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Sentimental educations.

Translators, you might say, are paradoxical performers whose greatest virtuosity consists in making themselves invisible. "In my translation, I've tried to be true to the original," writes Jane Amme, a character in Susan Daitch's novel L.C whose presence is invisible to the reader during much of the novel. But being true, as Jane Amme learns, is not necessarily the same thing as being transparent. L.C presents us with a veritable drift of translations, piled one atop the other, and at some point the novel makes us suspect that these translations are not conveying but obscuring an original text that is, in its turn, invisible.

Can one invisibility hide another? Does the translator's skillful invisibility mask the inaccessibility of the original? If writing itself is an act of translation - taking the original, raw substance of experience and translating it into words - then perhaps the translator's role is not as passive or subordinate as it may appear. The translator Richard Howard once suggested that the best English version of Baudelaire's "Spleen" ("Quand le ciel bas et lourd pese comme un couvercle ...") is the poem by Emily Dickinson that begins "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain...." Dickinson was completely unaware of Baudelaire's poem, but her poem does in English what Baudelaire's does in French, and perhaps more successfully than any translator's Englishing of "Spleen" could. (There is no hierarchy in this comparison: if Howard were a translator who rendered English into French, he would have said Baudelaire's poem was a translation of Dickinson's.)

This can also happen when a writer is aware of another's work: translating, transposing, transforming it into something else altogether. In that sense, the other literary luminary of nineteenth-century France, Gustave Flaubert, has had two great American translators: Kate Chopin and Susan Daitch. The Awakening repeats Emma Bovary's dilemma and its denouement step by step: a restless married woman has several love affairs and eventually commits suicide. The reasons for Edna Pontellier's restlessness and eventual death are not the same as those that drive Emma Bovary, though - not the same at all. In her reply to Flaubert, Chopin argues with him.

"Madame Bovary, ce ne sera pas moi" seems to be the operating principle of Daitch's Lucienne Crozier; yes, she is married to a dull man named Charles to whom she isn't true, but she pursues a different sort of demise. Jane Amme is more explicitly an anti-Bovary; her assumed name is Emma spelled backwards. But,though it's mentioned twice, Madame Bovary is of secondary importance here. With a touch worthy of Flaubert, L.C's only reference to the novel it most engages with takes the form of a Che Guevara quote: "There is nothing which educates an honourable man more than living in a revolution." Lucienne could know nothing of a novel published twenty-one years after her journal concludes, but reading her descriptions of the 1848 revolution, her translators, Willa Rehnfield and Jane Amme, could have drawn some comparisons to L'education sentimentale, which also chronicles the experiences of a young person from the provinces who arrives in Paris in the 1840s, has various romantic liaisons, associates with radical opposition groups, is present at the banquets and barricades of the revolution, and becomes disillusioned.

Willa Rehnfield, Jane Amme writes, had a curious approach to translation: "she would extract one character, follow him or her through the entire text, then go back and fill in the rest of the narrative.... There have been a few characters for whom she felt qualified to write biographies, biographies entirely independent of the books from which the characters themselves sprang." Jane tells us that Willa had plans to translate Flaubert: is Lucienne a minor character from L'education sentimentale, tracked and recreated by the obsessive Willa? Or is she a gap in that novel, a gap that "suddenly ... stood out and became the whole text, the whole story"?

Daitch's, however, is a sentimental education without much sentiment; no character in L.C first beholds any other as an apparition. "Why have I written nothing about affection?" Lucienne Crozier wonders: "Affection isn't interesting to write about." Tangible things are preferred: "Arabian clothing scattered in heaps, tinkling as the charms hit the floor" is the closest thing to a description of passion the novel offers. Lucienne often perceives herself as an object; she is "like an inanimate document," "like one of many nearly identical scarabs of Greek coins in a glass house." She describes not her own first glance at Delacroix, but his at her: "like someone who waits on the stair for someone to pass, wondering if this time they will say hello." Though L.C. is supremely concerned with the intangible, the invisible - gaps, absences, remoteness, things left unsaid or buried under other words - all of that is expressed in a vocabulary of objects. There is even the novelistic device of the discovered diary, its cover and the texture of its pages carefully describes; this, the original, is both a text and a single, physical object. As such, it is subject to instant annihilation; it could easily have disappeared forever, without a trace.

In the last line of Flaubert's novel, Frederic Moreau casually betrays everything the novel recounts; having lived through a grande passion and a revolution, he remembers an incident in a brothel that took place years before the novel's opening scene, and pronounces it the best time of his life. Perhaps because they are already aware at the outset that human existence is subject to such breathtaking ironies, Daitch's three main characters are reluctant to step into the foreground of their own lives and are deeply suspicious of those (usually male) characters who do have the self-importance to occupy center stage in their personal dramas. L.C offers no crowd-pleasing flourishes or rollings of the eyes, no easy epiphanies or gratifying emotional outbursts to quicken readers' hearts. This book about things that are invisible or easily overlooked is tremendously reticent; readers are expected to trace a picture out of the lacunae, the silences, the subtle shifts in value that follow from the selection of one word rather than another. Oddly placed participles and pronouns form syntactical connections that are as deliberately complex and tenuous as the links between the characters: the subject of the sentence is never quite there, and remains an illusive, evanescent presence.

Daitch's novel, too, undermines itself toward the end; the last section puts everything that preceded it into question, though in a completely different way from Frederic Moreau's nonchalant dismissal. Frederic has learned nothing; everything he has experienced during Flaubert's novel has washed over him like a light rain, leaving no mark; he has not really lived. Lucienne, it turns out, may not really have lived either; she may be no more than a fictional character, created by Willa Rehnfield. Only one piece of evidence contradicts this conclusion, some "very old sheets of paper, yellowed, their left edges serrated, scarred from the time they were torn from the threads of their original binding ... covered by writing in French." Willa is an associate of Luc Ferrier, a dealer in forgeries; she could have been crazy enough to forge an original for a translation she created out of whole cloth. But would she have forged an original and then mistranslated it? Finally, Lucienne's very existence persists mainly in the differences between Willa's translation and Jane's. Both of them see and depict her as an image of themselves; and while there are similarities between their two versions, Lucienne emerges most fully from the contradictions. But there is, as well, a suggestion that Lucienne is not entirely at her translators' mercy, not completely powerless. One of Willa's footnotes reminds us that Eleanor Marx (Karl's daughter) translated Madame Bovary and then, twelve years later, committed suicide in the same manner as Emma. Translators can affect what they translate, but what they translate can also affect them.

The last part of L.C takes up another of Flaubert's obsessions: the Orient. And here its argument with him intensifies: "The romantic clothes from this continent, not the veils of constriction, were packed in Eugene [Delacroix]'s trunk. In spite of his perceptions of human suffering, everything he brought back from Morocco was about pleasure. My trunk, were I to pack it now, would have very different contents." No frenetic couplings with the Egyptian courtisane Koutchouk-Hanem for Lucienne. With each step of her search for liberation, she loses more and more of her freedom: her quest for personal liberation leaves her far more dependent on her anarchist lover than she ever was on her husband, and, having been forced to sit at the back of the room during the political meetings she attended, she finds herself forced to flee, for having attended them, to a place of greater constriction still. The Orient holds no appeal for her imagination; she would have preferred to go to Switzerland, but was given no choice in the matter.

L.C. offers two different arguments against Flaubert's Orient. While neither Willa's nor Jane's Lucienne experiences a voluptuous, sensual domination of the landscape and its people, the Orient elicits very different reactions from each of them. In Willa's version, it is what finally pushes Lucienne so far to the side of her own life that nothing is left for her but death (from consumption). In Jane's, the Orient is what finally forces Lucienne to take action, going out into the street wearing men's clothing (something she never quite dared to do in Paris), and, amazingly, speaking out publicly, putting out a newspaper. In the disguises the Orient imposes on her, Jane's Lucienne finally, briefly, finds something like liberation, but the second version leads Lucienne to her death no less certainly than the first.

What L.C tells us about the Orient is that it, too, is at the mercy of its translators. All European versions of it are suspect. Jane Amme has Lucienne and Pascal publishing a newspaper entitled La Voix des Femmes Algeriennes, but an Algerian woman might well wonder what gives the two metropolitan travelers the right to speak on her behalf. Difficult as it is to see Lucienne as an emissary of colonialism, Flaubert's imperial representation does find its counterpart there. Here as elsewhere, L.C refuses to fall into easy categories of right and wrong, guilt and innocence.

L.C concludes with a closed window, shades drawn, a final withdrawal from the supreme injustices of a hopeless world, an image that might suggest that there is nothing to be learned. It may seem odd, therefore, to see in this novel of defeat, retreat, loss, and silence something like an affirmation. Yet, relentlessly, realistically pessimistic as it is, the novel does ultimately describe an inheritance, an invisible, fragile thread trailing down through time, across all the reptures and revolutions, and actually linking the past to the present. Willa and Jane are not completely alone: they have Lucienne. Though it may have been altered, transformed, translated, something has been preserved and passed along (maybe something has even been learned).

Willa and Jane's relationship to Lucienne is the counterpart of Susan Daitch's relationship to Flaubert. In the image of Lucienne Crozier sketching Eugene Delacroix's portrait as he sketches hers, L. C perhaps proposes an alternative model of literary influence, at some remove from popular notions of Oedipal anxiety and negation. Daitch shows Flaubert what he doesn't see as he looks out at the world. When Delacroix later gives Lucienne a gift, it turns out to be her picture of him, not his picture of her; the gift is later lost, the affair ends in mutual frustration, but the suggestion persists. Rather than a pattern of cultural transmission through symbolic murder and denial, there might, instead, be a way in which one artist's work can be the gift that another artist gives her. This is the education L.C gives us.
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Title Annotation:novelists Susan Daitch and Gustave Flaubert
Author:Allen, Esther
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:1980
Previous Article:Rend(er)ing 'L.C.': Susan Daitch meets Borges & Borges, Delacroix, Marx, Derrida, Daumier, and other textualized bodies.
Next Article:Into the heart of things: passion and perception in Susan Daitch's 'The Colorist.'
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