As I’m traveling, instead of the usual biweekly links roundup, I’m asking for translated works that you read while you were physically in the setting of the book. Mine is The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy, translated from French into English by Alan Brown, and set in the historically working-class neighborhood of St. Henri in Montreal, Quebec. Both the book and the translation also have interesting stories. Read on.
The New York Times has been running this terrific series called Read Your Way Around the World. Last week, they shared some behind-the-scenes information about it and how it’s where “authors provide literary guides to their cities, including book recommendations that capture a sense of everyday life and the local cultural landscape.” The series was created by Juliana Barbassa, the deputy editor for news and features on the Books desk. I don’t know Ms. Barbassa but, listen, we’re soul twins: “She said the series was inspired by her personal routine: She seeks out authors and books to immerse herself in a destination, and she reads local literature before and during trips.”
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So that, in turn, has inspired this week’s newsletter. I’ve been wanting to start a community thread feature for some time. In the past, I’ve done various such questions on Twitter but I know that many of the newsletter subscribers are not active there or don’t follow me. Which is totally fine. So I’ll use this space to do one such question/thread every month or so. You can share in the discussion area below or on social media (please use the hashtag #WAATQ or tag me so I can gather all the recommendations into a list and share for wider readership. With due credit, of course.)
During my corporate career, I traveled a lot across Europe and the US. There were even trips to Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and India. Wherever I went, I’d try to get at least one book that was set in the city or town I was visiting. Invariably, the books were translated works.
As I scan my shelves, one that jumps out to me is The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy, translated by Alan Brown. In 2001, I was traveling to Montreal for work. It was also my first time in Canada, not just in French Canada. I remember spending almost an entire Saturday at my local library in Kalamazoo, Michigan, looking for a Canadian writer’s book. More specifically, a French-Canadian writer’s book. I had, of course, read and loved the works of writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Carol Shields, and Jane Urquhart by then. But I hadn’t read any Canadian books written originally in French. At the time, I fancied I could read an entire novel in French as I’d studied it for two years. That was far too ambitious, I soon learned, and so I picked up the translation instead.
This 1945 award-winning World War II novel, Roy’s first, is a modern classic for all the right reasons. As Philip Stratford, also a translator, writes in his introduction (I’m using a more recent edition to cite below):
Because of the unique place the novel holds in the history of Quebec literature, The Tin Flute stands today as a modern classic. What do we mean when we say that a striking contemporary novel has become a classic? First, that it has stood the test of time; second, that it has come to be recognized as an important cultural artifact, one that has proved a source of inspiration and recognition for many succeeding generations; third, that it contains artistic or poetic quality – a blend of accurate observation and individual vision – that makes it outstanding in its own right.
To be called a classic a book cannot ride on the reputation of its first reception. It must invite and reward many rereadings. This has been the case with The Tin Flute. From the French side come Gilles Marcotte’s early but penetrating appraisals, Albert LeGrand’s and G.-A. Vachon’s interpretations of the book as cultural history, Gerard Bessette’s psychological probings, Francois Ricard’s biography, Andre Brochu’s and Jacques Blais’s structuralist readings. On the English side, among others, Hugo McPherson has studied the novel’s themes, Ben-Z. Shek has examined its social realism, and Paul Socken has subjected it to linguistic analysis. For over three decades, The Tin Flute has stimulated a variety of interesting critical reactions, each in its own way illuminating some aspect of that third component of greatness, the poetic quality of the work.Gabrielle Roy and Philip Stratford. The Tin Flute. Translated by Alan Brown. New Canadian Library, 2009.
The original French title, Bonheur d’occasion, means “secondhand happiness.” So I don’t know why the English title is so different. And this is not the first English translation of the work either. I found this tidbit from Wikipedia interesting:
There are two French versions of Bonheur d’occasion. The first was published in 1945 by Société des Éditions Pascal in two volumes. This version was translated in 1947 by Hannah Josephson, who removed several short passages from the English version. In 1965, Librairie Beauchemin published an abridged French version eliminating a number of passages. This second version was translated by Alan Brown in 1980. As a result, there has never been an unabridged version of The Tin Flute published in English.Wikipedia Contributors. 2022. “The Tin Flute.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. April 5, 2022.
So. There has never been an unabridged version! Where are my French-to-English translator friends? Step up, please.
And here’s what Stratford says about the 1980 Brown translation:
After thirty years the rather old-fashioned version of The Tin Flute by Hannah Josephson has become dated. It reads like a mid-forties film. The present translation is by Alan Brown, translator of many major Quebecois writers, including Aquin, Godbout, Hebert, Langevin, as well as three other books by Gabrielle Roy. He has restyled the novel and created a distinguished period remake of the original. His dialogue is an authentic reconstruction of wartime slang and working-class speech; his narrative style is as clear and elegant in English as Roy’s is in French. He meets the challenge that every great book presents a translator – to remain true to the spirit and letter of the original while at the same time being stimulated to exercise one’s own best inventive powers and creative instincts. Alan Brown has given us a classic translation. It is one that will let English readers appreciate to the full those enduring poetic qualities that make The Tin Flute one of the prime works of French-Canadian fiction.Gabrielle Roy and Philip Stratford. The Tin Flute. Translated by Alan Brown. New Canadian Library, 2009.
As Stratford said there, the writing is quite poetic. I found the novel, with all its descriptions of the city and poverty, rather Dickensian. Case in point:
There was no more earth or sky. The houses were massive shadows with here and there what looked like the pale blinking of a lantern. You’d have said that a vigilant hand fumbling through the tempest lit an occasional street lamp which at once went out, tried a new bulb which gave off a hasty flame, and, untiring, continued this vain struggle against the dark. On Notre Dame Street, the flashiest signs cast only a dim glow into the roadway, and from the sidewalk across from the movie theatre came no more than a reddish light like that of a distant fire. Pushed and harried by the wind, Azarius emerged from a patch of dark, passed quickly through the turbulent halo of a street light, and then, with short, quick steps, leaning into the gale, made his way toward The Two Records restaurant. Its white facade blended into the storm. Three yards away you’d never see it. With the sure hand of habit, Azarius found the latch.Gabrielle Roy and Philip Stratford. The Tin Flute. Translated by Alan Brown. New Canadian Library, 2009.
But the interior monologues are the most heartbreaking. A couple of examples:
Silent, she thought that poverty was like a sickness you put to sleep inside you, and it didn’t hurt too much as long as you didn’t move. You grew used to it, you ended up not paying much attention to it as long as you stayed tucked away with it in the dark; but when you took the notion of going out with it in daylight, it became frightening to the sight, so ugly you could not expose it to the sun.
Emmanuel shuddered, for he thought he had just made a frightful discovery, a fact that defied the imagination: to make war you had to be filled with love, with a vehement passion, exalted, intoxicated, otherwise the whole thing was inhuman and absurd.Gabrielle Roy and Philip Stratford. The Tin Flute. Translated by Alan Brown. New Canadian Library, 2009.
How did I find reading this 1945 book while I was walking around in 2001 Montreal? Well, first, I went to the St. Henri neighborhood which is a key setting. Historically, it’s a working-class area but, as happens often with such places, it has been gentrified. Old industrial buildings have been redeveloped into condos, shops, and restaurants. I didn’t find any restaurant that looked like Two Records as described by Roy. But I did walk down various streets and see some of the old churches and train stations. It’s painful to read about some of the changes (more even since my time there.) I wonder if there are other novels, after Roy’s, set in this well-known neighborhood.
Over to you. Please tell me about a translated work that you read while physically in the setting of the book. You can share in the discussion area below or on social media (please use the hashtag #WAATQ or tag me so I can gather all the recommendations into a list and share for wider readership. With due credit, of course.)