Anthology of Apparitions by Simon Liberati

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The Independent Culture

This is, apparently, what's going on in Anthology of Apparitions, a novel that did fairly well in France where it appeared last Autumn. Houellebecq, once again, hadn't published, and Simon Liberati's slim, elegiac volume about teenage tarts and old queers in 1970s France at least gave the papers a chance to make a fuss about something. Now it arrives in English courtesy of the Pushkin Press, a reputable small imprint specialising in translations of Continental writing.

Except it doesn't. Arrive in English, that is. Or at least, only in the loosest sense of the term. If you were struggling with the paragraph that began this review, imagine that Clouseau-esque word-ordering, those maniacal fastidious subclauses and that pure lack of sense ("staircase-like reasoning"? a "slow theory" of something?) sustained and amplified over the course of 139 tormented pages. It's probably as well that I mention Paul Buck and Catherine Petit now, since they've done something I have never seen before in a commercially published work of literature: produced a translation that, word for word, paragraph for paragraph, is actually worse than you might expect from a semi-competent A-level student in a tricky unseen exam.

There isn't much plot: Claude, a seedy, fortyish man-whore, gads about with his seedy fortyish man-whore friends trying to procure young girls for rich Arabs in nightclubs. Pop his anti-psychotics as he may, he can't stave off the spectre of his little sister, whom he used to pimp when they were both teenagers looking for a bit of fun. These and other memories ramify until the book and all its characters are blessedly swallowed up in a flood of Gallic-inflected Martian language.

But is it laziness or simple imbecility that makes our dynamic duo of translators run about befriending every faux ami they can lay hands on before inviting them all into the pages of someone else's book? Characters are described as "super-sympathetic". People keep barking "Attention!" at each other. A restaurant has "personnel", not staff. Occasionally - no, frequently - the translators seem just to throw up their hands at a sentence: "Claude used to improvise a speech all the more argumentative and long for the 'pigswill' (as Ali would have called it) was disgusting."

This can't be good news for the Pushkin Press, an organisation with some fine titles and a stable of translators that ranges from good to excellent if you leave out Buck and Petit. Most notably, it has recruited for its Stefan Zweig series the brilliant Anthea Bell, whose version of W G Sebald's Austerlitz showed an astonishing sensitivity to every nuance of the German author's grave and majestic work. And so the question arises: did no one read this gobbling turkey of a translation after it came back from its perpetrators? Such a lack of quality control could do serious damage to a company which receives rave reviews but has only been running for six years.

We should be grateful at least for this - it isn't often one comes across a book that can be read out loud, with consistent amusement, in a comedy French accent. Try it yourself with these golden cadences: "Ali was furious for he enjoyed loud music, and also loved arguing with the neighbours. Claude not." In fairness, you sometimes find yourself wanting to read the book proper rather than the gibber of its translation - which stands testament to M Liberati's skill in the face of astonishing adversity. I wish somebody would retranslate Anthology of Apparitions soon. Then I expect I could write a proper review.