Place: Paris

What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

See how the unstoppable Asymptote crew is finishing up 2018!

As the year draws to a close, Asymptote staff members have been as busy as ever. Here is a selection of what our colleagues have been up to, from reviews written, to panels spoken on, and new blogs too.

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow contributed a review, “Mystery and Surprise: Two Chinese Poets,” and translations of Swiss poet and photographer Gustave Roud, to the 88th edition of Plume.

Senior Editor (Chinese) Chenxin Jiang discussed the political power of literary translation as part of a conference at the Centre d’études de la traduction at Paris VII.

Romania & Moldova Editor-at-Large Chris Tanasescu aka MARGENTO jointly (along with Raluca Tanasescu) contributed a book chapter entitled “Translator networks of networks in digital space: The case of Asymptote Journal” to the hot-off-the-press Complexity Thinking in Translation Studies from Routledge (eds. Kobus Marais & Reine Meylaerts).

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Don’t Look Back in Anger: Virginie Despentes and Modern France

Despentes shows that evil is all too human.

Following our recently published review of Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things, Barbara Halla takes on the Vernon Subutex Trilogy. In this essay, Despentes’ most recent work is seen to interrogate female anger, everyday life, and the power of community in new, thought-provoking ways.

In a 2017 profile of Virginie Despentes, Le Monde eschewed Despentes’ name, preferring to refer to her simply as Le Phénomène, The Phenomenon, throughout the piece. This epithet is no exaggeration: Despentes has held the French literary scene in her grip since the mid-nineties when she published her first book, Baise-moi (translated into English as Rape me, by Bruce Benderson), and then directed its 2001 movie adaptation, featuring two porn actresses in the lead. Manu and Nadine, the main characters and both victims of violence of some kind, embark upon a road trip where they lure, sexually exploit and kill off men. It wasn’t just the violent acts that made Baise-moi feel radical. It was the lustful pleasure the protagonists took in this violence that stunned audiences, leading to a temporary ban of the film in France. As Lauren Elkin points out in The Paris Review, when the movie came out, there was nothing else to compare it to, so critics fell back on Thelma & Louise, another feminist road film about two women on the run. But Despentes’ nihilistic and sadistic story has little in common with Thelma and Louise.

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Sex, Drugs, and Identity :Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things in Review

This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine.

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, The Feminist Press, 2018. 

Anglophone fans of Virginie Despentes are celebrating the release of Pretty Things, the fourth of her novels to be published by The Feminist Press, but the first translated from the French by Emma Ramadan. Ramadan, a long-time fan of Despentes, says in an interview we conducted with her this summer, that she accessed her raw vernacular parlance by speaking sentences out loud, watching French soap operas, and simply being a young, ambitious 20-something-year-old woman (much like many Despentes protagonists). It worked. This is a novel of the street, the bedroom, the metro, the sex-club, and the recording studio. Of weed, whisky, and cocaine. Where public and private, self and sister, butt heads. It’s a novel of desire and fear, love and insecurity, a woman trying not to allow other people’s expectations to mire her in the muck of society’s ugliest pathologies.

Pauline and Claudine are twins. They’re identical, but there’s no way to mistake one for the other. They have the type of beauty that’s fashionable at the moment, and Claudine learned as soon as she hit puberty to harness her beauty’s enormous power through her own objectification. Pauline finds it disgusting, this shallow game of power and submission, and makes a surly public display of her dissent. They don’t get along. Claudine, having recently moved to Paris to try to make it big, ropes Pauline into making a record with her. Pauline’s voice and Claudine’s personality are meant to equal one perfect pop star. The night of their first concert, while Pauline is on stage, Claudine jumps out her apartment window. Pauline, arriving at the scene after an evening of impersonating her sister, simply continues to do so, thus committing her own sort of suicide. Both sort of dead and in one living body, they start to suture the split that occurred between them in the womb.

While Pauline started with a plan to be half a woman, she spends the rest of the novel integrating two halves into a stronger whole. “Equilibrium needs to be restored. It was constructed opposite her sister, a force exerted on another. She has a clear image in her mind: two little women in a bubble, each pushing with her forehead against the other’s. If one of the two little women is removed, the other immediately topples over, falls into the other’s domain.” She learns to convincingly pass as Claudine. For two weeks, with the help of their friend and manager Nicolas, she locks herself in the apartment and learns to apply makeup, shave her legs, and walk in heels. When she finally emerges, she’s shocked to realize not only how people treated her sister, but also what it feels like to be treated that way. Simply presenting herself differently makes her vulnerable to scrutiny, jealousy, greed, and desire. She can empathize with Claudine for the first time—the whiff of sexual power also tempts her to sacrifice things like genuine human connection and self-respect, even as loneliness and self-disgust take their place. She doesn’t exactly miss her sister, but perhaps instead mourns a life spent too isolated to truly know except by inhabiting it.

The text yields dramatically different readings if one considers Pauline and Claudine to be more one or more two; autonomous individuals influenced by their relationship to each other, or solely a set of relations to each other—neither character whole unto herself. And yet both readings are not just valid, the ambiguity is crucial. On one hand, if both sisters are fully realized individuals, Pauline’s nonconformity is the stronger, more successful choice. It indicates her inherent intelligence and builds in her the strength to withstand the same conditions that wore away at Claudine until she jumped out her window. Claudine ends up dead and Pauline ends up… well, I won’t spoil the ending. But just as the music industry feels entitled to her body, she feels entitled to their money. On the other hand, Pauline and Claudine are the thesis and antithesis of a dialectical concerning femininity in society. Two sides of one coin. In this scenario, Pauline killed a part of herself the same night that Claudine did—and kept a part of both of them alive. By the end of the novel she represents the resolution of the two not into some transcendent, separate, enlightened woman, but a sort of balance of the two pre-existing options. There is no right way for a woman to behave in the face of social expectations, but each mini personal revolution yields a bit of progress. The reader is left with simultaneous, contradictory truths.

Even the text’s imagery is ambiguous on the extent to which they are one or two. For example, the novel describes the gender dynamic between the girls’ parents. Their father is aggressive and self-centered. Their mother exists only as an auxiliary appendage. Until their mother gets a job that she’s good at and begins to gain confidence and independence. The twins were conceived in response to his fury: “From that day on, he started fucking her like he was nailing something into the ground, all the way inside so she would get a fat stomach and stay put.” Two twins from one “nail.” But then, while their mother is pregnant, the parents argue about names. They decide to each choose one. “And so it was done, her stomach ripped in two.” Separate. We don’t learn much more on the topic until Pauline begins to take over Claudine’s life. In some ways she seems truly alien, trying to comprehend a way of being entirely foreign. For example, during a phone conversation with one Claudine’s lover/colleagues:

“She [Pauline] listens to him a little distantly, makes little agreeable sounds, trying to get it through her skull that he’s talking to a girl [Claudine] that he watches on all fours, and filmed from behind doing things like pretending to be a cat, whenever he wants.”

But when her guard is down, she’s simply existing, their mutual friend observes, “Familiar silhouette, he likes to watch it move. Intact shreds of a lost being, obsolete traces that he finds bewitching.”

Two of the novel’s male figures in particular further nuance the portrait of gender dynamics at the heart of this novel. The twins’ father pits them against each other from childhood, ensuring their dependence on his affection by bestowing it upon only one of them at a time—and subjecting the other to repulsive cruelty. During a flashback, Pauline watches their father beat Claudine. Afterward, she reaches out:

“When he hits you I swear I feel it too.” Claudine stood up, turned to face her, grabbed her by the hair. Pauline didn’t scream so that her parents wouldn’t come. Claudine dragged her down onto the bed. “You’re sure you feel it?”  . . .  To really hurt her, she had taken the pillow and held it down against her sister’s face with both hands. To be absolutely sure she heard, she started to scream, “That’s weird because, when he kisses you, I feel nothing.”

The violence of a man ensures enmity between two women who (as young Pauline demonstrates) could instead have loved and supported each other. The second is Pauline’s boyfriend Sébastien, the only man to ever choose her over Claudine. They’ve built a loving, trusting relationship exactly on her refusal to look and act “feminine.” But a series of events calls into question the extent to which opposing the status quo really separates them from it. Having witnessed her transformation, he leaves her with these words:

“You never treated me disrespectfully, you never demeaned yourself. I was proud of you, as soon as I saw some bitch on the street I thought of you, I was so fucking proud. But now, look at yourself, look at how you’re dressed, look at how you walk… And who’s boning you, over there? Is it a bunch of guys? . . . Is it good, do they screw you how you like? I respect you too much, you don’t respect yourself at all anymore.”

We discover that his love and respect for her was never unconditional, but was just as possessive and ugly as her father’s and just as informed by social expectation as any other man’s.

The characters in the novel are both vivid and allegorical (as perhaps are people). In this way, the post-mortem reconciliation of the sisters demonstrates, however imperfectly, a way out of the dialectical thesis/antithesis model of femininity. The status quo and what’s against the status quo validate and perpetuate each other. Just as a woman degrading herself for a man gives her power over him. But discovering empathy for her sister at least gives Pauline enough distance to learn to use the system for her own benefit, rather than letting it destroy her. It’s far from a utopic path, but I suppose this is the same world in which little girls defend themselves from abusive fathers by crossing their frail little arms over their heads. It was never going to be perfect.

Lindsay Semel is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.

*****

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What’s New in Translation: October 2018

Join us to find out more about titles fresh off the press in the world of translation.

Cities can be energizing or inspiring, sites of sensuality or spirituality. Two such cities take center stage in this edition of What’s New in Translation, where our team members introduce you to new and exciting publications.

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Sarab by Raja Alem, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price (Hoopoe Books)

Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor

Not only does Sarab, the forthcoming novel by Saudi author Raja Alem, open a new chapter in the fictional treatment of the 1979 siege of the Great Mosque—following Badriah al-Bishr’s Love Stories on al-Asha Street, Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s Where Pigeons Don’t Fly and Alem’s own The Dove’s Necklace (winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction)—it also marks a precarious moment in the development of the global novel.  The book first appeared in April in German, and it’s set to be published in English in October by Hoopoe, an imprint of Cairo University Press. The work is intriguing, translated from a text that the novelist does not regard as finished. Since it deals with “a dark chapter in the history of this most holy city” of Mecca—as the Paris resident, Raja, says of her hometown, in a recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly—“I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound,” she continues.  “I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.”  Thanks to translator Leri Price, the Anglophone public who cannot read Arabic can nevertheless now imagine that new Arabic for themselves, across a different, and otherwise uncrossable, distance.

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A Book of 50 Square Meters: Thomas Clerc’s Interior In Review

This book will not sit comfortably on any genre shelf.

Interior by Thomas Clerc, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

“The doorbell rings. I go. Peephole. Nobody. I grab my keys. I open the door. The 3rd-floor hallway. Empty. A glance.” Interior is an elaborate, three-hundred-page description of the experimental writer Thomas Clerc’s Paris apartment, a modest 50 square meters on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. The reader begins at the doorstep and is taken on a room-by-room tour of all of Clerc’s furniture and possessions, guided by a narrator—Thomas—as he leaves no nook or cranny unexplained.

Published in French in 2013 and translated into English by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Interior is not Clerc’s first meticulous endeavor. In a previous book (Paris, musée du XXIe siècle, le dixième arrondissement; or Paris, Museum of the 21st Century, the Tenth Arrondissement), the writer walked along all the streets in his neighborhood and documented everything he saw over the course of three years, the same amount of time it took to construct this literary blueprint of his apartment.

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In Conversation: Emma Ramadan

I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator.

Our latest Asymptote Book Club selection, Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator, depicts a terrifying scenario for many authors. According to its translator, the main character is “an author’s worst nightmare”: a translator with their own ulterior motives.

In the latest installment of the Book Club interview series, Emma Ramadan (herself one of numerous characters in the multi-layered English translation of Matthieussent’s novel) speaks to Mallory Truckenmiller. Read on to find out more Ramadan’s unique experience translating Revenge of the Translator — a text that offers us a glimpse into “some of our darkest fantasies as translators.”

Follow up this conversation’s insights into the art of translation with our #30issues30days program, celebrating 7 years of Asymptote.

Mallory Truckenmiller (MT): One defining quality of Revenge of the Translator is its translation within a translation structure, with the translator actually entering the plot of the novel. As the English translator, your role adds yet another layer to the work. How did you approach this position? Did you find ways to insert yourself as a new voice or character within your translation?

Emma Ramadan (ER): Because the French novel Vengeance du traducteur is framed as a French translation of a (non-existent) English original titled Translator’s Revenge, creating my own English translation got a bit complicated. I couldn’t use Translator’s Revenge as the title of my translation, and at the end, when the narrator mentions a supposed “American translator” of Vengeance du traducteur currently undertaking the translation of the book into English in their city, that translator had to be me, that city had to be Providence. It had to come full circle and the reader of the English translation had to understand that this was an explicit reference to the book they were currently holding in their hands, a reference to my work, otherwise, the whole conceit falls apart. Which, in turn, adds extra layers: how faithful is this translation I’ve been reading? How much has this book I’m currently holding in my hands about a rogue translator been messed with in turn by its own translator? I had to insert myself literally as a character, and be creative as a translator, to do justice to Matthieussent’s multi-layered work and keep it from veering into total insanity.

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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…