A Responsibility to be Unpalatable
Charlotte Mandell’s translation of Jonathan Littell’s The Fata Morgana Books went off to the printers a few weeks ago and will be hitting store shelves in just a few days (if not already!). Editing this project was a very intense experience—I love the artistry of this book, but in some ways, in the ways I think Jonathan wants all of his readers to, I hate it.
Let me back up here and give a little context: Littell’s Prix-Goncourt winning debut novel The Kindly Ones was lambasted by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times as “willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellant.” She was not alone in this harsh judgment.
I won’t argue with that assessment, but I will argue with the premise that literature has any responsibility to be, well, responsible. Littell certainly takes his characters, his stylistic tics, and certainly his subject matter to the extreme, frankly depicting graphic sex, violence, debauchery, drugs, and all kinds of other things. That may seem irresponsible to some but, in my opinion, the less responsible mode is to make the reprehensible seem palatable. For instance, we celebrate Chuck Palahniuk and Brett Easton Ellis despite the excesses of their books. We even overlook or rationalize those dark parts of Cormac McCarthy’s literature that he (in my estimation) seems to most want us to dwell on. But in Littell’s work you just can’t do that: you’re not simply rubbernecking the horrible car wreck, able to turn away whenever you get a little queasy. You’re the driver who’s at fault, and you’ve killed and maimed a lot of people. That makes for tough literature, but it also makes for incredibly interesting literature.
A large part of what made editing this book so intense, but also so fun, is Littell’s devotion to and exactness in the smallest details—I sent him the final proofs after midnight his time and he got back to me a couple hours later with final approval, even vetting things down to the kerning of the em-dashes in one of the stories. Littell speaks English fluently, so it was an ongoing conversation between him, Charlotte, and me about the subtle inferences of words in French versus English, and in each detail Jonathan was aware of what was used five pages previously and five pages after, and has already considered the effect of ambiguity versus precision versus tone. Jonathan isn’t casually entertaining sodomy or violence in his work, he’s taking us by the hand and leading us down the darkest hole he can find, to see what’s really there.
Here’s an interesting example of that precision in language: we all had a long discussion over whether the word sex in this passage is used accurately or not:
With my hand behind me, my heart beating, I guided the member slippery with saliva to my anus, it pressed in and widened me and entered, filling my entire back with joy, unfurling it beneath the cloth of the dress. I was no longer hard at all, my parts beat limply against the lace of my lowered panties, my thighs sheathed in silk pushed against the muscular thighs of the girl burrowing powerfully into me, I collapsed onto one shoulder, twisting a little to the side, thus I could again see framed in the mirrors parts of our bodies, a mobile mound of pale flesh and pieces of disparate clothing piled on the verdant expanse of cloth, with at the summit the rounded ass of the girl, quivering at each thrust, then beneath that my thigh and the curve of my buttock, outlined by the grey of the stockings and the bunched-up dress. Her hands were pressing with all their weight on my neck and head and this is how, split in two by her magnificent sex, my body tore away from itself, projecting itself like a shade over those surrounding it, the one dominating it and the others all around, blurred and dismembered by the pleasure bearing them up like a vast swell.
To me, the term sex as a noun in this instance seemed overly vague, since here the thing described is a penis. While I think the whole of the genitals can accurately be called someone’s “sex” just the penis seems too specific to have that shy term. It’s even more complicated here, since the speaker is a man (who may at some point morph into a woman, or slips back and forth between the two genders) is being penetrated by a character that is very specifically referred to, and described as, a woman throughout. But then she has a penis that she penetrates him with . . .
I’ve started a couple of conversations here that we’re hopefully going to be able to continue on this blog. Because while The Fata Morgana Books is a title we’re proud to have published, it will be a very difficult book (in the sense of strange, grotesque, and overly frank) for many readers. We all were certainly challenged by it, and my colleague Scott Esposito and I have had a number of conversations about why The Kindly Ones didn’t work for us, but The Fata Morgana Books did. So here’s to the beginning of a conversation about our fall title. And of course please do pick up a copy of your own and join in . . .