French Books USA: Week in Review
Perhaps the most oddly specific aspect of writing these weeks in review is trying to avoid what one might call Houellebecq Saturation. At the intersection of news and literature, there's a tendency to reference Submission as the current textual link between France and the U.S., and, as a result, comes an inevitable weekly update on the hubbub surrounding the book or its author. With that in mind, when I came across the New Yorker's "Books We Loved in 2015" article, my please-don't-let-Submission-be-the-only-French-book-on-the-list worries were calmed with the inclusion of several terrific texts in translation, including Luc Sante's The Other Paris, Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, and Marguerite Duras' Practicalities.
There's an almost mystical quality about the prison library, a place where inmate reading habits reveal a diverse range of interests and reflections of the population of a particular institution. Take, for example, Dave Byrne's Foucauldian musing while he and the other inmates of Richmond City Jail watch COPS, or Daniel Genis devouring everything from Pascal and Rousseau to Infinite Jest and In Search of Lost Time while behind bars in New York. At a Boston prison, "participants in Steinberg's women's writing group insisted on checking out an author's photo before they would read the book, with interesting reactions. Flannery O'Connor's portrait got a positive verdict – 'She looks kind of busted up, y'know? She ain't too pretty. I trust her' – but the judgment on Gabriel García Márquez was blunt: 'That man is a liar'."
When you watch a film or television show with subtitles, are you really not just reading a text with the screen doing the imagining part for you? Well, it seems, that all depends on the quality of the translation. Translators of French TV shows like "The Returned" and "Witnesses" have to be mindful of a host of voice-to-text adaptations, including deciding whether or not it's "patronizing to subtitle bonjour" and dealing with any accidental hilarity as a result of cross-lingual references. Imagine trying to keep up with a French courtroom drama called "Avocat Advocaat Avocat" in which former Belgium national team manager Dick Advocaat is on trial for an illegal guacamole business.
The 2015 Prix des Prix was awarded to Christophe Boltanski for La Cache. Sneaking in as one of the final distinctions of the year, the jury for the Prix des Prix selects a book from the eight grands prix littéraires (Prix Goncourt, Renaudot, Médicis, Fémina, Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française, Prix Décembre, Interallié, Prix de Flore) winners for special commendation.
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