Posts filed under 'French literature'

What’s New in Translation: November 2017

Looking for your next novel? Here are three of the most exciting new releases from around the world.

Every month, batches of books arrive fresh on the shelves of bookstores around the world. Our team has handpicked three exciting new reads to help you make up your minds on what to sink your teeth into, including novels from Martinique, France, and Hungary. 

The Dancing Other

The Dancing Other by Suzanne Dracius, Translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson and Catherine Maigret Kellog, Seagull Books

Reviewed by Madeline Jones, Editor at Large, United States

The Dancing Other opens as our anti-heroine Rehvana stumbles out of a dingy apartment in Paris, just barely escaping literal branding by the other members of the Ébonis, or the “Sons of Agar”—an African god. Rehvana wants nothing more than to be included in and loyal to this insular community of Antillean immigrants that tries to emulate traditional Martinique culture—though how authentically they manage this aspiration is debated among some of Dracius’s other characters.

Rehvana’s boyfriend Abdoulaye is the group’s leader, whose temper has more than once manifested itself in blooming bruises across Rehvana’s face and arms. But the kind, protective Jeremy holds no allure for her. Jeremy and Rehvana’s formidable older sister, Matildana, tell her blatantly that a young woman such as her has no business slumming it with this cultish group of wannabes, but Rehvana both resents and resists her smarter, more pretentious, whiter sister’s warnings. She takes her newly enforced identity to its final phase by running away without a word back to the homeland, to Martinique, with another man she just met and who immediately consumes her thoughts and energies.


Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “A Meal in Winter” by Hubert Mingarelli

"I was hungry, so terribly hungry. We had eaten yesterday evening, but yesterday seemed as long ago as last month."

One morning, in the dead of winter, three German soldiers are dispatched into the frozen Polish countryside. They have been charged by their commanders to track down and bring back for execution ‘one of them’—a Jew. Having flushed out the young man hiding in the woods, they decide to rest in an abandoned house before continuing their journey back to the camp. As they prepare food, they are joined by a passing Pole whose outspoken anti-Semitism adds tension to an already charged atmosphere.


The Pole did not reply. Bauer grunted louder: ‘What do you want?’

The Pole signalled—as if he were sorry, but not very sorry—that he didn’t understand.We believed him. But that didn’t alter the fact that he was facing up to us, in spite of his somewhat apologetic demeanour. He was leaning with one hip against the stove, calm and impassive, just as if he were at home.

Sitting on the bench, we looked up at him, and began to smile at the desire he had—we understood this now—to show us he was not afraid of us. Because we didn’t care if he was afraid of us or not. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “Life in the Court of Matane” by Eric Dupont

"The funny thing about memory is that it always ends up chasing its own tail. The most important thing is to keep it moving."

Nadia Comaneci’s gold-medal performance at the Olympic Games in Montreal is the starting point for a whole new generation. Eric Dupont watches the performance on TV, mesmerized. The son of a police officer (Henry VIII) and a professional cook—as he likes to remind us—he grows up in the depths of the Quebec countryside with a new address for almost every birthday and little but memories of his mother to hang on to. His parents have divorced, and the novel’s narrator relates his childhood, comparing it to a family gymnastics performance worthy of Nadia herself.

Life in the court of Matane is unforgiving, and we explore different facets of it (dreams of sovereignty, schoolyard bullying, imagined missions to Russia, poems by Baudelaire), each based around an encounter with a different animal, until the narrator befriends a great horned owl, summons up the courage to let go of the upper bar forever, and makes his glorious escape.


From the first lot we lived on, if you went down a big grassy hill and crossed the road you’d find us by the river. In the summer, the sand could become burning hot in the sun, despite the glacial currents that flowed down from Labrador. Reels of dried-up seaweed revealed how high the tides rose and stretched out in arcs from east to west. We found green sea urchin skeletons, blue shells, and pink tampon applicators. Sometimes we would step on a piece of glass polished by the salt. It would slide so smoothly between our fingers that we could barely imagine its sharp past. When we held it up to the sun it would look like part of a stained-glass window washed up on the beach at Matane. Coke and Pepsi bottles produced translucent shards of polished white. The green bits of glass came from 7UP bottles. Beer bottles splintered into small, dark amber pieces. On this strip of beach, the waves deposited at our feet the shattered stained-glass windows of a church sunk off the Matane coastline. My sister and I picked up the pieces without ever beginning the impossible task of putting them back together. We knew that they had once been part of a whole, but that an earthquake had probably separated them. The sea salt had made them smooth so that their edges no longer fit together. They had taken on a shape all their own. They could be traced back to a family only by their colour. A distant kinship. They had ended up where the Gulf of St. Lawrence melts into the northern blue sky, leaving ships arriving from the Atlantic in July dangling from an invisible thread. The horizon gives way to a blue void that draws the soul northward. The trip is pleasant enough. When you really let yourself go, you soar high above the gulf, the taiga, and the permafrost, until you reach the tundra, where on a sunny January day you can drift off into the light of the north. READ MORE…

“The Neighbor” by Marie Darrieussecq

"The guitar playing and the shrieks were bad enough. But then they had a piano delivered."

‚The original version of “The Neighbor” was published in the author’s collection, Zoo, copyright 2006 by Editions P.O.L.


At the Dakota, my life was peaceful.

I had inherited the apartment from my father’s sister, along with a modest sum of money.  Living at the Dakota carries with it certain obligations.  When the co-op decides, for example, to renovate the basement, you’d better be able to pay your share.

Until then, I had always lived with my mother in a little village in the west of France.  I was a furniture maker, I had my own workshop, and everything was going well.  I’d led an idyllic childhood with my widowed mother, and I would have been satisfied to continue just as I was.  My mother admired my work, above all the delicately inlaid little chests.  The prospect of my leaving made her very angry.  She used to hate her American sister-in-law.

But I couldn’t resist the lure of the Dakota.  My aunt’s death literally changed my life.  I gave up my work and crossed the Atlantic, and my main activity ever since has consisted of living at the Dakota. READ MORE…

A*** And I: In Conversation With Emma Ramadan

" shouldn’t be that hard to write a genderless novel in English in the first person, but it’s really hard to translate one from French."

“If Garréta’s composition of Sphinx was a high-wire act, then Emma Ramadan’s task in carrying it over into a language with at least one crucially important constitutional difference is, near as I can figure it, akin to one tightrope walker mimicking the high-wire act of a second walker on a steeply diverging tightrope, while also doing a handstand.” —Daniel Levin Becker

If DJs are “the new rock stars” (Forbes, 2012), and if Emma Ramadan is correct—there did not exist, until now (2015), a genderless love story written in English—how can we trust in our vision as a supposedly contemporary, world-changing literary public after discovering that Anne Garréta’s debut novel was published thirty years ago?

Sphinx (1986) is a love story that is simultaneously hijacked and elevated by its own language. Originally guided by a Jesuit priest cloaked as Dante’s Virgil, the novel’s nameless and genderless narrator descends from the aristocratic literati into Paris’s crepuscular underworld, arriving at the gates of the discothèque Apocryphe to become DJ royale and a devotee of the beautiful, also genderless, A*** (in whose tragic character we may find our Beatrice). The Apocryphe is the abyssal incubator of their folie à deux. To say that Sphinx is “ahead of its time” sounds stale, but stale-sounding things are often true. (In 2002, Garréta won France’s prestigious Prix Médicis, which is awarded each year to an author whose “fame does not yet match their talent.”)

Garréta’s method and style allow her to pillage the French language generously, often playfully, and she makes it clear that society, self-prescriptive by nature, is begging to see itself outside of binary gender distinctions. Ramadan’s translation has also given us the first full-length work by a female member of the Oulipo. The experimental French literary group is renowned for its exclusions—whole novels don’t include the letter “e,” extended texts employ only one vowel, poetry is written to be sliced up and reshuffled. It must be remembered, however, that Sphinx’s publication preceded Garréta’s invitation to join the Oulipo by more than a decade. Now, what does it mean to read the first English translation of such a novel, which teases out all our assumptions about identity, love, desire, relationships, with almost sacramental intensity?

We can, at least, trust in the simple counsel of the novel’s translator, who (after Garréta) made our reading possible in the first place: “If our pre-conceived notions about all of these things are defied by this text, what does that say about our pre-conceived notions? Reading Sphinx is one way to think about these questions, to question our ways of thinking.” Whether in spite of or due to its preciousness, Sphinx serves to remind us that it is us who are still woefully behind the times.


MB: First, I want to enquire about the context that instigated an English translation of Garréta’s novel now. Sphinx was published in 1986—when Garréta was only 23 years old. What made the impetus for this translation—nearly thirty years later—so urgent?

ER: Well, when I first found out about Sphinx, I heard about it in the context of Daniel Levin Becker. He wrote a book about Oulipians, and he briefly mentions Sphinx, and I assumed that it had already been translated. And then I went looking for the translation and I couldn’t find it, and when I realised it hadn’t been translated yet it just sort of seemed wild to me, you know, that no one had tried to translate this book. It was pretty wild to me that, despite the past, however many years going by since this book was published, it still feels very relevant, maybe more so now than then, because people are more interested in talking about gender and the way gender influences our lives, and influences our identities, the ways it kind of constricts us, and I feel now more so than in 1984—at least in the States.


Spectacle Shopping

"They will wear the product and talk about it (and to it) incessantly. They will buy another one next year."

Black Friday is not only a chaotic holiday for shoppers, but it is also an extremely exciting time for those in the media to represent the spectacle of this chaos to the public. The public then consumes this content at face-value, continuing the chaos online and in their homes. In light of Black Friday’s “festivities,” Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle shone out to me as a great way to explain it. It’s not really a phenomenon, but an obsession in a society that perhaps values the commodity more than other areas. This personal essay explores the parallels I have seen between Black Friday and Guy Debord’s writing.

All citations are from Guy Debord in his work La Société du spectacle (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967). Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994).


“The world the spectacle holds up to view is at once here and elsewhere; it is the world of the commodity ruling over all lived experience. The commodity world is thus shown as it really is, for its logic is one with men’s estrangement from one another and from the sum total of what they produce.”

I’m a Search Engine Optimization Specialist in French and in English for a marketing company in Detroit. I like to say that I fix the Internet for a living, while getting to implement my French Literature degree. The reality is that I put the right words in the right places, and if the search engine algorithms take kindly to them, these words will rank better on Google. I describe it to my college advisor as, “writing French and English prose poems about the Chevrolet Silverado.”

I celebrate my anniversary at the company in November. My manager congratulates me. She was worried I wouldn’t make it this long, away from my family and friends in New York, in a field that isn’t as creative as one might hope. (Conversations with my manager include, “No Allegra, you can’t say that the Chevrolet Malibu is ‘making waves in Ottawa.’ I don’t think Canadians even know what Malibu Beach is.”) READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Night Visit” by Emmanuel Bove

His eyes left the comforting flame of the lamp, seemed to follow the flight of a bird, then landed on me.

What was making me sad? My books—all my books—were sleeping on the shelves. No one had spoken badly of me. My family and friends had no particular worries. I found myself in the midst of all things. So I did not need to fear that events, in my absence, would take a turn I would be unable to change. I was not unhappy with myself. And, even had I been, this intensity of feeling was different.

It was eleven o’clock at night. A lamp without a shade lit my desk. I had not gone out all day. Whenever fresh air has not put color in my cheeks, I don’t feel at ease. My wrists are smoother and I notice, with some displeasure, that the down covering them is silkier, and when I go to bed, my unexpended energy makes me uncomfortable.

I was dozing in an armchair. At the seam where the red velvet meets the wood, golden tacks form a border. One of them was missing and, there, the edge sagged a bit. I sat motionless. My hand tugged at this seam without my being aware of it, as it sought unconsciously to pull out the next tack.

It was only once I had managed to pull it out that I became aware of what I was doing. I felt a small joy at this discovery, as I feel each time I catch myself doing something without realizing it, or when I bring to light a sensation in me of which I was unaware. It makes me as happy as a ray of sunshine or a kind word. Anyone who would criticize me for this tiny joy will never understand me. I think that seeking knowledge of oneself is a pure deed. To criticize me for digging too deep into myself would be to criticize me for being happy.

I have to say, though, that this joy is very fragile. It really is not equal to the joy a ray of sunshine gives us. Quickly it disappears, and I have to look for something else inside me to bring it back to life. Then, in the intervals, it seems that everything is hostile to me and that the people around me, with their simple joy, are in reality happier than I am.


I was reading when there was a knock at the door. It was my friend Paul. He rushed in and the door, which he had yanked behind him so it would close, stopped half-way.

“What’s the matter, Paul?”


His face was pale, and his eyes darker than usual. He dropped onto the sofa, which he knew was soft.

“But what is it?”

He stood, walked around the room as I put my book down, and lit a cigarette, then sat again. He was smoking the way nervous people do, his cigarette drooping from his mouth. From time to time, he would spit out bits of tobacco.

“Please, Paul, tell me what’s happened to you.”

I looked at him. I tried to find a gesture, an expression, something in his bearing that would reassure me. But there was nothing. If he had been holding some object, his fingers would have trembled. He must have realized this because he avoided touching anything whatsoever.

“Paul, I’m your friend. Tell me everything. You know if there’s anything I can do for you, I’ll do it. It hurts me to see you like this, without being able to help you.” READ MORE…

Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XXI

Book of Monelle translator Kit Schluter brings to English the haunting final installment of Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes”!

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

Mime XXI. The awaited shade

The little guardian of the Temple of Persephone has laid out honey cakes sprinkled with poppy seeds in the baskets. For a long time now she has known that the goddess never so much as tastes them, for she watches from behind the pilasters. The Good Goddess remains unmoved and sups beneath the earth. And if she were to eat of our foods, she would rather bread rubbed with garlic and vinegar; for the bees of Hades produce a honey flavored of myrrh and the women who walk in the violet meadows there-below rattle black poppies without end. Thus the bread of the shades is dipped in honey that smells of embalmment and the seeds scattered upon it come with a desire for sleep. And thus why Homer said that the dead, governed by Odysseus’ broadsword, came by the ruck to drink the black blood of sheep in a square trench dug into the soil. And only this once did the dead partake of blood, in order to regain their life: customarily they repast on funereal honey and dark poppies, and the liquid that flows through their veins is the very water of the Lethe. The shades dine on sleep and drink of oblivion.


Drinking with Boris Vian

Part II in a series on food, literature, and translation—this time featuring Boris Vian and his classic "L'ecume des jours"

There is a way a room full of people drinking cocktails feels. It is distinct from the stale fog that spills from a fridge packed with six packs, and it is altogether different from the rosy-cheeked stupor induced by a case of wine. There is a severe and attentive atmosphere to the room. The alchemy of balancing sweetness, bitterness, and bite in a few ounces is mysterious and tempting. There is a self-awareness that comes with drinking an old fashioned, an edge to the precarious glass that a Manhattan arrives in. There is also enormous satisfaction in drinking a good one. The pleasure doesn’t last long—the drinks are always short and expensive. READ MORE…

Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XIX and Mime XX

“Then I enfolded her in my arms—but clasped nothing besides the beguiling air.”

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

Mime XIX. The mirror, the golden pin, the poppy

First to speak, the mirror:

I was shaped in silver by a skilful craftsman. At first I lay hollow like his hand and my other face looked like the ball of a wall-eye. But then I was given curvature enough to reflect images. Finally Athene breathed her wisdom into me. I am aware of the desires of the girl who holds me and already I tell her that she is pretty. Still at night she rises and lights her bronze lamp. She directs the gilded flight of the flame towards me, and her heart craves some other face than hers. I show her own white temple and her sculpted cheeks and the swelling tips of her breasts and her eyes full of curiosity. She almost touches me with her trembling lips—but the golden burning lights up her face alone; all else remains dark within me.


Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XVIII

Sam Gordon and Katie Assef with two very different translations of one of Schwob’s most captivating pieces.

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

Mime XVIII. Hermes the Psychagôgos
(trans. Sam Gordon)

I conduct the dead, whether they be shut up in sculpted stone sarcophagi or contained in the bellies of metal or clay urns, bedecked or gilded, or painted in blue, or eviscerated and without brains, or wrapped in strips of linen, and with my herald’s staff I guide their step as I usher them on.

We continue along a rapid way men cannot see. Courtesans press against virgins and murderers against philosophers, and mothers against those who refused to give birth, and priests against perjurers. For they are seeking forgiveness for their crimes, whether they imagined them in their heads, or committed them with their hands. And having not been free in life, bound as they were by laws and customs, or by their own memory, they fear isolation and lend one another support. She who slept naked amongst men in flagstoned chambers consoles a young girl who died before her wedding, and who dreams determinedly of love. One who used to kill at the roadside—face sullied with ash and soot—places a hand on the brow of a thinker who wanted to renew the world, who foretold death. The woman who loved her children and suffered by them hides her head in the breast of a Hetaira who was willfully sterile. The man draped in a long robe who had convinced himself to believe in his god, forcing himself down on bended knee, weeps on the shoulder of the cynic who had broken the oaths of the flesh and mind before the eyes of the citizens. In this way, they help each other throughout their journey, walking beneath the yoke of memory.


Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XVI and XVII

“Translating a poem from 1894 into a language that has evolved and cast off as much as English has is no easy task.”

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

Mime XVI. Sismé

She whom you see withered before you was named Sismé, a daughter of Thratta. First, she came to know of bees and flocks; then she tasted the salt of the sea; finally, a merchant trader lured her to the white houses of Syria. Now she remains enshrined like a precious statuette upon a stone plinth. Count the rings sparkling on her fingers: she has lived as many years. See the bandeau, taut about her crown: here, so timid, she received her first loving kiss. Touch the star of pale rubies that sleeps where her bosom once lay: there rested the head of a beloved. Near Sismé have been placed her faded mirror, her silver jackstones and the long amber pins that once wound through her hair; as come her twentieth year (there are twenty rings), she was adorned with treasures. A wealthy magistrate gave her all a woman could desire. Sismé will never forget him, and his jewels are not spurned by her fragile, white bones. In kind, he built this ornate tomb to protect his tender departed, and he surrounds her with perfumed jars and golden vessels for his fallen tears. Sismé is grateful to him. Yet you, if you wish to glimpse the secret of an embalmed heart, unclench the tiny joints of this left hand: here you will find a small, humble glass ring. This ring was once transparent; but with the years it has become hazy and obscure. Sismé loves it. Be silent and see.


Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XIV and XV

"Labourer of lesser forms, he translated us into his clay language […] but failed to comprehend the pent-up desire of things."

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

Mime XIV. The Parasol of Tanagra

Thus extended by my moulded rods, plaited with clay straw or woven with earthen fabric reddened by firing, I am held to the rear and towards the sun by a young girl with beautiful breasts. With the other hand she lifts her tunic of white yarn, and above her Persian sandals one may perceive ankles fashioned for electron rings to adorn. Her hair is wavy and a large pin traverses it at the nape of her neck. Averting her head she reveals her fear of the sun; she resembles Aphrodite come to incline her head.

Such is my mistress and earlier we have roamed through the meadows strewn with hyacinths, when she was in the rosy flesh and I made of yellow straw: the white sunshine kissed me on the outside, and below my dome I was embraced by the fragrance of the virgin’s hair. And the Goddess who transforms things having granted my wish, akin to a water-swallow falling with spread wings to caress with its beak a blossom born in the midst of a pond, I gently plunged onto her head. I lost the reed maintaining me far from her in the air, and became the hat covering her with a quivering roof.


On Violette Leduc: Interviewing Sophie Lewis

"Leduc's story as a writer is one of suppression and blocking at many points."

Sophie Lewis is a London-born writer, editor, and translator from French and Portuguese. Her recent translations include Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc (Salammbô), The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé (Pushkin), and The Earth Turned Upside Down by Jules Verne (Hesperus). She is editor-at-large at And Other Stories press, and she has lived in Rio de Janeiro since 2011. An excerpt from her translation of Thérèse and Isabelle appeared in the July 2014 issue of Asymptote. 

When did you first encounter Violette Leduc’s work? 

I was lucky to be let loose on Dalkey Archive Press’s backlist in 2007, when I started working for them as manager of their London office. They had published Leduc’s La Bâtarde with an afterword by Deborah Levy. As we were promoting Levy’s work in the UK just then, I started to read everything by her, including that piece—and then I was launched on Leduc.