When I was twenty and studying French literature in Paris, I signed up for an independent project in translation. My adviser’s only stipulation was that I translate something that hadn’t made its way into English. Ignorant of contemporary French literature in a profound way—I’d read only what had been assigned across ten years of classes, a predictable march from Villon to Montaigne to Rabelais to Proust—I solicited suggestions from professors. They came back with the same name: Pierre Michon. Why Michon? Because, they said, he’s one of our greatest living writers.
In 1989, this was very much a minority opinion. Michon’s complete works amounted to three slender books, as I discovered in a bookstore near my school. The earliest, Vies minuscules (1984), ran to two hundred pages; Vie de Joseph Roulin (1988) was fifty-nine pages; and a third, L’empereur d’Occident (1989), was forty-nine pages. And while it would speak well of me to claim that I devoted the remainder of the afternoon to reading all three until the store closed, wringing my hands as I weighed the merits of each while hesitating over which to choose, I spent all of thirty seconds deliberating. The slimmest, the pages of which were printed in uncut signatures—to read them, I would need a knife—was unapproachable. The longest, which wasn’t long, seemed by comparison huge. So I chose the middle one, because it was short, and because I didn’t have a knife.
I got the knife thirteen years later. I was sitting with Michon and his wife in a restaurant down the street from their townhouse in Nantes. Across the intervening years, I’d translated four of Michon’s books into English and found them a small US publisher. The previous afternoon and that day’s morning had been spent working with Michon in his study, correcting my draft translation of Vies minuscules. I’d worked with him this way on three earlier occasions: in Paris in 1991, when he answered questions about Vie de Joseph Roulin; again in Paris in 1996, when we went through Maîtres et Serviteurs (1990) and Le Roi du bois (1996); and in Chicago a year later, working on his novel La Grande Beune (1996).1 These meetings had always been productive. Michon, who speaks little English, was generous with his time and clear in his responses, able to illuminate the many thorny passages in his work that his translator couldn’t unpack and dictionaries didn’t help decipher.
The 2003 meetings in Nantes were different. Michon was curt, dismissive. In the past, my incomprehension was met with patience, instruction; now my perplexities displeased him. After a truncated second round of attempted questioning on the morning of the second day that yielded increasingly monosyllabic replies, I moved mechanically through the remaining hundred pages of the very complicated text in…
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