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Monday, November 25, 2013

News at Hopeless Books: Delays, delays... but terrific delays!

Holy cow! I'm as sick of the zombie/vampire craze as anyone, but sometimes the dead do rise.

Hopeless Books' current productions are on hold while I edit a literary translation project I had long, long ago given up for a goner.

Back in the late 1990s an American anarchist friend swept me into his pipe dream of translating DANS LE CIEL, the lost novel of the late-19th-century anarchist French writer Octave Mirbeau, into an English version, IN THE SKY.

Now, anarchists confuse the hell out of me—"So you've noticed nothing works, really, eh? So er... what exactly was it you were having this self-righteous protest for? Oh, you're a socialist-anarchist, I see, that makes a lot of fucking sense, carry on"—but I know a good book when I read it.

Mirbeau was also the author of one of my favorite fictional annals of hopelessness ever; but to tell you how his DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID ends would be a complete spoiler. Let's just say that a twist in the last few pages brings it from a flirtation with utopianism back to the dreary cycles of life with a grace that's worthy of Cioran. (It's also about infinity times as entertaining as Cioran.)

DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, however, has already been printed in English translations, so the group that recruited me was focusing on IN THE SKY. They recruited me because, well, no one originally involved in the project was terribly bilingual. I was to do the work of translation while they took care of the scholarship, promotion, and publisher-hunting.

Translating properly is not an easy job, especially when you have a day job. I repeat, this was the late 90s, when scruffy youths still didn't generally own computers, so I did everything by hand, with a pen, notebook, and analog dictionary. And of course, timely publication of the finished product was never guaranteed, although it turned out to be, er, even rather less guaranteed than I assumed.

But it seemed worth it. Being involved with a work, by a writer I admired, that had never been translated into English seemed like a huge honor to me at twenty-whatever; to tell you the truth it seems like even more of one now. I even flew and trained it out to Angers, in the west of France (I was bussing tables for a living at the time, which tells you a. How excited I was, and b. What inflation has done to travel in the past 15 years), to meet Dr. Pierre Michel, the main enthusiast behind the project and probably the world's biggest living Mirbeau scholar, and to get advice from him on the work.

Dr. Michel, president of the Société Octave Mirbeau and editor of the Cahiers Mirbeau series for the past two decades, was (and still is, it turns out) the main engine behind an attempted Mirbeau revival, for both French and English reading audiences. Indeed, the edition of the French text on which we're basing the translation was the work of Dr. Michel in the first place. Before Dr. Michel began his travaux, this chunk of Mirbeau's work was pretty much lost to Francophonic audiences as well.

Which is too bad. Mirbeau was plagued by physical ailments and self-hatred throughout his career, and particularly during the period when he wrote DANS LE CIEL, but many of his more famous contemporaries—Guy de Maupassant; the Impressionists—saw no reason for his refusal to engage in any aggressive tooting of his own horn. DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID was probably his most swinging, fun-read text, but the subtleties of IN THE SKY are incredibly expressive of the dangers of a romantic, ascetic, or even plain old truth-seeking temperament.

To try to tear yourself away from normal, earthly human life into the eerie realm of Art, Mind, and Romance—as they understood it in the late 19th century and even as we materialist post-relevancies, in faint echoes, perceive this ethereal oubliette now—is bad enough when you do it on purpose. But when you're doomed to live in the artistic sky, when you can't come down from the clouds, you are, to use the vernacular, fucked as a human being.

Mirbeau seemed to understand that just as well as he understood the more earthly, class-conflict based troubles that he covered in CHAMBERMAID. This lost volume, which is probably more clearly influenced by Mirbeau's association with the wild paint-eating early Impressionists than anything else he wrote, bridges the gap between the hefty CHAMBERMAID tome and the more abstract TORTURE GARDEN.

Anyway. Here on Earth, I translated the whole SKY and mailed the handwritten chapters off to my anarchist friend. And then—if I had been more worldly wise at the time I would have seen this coming—the anarchist hit some strange times of his own, the manuscript I'd done was lost somewhere, and the project sort of floated off into the sky.

I'd almost forgotten about it—my brain likes to block out embittering things on me sometimes—when Claire Nettleton looked me up. I'm not sure about the details, but someone, probably Dr. Michel, somehow dug most of my handwritten translation up. I'd lost track of him over the years, so he couldn't get in touch with me, so he (Googled? Who knows how he found her?) contacted Claire, whose doctoral dissertation in French involved some mention of Mirbeau (the more I think about this, the more I think he Googled her; I'm always amazed at Google's ability to snoop into obscure academic writing) and recruited her to re-translate the missing chapters.

When they finally tracked me down and asked me to edit Nettleton's work and mine into what would appear to be an organic whole, I was shocked and enthused. Nothing like finding out that hours and hours of work you'd thought were for nought were not.

So, off I go, faced with the double task of a. Making three chapters of someone else's idea of Mirbeau's voice sound just like my idea of Mirbeau's voice, and b. Cringefully editing my own post-adolescent pretentiousness into what sounds like a translation done by a human being and not a caricature.

If this project succeeds I hope you'll read it. As for volumes that are under my more complete and direct control, they'll be coming, as soon as I climb down from... well, translating this book doesn't exactly put you in the place from which it was originally written. I'll say "from the place where two languages meet the horrible gaps in human self-knowledge that lie both between and inside of them." This would be a "nicer" place if IN THE SKY were a "nicer" book, of course, but fortunately "nice" isn't my literary forte.


  1. Great stuff, Ann! Mirbeau badly needs more exposure in the English speaking world.

  2. Any writer who would dare to explore the tragic consequences when an artist’s somewhat inadequate abilities fail to convey his infinite inspirations certainly deserves belated translation. Surely Octave Mirabeau’s novel is the perfect illustration of what happens when a creator’s talents don’t quite measure-up.

  3. You're assuming that the world actually rewards merit there. Two words: Lena Dunham.

  4. That is, unless you've read Dans le Ciel and didn't like it...


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