TRANSLATING YVES BEAUCHEMIN

The Globe and Mail on  Saturday, December 29, contained a book review written by the thoughtful Russell Smith.  The review is of Yves Beauchemin’s latest novel, The Accidental Education of Jerome Lupien, translated by Wayne Grady.

The review is headed “An all-around disappointment”. The sub-heading reads “The translation of Quebecker Yves Beauchemin’s 2016 novel is full of cliches, clumsy language and implausible scenarios that would do well as a humourous cartoon.”

Naturally, I rushed to read it.

I should explain right away that I know and admire all of the people involved here, even the people at Anansi who published the book. I always read Russell Smith’s commentary on the literary scene with interest. As for Yves Beauchemin, I am a huge admirer. I have thrust “The Alley Cat”, his 1981 classic, upon hundreds of readers, and in my role as Publisher at M&S I have proudly published several of his later books.

My enthusiasm was such that before publishing “Charles The Bold”, I dragged Jane around the mean streets of east-end Montreal’s Rue Ontario area in freezing weather . It was in fact so cold that when we took shelter in a nearby church, the tears that sprang to our eyes from  the temperature change meant that we were instantly at home in the funeral party that we had accidentally joined . Jane was impressed — not favourably — that we were roaming the icy streets to follow the landmarks in the life “of a fictional character?” For Yves Beauchemin it was worth it. His Montreal is always a special place. What London was for Dickens, and Paris for Balzac, Montreal , in all its modern variety, is for Yves Beauchemin

As for Wayne Grady, my admiration for this walking compendium  of bookish virtues is hard to express. He is an excellent editor, an anthologist, a non-fiction writer, a novelist , a reviewer….and a superb translator. I had the pleasure of editing his translations of several Beauchemin books. I used to enjoy my role of editing Wayne’s translation so much that I would joke –sotto voce — that instead of being paid for the work, I would happily pay for the pleasure.

I should explain that while my spoken French is childish (my ears and lips limping along behind the conversation, trying to imagine the sounds in print) my translation of written French is good enough that many of my short translations have been published, without complaint.

When we published Yves, whom I got to know and like in person, my practice was always the same. I had read the book in French, to start the publishing process. When Wayne’s translation came in, I would read it, setting aside and ignoring the French original. Only when something seemed strange about the English manuscript would I go back to the original. And  invariably I would find myself saying, “Ah, I see the problem. This is very tricky to translate.” And almost invariably Wayne would have made the difficult choice — skilfully — between  an uneasy literal translation and a dangerously free one. My faith in Wayne’s superb translating abilities is such that if he were now to use the word “Gadzooks!”, I know it would represent an equivalent old French exclamation.

Translating the commonplace conversational cliches of a difficult hero like Jerome Lupien creates a special challenge. For Russell Smith, Wayne Grady’s translation fails the test here, falling back on cliches. To which I  say, for crying out loud, Wayne’s everyday language surely must establish the banal level of conversation, and thought, of our anti-hero Lucien. It works for me.

Many of Russell Smith’s criticisms in the review are fair. This is not Beauchemin at his best. But it’s still Beauchemin. I found myself once again happily immersed in the world of named streets, and coffee shops, and brasseries, and bookshops, and enjoying the reading very much. And for a loyal Quebecois like Yves to plunge into the shameful swamp of price-fixing in the construction industry there, which has been amply proved in official enquiries, must have been a painful journey. It is a world populated by shameless lobbyists like Jerome Lupien that richly deserves  bitter satirical treatment.

So why did an  astute reader like Russell Smith not get more out of the  book? I have one suggested answer, which is, you might say, political. When the struggle for Quebec’s future was going on, Yves Beauchemin was the President of the Union Des Ecrivains Quebecois and a vocal, hard-working leader in the fight for independence. He and I disagreed about this, but  I admired his passion, and his use of words, and ideas, to make his case.

Imagine, then, how such an idealist must feel today, now that his hopes for an independent Quebec, a country of his own, are almost gone. That, I suggest, is what makes this book fascinating.

For instance, in the middle of the book Jerome goes to a Thai restaurant near Cote des Neiges, eating his meal “until a familiar voice made him look around. To his left, in the middle of the room, Jacques Parizeau, the former Quebec premier, was sitting at a table with a man in his forties who looked perfectly at ease. That said, during his university days he’d often seen the famous politician having lunch in a local restaurant — alone, on one occasion, an ordinary citizen reading his newspaper.”

“Parizeau had been his father’s idol”. Jerome remembered how his father had said…”that man REALLY works for Quebec. We’d be our own country today if it wasn’t for those cheats who stole the referendum from us in 1995.”

The revealing Parizeau scene concludes: “As he ate, Jerome snuck furtive glances at the former politician. He’d aged and was bent over, his grey hair almost white, yet the familiar intelligent energy and aristocratic presence that, among journalists, earned him the nickname”Sir Jacques” still emanated from his eyes, face, and smallest gestures. Simply seeing him made one forget the sordid aspects of human nature.”

Do you see what I mean? This is a deeply important book for people who wonder about what former fighters for Quebec independence are now feeling. It doesn’t make for relaxed, easy satirical fiction. It’s more like a lament. A new Lament for a Lost Nation. See what you think.

 

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MY NEW SHOW IN OTTAWA ON MONDAY, JANUARY 21

I’m happy to announce a new show in the nation’s capital this month. Please tell your friends!

It is  ” GREAT SCOTS: Canada’s Finest Fiction Writers with Links to Scotland, 1867 to Today”

You, and other book-loving friends, can see it at 7.00 P.M.  ON MONDAY, JANUARY 21 at

THE ARTS COURT THEATRE, Suite 240, OTTAWA ART GALLERY, 7, DALY AVENUE.

As usual, this new 65-minute show will rely on the superb author portraits by Anthony Jenkins, presented on-screen by the wizardry of my “lovely and talented assistant”, my wife Jane. She also supplies the bursts of music from the decade in question, and the iconic works of Canadian photography and painting from the time….. while I roam around the stage , shamelessly celebrating our greatest Canadian writers.

As keen readers of this blog know, I’ve already given over 100 such shows based on STORIES ABOUT  STORYTELLERS.  Already, we’ve presented  over 90 shows based on my second book, ACROSS CANADA BY STORY, with more to come! Meanwhile, we’ve given GREAT SCOTS in Guelph (for the Launch at the School of Scottish Studies), and in Montreal, Quebec City, Saint John, Charlottetown, Antigonish, and Halifax, with a show booked for October in Vancouver.

The authors celebrated in the show include not only predictable “M-names”,  like MacLennan, Mitchell, MacLeod and Munro. You’ll find unexpected authors with names like Aubert De Gaspe, Connor, Gallant, Richards, and even…gasp….Leacock! There will, of course, be a Q and A session at the end, and over-ripe fruit may be thrown.

This show is being jointly sponsored by the Ottawa Public Library and by The Scottish Society of Ottawa . (For further details , see  their site at  https://ottscot.ca/ ott-scot-festival )

Tickets are FREE, and already we’ve heard from Ottawa friends who are coming, and even from a couple driving up from the USA. So please book your ticket now, and bring along — or alert — your friends who’d be interested.

And come along and say hello!

SATCHMO WAS BLACK IN CHARLOTTETOWN

We’re just back from a very enjoyable tour of the Maritimes, with six universities hosting six shows in seven hectic days. It was such fun that a detailed account of our 1,100 kilometres of driving (thanks, Jane!) through sun, rain, ice, sleet and snow to these warm academic havens will soon follow. Watch this space. (And watch for the delayed CBC Sunday Morning show about Hugh MacLennan in January.)

But first, a story that may shock you. By 1958, Louis Armstrong was world famous as a superb jazz artist. He had toured for thirty years, had appeared in many movies, and his trumpet and memorable vocals had inspired millions of music-lovers.

At home, however, as a black musician, raised in the South, he knew the sting of prejudice. As he put it, “I played in 99 million hotels I could never stay in.”

But then he came to Canada.

July 1958 saw him arrive in Charlottetown as “LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS ALL-STARS in The Greatest Musical that ever hit PEI.”

The recent CBC radio description by Matt Rainnie tells us that the show played to “2,000 people at the sports arena on Fitzroy Street — about the same size as the one he had played the night before in Halifax.” All very good. Except when he and his band went to stay in The Charlottetown Hotel, there were complaints. Apparently some white guests (described to me as “Americans, possibly from the South”) objected to sharing the lobby and the elevators, and possibly the air, with “Negroes”.

And the hotel caved in, and moved the musicians out of the hotel!

This almost unbelievable incident was hushed up until recently, when the historian Jim Hornby brought it to light, and presented an apology on behalf of the city.

There was one mitigating factor, which we, staying in The Dundee Arms, were thrilled to hear about. Apparently Satchmo and his ejected colleagues were warmly welcomed at “The Dundee Apartment Hotel”. So warmly, and with such genuine enthusiasm, that when he learned that his hotel hostess, Lorette Perry, was having her birthday the next day, that morning the most famous trumpet in the world came blasting down the ornate stairs, playing “Happy Birthday To You.”

We got to know those stairs well, lugging our bags up and down, to and from our bedroom, and on our way to The Carriage House, where we gave our show, hosted by Richard Lemm of UPEI.

The coincidences continue. The Carriage House was where this summer Jim Hornby revealed the disappointing details about The Charlottetown Hotel, before apologising on behalf of the city. And before concluding with a rousing jazz concert by local artists!

My thanks to Jane’s cousin, Norman Finlayson (another cousin!) for his help in  researching this story.

MAVIS GALLANT PROBLEMS

THE ICE CREAM TRUCK GOING DOWN THE STREET

Mavis Gallant died at the age of 91 four years ago, on February 18. She died in Paris, an ex-patriate Canadian writer who was admired by other fine writers around the world. Yet now she is at the centre of a scandal rocking the American literary firmament, from coast to coast.

Not that Mavis has any responsibility here, or is in any way to blame. On the contrary, one side in the noisy fight claims that it is defending her against a modern author who is stealing her work.

The story begins in the pages of “The New Yorker”, the magazine that for decades published Mavis Gallant’s work. In fact, only John Updike had more fiction appear in the magazine over the years than Mavis, and the role the magazine played in revealing her genius to the world is well known. On January 9th this year, however, the magazine published a piece of fiction by Sadia Shepard entitled “Foreign-Returned”.

That is the simple heading for the story. No reference is made to Mavis Gallant there, as in “A Tribute to Mavis Gallant”. There is also no specific reference such as “Based on the Mavis Gallant story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street.” To the unsuspecting reader, the story stands alone.

However, in a separate interview with the story’s editor, Deborah Treisman, Sadia Shepard acknowledges “a great debt” to the Mavis Gallant Story “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street”, which she names.

Enter Francine Prose, the well-known American novelist. In a letter that sends lightning bolts from the page she accuses Shepard of stealing from the Gallant story. Her letter appeared in the The New Yorker on January 22, is and worth reading in its powerful entirety.

To summarize, it begins with Prose noting that a few sentences into the Shepard story “I began to get the eerie feeling that I knew exactly what was coming next. And, in fact I did, because almost everything that happens in Shepard’s story happens in Mavis Gallant’s story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street, published in The New Yorker, in 1963. Scene by scene, plot turn by plot turn, gesture by gesture, the Shepard story follows the Gallant – the main difference being that the characters are Pakistanis in Connecticut rather than Canadians in Geneva. Some phrases and sentences are mirrored with only a few words changed.”

Prose concludes by arguing strongly that “the correspondences far exceed the bounds of “debt”, or even of “homage, or of a “translation” into a different ethnicity and historical period.”

She ends with the thunderclap: “Is it really acceptable to change the names and identities of fictional characters and then claim the story as one’s own original work? Why, then, do we bother having copyright laws?”

BANG! The debate blew up with a number of writers in the New Yorker and The Los Angeles Review of Books accusing Francine Prose (and many others who criticized Shepard’s story) of racial insensitivity. Jess Row in a letter to The New Yorker actually says “…we’re not talking about the mechanics of story composition; this is a conversation about racial and cultural power and prestige”.

So where does this leave a Canadian reader? Well, I’m far from being a typical Canadian reader here, although I made my living as a Publisher, trying to anticipate the reactions of that elusive reader. But I had the honour to publish Mavis’s work, introducing her to Canadians as one of our best writers with From The Fifteenth District in 1978. We were friends, as I continued to visit her in Paris, see her in Toronto and Montreal, and to publish her magnificent stories. The classic story in question, “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” appears in two of our books: Home Truths: Canadians At Home and Abroad (1981, which won the Governor-General’s Award), and Selected Stories (1996).

A Canadian reader, I think will see more than an outsider in this classic story with the distinctive title. It concerns a childhood memory shared by Agnes Bruser, who grew up, Mavis suggests, “small, mole-faced, round-shouldered because she has always carried a younger child”, in a hard-striving, large Norwegian family in a small town in the Prairies. The house was so lacking in privacy that her happiest time was to slip out early in the morning in the summer. So early that, in those days before refrigerators, she could see the ice wagon making its deliveries, door to door.

Her memory of that apparently trivial moment, “Once in your life alone in the universe”, is so important to her she remembers telling it to the other Canadian she’s assigned to share an office with in Geneva. In fact, it’s the only real conversation she ever has with Peter Frazier (of the Toronto Fraziers, descended from “granite Presbyterian immigrants from Scotland” who made the family fortune that Peter at first was able to live off, until the old money ran out.)

Peter Frazier is the central character in the story, and he has little in common with Agnes from the prairies. He has never been in the West. He has never felt it necessary to gain a university degree. Agnes is so proud of hers that when she moves into the office that she has been given to share with this other Canadian she hangs her framed university degree on the wall. “It was one of the gritty, prideful gestures that stand for push, toil and family sacrifice.” On her desk she places a Bible.

You may be surprised to learn that in the, let’s say,” parallel” story by Sadia Shepard, what is placed on the desk by the Pakistani woman, Hina, to the alarm of her new colleague Hassan, is a copy of the Koran.

The anti-climactic scene in both stories follows a disastrous party at the home of influential friends from their own community. In both cases the male sharing the office resentfully with the female newcomer set above him finds himself conscripted to see her home, drunk. In her apartment, things could go very badly, but as both stories tell us, in these exact words, “Nothing happened.” Except in Mavis’s marvellous telling, when Agnes clumsily emerges from her bathroom to embrace Peter, she is wearing “ a dressing gown of orphanage wool.” Orphanage wool!

As for the Sadia Shepard story, I’m not qualified by personal knowledge to give an informed opinion. I do know the Connecticut where the story is set, but only through one eight-month academic year in New Haven.  I am amused by her impressions of how men who can do nothing well in the kitchen are expected to spring into action as experts beside the barbecue.  But I can’t express any informed opinion about the accuracy of her portrait of life among expatriate Pakistanis in North America today.  I note with pleasure, however, that Pakistanis feature in the original Mavis story, when a standing weekend invitation by well-placed Canadian friends to stay at their Swiss summer house suddenly ends. “One Sunday Madge said she needed the two bedrooms the Fraziers usually occupied for a party of sociologists from Pakistan, and that was the end of it.” Could this reference have been what inspired Sadia Shepard to write this indebted tribute?

But I must confess that I read “Foreign-Returned” very much as Francine Prose did. Paragraph by paragraph I read saying “Oh, no, she can’t do this! Surely she’s not going to have her get drunk?” I realise, as many clever readers have written, that adapting anything, however closely, will produce something new. But what would you feel about a “new” work, where its advocate says: “And then there’s this great moment, when the magic potion works, and he wakes up with a donkey’s head on his shoulders! Did you ever hear of such a thing?”

Maybe the fanciful title that I’ve given to this article might have solved all the problems of non-attribution, if the original Shepard story had been graced by it. A Publisher’s solution, which I’m glad to offer for future reprints.

As Mavis Gallant’s friend and defender,and her proud Canadian Publisher, let me end by quoting Sadia Shepard. “I believe that creating new work inspired by Gallant honours her legacy and might even bring her new readers, something that Prose and I no doubt agree she deserves.” All very well. But a more definite link with the Mavis Gallant model would send more readers her way, to their great pleasure.

A FINAL NOTE

Canadian readers will be pleased to note the difference between the languid Torontonian Peter, waiting for the appropriate job to be awarded to him, a Frazier, and his English wife, Sheilah, from Liverpool. While he stands beside the car on one Geneva evening, looking around admiringly, saying “This is the first snow”, she impatiently accuses him of repeating himself. “She was born in an ugly city, and so was Peter, but they have this difference. She does not know the importance of the first snow – the first clean thing in a dirty year”.

One other coincidental piece of pleasure for Canadian reader: Peter ascribes his mysterious failure to be presented with a job appropriate to a Frazier to the enmity and plotting of a French-Canadian former friend. “Peter says now that French-Canadians always have that bit of spite.” The story came out in 1963, almost the last year Mavis could innocently give the spiteful Canadian former friend the soon-to-be-memorable the name of Trudeau.

 

Announcing A New Show At Niagara-on-the-Lake

For many years the legendary Toronto musician Atis Bankas has run the summer festival of Music Niagara, in the historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. To my surprise and delight, Atis recently saw one of my shows and said, “Let’s turn it into a musical!”

So, on Tuesday, August 7, at 7.30 in The Market Room, in the Court House Theatre in the centre of Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can see an exciting new version of “150 Years of Canadian Literature”.

Instead of the usual power-point show, where authors from each decade are introduced with a very short burst of recorded music, in this show I’ll be joined on-stage by the distinguished pianist Daisy Leung. We’ll still have works of Canadian art appearing on the screen, and I’ll still talk about the selected authors against the brilliant caricatures by Anthony Jenkins. But there will be lots of music, ranging from Quebec folk-tunes to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and we’ll hear the versatile Daisy playing everything from Oscar Peterson to Leonard Cohen.

It should be fun. I’d be delighted if you could arrange to come for an evening in the former capital of Upper Canada, and enjoy what Daisy and I create…..and I promise not to dance!

Please tell your friends. The more, the merrier.

PHILIP ROTH IS GONE FOR GOOD. SORT OF…

You may have missed two recent tributes to Philip Roth, who died last week.
One is in The New Yorker, by the novelist ALI SMITH. She learned to her surprise that she and this admired older gentleman both swam in the same New York pool. When she consulted him about how to keep your mind active while swimming boring lengths, up and down, up and down, he told her that he made a point of fixing on a specific year, then recalling everything he could about it. He would tackle not only the events in his own life during that year, but in the city, the state, the country, the literary world, and the world at large.
Ali Smith tells us that he swam long distances, much faster than she did, and learned from him that his recipe for a mental workout also seemed to produce good results.
As the outdoor swimming season begins in much of Canada, I’m happy to pass this idea along.

Meanwhile, I hope that you read the National Post cartoon on May 24 by my friend GARY CLEMENT. It’s an 8-panel piece that runs for half a page, headed “Goodbye, Philip Roth.” The sub-heading says simply “True Story.”
I’ve been in touch with Gary to congratulate him, but complained that it strains the reader’s belief that his encounter with Philip Roth took place “on Columbus Ave., of all places”.
He swears that it’s true.
Gary and his wife and son were in New York when they saw an older man sitting quietly alone outside a coffee shop. Gary says “OMIGOD! It’s Philip Roth!”
Urged to go and say hi, Gary objects “YOU CAN’T JUST SAY HI TO A GUY LIKE PHILIP ROTH! HE’S A GOD OF WRITING! AN IMMORTAL!”
The family goes off for a hamburger.
Then, in mid-burger, Gary abandons his family, runs back, and blurts out “I’m sorry to bother you Mr. Roth but I just wanted to tell you how much your writing means to me.”

The story unfolds as you would hope.

“Turns out.. he was a real kibbitzer.”
Roth:”Normally when this sort of thing happens, people offer me a little cash.”

Gary:”I only have Canadian money.”

Roth:” I’ll take a cheque.”

Gary recalls: “It was like talking to my Dad!”

To Gary’s surprise, Philip Roth wanted to know more about him.

Roth:” What do you do in Canada?”
Gary:” I’m a cartoonist.”

Roth:” From this you make a living?”

At the end, “Finally it was time to go.

Gary:”I look forward to your next book…any hints?”

Roth: “I can’t say. I’m just READING books now.”

The superb True Story ends with Gary’s words: “Shortly after that, Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing. And now, he’s gone for good. Sort of…”

A lovely memory of Philip Roth late in his life. I wonder if his hair was wet.

REMEMBERING CHARLIE RUSSELL , AND TOM WOLFE

CHARLIE RUSSELL, who died on May 7 in Calgary, grew up in the shadow of the Rockies. His father was Andy Russell, the unforgettable mountain man who was my friend. I once tried to sum up Andy’s life by saying that he had been “a trapper, cowboy, bronco-buster, trail guide, grizzly hunter, nature photographer and film-maker, lecturer, and fighter for the environment.”
His books, including Grizzly Country, Horns In The High Country, The High West. The Rockies, along with the later books that I published (The Canadian Cowboy, The Life of a River, and Memoirs of a Mountain Man) were hugely successful.
They meant that young Charlie and his brothers grew up on horseback , roaming through the Rockies from near Waterton Lakes through into B.C.. On foot, they were at home in the mountains. “My boys grew up able to climb like mountain goats”, Andy records in one of his books, with an alarming photo to prove it.
Charlie, naturally, drifted into the same sort of life, mixing ranching in the foothills with escorting tourists through wild, high places. And he became fascinated by grizzly bears.
He inherited that interest from Andy. I remember once visiting ” The Hawk’s Nest”. the Russell ranch in Alberta south of Pincher Creek, near Waterton. As we looked east , away from the Rockies, we could see three ( no, four!) grizzlies coming in our direction. Andy was not worried. In his life, by standing firm and “talking to” advancing bears that were charging– planning to kill him — he had faced down 23 grizzly charges.
Charlie developed great respect for grizzlies, and decided to get to know them better.
A trip with his father and his brother Dick to study , and to make a documentary about, a white sub-species of black bears on the BC coast on Princess Royal Island led to an astonishing discovery. They could never get near to any bear…..unless they left their guns behind. Charlie told The Edmonton Journal that eventually “The three of us came to the conclusion that the bears could sense that we were not a threat, that somehow they realized that without a gun, we would do them no harm.”
Charlie’s curiosity, and his belief that even grizzly bears were natural friends to humans led him in search of bears unspoiled by harsh contact with hunters. He found them in Russia, in the eastern Pacific section called Kamchatka. After much negotiation with Russian authorities, in 1996 Charlie flew in with his home-built plane, accompanied by his partner, the photographer Maureen Enns.
The result was a remarkable 2002 book, GRIZZLY HEART: Living Without Fear Among The Brown Bears Of Kamchatka. It was laced with photos of Charlie swimming with a bear friend. or walking with them, or fly fishing with a bear at his shoulder,watching, waiting eagerly for a fish to bite.
The New York Times wrote that “His conclusion that bears were not naturally hostile to people earned him enemies among hunters…..”
He once told an Australian newspaper “A lot of it is because the hunting culture needs to promote an animal so fearful that people can feel brave about killing it.”
The Kamchatka experiment ended with hunters breaking in while Charlie was back in Canada, and slaughtering the bears who had become his friends.
A personal note: When Jane and I stayed at The Hawk’s Nest a few years ago, we were charmed to find that friendship was still being extended by Charlie and his brother John and his wife Valerie to nearby bears. Outside the house was a bird bath. Right beside it was a bear bath. When we tip-toed out in the morning we were disappointed (and relieved) to find that no bear was there, relaxing happily in the big bath!

TOM WOLFE was another friend who died recently. His death in New York received a lot of attention, which is appropriate, because through his own writing, and his editing of important books like The New Journalism, he had a huge impact on writing and writers in many countries.
I knew him a little , and admired him a lot. I especially liked his work on Marshall McLuhan (“What If He’s Right?”). I’ve enjoyed telling the story of Marshall being taken to a strip club by mischief-inspired friends who wanted to see how this devoutly Catholic scholar would react. Tom reported that Marshall gazed at the spectacle thoughtfully, and then said “Ah, yes. She’s wearing us!”
Once I took Tom out for a speaking engagement at York University, York had been constructed in the 1960s at the very edge of Toronto, so was surrounded by a very bare landscape.
Tom gazed out at it and said, mildly, in the Southern accent that he retained even after his Ph.D. years at Yale, “It’s kind of like Brasilia, isn’t it?”