14 by Jean Echenoz
February 25, 2013 § 1 Comment
How do you read a novel in another language? Sometimes people ask me if I translate in my head as I go along. The answer is no: the only way is to read as if you are reading in English, which means reading the words and letting them travel straight to the brain, where they create certain images and ideas. Obviously a certain competence and familiarity is required, which does not come out of nowhere, but perhaps via one of two routes. One option is to translate into English as you go, sentence by sentence. This is not something I’ve ever done, at least not since I was eleven and, after all of two weeks of learning French, my friend and I attempted to read Le train bleu by Agatha Christie. We did not get far. It more or less defeated the point of reading. Would it help you learn the language or would it put you off entirely? It depends on how much you already know. Dictionaries won’t help you if you don’t understand how the different tenses work, for example. Another way to go about it is the method I used (and still use if I’m reading a German book): ignore dictionaries and plough straight through. If the same word keeps coming up and it seems crucial, look it up. If a sentence contains so many unknowns that you can’t guess, look up a couple, or try translating into English just to sort through a complex phrase. Otherwise, for me, the flow of reading is more important than understanding every word.
You might end up with a completely off-track idea of what the book was about, but that won’t bother you so much if you’ve read Barthes first (which, interestingly, is not much more difficult to read in French than in English). And it is how most of us learnt to read in English, I suspect. People who interrupt novel reading to look up words, in English or in another language, in the dictionary are probably not constant readers; the latter will probably assume that even if they can’t figure the word out from its context this time, the next time they come across the same word it will be clearer, and all the more meaningful for being a real encounter. (I’ve got nothing against dictionaries, incidentally; I love reading them.)
That’s all a preliminary to a discussion of a new novel by Jean Echenoz, the English rights to which have been bought, although I can’t seem to find out by whom (rather difficult to Google a novel with a number for a title). The New Press, I suspect, since they have four of his previous novels.
14 opens with a young man, Anthime, out for a bike ride on a summer’s afternoon. As he stands at the top of a hill surveying the land around him, all the church bells start to peal: the First World War has begun. Military preparations begin immediately, and Anthime leaves the village, with four of his peers, to go and fight. 14 doesn’t go in for the usual WWI-novel rich descriptions either of physical environment or mental and emotional trauma, and seems on the surface to be spare and clean. The power of the writing comes from its simplicity, from the lack of extraneous detail, but it also comes, of course, from what we already know about the war—for Anglophone readers, for our accumulated knowledge of the writing of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and, of course, Pat Barker. That the Great War was an unimaginable psychological catastrophe on both an individual and international scale has become part of the fabric of our history, perhaps even more so now that PTSD sufferers are more likely to receive treatment than to be shot for desertion.
What will happen to the five men? We more or less know the possible answers already, but the novel follows each man until either his death or until the moment he is invalided out. Charles and Anthime don’t even make it to the war proper. Charles’s girlfriend Blanche, who Anthime also loves, is pregnant, and the village doctor has used his influence to try to move Charles somewhere slightly safer than the trenches for the duration of the war. This slightly safer place is in the new air department. Charles and Anthime are out on a test flight, learning how to use the plane, learning how to accommodate one another and their shared history, when their plane—unarmed—is attacked by a German plane. It’s all over before they can do anything to help themselves. This rather abrupt incident sets the tone as the narrative then takes a turn with each of the others as they fall one by one.
The unflinching and deeply moving long gaze at brutality is a powerful way to write. Here’s a rough translation of one of the best sections:
For him and for the others, it was their first combat. At the end of it, among dozens of others, Captain Vayssière, an officer and two sergeants were found dead, not to mention the injured, which the stretcher-bearers were still having to evacuate even after night had fallen. Over in the orchestra, one of the clarinettists, struck in the stomach, had fallen; the bass drummer had toppled over, a hole in his cheek, with his instrument; and the second flautist only had half a hand left. Standing up/picking himself up after the confrontation was over, Anthime noticed that his mess tin and cooking pot had been shot through by bullets, as had his cap. A piece of shrapnel had ripped off the entire bottom part of Arcenel’s pack. The pack had also been pierced by a missile, which Arcenel had removed from inside it when it had torn his jacket. After the roll call the company turned out to be missing seventy-six men.
It’s the matter-of-factness that does it, that does the reader in. Reading off the toll as if it’s the football results or a shopping list; laying down blocks of language calmly and precisely. It works the opposite way to a spell: every word is transparent and clear, yet together they produce something horrifyingly incomprehensible.
The story itself, the way it occasionally returns home to follow Blanche, did not entirely satisfy. The immense imbalance between the size devoted to each part—the war and the civilians staying at home—favours the war section. But the novel does fit into Jean Echenoz’s versatile tradition. Despite its very real subject matter, the novel does fit into what we might call Echenoz’s blank tradition—of assuming on a great deal of shared cultural context, often global or at least bigger than just French, and of using clear, spare language and the spaces of what is left unsaid to do much more than would at first seem possible. How does this kind of language translate into English? Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home or Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse might be some sort of equivalent, with their careful, controlled sentences that conceal enormously effortful craft, although I haven’t read Echenoz in English to see how the translations come out. Deceptively simple writing must be exceptionally difficult to translate well, the sort of job that needs to be given to a writer who has paid a great deal of attention to how fiction works in his or her own language.
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