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Two Reviews in One: Iphigénie by Racine, L’Écume des Jours by Vian Tom Send a noteboard - 20/06/2012 09:06:03 PM
Edward Gibbon, in one of his infamous footnotes to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, excoriated a contemporary author who had mistranslated a line, noting that it had misled him and he saw the error only when he went back to the original source. After heaping scorn upon the contemporary, he wrote in exasperation, “Always avoid translations!” It is a motto that I have taken heart to and which graces my signature at this site.

It is in the spirit of Gibbon’s exclamation that I present a dual review, the first Racine’s Iphigénie, and the second Vian’s L’Écume des Jours. While I am certain that both have been translated, I believe that both are fundamentally untranslatable. They are at opposite extremes of the literary spectrum in many ways – one is a play, the other prose, one is antiquated, the other surreal, one was written in the 17th Century, the other in the 20th – and yet both highlight the same problems of translation that led me to learn French in the first place.


It seems that people rarely read books from the era immediately preceding the Nineteenth Century, and I believe this has to do with how fundamentally the Romantic movement affected literature, poetry and drama. It affected other aspects of art as well, including music, but in the realm of the printed word in particular it seemed to invalidate a lot of the work that came right before it, or at least to cast that work into a world so alien to our own that we are often at a loss when attempting to approach it. The long, sonorous monologues, the stilted classical figures and the sense of antiquity that one finds when reading Racine makes it seem, at times, as though his plays are actually translations of late Roman authors, rather than original works from the era of Louis XIV.

Despite this artificiality and anachronistic tone, however, the play was at its heart beautifully written. The whole was written in rhyming couplets of almost flawless quality, and, although it is presented as drama, I see Racine’s work, due to the lack of activity and plot progression, more as poems than as plays. The feeling that I got when I read it was close to the feeling that I had when I read Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin, with the exception that Pushkin’s poem was closer to the Nineteenth Century novel as the result of its choice of subject and story.

Racine, on the other hand, chooses some of the more obscure stories from the Classical world, retelling them with an exaggerated and, one might say, excessive level of expression and exposition. While very little happens, the reader has the opportunity enjoy a great deal of posturing and explanation as to the state of the psyche of the various characters (but in a way distinct from the classical Greek tragedians, it must be noted). There is always a distance between the reader and the story. The characters are too symbolic and stylized, the words are far too ornate and stilted to act on the reader with a sense of immediacy and the pace is too slow to create a sense of suspense. As I stated before, to enjoy the work the reader must, essentially, treat the work as a long poem and enjoy the cadence of the words, the rhyme, and the artificial and stilted beauty the same way one appreciates a stuffily classical Baroque painting.

For this reason, I believe that Racine’s plays must be read only in French. The injunction to “Always avoid translations!” may not be a strict one for many authors and works, but because Racine’s work is fundamentally indistinguishable from poetry, the reader who attempts a Racine play in translation is bound to come away dissatisfied. Caveat lector.

L’Écume des Jours

The first thing that one notices about this novel, after the surrealism or absurdity or whatever one chooses to call it, is that the novel was written by a very young author. If I had to summarize the content of the novel, I would summarize it as a litany of the fears of a young man. The main protagonist, Colin, is obsessed with appearances, making an impression on others and generally being cool. His primary dilemma is that his best friend, Chick, is seeing a girl, Alise, with whom Colin has fallen in love. This love is very obviously mutual, but there is an adolescent sense of duty – a desire not to “betray a friend’s trust” – that grips Colin and so he refuses to act on his feelings. A novel written by an older person would almost certainly see the mutual attraction lead to either a secret affair or a broken friendship, but Vian does not follow those lines.

Instead, Colin’s refusal to betray his friend’s trust set in motion an entire series of tragic events that are punctuated by surreal events seemingly thrown into the novel as a means of youthful escapism, a way of blunting the impact of harsh truths about life, but which ultimately ends up doing nothing more than reinforce those harsh truths. The nature of the surrealism is such that it resembles the edges of a psilocybin trip more than anything else, except that much of the surrealism involves vicious and sudden, one might even say casual, violence, which is very unlike the mushroom or LSD experience.

Instead of carrying on with Alise, Colin instead throws himself into a relationship that, given the unreal aspects of the novel, might be nothing more than Colin’s imagination. Chloé, Colin’s new love and then wife, by chance (or not) bears the same name as one of Colin’s favorite Duke Ellington numbers, and she is wearing the exact same dress at a party that their mutual friend Isis has on at that same party. Regardless of whether or not she is real, she represents another terror of a young man – responsibility. Almost immediately, Chloé becomes a burden to Colin because she falls ill with, of all things, a nénuphar, a water lily, growing in her lung. Their intimacy is destroyed and Colin is forced to pay enormous amounts of money to send her to a mountain sanitarium where, it is hoped, the cold air will kill the nénuphar. Part of the treatment also, bizarrely, involves surrounding her with other flowers. This absurd ailment is in keeping with the novel’s awareness of scent, and Chloé and the artificial scents which always surround her are in contrast to Alise, whom Colin says smells good even though she professes to use no perfume.

Colin has given a large amount of money to Chick to help Chick get married, though Chick instead wastes all the money on buying every single book associated with philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, a character whose real life antecedent should be clear to everyone. Since Colin has then wasted all of his money on Chloé, he must – the horror! – find a job, though he doesn’t like working. The entire approach to money and employment is also that of a young man, or even a child.

In short, the novel expresses the fears of a young man who has just left adolescence and is struggling to understand the adult world. There is a heavy dose of cynicism heaped upon that world, and this cynicism is probably on balance well-placed. The novel is, despite its progression from happiness to tragedy, a light read that should not be taken too seriously. There is little, if any, attempt to make the characters believable enough as to be sympathetic, and in this the Vian novel is oddly close to the Racine play. While the reader may feel a bit of sorrow, it is not really presented with enough pathos to stir any deep emotion (falling on the opposite extreme of Racine, who exhibits an exaggerated sense of pathos, to the same result).

There was a high degree of word-play in Vian’s novel, however, and I think that this makes it very difficult to translate into other languages. While some expressions, such as the pianocktail, are already ready for export (or, more aptly, ready for import into French), other allusions and jokes are so obscure that I was grateful for the Pléiade footnotes. For example, at one point a book is mentioned which was supposedly written by le chanoine Vouille. The editors noted that, in the first edition of the book, the name “Vouille” was separated as “V ouille”, which was then “corrected” in later editions. However, reading the “V” as a roman numeral in French, one gets the phrase “cinq ouille”, which is a reference to the Rabelaisian “Saint Couille” (and, for those totally unfamiliar with French obscenities, couille means ball or testicle in a very vulgar mode of expression). I am positive that, without the footnote, I would have missed that. I did get plenty of other references and jokes, though, and it was hard to take the supposedly serious part of the book seriously as a result.

As a result, I would recommend the novel for those who speak and/or read French, but probably not for those who would be tempted to pick up an English (or Russian, or German, or Swahili) translation.

Political correctness is the pettiest form of casuistry.

ἡ δὲ κἀκ τριῶν τρυπημάτων ἐργαζομένη ἐνεκάλει τῇ φύσει, δυσφορουμένη, ὅτι δὴ μὴ καὶ τοὺς τιτθοὺς αὐτῇ εὐρύτερον ἢ νῦν εἰσι τρυπώη, ὅπως καὶ ἄλλην ἐνταῦθα μίξιν ἐπιτεχνᾶσθαι δυνατὴ εἴη. – Procopius

Ummaka qinnassa nīk!

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Two Reviews in One: Iphigénie by Racine, L’Écume des Jours by Vian - 20/06/2012 09:06:03 PM 6101 Views
Re: Two Reviews in One: Iphigénie by Racine, L’Écume des Jours by Vian - 21/06/2012 06:16:28 PM 1210 Views
I'm very glad to have your input. - 22/06/2012 06:10:28 AM 1020 Views
Re: I'm very glad to have your input. - 22/06/2012 07:37:08 PM 1017 Views
I've been a fan of Lully for some time. - 23/06/2012 03:33:44 AM 967 Views
Re: I've been a fan of Lully for some time. - 24/06/2012 02:06:19 PM 1334 Views
You have now made me sad that I can't find the Beaussant book - 25/06/2012 02:58:09 AM 946 Views
Haven't read that Racine, but I've read others. - 29/06/2012 01:49:42 AM 785 Views

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