Friday, December 14, 2012

Roman Tales by Stendhal, translated by Susan Ashe


* * * 1/2

The book's description from NetGalley:

Revered by key literary figures including as Balzac and Merime, Stendhal is best known for his novels, but his shorter works were just as powerful. In this brand new translation, Susan Ashe brings his greatest Italian stories to the modern reader, whilst staying true to Stendhal’s style and brilliance. 
The collection includes:
-    The Abbess of Castro
-Vittoria Accordamboni 
-The Cenci 
-Along with accompanying essays by Charles Dickens, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Stendhal himself. 
Together, these stories convey Stendhal’s love of Italy and admiration for the society’s honesty, sincerity, and above all, passion. ‘Roman Tales’ will reaffirm Stendhal as one of the great French masters of the 19th Century.
Stendhal is one of those authors that I have known of for a long time (his Red and Black was recommended to me by my Language Arts teacher in high school) but that I just never read and what's worse, couldn't even give myself a good reason why. I reached for this collection of short stories then, mainly because I figured it would be a good introduction to Stendhal and a way to decide whether I'd want to read more of him.

This collection turned out to be somewhat of a mixed bag. I loved The Abbess of Castro (the longest of the stories). Stendhal is witty there and his admiration for Italy and Italian people is evident. He didn't even try to disguise it in any hyperbolas or metaphors. His sharp criticism of the French (his natives) and biting comparisons to the Italians are quite fun to read whether one agrees with it or not. Here's a fine example of what I mean:

In sixteenth-century France a man could show his manhood and true mettle (...) only on the battlefield or in a duel. And as women love bravery and daring, they became the supreme judges of a man's worth. Thus gallantry was born. This led to the successive destruction of all passions, including love, thereby benefitting (sic!) that cruel tyrant whom we all obey - vanity (...)
In Italy a man could distinguish himself as much by the discovery of an old manuscript as by the sword (...) Passions rather than gallantry held sway. This is why Italy gave birth to a Raphael, a Giorgione, a Titian, and a  Correggio, while France produced all the brave commanders of the sixteenth century, each of whom slew numberless numbers of the enemy and yet today are utterly unknown. (loc. 149-57)*

Throughout that first novella as well as the remaining stories Stendhal doesn't hesitate to point out such cultural and national differences negatively contrasting his native country with Italy, Spain or even Germany.

Probably the most interesting aspect of Roman Tales to me is Stendhal revealing himself to be both a historical author and a translator. It presents a certain charm as well as a new perspective on history when learning about it from a figure to whom 16th century may have been long gone but nevertheless not as long ago as five centuries it is for us. Stendhal may have even had better resources in available texts and maybe even oral history that hadn't had a chance to become utterly diluted by outright fibs or myths. And again, Stendhal had an opinion or two on historians as well.

If anyone wants to know the history of Italy, the important thing is not to read the widely accepted authors. Nowhere has the value of a lie been better appreciated, nowhere better paid. (loc. 181-82)*

I don't know about others but I think those words spoken in the 19th century are astoundingly accurate to many historical writers of the late 20th & early 21st centuries.

Stendhal as a translator is yet another beast. He claimed that the stories within Roman Tales were not his creation but merely translations of the records put together from witness accounts of actual incidents. According to what Norman Thomas di Giovanni wrote in his introduction, the stories are Stendhal's own creation, albeit based on the records available to him, not an ad verbum translation. And I got the same feeling after the fourth or fifth time Stendhal reassures the reader about it. It's a clear case of 'Madame, thou protest too much'. The introduction however is fantastic and sheds a lot of light on who Stendhal was and his creative body of work. It will certainly make you all the more excited to begin reading the stories.

One thing that I could do without was "The Cenci" story. It was almost all narrative, without barely any dialogue and despite it being a short story, it still got pretty tedious. I admit to having skimmed it after about one third of the way.

A Note on Translation

The stories are translated  by Susan Ashe, who appears to be quite an accomplished Italian translator. This edition also mentions other translations done by her, in cooperation with Norman Thomas di Giovanni, also an Italian translator. The quality is evident in the stories, I don't really have a word of criticism to impart here. I greatly appreciated the fact that the translator decided to eliminate certain parts of the collection, even though the purists in the translating world would cry 'foul!' on this one. But Stendhal really seemed to be in love with long, descriptive passages and 'careless repetition of words and phrases that today we find only clumsy and annoying' (Di Giovanni, loc. 120-29) seemed to be right to be eliminated so that a contemporary reader may enjoy the tales. The process of translating this particular work is described nicely, even if not in length, in the introduction and explanations given are absolutely valid and shed a little bit of light into the world of translating.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Roman Tales by Stendhal from the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

*All quotes are from an unedited copy. Please verify against a finished one for any inaccuracies.