Russell Scott Valentino

Under the influence of having just completed this book—and let me note at the outset that the influence is hard to resist—I feel like I could start just about anywhere in reviewing it, so why not a footnote. There is just one in the book, but what a footnote, extending over two pages, explicative, digressive, apt, entertaining, and, best of all, delivered in the voice of the translator, Alyson Waters. We can say more (since, too impatient to wait for the French book to arrive in the mail, I wrote to the translator to ask): what in the world could the author have written in French that would translate so well into such a translator’s note? Answer: nothing at all! Or next to nothing. The author merely opens a window in his text (here in Waters’s translation): “Professor Glatt gave me the clef that opens the gate, for I am not a man to write clé when it is possible to write clef, even if in so doing I compel the translators of my tale to slow down—and I trust they see no malevolence where none intended; I would gladly let them have a full page to express this slight difference in leisurely, creative circumambages that will even further delay me taking up my post….” His sentence goes on, as do many in this exquisitely prolix little book, but this is where the footnote marker is placed, so let’s stop where Waters’ footnote begins in order to consider its context and what she accomplishes in writing it.

Or no (let’s not forget I’m writing under the influence), since the rest of the sentence is the outside frame of the note, even if it’s clever on its own, the snug fit of Waters’s invention is impossible to appreciate fully without the rest of it so here goes: 

… and so I shall wait until they have surmounted the difficulty, there’s no bad faith on my part this time, it’s simply a matter of a force majeure, which by definition, cannot be imputed to me, pace Professor Glatt; my conscience is clear, I didn’t invent writing and when given the choice between two spellings, I always, because I am an honest sort, opt for the one that serves my thought or intention better—a clef is heavy in the hand, it is dotted with rust, worn on one’s belt, unlike a clé, what I understand in any case by clé: its clink-clink like small change deep within your pocket.

 There’s a follow-up sentence, as there often is, punchier, like the kick of a good grappa, and a follow-up scene—when he doesn’t open his door and begins to imagine “a skilled locksmith, overequipped with picklocks, skeleton keys, keys for tumblers and combination locks, bit keys and Zeiss keys, tubular and dimple keys, double- and four-sided keys, with his bulky satchel strung across his shoulder,” who (another shot of grappa) “will take a three-yard running start and break down my door.” This, more or less, is the leisurely, creative, circumambagistic frame for Waters’s note, as it is, in microcosm, or rather microlettrum, the leisurely, creative, circumambagistic book.

Before I get down to the business of Waters’s footnote, let me note that, if it wasn’t clear already, Chevillard’s narrator is a palaverer in something like the style of Bohumil Hrabal’s well-known talkers. I’m reminded especially of Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Young at Heart (in Michael Henry Heim’s translation), with its inebriated single sentence period, or, even more so, his Too Loud a Solitude (another Heim), again inebriated, though with greater philosophical depth. Chevillard’s narrator isn’t drunk, though his style might make it seem so. He is addressing an audience, presumably us, and the façade of orality provides a wealth of opportunities for him to comment upon his work, the work of telling the story, and the work he is supposed to be doing instead of telling the story, the work he is supposed to be getting down to when, for instance, “Professor Glatt steps in. This time I’ve gone too far, I’m not getting anywhere. Which one is it? Either I’ve gone too far or I’m not getting anywhere. The professor has to choose.” I’ll stop, practically mid-episode, for he continues with this thought, in his typical fashion, longer than one normally would, keeping the professor, and us, waiting. He’s having fun, and so are we.

At other times his delivery is quotable to the point of aphorism, as when, commenting on his manner of proceeding, he suggests that digression might in fact be “the shortest distance between two points, the straight line being so very congested," or when, commenting on his own birth, he notes, “I gave that first scream everything I’d got, you could have built a cathedral around it and baptized me on the spot." These little nuggets often combine with perspectival play, as when he suggests that “no two skulls are alike, as any peasant growing his turnips on the site of an ancient necropolis can tell you," though even here he cannot keep his tongue still: “No two turnips either, even if an exhumed turnip is sometimes so similar to a skull that you can mistake the one for the other." Or when—I’m getting the hang of this now—he notes that “the growing plant will never take the flower pot into consideration,” which is his way of explaining the equally aphorismic, “An illusion that is not maintained cannot survive."

The job he has apparently been hired to undertake is that of tour guide for a cave network covered in pre-historic paintings (though it takes some time to get this information out of him). He might also be an archeologist who lost his job after an accident left him lame in one leg, only to be offered by the government the tour guide job at the same site where he was injured. Or maybe he’s a grad student in charge of the gift shop just thinking about the paintings inside the cave. If there is a cave. If there are any paintings. These (the paintings) he describes lavishly in sometimes extravagant ekphrases that, of course, are taking us on the tour (which he never actually begins), only not just of prehistoric times but of time itself. What is officialdom, birth, or authenticity with such a perspective in mind? And here is the depth of the book, where all the apparent ramblings make a kind of cavernous sense that make you want to cry: when faced with the reality of great time, what is authority, let alone officialdom? What difference does it make whether your uniform fits you or not? It’s hard to care about the “rules of the profession or the duties of the function” when you’re taking your bearings from the disappearing Carbon 14 molecules in the remains of previous earthly lives.

His style ranges from the technical to the lyric, from mock-heroic to farce and sound painting. Waters manages it all with impressive invention and control. I was bothered by the many comma splices, whose function I could not quite figure out, especially as the splice is so much more marked in English prose than in French, but even here the text appears to provide a response: The beginning of this sentence is about ten lines up, “… pushing almost to the extreme the mad enterprise of a total inventory that no one until now has dared attempt, as if all the beings and things of this world were separated only by commas and as if there did not exist between them these layers of indifference or mystery that make them individuals, cut off from one another…," and it ends another five lines down.

And so the footnote. The best way to describe it, I think, would be to say that, with its illusion of improvisation and its technical brilliance, Waters’s note functions a lot like a cadenza in a musical performance, where the ensemble lingers on a chord and lets the artist—in this case the translator artist—run up and down her scales in virtuoso patterns and figures, weaving a web of notes that correspond to, echo, and restate earlier notes and patterns. This of course is exactly what she’s been doing through the rest of the book, finding corresponding words, echoing, restating in virtuoso patterns and figures what the author expressed in a completely different language and cultural tradition. I would say that the note is the translation in microcosm (microlettrum) except that it can’t be that when it has no source text behind it—one of the defining traits of translation. Instead, it is an analogy for the translation and a powerful comment on it, invited by the author, authored by the translator, and sanctioned by the publisher. A brilliant performance.

Russell Scott Valentino is the author of two scholarly monographs and the translator of seven book-length literary works from Italian, Croatian, and Russian. He served as Editor-in-chief at The Iowa Review from 2009 to 2013 and is currently president of the American Literary Translators Association, Senior Editor at Autumn Hill Books, and Professor and Chair of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. His latest book, The Woman in the Window, will be published by the Ohio State University Press in 2014. 

Prehistoric Times
by Eric Chevillard; translated from the French by Alyson Waters
New York: Archipelago Books, 2012
$16.00 paperback; ISBN 978-1935744160
131 pages