and point of view to another, it was more like a tantalizing set of appetizers than a full meal, leaving me wanting to know more about some of the lives we glimpse so fleetingly. Yet perhaps that was partly the point — to highlight the briefness and transience of life, leaving us with an impression like a sprinkling of stars in the night.
Other Press, May 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher

Girl in the Afternoon by Serena Burdick
Burdick’s debut novel was a compelling read that I finished in nearly a single sitting, with its story of two young painters in 1870s Paris, and the web of family secrets, deceit and betrayal that both binds and divides them. Though the subject matter is sensationalistic, Burdick’s treatment of it is not; rather than aiming at big, splashy effects, she quietly makes us feel the emotional impact of the events she describes, through subtle and evocative turns of phrase that make her writing a pleasure to read. It wasn’t quite what I thought it would be — the artistic themes stayed more in the background than I had expected — but that turned out not to be a problem, as the result was moving, surprising, and thought-provoking.
St. Martin’s Press, July 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
I haven’t quite finished this one yet, but I already know that it’s one readers will find either magically poetic or utterly impenetrable — and I know that I tend toward the first camp, though with understanding for the second. An atmospheric, slow-moving fantasy about two extraordinary girls in pre-WWII France and Italy, it’s one of those rare books I can enjoy without always entirely understanding what is going on. It reminded me in various ways of Little, Big; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; the Gormenghast books; and The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. . . so if you love any of those, it is probably worth a try.
Europa Editions, February 2016 • Source: E-book from library

Some copies were received for review consideration from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.


Defense against the Dark Arts: Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill

Otfried Preussler, Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill (1971)

KrabatMy second German Literature month pick was a classic fantasy from the splendid-as-always New York Review Children’s Collection. I found it a fascinating and highly skillful variation on the themes of traditional folklore, playing with motifs of power, entrapment, love, sacrifice, and freedom.

Krabat is an urchin plucked out of a miserable life to become a miller’s apprentice. At first he’s delighted with his new home — he has to work hard but gets plenty to eat, and finds new friends among the journeymen — but soon he begins to learn disquieting things about his master and the mill. Who is the mysterious client who comes on the night of every new moon, and what is he grinding? Why are there unmarked graves in a nearby field? What does it mean for him to swear eternal service to his strange master? As Krabat starts to unravel some disquieting answers, he starts to wonder whether there can be a happier end to the story for him than for his unfortunate predecessors.

Though it’s enacted within a fairy-tale world of transformation and magic, Krabat’s dilemma is also a very familiar one. We can all become trapped in delusive dreams of power and selfish comfort, only to find that the end of such a path is spiritual death. Preussler tells his fabulous story quite plainly, letting events and images speak for themselves, but it’s all the more powerful for that. A compelling, chilling, and ultimately redemptive tale, perfect for long winter nights.


Living in the Mystery: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

Jack Zipes, editor/translator, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995)

HesseFTWhile Witch Week was going on, I was reading a collection of Hermann Hesse’s short fiction that in some way references the fairy tale tradition (doing double duty for German Literature Month). I loved The Glass Bead Game when I read it years ago, and remembered it as having a fairy-tale quality in its powerful language and haunting images, so I was interested to see what Hesse would do with the shorter form.

I found that translator/editor Jack Zipes had gathered many different sorts of tales, originally published between 1904 and 1918: early Gothic-style romances like “The Dwarf,” pieces that mimic traditional folklore like “The Three Linden Trees,” several surreal dream narratives, anti-war satires like “If the War Continues,” and symbolic quest stories like “Iris.” Few are retellings or variants of traditional tales, but they share the heightened, concentrated language and rich array of symbols that come to us from our fairy-tale heritage. As well as drawing on the past, they point toward the future: several of them struck me as reminiscent of science-fiction themes and ideas, and I wondered if Hesse had some influence on authors in that nascent genre.

There are wonderful flights of the imagination here: A poet whose poems have no words and cannot be written down; a mysterious stranger who comes to a city and grants everyone one wish, with surprising results; an isolated forest dweller who quests toward the mysterious world “outside.” Most of the stories were written under the shadow of the Great War, and in manifold ways they cry out for human beings to fight the forces of oppression and mechanization by cultivating the living forces within. Some are more polished, others more like sketches or preliminary drafts for more substantial works, but all offer a fascinating window into the soul of an artist striving to articulate his deepest feelings and thoughts in a turbulent time.

In the last story of the collection, “Iris,” I found a statement that could easily apply to the purpose and meaning of these very stories:

All children, as long as they still live in the mystery, are continuously occupied in their souls with the only thing that is important, which is themselves and their enigmatic relationship to the world around them. Seekers and wise people return to these preoccupations as they mature. Most people, however, forget and leave forever this inner world of the truly significant very early in their lives. Like lost souls they wander about for their entire lives in the multicolored maze of worries, wishes, and goals, none of which dwells in their innermost being and none of which leads them to their innermost core and home.

Hesse’s fairy tales are meant to remind us of what dwells in our innermost being and to guide us home. Close to 100 years after their original publication, it’s a message we still urgently need to listen to, and I’m glad this collection is here to help us.

Classics Club List #35
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


Found in Translation: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (2011)

FishinEarTranslation between languages is an enterprise that has variously been seen as impossible, unreliable, unnecessary, or not cost-effective enough. In our English-dominated culture, it’s something of an endangered species. Princeton professor David Bellos, on the other hand, believes that far from being a sort of awkward linguistic appendage we might better do without, translation is central to how we think and experience the world as human beings. And after reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? you’ll most likely agree.

Don’t worry about the topic being too dry or erudite. Bellos is clearly no literary snob (his title is a quotation from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, after all) and the book’s 32 short chapters are witty, playful, and endlessly thought-provoking. Did you know that in Russian there is no word for “blue”? (If you’re going to translate that word, you first have to decide whether it’s dark or light blue.) Did you realize that the work of simultaneous interpreters at the UN is as stressful as that of air traffic controllers? Have you wondered how the Bible can be translated into languages that have no way to express the concept of a person’s thoughts being different from his outer actions? Do you understand how Google Translate actually works, or why legalese really is a separate language?

All of these fascinating questions and many others are explored, with the overarching aim of illuminating what translation does. Even if you were never to read or listen to a word of a translation from another language, this would be relevant to you, because translation is part of what makes us human. As Bellos puts it in his conclusion:

…[T]he practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different — we speak different tongues and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same — that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, informations, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist.

Nor could anything we would like to call social life.

Translation is another name for the human condition.

Far from deploring the different ways we have of expressing ourselves and finding them a source of confusion, Bellos encourages us to celebrate them, and to embrace the activity of bridging them through translation. As Bellos argues, “The diversity of language is a treasure and a resource for thinking new thoughts.” So, I would say, is this book. It’s certainly one I’ll treasure and return to, as a deeply enjoyable and stimulating read.