French tries

by Michael

I have very little confidence in my capabilities but one of the benefits of having children is that you reassess what’s important. If I took how impressed Edie is by what I can do as a benchmark, my most highly prized skill would be putting the milk back in the fridge and closing the door without looking, closely followed by speaking rudimentary French. Why Edie should be impressed by my GCSE-level French when she speaks English and Swedish fluently (and has just started learning Spanish at school to boot) is beyond me but there we are.

I read French much better than I speak it. I have a number of French novels on my bookshelves and I have tried translating a few things: some 15th/16th century farces, a play by Marguerite Duras, the odd poem, and a phenomenology of fire by Gaston Bachelard. Contemporary French writing is harder to keep up with but there are a couple of people I follow on Twitter who seem to be carrying on the good work, or at least the spirit, of the Oulipo. On such a person’s site a couple of weeks ago, I came across a really lovely piece of writing, which I translated one lunchtime. The translation is nothing special, I’m sure. In fact, I know it because I ran it through Google Translate as a check and much of the text came out the same as mine, apart from those little things that the computerised translator is apt to miss or misinterpret.

It was a bit of dilemma whether to ‘publish’ my translation here. As I say, it is nothing special and my French is not good enough that I trust it to not be a travesty. But in the end, I thought it worth sharing and so there it is below, with a link to the original, of course.

Why I keep up with French is a bit of a mystery. I mean, there’s my surname, which seems to warrant a passing knowledge of the language, and it was the main language I learned at school, and I did feel some sort of connection when I visited Paris…. But I almost never speak it any more, and I don’t think I could write it very well either. However, there is a curious sensation reading a language that you don’t quite know. It makes me wonder if this is what Edie experiences when reading ‘grown-up’ English: in a book like La reine etranglée, which I have just finished, I understand most of the words and I have enough of a sense of the others to have a guess or to know how much it matters whether I understand it or not. I know I am missing subtleties of style. The overall effect is one of slowly piecing together the story but also the language in which it is being told.

I went on a journey with death


“Ah! The time comes

When hearts fall in love!”[1]

I went on a journey with death, it was not foreseen that we would go in the same bed but I had nonetheless been shaved from head to toe, to make the site ready for the knives, for the scalpels, I washed with Betadine, once in the evening, once in the morning, just before, then I went to sleep on a bench, amid a deep forest of glittering blades and rivulets of blood, machines had taken over my arrested beating and my weakened lungs. Impossible to say how long it lasted, on waking it was not the dawn of summer but a night of silver where I saw paragraphs of words added one against the other, scrolling. It made no sense, it was just pure signs, a memory reset to zero, I began to think again from nothing, then the memories returned and I reorganised them, very slowly, they were intact in the place where I left them, yesterday, an eternity ago. In the room, I went to the window, first steps, embarrassed by the tubes and the wires I succeeded all the same in distinguishing day from night, the air becoming dark green, I could almost catch the slightly sickening smell, the smell of reality. In the evening, three vertical red bars lit up, supermarket trinity, scattered concrete blocks, a sort of suburb of death, just before the Absolute and perhaps God was behind the pedestrian zone, lurking with his son, dealing two-balled prayers to young lovers. On TV they were showing “Le grand soir” by Kervern and Delépine, I also watched “On the Road”, but I was not there, it was the images that watched me in my bed, images for the fool that could never replace writing. Later a nurse suggested I take off the blue pyjamas in which I had pissed myself when I had no longer even understood what I had below the belt and dress myself in “civvies” when the pads, electrodes and catheter had been removed. I listened to reggae with my son then, my old arm in his, I took my first steps in the corridor, trembling all over. Apparently I was in working order, the surgeon suggested I take the lift and go to reception and get a coffee, I now had a bioprosthesis, I could live again with death, it was not yet the end of the journey, “the emergency doors were open to the night, just push a little harder, just a little”[2]. Despite appearances though strongly believing, I understood that throughout this time of re-emerging consciousness, it was Rimbaud who had accompanied me, he took the helm of the psychopomp ferry, so beautiful at the prow, guidance accomplished, crowned with mystic light, whole poems came to me, giving rhythm to my progress “through the myrtle shadows”[3], was I under the earth this whole time? I heard in their entirety “Song of the highest tower”, “Eternity”, “Dawn”, this above all:

Ah! A thousand widowings
Of this poor soul
That has only the image
Of Our Lady!
Do we pray to
The Virgin Mary?

I was in the company of Our Lady of the consolations, of Queen Guinevere, of pale Ophelia with her tall lilies, it was a procession of hypostases, as in Plotinus, and I was a child walking on a sunlit road lined by thick blond ears of wheat, I knew that my grandmother had never stopped protecting me, even in death, I had the courage to go on, not to tremble, never had I loved life so much, I had no fear, I knew I was saved, for all eternity.

Jean-René Lefebvre

  1. Rimbaud, “Song of the tallest tower”
  2. Léo Ferré, “Violence and boredom”
  3. Ronsard, “When you are very old…”