Category Archives: French Literature

In umbra voluptatis lusi: My Review of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace in Rome

To read any work by Pascal Quignard whether fiction or non-fiction, is to experience philosophical and literary reflections on sex, love, shadows, art and death.  A Terrace in Rome, his novella which won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française prize in 2000, explores all of his most favored themes and images via the fictional story of Geoffroy Meaume, a 17th century engraving artist whose illicit love for a woman causes him horrible disfiguration, pain and suffering. The year is 1639 when twenty-one-year-old Meaume, serving an apprenticeship as an engraver, first lays his eyes on Nanni, the eighteen year-old blond beauty who is betrothed by her father to another man. For a while Meaume is happily absorbed in this secret affair and playing in umbra voluptatis (in the shadow of desire.)

Meaume and Nanni’s love affair comes to an abrupt and tragic end, but through his art, his memories and his dreams he is always seeking that same feeling of desire he felt for her as a twenty-one-year-old apprentice. Meaume says in his own words: “I have never found joy again with any woman other than her. It is not joy I miss, it is her. And so have I, all my life, etched the same body moving in the intensity of passion of which I never stopped dreaming.” Each of the forty-seven chapters in the book are succinct– most are only a page or two—as Quignard is a master at composing a tightly woven narrative which lends the feeling that every word, every character, every image has been carefully placed on the page and is of the utmost importance.  For those who are new to Quignard’s philosophical and roving style of writing, A Terrace in Rome is a perfect first, short piece to begin an exploration of his writings.   For those of us who are familiar with his other books, especially his non-fiction—The Roving Shadows, The Abysses, The Sexual Night, Sex and Terror—we find some familiar themes personified in the character of Meaume and his life of shadows, desire, sex and art.

Read my full review of A Terrace in Rome in 3:AM Magazine.  Special thanks to the fabulously talented book review editor, Tristan Foster, for giving me this opportunity.

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Filed under French Literature, Novella

Review: Compass by Mathias Énard

The English version of Compass is translated by Charlotte Mandell and being published by New Directions in the U.S. and Fitzcarraldo Editions in the U.K.  It won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and has been longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

My Review:
Compass takes place over the course of one, long night during which Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist, suffers from a terrible bout of insomnia.  The symptoms from his recently diagnosed illness, the memories of an unrequited love, and the dissatisfaction at his mediocre academic career all contribute to his sleepless night.  Instead of chapters, Énard uses time stamps to denote the hours that are slowly ticking away as Franz runs through years of memories.  Sarah, a French Academic with whom Franz has spent many years in love, sends him an article she has written from Sarawak, in Malaysia, which is her current place of residence.  It is unclear at the beginning what Franz and Sarah mean or have meant to each other, but Franz slowly unravels their complicated history throughout the course of his sleepless night.

As an academic musicologist, Franz has had a deep interest in the music of the Middle East, which studies have brought him into close contact with many orientalists, including Sarah.  Compass is a travelogue, an historical essay, a literary catalog and a music lesson on the Orient.  Franz takes us on his travels from Istanbul, to Palmyra, to Damascus, to Aleppo and to Tehran as he explores eastern music and his growing, emotional attachment to Sarah.  The Orient becomes just as beautiful, enchanting and elusive as his love for Sarah.   When Franz and Sarah are suddenly forced to end their travels together in Tehran, Franz nurses his wounds by going back home and retreating into himself and his academic career.  Sarah consoles herself by wandering father east where she ends up spending quite a bit of time in a Buddhist monastery.  But the objects in his apartment are a constant reminder of his travels with her in the east:

My glasses were under a pile of books and journals, obviously, I’m so absentminded.  At the same time, to contemplate the ruins of my bedroom (ruins of Istanbul, ruins of Damascus, ruins of Tehran, ruins of myself) I don’t need to see them, I know all these objects  by hear.  The faded photographs and yellowing Orientalist engravings.  The poetic works of Pessoa on a sculpted wooden book stand meant to house the Koran.  My tarboosh from Istanbul, my heavy wood indoor coat from the souk in Damascus, my lute from Aleppo bought with Nadim.

The disjointed and rambling narrative structure is fitting for a man whose mind cannot rest over the course of a sleepless night.  He jumps from one topic to the next: his illness, musicology, literature, archaeology and, of course, Sarah.  Some might find this stream-of-consciousness style frustrating but a more straightforward narrative would not have been as fitting or appropriate for Franz’s state-of-mind and circumstances.  One common thread that runs through his thoughts are the connections between East and West.  He has a joke compass that points east which is fitting for Franz since his thoughts are always pulled in that direction.  He discusses travelers, writers, musicians, academics and archaeologists who were fascinated by Orientalist travels and study.  One of my favorite examples Franz brings up is the Swiss author, journalist, traveler, and even occasional archaeologists,  Annmarie Schwarzenbach whose wanderlust brings her to different parts of the East.  Schwarzenbach flees the turmoil brewing in Europe in 1933-34 and travels to Syrian and the desert, where Franz and Sarah follow in the footsteps of this interesting woman’s Eastern journey.

More than any other book I have ever read, Compass made me want to travel to the Middle East, to the desert and to the ancient ruins of the Orient;  but the narrative also made me sad that such a journey isn’t feasible nowadays.  The Baron Hotel that Franz and Sarah stay at in Aleppo, and probably the entire neighborhood, has been reduced to a pile of rubble.  The descriptions of his travels in Palmyra were particularly striking to me.  Franz and Sarah, with a few other travel companions, sleep among the ruins of an ancient fort in Palmyra: “A night when the sky was so pure and the stars so numerous that they came down all the way to the ground, lower than you could see, in the summer, when the sea is calm and dark as the Syrian badiya.”

Finally, I have never read a book that has caused me to buy so many other books based on the literary observations contained within.  My “to-read” stacks have grown by leaps and bounds this past week as I made my way through Compass.  The amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this erudite book is astonishing.  Descriptions of  Pessoa, Magris, Schwarzenbach and Hedayat to name a few, have caused me to add all of these authors to my always-growing library.  Some of the writers Enard mentions are so esoteric that I was disappointed not to find them in English translation—the surrealist French poet Germain Nouveau, for example.   It is truly a great thing when one piece of literature gives one such a full list of further reading.  One could form an interesting book club to go through the volumes mentioned in Compass and spend many months exploring and discussing Franz’s syllabus.

What have others thought of Compass?  Will it make the shortlist?  How does it compare to his previous novel, Zone?

About the Author and Translator:
Mathias Énard is the award-winning author of Zone and Street of Thieves, and a translator from Persian and Arabic. He won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 for Compass.

Charlotte Mandell is a French literary translator who was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1968. She went to Boston Latin High School, the Université de Paris III, and Bard College, where she majored in French literature and film theory. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband, the poet Robert Kelly.

 

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation

Review: Like Death by Guy Maupassant

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB via Edelweiss.  This English version has been translated from the French by Richard Howard.

My Review:
like-deathOlivier Bertin is a painter in late nineteenth century Paris and his most famous work, his Cleopatra, has earned him enough fame to be sought out by the rich and famous of high society.  He is not interested in any romantic relationships with the bourgeois women he paints because he feels that are insipid and boring.  At a party one night, however, he meets the Countess Ann de Guilleroy and is immediately captivated by her beauty and charm and decides he must do her portrait.  As Bertin paints the Countess in his studio, the two have stimulating conversations and enjoy one another’s company more and more.

Like many romantic relationships, Anne and Bertin’s starts with great conversations and friendship.  Slowly, feelings of love overtake both of them until the painter can stand it no longer and decides he must have her.  When they consummate their relationship, Anne feels very guilty at first because she has had a good marriage to the Count de Guilleroy for seven years and they have a five-year-old daughter.  But she quickly realizes that Bertin makes her happy and she welcomes the painter into her inner circle so that they can have daily contact.

Henceforth she felt no remorse, merely the vague sense of a certain forfeiture, and to answer the reproaches of her reason, she now credited to a certain fatality.  Drawn to him by her virgin heart and her void soul, her flesh vanquished by the slow dominion of caresses, she gradually became attached, as tender women do who love for the first time.

There is no suspicion among Parisian society that they are having an affair and it simply appears that the Countess and Bertin are the best of friends and both share a love of the arts.  Bertin even becomes great friends with Anne’s husband, the Count.  Their affair carries on for twelve years and settles into an easy comfort, similar to many long-term marriages and relationships.  In two simple lines, Maupassant’s sublime prose describes the deep and abiding affection achieved by the lovers:

Months then passed, then years, which scarcely loosened the bond uniting Countess de Builleroy and the painter Olivier Bertin.  For him, this period was no longer theexaltation of the early days but a calmer, deeper affection, a sort of anitie amoureuse to which he had become easily and entirely accustomed.

The central crisis in the book occurs when Anne’s daughter, Annette, who has been growing up outside of Paris, makes her entrance into Parisian society at the age of eighteen; Annette is the exact image of her mother at that age and everyone, especially Bertin, notices the striking resemblance between mother and daughter.  Maupassant takes a lot of care in his writing to develop the contrast between the youth of Annette and the growing age of her mother and the painter.  He uses the seasons as a backdrop which  mimic the painter’s feelings and observations about mother and daughter.  For example, when Bertin first realizes that Annette is a younger, more energetic version of her mother it is springtime and Bertin has accompanied Annette to the park where children are playing and mother nature is in her first bloom.  The brighter, fresh weather and Annette’s youth give Bertin feelings of energy and passion that haven’t been stirred in him for many years.

At first it seems that the appearance of Annette has just reminded Bertin of the early stages of his relationship with Anne, that all-consuming, passion that marks the beginning of an affair.  But Bertin’s feelings gradually become deeper for Annette and he soon realizes he is even jealous of her fiancé.  Bertin doesn’t acknowledge his love for the young Annette until Anne detects them and points them out to the painter.  At this point in the book, Anne and Bertin both become hopelessly wretched because the painter has fallen in love with Annette, the younger, prettier version of Anne.  At times Anne and Bertin are a little hard to take because their feelings of misery are so intense and  they make frequent allusions to death which seemed a bit melodramatic.

Maupassant weaves an interesting commentary throughout the book on beauty, age, youth and the standards of beauty upheld by society.  Anne notices her increasing wrinkles and sagging skin and believes her appearance is to blame for Bertin’s lack of affection towards her.  And instead of being proud of her daughter she is jealous of Annette’s complexion yet unblemished by time and age.  Anne takes more time to apply make-up, takes extreme measures to make herself thin and only greets her lover in the dim light of the drawing room.  Olivier, too, suffers from an obsession with his aging appearance.  His white hair and paleness are particularly emphasized.  When a Parisian newspaper calls his art work old-fashioned, he becomes particularly distraught about his advancing years.  Maupassant’s meditations on the impossible standards of beauty to which we hold ourselves are just as relevant now as they were in the nineteenth century.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read because of Maupassant’s prose which perfectly captures the extreme and conflicting emotions of love and suffering.  The ending is rather dramatic, although not at all surprising given the title and other elements of foreshadowing that Maupassant scatters throughout his text.

 

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Filed under Classics, France, French Literature, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books

Post-truth, Post-structuralism, and now Post-Pleasure?: My Review of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Coming

coming-coverIn this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few. Continue reading my review in the February issue of Numero Cinq

You can also read an excerpt from the book translated by Charlotte Mandell here

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Filed under Nonfiction, Literature in Translation, French Literature, Philosophy

Respice Futurum: Reading Plans for 2017

books-2017

I have the privilege every day of going to work at a place that I love and that has a long and rich tradition of education.  The Woodstock Academy, founded in 1801, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and it has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum– “Look back at your future.” (For the philologists out there, respice is a present active imperative, a compound made up of the prefix re (back, again) and the verb spicio (to look) and futurum is the accusative, singular of the noun futurum which is formed from the future active participle of sum.)

These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past.  My husband likes to say that this motto is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.  I thought Respice Futurum is apt for a reflection on books as well;  it seems fitting to look ahead to my reading plans for 2017 while also reflecting on the types of books I have encountered over the past year and how they will influence my reading choices moving forward.

According to my list on Goodreads I read 105 books, a total of 24, 484 pages in 2016.  A few books were left off this list such as Pascal Quignard’s Roving Shadows and The Sexual Night. The Goodreads list also doesn’t include a few volumes of poetry I’ve read and some collections of essays.  And my list does not include any of the Latin or Greek authors I’ve translated or retranslated in 2016.   This was not a bad year for me, but not my best either.   The books in translation I have read have come from the following languages:  French, German, Spanish, Estonian, Russian, Italian, Bulgarian, Korean, Malayalam, Kannada, Hungarian, Swedish, Turkish, Slovene, Icelandic, Hebrew, Norwegian, Portuguese.

In looking at this list of lit in translation, I would like to explore more books from Asia and Africa which are not well-represented on my list.  I would also love to explore more books translated from Arabic which is a huge gap in my translated fiction.  If anyone has suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

Almost all of the books I have read have been published by small presses which will continue to be my main source of reading: Seagull Books, New Vessel Press, Open Letter and Deep Vellum, Archipelago, New York Review of Books and Persephone Books. 

My first read of 2017 has been The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospondinov.  This is #29 in the Cahier Series and the first one I’ve read from this series.  I loved it so much that I went back and bought six more titles from the series, so there will be more Cahier titles in my future.

Gospondinov’s book The Physics of Sorrow is my favorite book from the Open Letter Catalog and one of my first reads in 2017 that I just started is another title from Open Letter, Justine by Iben Mondrup. 

A book that I have already started in 2016 and will finish in 2017 is The Collected Prose of Kafka from Archipelago Press.  This is a title that I am slowly making my way through and savoring.  Archipelago has managed to collect some of Kafka’s best short pieces into one volume.

I have discovered the works of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy this year and reading his extensive backlist published in English should keep me busy for a very long time.  Next up on my list of books written by him is his title on Sleeping.

Speaking of French writers, I am eager to read Pascal Quignard’s Terrace in Rome and All the World’s Mornings in 2017.

I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of  Russian author Sergei Lebedev’s The Year of the Comet which is being published in 2017 by New Vessel Press.  I am very excited that I will have an interview with Lebedev coming up in an issue of Numero Cinq, for which literary magazine I am also privileged to continue to do production editing, to scout and recruit translators and to write reviews.   I am also looking forward to two additional lit in translation titles from New Vessel:  Moving the Palace (from Lebanon) and Adua (from Italy.)

I am always eager to read whatever Seagull Books publishes and thanks to their wonderful catalog I have discovered some classics of Indian literature.  I am also looking forward to reading Goat Days by Benyamin which is already sitting on my bookshelf.  I also understand that Seagull is publishing more works from Tomas Espedal in English translation which I am very eager to get my hands on.  A long-term, very long-term goal of mine is to read the entire backlist from Seagull Books.  I will do my best to put a large dent in that list this year.

This year I discovered Ugly Duckling Presse and I am eager to explore their backlist of poetry as well as their essays.  I have a copy of To Grieve by Will Daddario on my shelf already.  I would like to read more essays this year, so please leave suggestions for essays in the comments!

Finally, I would like to read more classics in 2017, especially Tolstoy, Pushkin and other Russian masters.  I have a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories and a copy of The Complete Prose of Pushkin sitting on my shelf that I have yet to read.  I also look forward to the reissues of classics from NYRB who is publishing more books my Henry Green.  I am hoping to have read all six reissued Green books by the end of 2017.  And, as always, I look forward to whatever classics from British, (mostly) female authors that Persephone Books has in store.

And as far as posts on my blog are concerned, I have always shied away from writing about Latin and Greek and classics, but my reading of Logue’s War Music has inspired me to continue writing about The Iliad and to do some of my own translations and interpretations of various Latin authors.

classics-booksA sampling of some of my most cherished classics books; the Loebs are nestled snugly on the bottom shelf.

Well, I could go on and on about my reading plans for 2017 or I could just go and actually get to reading.  Happy new year to all of my fellow bibliophiles.  I hope you also get a chance to Respice Futurum.

chair-bookroomThe cozy spot where much of my reading takes place.  It is overlooked by a print of The Roving Shadows cover done by Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull Books artist.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, French Literature, German Literature, Hungarian Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Persephone Books, Seagull Books