by Catherine Leroux
translated by Lazer Lederhendler
“Canada’s new prime minister. He’s young. He brings people together. Has ideas. Energy. Charm. A knack for the quick rejoinder. John F. Kennedy. He speaks four languages, including Hebrew and Inuktitut. He knows how to mollify the Québécois. He is the youngest person ever to have held this position, and the first Jew, though not a practising Jew. But neither is he an atheist. He plays the guitar.”
But this is no Justin Trudeau. His name is Ariel Goldstein, and he is going to clean things up. Clean things up while Toronto lies buried in snow, Canada’s cities are paralyzed by protesting Christian fundamentalists, and cars are blown up in Montreal. Catherine Leroux has fun dreaming up alternative realities, sure, but what most impresses about this list of Goldstein’s attributes is how it inspires. It does not stumble, and it’s a typical example of Leroux’s craft and translator Lederhendler’s attention to detail.
This summer, as I got a good part of the way through The Party Wall—Lazer Lederhendler’s translation of Le mur mitoyen, Catherine Leroux’s wonderful novel originally published by Alto in Quebec City—I was going to say it was probably the best book you’ll read from Quebec all year. It encapsulates so much about what contemporary Quebec fiction is getting right. It’s a charming blend of beautiful writing and intricate construction that’s not so much cinematic but whose satisfying parallel plots draw readier parallels with much of what Peak TV is doing at the minute. In a world in which novels are competing with Netflix to capture the attention of tired eyes after a long day’s work, it certainly seems like a promising recipe, if a little too pat at times.
In any event, it’s great, I wanted to tell you. And then there it was, swiftly nominated for the Giller Prize and this year’s Governor General’s Awards for French-to-English translation and it all seems a bit obvious now. But I’ll hop on the bandwagon and add my voice to those who are singing its praises this year, with a dissenting note or two along the way.
It’s a novel of details and, thankfully, the delivery of these details is what impresses. Any novelist can tell you that a character’s husband died nine years ago, but why say that when you can write:
“Madeleine generally avoids the willow, especially since her husband was buried at the foot of the tree. The daffodils blossomed early and she has cut nine of them, one for each year since Micha died.”
It’s a novel of multiple characters, too. We start with two young girls, Monette and her older sister Angie, in Savannah. Two girls we barely return to over the first half of the novel. Then it’s on to Madeleine and her son Édouard, Leroux hitting her stride immediately, finding beauty and less familiar perspectives even when describing an old car:
“The motor growls without putting up a fuss. The leather is torn here and there, the wing mirror is cracked and breaks up the sky on the passenger side.”
Lederhendler, naturally, needs to be just as inventive in his language and turns of phrase, and he’s on his toes, especially in the novel’s first half. “Arms flop down like sail gone slack,” for instance, the satisfying rhythm most definitely Lazer Lederhendler’s own doing when other translators might well have settled for a “slack sail” (une voile dégonflée). There’s something satisfying about the “long, groping roots” (longues et fouineuses) we encounter early on, un air bonbon is rendered “a bubblegum tune,” and a passenger who “twiddles the radio dials” seems to be an upgrade on “tourne les boutons de la radio.” We can go on… Doctors are “hard put to” (ne purent) explain an event, habitués becomes “inured to,” and when a character is given an injection “she plunges into a sea of molten gold […] swimming in honey, waving her limbs about with a heavy, delicious slowness.”
The writing—both Leroux’s and Lederhendler’s—is seldom better than when describing life on fast-forward, summaries delighting and illuminating rather than merely conveying dry facts as the whole novel seems to be a reminder of the craft of the novelist for the Wikipedia generation. Take Madeleine getting into photography, for example:
“Her first subject was travellers’ faces, red-eyed and blurry-mouthed. As the months passed, she honed her technique and their features became more sharply defined, until they deserved to be framed.”
The description is simple but effective. It works, plainly, and there is beauty in the simplicity.
“Pudgy fingers [hop] effortlessly from key to key like ignorant, agile little birds” on a keyboard, and, elsewhere, “Fall is approaching and the warmth of the South throbs on the horizon like a sack of gold at the foot of a rainbow.”
But back to the characters. There is a man who lives for weeks “as if they were the last days of the Second World War,” a woman who claims to be completely amnesiac, reconstructing her past through suppositions (“My fingers are long and slender, so I’ll bet I was a concert pianist.”), larger-than-life characters received by Madeleine as “living postcards” sent by a son who never writes, dangerous lovers who like Tristan and Iseult “need a sword, a blade to keep them from falling on one another like the particles of a collapsing star.” Then we have Simon and Carmen, a brother and sister who live “with the choking sensation that they are alone in the world,” Joanna, a Dutch woman “whose every wrinkle suggests the pain she has had to confront, undergo, and overcome to lead a life like hers,” and another woman who experiences “in the first moments of [her] existence what everyone spends their whole life desiring.” There are two people in one, with other characters doing their best to hide within their own bodies.
We learn that “nothing in Canada is colder than a Northern Ontario highway in the middle of the night,” that “we die as we have lived. Absurdly and untruthfully.” And we see glimpses “of what a man is before life dismantles him, of what remains of him afterwards.”
There are highs and lows, of course. Unlike in La marche en forêt, Leroux’s ambitious first novel, perspective is not constantly changing, flickering. We linger with each pair, enjoying their company before it’s time to move on, but move on we do, the reader’s heartbeat decelerating as we are wrenched away from favourite characters to storylines we know nothing about. These are highs and lows for both Leroux and Lederhendler, although any temptation to nitpick over particular word choices has been tempered by a recent remark from Tom Roberge on the Three Percent Podcast, namely that you can go through any translation and come up with ten examples to prove it’s a great translation or ten examples to show it’s a below-par translation. Nevertheless, there are a few places where my natural inclination, for better or worse, was to think “That’s not what I’d’ve put.” Dialogue in particular can seem stuffy—older—and I was sometimes left flicking ahead to see how old a particular character was.
For instance, “I don’t know,” one character says. “The situation is complicated.” When’s the last time you heard someone say that (as opposed to “It’s complicated.”)?
“I haven’t called him,” another says. “He’s not aware of what happened.” when the original French (“Il ne sait pas ce qui s’est passé”) seems more given to a simple “He doesn’t know” than the more formal tone of the translation.
Two young girls read a “periodical,” a sports team celebrates a “victory” (rather than a win), and Madeleine says “Science was obliged to…” which I again want to file under the heading of “Things You Don’t Hear Every Day.” An “interlocutor” even puts in an appearance, a term that seems to appear much more frequently in translations than other forms of fiction.
“I owe it to my brief [career] as a star athlete,” Carmen explains, going on more than a little stiltedly: “I received a sponsorship that enabled me to live here.”
Similarly, the narrative takes an unfortunate turn toward the grandiose when it announces, somewhat pompously, “Before the great event, it is imperative to verify…” And “We have no choice; the law obliges us to dissolve the marriage” sounds more like a courtroom ruling than pillowtalk. (It is pillowtalk.)
Truth be told, the translation loses a little of its sparkle as the book goes on, while Leroux wraps up loose ends and joins dots between the characters perhaps a little too neatly (it’s tough to get into detail without revealing a few jaw-dropping spoilers). Recent nominations for the Giller Prize and a Governor General’s award for translation perhaps tell us more about Canada’s translation criteria and the frustrating impossibilities of translations (and editing them) than Lederhendler’s performance on this particular occasion. Leroux’s book is an ambitious exploration of our “plural, incalculable world.” This translation mostly does it justice.
Review by Peter McCambridge