french

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

the poisoning angel

During the first half of the nineteenth century in Brittany, a household cook went on a decades’ long killing spree. She poisoned men, women, and children, opting to lace cakes and soup with arsenic. Her victims would swell and be in immense discomfort before they finally expired. The cook killed dozens of people.

It all sounds quite gruesome (and it is, of course), but with time dividing us and a closer examination of Hélène Jégado’s spree, one can’t help but think how preposterous it all is. She had no clear reasoning for it. Hélène was not explicitly after money or other possessions, she just liked offing people. If she was accused of a petty crime like stealing a sheet or book, the accuser was done for. She left so many bodies piling behind her that the villagers outwardly yelled obscenities at her in the streets.

In The Poisoning Angel, Hélène Jégado’s life and crimes have been fictionalized by author Jean Teulé as he portrays the dastardly affairs in a dark comedy vein. As a child, Hélène is taught different folklore including one about the Ankou, the Breton myth of death. She takes on this personification and makes it her life’s work, so to speak, to dispatch everyone in her wake.

The majority of the novel is concerned with the various households Hélène Jégado joins throughout the years. With every new master of the house or suspicious domestic servant, the reader looks through one open eye as her fatal soups and cakes are served one after another. Afterward, this did become a bit repetitive; there wasn’t much variety in each new household. Moments that did stick out were when Hélène’s new position was in a venue different from the others. It was particularly engaging when she takes up as the cook of a brothel, both cooking her fare and providing comfort to the gaggle of soldiers that find their way there. The rapidity of their dispatches is downright farcical.

Beginning each chapter is a simple map of Brittany with points notating Hélène’s movements as she absconds from each residence. At some point, the path criss-crosses adding to that aforementioned preposterous feeling and the addition of a couple of groupie wigmakers, who clip the recently deceased’s hair for their own uses, make me wonder if this story wouldn’t be better suited for a stage play.

The Poisoning Angel is translated from its original French by Melanie Florence. She took a particularly interesting approach as she included some of the Breton language that was surely in the original novel. Hélène comes from Brittany, an area of France that is continually designated as other. This further outcasts her throughout the book.

For further reading, I suggest Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder, where I read an excerpt about the real Hélène Jégado, which is available for free here.

The Poisoning Angel will be published on July 14th by Gallic Books.

Added to The International Reading List

Nagasaki by Éric Faye

Before the novel even begins, the reader is notified that it is “based on a story which appeared in several Japanese newspapers…in May 2008.”¹ This, of course, makes the words which lie beneath the cover even more titillating.

Meteorologist Shimura Kobo, a fifty-six year old life-long bachelor living in Nagasaki, Japan, begins to realize small changes in the house he lives in by himself: small portions of food are going missing, the level of juice in the container is going down between the time he leaves for work in the morning till when he returns in the evening. Like the meticulous scientist he is, Shimura records all of his observations down in a notebook. However, his rational mind tries to make sense of these strange occurrences that can’t possibly be happening.

Hadn’t the bottle of water been slightly closer to the sink earlier on? A matter of fifteen or twenty centimetres, it seemed to me. No sooner had I convinced myself of this than I changed my mind again. You’re making things up, trying to rationalise your unconscious thoughts. For that matter, are you really sure those yogurts disappeared after all?

Even though Shimura is so precise, even going so far as to measure his juice levels with a particular ruler, he can’t help by shake the thought that his brain is just fooling him. Sprinkled throughout are Shimura’s not completely realized regrets of not having a wife and family. In his first person narration, he posits several times the idea that if he had a wife, he would… There is also the occasional mention of his sister and brother-in-law who have not visited in some time, often writing letters informing him that their unable to come to Nagasaki for a visit.

Because Shimura spends his days analyzing weather patterns and utilizing technological instruments, it is of no surprise that he sets up camera equipment in his house to monitor his home while he is away at work. While watching from his office desk, he swears to see a shadow at first and then, perhaps, the visage of a woman. This uncanny moment when he is surveilling his own home, with only glimpses of a possible intruder, are unnerving.

Faye’s prose rendered in English translation by Emily Boyce is direct and simple. The sparse diction only adds to the heighten sense of insecurity the reader feels while piecing together Shimura’s rationalization and what might actually be happening.

Beyond the surveillance, there is another bit of story being told and that is Shimura’s briefly aforementioned longing for a wife. This is often manifested in sentiments of loneliness with glances of memories of young women from earlier life moments painted with an unconscious longing. Shimura is also shown watching television where news reports detailing the advancement of robotics upset him; the idea that in the near-future that humanoid machines will take over places where humans once dominated is disturbing to him.

For a man who uses technology so profoundly in his career and then ultimately in his own home, the idea of these robots taking over where humans should surely remain is uncomfortable. While watching one such broadcast, he imagines himself in old age, alone, with one these automatons. As he dies, it will “place a hand on [his] shoulder and gently whisper [his] name; it would pass this same hand over [his] eyes and mouth, dial the emergency services, and set the funeral arrangements in motion.” All of this, of course, are the familiar actions done by family, but have instead been replaced in Shimura’s lonely mind by a robot.

Nagasaki won the 2010 Académie Française novel award and like the imagined automaton, the book whispers in the reader’s ear even after the final page is read. As the events become clearer as the story goes on, there is still a mystery that lies within the emotions of the characters. This visceral feeling, perhaps, might be what led to the novel’s distinction in France.

At the beginning, I must admit, there were a few stumbling blocks. The text felt a little bit like it was a translation with a few clunky sentences and French idioms that were, perhaps, presented a little wobbly. However, these were few and once the text took off, the sentences and images were portrayed with language that swam in the haunted and curious corners of Shimura’s thoughts. A particular favorite was when Shimura, who had been having restless sleep since he realized things were not right in his home, finally begins to dream,

The unconscious was bursting through. The past seeped out through hidden fault lines and names came back to me with white-hot intensity. Hizuru, Mariko, or Fumiko, forgotten goddesses reappearing with a mocking laugh to say, ‘We’re still here. You won’t get rid of us that easily.’ By the time I awoke they had returned to their hiding places, leaving behind them, as they always did, a thin sheen of anxiety.

Like Shimura’s dream, anxiety and unconscious desires are what make this book creep into the reader’s mind, depositing its tale of the uncanny and upending the notion of home as being the one comfortable place we, as humans, expect to rely on.

Nagasaki will be released in English by Gallic Books on April 14. It will be available as both a paperback and e-book for UK readers and it will also be available as an e-book for US readers on that day with a January 2015 paperback American release.

**The [International] Reading List.

Shop Indie Bookstores Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide

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Further Information…
  1. The inspiration sounded extremely familiar, but I beat temptation to look up the origin story until after I finished reading the entire novel. I think you should, too.
  2. There is a 2011 Publishing Perspectives article about Gallic Books that is entirely informative and worth a read.
  3. The London-based publisher, Gallic Books, is a new one for me and I am ever so delighted about their publishing scheme. They are fairly new and are already doing a wonderful job of bringing foreign literature to an English reading public. They focus on French literature working with their own in-house translators and a slew of talented freelancers. In 2011, they had a mentoring program for up-and-coming translators, which awarded a contract to a new translation and if they weren’t busy enough, they also run Belgravia Books, an independent book shop in London that not only sells Gallic Books’ titles, but other works-in-translation. Bravo to everyone at Gallic Book and can’t wait for more of their titles! (take a look at their catalogue for their varying selection).

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol

Dutch edition; the American cover is entirely too precious

I came to this book not knowing much beyond the fact that Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles was a big hit upon its release in France, which led to its various translations into many languages but not English…until now.

The novel begins with forty-something Joséphine finding out that her husband Antoine has been carrying on with another women and that Joséphine is last to know. She immediately kicks him out and she is left to care for their two daughters and pay off a large outstanding bank debt by herself. Antoine leaves with his mistress to Kenya to run a Chinese-owned crocodile farm. Back in France, we meet various characters (mostly other family members or close friends) that make up the ensemble of this novel. Some of their plots relate directly to Joséphine’s own and others don’t quite tie in at all. They seemed placed there to flesh out a novel that, at moments, is lacking a genuine connection.

The real meat of the book lies with the plan that Joséphine and her more glamorous but bored sister Iris come up with. Joséphine, a scholar and researcher of 12th century European history, agrees to write a novel that her aforementioned bored sister pitched to a publisher at a party. Iris tells the white lie that she’s been writing a book about this time period and regurgitates what Joséphine has gone on about in the past.

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles suffers from unrealistic dialogue and stilted language, but it strengths lie with the relationship between the sisters. The shy and modest Joséphine feels freer to write the book she always wanted to by being Iris’ ghost writer. But when the book becomes incredibly successful and Iris is on television and in magazines promoting it, Joséphine has a mild crisis. Pancol could have explored more on the way Joséphine reacts to her new-found vigor. It is lightly mentioned or implied at times, but never really fleshed out. The crocodile farm is almost irrelevant to the novel beyond the title and her estranged husband’s occasional page presence can be chalked up to the reason to roll Joséphine out of her chrysalis.

At times, Joséphine’s sad sackery is infuriating and her older daughter, Hortense, is the only one that Pancol has written with the most believable dialogue to call her on it. Although not completely flat, almost all of the characters could use with a double dose of character development; the closest is Hortense who is first presented as a stereotypical teenage girl butting heads with her mother, but eventually, she becomes the biggest draw of the novel with quick wit and more smarts than the others.

I wonder if the odd language and syntax are present in the original French or if something is fishy with the translation. Sometimes the language is unnatural. I couldn’t help but mentally yell, No one speaks like that! Not even in a novel. Everything is explained matter-of-factly and my inner student had to refrain from the margin note: show not tell. Other odd parts of language could be due to a strange translation of French idioms. Instead of interpreting, the translators chose to stay too close to the original. For example,

It’s not like I’m the son of Frankenstein. I’m a good-looking guy with lead in his pencil, but she doesn’t even care enough to take a picture of me!

Many of the moments and reactions are predictable. This is a book I would recommend as a beach read, because it might otherwise be unfulfilling. By the end, I was more concerned with Hortense and Iris than Pancol’s lead, Joséphine. They showed more gumption and had more interesting reactions to the other characters that encompassed this world. I thought Pancol presented a gripping conundrum between the sisters and their book, but not enough trust was put in the reader to make sense of everything without being told directly by the author. Although, not surface level, it’s a shame the book didn’t pry a little more into the stories of the characters and the trouble they get themselves into.

international big

The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras

“Yes, it seemed that it was in this realm of her feelings that Lol Stein was different from others.”

ravishing of lol steinI believe everyone should read Marguerite Duras; she is a must. Most people have heard of The Lover, which is a spectacular novella and like The Ravishing of Lol Stein, begs to be read several times, from different angles and at different speeds.

The Ravishing of Lol Stein begins with the life of 19-year-old Lol Stein as she is engaged to Michael Richardson. While attending a summer ball, Michael dances with an older married woman who we then assume he begins an affair with. Their engagement is called off and Lol has a mental breakdown. From then on, the reader is left to suss out what is exactly going on. The narrative resumes about ten years later, when Lol with her husband and children return to the town where she was betrayed by her ex-fiance. The novel is sometimes confusing, which it is meant to be. Translator Richard Seaver is excellent when translating the long meandering sentences or illuminating the direct narration,

[O]f John Bedford it was said that he was capable of loving only women whose hearts had been broken and, what was more serious, that he had a strange penchant for young girls who had been jilted, and driven mad, by someone else.

At times, the reader is on wobbly terrain. The identity of which narrator is speaking at what time can be difficult but Duras is doing this purposefully. Lol Stein is mysterious and deemed unstable by the residents of her hometown, but to Lol, herself, she has completely recovered from her madness, which is a disappointment to her. Spying and watching people from afar are major themes and the reader feels as if they are looking at the story underwater–images appear hazy and just out of fingers’ reach. This all begs for the book to be reread several times with pleasure.

The reliability of Lol and the second narrator (whose identity is not revealed till halfway through) can be challenged at every turn, but by the conclusion of the novel the unreliability can somehow be trusted to be the actual story. Whirling around the lives of Lol and her friends, there is always a sense that there is a history that precedes them and that will go on without them as well as a history that is missing. The reader must consume the entire novel to parse the meaning and what is happening.

The memory itself goes back beyond this memory, back beyond itself. She was perfectly normal once upon a time, before she went mad at Town Beach.

Memory and perception are always strong themes for Marguerite Duras. Her work usually has a simple premise, which then is brilliantly unraveled and raveled once more. What is first perceived as gossip could possibly be the truth and what is labelled as madness is far more complicated (or not). Lol isn’t a useless housewife but is more resourceful than she lets on. Obscuring the view is also common. In The Lover, the protagonist looks through the slatted shades of her lover’s windows and Lol Stein is often found spying through the windows of a hotel.

I find Marguerite Duras very interesting. She was born in French Indochina in 1914 and lived for most of the 20th Century. She was extremely prolific and besides literature, she was also involved in film. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her screenplay, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. If you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend it (see the trailer on YouTube–it, of course, reveals nothing of the plot). It deals with memory like much of her work. You can see her bibliography here and the list of Le Monde‘s 100 Books of the Century (#71).

This is Number 8 on The [International] Reading List.

Chitting and Chatting with writer Emily Thibodeaux about Louisiana French and the new journal, Embrasser

embrasserI was thrilled and excited to recently hear that my friend and writer, Emily Thibodeaux (along with others) had started a new literary translation journal. Based in Louisiana, Embrasser “aims to embrace the history, culture, and stories told in the French dialects spoken outside of the motherland.” They’ve put out a call for submissions with their first issue focusing on Louisiana French (the journal is bilingual so read the details for more info). Below, you’ll find our lovely interview followed by a smorgasbord of information on how to submit, how to get involved, their mission statement, and more. Enjoy!

For a few years, you were living in New York City. What drew you back to your homeland of Louisiana? I was at the end of my graduate studies and had applied to a few jobs in the city, but hadn’t found much. I was surrounded by peers hard at work on their collections or novel, and also by a growing number of people involved in starting their own literary journals. Being that a lot of my work, including a novel in progress, is set in Acadiana, or the French speaking part of Southwest Louisiana, it seemed like the thing to do would be to return home. I also, thankfully, found adjunct employment teaching English at South Louisiana Community College. Being that Cajun French and its preservation is a cause close to my heart, once I was home, I thought that I could address preservation in a more direct way than by only writing a novel; I wanted to make an archive of the best current writing coming out of Louisiana right now, and translate that work into variations of Louisiana French. I also wanted the journal to serve as a learning tool for both Louisiana natives and those interested in learning Louisiana French.

Tell us a little about Louisiana French and why you chose to launch Embrasser—how you got started with it; your collaborators. Louisiana French is multi-valent; there are as many variations in spelling and usage as there are parishes. It is mostly an oral language, however, an excellent new dictionary, the Dictionary of Louisiana French as Spoken by Cajun, Creole, and American Indian Communities, a collaborative project between the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a few other universities, which has been years in the making, came out a few years ago; it seeks to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible, listing the parish where the word was collected and alternative spellings. I would like to take cues from the dictionary and to represent Louisiana French as it is spoken, and to accept non-standard spellings of words which are unique to each translator.

Cajun, the type of Louisiana French of which I am most intimately familiar, is made up of the French as spoken by the original French colonists in North America, the Acadians, who settled in Maritime Canada, along with Native American, and African influences. The Acadians, from where the word Cajun originates, were expelled from Acadie, modern day Nova Scotia, by the British in 1755. The bulk of Acadians were sent to Louisiana, while others were sent to Maine, Maryland, or back to France. Louisiana French was spoken in relative isolation before my grandparents’ generation it was not allowed to be spoken in schools. They were beaten with rubber hoses amongst other humiliating punishments for speaking their mother tongue. Now, there is an urgent need for preservation.

My mentor and advisor in this project is Rikki Ducornet, . She envisioned Embrasser as more of a global translation journal, whereas I had only originally focused on Louisiana. Jonathan Penton of Coeur Publishing, a small translation press funded by the Swiss Arts Council to translate work from German, is acting as publisher and helping with many aspects of the journal from public relations to website design, and my co-editor is Rosalyn Spencer who is a poet and Louisiana native who has worked in every aspect of the book industry. The name, Embrasser, means to hug and kiss, the obvious English cognate word being “embrace.” The idea of the journal is to connect and embrace unique varieties of international French. We accept work from Louisiana residents and also work from those outside of Louisiana who are writing about Louisiana French, or the Louisiana experience.

Official call for submissions. Click on image to read PDF for more information.

Official call for submissions. Click on image to read PDF for more information.

I am all about more literary translation in the US. How can people become more involved beyond just submitting to the journal? If people are interested in translating into Louisiana French, which includes Cajun, Creole, and French as spoken by Native Americans, they can email me at embrasser@coeurpublishing.com. Please check out the Facebook Page and the Embrasser website for updates about future issues. I will be calling for translators as well as for submissions for each issue, because the highlighted regions will change, and I would love to hear from you if you are interested in literary translation.

What do you see in Embrasser’s future? Embrasser will be published annually, with our first issue coming out for Mardi Gras 2014. In the future, Embrasser will focus on other francophone regions outside of France from French speaking Canada and Haiti to the Maghreb. Ideally, we will be able to find translators from these regions to translate submissions. The translators will vary from region to region, whereas the editors will remain the same. Embrasser seeks to highlight and preserve varieties of French that have been marginalized, and through this project, I would hope that excellent work could be exposed to the Anglophone world and also for there to be transfer and communication between these Francophone regions.

What have you been up to in Louisiana since leaving NYC? Any other new and exciting projects? I have been up to a lot! I wrote a play, “Bataille,” which was directed by a very talented friend, Jarin Schexsnider, which was performed in my house. I was on the submissions board for a new literary journal out of Baton Rouge, Belle Journal, which focuses on the experience of being a woman in the South (which also publishes men under feminine pen names!) I have also read some of my work at a local Lafayette reading series, Voices, and have done some dance including a contemporary ballet of Alice in Wonderland. I am currently involved in a local production of Hair, a contemporary dance piece to be performed at the New Orleans Fringe Festival, and am involved with starting Lafayette’s only burlesque troupe, Boom! Boom! Burlesque. I also paint faces for extra money. Basically, I’ve moved back home to join the circus, and I’m kind of loving it!

Which is a better literary prize? 100 bottles of wine or jet ski? It depends on what kind of wine it is! I might have to go with that.

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  • If you missed the PDF with the official call of submissions, you can find it here.
  • Embrasser is also seeking translators who love Louisiana French culture and literature to assist with the first issue. More details here.
  • The mission statement which details more about what the journal is about and how it goes beyond Louisiana French.

a new translation of Solaris by Stanisław Lem

What good news!

A new translation of Stanisław Lem’s 1961 classic science fiction novel, Solaris, has come out. Although a favorite book of mine, English readers without the ability to read the original Polish or translated French had to suffer with what his website calls,

[C]hildren’s “broken telephone game”; initially the book was translated from Polish into French. Then the French text served as a basis for the English edition.¹

The novel is not yet available in book form but you can find it as an Audible audiobook or for a special ebook price of $1.99 at Amazon. If anyone has seen this translation anywhere else for sale, let me know so I can add some links.

¹ I don’t know what the actual term for this type of translation is but I love the idea of referring to it as telephone translation.