Spotlight | Jonathan Coe, Olivia Rosenthal, Claudia Durastanti & Others | Beyond Words French Literature Festival 2019

I was delighted to be invited along to some of the key talks held at this year’s Beyond Words French Literature Festival at the French Institute in South Kensington. Beyond Words has become ‘The Big Event’ in London for the promotion of French books translated into English. The festival features bilingual live literature events, writers’ talks, musical performances, screenings of recent literary adaptations, staged readings and books galore – both classic and contemporary.

This is the first of two posts about just some of what was up for discussion at the #BeyondWordsFest

Translation: a success story

Since I researched and wrote Boom not Bust: A new chapter in the story of translation in the UK in March 2015, translated fiction has become an ongoing success story. Brexit fatigue has led to a surge in the sale of translated fiction in the UK – an unexpected boon. Reading writing from elsewhere is ever more crucial as Little Englanders tighten their grip on this offshore island which looks set to sink beneath delusions of grandeur, short of a miracle . . .

A recent article in The Guardian confirms that according to research commissioned by the Man Booker International prize from Nielsen Book Trust, overall sales of translated fiction in the UK were up in 2018 by 5.5%, with more than 2.6m books sold, worth £20.7m – the highest level since Nielsen began to track sales in 2001. Over the last 18 years, sales of fiction in translation have risen “steadily”, with the performance of translated literary fiction in particular standing out for its “extreme growth”, up 20% in 2018 year-on-year.

The festival was launched by a French Translation Special panel event. Ellie Steel, commissioning editor at Harvill Secker, Sarah Ardizzone, translation mentor for the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, and Daniel Hahn, founder of the Translators’ Association First Translation Prize, chatted about aspects of translation and some of their favourite reads.

What do commissioning editors look for?

Ellie Steel stipulated that to get a translation commissioned, the original French has to be strong, distinctive and very well written. Where it would sit both on a publisher’s list and in the marketplace, how it could be packaged, who would buy it – and why – all need to be clear. The pitch needs to cover the main themes of the book and what lies at its core.

“Why does this book have to be published and why now?” is, of course, THE classic question a commissioning editor, or an agent, asks as they consider whether to take on a project.

Daniel Hahn described the feel-good factor when lots of copies are sold of a translation which is widely read. “Books that are successful do not happen much, unless the publisher gets behind them with big marketing campaigns and huge money is spent.” He also discussed different models of the translator’s agreement and how it can sometimes be a good thing to get a higher royalty and lower advance.

How publishers identify what will be a success remains an inexact science. En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule by Edouard Louis, an unknown young man with a story to tell, was a runaway hit in France. A bolt out of the blue, it was duly hyped to the max within the book trade and to readers alike.

Some books are obviously set to succeed. One example being The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, published in the UK by Oneworld Publications. A post-colonial rewrite from the perspective of the brother of the Arab victim in Camus L’Etranger (The Stranger) it won a slew of prizes. Another is Leila Slimani’s Chanson Douce (Lullaby). She is now so well known she is not referred to as a translated author any more.

The huge success of Daoud and Slimani is heartening for many reasons, not least given their North African roots. Over twenty five years ago, when I championed Tahar Ben Jelloun and Rachid Mimouni, I was mocked for publishing them, and was told by various journalist and publisher acquaintances (still at work today) that “Arab writers don’t sell, no one is interested in them.”

Some favourite reads

Sarah Ardizzone flagged up Hergé’s Tintin and Asterix, translated by the late great Anthea Bell, as being a great way into the world of books for reluctant readers. She was passionate about Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau. Set after the explosion of the volcano in Martinique in 1901, it is “an historical and personal perspective of Texaco, a shantytown suburb just outside Martinique’s capital Fort-de-France . . . told through the voice of Marie-Sophie Laborieux, daughter of a freed slave, who recounts her family history from the beginning of the 1820s through to the late 20th century.”[Wikipedia]  Translated from the original French and Creole by husband-and-wife team, Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Ardizzone said that “the combination of these two people creating this translation is extraordinary . . . with its inventive wordplay and original style that is almost like magic realism . . . making it very fluid and strange.”

Ellie Steel was particularly enthusiastic about The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis, translated by Michael Lucey, which is set in working class France, (for which read yellow-vest territory, the latest ‘Big Thing’ among London literati who publish translations) and features local dialect and subtle social observation. “The translator is from the deep south of America and has a similar social background to the author. He is a professor so brought much knowledge to the text, you can really see it on the page,” she said.

Steel also flagged up Man-Booker shortlisted War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans translated by David McKay, enthusing over the “beautiful writing in English. It is word perfect. You would not believe it is a translation.” And also the Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death. “There is a lot of mangling of local names and linguistic jokes  . . . he wrote a new chapter for us in English on the politics of names beginning ‘You are reading this book in translation’ and his translator Natasha Wimmer helped him work it into beautiful English.”

The session ended with a translators’ pitch session taking in Romain Slocombe’s trilogy L’Affaire Léon Sadorski, L’Étoile jaune de l’inspecteur Léon Sadorski, and Sadorski et l’Ange du péché published by Robert Laffont; Jean Claude Dubois’ La Succession (The Inheritance) published by Points, and the late Mohamed Dib’s Simorgh published by Albin Michel based on The Conference of the Birds by Attar, an ancient poem about Sufism (birds in The Koran are a symbol of the immortality of the soul).

This year’s Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize run in collaboration with Writers Centre in Norwich focuses on French. So go ahead an apply NOW!

European dreams and fictions with Jonathan Coe, Olivia Rosenthal & Claudia Durastanti 

Daniel Medin chaired this illuminating discussion during which the crisis of identity, class and belonging came up as urgent themes.

Jonathan Coe is much loved in France where he is considered to be the quintessential English novelist following in the footsteps of Julian Barnes.

Coe’s novel Middle England is set in a less troubled country, from 2010 to just after the Brexit referendum in 2016. A period in time is represented through a series of social and political events seen through the perspectives of a group of individual characters, and the problems and dilemmas they have to deal with. The characters are of different backgrounds, ranging from cosmopolitan to working class, and indignation along the lines of “them and us” is a recurring refrain. The title refers not only to a certain mentality of looking at the world, but to the English Midlands where the novel is set.

Jonathan Coe: “If you read my book Middle England and you know any of my earlier books you will see there is a difference. This is a much more improvised book than what I have written before. I tend to plot very carefully and plant narrative clues in the early chapters and bring them to some kind of a tricksy resolution towards the end. I haven’t done any of that in Middle England. I literally just took the events of the last seven or eight years in the UK starting in 2010 and placed this disparate group of characters, many of whom were pre-existing from my earlier books, in the events. I told myself to listen to them and to observe how they reacted. So it has a looser more improvised feel than my other books.
In 2016 when the referendum was in the air and about to happen, this book hadn’t taken shape in my mind though I wanted to write a contemporary novel about recent historical events.  When the referendum did take place and had that unexpected result, then I focused my mind and changed the nature of the book completely.
The British are people who like to keep their feelings fairly buttoned up but there’s a lot of quite angry indignant people who feel anonymous malign forces are out to get them.  There is a simmering sense of injustice and indignation and victimhood.  Now, when I see Nigel Farage touring the country holding his Brexit party rallies to people who are predominantly white and 50 or above, there is the same vague amorphous undirected anger which he is so cleverly and so dangerously harnessing right at this moment. It was an easy book for me to write this time because there was a logic to it which led from small intimate moments between ordinary  characters leading to the large political themes which the book touches on.”

Coe has always delighted in language and uses humour to great effect. Nigel, a spokesman for Cameron’s government, appears now and again in the novel as a source for one of the main characters, Doug, who is a journalist. Coe expounded, “The comic tone comes directly and obviously from a novel by Joseph Heller, a great hero of mine, Good as Gold. A White House spokesman is in it who speaks very much in the same tone as Nigel in my book who comes quite directly from him. He is full of naïve bullish enthusiasm for the Cameron political project and is completely oblivious to the absurd contradictions and falsehoods in what he is saying. All the conversations he has with Doug take place before the referendum and the final one takes place eighteen months afterwards when there has been a change in Nigel who quits politics and travels around the world in a hot air balloon.

Publishing this piece the day after the EU election results are in . . . I wonder . . . how many of us would like to float off and away and around the world à la Jules Verne?

Emotions in Man and Animals

The Verticales imprint (Gallimard Group) specialises in writing that attempts to find new forms. Olivia Rosenthal’s unusual novel To Leave with the Reindeer out with And Other Stories and expertly translated by Sophie Lewis is a good and unusual example, and the kind of offering which deserves to win prizes.

to leave with the reindeer, and other stories, bookblast diaryIt is the story of Olivia, a young girl growing up and her relationship with animals, interspersed with the opinions and beliefs of real people and specialists who are close to animals one way or another. This juxtaposition of animals and people brings to the fore patterns of behaviour, identification and the environment and her sexual awakening. The two narrative threads weave back and forth like a figure of eight.

Olivia Rosenthal: “I wanted to write a book about animals and tried to find a way of doing it in such a way that animals could speak, but I realised this would be difficult and inauthentic. So I began an enquiry and went to interview specialists and people who have bizarre relationships with animals, like animal trainers, zoo keepers, butchers, or laboratory researchers who do experiments on animals. They often said they chose their profession because they loved animals.
I did not know what I’d do with all these interviews and had to sort out how to transform all this material into fiction. This contradiction between loving and constraining, even torturing, animals lies at the heart of the book.
Olivia is in her room which is like a prison cell. Even though her parents love her, how does she get out, and free herself from their love which keeps her trapped? I gradually began to work on these parallel worlds moving between the life of this young girl becoming a woman, and human relationships and the activity of men working on animals. This form of writing which alternates between these two worlds became stimulating, like a game. It was a challenge knowing how to finish the book.”

The Festival of Italian literature in London

Claudia Durastanti was born in Brooklyn, moved to the South of Italy and has lived in England for many years. Cleopatra Goes to Prison by Claudia Durastanti is out now with Dedalus, and a novel-cum-family memoir, La straniera, is due out with Fitzcarraldo in 2020.

Durastanti is from a family of migrants. She is the co-founder of the Festival of Italian literature in London, which sold out last year. A group of journalists, writers and professors came together after the referendum in 2016 to establish a community festival focusing on identity,  fuelled by a desire of wanting to make a difference, and seeking to overcome stereotypes as well as looking at perceptions of the future. The festival also aims to be helpful for other communities here in London and is a celebration of communities that lie “in between” their homeland and their new home here in the UK. This year it will be held in November at the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill. Info is HERE

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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