Monday, 10 February 2014

Shock of the new(ish)

One of my all time favourite books (which I re-read on a fairly regular basis) is Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. I first read it as an impressionable adolescent and it has haunted me ever since. Anyone who has read my novel, Wealden Hill, will know that.

I grew up with the Frank Davison translation. I have struggled through a French edition, but my command of the language is nowhere near good enough to be able to enjoy the book as a pure read. So I always go back to my battered and falling-apart Penguin Modern Classic, the one with Sisley’s ‘Small Meadows in Spring’ on the cover, the one that cost me 30p, the one that replaced the previous one which did fall apart. And as always, when it gets to the point where Seurel finally gets to hold Yvonne in his arms, I choked up.

This time round I choked up for a different reason as well. I had a copy of the new(ish) translation by Robin Buss, published as a Penguin Classic in 2007. I thought I would try that version. So, when I had finished Colette’s Claudine at School as a kind of appetiser, I turned to this new Meaulnes.

It was like watching your best friend being knocked into the gutter and kicked in the head. The differences are subtle. It may well be a technically competent (and possibly more technically accurate) translation, but that’s all it was. I gave up on it before the end of part one as it was like reading someone’s homework and went back to the Davison translation. That older version reads like a novel written with passion, which is what the story deserves.

But there were other problems with the new version (and which a glance at the original French confirms). The first is the appalling level of proof reading. Penguin used to be a first rate publisher that produced quality. They have clearly dispensed with a lot of the backroom work that earned them their reputation. The result was me howling over basic errors – bits of text that hadn’t even been edited properly, let alone picked by a proof reader.

And then there was the Introduction. It was the sniffiest, snottiest, most dismissive piece about the book it was introducing whilst trying to display to all and sundry what a clever fellow the writer is. Well, sorry, but to me it made you look spiteful.

I know M. Fournier’s first (and only) novel is flawed, but if you are invited, for whatever reason, to write an introduction to a work, what I want to read is an introduction to the work, a discussion of its context (rather than all the American books it inspired), the writer’s potential, the wider resonance occasioned by the horror of the years that followed its publication and, yes, its flaws. That can all be done without a look-at-me parade of one’s own erudition.

That seems to be quite commonplace these days, and it is boring. I do not need people to show off about how clever they are; I can judge that for myself from what they offer in terms of illumination of the subject they discuss. In this case, it was very little beyond an absurd discussion about the difficulties of translation that Davison ably dealt with.

So that newer Penguin is going in the box with other stuff for the charity shop and I will treat myself to a hardback version of the Davison translation that was published last year on the centenary of the book’s first publication. That way, I know my favourite version of the book will last as long as I do.

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