Sunday, 13 December 2015

The French take on English Lit.

What connects these five novels and their writers?

The Rosy Crucifixion by Henry Miller
Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos
Martin Eden by Jack London
Sophie's Choice by William Styron
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The answer may come as a surprise. They all featured in Les cent livres du siècle, a list of the one hundred best books of the 20th century, according to a poll conducted in the spring of 1999 (and I know this isn't topical, except retrospectively) by the French retailer Fnac and the Paris newspaper Le Monde. 
Starting from a preliminary list of 200 titles created by bookshops and journalists (and I already smell a rat), 17,000 French voters responded to the question "Which books have remained in your memory?" (Quels livres sont restés dans votre mémoire?)
Now there were other books written in English in the list - Steinbecks's The Grapes of Wrath was the highest-placed Anglophone novel (in 7th place) and Ulysses came in 28th, below Lolita and above The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati. There was The Hound of the Baskervilles and The War of the Worlds and (for some reason) Gone with the Wind.
What struck me about the five novels listed at the start of this blog is that not only had I never read any of them (and of course one can't read everything), but that, in the case of Martin Eden I'm ashamed to admit I'd never even heard of the book. At least I thought I'd never heard of it but it turns out I must have. In Nabokov's Pnin (1957), the title character asks for a copy of Martin Eden in a bookshop, describing it as "a celebrated work by the celebrated American writer Jack London". The assistant (like me) has never heard of it, and tries to palm him off with The Son of the Wolf prompting Pnin's gloomy reflection: "Strange! The vicissitudes of celebrity! In Russia, I remember, everybody—little children, full-grown people, doctors, advocates—everybody read and re-read him."
It's odd, isn't it, that some writers appear to enjoy a greater reputation in other languages. I seem to recall that everyone in Paris in the late 1980s was reading John Irving. Why? It's not that he's a negligible writer but what was it that triggered an eager response in France?
Perhaps the most popular 19th century anglophone writer in France is Edgar Allen Poe (or 'Edgar Poe' as the French prefer to call him). It's not so hard to find a likely reason in the identity of Poe's best interpreter. Charles Baudelaire spent nearly ten years translating Poe's works into French, and his translations were and are very highly regarded. He certainly wasn't the first Frnech writer to tackle Poe, but his "scrupulous translations" were and are considered the best. These were published, in case you want to read them (I haven't) as Histoires extraordinaires (1852), Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires (New extraordinary stories) (1857). There are, I expect others. Certainly Baudelaire is an added lure (which sounds like an anagram), and I can't help wondering which foreign writers  were or are popular in English in part at least because of the fame of their translators. I don't mean Dante (for instance), but Poe-like authors . . . any thoughts?

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