September 2009

Kati Nolfi

fiction

That Mad Ache: A Novel/Translator, Trader: An Essay by Françoise Sagan

That Mad Ache is a soap bubble, a bagatelle, a 1960s Parisian high society soap opera, recalling The Great Gatsby, The Dud Avocado, Breakfast at Tiffany's -- any number of books about the youngish, idle, and bourgeois -- and namedropping Tolstoy, Proust, Faulkner, and Malraux.

Lucile, a young and charming loafer, is mistress to the wealthy and middle-aged Charles, but is inexorably drawn to the golden Antoine, a bright and struggling editor in his 30s. Antoine is with Diane -- a fifty-something socialite who wears "night makeup" -- but he really loves Lucile. That Mad Ache investigates Lucile's choice between different loves, different ways of living, and the attendant pressures and anxieties of aging and identity.

This volume is composed of Françoise Sagan's novel translated into English by Douglas Hofstadter and Hofstadter's 100-page essay justifying his translation. The essay is not appended behind the novel but stands alone opposite it. Hold it upside down, reader. Hofstadter addresses the reasons for this but it seems to bequeath an undue significance to the essay and obscure the reading of the novel. Read Hofstadter's essay first and it distracts from the novel's charms, although it also informs and clarifies.

In his essay Translator, Trader Douglas Hofstadter identifies himself as an editor and a lover. His translation judges, corrects, and oversteps Sagan's original structure (adding paragraph breaks, section breaks, and titles -- mon dieu!), characters, and necessarily, language. He says, "Replacing one person's literary style by another's is clearly a violation of authorship and yet what alternative is there, if translation is to be carried out at all." Yet, his translation is also the final act of love as a reader, the labor of writing oneself into and beyond love for author and text. He translated not for money or assignment, but to decode and honor Sagan's language, to consummate his connection to La Chamade (the original French title of That Mad Ache.)

The essay is overly long, confessional, pleased with its cleverness, and paternalistic in the author's ownership of Sagan's work and his commitment to Art. Yet, how interesting to learn about every language's culture-free expressions and localized and specific words. The reader is delighted to consider paradoxes of tongue, style, place, and text. And how lovely for a translator to devote himself to such a minor novel. But the reader does want to get on with it and past Hofstadter's disingenuous confession. And while I enjoyed his translation of Sagan, I didn't trust it. The essay cast confusion and uncertainty on my consideration of Sagan's work.

Light on character and lighter on plot, That Mad Ache's language and ideas complicate and uplift its breezy and frivolous narrative; the characters' decisions can seem so inessential and yet deeply important: who should I be? What category of life should I seek? Investigations of identity should be significant to everyone, but are accessible and central to those whose privilege is abundant and material needs are met. For our heroine Lucile, this is primary: "When younger, she had read a great deal before realizing that she was fulfilled. And she had gone through a long period of soul-searching before turning into the well-fed and well-dressed pet that she now was, so adroit at sidestepping life's difficult situations. Where was she headed, what was she doing with her life?"

Our knowledge of Sagan's life implies her familiarity with "smiling out into space," and "long, leisurely strolls," afternoons of buying tomatoes, chatting at coffee shops, enjoying Impressionist paintings. While she shared similarities with Lucile, Sagan sometimes uses an authorial distance and contempt for Lucile's sleepy, dreamy, lazy amorality and her boyfriend Antoine's conformity and superficiality. Sagan is simultaneously critiquing her characters' lives and her reader's judgments of them. With fragile characters and a flexible third person -- Sagan's usage of this tense can create detachment or intimacy -- she examines ideas around monogamy, work, the nature (and free pursuit) of happiness, and impermanence. By the novel's conclusion, Sagan has cultivated a haunting ambiguity with such graceful adjustments in tone.

 

That Mad Ache: A Novel/Translator, Trader: An Essay by Françoise Sagan and Douglas Hofstadter
Basic Books
ISBN: 0465010989
320 Pages

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