Holy cow! I’m as sick of the zombie/vampire craze as anyone, but sometimes the dead do rise.
Books’ current productions are on hold while I edit a literary
translation project I had long, long ago given up for a goner.
in the late 1990s an American anarchist friend swept me into his pipe
dream of translating DANS LE CIEL, the lost novel of the
late-19th-century anarchist French writer Octave Mirbeau, into an
English version, IN THE SKY.
Now, anarchists confuse
the hell out of me—”So you’ve noticed nothing works, really, eh? So
er… what exactly was it you were having this self-righteous protest
for? Oh, you’re a socialist-anarchist, I see, that makes a lot of fucking sense, carry on”—but I know a good book when I read it.
was also the author of one of my favorite fictional annals of
hopelessness ever; but to tell you how his DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID ends
would be a complete spoiler. Let’s just say that a twist in the last few
pages brings it from a flirtation with utopianism back to the dreary
cycles of life with a grace that’s worthy of Cioran. (It’s also about
infinity times as entertaining as Cioran.)
OF A CHAMBERMAID, however, has already been printed in English
translations, so the group that recruited me was focusing on IN THE SKY.
They recruited me because, well, no one originally involved in the
project was terribly bilingual. I was to do the work of translation
while they took care of the scholarship, promotion, and
Translating properly is not an easy
job, especially when you have a day job. I repeat, this was the late
90s, when scruffy youths still didn’t generally own computers, so I did
everything by hand, with a pen, notebook, and analog dictionary. And of
course, timely publication of the finished product was never guaranteed,
although it turned out to be, er, even rather less guaranteed than I
But it seemed worth it. Being involved with a
work, by a writer I admired, that had never been translated into English
seemed like a huge honor to me at twenty-whatever; to tell you the
truth it seems like even more of one now. I even flew and trained it out
to Angers, in the west of France (I was bussing tables for a living at
the time, which tells you a. How excited I was, and b. What inflation
has done to travel in the past 15 years), to meet Dr. Pierre Michel,
the main enthusiast behind the project and probably the world’s biggest
living Mirbeau scholar, and to get advice from him on the work.
Michel, president of the Société Octave Mirbeau and editor of the
Cahiers Mirbeau series for the past two decades, was (and still is, it
turns out) the main engine behind an attempted Mirbeau revival, for both
French and English reading audiences. Indeed, the edition of the French
text on which we’re basing the translation was the work of Dr. Michel
in the first place. Before Dr. Michel began his travaux, this chunk of
Mirbeau’s work was pretty much lost to Francophonic audiences as well.
is too bad. Mirbeau was plagued by physical ailments and self-hatred
throughout his career, and particularly during the period when he wrote
DANS LE CIEL, but many of his more famous contemporaries—Guy de
Maupassant; the Impressionists—saw no reason for his refusal to engage
in any aggressive tooting of his own horn. DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID was
probably his most swinging, fun-read text, but the subtleties of IN THE
SKY are incredibly expressive of the dangers of a romantic, ascetic, or
even plain old truth-seeking temperament.
try to tear yourself away from normal, earthly human life into the
eerie realm of Art, Mind, and Romance—as they understood it in the late
19th century and even as we materialist post-relevancies, in faint
echoes, perceive this ethereal oubliette now—is bad enough when you do
it on purpose. But when you’re doomed to live in the artistic sky, when
you can’t come down from the clouds, you are, to use the vernacular,
fucked as a human being.
Mirbeau seemed to understand
that just as well as he understood the more earthly, class-conflict
based troubles that he covered in CHAMBERMAID. This lost volume, which
is probably more clearly influenced by Mirbeau’s association with the
wild paint-eating early Impressionists than anything else he wrote,
bridges the gap between the hefty CHAMBERMAID tome and the more abstract
Anyway. Here on Earth, I translated
the whole SKY and mailed the handwritten chapters off to my anarchist
friend. And then—if I had been more worldly wise at the time I would
have seen this coming—the anarchist hit some strange times of his own,
the manuscript I’d done was lost somewhere, and the project sort of
floated off into the sky.
I’d almost forgotten about
it—my brain likes to block out embittering things on me sometimes—when
Claire Nettleton looked me up. I’m not sure about the
details, but someone, probably Dr. Michel, somehow dug most of my
handwritten translation up. I’d lost track of him over the years, so he
couldn’t get in touch with me, so he (Googled? Who knows how he found
her?) contacted Claire, whose doctoral dissertation in French involved
some mention of Mirbeau (the more I think about this, the more I think
he Googled her; I’m always amazed at Google’s ability to snoop into
obscure academic writing) and recruited her to re-translate the missing
When they finally tracked me down and asked
me to edit Nettleton’s work and mine into what would appear to be an
organic whole, I was shocked and enthused. Nothing like finding out that
hours and hours of work you’d thought were for nought were not.
off I go, faced with the double task of a. Making three chapters of
someone else’s idea of Mirbeau’s voice sound just like my idea of
Mirbeau’s voice, and b. Cringefully editing my own post-adolescent
pretentiousness into what sounds like a translation done by a human
being and not a caricature.
If this project succeeds I
hope you’ll read it. As for volumes that are under my more complete and
direct control, they’ll be coming, as soon as I climb down from… well,
translating this book doesn’t exactly put you in the place from which
it was originally written. I’ll say “from the place where two languages
meet the horrible gaps in human self-knowledge that lie both between and
inside of them.” This would be a “nicer” place if IN THE SKY were a
“nicer” book, of course, but fortunately “nice” isn’t my literary forte.