06 September 2011

From Beryl Bainbridge, 'According to Queeney': Epigraph 1.1 - Better in Translation

Beryl Bainbridge (1932-2010) was admired by critics throughout her career but achieved greatest popular success with the historical novels she published in the final decades of her life. At home in England the popular press cast her as the Susan Lucci of the Booker Prize (always a bridesmaid...), and I always found that this distracted potential readers from her fine, dry wit and the nuanced sensibilities that set her apart from the herd (even the Booker herd). She's been on my mind lately because of the recent publication of her posthumous novel The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (set in the year of American assassinations, 1968) and of this morning's announcement of the new Booker shortlist (where she's not even a bridesmaid this time).

One of her best historical novels, According to Queeney (2001), presents a view of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) through his relationship with 'Mrs. Thrale' (Hester Lynch Thrale, later Piozzi, 1741-1821), a relationship that literary historians believe grew to be far closer than the one between Johnson and his best-known biographer, James Boswell. The novel provides two of the epigraphs for A Kiss Before You Leave Me, including the first epigraph of all:
[Dr. Johnson told Mrs. Thrale] that he had written her a letter which he wished her to read when she was alone. It was not for careless eyes and was in French. 
'Why French?' she asked. 
'The sentiments in it,' he said, 'are best conveyed in another language.'
Bainbridge's reader well understands by this point in the novel the embarrassment of the great (not to say immense) 18th-century lexicographer who wants to draw even closer to a much younger woman, the wife of his best friend (a wealthy brewer and Member of Parliament), in the midst of the couple's entire household, of which Johnson himself was a member for extended periods of time. Even (or especially?) lexicographers may be reluctant to call things by name, even or especially the things they desire. (The letter itself, when Mrs. Thrale finally reads it, turns out to be more puzzling than conventionally seductive.) The tension here could be seen as residing in the ambiguity of the word 'best'. 'Best conveyed in another language': conveyed most effectively (as we might expect of a great lexicographer) or conveyed in the way discretion, secrecy and embarrassment dictate?

Of course, French is not just any 'other language', especially to an Englishman, and especially in the great century of libertinism (and marivaudage). When we smile at the lines Bainbridge gives Johnson, our smile embraces all of this.

The question of translation and multiple languages crops up in A Kiss Before You Leave Me with Jack's grandmother Elise's diaries, which Miranda agrees to translate, and never really goes away. (See 'In Context, Out of Context', paragraph 5.) We readers are uncertain, especially at first, why Elise insisted that the diaries, which she kept in French, be translated into English; we don't know what the choice of languages meant to her at different points in her life. But we do suspect that the content of the diaries is erotic (we're right), and we'll soon see that the diaries both (a) seduce Miranda as a reader and translator and (b) pull her in the direction of a relationship with Elise's (married) grandson: the book as go-between, as in Dante (see 'Five Faces of Emma', paragraph 2), with an assist from a different sort of matchmaker.

We'll return to Bainbridge's Johnson, and to the binary opposition between Boswell and Mrs. Thrale, when we talk about the second epigraph from According to Queeney.

No comments: