Read an extract from American Journal by Christine Montalbetti here.
The convention of describing novels as though they were Hollywood movies – ‘it’s so crazy; it’s about an eighteenth-century baron who lives in the treetops!’ – leaves me cold. Almost as cold as the asinine algebra of Author X + Author Y = Author Z. So if I begin by saying that Christine Montalbetti has written several hypnotic pages from the perspective of a swarm of mosquitoes at a high-school football game, or that her novels sometimes read as though they were written by Diderot, if Diderot had read Proust, you will have to forgive me. It only means my love for her fiction has scrambled my brain.
Montalbetti’s work first came to the attention of Dalkey Archive Press about ten years ago, thanks to Warren Motte, a professor of French literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder, whose sensibility has helped shape Dalkey’s long French list. Western (2009) was the first title published in translation, followed by The Origin of Man (2012), Nothing But Waves and Wind (2017), and American Journal (2018). The first two were translated by Betsy Wing, the second two by Jane Kuntz.
I doubt there is a book that is ‘easy’ to translate into English, but one can readily imagine the difficulties posed to the translator (and later to the editor) by some of Montalbetti’s sentences, such as this one, in Nothing But Waves and Wind, about the towering Haystack Rock on the Oregon coast:
How often has someone (in the off season, when the rock stalks its prey) gotten stranded out there and had to wait until the tide receded, clinging to the barnacles (or bernaches, or barnaches, according to the schoolbooks, those crustaceans that adhere to the rock so tightly and for so long they become practically one with the rock and lacerate your hands and feet), a good ten hours at the mercy of the wind, the sea’s howl, the waves’ crash, woe is us.
This sentence should be a pure delight for the reader. As its parentheses and clauses unfold, they should fill us with something like the exhilaration of watching a tightrope walker bound down the high wire. For Montalbetti to have achieved this syntactic ease in French is a feat. For the translator to reproduce it in English requires the capacities of a medium. As for the editor – his main role in the process, as usual, is to listen closely, to intervene lightly, and to try not to screw anything up.
Probably the biggest quandary we faced in seeing American Journal into print was how to handle its Americanness. For example, there was the question of how to render the title, which in French is Journée américaine. Literally translated, this would be American Day, a title fit only for a morning talk show. There was some discussion of changing the title completely, perhaps to Driving West (Montalbetti’s own good suggestion), but ultimately it was agreed that this would risk obscuring not only the evocative word ‘America,’ which is central to the book – and, we reckoned, more enticing to the prospective reader’s eye than westwardness.
Yet American Journal is in no sense a journal. It’s a novel about two college friends, Tom Lee and Donovan, and it takes place in Oklahoma. As in Nothing but Waves and Wind, Montalbetti writes about America in a way no American ever would – which is not to say she gets America charmingly wrong. In fact, what’s remarkable is how often she gets it charmingly right, by looking at it from a perspective that may be described as French, but is really far more idiosyncratic. I can think of no other writer who could so convincingly define the ‘continuity’ many Americans feel between their own sense of interiority and the interior of their car, a ‘beige-carpeted metal shell, sheltered from the outside world’, or who could hear ‘the piercing stridence’ of an American train whistle, or who could see (without irony and without making us cringe) ‘the great vault of American sky’.
These pristine phrases, like so many others in the book, are the result of Jane’s meticulous reimagining of Montalbetti’s prose. Throughout the book, Jane credibly recreates American idioms – ‘I’m tellin’ you guys’, ‘couch potato’ – without becoming hokey. She and I wavered, however, over the football scene mentioned above – narrated from the perspective of bloodthirsty mosquitoes – where Montalbetti describes the abundant bare flesh and tasty veins of some ‘majorettes’ (same word in French) down on the playing field. ‘Should these be cheerleaders?’ I wondered in the margins. (A good example of the profound questions that the editor of translations often asks.) I wasn’t sure, and Jane wasn’t either. Enter Warren Motte: ‘As to the dilemma of “majorettes” or “cheerleaders”, I would [. . .] use “cheerleaders”. I was sitting next to Christine at the Boulder High football game that inspired that passage, and there were no “majorettes” to be seen.’ Don’t let anybody tell you translation isn’t a collaborative process.
In the months since American Journal was published, I’ve had the privilege of working with Warren and Jane again, putting together a Christine Montalbetti section of the Review of Contemporary Fiction. In the early days of putting it together, I’d invited Christine to write an essay on whatever ‘struck her fancy’ – a phrase that made its way into the essay itself, in a parenthetical aside where she addressed me directly (‘sorry, Alex’). Editing this sentence in particular was a strange experience. One always feels addressed by what Christine writes, but suddenly there I was, actually being spoken to: the lines of communication had opened up. I read the rest of the piece with a sympathy I don’t always feel (though should) while I’m poring over someone’s prose. And I knew exactly what she meant when she said to me: ‘I feel overwhelmed by all the things I could tell you, and I hardly know where to begin.’
Image © International Literature Festival Dublin