Posts Tagged ‘French literature’

Crouch End Festival 2018

May 14, 2018

New Writing Image for Programme

Now that A Midsummer Night’s Dream has finished it’s time to flag up my own next production with the Crouch End Players as part of the Crouch End Festival. As part of an evening of new writing I’m directing a new translation of the French classic, A Door (Should Be Either Open Or Shut).

The original is a short play by the Romantic writer Alfred de Musset, perhaps most famous in this country for being the lover of Georges Sand which inspired both of them to write classic memoirs of their time together.

The original concerns the romantic tribulations of a pair of aristocrats in mid-ninteenth century Paris but I’ve updated it to post-War London with saltier dialogue and a real period feel.

The venue once more is the Great Northern Railway Tavern, who were such excellent hosts for Corbyn Island in 2017 and there will be three shows at 7pm on the 15th, 16th and 17th June. Tickets are free and available from crouchendplayers@hotmail.com. It would be great to see you there!

#theatre #London #Musset

Marivaux Pt. 2

April 22, 2017

EPSON002.jpg

A bit of repetition of a previous post but I recently wrote this for the French History Society blog:-

Adapting Marivaux’s L’Ile des Esclaves in 2017

One of the things that never occurred to me until this year was that I might end up adapting a play by Marivaux for the stage. Marivaux’s LIle des Esclaves is a one-act play first performed by the Comédiens Italiens in 1725. It tells the story of two ancient Athenian aristocrats and their slaves who are washed up after a storm wrecks their ship to discover that they have landed on an island run by the descendants of former slaves. A role reversal comedy along the lines of the 80s cinema classic, Trading Places, it sees the masters become slaves and the slaves become masters at the behest of the Island’s leader, Trivelin.

imgresI’d become interested in Marivaux having noticed a succession of reviews of productions of his work in Le Monde. In an idle moment in the library I saw Marivaux’s name and thought I’d check him out. My sole previous experience of classical French theatre was being made to study L’Avare for A-level. And I mean study in the loosest sense. The pursuit of knowledge being strangely absent from our school’s ethos, even in Sixth Form, my familiarity with Molière’s text was based solely on having watched a BBC production starring Nigel Hawthorne in the title role. I thus approached Marivaux cautiously and chose L’le des Esclavesas as my introductory text, which weighs in at an easily digested 60 pages of text.[1]

The language wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. Some archaisms apart I could follow the dialogue well enough and the classic role reversal plot was very entertaining. I was interested to see if there had been any translations and was delighted to find an edition of his plays in English in the excellent Skoob Books of Bloomsbury.[2] The Island of Slaves had been translated by William Gaskill for a performance at RADA in 1986 and I rattled through it very quickly.

imgres-1While reading it in classical French I hadn’t been especially bothered by the very eighteenth century social and gender attitudes of the text. However, reading it in modern English made it seem rather anachronistic, especially the ending. Although Marivaux’s comedy was quite radical for its time in positing a situation where aristocrats are taught to improve their morals by their social inferiors it struck me that the play’s resonance with the twenty-first century was let down by the docility of the female characters and the socially conservative message embodied in the restoration of the hierarchal status quo at the resolution of the plot. I just couldn’t see how you could play the text straight in the modern world. So it seemed odd that RADA had chosen to do so. At least on the page, it may be that their staging undermined the socially conservative resolution.

So I began to turn over in my mind how one could update the piece for a modern English audience. Firstly, I did this as a kind of academic exercise. I was commuting to Leicester for a VL job at De Montfort once a week and Stella time on the train back seemed more productive if engaged in a bit of translation for pleasure. Then it occurred to me that with members of the Crouch End Players among my circle of friends and the Crouch End Festival coming up, I might be a bit more ambitious and actually get it staged.

I began by going back to the French original, trying to put all thoughts of the English translation out of my head. Attacking the text I soon came up against a problem which has long been recognised – to what extent should I place the translation in the context of the time of its production? Should I attempt to replicate the eighteenth century terms in like for like English? Or should I rather place the translation in the context of the audience for which I intended it, a non-specialist festival crowd likely to be assembled in the function room of a pub?

At De Montfort I’d noticed that the ‘Centre for Adaptation Studies’ occupied a corridor along the way from the historians. Adaptation Studies was a new term for me so being an academic I thought this sounded like something that might be able to help me formulate a structured approach to adapting Marivaux for the English stage. I was wrong – Adaptation Studies is concerned more with the adaptation of texts from one form to another, for the most part novels to films. What I was looking for was Translation Studies, which has its home in this country at UCL and has a much longer-established methodology.

In Western culture Translation Studies’ founder (although like all firsts this is disputed) is St. Jerome, who coined the concept of sense-for-sense translation as sound practice compared to literal translation with the former using sentences rather than individual words as the basic units for making a new text. Cicero put this more pithily in his De Opitimo Genera Oratorumwhen he explained that in translating from Greek to Latin, he ‘did not hold it necessary to render word for word, but … preserved the general style and force of the language.’[3] Which seems a bit of a no brainer to me.

A more thorny issue might be that defined by Lawrence Venuti in the 1990s as the issue of whether to take a ‘domesticating’ or ‘foreignizing’ approach to translation.[4] That is, whether to keep the original cultural context or move it to that of the target language. Again, this seemed straightforward to me, I wanted to not only translate but update Marivaux and make it not just relevant but topical. Which is where I wanted to go beyond the translation that I knew, Gaskill’s, and also one that I was aware of – Neil Bartlett’s.[5] His translation was for a production at the Lyric Hammersmith and I definitely wanted to steer clear of his version as I suspected that he might have wanted to make a more radical intervention to the original than Gaskill for RADA. However, from skimming the introduction and the opening few pages it seemed that Bartlett too had largely respected Marivaux’s concept and resolution. His introduction was very informative, especially in its notes on performance style in Marivaux’s day, outlining how actors would be expected to add in their own songs and jokes to liven up a show for the audience. So I took this as carte blanche to do my own bit of embellishment for the Festival crowd.

imgres-2I felt the field was clear for a radical revision of L’Ile des Esclaves for the post-Crash generation. The island is now Corbyn Island and our castaways are not Athenian aristocrats and slaves. For present times I felt that a Premier League football manager and his youth team coach on one hand, and a media-savvy interior designer and her PA on the other, would have something to say about contemporary class relations. And they get washed up on Corbyn Island, the last refuge of socialism in a post-UK dominated by Theresa May.

Rather to my surprise the play is happening! It’s been the most interesting piece of writing I’ve ever done, going from a straight translation through rewrite after rewrite taking on the advice of an experienced writer for the theatre (my friend Phil Woods) and my fellow director, Anna Rogers. Speaking with my academic hat on I’d say that I’ve learnt two valuable things in the process of going from translation to rehearsal. The first is that however obscure are some of the rabbit holes I’ve been down as a historian none have so far been as obscure as wading through the literature on Adaptation and Translation Studies. Though each has been fascinating I’ll be glad to get back to the dry ground of archive-based research for the SSFH Conference in June. Secondly, I’ve never had to work so collaboratively on a piece of writing before. I’ve been through the editing process for articles and books but taking something you’ve written and then rewriting it in the light of how an actor says the line is something altogether different and quite rewarding for being a shared experience.

So I’d like to hear from other historians who have worked in the same area, whether as specialists in eighteenth century France or in doing something similarly off beam to the regular grind of being a historian. As much as I’ve strayed from Marivaux’s source material I can’t wait to get back into reading more of his work now that I’ve discovered how rich it is.

Corbyn Island will be showing on 16th and 17th June 2017 as part of the Crouch End Festival. Go to www.crouchendfestival.org for further details.

[1] Marivaux, L’Ile des Esclaves (Folio Classique, Paris, 2000)

[2] Marivaux, Plays (Methuen, London, 1997)

[3] Cicero, De Optimo Genere Oratorum, Translated by H. M. Hubbell (Loeb Classics Library, Harvard, 2017) pp. 364-5. Although Hubbell himself is doing quite a bit of conveying meaning here himself rather than translating! Another translation I have read rendered the original, ‘I did not think I ought to count them (words) out to the reader in coins, but to pay them by weight, as it were.’

[4] Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. (Routledge, London, 1995).

[5] Neil Bartlett, The Island of Slaves (Oberon Books, London, 2002).

Houellebecq, ‘Soumission’ and the value of a PhD

September 15, 2015
Soumission

Soumission

I bought Soumission by Michel Houellebecq back in Spring when I was in Paris for a day trip. It joined a pile of books that I intended to get round to reading (quite a pile) and it was only when I heard a profile of the last week on Radio 4 that I thought to catch up with it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b068lst2

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher attacks it’s inevitable that a lot of the coverage of the book will focus on its controversial thought experiment about a possible Islamist victory in a future French presidential election. The profile too focused on this aspect of the novel, on Houellebecq’s previous novel’s dealings with religion, and the decadence of contemporary western society. It also went into great detail about the supposedly pornographic aspects of Houellebecq’s books.

All this sounds very serious. What the profile failed to get across was that Houellebecq is also a very funny writer. Yes, one might say that his writing about sex is pornographic but pornographic in the sense that he writes about it in an entirely unsentimental way. He describes it in the same way that one might describe somebody washing a car or putting the bins out. As a Naturalist in the mould of Zola. It’s not pornographic, neither is it erotic. It is quite often comic in its depiction of sex as a banal act.

One of the funniest sections of Soumission comes at the very beginning and was picked out by the profile. It might make uncomfortable reading for those about to embark on a PhD, or who are in the course of doing one now. The central character is a lecturer in French literature at the Sorbonne and has a very sour view of the value of doing a doctorate,

Les études universitaires dans le domaine des lettres ne conduisent comme on le sait à peu près à rien, sinon pour les étudiants les plus doués à une carrière d’enseignement universitaire dans le domain des lettres – on a en somme la situation plutôt cocasse d’un système n’ayant d’autre objectif que sa propre reproduction, assorti d’un taux de déchet supérieur à 95%. Elles ne sont cependant nuisibles, et peuvent même présenter une utilité marginale. Une jeune fille postulant à un emploi de vendeuse chez Céline ou chez Hermès devra naturellement, et en tout premier lieu, soigner sa présentation; mais une licence ou un mastère de lettres modernes pourra constituter un atout secondaire garantissant à l’employeur, à défaut de compétences utilisables, une certaine agilité intellectuelle laissant présager la possibilité d’une évolution de carrière – la littérature, en outre, étant depuis toujours assortie d’une connotation positive dans le domaine de l’industrie de luxe.

Basically he’s saying that the study of Literature (one might extend it to History or the Humanities in general I suppose) at university is pretty much worthless. Its object is to train people to teach the subject to another cohort of students of the same subject and in that aim it fails 95% of the people who take it up – only 5% will ever make it to be lecturers in the subject. But a postgraduate qualification does have its uses for those looking to work in the luxury industries. Such people must as a minimum present themselves well. Showing a little knowledge of literature beyond the commonplace has a certain intellectual cachet and shows a potential to go further in a company that can enhance employability.

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq. Not a fan of luxury goods.

It’s enough to put off anyone from taking up the study of the Humanities! And surprising coming from a man who stuck it to the modern art world in his last novel (and my favourite), La Carte et le Territoire, castigating it for its shallow obsession with monetary rather than artistic value. Its ‘hero’, Jed Martin, is a beautifully realised character who takes up art because he has an aptitude and a vision of the world. When he makes a colossal amount of money he barely knows what to do with it, indeed lives largely as if he didn’t have it.

In Soumission Houellebecq’s (and yes, it is the central character speaking but one feels the author’s voice coming through) pessimism on the value of postgraduate research is entertaining but misplaced. In fact he falls into the trap of considering a Masters or a doctorate as merely a functional thing, as something that is only useful if it gets you a job. I think this is a trap that many PhD students fall into themselves, as shown by the recent debates over the number of people gaining doctorates who can’t get a job in academia. I would especially recommend Brodie Waddell’s blog The Many-Headed Monster if you want to explore the debate and how it has developed.

Because you study for, or have, a PhD you don’t gain the right to work as an academic, you gain the opportunity. And if you go into it thinking that if you don’t get an academic job at the end of the process  you’ve either failed or (more illogically) the system has failed you then you’re quite likely in for a shitty time of it. Any research/writing should start from a position of being done for its own sake, for the love of it, otherwise it’s very quickly going to become a burden rather than a comfort when your career ambitions aren’t being met.

So Houellebecq on this one thing is wrong. But Soumission is very good, not so much in its controversial aspects (Islamism v Western decline … I think he’s fundamentally wrong) but in the details of urban v rural life, the homogenisation of corporate culture, the ennui of being a middle-aged man and the shitty side of trying to be an ‘intellectual’, amongst others. Kind of like Ballard, Larkin, the Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet and who else, who else? Not sure who else. Well, he’s unique. And that’s unusual. And as a historian of France (on a very minor scale) I found continual thought-provoking passages with resonances to the revolution, to the 1870s and to the 1930s.


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