Thursday Fiction Corner: Translating a Novel of Sadism — On Alain Robbe-Grillet's "A Sentimental Novel"

A Sentimental Novel, Alain Robbe-Grillet

“I am unconvinced that the only man on the planet with horrifying fantasies was Alain Robbe-Grillet.”—D. E. Brooke

Recently The New Yorker interviewed D. E. Brooke, the translator of A Sentimental Novel, just published by Dalkey Archive. The interviewer Elisabeth Zerofsky admired Brooke’s controlled translation of Robbe-Grillet’s disturbing novel and wanted learn more about the translator. Turns out D. E. Brooke is a pseudonym and the translator’s identity remains hidden but “Brooke” was willing to answers some questions about the novel and the translation, here are some excerpts:

Q: Why did you feel that it was important that this book be translated and published in the English-speaking world

D. E. Brooke: I remember sitting in a coffee shop with a writer friend who mentioned that Robbe-Grillet’s last novel remained untranslated in English, and that this was due to the disturbing nature of the material it contained. I said immediately that I would translate it. The reasons had less to do with the book’s contents than with my own history as a reader and my encounter with “La Jalousie” at age fifteen. It was a portal that introduced notions of narrative voice, authorial choice, and the reader’s relationship to text in ways that I had not considered, as I devoured my way through more conventional fiction that served a different purpose: allowing me to escape my reality at the time. Any number of other works by twentieth-century authors might have triggered similar reflections and explorations. Only, in my case, Alain Robbe-Grillet was the instigator and, as an adolescent, I remember the excitement produced by the book’s propositions: that it purportedly granted greater agency to the reader, supposedly bared the scaffolding of writing. These claims intrigued me and gave me a first taste of something. So my reasons for translating “Un Roman Sentimental” were, you could say, purely sentimental.

Q: What was it like to spend so much time with this text? Did it affect your state of mind at all?

DEB: As far as the book itself and the material, a few times I had to walk away and return in a steelier frame of mind to take up a particularly hair-raising passage. But, as you note, the text is literary, and there were pleasures in working with it. As translator, I am a filter for material: it travels through me. As such, there’s a residue, but it is difficult to qualify. At best, you might compare the book’s effect on me to its effect on any reader: certain images—many, in fact—remain in you, and surge forth unbidden, superimposing themselves in your mind’s eye on perfectly anodyne and serene scenes of everyday life.

Q: What do you like about “A Sentimental Novel”?

DEB: What I liked is his lack of hypocrisy and the artfulness of the prose. Robbe-Grillet admitted that, in writing “A Sentimental Novel,” he was conveying the essence of fantasies he had entertained for decades, ever since he was a very young man. I am unconvinced that the only man on the planet with horrifying fantasies was Alain Robbe-Grillet. While there is primal revulsion at the rape of innocence and the various other crimes detailed in this story, conflating act and fantasy in assessing a work of this kind seems to me to reflect a generally upheld social lie that requires the weirder and more disquieting manifestations of the human psyche to be swept under the public rug. The book’s lack of hypocrisy is in direct proportion to the rarity of similar avowals, especially in established spheres of social privilege and influence. The resulting schism of minds burdened with shameful, unspoken secrets appears to me to do more damage than what can be laid at the doorstep of this novel, which by its very existence forces us to ponder our relationship to criminal thoughts and fantasies: whether we must not think bad thoughts, not share them, not be exposed to them; whether we must condemn them in ourselves and others; and whether they can even be curtailed or eliminated by these actions. Rather than disown his darkest psyche, Robbe-Grillet erects a shrine to it.

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