Jules Renard is one of the great untranslateables, everybody says. Although his Poil de Carotte is a classic French children’s book – or rather, classic book about children, more Huck Finn than Tom Sawyer – and though his posthumously published Journal is considered one of the great (although eccentric) books of the fin de la siecle, his name resonates only with diehard francophiles among us speakers of that mongrel Normand dialect, English, people like Julian Barnes, who wrote a great essay about him. Perhaps the Journal awaits a translator of genius, who might do for Renard what Barbara Wright did for Queneau – translate not just the letter but the spirit. Like the difference between a freshly opened bottle of champaign and that same bottle the next morning, the difference between the original ane the translation can be that the latter “goes flat.” Technically, the translation can get the glossary right without being able to capture the bubbles, the irrepressible spirits in the original. This is why poetry is so much harder to translate than prose – why Montaigne is part of English literature and Du Bellay is not.
Renard’s Journal was published – in a version that was censored by his widow – in three fat tomes in the nineteen twenties. In the Pleiade edition, this adds up to a fat thousand pages. The book became quite faddish in the 30s. Nibbles from it were translated by Louise Brogan in the 60s, and the reviews congratulated her for not heaving the whole whale into English. But a greatest hits approach does the Journal an injustice. I think its equivalent is that strange thing, essoa’s Book of Disquiet, with its mixture of autobiography and revery. Renard had a weakness for aphorism – he was a man of the theater, he liked lines – and he produces them next to things described, situations deciphered, self-analysis, and dialogues that were obviously caught on the wing. A writer’s workshop, in other words.
Here are two aphorisms.
“My past is three fourths of my present. I dream more than I live, and I dream backwards.”
“I don’t know if God exists. But it would be better for his reputation if he didn’t.”
The first one is close to Pessoa, the second to Nietzsche – at least the Nietzsche of Dawn.
One of the great readers of the Journal was Samuel Beckett. As his friends testify, Beckett would read them bits from the Journal. When, briefly, he taught French at Trinity in Dublin, he assigned Renard. According to all the Beckett biographers, he used Renard’s dry style of observation and noting of things said in getting beyond, or out of, Joyce-land. The last entry in the Journal is pretty much the seed for Beckett’s triology. “Last night, I wanted to get up. Dead weight. A leg hung outside. Then a trickle runs down my leg. I allow it to reach my heel before I make up my mind. It will dry in the sheets, like when I was a redheaded boy.” That’s a pretty fine finis.
Beckettians have noticed Renard. But Beckett was not the only Renard reader – Sartre read him too, and had his say in a 1945 essay that ended up in Situations I: The Man who was all tied up. L’homme ligoté. I have not found an English translation of this essay, even though it is Sartre’s most compact look at modernist literature. I am going to look at this next.