A Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When Yasmina Reza's play Art made the cross-Channel trip from boulevard think-piece to West End smash, it lost - by all accounts - some of its intellectual bite in favour of broad-brush fun. It's a perennial headache for any translator. You toil to render the original words into a correct and convincing version. Then a shift of context transforms the meaning or impact of an imported work. Consider Reza's recent prose piece Hammerklavier, just translated by Carol Cosman, in collaboration with Catherine Macmillan and the author (Faber, £6.99). The publisher calls it a "novel". Not as we know it, Jean: it's a philosophical récit, as purely Parisian as poodle-poop.

When Yasmina Reza's play Art made the cross-Channel trip from boulevard think-piece to West End smash, it lost - by all accounts - some of its intellectual bite in favour of broad-brush fun. It's a perennial headache for any translator. You toil to render the original words into a correct and convincing version. Then a shift of context transforms the meaning or impact of an imported work. Consider Reza's recent prose piece Hammerklavier, just translated by Carol Cosman, in collaboration with Catherine Macmillan and the author (Faber, £6.99). The publisher calls it a "novel". Not as we know it, Jean: it's a philosophical récit, as purely Parisian as poodle-poop.

Taking its title from the Beethoven sonata that Reza's late father loved (and "massacred" on the piano in his final days), Hammerklavier consists of 44 brief variations - on the themes of loss, exile and memory, and the power of art or love to make good "the malice of time". In English, these semi-abstract, semi-intimate meditations can sound a tad portentous ("for there is no joy that is not Solitude and no ecstasy that is not Pain... "). Yet this taut elegy belongs slap in the middle of a grand French tradition of lyrical, reflective prose.

That legacy has been vastly enriched by writers, such as Reza herself, from non-French backgrounds - Samuel Beckett, E M Cioran, Milan Kundera. In fact, if Hammerklavier has one major source, I would guess that it might be the section of Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting in which the narrator connects his dead father's passion for Beethoven with the artist's urge to seek "the infinity of internal variety concealed in all things". (Kundera's dad is obsessed with Op 111; Reza's, with Op 106).

To the English reader, such work can sound beautiful and moving (as Hammerklavier certainly is) but may still feel incorrigibly strange. And so it should. Sometimes the finest translation will preserve a distance, rather than try to impose a false familiarity - even if it means forfeiting the coach-party trade.

Comments