Harry Mathews, Leonard Cohen, and Nicholas Mosley have all died in the short space of a year. Now I learn of the death of Réjean Ducharme.
Ducharme’s work never has meant as much to me as that of Mathews, Mosley, or Cohen, and I would not normally be inclined to post today, upon learning of his death; — except that this short article which I wrote as a sort of introduction to Ducharme was never published, despite being *more or less* finished. It was solicited from me by an editor of an online publication and I sent it to him, and then: silencio. (At the time, this rankled me but, alas, sundry more indignities have since accrued to cover that old rancor over, virtually burying it.) No, it’s not a tombstone, it’s not a eulogy; it’s just some lonely impertinent debris, to be found here by some weary traveller.
* * *
The work of Québecois playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Réjean Ducharme (b. 1941) will continue to elude anglophone readers, even the more adventurous among them. Ducharme’s influence in his native Québec has been strongest of all, but his work has also found admirers in France and other French-speaking countries. From 1966 onwards, the French publisher Gallimard has made his books widely available in stores: eight of his novels and a play were published by Gallimard, with a handful of other texts picked up by other publishers. To date, his books have been translated and published in Spanish (3), Swedish (1), Danish (1), German (1), and English (6).
Ducharme’s career got off to a strong start when Gallimard accepted the manuscript of L’avalée des avalés in the mid-1960s when Ducharme was only twenty-five. The book’s selection as a finalist for the Goncourt aroused the usual journalistic curiosity. When the book didn’t win, Ducharme reportedly told his sister: “People won’t hear about me anymore, I’m going to be happy… If I had known there would be such a brouhaha about me, I never would have published in the first place.” And accordingly, in the years since, Ducharme has developed a reputation for belonging, like Pynchon and Salinger, to that breed of authors who decline the rituals of fame and publicity and value privacy over candor. (From the start, in the face of such non-cooperation, enterprising journalists have specialized in making the most of Ducharme’s family and collaborators to get them to talk about the author. There exist, in the archives of Radio Canada, handfuls of interviews with singer Robert Charlebois, Claude Gallimard, and Ducharme’s family members giving accounts of their interactions with the man.)
What of Ducharme’s work? In it, the reader finds a sense of vast possibility (often coincident with the sense of childhood), a child-like refusal to engage with the “real world” on its terms, inventing an idiosyncratic language of refusal, a love of irreverent humor and absurdity, and farcical and picaresque plotlines (absurd travels, hilarity ensue). All this sounds like so much light entertainment, but when Ducharme is at his best, underlying it all, there is a palpable, melancholic seriousness beneath the coy verbal play and contradictions of logic, a feeling that the books are being earnestly lived. Lived not as plausible lives, but as anomalous possibilities.
Many who sing Ducharme’s praises will tell you about his word-play. He is notorious for it. Of course, word-play is hard if not impossible to translate between languages. Yet the translators try. Even in the titles of several of his books, Le nez qui voque for instance — literally, The Nose that Vokes — we see it. You won’t find voquer in any French dictionary though its basis is the same the root of evoke and convoke. When spoken, the phrase sounds identical to l’inéquivoque — literally, the unequivocal. The English title, as it appeared in 2011, is Miss Take, which certainly seems impoverished by comparison, but I suspect it corresponds to the early passage where the phrase le nez qui voque is first employed. Or see Les enfantômes: enfantômes being a portmanteau that collapses enfant (child) into fantôme (ghost, phantom, haunting memory). Note also the untranslatable titles L’océantume and Dévadé — these titles have not yet appeared in English, but I suspect Will Browning is already slaving away.
Word-play and puerile machinations, maybe with a touch of sincerity: it doesn’t sound like much. From what I have read of Ducharme — which is in fact, to this moment, very little, not more than sixty pages — what I admire most is his ability to quickly switch registers and convey a sense of relativism and philosophical depth. A review of The Daughter of Christopher Columbus refers to “allusions that can range, in a single sentence, from the poetry of St. John Perse to the names of laundry detergents.” It’s that kind of simultaneity and equivalence that leave me reeling when I read Ducharme.
He still lives in Montreal. The journalists stopped hounding him years ago. On August 12, 2016, he will turn 75 years old.
Happy birthday, Réjean Ducharme.
In print, translated by Will Browning
The Daughter of Christopher Columbus (Guernica, 2000)
Go Figure (Talonbooks, 2003; original Va Savoir, 1994)
Miss Take (Talonbooks, 2011; original Le nez qui voque, 1967)
Out of print and hard to find
Strait Winter (Anansi, 1977); Wild to Mild (Heritage, 1980) — both English editions of a translation of Hiver de force by Robert Guy Scully)
The Swallower Swallowed (trans. Barbara Bray, 1968)
Ha! Ha! (trans. David Homel, Exile Editions, 1986)
Criticism on Réjean Ducharme in English
“Swallowed Whole” (on The Swallower Swallowed) at Tablet Mag, by Benjamin Nugent
Marci Denesiuk on Go Figure at the Montreal Review of Books
“Sharing the Genius of Ducharme” (on The Daughter of Christopher Columbus) at The Globe and Mail, by Ray Conlogue
In French: “Réjean Ducharme: L’analyse d’un paradoxe,” by Caroline Montpetit
Jacket Copy, Synopses, Notes
The Swallower Swallowed (almost impossible to find; translation of L’avalée des avalés, Gallimard, 1966):
Ducharme’s first published novel. Bérénice Einberg, a young girl in a Jewish-Quebécois family, finds her place in the world between overbearing parents and a brother she loves. Disgusted by the logic of the world and the strictures of family, she goes to New York with her brother. Later, her father, alarmed by his inability to control her, sends her off to boarding school in Israel.
Miss Take (Talonbooks, 2011; translation of Gallimard, Le nez qui voque, 1967; ):
Ducharme’s second-published novel. Sixteen-year-old Mille Milles (a name that in French would mean literally “one thousand miles”) has run away from his home, a town on the St. Lawrence River. He has brought with him a young girl, Chateaugué, a native Eskimo. They live in a tiny rented room in Old Montreal. Enthralled by the works of Émile Nelligan, Mille begins a journal, determined to free language from the constraints of convention, but finds he cannot write anything without immediately conjuring up its opposite. He struggles with his sexual desire for Chateaugué.
Go Figure (original, Gallimard, Va Savoir, 1994; Talonbooks, 2003):
A tale of a Montreal couple alienated from each other after suffering the miscarriage of twin girls. Mammy, the wife, has left Rémi Vavasseur. Not because she no longer loves him, but because she no longer loves herself. She is criss-crossing Europe and Africa in the company of Rémi’s former mistress, the dangerous and blonde Raïa. Rémi meanwhile is remodeling a ramshackle house in rural Québec, designed for Mammy if she ever comes back. The novel is the journal that he keeps during their parallel journeys.
The Daughter of Christopher Columbus (original, Gallimard, 1969; Will Browning translation, Guernica, 2000)
A novel in verse, told in rhyming quatrains (232 pp. in French, 192 in English). Plot description: A beautiful and naive Columbia Columbus wanders through the world in search of friendship upon the death of her famous father. She makes friends with an ever-growing number of animals. Some of the animals serve as bodyguards during her dramatic return to Montreal, in the year 2492, to celebrate the millennium of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.
While working through successive drafts of my first book-length translation, I went back and forth at times about how to treat punctuation. There were some very long sentences containing commas, and at times I wanted to make them into semicolons. After discussing the matter with the author of the text I was translating and the publisher of my translation, I decided it was probably best to respect the original punctuation as much as possible.
It may be slightly more common in French than in English to string together independent clauses using a comma. That said, many native writers of English favor the comma over the semicolon, never or hardly ever using the latter, and also have no qualms about so-called run-on sentences. And conversely, many native writers of French make ample use of the semicolon. So, while there are some generalizations that can be made about the way native speakers of French and English use punctuation, I think nevertheless that the usage is not radically different. Individual authors may use punctuation idiosyncratically, and I think as a rule efforts should be made to respect original punctuation.
A case study: after checking out Go Figure by Réjean Ducharme (trans. Will Browning, Talonbooks, 2003) from the library today, I compared the first paragraph to that of the original.
Tu l’as dit Mamie, la vie il n’y a pas d’avenir là-dedans, il faut investir ailleurs. On le savait mais ça ne mordait pas. On avait le compteur trop enflé, les roues dentées ne s’engrenaient pas. On planait : c’est un état où on a beau n’avoir pas d’ailes on ne sent pas son poids d’enclume. On tenait à un fil. On ne tiendra plus à rien, c’est promis. Blottis dans le trou qu’on a creusé en s’écrasant, on a compris. On est plus doués pour s’ancrer. On ne risque rien à s’enfoncer un peu mieux en se serrant plus fort dans le lit du courant. Ça peut toujours s’emballer, en crue, en débâcle, on ne se fera pas avoir, ça ne nous en fera pas accroire.
You said it, Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it, but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing; the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings, we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore — that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle; we won’t let ourselves be duped; they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
The original uses no semicolons, whereas the English has three (each of them replacing a comma). He also converts a comma into an em dash, and adds in two new commas. (Actually, if you count the first sentence — “You said it, Mammie” — three.)
Right now I’m trying to gauge whether these changes are improvements for the reader. One thing is clear, which is that they weren’t necessary changes; the text would still be as comprehensible if the original punctuation had been respected.
Browning’s translation, if it followed the original punctuation to a T, would look like this:
You said it Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing, the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore, that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle, we won’t let ourselves be duped, they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
My point in writing this post isn’t to call out a noble translator, Will Browning (who has translated and continues to translate much of Ducharme’s work) for what I see as some egregious error. I don’t see the modification of the original punctuation so clearly as all that.
I understand that the fidelity of the translator is often a fidelity to the self-consistency of the translation, not just the original alone. And I also know that editors can be a little, oh, anal about punctuation. And that a translation is never just a literal transcription of a text. But I also wonder what it means to respect and stay faithful to an original.
I’m going to continue to reflect on this and, who knows, if we’re lucky I may post again soon on a related vexatious punctuation-in-translation topic: the dubious, idiosyncratic French colon.
If anyone wants to chime in as to their feelings about punctuation, I am all ears.