Tuesday, September 27, 2016
A Duo by Jacques Poulin
Translation is a Love Affair / Jacques Poulin; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman
Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, c2009.
English is not a Magic Language / Jacques Poulin; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman
Montreal: Vehicule Press, c2016.
I first read Jacques Poulin way back in my university days, when I was introduced to Volkswagen Blues, which I absolutely loved - and lost, and found again, a story I've told before. And since then I've read a few more of his books, finding them okay but not as strong as the first, until I got to Autumn Rounds -- which I also loved.
But as fellow Poulin enthusiast Charles-Adam Foster-Simard said in a 2013 blog comment, "Autumn Rounds and Volkswagen Blues [are] examples of where his material (beautiful melancholy, deceptively simple writing, quiet romance, love of books) comes together most successfully."
I agree. These elements -- plus cats, always cats -- exemplify what is best about Poulin's writing. So when I saw that there was a new novel being released by Vehicule Press of Montreal (English is Not a Magic Language) I had to read it! And I did, and then realized that there was an earlier novel which I'd missed, Translation is a Love Affair, which began the story completed in this new novel.
Both of these books are brief; they fall into Poulin's regular style of short novels, sparingly told, starring an older man and a younger woman (who is usually described via the male gaze, as a young nubile woman, even if there is no romance involved), featuring one or more cats, and with a bookish focus, always.
In Translation, we meet up again with Jack Waterman, a writer featured in Poulin's earlier works (who is often thought of as a loose alter ego for Poulin) and his new translator Marine. In English, they are joined by Jack's younger brother Francis, who works as a professional reader -- yes, reading aloud to others.
In all Poulin's books there is a melancholy strain, with characters aging, feeling lonely, quietly living quiet lives... but there is also a sense of connection among disparate and eccentric characters, who form relationships almost unintentionally. It's a particular charm of his books. Added to that, most of his characters are bookish in some way -- writers, translators, librarians, readers!
I found that despite the pellucid writing style and the reintroduction of Jack Waterman (both of which I enjoyed) Translation is a Love Affair was brief and not so memorable overall. Jack and Marine are introduced, they begin their platonic association, and together they solve a mystery begun by an SOS message tucked under a stray cat's collar. At the end they end up rescuing Limoilou, a troubled young woman who Marine takes responsibility for, and who is an important player in the next book as well.
As we get into English is Not a Magic Language, we see more deeply into the motives of all three previous characters, from Francis' viewpoint this time. I found more to hold on to in the second novel, even while it's really just a straight on continuation of the first. The interplay between Marine's job as a translator -- with discussion of what it feels like to translate something from French to English, as well as commentary on how to choose just the right word -- and the knowledge that Sheila Fischman, Canadian translator extraordinaire, is doing that exact thing to allow you to read it, well, it was quietly satisfying and amusing.
I also enjoyed the addition of some comic relief in this second novel, via the little girl who lives down the lane with her grandfather. It's a fairy-tale-like element, reminding me of Pippi or Little My from the Moomins, and was a great break in the more serious narrative.
Both books are worth reading together to follow this storyline through to its conclusion. If you haven't yet read Poulin, these are a gentle start, even while I do still recommend the longer novels mentioned above to see him at the height of his style. While there are elements I don't love about the way women appear in some of his novels, he's still a writer worth exploring. All of his books touch on one another in some way, so the more you read, the more you will be able to trace characters and connections, and add to the enjoyment of reading Poulin.