Martine Desjardins, contrary to most French Quebec writers, began her first novel, Le cercle de Clara, in English. The reason was one of inspiration and serendipity. As a girl, she used to spend her summers on Prince Edward Island, this being a rarity in itself, because outside of the "petits QuTbecs" in Old Orchard, Maine or Hollywood, Florida, a vacation outside of Quebec for French-speaking families was (and largely still is) something unusual. But apparently Martine Desjardins' family was not a typical one.
This family did, after all, produce a writerła writer with a sense of curiosity. One summer Martine Desjardins came across a barn in which an auction was being held. Among the lots being offered was a giant box of books that had belonged to an elderly lady and her family. Desjardins bought the whole thing, sight unseen, hoping there might be a gem in the bunch.
She expected to find romance novels, devotional volumes, perhaps a marriage manual or even a cookbook. What she discovered surprised her. There was poetry, books in Latin carefully annotated and with English translations in the margins, works on Maritime botany and natural science. Suddenly this anonymous lady demanded attention, a portrait even. Who had she been? What had her life been like as an educated, imaginative woman in rural Prince Edward Island in the early twentieth century? And what sorts of secrets had she possessed?
As they say, there hangs a tale. A tale that has just been published in English as Fairy Ring, translated by Fred Reed and myself.
If the French-speaking Desjardins wrote the book in English, why would she need a translatorłor two, in this case? The answer is simple. Though she began the work in English, based loosely on the imagined life of the owner of the books she had acquired in the barnyard auction, once she was finished, she transcribed the entire thing into French, her native and literary language.
I first heard this charming and true story about the auctioned box of books at a literary soirTe I recently attended to mark the publication of Fairy Ring. When translating the novel with Fred Reed, I knew nothing of the existence of an English crypto-text behind the seemingly French original. This was just as well; our English might have been influenced by Desjardins' version. At the soirTe, she was actually brave enough to read a few passages from her original English out loud. I was impressed. She really did sound like an Island woman from the beginning of the century, completely cohesive and in character.
The fairy ring of the book's title refers to the configurations formed by certain mushrooms as they spread out in concentric circles on the forest floor. Of course, there are other circles and other fairies in this book, and some of those circles are composed of parasitic creatures, too. As for Clara, she truly is the latter-day incarnation of that anonymous P.E.I. woman whose books were being auctioned. Reshaped by Martine Desjardins' pen, she's quite a piece of work. Her husband is considerably older than she is, and a specialist in mycologyłthe science of mushrooms. He has a particular problem: his wife will notłor cannotłhave marital relations with him. "The wall of my bones will not yield," as Clara puts it.
Edmond, the hapless husband, responds by drugging her with potassium bromide to conquer her resistance, and at one point, offers his wife a veterinary speculum to help dilate her, and ease his passage. I witnessed Martine Desjardins reading this section out loud to a largely English-speaking audience in Montreal. A slight, prim, pretty woman in her forties, she astonished the house with her descriptions of the marriage between Clara and Edmond. Her audience didn't know whether to recoil in horror or laugh with vicious delight. And that in itself is an accomplishment for a writer.
Of course, despite the treatment she accepts at the hands of her husband, Clara is no victim. In the end she prevails over her husbandłwith a little help from the natural world. Mind you, in Fairy Ring, even the natural world is unnatural. As for the fairies, the novel features a certain Cosmo Remington who writes a column for the local paper under the pseudonym of Mademoiselle Boudoir. Rural, nineteenth-century Canada was never like thisłit takes a QuTbTcoise to remake it in her own devilish image.
It is a little unorthodox to translate a novel with another fellow craftsman, though the practice is not unknown. Paul GagnT and Lori St-Martin won the Governor-General's Award last year for their teamwork in putting Ann-Marie Macdonald's Fall on Your Knees into French. But Paul and Lori have the advantage of being married, which is not the case with Fred Reed and I. So what is this four-handed translation all about?
It started as an experiment. Since Reed and I had been translators and writers on our own, before this cooperative endeavor, it was a way of experiencing a friendship. It helped that we have radically differing temperaments; this way we both bring something to the mix. Reed's vocabulary and erudition is immense, and his language can be flowery, even archaic at times. This turned out to be an asset when it came to putting Clara and her circle into English. Though she is emotionally overheated, she has nothing but other people's models when it comes to expressing herself; she is a stranger to her own feelings, which must then be mediated through the vocabulary of the times (mind you, this could be said of a lot of people). So Reed's perfect recreation of a feminine, Victorian language was key to building a good translation.
Where did I come in? At times I found myself pruning back his exuberance, the inverted sentences, the rhetorical questions and other flourishes. Clara's language had to be of the kind that hides feeling even as it betrays it. But I didn't want her sounding so labyrinthine that readers would lose their emotional connection with her, and the fact that her husband has made her a virtual prisoner. And, of course, just as a translation can discover errors in the original, a second translator, going over the work of the first, can do some correcting along the way. One of the characters in Fairy Ring, a polar explorer named Captain Ryder, notes in his logbook how, near death from starvation and exposure, he wandered into a shelter made of heaped-up stones. There he discovered the body of a woman, and . . . what was at first interpreted by translator 1 as a sexual act was actually a devouring of a different natureła form of ordinary cannibalism, motivated by the survival instinct. I couldn't blame my colleague for missing that one. After all, a reviewer in one of Canada's major newspapers made the same mistake!
Cannibalism, veterinary speculums, men writing as women, poisonous mushroomsłis this your average Quebec novel?
Yes and no. As with English Canada, Quebec's literary imagination has always had a strong Gothic streak. This is nothing new: think of Anne HTbert and Marie-Claire Blais. What is new is the relation to authority. If young women were going mad in earlier Quebec stories, it was the fault of their social position; they were victims of the society that enslaved themłthe Church, Duplessis and, later, the Canadian federal system.
The same cannot be said of Martine Desjardins' world. Her characters aren't victims. They take responsibility for their quirks (some who have read the book might say "quirk" is an understatement). They don't blame anybody else. Also new and different is the science and erudition in Desjardins' novel. Clara, for all her hysteria (a nineteenth-century concept that apparently is coming back), is a learned woman, a woman of science who understands the natural world, and uses it to her advantage. As translators, we had to dig pretty deep into the world of botany to figure out some of her metaphors.
Actually, Clara is a woman of today trapped in the 1895 world of the Maritimes. It is this essential difference which makes Fairy Ring the fascinating work it is.
David Homel's latest work is the novel Get on Top, which also features a strong and perverse female character.