Reading in Translation

Forgotten Histories: Pierre Michon’s Winter Mythologies and Abbots, Translated by Ann Jefferson

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Reviewed by Amanda Sarasien

History is not the sole domain of great men and “shot-heard-round-the-world” events. At least, not for Pierre Michon, one of France’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, who pored over historical archives to imagine the tales of long-forgotten figures for his most recent English-language release, Winter Mythologies and Abbots. These tales were originally published in two separate books, Mythologies d’hiver (1997)and Abbés (2002), each a collection of vignettes introducing us to a cast of characters who, though wide-ranging and diverse, often surprise the reader with their hidden connections to one another. Michon’s distinctive prose renders the quiet passage of these characters’ lives through a given space, deftly threading their variegated stories through an unchanging natural landscape, so the effect is not one of bringing history to the reader but, rather, of transporting the reader back in time, to the lived moments of a distant past. The densely packed, razor-sharp text surely presented Michon’s translator, Ann Jefferson, with a challenge: how to retain each layer of meaning while hewing to the original’s laconic, unadorned style. Nevertheless, the result is a work of haunting beauty: lyrical, mysterious and, though spare, so replete with meaning, overlaid with a polyphony of images and voices, that the reader will want to return to this text again and again – always, like Michon’s characters, uncovering a new treasure from the familiar terrain of a timeless story.

Indeed, the book’s jacket warns, “Winter Mythologies and Abbots are meant to be read slowly, to be savored, to be mined for the secrets the author has to tell.” This is no easy feat: I found that the prose is so rhythmic it seems to carry the reader on a rapid current. This musical flow is apparent in passages such as:

And the diocese of Limoges is in the hands and under the miter of Èble, brother of Guillaume, not the Long-Sword but the fair-haired, frizzled Towhead. The towhead has two characteristics: it is too fair and too full; it blazes up in an instant. Guillaume is too fair and his anger gallops like fire. Èble has his brother’s towhead but without the tow’s two qualities: beneath the miter of the one and the helmet of the other you can see the same hirsute swirl of frosted locks, the same frothing fuzz, the same crushed straw with short curls, but on Èble’s head the tow does not catch fire at the least impediment; on Guillaume’s head it does (63-4).

It is tempting to surrender to that current, to let oneself be swept along. To do so, however, would be to miss the beauty of the scenery, the multitude of metaphors, allusions, ironies, wry humor and philosophical musings nested along the river’s edge. Such hidden insights knit the stories together across time, so that, though this title is actually a dual volume, each volume itself composed of several separate stories, there is an overarching unity allowing the reader to move effortlessly back and forth across the centuries, always anchored by a rich sense of place. The characters’ concerns may be metaphysical, but the author’s evocative descriptions of nature consistently tug the reader back to earth. Human vanities, like the bones unearthed by the amateur anthropologist in the eponymous story “Barthélémy Prunières,” are smoothed over by the hand of time, becoming wondrous yet distant, mere artifacts bereft of life.

For a text so dependent on this sense of place, translation risked alienating readers from a fundamental component of the stories. Michon’s present-tense narration accomplishes a sleight of hand that allows French readers to time-travel, while English-language readers must travel in both time and space, an arguably more difficult enterprise. Still, one wonders if this does not, in fact, deepen the experience, for it is clear that for Michon time and place are intimately linked, landscape being a stage upon which human history plays out. Jefferson’s decision to retain some key French terms and phrases (particularly with respect to geographical terms without an English equivalent, such as “Causse”), only reinforces the transportive effect of the original, allowing Anglophone readers without a knowledge of French geography to experience a similar intimacy with Michon’s settings as would French readers already familiar with the contemporary equivalents of those locales. Of note is a passage in the second chapter of Abbots: “In the forest you no longer hear the Ho moy, ho moy! Cy va, cy va! of the hart, but the Avant, maistre! Avant! Or sa, sa!” (89). Here the translator preserves the medieval French contained within the original French prose, evoking not only the image of the hunting scene playing out before us, but the sound as well. We are front-row spectators or, as Michon’s narrator would have us – in a humorous aside which briefly removes the veil of illusion and calls us back to the present – historical tourists:

We’ve seen the signs which no longer signify. But as we step out into the sunshine and look toward the carpark in front of the church, if five o’clock is striking in the tower above our heads, or if a few birds fly up or a wing mirror dazzles us, a mixed elation takes hold of us because on this same portico in the sunshine the thing we cannot understand – the bone and the gold and the written words all mixed together – was brandished by cynical or knowledgeable prelates before credulous or genuine crowds who were deeply affected by it. Inside the car we leaf through the thick catalogue of national museums which we do believe in, whether out of cynicism or credulity. We drive off in the October sunshine, and in an October downpour Theodolin and his monks arrive at Charroux (104).

Through the power of language, readers experience the illusion of having left their own time (and place) to unearth the mysteries of another. Michon’s text reveals this power through its emphasis on naming. The characters, whose names reflect their place of origin, have an identity only in relation to geography, even while they persist in attempting to impose language upon the land, ordering history by classifying and naming vestiges of the past. Thus Winter Mythologies and Abbots is rooted to its particular settings while simultaneously aware, almost playfully so, of its universality. It is a nod to the translator’s role, an invitation to create of these seemingly insignificant tales an important historical record for all of humanity. Jefferson’s translation confidently answers this invitation. With Winter Mythologies and Abbots, she has taken up Michon’s storytelling thread and seamlessly continued to weave this many-layered tapestry.

Michon, Pierre. Winter Mythologies and Abbots. Trans. Ann Jefferson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

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