In case you are stopping by this blog without prior knowledge of the August commitment, this month I will look solely at works written by women that have been translated into English. Starting in 2014, August is now “Women In Translation Month”, a month to highlight the significant imbalance in female books making it into English translation. With the rough number of 3% of all fiction books being translated, to have female representation around the 30% of that 3% is basically not good enough. A growing emphasis to highlight this gulf by readers and bloggers is a grassroots approach to addressing the issue. If you would like to read more about #WITMonth have a look at my earlier post on the subject here, or go to the head honcho of the movement’s blog here.
Personally I can’t think of a better way to kick off Women In Translation Month than having a look at a “lost” winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (“IFFP”). Earlier this year it was discovered that the IFFP had “forgotten” the 2001 winner, the award was in abeyance from 1996-2000 inclusive and with a resurgent interest in translated literature the profile of the prize has seemed to increase over the years. However you will still find numerous references to Jenny Erpenbeck being the first female winner of the award (this year for her novel “The End Of Days” translated by Susan Bernofsky), and articles written prior to this year mentioning no female winners in the history. This “omission”, or slip, was corrected at the BookTrust site earlier this year, and I personally updated Wikipedia to give Marta Morazzoni and translator Emma Rose some kudos, how little that may be. As a side note, although the profile may have increased the award itself is no longer, having “merged” with the Man Booker International Prize, that award itself changing the rules to appear more relevant, but in fact just replicating the IFFP award itself, the same award a new name, and let’s hope an even greater profile.
Back to the 2001 Award winner though. to actually think that an award winner only fourteen years ago could go missing flabbergasted myself, however when I think that translated fiction is only the fringe of the massive publishing industry and add to that the winner being a woman and I suppose it is not that surprising.
But I’m not here to debate the missing, the award, the place of literature in translation so onto the book itself, “The Alphonse Courrier Affair”. It opens during 1917, towards the end of World War One, in a small village of Auvergne, where we are introduced to the measured and calculating man Alphonse Courrier, the successful local ironmonger:
He was peerless at his trade. Not even the most expert Parisian ironmonger could have equalled him. His skill consisted in giving the impression he cared nothing for sales and still less for money, which he would place almost absentmindedly in the till. He never counted it in front of his customers, but you could see he enjoyed his work and that his satisfaction lay in being able to provide anything you could possibly ask for. He had conceived of the business many years before, when nothing of the sort existed in the village, and the locals didn’t even believe it was needed.
However it is not only in business where Alphonse is canny, he takes the same calculated approach to all things in his life, selecting a bride, raising children, his relationships whilst still a bachelor, even his extra-marital affairs, our novel is an in-depth character development of Alphonse, one that slides back in time to the year 1900 and the events leading up to his “success”
With the language and style of an oral tale, one being told deep into the night in a village inn, our anonymous narrator puts forward all the facts, as though observed, whilst obviously not being present. There are examples of our narrator digressing, repeating parts and saying “but I’ve explained that before” or saying “but that is all irrelevant to our tale” or words to that effect. This tool draws you in as a “listener” not simply a reader, a wonderful skill to use when presenting the story of village gossip and innuendo; you are implicit in the tale itself. Not only using these techniques there are also allusions to the craft of writing, storytelling:
In literature, everything has already been written. There is no situation which has not been dealt with, read and filed away. Quotations abound; stories recur. The same goes for History itself. The lives of, if not the first man, certainly the first hundred, would be enough to contain nearly every existence which, over the centuries, individuals have believed they were living out for the very first time. Luckily historical memory is barely sufficient to cover the great events, and ignores the small ones altogether, leaving the illusion, each time something happens, that nobody has ever experienced such a thing – good or bad – before. Not like this, anyway. And in those two words: like this, the whole of human life is written.
Our protagonist Alphonse Courrier, marries and with village gossip focusing on his mother with locals pushing her for information about impending grandchildren, she dies; the three days leading up to her funeral a hive of village activity where the circle of players interactions are observed:
His wife was behaving with an ease, a naturalness which could only be envied and admired. When – in an early afternoon break from visitors, just after the kitchen table had been cleared of lunch – Alphonse heard, or thought he heard, his wife humming a tune (a melancholy tune, to be sure, but a tune nevertheless), he lost all doubt that, not only was Agnès feeling no sorrow (which was fair enough), but she was actually brimming with a quiet joy. Women like her do not go in for loud outbursts or extreme shows of emotion. They manage their internal lives as they would the Marquis of Jocelyn’s castle, if asked to: in an ordered and efficient manner. They polish their minds like the family silver. Now that the power was passing into her hands, Madame Alphonse Courrier was preparing herself with moderation and discipline for her forthcoming enthronement.
The village scandal involves a range of symbolic and one would think insignificant events, a red dress, a wedding ring falling onto the stone floor of the church, and throughout we have Alphonse calculating the impact, musing with his close friend the vet from a nearby village as well as carrying on an illicit meeting with the ugliest girl in the village.
We know very early on that this novel contains a scandal of some sort; in fact the opening sentence “In the year 1917 the Courrier affair erupted quite without warning into the consciousness of a village in the Auvergne.”, so as a reader we are piling up all the facts and simply wondering which of the threads is going to be the explosive wick?
A wonderfully deft novel, capturing both the time, the restrictions of a small village, the scandal, this is a very enjoyable work of character development balanced with tension and reality. It is a pity it had been moved to the dustbin of history and deserves to be acknowledged for the craft it is, and as the first female winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I purchased my copy on-line through the Book Depository, and although an edition published in 2001 it is still available. Whilst not deluding myself as to the influence of my blog, there are a few others who will be looking at Morazzoni’s work this month so, maybe resurgence in Marta Morazzoni is a worthwhile outcome, and from this novel alone, I can suggest she is a writer who should be explored further.