Dirty Shirts & Bottle Tops

Dirty Shirts & Bottle Tops

by Samuel E. Martin

How to account for that voice, that tone, which (paradoxically) is all the more Tabucchian for being slightly distant?

There’s something particularly satisfying about reading Antonio Tabucchi in French. I realize this may sound a bit facile coming from someone unable to read Tabucchi’s books either in his native Italian or his adopted Portuguese, but I don’t mean – or don’t just mean – that I’m grateful for the chance to read him in any language I happen to know. Nor do I mean that the French translations of Tabucchi necessarily set a higher standard than in other languages, for indeed, I’m not in a position to judge (and in any case, I get great pleasure from reading Tabucchi in English). No: I mean that Tabucchi’s own relationship to French as a literary language was so deep and prolonged as to inflect his work in a way that makes reading it in French feel not only enjoyable, but apt.

The story, if you will, begins in mid-1960s Paris, where the 21-year-old Antonio spent a formative year sitting in on lectures at the Sorbonne, frequenting movie theaters, and reading the Existentialists. On his way to board the return train to Italy, he purchased a slim volume – in French translation – by a Portuguese poet whose name he had never heard before, Fernando Pessoa. Such was the book’s revelatory force that Tabucchi promptly resolved to learn Portuguese, a decision that did much to define his subsequent career. Yet while Portuguese effectively became Tabucchi’s second language, French had been his gateway to it, and would continue to shade not just his reading and writing life, but also his connection to Pessoa himself. Thirty years after his foundational discovery, having long since established himself as Pessoa’s principal Italian translator and a leading authority on modern Portuguese literature, Tabucchi was invited to give a series of lectures on Pessoa at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris; he conceived his talks directly in French, published them later in book form, and in his preface emphasized Pessoa’s links to the French avant-garde of the early 20th century.

La Nostalgie, l’automobile et l’infini, as the book was eventually titled, emblematizes French’s singular place in Tabucchi’s world of words: if not a full-blown language of literary creation, nevertheless something more than a mere functional language of intellectual and social commerce. To hear him wield the language in his many interviews for French radio and television is almost to recognize a character from one of his own stories: quirky, hesitant, meditative, searching for the answer to an enigma that remains just beyond his grasp. The iconic broadcaster and poet Alain Veinstein, who interviewed him eleven times over the years, was sufficiently marked by those occasions to devote an affectionate chapter to Tabucchi (“Antonio à la radio”) in his 2015 book of literary portraits Les Ravisseurs. Any of their conversations suffices to leave lingering in my mind a timbre, an accent, the sound of a wry smile. It’s the voice I listen for whenever I read Tabucchi in French, which, like him, I learned as a student – and I relish that sense of a rendezvous in a language where we both find ourselves strangers.

The episode (one might almost say the legend) of Tabucchi’s encounter with Pessoa is duly recounted in a pair of books recently published in France to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Italian writer’s death. Écrire à l’écoute collects several written and transcribed exchanges with Tabucchi’s French translator Bernard Comment spanning their 23 years of friendship. Une chemise pleine de taches, meanwhile, marks the endpoint of a different 23-year period, since it is the French translation (by Pascal Neveu) of a book of conversations between Tabucchi and his Greek translator Anteos Chrysostomidis that first appeared in 1999. Conceived as a more or less linear text from the outset, it traces Tabucchi’s life and work through the latter half of the 20th century. The first four conversations, or chapters, take the reader from Tabucchi’s childhood in postwar Italy through his student days and his beginnings as a writer; the next four chapters chart his literary output in successive phases; the last two chapters, finally, indulge in a broader reflection on politics and the role of literature in contemporary society. Through the layers of linguistic separation – the French translation of an Italian author speaking Greek – Tabucchi’s voice remains uncannily his own, at once strange and familiar, always assimilable to the one I can hear speaking to Alain Veinstein on the radio.

Each chapter of Une chemise pleine de taches opens with an indication of time and place, as well as occasional remarks on the view, the weather, even the food and drink on the table. Between diary annotation and stage direction, these details enhance the atmosphere of the conversations with Chrysostomidis. The insistence on the universality of the particular is further reflected in the book’s title, with its image of a stained shirt, which emerges from Tabucchi’s words to his friend near the end of chapter 10: “I’ve never hesitated to get my shirt dirty: for I believe that a page of literature always needs stains – sauce stains, grease stains, bloodstains – like life. It mustn’t be sterile. It should be the way we are, with faults that it’s best not to conceal” (UCPT 122). Tabucchi’s call for authenticity on the page goes hand in hand with his unflinching denunciation of venal politics – no small matter in Berlusconi’s heyday – and the depredations of capitalism. Returning to the title image in the second of two letters to Chrysostomidis that serve as an appendix to the book, he laments the threat to the Mediterranean culture of olive trees: “I was thinking about that dirty shirt, and the stain I prefer, the one I don’t want to lose, is the oil stain. You know, I’m very worried that all the shirts in the next millennium will only be stained with ketchup” (UCPT 129). Prescient words that go beyond mere metaphor…

Écrire à l’écoute affords an even greater place to epistolarity, both in its form and its subject matter, since in addition to an exchange of four letters between Tabucchi and Bernard Comment from 1993 near the heart of the book, the two subsequent interviews revolve around the epistolary novel It’s Getting Later All the Time and Tabucchi’s use of the letter form. That Écrire à l’écoute should read like a miscellany is no great surprise, considering that it was compiled posthumously; that said, its slightly lopsided focus on three fictional works published since the turn of the millennium (the novels It’s Getting Later All the Time and Tristano Dies and the short story collection Time Ages in a Hurry) makes it the ideal complement to the Greek volume that takes Tabucchi’s career to the end of the last century. The book draws its coherence, not from chronology, but from Tabucchi’s relationship with Comment, and if the latter’s lengthy preface surveys some of the same bio-bibliographical territory as Chrysostomidis, it does so from the unique vantage point of a close companion and collaborator. As Comment writes, “This little book tells of a friendship. That’s already plenty” (EAE 37).

Such apparent simplicity notwithstanding – or perhaps I should say because it is deceptively simple, thanks in large part to Tabucchi’s own unadorned idiom in French – the book would present a challenge to anyone wishing to translate it, as I thought perhaps to do at one stage. How to account for that voice, that tone, which (paradoxically) is all the more Tabucchian for being slightly distant? And then there’s the title. What does one do with Écrire à l’écoute? “Writing while listening,” if it expresses the sense, clearly doesn’t make any attempt to listen: not a very promising start. A friend made the ingenious suggestion of “writing in tune,” which is rhythmically and tonally much closer to the French – it listens better – though I’m wary of the overtly musical connotations, when the idea is instead that Tabucchi remained alert to whatever stories might come his way. In any case, not to hear the title right would be just the kind of misunderstanding – a literal malentendu – of which Bernard Comment is heavily critical. In his preface to the book, he lambasts whoever opted to translate Tabucchi’s 1985 story collection Piccoli equivoci senza importanza as Petits malentendus sans importance, since the French noun équivoque, besides being more closely equivalent to the Italian, would have preserved the ambiguity that malentendu ignores. Rather than regard the original French title as a brilliant piece of irony, Comment determined that this particular misunderstanding was in fact very important indeed, and he eventually retranslated the entire collection under the amended title Petites équivoques sans importance.

Literary translation always walks a fine line, and as the equivoci/malentendus/équivoques affair reminds us, the proximity of the source language to the target language (in this case, Italian to French) is no guarantee that the journey will be less precarious than between two languages from different families. If anything, it calls for heightened vigilance; the translator must guard against complacency. Bernard Comment is especially watchful where his friend Tabucchi is concerned, having chosen to translate him and him alone. He makes a point, for instance, of preserving Tabucchi’s idiosyncratic punctuation despite French editors’ periodic (!) objections. “In the Hollywood film studios, in order to make an actor hobble ‘naturally,’ they used to put a bottle top in his shoe. Translating is about finding that bottle top and restoring the slight yet singular limp that makes any great writer occupy a unique place, infirm and wonderful, in their language” (EAE 31).

Of course, no two languages have an identical stride to start with; as for bottle tops, whether they be for French or Italian wine, ketchup or olive oil, each one is shaped and positioned differently depending on the language. The narrator of Tabucchi’s Requiem, a book first written in Portuguese and begun in a Parisian café, confirms as much. “Caricas?, I said, I don’t know that word. Bottle tops, said the Ticket Collector, caricas is what country people call them. Oh, I said” (R 70). How instructive it is, too, to see the subtle discrepancies in punctuation across the various translations of Requiem, even in this very passage! Tabucchi himself declined to translate his book into Italian, entrusting the task instead to his friend Sergio Vecchio. His role in the French edition, on the other hand, was substantial. Upon discovering that the manuscript submitted to the publisher had corrected his Portuguese limp by systematically preferring a literary register to the book’s more colloquial one, Tabucchi and Bernard Comment revised the draft together, triangulating between the Portuguese source text and Vecchio’s Italian translation. The result – which Comment, in Écrire à l’écoute, describes as perhaps Tabucchi’s favorite version of all – appeared in French as the translation work of a certain Isabelle Pereira.

Readers of Tabucchi will have spotted that the invented translator’s name prefigures the eponymous hero of the author’s best-known novel, Pereira Maintains, first published in Italian three years after Requiem. Bernard Comment’s French translation, Pereira prétend, was adapted into an award-winning graphic novel in 2016 by Pierre-Henry Gomont, thereby inscribing the character still more firmly within the French sphere. Yet already in Patrick Creagh’s marvelous English rendering, Gallic connections abound, almost – almost – enough to give a sense of reading Tabucchi in French. Pereira, a journalist in 1930s Lisbon, spends much of his spare time translating Balzac, Maupassant, and Daudet, and reading his contemporaries Bernanos and Mauriac; for reasons I won’t go into, he ends up having to pick a French pseudonym of his own, François Baudin; there is even the delightful atmospheric touch of the omelettes aux fines herbes of which he is inordinately fond. And since we have come around once again to the topic of food, it seems fitting that his political and moral metamorphosis should be foreshadowed midway through the book by a conversation in the dining-car of a train, with a woman who limps only slightly on a wooden leg – a conversation hinting that however much he might wish to remain above the fray, he won’t be able to keep from getting his hands (and sleeves) dirty. “Pereira tucked his napkin into the collar of his shirt and immediately felt embarrassed about it. Forgive me, he said, but when I eat I always seem to mess up my shirt” (PM 43). Voilà, as they say.

Works cited by Antonio Tabucchi

EAE (Écrire à l’écoute: dialogues avec Bernard Comment, Paris, Seuil, 2022)

PM (Pereira Maintains, translated from Italian by Patrick Creagh, New York, New Directions, 2017)

R (Requiem: A Hallucination, translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, New York, New Directions, 1994)

UCPT (Une chemise pleine de taches: conversations avec Anteos Chrysostomidis, translated from Greek by Pascal Neveu, Paris, Ypsilon, 2022)

All translations from French are my own.

Samuel Martin teaches French at the University of Pennsylvania. He has translated works by several contemporary writers including Jean-Christophe Bailly and Georges Didi-Huberman; his translation of Didi-Huberman’s Bark was a co-winner of the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and was longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, July 12, 2022

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