With You in Paris by Clémentine Beauvais
Translated by Sam Taylor
After the excess of English whimsy (thanks for that phrase, Liz!) of The Brontes Went to Woolworths, I needed a palate-cleanser of a read. Usually, I turn to thrillers, but this book on my bedside shelf caught my eye, and it was just the perfect thing to read. Originally published in French as Songe à la douceur in 2016 In Paris With You was ‘freely inspired by’ Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, and Tchaikovsky’s opera of it.
Beauvais teaches English and Education at the University of York, alongside translating English books into French and writing her own. She describes the French title of her book as ‘an untranslatable par excellence, since it’s a line of poetry by Baudelaire’. Even though she’s been in England for years, she says she was perplexed at the choice for the English title (which comes from a poem by James Fenton). On her website, she says:
To a French person, even one strongly Britannicised like me, there’s nothing particularly romantic about being ‘in Paris with you’; I’m often ‘in Paris with’ random people, and it generally doesn’t mean I spend my time eating croissants with them, gazing into their eyes and listening to an accordion piece while the Eiffel Tower sparkles in the background. But when I started hearing the enthusiastic reactions of my British acquaintances to this title, I understood that I had, in fact, clearly no legitimacy whatsoever to assess the power of that title.
Maybe, the French ultimate city that represents love is somewhere else, but I would agree that Paris is the most romantic place on Earth in the imagination of most Brits.
So, back to the original Eugene Onegin… I’ve not read Pushkin’s poem, but I am familiar with the story through the opera and Martha Fiennes’s film Onegin. (Spoiler alert: synopsis of the Pushkin follows): Eugene is a bored dandy who lets Tatyana fall for him and then rejects her, seducing her sister Olga instead, who is the fiancée of his best friend, Lensky. Challenged to a duel, Onegin unwillingly kills Lensky. He goes off travelling and returning years later he meets Tatyana again, who is now married. He becomes obsessed, but this time she rejects him although she still loves him. He is left to regret what he has lost.
Pushkin wrote his story in over three hundred stanzas of fourteen lines – each following a set style (AbAbCCddEffEgg) which is known as the “Pushkin Sonnet”. Translations have kept the verse structure strictly, or less strictly, or like Nabokov transposing it into prose.
Beauvais has taken Pushkin’s story and poetic style and run with it, transposing it into a plausible, contemporary version of the story told in a free verse style. She keeps Pushkin’s narrator, but otherwise lets Tatiana and Eugene tell their own story. It begins with the couple meeting after ten years on the metro…
. “For a moment they were silent.
Then Tatiana paid him a compliment:
‘You look very elegant!’
. ‘Ah, thank you,’ Eugene replied.
. ‘I’m going to my grandfather’s funeral.’
. ‘Oh” That’s great! said Tatiana,
. who obviously hadn’t given herself enough time to process this information.”
They agree to meet again. Then we go back ten years – to when Tatiana was fourteen and Eugene seventeen and Eugene is trying to tell himself not to get involved with Tatiana:
. He tells himself: ‘She’s just a kid.’
Kid is a useful term. Kid means cute.
Kid equals child, sister, daughter.
Kids are flat-chested, slender-hipped,
without soft, enticing curves.
Kid means fresh and innocent, free
of the burning desires of riper girls.
Kid equals smooth, simple, sleek;
no dangerous slopes or hidden creeks.
You tuck a kid in. You read her books,
stories to teach her about lie and help her sleep.
With a kid, your duty is to educate.
This is one of the more structured poetic verses. There are also sections as lists, compare and contrast columns, or just text winding over the page flowing freely. Some of the rhymes are deliberate, some are assonant rather than exact: this is the same for the metre of the verse. The verse goes from being chatty and fun, sexy even on occasion, to being serious and confessional at other times; occasionally, the narrator steps in to have a conversation with one of the characters. It just spills out onto the pages. This is where Sam Taylor must be applauded for his wonderful and spirited translation which reads very naturally, and rhymes here and there – as I imagine the original does – super job!
I’m not going to tell you whether Beauvais’ version of Eugene Onegin matches the original… you’ll have to find that out for yourself, but I highly recommend this romantic novel for mid-teens and upwards. Younger readers will revel in the romance of this on and off relationship, older ones who know the story of Eugene Onegin can enjoy the anticipation of what might come. An enchanting read, I got totally swept up in it. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Clémentine Beauvais, In Paris With You (trans Sam Taylor). Faber & Faber, June 2018. Hardback, 352 pages.
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