Saturday, February 17, 2007

Huck Finn in Bordeaux

Thursday night I was invited by my colleague Francis to come to Bordeaux and speak to a group of people on the subject of Huckleberry Finn. These are men, professionals, academics, scientists and artists who get together every month or so to hear presentations on diverse topics. It is the sort of thing that one might call a salon, I think. There were about a dozen of us present. I must say that going in I had some anxiety about whether or not I could deliver, but Francis' friendly and peristent encouragements gave me the courage to accept the invitation. I'm so glad that I did.
We gathered at eight in the evening in a photography studio belonging to one of the group members in the heart of downtown Bordeuax. We sipped some champagne and mingled for a while. Then chairs were brought in and arranged so that I was seated facing the rest of them. I really had to calm myself before beginning but the group was so impeccably courteous and welcoming that I was able to find my footing pretty quickly.
The topic, Huckleberry Finn, was of interest to them in part because of their curiosity as to why the novel is accorded such a high place within the canon of American literature. Some of them had read the novel (in translation) and at least one of them brought a copy with him. There was also a woman present who had studied Mark Twain as part of her work for her Masters. There is a perception of Twain's novel that it is rather a young adult novel (like, for example, Tom Sawyer) than a serious literary work. Everyone of course knew about Hemmingway's claim that American literature begins with Huck Finn and that, in his opinion, it was the best book written by an American writer, but the question remained as to why that might be.
(To step to the side for one moment, I have at various and sundry times during this exchange wished that my French was better, or to put it more precisely, that my formation in French had included some formal training and not been such an ad hoc affair. In the beginning especially, I worried about this. I have come to a point, finally, where I no longer worry for two reasons: first, such worry is pointless and second, my French, while not textbook, is good enough. In addition, I have discovered that I my formation as a literature and writing teacher has enabled me to bring something more to the table than language proficiency.)
So I was more than happy to join in a discussion of Twain's novel as long as everyone present was willing to indulge me in my sometimes unorthodox attempts to express myself.
My own remarks centered on a few themes, the first of which was life on the frontier, which is to say that cultural space right on the edge of the novel it is the river. It is a place that allows one access to civilization without being constrained by it, a place perfectly suited to Huck's ambivalence about the whole notion of being "civilized".
I also talked about cultural debates in the U.S. concerning whether the novel should be taught in classrooms. We begain, of course, with the problems some readers have with Twain's use of the word "nigger". There was considerable interest in the group on the potency of this word and other terms denoting, african-american, negro.
But we also talked about the novel's ambiguity on the subject of slavery, how the issue was personal for Huck, based on his friendship with and loyalty to Jim and not on any over riding political or social principle. Jim's situation is not so carefree as Huck's and his quest for freedom is laced with far more serious implications. And this is what makes the relationship between the two of them so interesting. Can calow youth escape it's own self absorption and muster enough empathy, can it gain a perspective wide enough to become invested in the sufferings of others? For me the answer is yes, but a qualified yes. Huck is for me a great example of a character who embodies perfectly the imperfections of humanity. Huck's lets the river carry him along, come what may, he makes decisions in the moment and he prefers being on the move to being "engaged" in any larger struggle or effort...the original American road trip story.
As a footnote to the presentation, I also brought up the subject of Huck Finn in translation. I had with me a copy of a French version, the only French version I know of, translated by Andre Bay in 1971 (surely there is another version...?). The translator's note concludes with the following caveat: (my translation)
In this version, I have tried to perserve the original rough hewn and informal aspects of the story without employing nonstandard or nongrammatical language.
It is, I suppose, easy for an American to smirk about the obvious contradicton embedded in this proposition. It's hard to imagine Huck Finn absent the colloquialisms, the dialects, the nonstandard syntax, spellings, the pecular lexicon of the Missippi River boat culture... On the other hand, dialect is a tricky thing. It can be a tool for developing characters, giving clues about his/her social class, origins, pretentions etc... this is something that one can do in French as well as in English. But dialect can also be a method of situating a character in a specific world. This latter function poses the problem of cultural equivalency. Can one find in France a dialect which evokes a subculture roughly equivalent to that of the Pike County? And if one tries to do this what kinds of wierd reverberations result from having a character speak some provincial French dialect for example while floating down the Mississippi in the antebellum South?
I've read of some Spanish translations of Huck Finn that have attempted this very thing, perhaps somebody out there knows about it? I'd be curious to hear what the result is.
The discussion wrapped up a little after ten. We then headed out to find a restaurant where we could have dinner. I hope my American friends are appreciating that last sentence. Try this next one...We walked a few blocks toward the Garonne River where we found a Spanish restaurant in full swing, tables full of people eating dinner at eleven at night. We spent a couple of hours eating, talking...simply marvelous. I felt extremely privileged to have been allowed to spend such an evening with them.
I drove home from Bordeaux in the wee hours of the morning riding on an emotional high...some of that dissipated pretty quickly about four hours later when I found myself in front of my classes Friday morning trying to remember what exactly it was I was going to do with them that day...!
One last little tidbit...I find it interesting to learn which Amercian writers are read here. Jim Harrison is very, very well regarded here as is Paul Auster. I like Harrison a lot but I haven't yet sampled much to read, so little time.


Anonymous cjones said...

Holy smokes, you're taking the province by storm. Next thing you'll be wearing the Ordre national de la L├ęgion d'honneur.

Huck Finn was big in my life. I sort of remember reading it as a kid; I distinctly remember reading it on my parents' patio as a 26 year-old not long out of the Navy. First time I had felt a book working elegantly at two levels. I also remember feeling the most powerful anti-discrimination and slavery-indicting message I had ever read. Who knows, I might have been so affected because of my own recent release from the military -- or maybe just because I hadn't read very much.

I listened to audio tape of the book six or seven years ago. I enjoyed it, but wasn't moved by it nearly so much as years earlier. Possibly because there isn't as much acceptance of discrimination 30 years later, or perhaps I had picked up a learning or two in the intervening years -- and wasn't as awed by Twain's insights into the human condtion.

4:43 PM  
Blogger kc said...

it's funny how books age...the books that are most dear to us have a way of changing every decade or so, I think.

12:28 AM  
Blogger adam said...

Oh, my, the French have salons devoted to Huck Finn and they like Jim Harrison! Now I really can't wait to come visit....

It's been so rewarding (in a vicarious sort of way) to read how well you're getting along there. It makes me want to travel more.

11:26 PM  
Blogger kc said...

don't forget to bring some of your own're famous in our house, a toehold on the continent!

2:01 AM  

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