Friday, August 20, 2010

Fallait laisser tomber

Beside the Sea, by Véronique Olmi, is an amazing little novella, simple and powerful. Recently available in English, several reviewers are raving about it (eg, 1, 2, 3).

It's about a mother taking her two boys to the seaside, and from the start, something doesn't feel right. Why, for example, are they travelling by night? And Kevin is worried about missing school. Mother's planning for this ideal vacation is pretty half-baked — she doesn't seem to know where they're going, they're poorly packed (did they leave in a hurry?), she just doesn't have much of a grip. Everything is going wrong and it's thoroughly disheartening.

As the mother tells the story, we learn a little bit about her, but very little: she's afraid of talking to people, she's missing teeth, she goes to the free clinic. There's a social worker, there are meds. Money's tight. At first I thought she must be young, and quite simply overwhelmed by motherhood, but later I didn't think so, though maybe that's simply her weariness aging her beyond her years.

Since I couldn't track down a copy of this book easily, I picked it up in the original French (Bord de mer).

J'ai regardé par la fenêtre, on voyait rien. Moi j'ai l'habitude de donner sur les immeubles d'en face et j'aime ça, voir les gens bouger derrière les rideaux et toutes les petites lumières allumées quand le soir arrive, c'est beau et on est tous ensemble, bien rangés dans nos boîtes, c'est l'ordre des choses, ça me plaît. Là, on voyait rien, même pas des phares de voitures, un réverbère, rien. Qu'est-ce que ça donnerait en plein jour ? Qu'est-ce qu'il y avait derrière ma fenêtre ? La mer ? Non, j'entendais rien et puis un hôtel au bord de la mer ça aurait été trop cher, je me serais méfiée tout de suite. Alors ? Qu'est-ce qu'il y avait en face de moi que je voyais pas ? Le terminus des cars ? Un chantier avec des grues des camions et tout le tintouin, quelque chose qu'on construit ou qu'on démolit ? Je déteste ça, les maisons à moitiées arrachées, je supporte pas de voir la couleur des tapisseries de maisons à moitiées arrachées, y a rien de plus triste à mon goût. Fallait pas que je commence à imaginer, tout était possible derrière cette fenêtre, on pouvait s'attendre à tout, fallait laisser tomber, laisser tomber tout de suite avant de se faire des cauchemars.

It turned out to be slow going for my far-from-fluent self, about 10 pages a day (and I think now this kind of slowdown was just what I needed), but the experience — as much as the book itself — has given me a lot to think about.

I've been thinking about tone, and how it is that we glean what we do from what we read. Choice of words, their social register. Uneducated? Melodramatic? From grammar, how casual the tone, whether a character (or her thoughts) is care-free, sloppy, rigid, organized; from punctuation, how breathless and panicked, or slow and thoughtful. This is hard enough to do when reading in one's mother tongue — we process so much of this information subconsciously, it's hard to point to direct evidence for the conclusions we draw. In a second language, well, it's harder.

I'm pretty proud of myself for getting what I did from this exercise, but my knowledge of French grammar is piss-poor, and it turns out my vocabulary's pretty limited too. And then there's the fact that I filter it all through my knowledge of English-language writing conventions, which don't necessarily apply. On top of this, my entire reading is coloured by my preconceptions of the material.

For all that, I did come away with some very strong impressions — of the characters and story, and favorable of the book as a whole as an intense and provocative read — but I can't say how true they are. (I'm curious to try this book in English someday.) I do look forward to tackling the second Olmi novella in my French volume.
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