Saturday, December 3, 2016

André Gide (& Céline & Bove)

One of the downsides of not being particularly versed in French literature (and only being able to read the originals tolerably well) is that one's perception of how important certain authors are is wholly dependent upon what has been translated.  Perhaps this is even more true of post-1930 Russian literature where the main authors that have been translated were critical of the regime or on the outs for one reason or another (Bulgakov in particular).  Almost all of the contemporary NYRB Russian translations have been of outsider authors (Grossman, Sokolov, Platonov, etc.).

While the slant is not as purely political with French literature, it still seems to me that there is a real focus on outsider authors getting more attention, such as Céline or Gide and more recently there has been a bit of a resurgent interest in Bove.  In terms of relatively contemporary poetry, the two that come to mind are Baudelaire and Rimbaud, both of whom sort of exemplify the poet of the outcasts.  There are some exceptions, of course.  Muriel Barbery was/is fairly mainstream, and likely the most read French author (by English-speakers that is) is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  While he has a dash of the romantic outsider to him, this is a far cry from the focus on down-and-out characters by Bove or Gide's exploration of sexual deviance (including homosexuality at a time when it was still a criminal offense).

I am sure one could construct a similar picture of writers working in English if one only read Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs and Paul Bowles, for example.  I'm just aware of the much wider range of conventional English novels.  While these authors certainly have their place, they probably would not be considered the core of the literary canon.  I honestly don't know what the French literary canon would look like, other than Proust would probably be at the top of the list.  This list from Le Monde is interesting, since it includes far more "foreign" authors and Camus's The Outsider/The Stranger displaces Proust for the top slot.  In any case, Céline's Journey to the End of Night is in the top 10, though none of his other works make the list.  Gide's The Counterfeiters is at slot 30, though it would crack the top 20 if only French-language works were counted.  None of Gide's other novels are on there, which surprises me a bit, since I would have expected to see L'Immoraliste.  Bove is not on the list at all, which doesn't surprise me that much, as his reputation definitely slipped after 1970 or so, and while he is being "rehabilitated" in English, I am not sure if that is the case in France.  I don't want to dwell too much on this list* (though it is a solid list of books filtered through a Parisian frame of mind), aside from the fact that it has inspired me to include Malraux's Man's Fate on my reading list (it's a book I've been vaguely aware of for a long time but never have read).  I also wasn't aware of Jacques Prévert's Paroles, and I decided to order the City Lights edition which has the original poems and a side-by-side translation by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I won't really discuss Bove here, since I already have a post dedicated to his work.  My favorite book so far has been Armand and my least favorite was A Man Who Knows.  It appears that I will get to A Singular Man in the middle of 2017.

I've owned Céline's Journey to the End of Night (the New Directions edition) for what seems like forever, and a few years back, I picked up the companion Death on the Installment Plan (also ND).  I've never cracked them.  Recently, I added Journey to my reading list, but it is fairly close to the end, and it may well be 3 or so years before I get to it.  On the other hand, if the spirit moves me, I may move it up so that I read it no later than early 2018 for instance, and then slip in Death into Journey's place.  After some reflection (and reading of the reviews), I have decided to hold off from buying any other of his later works (such as Castle to Castle or even North), since they seem kind of like the writings of a very cranky, right-wing jerk (sort of like a more political Victor Meldrew complaining about everything).  They may be worth reading once, but that would definitely be it.

As far as Gide goes, I'm fairly sure that in high school I picked up a box set of his novels in French (from a library book sale) but eventually parted with them not having read any of them.  While that is a bit disappointing to my 40-year-old self, I have found that most of them can be found in electronic editions here, and that may actually be better, since it will be a lot easier for me to look up words and phrases on-line.

While not at all a complete list, this is how I am thinking of approaching Gide in terms of my overall interest level:

X Les Caves du Vatican – (The Vatican Cellars aka Lafcadio's Adventures) - 1914
L'immoraliste – (The Immoralist) - 1902
La porte étroite – (Strait Is the Gate) - 1909
Les faux-monnayeurs – (The Counterfeiters) - 1925
Isabelle – 1911/La Symphonie Pastorale – (The Pastoral Symphony) - 1919 Published as Two Symphonies by Vintage Books.

While there are several translations floating around, I'll probably stick with the Penguin editions.  (I haven't bought any of these so far, but I'll keep an eye out when I am in used book stores over the next couple of years.)  I've added The Vatican Cellars to my reading list, sort of pairing it with Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.  There is a small chance that I will actually end up tackling The Immoralist and Strait is the Gate sooner, since they are short novels and may end up on a parallel reading list of short novels I read at work on breaks (though I have to get through D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel first, and before I start that I want to read some of Freud's case histories -- there's just so much to try to read in one lifetime...).

Anyway, this basically covers my recent forays into French 20th C. literature.  I do feel I should have read much of it sooner, but I was occupied with other books.

* I went back and checked to see how many I had read, and I am up to 30 with another 15 on my long reading list.  I'll never read all of these books, but I'll probably cover about half of them within 3-4 years.  Pas mal.

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