The sky is a perfect, cloudless azure, it’s 32 degrees Celsius, and I’m on a Mediterranean beach with sand as fine as confectioner’s sugar. Which is lovely, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t have sunglasses with me and the glare off the white page is enough to melt the eyeballs of the most dauntless reader. So I have to put my book down and talk to people. Which is difficult, because I speak French about as well as a toddler from Toulouse (all things considered–two-year-olds can conjugate verbs better, but I know obscenities they don’t).
Luckily, the family near me includes a kid from the lycée whose English is pretty good. He translates between the adults for a while, but then he and I fall into a conversation about art and literature, which satisfies every expectation about French intellectualism. It’s amusing, not least because you can’t listen to a fifteen-year-old say, “I prefer traditional forms,” with a straight face. He turns out to be a big fan of Victor Hugo, and I can keep up for a bit by using my memories of Les Misérables(mostly derived from the soundtrack of the musical–original London cast) and because I know that the hunchback isn’t mentioned in the French title for Notre-Dame de Paris. But then he loses me in a thicket of references to works that are virtually unknown in America, particularly a favorite of his called L’Homme Qui Rit, or The Man Who Laughs.
I counter beard for beard, matching the genius of Hugo with his American contemporary, Herman Melville. “Sure, you’ve heard of his Moby-Dick, but you really must read his satire The Confidence-Man and his sublime novellas.” (By the way, you really must. I know you think of Melville as a stuffed shirt you avoided in school, but he’s truly brilliant, and funny to boot. He was the first writer I read who made me realize that humor wasn’t a 20th-century invention. And he really did write a bunch of wonderful stuff that you’ve never heard of, like Mardi. There’s a quote in there about a a moody housekeeper that’s always stuck with me: “For be it known that like most termagants, the dame was tidy at times, though capriciously, loving cleanliness by fits and starts.” Reminds me of a roommate I used to have who’d trash the place six days a week and then complain on Sundays about how messy the rest of us were. She was the one who played the “Les Miz” soundtrack incessantly, come to think of it. But back to Melville. Fun guy. Did you know he worked as a pinsetter in a bowling alley in Honolulu? True story. And August 1st is his 195th birthday, so it’s high time you give him a chance.)
The chat makes me think about how differently writers can be received in different countries and different languages. However much respect I might have for Hugo, my view of him isn’t the same as that kid’s, and I doubt that Melville’s mastery of English translates with the same effect into French. Things aren’t always lost when cultural boundaries are crossed, though. Sometimes a new audience sees something that the original one missed. Jerry Lewis, American buffoon and French cinematic deity, isn’t the only example. Since I’ve been in Europe, I’ve heard the name Douglas Kennedy cited several times. “Un écrivain américain merveilleux–you must know him.” Nope. Multiple awards, number one bestsellers, novels made into films, but not a glimmer of recognition from this American. He’s a star abroad but a footnote at home.
I can’t help but wonder about writers who might make an equivalent splash in the United States. Who are the unsung authors of France whose voices might speak loudly to Americans? Given the current paucity of fiction that makes its way into English from elsewhere, I’m afraid we’ll never know. But anything is possible. That hypothetical toddler from Toulouse might grow up to be a translator and share something with us we can’t even imagine.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. He really did visit a perfect Mediterranean beach and have a conversation with a bilingual teenager about Victor Hugo, but not at the same time.