August is Women in Translation Month. For this post we have Penny Hueston, translator of the forthcoming Being Here Is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker by French author Marie Darrieussecq. Penny discusses translating this book, as well as providing biographical information on Marie Darrieussecq, and the subject of the book, Paula Modersohn-Becker.
‘Marie Darrieussecq reads the testament of Modersohn-Becker—the letters, the diaries, and above all the paintings—with a burning intelligence and a fierce hold on what it meant and means to be a woman and an artist.’—J. M. Coetzee
‘A brief, powerful artistic life that went painfully unrewarded—until after the painter’s death.’—Julian Barnes, Guardian
The prose of contemporary French writer Marie Darrieussecq is a joy to translate. It is elliptical, spare, supremely clever, slyly comic, and brilliantly structured. Translating it sends me into a heightened state that is both trance-like and electrically charged. In the mysterious process that is translation, I try to enter this zone in which both languages hover in my mind, until the patterns and style of each emerge, and I feel I have reached some way into the author’s mind. As Marguerite Yourcenar said, ‘translating is writing’.
Darrieussecq is a classicist (she has translated Ovid), a translator from English (she has translated James Joyce and Virginia Woolf into English), and she has written a brilliant study of literary plagiarism. In her novels, Darrieussecq often uses words and expressions that connect with her Basque origins. She uses dialect to express obscene or sexual layers of expression and is fascinated with the ways in which language shapes us and our dreams—she is also a psychoanalyst. In her novel All the Way (2011), fault lines between language and sex are a source of comic confusion for the character of the adolescent Solange as she negotiates her sexual initiation. Translating the plays on stock phrases and stereotypes, or word plays, double-entendres and jokes, is like working out a complicated puzzle.
Darrieussecq often turns literary convention on its head and is fascinated by clichés: “I need to explode clichés, to see how they work from the inside.” She shows us how they work as a mirror of ourselves. It is a mark of her genius that she reveals, often through irony and humour, both the importance of clichés (as, literally, keys to our world), as well as their limitations, and tries to find other words and ways of exploring the ideas and feelings behind these clichés.
Clichés about cinema and desire are explored in her novel Men (2013), narrated by the adult Solange in the third-person, but using an interior point of view. The author has Solange narrating herself: “She, Solange …” This technique allows for a fascinating double perspective on the character, a cinematic interior/exterior shot, a close-up from a distance, if you like, the ability to speak with all the intensity of subjective experience, but also to analyse the experience objectively.
Something of this interior intensity of the novel is also in Darrieussecq’s biography, Being Here Is Everything, the Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker. Women have always been her subject, right from her first novel, the bestseller Pig Tales, a novel that tells the story of a woman who turns into a pig. She was inspired to write about Modersohn-Becker after receiving a pamphlet in the mail in 2010, advertising a psychoanalytic conference on maternity. The pamphlet featured a reproduction of a painting by Modersohn-Becker of a mother and child in the act of breastfeeding. Darrieussecq was bowled over by the openness, the expressiveness of this visceral female body, by the sleepy milky intimacy, the comfortable position of breastfeeding lying down (Darrieussecq was breastfeeding her third child at the time), the infant resting on its mother’s arm, the large aereola on view, the breast, pubic hair, heavy thighs, all there—in a painting dated 1906! As she says, Modersohn-Becker was the first painter to show us “real women” and “real babies”, not idealised, but depicted naked and in all the languorous physicality of pregnancy and breastfeeding. And, most significantly, she was the first female artist to paint herself not only naked but pregnant too.
Many of Darrieussecq’s earlier books focused on the maternal bond: The Baby (2002) an account of a woman and her newborn, Tom Is Dead (2007), the story of a woman grieving the loss of her child. In Modersohn-Becker’s work, Darrieussecq was drawn to women who were not portrayed as some kind of madonna, or saint, or eroticised. She describes the process whereby the artist became “a friend” a brave, ground-breaking woman, whose story she felt compelled to write out of sadness at not knowing, or even knowing of, this woman painter, and out of sadness at her tragic death at 31 from an embolism when she stood up for the first time after her child was born, having being told to lie down for 17 days after giving birth. An artistic life cut short, and a mother’s life ended. Darrieussecq explores the uneasy relationship between motherhood and creativity—in a style that matches all the intensity, intimacy and urgency of Paula’s paintings.
As in her novels, especially All the Way and Men, which feature the adventurous character Solange (“She is me if I had not become a writer”), Darrieussecq is interested in women who take risks. “I love Paula’s obstinacy. Her egoism. She needed them.” Paula Becker was born in Germany and studied drawing in the avant-garde artistic community of Worpswede. But she craved independence and escaped the conservatism of this artistic environment, as well as the confines of an unhappy marriage, and fled to Paris where she was inspired by the innovative work of the early 20th century artists, and met Rodin and Monet, among others.
Darrieussecq eschews many of the surface details of an ordinary biography, focusing instead on the pressures Paula faced as a female painter at this time, on her original style and choice of subjects, on the jealousies of female friendship, in this case Paula’s with fellow artist Clara Westhoff, who married the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a great friend of Paula’s. Darrieussecq presents the poet as somewhat narcissistic, selfish, a misogynist who nevertheless provided a necessary sounding board for Paula in Paris and who, after her premature death, dedicated his renowned Requiem for a Friend to her. The title of this book is taken from his Duino Elegies.
Darrieussecq’s other focus is on Paula’s fraught marriage to Otto Modersohn and particularly her ambivalence about combining her passion for her artistic career with motherhood and domestic life. Darrieussecq highlights the loneliness of a female artist’s life at that time (or any time): there is a moving diary entry in which Paula laments that “In marriage one feels doubly misunderstood…I am writing this in my housekeeping book on Easter Sunday, 1902, sitting in my kitchen, cooking a veal roast.” Paula was a feminist avant la lettre. In her diaries and notebooks, she recognizes the insidious obstacles women are up against in their attempts to lead lives separate from men, lives as artists.
Darrieussecq’s style is about the gaps. As she says: ‘A life is not a book. Life is much more than words.’ Hers is a work of intense examination of each word and its power to evoke what is not said, by making the reader work, to dig deep, like the author, in imagining and thinking about what is absent. So much was absent from Paula’s life: time for her art, recognition in her own lifetime of her art (only three small works sold to family friends and Rilke), and time to love and raise her child.
A selection of Paula’s passionate, humorous letters became a bestseller in the 1920s. When asked why she thought Paula was all but unknown in English-speaking countries, Darrieussecq replied: “Woman + German = it takes a loooong time.” This woman, this modernist artist of remarkable originality, now has a museum devoted to her in Bremen and in 2016 there was a wonderful retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, for which Darrieussecq wrote much of the catalogue raisonné. As she encourages us at the end of this book: go and look at the pictures by Paula. Look at her bold, original style, her use of colour and light, her striking simplicity of form, and those knowing female faces staring at us solemnly, especially the girls. (As Darrieussecq comments, “Little girls learn soon enough that the world does not—belong to them.”) Above all, look at the confronting self-portraits.
In Being Here Is Everything, Darrieussecq is writing about the female experience, about an artist, like her, who has a woman’s gaze on a woman’s body and sees it as it really is.
“I want to do her more than justice: I want to bring her ‘being-there’, splendour.”—Marie Darrieussecq