24 May 2009

Another Handful of Dust

Dust Over the City [Poussière sur la ville]
André Langevin
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955

Since the death of André Langevin in February, I've been reading so slowly, so very slowly, this translation of his second novel. I discovered Dust Over the City by chance when a student – and as with everything from those heady days, it was revisited with trepidation. I needn't have worried.

The opening image continues to haunt: a lone man stands motionless, bareheaded, coatless, late at night in the swirling snow, eyes fixed on the darkened house in which his adulterous wife of three months sleeps. Alain Dubois is a talented young doctor who attends to the pale, sickly, suffering citizens of Macklin (really Thetford Mines – those swirling flakes of snow mix with asbestos dust). Confident and efficacious in his professional life, he is staggered and debilitated by his wife's infidelity.

There's little story here; these are the thoughts of a tortured soul who struggles to comprehend. It's not the sort of novel suited for the screen, yet in 1968 Langevin adapted the work for director by Arthur Lamothe. The resulting film has disappeared from view. The only glimpse I've had comes from this brief clip that appeared mysteriously last year on YouTube.

The translation, credited to John Latrobe and Robert Gottlieb (Robert Gottlieb? The editor?), is a haphazard piece of work. I suspect it was tackled tag-team. Sure, as a whole it's more than competent, but it often becomes awkward and clumsy. An example: recklessness nearly leads to violent death – the couple's car is nearly hit by a train. The young wife's passion inflamed, she kisses Dubois savagely. Latrobe and Gottlieb have our hero confess:
Her ardor bowled me over. Gently I repulsed her. We drove on...

Though Dust Over the City was published in the United States by Putnam, English-language editions of Langevin's work never achieved much in the way of sales. He wrote four other novels – all acclaimed – but only one, Une Chain dans la park (1974), the first Canadian book to be nominated for the Prix Goncourt, appeared in English. In 1976, when Jack McClelland published the translation, Orphan Street, he wrote Hugh MacLennan, 'I am tempted to get really carried away on this one and really try to force-feed the market. We don't do that very often, but there is some justification for it because, as I am sure know, French-Canadian novels in translation almost invariably bomb in English.'

Sadly, Orphan Street was no exception.

Object and Access: Readily available in our larger public libraries. More good news: as number 113 in the old New Canadian Library, there are plenty of copies out there at under C$10. The first edition, a handsome hardcover with dust jacket by Rus Anderson, is usually found at C$20 or less. Copies of Poussière sur la ville are cheaper still – and, as might be expected, more common.

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