Archive for May 16th, 2020

Paul Signac (1890), Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon (1861-1944)

1946 reprint

[After the crushing of the Paris Commune, 1871] Between 25 thousand and 35 thousand men, women, and children were summarily executed, their bodies burned in piles or tossed into mass graves. There were more executions that week than in the three-year Reign of Terror during the French revolution, (JUHalperin, Félix Fénéon, p 26)

The judge: ‘You were seen talking to anarchists behind a lamppost.’
Fénéon: Can you tell me, your honor, where behind a lamppost?’ — (SFigura, ICahn, PPeltier, “The Anarchist & the Avante Garde,” MOMA, Fénéon, 21

“Drawing near the abbey”, Catherine’s “impatience” “returned in full force:” “and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows” … [but the next morning] [Catherine] was struck, however, beyond her expectation, by the grandeur of the abbey, as she saw it for the first time from the lawn. The whole building enclosed a large court; and two sides of the quadrangle, rich in Gothic ornaments, stood forward for admiration. The remainder was shut off by knolls of old trees, or luxuriant plantations, and the steep woody hills rising behind, to give it shelter, were beautiful even in the leafless month of March. Catherine had seen nothing to compare with it …” (NA, II:5 [20], 152; II:7 [22], 168)

Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Henry (J. J. Feilds) coming up to the abbey (2009 NA, scripted Andrew Davies)

Friends and readers,

It’s not often I come across an article in the New Yorker where I feel I know something the writer of the article does not seem to know — and I may have in Peter Schjeldahl’s “Out of the Dark,” a review of two presently languishing exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, one on the “premier photographyer of the human drama of the Great Depression,” that is to say, Dorothy Lange, and the other on a “shadowy French aesthete and political anarchist (bomb thrower, in his later years a communist), “sometime art critic, dealer, collector, journalist, editor,” Félix Fénéon. More likely he just thought it supremely unimportant that Fénéon in my view (and that of others) wrote the best translation of a novel by Jane Austen into French to date.

It was in 1894 while awaiting trial for having participated in the murder bombing of groups of civilians, that Fénéon is said to have been bored, and searching the prison library found some old school books, a “few volumes of George Sand and Northanger Abbey. “Women writers, like women visitors, ” were of course considered “innocuous” (JUHalperin). A friend brought Fénéon a dictionary, and “he began patiently to translate the English novel. He was soon happily involved in rendering the author’s pithy style and keen insights into human nature” (JUHalperin, 284).

But maybe not. Maybe Schjeldahl didn’t know. I turned over all 204 pages of the book MOMA has produced to accompany its exhibition, Félix Fénéon, the Anarchist and the Avante Garde, and nowhere do I find this considerable incident: it’s not nothing to translate a novel by Austen and then get it published. Schjeldahl refers to himself as simply “Googling” these (including Lange) “brilliant subjects,” but of course I assume he read the MOMA book because he singles out for emphasis the same topics: Fénéon’s wit, that he was (ironically) chief clerk of the Ministry of War at the time he was involved with what Schjeldahl and others call terrorists (they saw themselves as revolutionaries; more recently the French have seen themselves as a resistance, and now yellow jackets), his importance as an editor & reviewer of central periodicals in Paris, the immense collection of art objects he amassed — and his ability to be effortlessly wittily startling and cruel in words.

I could write a letter to the New Yorker, but lack ambition and suspect it would not be published.

So instead I shall re-print my short essay written some years ago for Ekleksographia Wave Two, a poetry magazine, for October 2009, a special issue on translation. The periodical was online, and I had my essay linked into my website, but alas, the link has gone bad (what happens is somehow some “rogue” page supersedes mine — and I’ve no idea how to fix this). I did know about this, and at the time put the essay (before I lost it) on academia.edu as “Jane Austen in French.” But it has gotten very little attention there (61 views, 9 readers).

For a reasonable while (and I’ve not given over yet) I was studying French translations of Austen, and I read part of one Italian one L’Abbazia di Northanger by Liana Borghi.  I am very fond of NA, and have written a number of papers and blogs on the book, the gothic, and its two film adaptations, on women’s friendships in the book, one even published in Persuasions. During this time I made it my business to study a couple of French studies of Austen (see Pierre Goubert, 1, 2,) and I once sent off a proposal to discuss at a Chawton House conference the contemporary French translation of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho by Austen and Radcliffe’s contemporary, Madame de Chastenay.

Be all this as it may, my argument for the superiority of Fénéon’s text is contextualized by my reading of French translations of Sense and Sensibility, which I think highly of, or are of interest because of the author-translator (Isabelle de Montolieu).

In a nutshell what interested me (why I felt compelled to write a short essay) is that this witty anarchist saw in Austen a fellow spirit, a fellow subversive. Fénéon’s translation itself picks up on it as a bookish book, does justice to the deeply picturesque elements of Austen’s texts as well as imitating interior voices he is hearing that persuade us believable characters are before us.

Catherine and Isabella Tilney (Carey Mulligan) in the circulating library talking of books … (same movie, only I’ve lightened the still)

Jane Austen in French

like the original poet, the translator is a Narcissus who . . . chooses to contemplate his own likeness not in the spring of nature but in the pool of art — Renato Poggioli

Why would one want to produce a cauliflower in wool? . . . The desire to reproduce one medium in terms of another . . . is a curious,
wide-spread and deep-rooted human need. It may or may not be at the mysterious root of art — Margaret Drabble (1)

I enjoy reading translations of books I love into one of the two languages I can read besides English: French and Italian, and I had the real delight this summer of reading Félix Fénéon’s Catherine Morland, a fin-de-siecle translation of Austen’s Northanger Abbey (first published 1818). It is one of a very few translations of Austen to be remembered as by another author and the only one I have seen described as excellent, as just about up to Austen’s own.

As I began to read, I felt I should put Austen’s English text aside, forget it insofar as I could, and read Fénéon for limpid, lapidary verve he was offering. Alas, I couldn’t quite. I know and love Austen’s novel too well, and would find myself aware that this phrase or that paragraph was omitted, and wanted to check Fénéon against Austen. Then as I came to the later gothic parts of Austen’s book, the sparkling wand of delicate irony was lost for a while. So although by that time I had a copy of Austen’s text under Fénéon’s on my lap as I read, I picked up a third text, Pierre Arnaud’s L’Abbaye de Northanger (Pleiade, 2000), and read that. Well, for the whole of Arnaud’s I found a text consistently close to the original, one whose vocabulary and syntax imitated Austen’s; if a little stilted or pedantic, Arnaud wrote with much more expansive or generous (longer) sentences than Fénéon’s. These allowed Arnaud to keep the anguished and troubled tones in Austen’s English female gothic too. Ought I to have read it apart from Austen’s? Perhaps, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the urge and my pleasure was in seeing the English transposed to another system of sounds and meaning as I went along, rather like the pleasures offered by closely faithful film adaptation (for example, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1974 film Daisy Miller).

Fénéon’s method is close to what Dryden termed paraphrase (“translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense”) with very occasional and subtle forays into imitation (“assum[ing] a liberty not only to vary from words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion”).(2) What Feneon was doing was reliving the experience Austen had lived, and finding analogous words in French to convey this as he went along. He did not translate by conjuring up a new text word for word, but found the words that came naturally to him in his idiolect as he re-enacted, re-saw precisely Austen’s imagined experience, all the while keeping his eye on the text’s movement before him. So we have an older male outside looking in, touched and amused, but not himself feeling within the gut the intense importance of small things and sense of vulnerability the female Austen experiences. There is a kind of throbbing delight and anxiety in passages given Catherine by Austen; an acid and even quiet hatred for the outrages of common life, and resentment of certain kinds of stupidities in women and bullying in men, which Austen feels are overlooked as unimportant or, worse yet, rewarded. Fénéon is slightly but persistently more distant. He wrote Catherine Morland while he was in prison charged with anarchy and possibly murder (the question was, Did he engineer the bombing of a restaurant in Paris where people were hurt and killed?). He was allowed this text in his cell together with a dictionary because at the time Austen was seen as utterly apolitical, harmless, and it’s her detachment and the sheer aesthetic playfulness of the picturesque he recreates (3)

Pierre Arnaud’s method veers between Dryden’s metaphrase (“turning an author word by word, and line by line, from one language into another”) and paraphrase, and he achieves a remarkable balance between gothicism and witty yet serious enough social and psychological realism. His sentences can be involuted, the feel pedantic, but he rarely loses a subtle implication – which Fénéon growing impatient, may well skip rather than lose his hold on a vital stream of intensely captured feeling. I tried Arnaud’s translation against a third, Josette Salesse-Lavergne’s Northanger Abbey (Christian Bourgeois, 1980), and found Salesse-Lavergne’s is the weakest because she doesn’t do the concentrated work metaphrase demands (her paraphrase is so weak that I found errors) and shows no evidence of even careful thought about the zeitgeist of the text (as Arnaud shows in his “Notice”).

One swallow does not a summer make, so I tried three analogous Sense and Sensibility texts. First, Isabelle de Montolieu’s Raison et Sensibilite; ou les deux manieres d’aimer (1815, just 4 years after the appearance of Austen’s). Montolieu was more popular, better known than Austen; I had edited her first novel (which influenced Austen), and this translation had recently been republished (Archipoche, 1996)(4). I had read castigations of Montolieu’s text, and discovered that she translated so freely she often leaves the original story altogether, making up her own incidents, changing what’s happening even radically, especially towards the end, reminding me of most film adaptations. Dry irony becomes trembling sensibility; truth to experience turns back into romance cliches. So, with my experience of Arnaud in mind and the Pléiade book to hand, I turned to Pierre Joubert’s Le Coeur et La Raison for contrast, and found his adherence to a balance between metaphrase and paraphrase, a matter of a man carefully turning sentences from one medium (English) into another (French). Joubert is a persuasive essayist, and makes a good argument for changing Austen’s title as the English heavily-connotative complex words have no equivalent terrains in French, and his book is sometimes very witty, but thoughtful linguistic expertise turned to rendering a book academically respected does not make for a living text. Again I switched, to Jean Privat’s Raison et Sentiments (Christian Bourgeois, 1979), and was relieved and then absorbed by the directness, force, and clarity of a text genuinely rooted in contemporary spoken French which nonetheless kept to Austen’s syntax and an Anglo-influenced vocabulary.

There is an argument (followed in a recent Russian translation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) that a translator (like a modern screenplay writer) should attempt some combination of the language of the author’s day with our own. Well, this older contemporary tone, connotation and syntax (even across languages), Montolieu offers. When she translates closely (and she performs metaphrase for long stretches), her tone becomes uncannily like Austen’s, and yet like Fénéon, her text is imbued by a spirit of her own where she is either re-enacting, or reacting instinctively against, her source. I’ve read an (anonymous) 1808 translation into English of Germaine de Stael’s 1807 Corinne, ou l’Italie, and this 1808 text has Montolieu’s power to bring a modern English reader closer to the older French text than any modern translation, even Sylvia Raphael’s Corinne, or Italy (Oxford 1998), a moving work of art out of Stael’s: like Arnaud accurate, like Privat direct, and beyond that, like Feneon (except, revealingly, for the female gothic) manifesting an unembarrassed understanding of, identification with, Stael from beginning to end.

I have translated the poetry of two women poets, Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547) and Veronica Gambara (1485-1550), and written an essay on translation in general and my own methods.(5) I believe great translations emerge when the new artist imaginatively re-enacts what she finds in the previous text in her modern idiolect: you must be true to your own inner spirit and be seeking to express it through choosing a deeply empathetic text which you try to experience as if you had written it; at the same time, you forget yourself, so absorbed are you in contemplation and re-enactment. Poggioli and Drabble would put it that a translator tries to “transpose” another “aesthetic personality” into “the key of their own” and “escapes from the self” through an attentive work in a medium they also love.6 What I enjoy in strong translation is its re-creative and revelatory power.

Catherine savoring the gothic room (again 2007 NA, still lightened)


1 Renato Poggioli, “The Added Artificer,” On Translation, ed. Reuben Brower (NY: Galaxy, 1959):139; Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet, A Personal History with Jigsaws (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009): 290.
2 John Dryden, Of Dramatic Poesy, ed. George Watson (NY: Everyman, 1964):1:268.
3 Joan Ungersma Halperin, Félix Fénéon, Aesthete and Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (New Haven: Yale UP, 1988), 169-70, 284, 307. It was begun 1894, published 1898. Fénéon reworked his text with the help of an English poet, John Gray.
4 See Isabelle de Montolieu and Caroline de Lichtfield 
5 “On Translating Vittora Colonna and Veronica Gambara”
6 Poggioli, 139; Drabble, 253.

See also Lucy Cousturier (1870/8-1925): artist, memoirist, a life outside conventional society


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