How to move from book blogging to something better? Michele Bailat-Jones has done it. She started around the time I did, calling herself the Incurable Logophile, but soon enough, as we all had hoped, Swiss doctors found a cure, and she changed the blog’s name to pieces and got serious about literary translation. Her first book was recently published, the 1927 Beauty on Earth by Swiss novelist Charles Ferdinand Ramuz.
Bailat-Jones has championed Ramuz at her blog. I am not sure I would have heard of him otherwise (although Orthofer has him), which is a disgrace, as I can prove objectively using citation counts from the MLA International Bibliography. Since 1990, there have been 125 articles, books, and so on about Ramuz, 158 about fellow Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and – guess how many about Robert Walser – have you guessed? – 172 on Mister Bigshot Walser. Of course the Ramuz scholarship is entirely French. Disgraceful. But Bailat-Jones has given us this corrective example.
In Beauty on Earth, a beautiful orphaned teenage girl moves to a small Swiss town to live with her uncle. She is so very beautiful that she ruins the lives of many of the men she meets. The story has some curious similarities to Max Beerbohm’s elegant, ludicrous Zuleika Dobson (1911), whatever differences in tone, technique, and purpose the books might have. Juliette brings out the worst in men, even when they mean to help her; she does so not by any action or behavior but simply by existing. Dorothy W. aka Rebecca H. at Of Books and Bicycles reviewed the book earlier today. She fills out the plot.
This Ramuz passage is close to a statement of purpose:
Everything was making itself more beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry. All these things making themselves more beautiful, always more beautiful, the water, the mountain, the sky, all that is liquid, all that is neither solid nor liquid, but it all holds together; it was like an agreement, a continual exchange from one thing to another thing, and between everything that exists. And around her and because of her – what he is thinking and telling himself up there. There is a place for beauty… (95, the ellipses belong to Ramuz)
The “he” who is “up there” is one (just one) of Juliette’s stalkers, at this point spying on her. Is he really at the same time experiencing this transcendent vision of beauty on earth? Ramuz portrays the town, on the shore of Lake Geneva, surrounded by the Alps, as the most beautiful place on earth. Some of the descriptive writing is a great treat:
We saw the entire cavalry of waves jump into their saddles. We watched the horsemen come with their white flags. (179)
So there is a constant ironic interplay between the destructive beauty of the girl and the beauty of the landscape, to which most of the men are inured. Or perhaps they are so deeply immersed in beauty that they experience some kind of allergic reaction when too much additional beauty enters their world. Juliette herself turns out to be a devotee of beauty as well, but her allergen is music.
The strangest aspect of the book is the shifting point of view and pronouns. “He” turns into “we” with ease, and the meaning of “we” can shift suddenly. Anyone struck by the “we” that narrates the beginning of Madame Bovary will recognize how Ramuz is playfully extending Flaubert’s idea. Bailat-Jones writes about the challenges the technique presented to her translation in a little essay at NecessaryFiction. Dorothy \ Rebecca discusses this as well, although I have to say I think every sentence with the word “reader” in it is wrong. The shifts in point of view do not disorient but rather orient the reader. This reader. Me.
Bailat-Jones says she found it disorienting, too, but luckily she fought the “temptation” to “smooth this out.” Thank you, well done, thank you.