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SRB Diary: À Paris – Scottish Review of Books
by Dan Gunn

SRB Diary: À Paris

November 11, 2014 | by Dan Gunn

After a very fine reading by Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden, at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, I found myself seated at dinner with a mixed crew of Scots and Canadians – writers and festival-goers. It wasn’t long before the analogy arose, between secessionist ambitions in Quebec and the longings for an independent Scotland. What struck me, however, more than the confluence of political interests and leanings, was how easily the conversation flowed, how small the gap seemed between them and us, divided as we notionally are by a very wide ocean and a lot else besides. I could summon some reasons for the companionability – historical, ideological, genealogical – but they didn’t exhaust my surprise at the suddenly shrinking world seated round that table.

Some of those Canadians have since got in touch with me: expressions of condolence, in the main. They may not have realised that, as a long-time resident of Paris, I did not have a vote; they certainly did not know how, had I had the vote, I would have exercised it. Nor are they the only ones. The highly overqualified janitor in the building where I teach gives me a sad smile of recognition when I pass him in the morning. He wants me to know he is on my – defeated – side. My email inbox is full with messages from friends and acquaintances from far-flung states (from Oregon, from Japan, from Australia), all offering the same consolation. When I buy my baguette, I begin to believe I detect the same sympathetic gaze on the face of my friendly baker. Almost none of my sources of sympathy could say if in fact I’m in need of it – I’ve lived away from Scotland for nearly forty years, and politics have rarely been on my lips. But they all want me to know, unequivocally if not always explicitly, that they are sad: a flame has been extinguished in their hearts.

* * *

At that same dinner table one of the Scots, a first-timer perhaps in Book Festival company, declared admiringly – almost enviously: ‘It’s a grand life you writers lead, so it is, gadding about from one country to another.’ Nobody sought to contradict him, since who would deny that it is, comparatively, a grand life. Yet as I gaze over the piles of papers, books, unfinished commissions, post-it notes, unread copies of the TLS, that threaten to subside and sink me under them, I can find myself wondering. The objects on my desk seem to gad about, right enough, while I just sit here watching.

On top of one of the piles lies a completed work by a student of mine, Emma Ramadan, who has recently left to work for a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Marrakech. Her Masters thesis consists of a critical introduction to, then a translation into English of, Sphinx, a novel by French Oulipo author Anne Garréta. The members of the Oulipo group (of whom Georges Perec was probably the most illustrious) liked to set themselves literary constraints. The principal constraint in this 1986 novel is that it is a love story that does not reveal the gender of its lovers: ‘I’ am/is in love with ‘A***’, but as there are no gender markers, there’s no way of knowing, from the language at least, if both are women, or neither, or just one (and if so, which). It’s all very well to write of a longing for ‘ses lèvres’ or ‘son corps’, when the possessive in French agrees with the object, not with the possessor; but try to drag that into English… Emma has found some very ingenious solutions, and her English translation of the novel will soon be published by a new small press called Deep Velum – in Dallas, Texas, of all improbable places.

Emma seemed sorry to be leaving Paris when last I met her, days before her departure for Morocco. Yet months before, while she was mid-way through her translation, she could not wait to get shot of the city. She may have personal reasons for the turn-around, but I wonder if the change is not linked to her having been, for a spell, a translator hard on the job. Translators surely do, in one sense, make the world smaller. Across geographical, cultural, and linguistic borders (the trans part) they carry their wares to a new home (the late part) – hoping to find a welcome there. But even as they do so, they themselves stay put; a translator can, on any given day, feel singularly static, solitary, shrunken even – not just deskbound, housebound, but also in some pitiable way like the tourist agent of yore, organising trips for others but never for her/himself. And like the tourist agent, too, menaced as well as assisted by digital technology – though I’d like to see Google Translate attempt to produce an ungendered version of ‘ses lèvres’ and ‘son corps’.

* * *

Every day, it seems, I am to be in touch with India. Most frequent are the calls from Indian men and women with names like ‘John Patterson’ and ‘Edith Jones’ who claim to be from Microsoft, and who have just discovered a bug in my computer which only they can fix. A biddable friend and neighbour was convinced to follow instructions, and it cost her several hundred euros to regain control of her data (the police were uninterested). I’ve tried various approaches to discourage these calls, since hanging up only prompts a call on my mobile. For weeks I tried in vain to convince John or Edith, over the call-centre hum, that their ruse was up; only to have it shouted at me that Microsoft alone could know this much about me and my computer.

But yesterday, a breakthrough. When ‘Stephen Richards’ called, I asked him off the cuff if he would tell me his Indian name. ‘Vijay,’ he told me, unthinkingly. ‘Well, Vijay,’ I tried, ‘you’re presumably a highly educated individual if you’re able to take control of my computer from that distance and then defraud me of hundreds of euros.’ Silence. ‘But don’t you think you could put your expertise to some more useful purpose?’ I didn’t much care for my tone, but since for once I was being listened to, I pressed on. ‘How does it feel to be lying to people every day? Do you go home and lie to your wife?’

‘Say that again?’ 

‘Do you find,’ I tried, ‘that it becomes a habit, lying to people?’

‘Listen, Mr Gunn,’ Vijay said, ‘you want to know the truth?’

‘Please, tell me.’

‘All right then. This is the payback for two hundred years of English oppression.’

I was so surprised that I was momentarily speechless. It must have been the fiftieth call; the first true word. ‘Thank you for your honesty.’

‘You are welcome.’

‘But,’ I had to add, ‘I’d like you to know I’m not actually English. I’m Scottish.’

‘British then, you’re all alike.’

‘And I live in France.’

‘European then!’

* * *

More pleasant, if less frequent, are my dealings with Pondicherry – pleasant not least because of the colours and aromas the sound of that place name evokes in me. It’s there that Cambridge University Press sends authors’ typescripts to be transformed, with amazing alacrity, into page proofs. And, in the case of the CUP book on which I have been working this year, transformed again… and again…

Atop one of the more perilous piles on my desk, above thousands of hard-corrected pages, above hundreds of pages of scans of what has been described as ‘the most difficult handwriting of the twentieth century’, sits Volume III of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1957-1965, which arrived from the press just four days ago. When the editorial team of which I am a member read through the proofs in April, we found an alarming number of – fortunately small – errors, all of which I duly noted before returning the proofs to Pondicherry. On the second proofs, nearly half as many again. I watched in marvel at how expertly the page designers added or subtracted words, phrases, sometimes whole paragraphs, without – motion and stillness again – permitting the pagination to alter.

Letters are themselves intended to ‘gad about’, of course, but the fact that this volume reveals a Beckett who – notwithstanding his reputation as a hermit forever writing in his room – appears to be in perpetual motion, only added to the claustrophobic sense of motionlessness that proofreading a text as complex as ours threatened to induce in me. London, the Alps, the Dolomites, Liguria, Tunisia, Sardinia, Yugoslavia, Portugal, Berlin: he even writes a letter while on his first long-haul flight to New York – ‘Writing about ½ way across the pond,’ it begins. His most common journey is to Ussy ur-Marne, east of Paris, where he has a cottage. It is here that he reveals himself a surprisingly keen ornithologist: ‘The swallows have finished school,’ he writes in August 1959, ‘and are making ready to depart.’ This being Beckett, not all birds are so lively: ‘I find on the outer window sill a sparrow & mouse dead side by side. I supposed an owl had left them there uneaten or to be eaten later.’ When asked (by Nancy Cunard) if he does not feel lonely there, he responds: ‘I don’t find solitude agonising, on the contrary. Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.’

* * *

Another pile is of books alone – a pyramid more than a pile, with at its base an enormous coffee-table volume full of photographs of the author, and at its summit a slim leather-bound Album Marguerite Duras. In 2012, I foolhardily volunteered to review the first two tomes in Duras’s Œuvres complètes – foolhardily because each is nearly two thousand pages long. For the following two years I lugged these two doorstops wherever I went, as I travelled to give lectures, failing not only to read them but even to remove them from their slip-covers.

So despite what I’ve said about feeling stationary, have I in fact been gadding about? Well, presumably I have. Yet the strange thing is that when I think back to the places I visited, it’s those two fat volumes I see most clearly. There they are on the windowsill of the fourteenth floor of the Hotel Niwa in Tokyo; or in my suitcase in some other hotel, this time in Seattle. Rather as with the travelling gnome in Amélie, the images from these two tomes’ journeys appear more bright and vivid than those from my own.

To mark the centenary of Duras’s birth, the final two volumes of her Œuvres complètes were issued in April of this year, to my considerable embarrassment (given I had signally failed to write my review). I sent my kindly editor at the TLS the following lines, uttered by Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice:

In my school days, when I had lost one shaft,

I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight

The selfsame way with more advisèd watch

To find the other forth—and by adventuring both,

I oft found both.

Whether it was the Shakespeare that convinced him, or the fact that I don’t usually miss deadlines, I was granted the extra time required to review the nearly eight thousand pages of Duras, and the several books on Duras, that, now the review is written and dispatched, constitute the pyramid I must soon disassemble. Just let me first find some space on the shelves… 

* * *

Oh! Calcutta! 

Tomorrow, I need to work on a letter from 1969 in which Beckett attempts to extract his briefest of plays, Breath, from Kenneth Tynan’s scandalous review of that name. But I find myself breathing ‘Oh Calcutta!’ for quite other reasons today, as it is from that city that I have just received the proofs of my novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream. It was not a Scot but an Indian, Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, who decided to publish my account of the Italian community in Scotland during the 1920s and ’30s.

And so it is that I correspond with my editor Bishan Samaddar, in Calcutta, about the finer points of how Italian Scots might really have sounded back then, and about whether my narrator – Lucia is born in 1910 but is elderly when she writes the tale of her three brothers and their involvement with Fascism and ice-cream – would have used a hyphen when spelling ‘mid-field’ or ‘soul-mate’. In a week or two the corrected proofs will be sent to be printed in Philadelphia, in order for the novel, graced with its cover illustration by Sicilian artist Lanfranco Quadrio, to be distributed by Chicago University Press.

There will indeed be a lot more gadding about, in this ever hrinking world; while I sit at my desk, receiving those last – by now belated – expressions of condolence.

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