Difficult in Translation
- Sheila Fischman (Translator) and Monique Durand (Author)
The Painter's Wife. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sheila Fischman (Translator) and Pascale Quiviger (Author)
The Perfect Circle. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sina Queyras
The Painter’s Wife is a novel inspired by the story of Montreal artists Evelyn Rowat and René Marcil, who meet while working as illustrators at Eaton’s. Through Marcil, a troubled painter from Saint Henri, Rowat breaks out of an oppressive family in the Town of Mount Royal and a bad first marriage. In a few strokes we get the Montreal of the 1940s—which here seems only a place to escape—before the two enter into a flourishing New York life of art galleries, Central Park, and the first blushes of a creative love affair. The couple quickly runs into trouble as painter Marcil’s genius expresses itself in self-sabotaging ways: most importantly in extreme perfectionism and self-doubt, mixed with a sense of grandiosity. He ultimately has his first New York show taken down shortly after it is hung.
Yet even with backs such as New York, Paris, London, and ultimately Toronto, these dramatic, artistic individuals remain elusive. The novel moves forward in a fairly chronological way, but despite this the strands never come together to create a compelling portrait. Neither does the author fragment the narrative enough for the reader to engage in a collaborative reading. The language, which has been described as poetic, is stilted, often opaque and sentimental. For example: “On her seat, Evelyn arched her back. She begged the god of the highway to hold her in his feverish wings.” Marcil’s letters—his constant attempts to catch the wind—have moments of beauty, and there are moments when the reader feels empathy for the characters. It’s difficult to say whether the problem is in the translation or the original. What is clear is that all of this serves to distance the reader. And finally, this reader found it difficult to understand why Rowat would continue to be a faithful partner (with polite exception) and patron to Marcil over the years, which they mostly lived apart. No doubt there was good reason (Marcil’s paintings exhibit erotic genius), but this reader wasn’t convinced.
More successful is The Perfect Circle, which won a Governor General’s Award for French language fiction in 2004, and in translation, was a finalist for The Giller in 2006. Pascale Quiviger’s novel tells the story of Marianne, a Francophone who falls in love with Marco, a Tuscan, and who finds herself drawn to creating a life with him, despite its impossibility from the outset. The scope of the novel is small, and as the title suggests, claustrophobic. The writing is lean, often luscious. However, the decision to alternate the narrative with an italicized voice that comments on the relationship in the past offers neither a fresh perspective, nor relief, from an already slowly paced, meditative text.
The novel’s strengths lie in what makes the narrator most anxious: the lover, his town, and his mother. Marco’s world rings absolutely true, and when his mother appears, the story is energetic, despite (or perhaps because of) her hostility toward Marianne. It’s an arresting portrait:
There is sand in her voice and a certain harshness which shows that she's not just a mother, she's a field marshal, with weapons that smell good at mealtimes and a regiment of pots and pans under her command.
Quiviger captures Italy the way E.M. Forster captured it, not in Room With A View, but in Where Angles Fear to Tread, exposing the airtight world, and the family buckling against all things modern and foreign. Heartbreaking scenes ensue in which Marianne attempts to gain some freedom through an abusive, but nonetheless, embracing job, and these scenes make for an enjoyable read.
What is less compelling, and frustrating, is the character of Marianne, whom we never really get to know. Why is she drawn to a man who will never love her? To a land that will never claim her? Why does she dislike her home country so? Why is she so passive, so silent, so lost, so unable to affect any change in her life? In a heartbreaking scene involving a wounded dog by the side of the road, we are offered some hope that either Marianne or Marco will break out of their stupor long enough to affect some change. Marianne does offer some challenge here, but ultimately the dog, near death, is not put out of his misery, but rather “left to die free” as Marianne’s thoughts are left to go around. When at the end of the novel Marianne is also free in her circle of happiness, it’s hard to feel anything at all.
Sheila Fischman has translated over 100 Quebec novels, many of them canonical, and integral to an Anglophone’s understanding of Québecois literature. This is a significant contribution for which Fischman has won many awards. Difficult love stories can define a nation. It remains to be seen whether these two stories will have lasting impact.
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MLA: Queyras, Sina. Difficult in Translation. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 134 - 135)
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