Place: Paris

Translation Tuesday: The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai

His girls. That’s how he referred to his bees.

Yamen Manai’s prose is simple and accessible—he isn’t trying to seduce or impress the reader. He is telling a story that is both important and funny, and he wants to make sure it is understood. That story being post-Jasmine Revolution Tunisia, after the autocratic President Ben Ali has been ousted and the Western spotlight has faded. The initial euphoria of the revolution has long been replaced by frustration, resignation, and indifference as Islamists and secularists vie for leadership of the nation. Manai tells the story through the eyes of one man—Sidi, the hermetic beekeeper of the village of Nawa, whose cherished honey bees are attacked by a swarm of fanatical hornets bent on murder. This kingdom of bees serves as an unexpected but clear stand-in for the political instability that plagued (and continues to plague) Tunisia after 2011. Manai draws on Tunisian oral tradition to construct this ecological allegory, portraying the Nawa villagers (the Nawis) as a chorus voicing their surprise and skepticism at the changing times.

—Lara Vergnaud

Everyone knew that Sidi would give his life for his girls, and do so without the slightest hesitation. His love for them rendered him capable of anything. Hadn’t he devoted his life to them, building them citadel upon citadel? Hadn’t he confronted a Numidian bear just to bring them the most beautiful flowers? Hadn’t he defied princes and left lovers to dedicate himself entirely to them? And so, when the news that hundreds of them had died under troubling circumstances spread from mouth to mouth, a response seemed inevitable.

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Fear Everywhere: European Literature Days, Spitz/Krems Austria, 16–19 November 2017

“We live in societies which do not want a future; we just want to endlessly extend the present.”

A few days ago, just as the busy Christmas shopping season in London got underway, Oxford Circus underground station was evacuated with thousands of people fleeing from one of the city’s busiest spots. Soon it turned out that what triggered the panic weren’t shots fired but rather an altercation between two men on one of the platforms. Fear has now pervaded our everyday lives.

Fear is Everywhere. European Literature Days couldn’t have chosen a more apt theme for the time in which we live. “Fear of those who flee and fear of refugees; anxiety about poverty and collapse; fear of religious fundamentalism and the implosion of values; fear of technology and of technology making humans obsolete; fear of permanent communication and language loss; fear of disorientation as well as of total control—the list could go on endlessly.” This is how the Artistic Director of the European Literature Days, Austrian writer Walter Grond (whose latest book, the historical novel, Drei Lieben/Three Loves, was published earlier this year), defined the headline theme of the gathering of leading European authors, this year held from 16 to 19 November in Spitz on the bank of the Danube in Austria’s wine region.

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The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.

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Au Comptoir, Au Terroir: Eric Rohmer’s Nadja à Paris

Nina Sparling's latest essay on foreignness, film, and fluidity between private and public spaces.

Eric Rohmer’s 1964 film, Nadja à Paris, follows a Nadja Tesich through the city. Tesich is an exchange student at the Sorbonne, living at the Cité Universitaire at the southern edge of the city. The film is short—just ten minutes. There is no plot; Nadja leads Rohmer, he in observation of her movement through the city. Nadja narrates the film in a voice-over. The film treats Nadja’s position as a habitual stranger, a regular foreigner. She is not French, nor does she desire to be. She learns the habits and patterns of the city and participates in them as she is: a Yugoslavian-American studying in a city that is not her own. The habits she adopts fixate on two spaces, le terrace and le comptoir. READ MORE…

Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Prologue, Mime I

Post one of Asymptote Blog's serial translation of a hallucinatory, undiscovered French work by a revered fin-de-siècle author

Read all the posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here

“We rarely live our own life with pleasure. We almost always try to die of a death other than our own.” – Marcel Schwob, Spicilège

“Nous vivons rarement avec plaisir de notre vraie vie. Nous essayons presque toujours de mourir d’une autre mort que la nôtre.”

Marcel Schwob, a Jewish French writer beloved by Alfred Jarry, Jorge Luis Borges, and Michel Leiris, was born in 1867 and died at an early age in 1905. Scholar of ancient Greek and Latin literature, translator of Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas De Quincey into French, specialist in fifteenth-century French literature (especially the poetry of outlaw poet François Villon)—Schwob steeped himself in the literature of the past while defying countless literary and philosophical boundaries in his own works. From Le Livre de Monelle, recently translated into English by Kit Schluter, which so influenced Michel Leiris that Leiris called reading it a “capital event” and based an episode of Aurora around it (Oeuvres, 17), to Schwob’s inquiry into the nature of argot, Schwob’s works mark an unprecedented, important turn in the history of French literature.

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Weekly news round-up, 27th October 2013: Asterix, insolvency, and grand theft antiquarian

Paris / worldwide.  One exciting piece of news this week is the publication of a new installment of a diminutive Gaulish adventurer’s globe-trotting escapades. Published last Thursday in France, Astérix chez les Pictes also appeared on the very same day in twenty-five languages, which in itself is cause for celebration. Along with the usual suspects (English, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch) it’s good to see a fair slew of minority languages too. Readers on the Iberian peninsula have been particularly lucky, with no fewer than six editions catering to the various language communities therePortuguese and Castilian, of course, but also Asturian, Basque, Catalan, and Galician. READ MORE…