Saturday, 13 February 2010

Catching Up

Shameful! No posts since last autumn! I have no excuse, I just lost the urge...

Just a couple of bits of news this time. The important one is that the village built for some of those who lost homes in typhoon Morakot has just been completed, and people have moved in ready for new year. The whole place was built on voluntary donations and voluntary work, and it's hard to add anything meaningful to that fact. If you're interested to know more, there is info here

One of the things on my PhD 'to do' list, is to get my french up to some kind of useful level. I am lucky enough to have a colleague who was willing to do a language exchange with me for a couple of weeks at the beginning of this New Year break from teaching. The outcome for me was a realisation that my French really isn't anywhere near good enough, and I still have a great deal to learn. Happily, there is also a 'product' outcome - a translation of a story by Maupassant. For both I am truly grateful to Robert, and I mean that without a trace of irony. Really!

For me it's a little story with quite a big impact regardless of whether the narrator is reliable. I'm posting my translation here just for fun...


I was going to see my friend Simon Radevin, whom I hadn’t seen for fifteen years.

In the past he was my best friend, the friend of my thoughts, the kind with whom one spends long, peaceful and happy evenings, the one to whom one tells the secrets of the heart, through whom one discovers, in gently chatting, uncommon ideas, ingenious, delicate, born from the same sympathy which inspires the spirit and puts one at ease.

Back then, for many years we had scarcely been apart from each other. We had lived, travelled, thought, dreamed together, loved the same things with the same love, admired the same books, understood the same works, trembled with the same sensations, and often laughed at the same things which we understood completely with nothing but an exchange of glances.

Then he got married. Out of the blue he had wed a provincial girl who had come to Paris looking for a fiancé. How had this skinny little blonde, with clumsy hands, with clear empty eyes and a childish voice, just like a hundred thousand other dolls for marriage, how had she snapped up this intelligent and fine young man? Can one understand all of this? He had without doubt hoped for happiness, a simple, gentle and lasting happiness in the arms of a good woman, tender and faithful; and he had glimpsed all of that in the limpid glance of this gamine with pale hair.

He had never dreamed that an active man, alive and vibrant, is tired of everything as soon as he has grasped stupid reality, is even made such an idiot that he no longer understands anything.

How would I find him? Always lively, full of spirit, cheerful and enthusiastic, or put to sleep by provincial life? A man can change in fifteen years!

The train pulled up in a little station. As I was getting out of the carriage, a large, very large man, with red cheeks and a fat belly, rushed toward me with open arms crying “Georges.” I hugged him, but I didn’t recognize him. Then I murmered, astounded, “Good Lord! You haven’t lost weight.” He replied with a laugh, “What do you expect? The good life! Good food! Good sleep! Eating and sleeping, that’s my life!”

I gazed at him, searching for the features I love in this large figure. Only the eyes hadn’t changed; but I didn’t find that look of old, and said to myself ,“If it’s true that the glance is the reflection of the thought, the thoughts of this head are no longer those of the past, those which I knew so well.”

The eyes were still shining, full of joy and friendship, but they no longer had that intelligent clarity which expresses, as well as speech does, the value of a spirit.

Suddenly, Simon said to me, “Here, these are my two oldest.” A girl of fourteen, almost a woman, and a boy of thirteen in school uniform, came forward, timid and awkward.

I murmured, “Are they yours?” He replied with a smile, “Oh yes.” “So how many do you have?” “Five! There are three more at home!”

He had replied proudly, contentedly, almost triumphantly; and I sensed myself taken by a profound pity, mixed with vague contempt, for this proud and naïve breeder who spent his nights making babies between naps, in his provincial house, like a rabbit in a cage.

I got into a carriage, which he was driving himself, and with that we set off through the town, sad town, drowsy and dull, where nothing disturbed the streets save a few dogs and two or three housemaids. Now and then, a shopkeeper in his doorway doffed his hat; Simon waved back and named each of them to prove to me beyond doubt that he knew every inhabitant by name. The thought came to me that he had it in mind to become a town deputy, the dream of all those buried in the provinces.

We soon crossed the town centre, and the carriage entered a garden which had ambitions to be a park before stopping in front of a house with towers trying to pass for a mansion. “Here’s my dump” said Simon, looking for a compliment. “It’s delightful,” I replied.

A woman appeared on the entrance steps, dressed up for the visit, hair done for the visit, with sentences prepared for the visit. She was no longer the vapid blonde girl I had seen in the church fifteen years earlier, but a large woman with frills and curls, one of those ageless women, without character, without elegance, without spirit, without anything which makes a woman. In brief she was a mother, a big banal mother, a brood mare, a machine of flesh which procreates without any concern in its soul save her children and her recipe book.

She wished me welcome and I went into the hallway, where three children were lined up in order of height for review like firemen in front of the mayor. I said, “Ahah! Are these the others?” Simon, beaming, named them, “Jean, Sophie and Gontran.”

The salon door was open. I entered and perceived, deep in an armchair, something which trembled, a man, an old paralysed man. Madame Radevin came forward. “This is my grandfather, sir. He’s 87 years old.” Then she shouted into the ear of the old shudderer, “It’s a friend of Simon’s, Papa.” The ancestor, making an effort to say hello, wailed, “Waah, waah, waah,” waving his hand about. I replied, “You’re too kind, sir,” and fell into a seat.

Simon was just coming in; he laughed, “Ahah! You’ve already got to know good old dad. He’s priceless, this old one. He’s an amusement for the children. He’s a glutton, my friend, and tries to kill himself at every meal. You can’t imagine what he’d eat if we gave him his freedom. But you’ll see, you’ll see. He ogles the desserts as if they were girls. You’ve never seen anything as funny as you’ll see in a just a moment.”

Then he led me to my room to wash, for it was almost dinner time. On the stairs I heard a loud trampling, and I turned to look. the children were following me in procession, behind their father, doubtless in my honour.

My room overlooked the plain, the endless plain, completely bare, a sea of grasses, wheat and oats, without copse or hill, a striking and sad picture of the life they must lead in this house.

A clock chimed. It was for dinner. I went down. Madame Radevin took my hand ceremoniously, and we went through into the dining room. A servant rolled up the armchair of the old man, who, barely put in front of his plate, passed an avid and curious glance over the dessert while turning his shaky head with difficulty from one dish to another.

Then Simon rubbed his hands, “This will amuse you,” he said. And all the children, understanding that I would be treated to the sight of the gluttonous grandfather, started to laugh; meanwhile their mother simply smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

Radevin set to yelling at the dotard by making a megaphone with his hands, “This evening we have sweet rice pudding.” The grandfather’s wrinkled face lit up and he shuddered harder, from head to toe, to show he had understood and was content.

We began to eat. “Look,” murmured Simon. The grandfather didn’t like the soup and was refusing to eat. They were forcing him, for the sake of his health, and the serving woman plunged a full spoon hard into his mouth, while he, spluttering vigorously to avoid swallowing the soup, sprayed it like a fountain over the table and his neighbours.

The little children doubled up with glee, while their father, quite happy, repeated, “Isn’t he funny, this old man?”

And throughout the meal we were concerned with nothing but him. He was devouring the dishes on the table with his eyes, and with his wildly shaking hand trying to grab them, and draw them toward him. They put the dishes almost within his reach to see his distraught efforts, his trembling surges toward them, the distress signals of his whole being, of his eyes, of his mouth, of his flaring nostrils. He drooled with desire onto his plate, letting out inarticulate groans. And the entire family was thrilled by this odious and grotesque torment.

Then onto his plate they served him a tiny bit, which he ate with feverish greed in order to have another portion quickly. When the rice pudding arrived, he was almost in convulsions. He was groaning with desire. Gontran shouted at him, “You’ve eaten too much, you won’t get any more.” And they pretended they would give him nothing.

Then he began to cry. He wept, trembling hard, while all the children laughed. At last they gave him his portion, a tiny portion, and eating the first mouthful of the creamy dessert he made a greedy and comical noise in his throat, and a movement of his neck like that of a duck which has swallowed too big a lump of food. Then, when he had finished, he began to stamp his feet for more.

Seized by pity in front of the torture of this moving and ridiculous Tantalus, I begged on his behalf, “Look, give him a bit more rice, will you?” Simon replied, “Oh no, my friend, if he were to eat too much at his age, it would be bad for him.”

I stopped talking, musing on these words. O morality! O logic! O wisdom! At his age! Just like that they took away the only pleasure he could still enjoy, over worries about his health! His health! What could he do, this lifeless and trembling codger? They organise his days, they say. His days? How many days? Ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred? Why? For him? Or to preserve for even longer for the family the spectacle of his helpless greed?

He had nothing left to do in life, nothing left. One single desire remained to him, a single joy; why wouldn’t they fully grant him this last happiness, grant it until he died?

Then, after a long game of cards, I went up to my room to sleep: I was sad, sad, sad!

And I stood at my window. I heard nothing outside but the very light, very soft, very pretty chirping of a bird in a tree somewhere. The bird was surely singing, deep and low in the night, to lull his mate sleeping on her eggs. And I thought of the five children of my poor friend, who must have been snoring now alongside his nasty wife.


Matthew Carter said...

Hi Mike,
I enjoyed your translation of that story. What do you mean your French isn't good enough!!?
It can't be bad.

Mike Hemsley said...

Thanks for the encouragement! I think I meant I almost wore out my dictionary, and made my language exchange partner pretty tired. But it was fun to do.