There are words, I suspect, that some publishers or editors or agents don’t like hearing when applied to a book. Dark is definitely one of them; I speak from experience regarding a dark novel I wrote once that failed to find a home–with hindsight, thankfully. Another one may be quiet. Which could so easily bleed into boring, or slow, or dull, fair enough; but there is a fine line, and the book that manages to stay just this side of boring, slow and dull is, for the discerning reader (some people find all books dull by definition in this day and age), a gem. Because with such a book you feel like you are rediscovering something you thought was lost forever.

I’m even finding it hard to come up with examples–Penelope Fitzgerald springs to mind, but she belongs to an earlier generation–because really, I set out to write this promotional blog about a book I translated some years ago and which is finally out in the world, La Dame blanche, or, The Lady in White, by Christian Bobin. Bobin belongs to what might be a last generation of quiet authors in France; he started publishing his short volumes of lyric essays and novels in the late 1980s, when it was still possible to retreat to a small town in Burgundy and avoid the mêlée in Paris. And he established his reputation early on, so his loyal followers respect his need for solitude and tranquility, because they know how much it contributes to his work.

Only natural then, that at some point he might be drawn to Emily Dickinson, similarly reclusive, though I would hesitate to call her quiet, or only up to a point.  Her way of life, definitely, but not her explosive way with words. Perhaps Monsieur Bobin would also take issue with the term applied to his own work; perhaps it is more that reading his words brings on a sense of gentle well-being, a falling away of all the unnecessary beeping and pinging and outright roar of the outside world. Perhaps he feels that sense of quiet on reading Dickinson.

So in a roundabout way this is an invitation to you to read The Lady in White. (Order here in Europe). Enjoy it for its privileged incursion into the life of a beloved poet who knew no fame in her lifetime, and for the gentle homage a French recluse has paid to her, as if in thanks. I thank them both.

In the spring of 2010 I was on a train from Simferopol to Sumy, in Eastern Ukraine. I didn’t see much of Simferopol – it is the capital of Crimea, but it is inland, a town of administration, big buildings and airports and train stations, not a place where tourists linger. I had just spent five days with a British tour of southern Crimea, viewing the well-known historical treasures in the region of Yalta, the spectacular scenery. Then the tour abandoned me, as planned, to return to London, and I stayed on, feeling vulnerable, adventurous, very much alone with my limited Russian and my eagerness to explore, to be no longer the tourist but the traveler.

The train was old, Soviet-era, seemed to hold together with layers of paint. I had the compartment to myself; our guide had explained this was the only way to make a reservation from outside Ukraine. I looked forward to the long, overnight journey – Sumy is in the northeast, beyond Kharkiv – and to the solitude, after five days with ebullient, gregarious fellow travelers.

A short while after we left Simferopol a young man came into the compartment. I was reluctant to talk, given my rusty command of the language, and I was worried about how long he intended to stay; but after a few awkward minutes he asked where I was going, heard my accent, was intrigued, and the conversation began.

He had come from Sevastopol, where he was taking a course, learning to be a sailor, and was heading to Dzhankoy, a town in northern Crimea, which was where he was from. He told me he had an uncle in Saint Petersburg, and was hoping to find work through him once he finished his course; prospects were bleak in Ukraine, he said. He was discreet, thoughtful, serious, almost shy. Blond with blue eyes. He condemned the government (Yanukovich had been elected four months earlier) for their corrupt extravagance, for their ability to spend $50,000 on their official vehicles when the average Ukrainian was earning $200 a month. I missed some of what he said, tried to answer his questions about California or Switzerland. Before he left the train, perhaps forty-five minutes or an hour later, he told me his name was Andrei.

When I was younger I had many such encounters with strangers on trains, but they grow rarer as you get older, and the opportunities don’t arise as frequently; people on planes don’t like to talk. And how often are you on a train from Simferopol to Sumy… (The following year, the same tour operator with whom I had visited Yalta tried to organize the same journey to Sumy – and their train was cancelled.)

It’s not that Andrei and I had a deep philosophical conversation, or that there had been any kind of special connection, or regret when he arrived in Dzhankoy. I was actually relieved to have the compartment to myself again; the provodnitsa came in soon thereafter to make up my berth, and I fell asleep to the comforting lull of train tracks, waking now and again when we stopped in a major town.

But I haven’t forgotten him – perhaps because it was such a rare, unexpected encounter. And now it seems to contain so many elements of the terrible, tense situation unfolding in Crimea – the young Russian-speaking Ukrainian with family in Russia; the connection to Sevastopol; his youth, ripe for military picking.

I wonder where he is now. Perhaps safely on his uncle’s ship, ferrying Russian goods to China or Western Europe; perhaps standing in line in a recruitment office somewhere in Ukraine, about to be issued with a uniform and a weapon. Or perhaps still in Crimea, one of those polite, anonymous pro-Russian militia who have occupied government buildings, surrounded the airports, the Ukrainian bases. I would not recognize him, but I wonder which side he is on.

If we could continue the conversation, I expect he would tell me that Crimea is Russian, is Russia. I might agree with him up to a point, but say that there is a problem with that, that legally Crimea now belongs to Ukraine. Is within Ukraine’s sovereign, inviolable borders. Perhaps there could be a referendum, let the Crimeans decide for themselves? Would he say, who are the Crimeans? Would he tell me only the Russians, because historically Crimea belonged to Russia from the time of Catherine the Great until 1954? But wait, I would say, what about the ethnic Ukrainians, and the Tatars: minorities who must be allowed their say, and their guarantee of security; he might reply that they no longer belonged there, because they supported the new government in Kiev/Kyiv. On the other hand he might see the possibility of peaceful continuity, of remaining an autonomous part of Ukraine, with respect for both the original inhabitants (the Tatars) and the newcomers (the Russians and the Ukrainians). He might testify that he has always been well-treated as a Russian speaker/ethnic Russian in Ukraine and that there is no reason why that should change; or he might argue violently, along with Vladimir Putin, that the current government in Kyiv/Kiev is not legitimate, that it is made up of fascists and, according to the Russian media (perhaps his uncle is watching television in Petersburg and has been calling to warn him) that Russians are in danger not just in Crimea but all through Eastern Ukraine; this was, after all, Putin’s pretext for invading Georgia.

Would Andrei agree with me that Putin is just looking for a pretext to enlarge the borders of his empire? That the media in Sotchi inflated his ego and made him more power-hungry than ever, and he knows he can do what he likes with impunity? Or would he say I have misunderstood, that Vladimir Vladimirovich is a great leader who has restored pride to the Russian people and made Russia a great nation again?

Would he listen if I said, How proud will you be if every country on earth turns against you now? Would he – fair enough – throw the long list of my own government’s sins back in my face for Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Vietnam? Is that ever a valid argument for justifying incursion into another sovereign country?

We could argue the differences and similarities between autocracy and democracy all the way to Sumy. Between nationalism and enlightenment. It wouldn’t stop the guns, or even necessarily further understanding. No train ride is long enough for that.

But I would like to take that train ride again someday, or at least to know I can take it. Above all, I would like to know that Andrei, and millions of young men like him, will have other prospects in life than those Vladimir Putin is offering them.


I was apprehensive, I have to admit. Not for the usual reasons one is apprehensive before going on holiday—fear of the unknown, of mishaps, accidents, sickness, or unfriendly natives—but, on the contrary, because I was going to a place I know only too well, and have loved, and it pains me to see her misfortune the way it pains me to see a friend who is ill and suffering.

I decided to avoid Athens; I have lived there, too, have seen her best sides and her worst. I have seen the ranks of AΣTYNOMIA with their shields and truncheons and gas masks, back in the 1970s; I’ve witnessed mass demonstrations and strikes. But I never walked through the streets in the center to see nearly a third of the shops closed; according to a recent article in the Athens News, on Stadiou, one of Athens’s main shopping streets, 40% of the businesses have closed down.ceb5cebdcebfceb9cebaceb9ceb1ceb6ceb5cf84ceb1ceb9

So I took the bus which skirts Athens from the airport to Piraeus: even so I could see how many faded red signs  were up in shop windows and showrooms: ENOIKIAZETAI, For Rent. The same generic sign as back in the days when I rented my own flat there in Nea Smyrni.

For a week I stayed in a part of the Peloponnese that is relatively remote and undeveloped, although easily accessible from Athens and a frequent inexpensive destination for Greek tourists. Taverna owners told us business there too is down by fifty percent. There was an unusual quiet about the place, although people went about their activities as usual, shopping, stopping for coffee on the waterfront, taking the time to live their lives rather than plan them.

Hydra, in comparison, seemed positively bustling, although in retrospect for such a pleasant time of year it should have been busier. I spoke to a few shopkeepers; they all said they were doing all right, that the tourism economy was keeping them going. There was no power all morning long; everywhere was open for business, however, replacing espressos with the Greek coffees they could make on gas burners, keeping supermarket fridges going with generators. I was told it was because of forest fires earlier that year that had damaged the power plant in the Peloponnese, and it was necessary to shut down from time to time to get on with repairs. I didn’t question this, despite media reports that rolling blackouts were a result of austerity measures. It meant I had to stay a few more hours on Hydra: no great hardship. I sat on a bench in the shade and entered an almost meditative state of observing other people’s lives: children as they headed home from school, stopping to climb a tree; muleteers driving brick-laden donkeys up the hill; old men with their shopping bags; gypsy women selling knives. A small black and white cat kept me company; from time to time I threw him a piece of leftover bifteki from my dinner the night before, too copious to finish. Restaurant portions have become gargantuan yet I have heard that old people rummage through the trash in Athens.
I stayed five days in Spetses after that, and it was almost as if my secret plea not to see the suffering face of Greece had been answered. I was like one of those tourists who would visit Sri Lanka, say, and come back claiming “You’d never know there’s a war on.”

Spetses has always been a wealthy island; I had visited in 1976 and remember the white walls and red-tiled roofs and bougainvillea, and its reputation as a weekend place for upper crust Athenians. But even today there is no conspicuous display of wealth: for one thing, cars are banned, and the rackety traffic of thousands of scooters and motorbikes give the place an almost adolescent, amusement park air. Especially when the passengers on scooters include babies and multiple children, or elegant local beauties in four-inch patent leather heels sitting sidesaddle, legs crossed Dietrich-style. Spetses still has its share of funky “pantopoleions” that sell everything imaginable: one of them goes by the name, “If We Don’t Have it then You Don’t Need It.” But around the corner and down the street is an elegant design shop that would not be out of place on the Fulham Road. There is also a Deli that sells smoked salmon and other luxury items; almost anywhere else in Greece this would seem extravagant, proof that they are catering to someone besides the kalamarakia crowd. The clean, white shop had the same vast empty feel as an old Soviet store, although the shelves were filled; I didn’t see many people in there.
Spetses has a remarkable museum devoted to Laskarina Bouboulina, one of the heroes—the heroine, to be exact—of the 1821 War of Independence, and the only woman in history ever to have been named an admiral (posthumously, alas). Among other treasures, you can see her gold-embroidered headscarf and her pistol, her Chinese sewing table and the letter from the Sultan authorizing her to build the ship that she sailed into battle (the Sultan assumed it was to be a merchant ship, his eternal mistake). The museum was started in the 1990s by her descendants in order to raise the money to save the rain-damaged Florentine carved ceiling of the beautiful old house. It is privately owned and run, with no help whatsoever from the Greek state, which these days is just as well. I wondered if it was because she was a woman that the State had never participated in her consecration.

I met a visiting doctor and her daughter; the mother had lived and practiced for many years in Hannover and only recently retired to Athens; her daughter is a lawyer in Cologne. They told me that, according to their taxi driver (taxis are allowed, as are horse-drawn carriages) many of the closed villas along the road to the beach on the other side of the island belong to shipowners and bankers. They ruefully agreed with me that the amount of unpaid taxes accruing to the villa owners would probably be enough to bail out the entire country—certainly their wealth would. The problem, said the doctor, is not that Greece doesn’t have money, it’s just that the Greek state has no money.

I suspect Angela Merkel herself might have a villa on Spetses. If not, God forbid she ever visit the place, or she’ll call for even tougher measures on all those who can only ever dream of having a villa on Spetses.

On my last night, as I was packing, I switched on the television. A banner ran across the top of the screen on one of the public channels saying that the Greek Radio and Television was on strike “due to solidarity with the impoverishment of the Greek people,” or something to that effect. So instead of the evening news they were broadcasting a documentary produced by Arte in English and French (subtitled in Greek) about the 1929 Wall Street Crash. It was suitably ironic, and chillingly instructive. A host of pundits, including Howard Zinn and Joseph Stiglitz, reminded us of how the crash came about, and its consequences on the most unfortunate; and in case we had never realized, or had forgotten, how Hitler’s rise was due in part to Hoover’s recalling of the money lent to Germany for reconstruction after World War I and the subsequent hardship which befell the German people. The pundits also attributed the actual end of the depression not so much to the New Deal as to the buildup of arms manufacturing and the creation of a war economy in the late 1930s.

There are no conclusions to be drawn, no viable comparisons to be made. Or are there? I’m no economist. But it’s food for thought.

Yesterday at Athens airport I had lunch with a friend (who has taken a 30% cut to his retirement pay), and he reminded me of how much harm the media has done by overemphasizing the violence and unrest in Athens, which tends to scare people away; they should be coming to Greece in droves, instead. Many things are as cheap as they were ten years ago, especially rooms and tavernas; we should support the economy that is working, tourism. It is easy enough to avoid central Athens, as I found out; as for getting “stuck” somewhere, that can happen anytime, anywhere—due to the strong winds in Greece’s case, or volcanoes in other parts of the world…

In fact, if I had booked my return flight for one day later, I would have gotten stuck. There is a general strike on today; all flights are cancelled. Hopefully, assuming the ferry company is also following the strike, I would have been stuck on Spetses rather than at the airport or in Piraeus. But that is all idle speculation, or even regret; instead I am stuck in cold, rainy Buchillon. In Athens there have been demonstrations and clashes with the police, depicted on the BBC in the very way my friend deplored, with suitable amounts of flames and menacing policemen, and empty airport halls.

But Greeks know how to get on with life, unfazed by power cuts or demonstrations. As the woman at the shipping office assured me, “Eh, if they cut the power, we’ll just write tickets by hand.” Or as a shop assistant in Hydra emphasized, “We’ll survive. We Greeks always survive.”

At the Bouboulina museum the guide gave me an old one-drachma coin, minted in 1992, with Bouboulina’s face on one side and her battleship, the Agamemnon, on the other. Perhaps it’s time the Greeks started looking for another Bouboulina in their midst—or reconsidering the humble drachma.



[Through the front door, February 4 2012]

Last week I watched one of the longest tennis matches in history – the longest Grand Slam, the longest in Australian Open history. You feel pleased with yourself after something like that – I was there, I remember that match, it was epic. Then it fades from the news and your sense of belonging to something extraordinary fades even more quickly.

This week, I’m experiencing along with all of Europe what must be the longest cold spell in decades, in my life anyway. After a very mild winter with the thermometer only going below freezing perhaps once, we are suddenly picked up and moved to Russia, with temperatures a balmy minus six during the day and minus twelve at night. Add some native Swiss wind, the dreaded Bise, which is anything but a kiss, rather a cause of headaches, dry eyes and bad temper, and your ambient outdoor temperature is more like minus nineteen. All night long the shutters rattled – something they never do – and the atmosphere was definitely Gothic.

I try to recall other cold winters – did I experience this same feeling of helplessness and defeat? Places I’ve been: Russia in 1969 but when you’re young you’re less sensitive to the cold; you remember the people swimming at the open air pool in Moscow, the clouds of steam. Norway off and on in the 70s and 80s: they’re equipped, it’s a way of life there. But there was one day that it got so cold that a Coca-Cola bottle exploded, and even the locals were surprised. Bulgaria too; a freezing New Year’s Eve where the power went out and it must have been somewhere between five and ten Celsius in the bedroom, not more. But there was champagne, and snow, and friendship; people didn’t need blogs and Facebook in those days to comment on the weather.

My oleander will probably not make it this year, despite being wrapped by two somewhat clueless Albanian gardeners who may not have such cruel winters where they come from (although this year, anything’s possible). There is ice – indoors –  around the edges of my skylight. The cat licks the condensation from the wall in the niche by my bed. The front door sticks and I worry about it freezing to the frame altogether. Or maybe I won’t be able to turn the key to let myself out, and will be stuck here until the thaw. I cannot see (through the binoculars) whether the lake has begun to freeze yet, but I worry about the ducks and swans.

These are perfectly ordinary things for many people around the world; they are used to it and know how to deal with it, for the most part. Vodka in the radiators and that sort of thing. I suppose if it goes on long enough I will deal with it in my fashion too, although mopping up the condensation is a major inconvenience, and I suspect that is the architect’s fault, not the weather’s. What is strange and new is the feeling of powerlessness, of looking at the forecast every day and seeing that nothing is about to change, because of a huge high pressure zone:  relentless sun with a bit of cloud, temperatures minus thirteen to minus six. Wind 25km an hour. People have it far worse in Ukraine and Poland, in Serbia and Bulgaria. Cut off from the rest of the world, buried under huge drifts of snow. Living in a place like California you become accustomed to a predictable, benign climate. Those summer winds in the Bay Area are nothing in comparison to this, even if they do mean you don’t have any summer to speak of. Earthquakes have no forecast (tomorrow’s outlook on the Richter scale, 4.3, with a balmy 3.2 forecast for Wednesday); they happen and then they’re done and you deal with the aftermath. This cold wave is incremental, and you don’t really know what you can do other than try to stay warm in the present moment and try not to obsess about how much warmer it is in Paris (minus five). The sun is warming my back through the window. I suppose that compensates for wind chill factor when you’re indoors: sun warmth factor?

Last month I was re-reading Dr Zhivago and the most beautiful and moving passages are the chapters set in wintry Yuryatin and Varykino. Poetic and evocative, lovely to read about from your warm bed, your mild winter; be careful what you wish for, poetry notwithstanding. Now I’m translating a book set in the Pyrenees in the middle of winter, a grisly murder mystery with snow and ice everywhere, including on the corpses. And appropriately titled: “Iced.”

I had my groceries delivered two days ago, something I only do in extremes of weather. They made a mistake and brought me five litres of milk! I think the message is: drink lots of hot chocolate.

Wherever you are, keep warm.

swissfrancI’ve been long absent from this blog, off fighting on those various battlefields that stretch endlessly into the distance as I seek to keep a roof over my head. Increasingly difficult, as my source of income—literary translation—is paid in dollars, euros, and pounds, all of which are falling against the Swiss franc, the price of my roof and rösti. Is it time to switch and go to work for a prestigious watchmaker? (Maybe they’d give me free photographs of Roger Federer.) But I love my work, and am prepared to take a hit or two for the sake of art and its ultimate triumph, but it might be time to confer with my generals and see what can be done.

Swiss franc notwithstanding, there have been a few small victories over the past few months:

This month Words Without Borders is devoted to the Arab Spring, and I am pleased to contribute to that ongoing and far more important struggle, with the translation of a story by Leila Marouane, Is This How Women Grow Up? Leila writes eloquently and harrowingly of another, more pervasive battle, that of women’s rights, and while her story is set primarily in Algeria, it is hard not to read it and recognize a certain universal disillusionment shared by many women.


On a lighter note, my translation of Anna Gavalda’s novel French Leave (Breaking Away in the UK) has been getting good reviews and even a mention in that bastion of anti-translation book reviewing, The New York Times. It’s a perfect summer read, short and sweet, like a literary basket of strawberries. Although you might find yourself headed for the corner store to buy some pet food at the end. You can read an excerpt here. Continue Reading »

breakersA huge bestseller in France, this was a delight to translate – atmospheric, evocative, and close to the creative spirit that informed my own second novel – solitary women, birds, love, the sea. And a gripping mystery story.

hygieneThis was Amélie Nothomb’s first novel and established her reputation. Delightful literary vitriol, stand well back and watch the fun. And I’m delighted that it has been longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award for 2010.

montespanThis was a real challenge to translate – and a wonderful romp at the same time. A chance to explore the rich vocabulary (and customs?) of the past in this story of the cuckold whose wife became the favourite of Louis XIV…and who did not want to submit gratefully.

Some years ago—many years ago—I traveled with my daughter and then husband  to Turkey. I remembered it, for years—or chose not to remember it—as a trip that was fraught with problems—the car breaking down, horrible intestinal infections, petty thefts, and worst of all, marital strife in the form of raging arguments in the most gorgeous places or stubborn silences that lasted for days. It should have been the trip of a lifetime. Not the usual tourist circuit down the Aegean coast, but a month-long drive that took us all through Anatolia to the Iranian border, and the Soviet border, and all along the fog-shrouded Black Sea. I remember waking in some town, it could have been Trabzun, or Giresun, I don’t recall, and realizing that I was a married woman, and had been married for only four months, and was deeply unhappy. Was it my expectations that had been too high? Was I clinically depressed for some reason—the strangeness of the country, the constant moving, the uncertainty of the future?

Mount Ararat

For my most recent birthday I was given a magic box that converts old slides and negatives to digital photographs. For the last four months I have been patiently traveling back through time and revisiting my school years, my first boyfriends, my grown niece and nephews as children, countries as diverse as Norway and Greece and Russia. Today I came upon a box of slides:  Anatolia 1986.

Of all the photos I have seen over these months, and there have been hundreds, none have been so strangely moving and beautiful as these shots of Turkey. Granted, the country is beautiful, and I found the people, especially the children, extraordinarily photogenic. But I did not expect to find so many pictures, nearly an entire roll, of near-perfect shots, at least for an amateur like myself, speaking so eloquently of some strange process that was going on despite my anger and sadness and depression. Perhaps I channeled all my unhappiness into my camera lens. I am glad I have been able to preserve something, for otherwise I might have felt there was a hole in my life. Instead, it was a shutter that took twenty-five years to close.











betancourtA great privilege to contribute to the English version of this personal true account of great hardship and suffering and the survival of the human spirit. Despite the oppressive, stifling atmosphere of the Colombian jungle  I was often moved to tears by Ingrid’s courage and the extraordinary glimpses of humanity at the most unexpected moments.

Translated with the collaboration of Sarah Llewellyn.

neverdaredhope_cover1partydress_cover2Christian Bobin deserves to be better known outside of France…his is a voice of serenity, thoughtfulness, calm in a hurried world. Neither poetry nor prose, “lyric essays” that make you stop and think and remember why you’re here. My own personal favorites; translating Bobin is an act of love.

novelbookstore A literary thriller about the ideal bookstore…that is too controversial for the commercial powers-that-be. It makes you want to spend the rest of your life reading all the great books that are out there.

And it has its own website:

Nominated for the Florence Gould French American Foundation Translation Prize 2011.

01290002I’ve never been one for pilgrimages, or trips organized around a certain goal, or travelling for the sake of getting somewhere; I’ve always been, rather, something of a drifter, choosing my restaurants and lodgings and sometimes even villages or islands on a whim, an instinct, a desire to flee the crowds and insinuate myself into a landscape not as a tourist, but as a visitor or traveller.

For the first time in many years at the end of May I broke my own self-imposed travel formula by joining a tour of Crimea that focused on the life of Anton Chekhov and the years he spent in Yalta and its surroundings, led by a congenial Chekhov scholar and followed by an equally congenial mixture of people of all ages and backgrounds who had one thing in common:  a love of Chekhov’s work and a curiosity about the world he lived in, some of which, we discovered, is still very much alive in its way. The tour came about as part of a campaign to save Chekhov’s “White Dacha” in Yalta, where he lived the last years of his life, and which has been  suffering from a severe lack of funding since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The campaign, based in Great Britain with both Chekhov scholars and admirers and theatre people behind it, is raising funds for vital repair and maintenance on the Dacha (see Yalta Chekhov  Campaign.)  (My fellow participants from the tour know who they are and I won’t go into a lengthy description of this part of the trip here but, rather, also provide  other readers with the link to the excellent agency in Britain that organized the tour and encourage anyone who’s interested to write and enquire about subsequent tours…) What I did promise however to my fellow travellers was a description of the trip that I went on after I left them, where I journeyed by rail overnight across nearly all of Ukraine from the south due north to the town of Sumy, where Chekhov spent two summers as a young man, before he became the famous playwright we all know from the portraits with his pince-nez… Continue Reading »

VOLCANO ASH FLIGHTSI live under the flight path for Geneva airport. Planes coming from the west fly as far as the beacon in the lake that sits a short ways offshore from the village of St-Prex, an ugly white cylinder in the idyllic lakeside scenery; I hear the shift in the sound of the jet engines as they make their turn, almost above my head. It’s not too loud, they’re still ten minutes away from landing, but with binoculars you can identify the type of plane, the carrier. It’s a regular, rhythmic, almost reassuring sound to everyday life:  planes in the sky, all is as it should be.

I came home from lunch with a friend today to find my neighbors sitting on the lawn; spring weather seems to be here at last after bitter cold winds and cloudy skies for days and days. I joined them; a bottle of wine and three glasses appeared, and we all commented how peaceful it was without the planes, how nature was forcing us to appreciate a different rhythm.

From time to time a small biplane flew overhead, almost defiantly, even though Swiss airspace is closed; he was small and surely below the infamous cloud of ash; the plane was red, and my neighbor called him the Red Baron.

I have a plane ticket to London, due to depart in two days’ time. When I booked it I regretted it was so much cheaper than the train, because I was very curious to take the famous Eurostar from Paris that goes under the English channel in virtually no time at all; but the train ticket was nearly three times the cost of the budget carrier flying to Luton airport. How do “they” want us to be ecologically correct when the train is so prohibitively expensive and the plane so dirt cheap?

On Thursday when the volcanic ash cloud shut down British airspace I quickly realized I might not be able to take my flight; professional reasons propelled me to spring for a refundable train ticket when I saw how quickly the seats were going up in price on the website. I knew everyone must be thinking like me, and that it was only a question of time before there would only be First Class seats left. So now I have a train ticket, and a plane ticket, and I am waiting to see what the volcanic ash cloud will be doing on Monday morning. I almost hope it sticks around, even if it means I’m going to lose a lot of money on that train ticket, and will find myself amidst a huge crowd of travelers, all the way to London. Maybe it will feel festive, or maybe it will just be crowded and hot and unpleasant.

But I like the fact that nature at last has managed to do what, dare I say it, only terrorists have ever succeeded in doing until now. And no one has been hurt, and there are even lots of stories coming out of people who are delighted to be stuck where they are stuck. There are opportunities for encounters, for new experiences. When was the last time you spoke to your neighbor on one of those boringly predictable budget flights?

I’ll remember this afternoon for a long time; I will put it together with the carless Sundays of the early 1970s, when you could suddenly hear the birds on silent avenues, or ride a bicycle around the coliseum in Rome with no other traffic than pedestrians. The quiet sky, the incredible wash of blue haze and sunlight, the three glasses of wine, conversation. A tortoise chasing a cat. The Red Baron defying our silence. I really don’t care how I get to London. I like the idea that a volcano has come all the way to me.

marouaneLeila’s book is a witty, quirky, intriguing story that is anything but what its title implies…and then some. The more I worked on it the more I enjoyed it. Read this great review at Words Without Borders:  “one of the most innovative novels you’re likely to read this or any other year.”

consolation1A novel that starts off with all the sadness and disappointment of everyday life then gradually works itself up to something not only consolatory but magical. It was my consolation for leaving California…


This was Muriel Barbery’s first novel (Une Gourmandise, in French), and it’s a tribute to food (and, perhaps, cantankerousness). At any rate, I was salivating for sashimi at 7:00 a.m. when I was translating the chapter on Japanese food. Itadakimasu!

Something here for everyone…I’m proud to announce for 2010 three new publications! As different as any translations could ever be:  one is by a woman (the fat one) two by a man (one man, two skinny books). One is bright red and is a book you can lose yourself in, all four hundred plus pages; the other two are discreet little “lyric essays” to be read like poems, in moments of bright, floating contemplation…whatever! And one (the fat one) is only available in the UK, so you’ll have to go here to order it, and the other two are available only in the US, so go here.

Anna Gavalda:  Consolation


Consolation is as I said a book to get lost in, and I did for weeks and months, translating it with the echo of Leonard Cohen’s famous blue raincoat in my head…it’s a love story with a twist (aren’t they all?), where a lost love leads to a found love…and there are lots of children and donkeys and music and drunken Russians and bratty Parisian teenagers and a burnt-out architect… Anna Gavalda is one of France’s most beloved and popular authors, and she has yet to become known to the benighted Anglo-Saxon world, but she deserves to be read and beloved  for her humor and her warm take on life. I know I enjoyed reading it over and over, despite all the vicious puns I had to translate (she has told me she puts them there on purpose! Just joking) and I hope I’ve done justice to the rich “Gavaldian” world she creates.

Christian Bobin:  A Little Party Dress and I Never Dared Hope for You


Christian Bobin is one my favorite authors of all time. I am particularly proud of these two translations because I struggled for years to find a publisher, and at last they have been published by Autumn Hill Books, an independent small press in Iowa City, Iowa, specializing in translation. Christian Bobin is as different from Anna Gavalda as can be, but he is also a creator of worlds. Above all, he shows us how to see the intimate details of life that are there before our eyes and that we’ve never really seen or understood. His lyric essays read like a mixture of poetry and a short story; above all, the language fractures light, rearranges your emotional perception. For me these are little legible jewels, to be read again and again, just for the pleasure of the fusion between language and vision… I hope I’ve done them justice because they are indescribably beautiful texts in French, and it’s easy to curse English for being unpoetic and utilitarian, a language of shopkeepers…still, I hope something has come through of the light and the music.

mantova1Every so often you find yourself somewhere and you think you are dreaming. Or that you’ve died and gone to heaven. Or that suddenly the human race has reformed, and put aside war and despoliation of the planet to turn to culture and human friendship. The feeling often coincides with a visit to a place like Italy, because despite its sizeable contribution to war and despoliation (not to mention the idiozia of its current head of state), it has also contributed perhaps more than its fair share to culture, perhaps human friendship, too.

The little town of Mantova, or Mantua in English, that I have only ever known through Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet (“to Mantua; /Where thou shalt live, till we can find a time / To blaze your marriage…”), has for 13 years been hosting a literary festival for four days at the end of the summer. It is the perfect venue, with its wide squares and palazzos and parks, its cobbled car-free streets, its mild climate, its medieval/Renaissance atmosphere. It is not overwhelming with other things to do or see, the way nearby Verona or Venice would be; and it has just enough cafés and restaurants to keep everyone in macchiati and agnolini. Continue Reading »


Who would have thought the little beast would still be scuffling along so vigorously a year later? “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”: Number 12 on the New York Times Trade paperback bestseller list, number 5 on the Indie Bestseller list, Sales Rank 31 on Amazon (and 632 in the Francophobe UK, pas mal). It seems that such hedgehogly vigor calls for some reflections on the part of the breeder (if a translator can be termed the person who facilitated the creature’s conception and birth into another language…)

Muriel Barbery wrote a great book. Simple as that. Not everyone likes it; my own sister couldn’t finish it. That is the prerogative, and the duty, of Great Books, to be disliked, or misunderstood as much as they are loved and praised. The simplicity of bad books is clear to all; good books provoke controversy and debate. I can still recall the thrill I had after reading a dozen pages or so in the original French; I knew I was on to something that might be great. If the book kept its promise, I told myself, I would like nothing better than to translate it. Continue Reading »



Today marks the anniversary of my residency in the little village of Buchillon, between Lausanne and Geneva, on the shore of Lac Léman. I could go on about how time has flown, and how incredible it is to think that a year ago I was a confused immigrant uncertain of her future, and now I’m a villageoise who treks through the vineyards to go for a dip in the lake. Continue Reading »

nothomb.gifTime to blow the horn on behalf of a lovely book I translated last year and which is now in print with Europa Editions. Amélie Nothomb, for those who don’t yet know her, is a well-known Belgian author with a quirky sense of humour and an inimitable style…She will be presenting this English translation of Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam in the weeks ahead on the East Coast and in Canada…read the book and climb Mount Fuji with her, eat Swiss cheese fondue, get lost in a snowstorm…it’s evocative and light-hearted, a lovely cross-cultural escape.

Programme in the United States: click here.

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