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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sneak snip from the Mirbeau novel I'm translating


All around, coming from everywhere, you hear rifle shots; above you, from all over, like moans, like screams. The sky is filled with death throes, just like the earth.
            This evening, I came back up from the canal a bit drunk, not really wasted, but with a strange heaviness in my head. On the threshold of the cabaret, where I left the grinning men behind, a chill seized me, and the ascent from the canal bank hasn’t warmed me up. Ordinarily when I’ve drunk too much, I fall like a lump into bed and I sleep and sleep, a happy sleep, a sleep full of parades of beautiful chimeras and consoling joys. But this evening I’m not sleepy; I’ve never felt as sad as I do tonight. I try in vain to recover and follow the train of my memories. I remember nothing anymore… it all floats in my head, like a heavy, impenetrable fog. And I’m afraid of the silence that surrounds me, I’m afraid of my shadow there on the wall, I’m afraid of that wailing dog… why does he only bark when I’m sad? Oh! These still nights! These dead nights, when not a breath of air comes to stir the branches of the trees, or lift the tiles of my roof, or make the windows crack—how terrible they are! I try to take refuge in the past, to recall faces and things… my father is dead, my mother is dead, my sisters are married… but this evening I can’t even remember how all of that happened!...
            Ah! Here’s my companion. My only companion. It’s a little spider. She dropped from the ceiling on an invisible thread and stopped a few centimetres from the lamp’s glass cover, but outside of its glow. And she rests there, her long limbs folded, at the end of the thread she just spun. Why? There are no more flies, no more insects. And she hangs there idle, doesn’t spin any webs or lie in ambush. She seems to sleep, her belly turned to the warmth of the lamp. She sleeps or she dreams. A mischievous impulse makes me move the lamp to the right. So, nimble like a gymnast, the spider climbs back up the invisible thread, crosses the ceiling, and drops back down a new thread until she’s set herself up again in the heat of the lamp. She refolds her long spindly legs, seesaws for an instant, and is still again. I repeat the experiment several times, pulling away the lamp, to the right, to the left, and the spider always climbs back up and back down to station herself, with an admirable precision, close to the glass with its gentle warmth. As I watch the spider, the minutes pass, the hours roll by; I watch the still little spider, and it seems that she’s watching me as well, her eight eyes fixed ironically upon me; and I hear her say to me:
            “You’re sad, you despair, and you cry! It’s your own fault. Why did you want to become a fly? You could have easily been like me, a joyful spider… Don’t you see, in life, you have to eat or be eaten? Myself, I prefer to eat… and it’s so amusing! The flies are so confident, so stupid. You put out a little snare, practically nothing—a few threads in the sun, between two leaves, between two flowers. The flies like the sun, they like light, they like flowers, they’re all poets. They come and tangle their wings in the webs strung round those flowers in the sun… and you take them, and you eat them. Flies taste so good!... Oh, how stupid you are, go away! Your lamp is dying, good night!’
            And the spider climbs back up to the ceiling and disappears behind a rafter in the shadows.
            That dog is still barking outside! Another dog, farther away, answers. I feel the chill of death invade me.
            I go to the window. The moon has risen and chased away the fog. Between the bare branches of the trees, the sky alights and the stars burn cruelly. And I think:
            “So what if I had been a human spider, so what if I had savored the joy of murder? Would I have been happy, or happier? Would I not have been crushed anyway by the mystery of that sky, by all that’s unknown, by all of this infinity that weighs on me? What does it matter if I live the way I live? Life is the only sorrow! To live in pleasure amongst the crowd, or to live in solitude, surrounded by dread and silence—aren’t they the same thing? And I don’t have the courage to kill myself!”

            I didn’t drink enough tonight...


  1. Replies
    1. I love it... so I'm taking it rather slower than I'd theoretically like, considering all the other shit I want to get done, if that makes any sense. It's a really hard balance to try to translate as accurately as possible without sounding stilted in the target language/era. "Era" is actually the harder row to hoe there; writing conventions, particularly as they affect dialogue and dramatic interjections, have changed in all modern European languages since this was written, so what would be relatively easy to translate from 19th-century French into natural-sounding 19the-century English sounds weird and stilted if you try to ignore the conventions of our little settlement in time... I'd be kidding myself if I thought trying to write believable 19th-century English was my better bet here. But how much do you change?

    2. I'm no French scholar, but I'm sure you're doing a great job.

      I spent a few days in Paris around New Year. Damn, damn, damn, apart from the misfortune of being born, why did I have to be born into a bland, boring, monoglot, cultureless country when I could be an arrogant, swaggering, Frenchman who casually quotes great authors the way other people quote sports stats?

    3. But anyway, don't feel bad, popular current French litfic is almost as moribund as any other... Beigbeder always starts off interesting, for example, but he couldn't write a good ending if you put a gun to his head. He elaborately takes himself down for being bourgeois-spawn, but that doesn't change the fact that he got where he is because he's bourgeois-spawn... just a more erudite Dave Eggers. Smothering everyone who didn't get the chance he did and whining about it all the while... not that I didn't get a kick out of 99 Francs, to be fair. But that's mostly because I didn't read it till after I wound up having to take a job in the ad industry, and it amuses me that the trade jargon has remained the same since he wrote it...

    4. (No doubt there's much better French fiction being written, by some wage slave at a gas station out in in Bumblefuck, Brittany...)

    5. Even if contemporary French fiction is rather feeble – at least the prose of Michel Houellebecq has some virility.

  2. I'm from Ireland, living in England, so I have the experience of two monoglot countries (no one in Ireland speaks Irish, thanks to her madgestee's governments in the 19th century), and Irish culture is depressingly conformist these days. (Very few Irish people really get Beckett.)

    Pierre Merot's 'Mammals' I really enjoyed. A more compassionate and gently despairing version of Houellebecq.

    1. Sorry, Ann.
      Karl i took your description of Paris without your permission. I love the way you put it.
      And Happy Birthday, Ann. To me, you are still a youngster. I like the way you put words into an amusing combinations.

    2. Thanks, Jindra.
      Karl, I couldn't get Mammals at a reasonable price, but I got Arkansas for Kindle and will wait on Mammals... looking forward to it! Thanks for the recommendation.

    3. My pleasure, Jindra. I hope you're well.

      Ann, you can get Mammals for practically nothing through Amazon UK. I imagine the cost of shipping it to where you are would only be a few dollars.

    4. Woog. Have you tried to mail anything transoceanic post lately? I'm better off reading Arkansas on Kindle and waiting for them to Kindle Mammiferes (Note on Kindle: although their international licensing rights are limited, it's pretty easy to trick Amazon into thinking you live in whatever country you want to download stuff from, so long as you don't "move" too often).


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