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Interview with Edward Gauvin

A few weeks ago I happened to get in contact with Edward Gauvin after making a post about French Weird Fiction. I then asked around in a community I moderate on Reddit dedicated to Weird Fiction called WeirdLit about doing an interview with Edward Gauvin. We compiled some questions in a post then sent them over to Mr. Gauvin who was kind enough to provide us with some really insightful answers. We've done a number of AMAs and interviews but I have to say that this is one of the most interesting ones (for me at least). Due to its length, I'm posting a complete copy here as Reddit limits posts and comments to 1500 characters.

What are you currently working on or have recently worked on that may be of interest to us?

So… for two years now I’ve been talking to a number of different publishers, usually small presses, about an anthology of the Francophone (French/Belgian) fantastic, post-WWII to the present. About 2/3 of this would collect various translations I’ve published in journals, reviews, and magazines over the last five years, and the other stuff would be fresh translations from my running hit list (though these might also appear in periodicals between now and the release date of any such anthology, as I finish them).

To make a long, probably very boring story short, for a while I had a PEN England grant for this project, and Tartarus Press was involved, but that fell through because, as you can imagine, this project is kind of a rights nightmare, both time- and money-wise. When PEN England’s funding deadline passed, there was talk of running a Kickstarter for it, which Jeff VanderMeer would help publicize through Weird Fiction Review. Most recently, I’ve been talking with a new L.A. press about it, Unnamed Press (literally). I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback both about the project and the actual manuscript.

Since you differentiate (quite rightly) between the Weird and fantastical traditions, I’d say this probably errs on the fantastical side, but given the book list at his site, it would contain pieces of interest to Weirdies and, taking a page from the VanderMeers, it really tries to be all-embracing in its definition of the “fantastic”: fairy tales, ghost stories, supernatural horror, Borgesian/Kafkaesque fables, more contemporary fabulism—even, arguably, some alternate history, and definitely some science-fantasy, though no straight-up secondary world fantasy—partly as a showcase, and partly because it’s got a lot of historical ground to cover.

As for very right-now projects, I’ve sort of got my hands full with pay work: comics, “literary” fiction, a noir novel. In between those I hope to squeeze in a few more short stories toward the anthology. If you liked Belgian Bernard Quiriny’s “Rara Avis” at Weird Fiction Review, I hope to get a few more of his stories done this month; a small Austin-based press is considering a collection of his, and needs a few more stories to make a decision. And last month The Collagist published a story by Belgian Anne Richter (whom I’ve written about at WFR), about aristocratic decline, incest, and animal metamorphosis: “The Great Pity of the Zintram Family.” Another story of Richter’s will be in the VanderMeer’s upcoming feminist spec antho, Sisters of the Revolution. Serge Brussolo’s weird SF novel The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome is also currently in rights negotiation with a US publisher. Finally, I have two stories in The Uncanny Reader, an anthology of more traditional uncanny tales edited by Marjorie Sandor, a prof at Oregon State, coming out from St. Martin’s this fall. One is a retranslation of a Maupassant classic, the other a sexy story about hand puppets. Yeah.

What are some things that distinguish or set Belgian weird and fantastic fiction apart from other forms of weird/fantastic fiction?

Well… Belgian fantastical fiction has the reputation for being pulpier than its French counterpart. It definitely gets closer to Anglophone Weird earlier, partly because of some cross-publication, partly because Belgians (especially Flemish Belgians) more readily spoke/read English. And when Jean Ray claims he never read William Hope Hodgson’s seafaring stories, well, we have to take him at his word, but nevertheless, there are definite similarities. Some Thomas Owen would not have been out of place in Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Belgian weird was like a national pastime; though some authors specialized in it, like Ray and Owen, a lot of authors just sort of dipped in for one or two books, often story collections, out of a career spent in other branches of literature. There’s a definite sense of a tradition, that this is something Belgian authors do—which is lacking or somewhat tenuous in France. The Belgian fantastic also has a high absurdist quotient, both from typical Belgian humor and the Belgian Surrealists (after they broke off from the French).

The French fantastic often features less adventure-based plots, and denser prose. It can be more self-consciously literary, and the references are often classical (even in Ray’s Malpertuis, for example). But for both France and Belgium, the basic fantastical tale—realist events interrupted by a supernatural irruption—remains an influential template. I’d say the French fantastic takes a major swerve in the 50s when pretty much every damn American spec writer was translated, I mean everyone. That really gave birth to the current French spec scene, which encompasses every kind of fantastical writing. No such scene currently exists in Belgium.

What’s absent in the Euro scene as a whole is the equivalent of a far-reaching homegrown mythos, like Cthulhu, though there have been some abortive attempts.

Have you seen any indication that there is an analog in the French-speaking world for what is now being called "New Weird?" Works that expand upon classic Weird sensibilities and move into even stranger territories with modern aesthetics?

Offhand, I’d say no, but to tell the truth, I’ve been so focused on the unearthing the past (1940 to now) for so long that I’ve only just begun exploring the contemporary French scene in any detail. I heard a plausible and amusing explanation for the lack of “schools” in the French scene recently, from a young SF-ish writer: “We just don’t have enough people to have schools. Bizarro? Yeah, we have one girl who writes Bizarro. She started out with Poppy Z. Brite-ish newfangled gothic horror and nowadays she writes Bizarro. She’s our one-woman Bizarro movement.”

I can’t say there’s much awareness in France of the Weird as a movement distinct from the fantastic as a whole. On the other hand, part of my impetus in researching and resurrecting a 20th century lineage of French fantastical authors was because Anglophone New Weird authors admitted direct influence from 19th century French Decadents. And I thought: French and English fantastic used to be much closer traditions (Maupassant to M.R. James, Baudelaire and Poe, Wilde and Huysmans). What happened? Why don’t todays New Weird writers even know about what went on in France for the last century? There’s too many reasons to go into here, but suffice it to say that it’s time French literature in English got a makeover from all your Barthes-Foucault-Derrida and nouveau roman and existentialism: the fantastic deserves export. There’s a direct line of descent from Decadence to Surrealism to the fantastic. There’s a whole century our new writers could be influenced by. Michel Bernanos? We could’ve had him way earlier (and did, actually, it just went out of print, and besides, it was Houghton Mifflin, a mainstream publisher who didn’t reach the right genre audience with it). The prolific Claude Seignolle I think of more as a folklorist specializing in ghost stories.

Whereas because of the “world hegemony of English” (and not because our writers are intrinsically “better”) the French get everything of ours. And they’re definitely aware of us. Kelly Link has won prizes at Utopiales, their main con. While I can’t say I see immediate contemporary influence, young French writers are into both steampunk and what I might call remixing US pop culture. What US spec writer would use Fredric Brown as the hero of his alternate history novel? As is often the case, our forgotten figures are their cult heroes.

Belgian Yves Varende (mostly known for comics) wrote a bunch of Sherlock Holmes novellas, including ones where he meets Jean Ray, the Golem, and Cthulhu (a decade before Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald”). But I wouldn’t want a Belgian or French author to just add to the Cthulhu mythos. We can do that already; I’d want them to surprise me, to refract our maybe-too-dominant culture through a cracked or dark mirror. I don’t want difference erased. Vive la différence!

Châteaureynaud was part of a short-lived movement, La Nouvelle Fiction (lit. “The New Fiction”), which is more comparable to the New Wave Fabulists in the U.S. It involved more “literary” rather than “genre” authors, and was influenced more by “literary” fabulists: Calvino, Borges, Kafka. It was a reaction to the then-dominant navel-gazing school of contemporary French lit called “autofiction”: almost autobiographical, minutely detailed daily-life realism. La Nouvelle Fiction had some Weird-ish works, but ultimately the writers involved had too little in common to make a real school.

Have you seen any indication that more of Jean Ray's works apart from "Malpertuis" will come into print in English (ideally in the U.S.)? What do you think it might take to increase interest in this author in the English-speaking world?

Basically, from what I understand, the woman who currently handles Ray’s estate is hesitant to give permission to publishers to publish Ray. That’s why Ray publications have been few and far between in English; she thinks Ray’s a world class author and deserves better than any of the small but devoted presses who are actually interested in publishing him. All that said, I know my publisher at Wakefield Press would really love to do some more Ray stories, so there’s always hope.

As for the second part of the question: well, readers like you.

You mentioned in a post on Small Beer Press's website that you prefer "The Shadowy Alley" as an English translation of "La ruelle ténébreuse” because "Ray’s voice always lends the sinister a slightly mocking air." Can you expand on what you mean by a "mocking" air and how it is manifested in his work?

Hmm. I haven’t personally done any Ray. I wish I had his books with me (I’m stuck in the Belgian countryside), so I could comb through. I mean, check out the titles of his original collections: on one hand, you have The Great Nocturnus and The Circles of Horror and The Carousel of Evil Spells, and on the other you have the rather clubby-sounding but no less macabre Golf Tales and Whisky Tales and The Book of Ghosts. In general, I think of Ray’s tone as that of your wicked uncle who likes to scare you shitless with stuff he makes up, then walks away chuckling. (Ray was also a known confabulator when it came to his personal history.) He often has very active protagonists for his genre, bluff, hale, and hearty—though of course all their brains and gung-ho don’t guarantee they will wind up vanquishing or even understanding anything—but that spirit is somehow infectious and sometimes leavens the work (I’m thinking of the Dickensian ghost novel The City of Unspeakable Fear).

What has been some of your favorite works that you've translated?

Huh… novel-wise, I think of my favorite works as yet-untranslated. WFR’s been a great podium for talking about that. Also, regrettably, sometimes I think the pieces I liked most and the pieces I did the best aren’t always the same.

  • “The Baker’s Son” by Maurice Pons (in Tin House)
  • “The Puppets” by Jean-Christophe Duchon-Doris (in The Uncanny Reader)
  • “The Society Tiger” by Jean Ferry… this really is a classic and I’m glad I got to do a version of it. It deserves to be well-known.
  • “The Red Loaf” by André Pieyre de Mandiargues: one of the harder translations I’ve ever done, because of the floridly Decadent voice. It’s full-on legitimate midcentury Weird. A few of Mandiargues’ stories are available here and there in out-of-print anthologies; for Weirdies I recommend especially “The Pommeraye Arcade” in J.H. Matthews’ The Custom-House of Desire. Stick around till the end!
  • “The Front” by Gébé (an absurdist anti-war satire)
  • “The Orchard” kind of Châteaureynaud meets I.B. Singer
  • “Cherepish” by Paul Willems (in Subtropics) not actually fantastical, but other stories from the same collection definitely are (though not quite Weird), my next book with Wakefield
  • Billy Fog, a children’s comic I bill as Edward Gorey meets Calvin and Hobbes
  • Pachyderme, a Lynchian graphic novel with very convincing dreamlike pacing
  • The Last Days of an Immortal, a far-future SF comic with lots of cool ideas

Did you learn French in order to translate works? Or did you get into reading/translating French language works after you learned French?

I have no formal training in French, it just happened. I lived in France and taught English at a college there after grad school, picked up the language, got better at it, started translating stories to share them with friends, found that they could be published, figured I could make a living at it. Been lucky so far. I do encourage samizdat translation for sharing with friends, and while I would also be happy to help anyone interested in pro translation, I do find the freelance life precarious. I am also deeply ashamed of my early translations, but hey. You learn as you go.

Do you have any advice for casual readers who have some basic proficiency in a second language and want to try reading a work in its original language?

Hmm… the good news is, even with all Europe lagging behind where digitization and e-books are concerned (for reasons of cultural protectionism (occasionally valid), and technological superstition (not valid)) it’s easier and cheaper than ever to get actual copies of books in foreign languages. I use the usual suspects: used.addall.com as an aggregator for Amazon (which has cut international customs and shipping fees for individual sellers), Abebooks, and some other foreign sites.

I don’t know that I have specific advice about reading (unless you meant author recs?)… by all means, just go do it! Only by reading can you find out what you like. If anything, I would say, don’t get hung up on looking up every other word, just pretend like you’re in fourth grade again but reading a book from the adult section of the library. Sure, there will be words you don’t know, but it’s more important to immerse yourself in the flow of the book. You’ll retain stuff, and can look it up later. Unless you are learning to translate, I find reading the original and translation side-by-side very distracting.

On a side note, I would say that translators today are trying to change the idea of translation-as-inherent-loss, as never measuring up to the “original.” There’s lots of talk of translation as rendition: instead of being “correct” or “incorrect,” it’s one person’s cover of a song written by someone else, which brings the reader/act of reading into it more, and highlights the creative/interpretive nature of the activity. Personally, I liken it to adaptation: getting into English is like getting movie optioned, the work just reaches that much bigger an audience.

Has working abroad helped you in translating different works?

Well… when translating, it helps to be able to picture something, say the look of objects and spatial layout of a scene, independently of language. Personally I find it enlightening to know that almost all windows in France are casement windows, without screens, so when I’m reading a book in French and I see the word “fenêtre,” I’m not going to picture a sash window like we have in America. The doorknobs, fire hydrants, refrigerators all look different. Does this really matter? I like to think it does.

I guess these are things you pick up traveling or living, though. Has working abroad actually helped me in translating? Probably not, though I guess it has helped me jobwise, in terms of meeting authors and people in publishing.

Also, in Belgium, are authors like Jean Ray better known then they are here in the US? Are Belgians more aware of Weird Fiction (and Belgian Weird) in general?

Unequivocally, every Belgian will know who Ray is. Sometimes he’s still taught in schools. They might also know Owen. But has the average Belgian read him? Probably not. The average Belgian hasn’t read shit, which is surprising for such a tiny country. The visibility of the Belgian Weird post-Ray takes a big nosedive. In used bookstores, you can still find cheap paperbacks from when it was popular, which was great for me. When I lived in Belgium, studying the Belgian School of the Strange, I was always telling Belgians about their own literature.

I lucked out and got a Fulbright to work on fantastical fiction—how rad is that? I was the second person to do so; my predecessor (and kind of a clunky, careless translator) was Kim Connell, whose book of Jean Muno’s stories David has at his blog Memorious. Connell also has a volume called The Belgian School of the Bizarre, which is a valuable primer for looking at the range of Belgian fantastical fiction and authors. Connell skips Ray for not being “literary” enough; whatever. But everyone he picked out deserves to have more stuff translated: Anne Richter, Thomas Owen, Michel de Ghelderode, Franz Hellens… He got some help from Jean-Baptiste Baronian, the main living historian of the Francophone fantastic (his Panorama de la littérature fantastique de la langue française is a key overview). He was also the only US Fulbrighter to Belgium ever kicked out of the country. Wish I’d met him, but he died young.

Among Belgians who do read (let’s say, the country’s small literary coterie), Ray is still admired, but fantastical fiction is out of fashion. True, Bernard Quiriny made waves with his first two collections, but he’s one author. Belgium’s big literary export these days is the autofictionist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, who is as far from Weird as you get. And like I said, there’s no scene in Belgium, so no real awareness of US developments. The few Belgian spec writers are more part of the larger French scene. Of course, that’s just the French half of Belgium. I can’t speak for the Flemish half.

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