Monday, September 23, 2013

Everything was making itself more beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry - Beauty on Earth by C. F. Ramuz, or: something better than book blogging

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.


  1. I cannot help being very happy that there are 152 references to Ramuz in the MLA Bibliography - even if they are all in French, and even if Walser is still beating him out. He's still being read, perhaps just in a smaller corner of the world than I think he deserves. Thank you for writing about this book - and I'm glad you enjoyed it, and those unsettling viewpoint shifts.

    What you say about the destructive beauty of the girl versus the destructive beauty of the landscape is wonderful - Juliette is so flat sometimes, less of a real character than many of the others, but then again, so is the landscape. Vivid and affective, but more of a presence than an actor (except as a storm, perhaps - and there could be more parallels there).

  2. experience as I read was of disorientation, of constantly having to stop and think, okay, who is "we" here? Is the narrator one of the townspeople? Someone else? Why am I being addressed as "you"? Etc. I don't disagree with your thought that the shifts ultimately orient the reader, though. For me, it was a process -- first disorientation, then thought, then figuring it out and feeling oriented again, until the next shift. The experience makes the reader think about positioning and perspective constantly.

  3. Michelle, my rhetorical move here - who knows if it will work - is to appeal to the importance of Ramuz. As you know Walser is having his big moment in English, and look, Ramuz is similarly important.

    I did not find Juliette to be so flat, relative to other characters. Once "we" followed her midnight quest for music, she began to seem about as round and real as Ramuz was going to give us, as real as any of the other characters. She often seems unreal from the point of view of the other characters, but that is because her beauty has disabled their brains.

    I perhaps make the heroine sound passive, but she in fact takes a number of interesting actions in service of her own search for beauty, which for her comes out of an accordion.

    Honest question, Rebecca - if you are the one responding that way, what is this "the reader" business? I can assure you, for example, that I had no desire to possess Juliette (did you?) and that I easily maintained a "safe, observing distance," whatever Ramuz might have been up to. I have played this game before.

    I like your description of process, but you wrote that "readers never quite know where they are," which is something else. I generally knew where I was, and I knew because Ramuz told me.

    1. I'm trying to think through how Ramuz positions the reader -- the implied reader of the book. I actually did want to "possess" Juliette in the sense of knowing what was going on in her head, which Ramuz didn't let us do much of. And I guess I'd say that I knew where I was in the text only for short periods, and then I'd have to figure it out all over again. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that readers never quite know where they *will be*.

    2. Maybe this is just semantic - no, this is a question of ordinary English - how is curiosity about what someone is thinking "possession"? In this metaphorical sense, I am every author of every novel implicates me in the desire to possess the characters. Nothing unique to Ramuz here.

      Ramuz hardly lets us know what was going on in the heads of anyone. I do not see how Juliette's position is special in this regard. Do we "know" her less than we know the hunchback or the Savoyard or Descoterd?

      I do not understand the implied reader construct. How familiar is the implied reader with Flaubert, for example? The more familiar, the more he is ready to jump when the point of view moves. Many readers, many implications.

  4. I certainly hope Ramuz gets his big moment in English, and will pick up Beauty on Earth immediately to help further the cause. Discovering him has been among the highlights of my reading over the last couple of years. Thanks, Michelle, for the translation, and Tom for, well, at the very least, the "rhetorical move."

  5. Most people do not care much about "important," nor should they, but it sure works on me.

    Having said that, the pro-translation book blogger crowd ought to enjoy this book quite a lot, regardless of significance.

  6. "Importance isn't important. Good writing is."

    Importance isn't important. Good writing is."

    1. Kingsley Amis, the internet tells me, defending Elizabeth Taylor.

      There is too much good writing for importance not to have some importance.

  7. I am so happy for Michelle's success and will definitely be availing myself of a copy of this book. She's talked about Ramuz so passionately on her blog that she makes me want to experience him for myself.

  8. Yes, I hope she will translate more Ramuz. Unless she wants to do something else.

    Orthofer at The Complete Review wrote about another recent Ramuz translation, and I know there are some old versions out there.

    Ramuz wrote the libretto for Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat, so I must have come across his name in that context, but who remembers librettists (no offense, librettists, sorry, but be honest).