In 1970 I was living in France full-time, partly in Paris, partly in a mountain village on the fringe of the Alps. In that year I had the good fortune of becoming friends with the author Georges Perec, who had acquired a modicum of fame when his original first novel, Les Choses (Things), was awarded the Prix Renaudot, one of France’s prestigious literary prizes. Georges had read the French galleys of my own first novel shortly before it was published; he wrote me a short but enthusiastic note about it, which I gratefully answered. After an exchange of phone calls, we agreed to meet one autumn evening at the Bar du Pont Royal on Rue du Montalembert, where we drank five vodkas together, followed by a good dinner nearby. By the end of the evening we were fast friends. And he was the best of friends—smart, sensitive (at once funny and depressive), as loyal as the rising sun.
At the time, Georges was uncertain about what to do next as a writer. An editorial assistant at his publisher suggested he translate my second novel. After the in-house readers of English-language manuscripts had given the book unanimously negative reports, Georges decided to accept the task anyway and did the work on spec. The publisher accepted the novel as soon as he read Georges’s French version. A few years later, for another publisher, Georges produced a brilliant translation of my third novel. He also translated the first poems I published in France.
I felt beholden to him for all this work on my behalf, and I longed to respond in kind, hopefully by Englishing his major works. I was not to succeed in this project, which was realized by others only after his untimely death at the age of forty-three. I did translate some shorter texts, as well as the voice-over commentaries of two of his films.
One of my efforts to do better by him was to translate several sample chapters of W, ou le souvenir d’enfance (W, or the memory of childhood), the most impressive book he had by then written. I gave the samples to my agent in New York to show to various publishers, with a view to bringing out the entire work. Once again I failed in my objective; however, Richard and Jeannette Seaver, who had their own imprint at Viking-Penguin, responded by saying that while publishing W was impossible, they had been impressed by the quality of my translations and asked if I would agree to take on another book, The Laurels of Lake Constance, the first work by someone named Marie Chaix. It had been a best seller in France when it was published in 1974, but both the book and its success had passed me by. (I was living in Venice at the time.) The Seavers sent me a copy of The Laurels, which I only dipped into to make sure there were no forbidding complexities in the writing, and accepted their offer.
Shortly afterward, I returned to Venice and there read The Laurels through twice. The book was beautiful and moving—a young woman’s tale of her family during the years of the middle twentieth century, during which her father embarked on a disastrous political career of pro-Nazism and collaboration with the German forces that occupied his country. Aside from the book itself, I was also singularly affected by a photograph of the author on the back cover of the original edition.
My first wife had left me in 1960—a devastating experience. Two years later, I had had a beautiful and devoted American woman as my companion. With her at my side I should have been a perfectly happy man, but my terror of the possible end of our affair and my again being subjected to the misery I had experienced when my marriage collapsed made me compulsively shy away from entering another long-lasting relationship. We began living separately and agreed to leading “independent” lives—a tricky situation. For several years I became a semi-secret ladies’ man, having affairs with admirable women whom—no matter how admirable—I carefully kept at arm’s length. My companion eventually gave up on me and went back to New York.
The photograph of Marie Chaix on the back cover revealed a woman of thirty-two and great attractiveness. When John Ashbery first saw her, he remarked how pretty she was, then corrected himself immediately: “No, not pretty—beautiful.” Her beauty was not that of any stereotype: strong-featured, full of energy and passion. From the start I fantasized about having one of my noncommittal affairs with her. I knew ahead of time that I was safe from any deeper involvement, since she was married and the mother of two little girls. What I did not know was that she had never cheated on her less-faithful husband but now felt inclined to indulge in a small infidelity of her own.
Our interest in one another had preceded our meeting. Two months before, in the hope of one day winning her, I had composed a four-page handwritten letter intended for her, in which I deployed every seductive wile my experience as a writer could supply. I was pleased with the results and confident that they would dispose Marie to think of me as someone more than her translator.
It then occurred to me that this was a shabby way to approach the woman I had come to know in her book: an intensely serious and compassionate human being who had generously taken her readers into the intimate, moving world of her feelings. I tore up my handwritten letter and replaced it with a page containing a dozen typed lines of a formality for which written French is perhaps uniquely capable (“Madame, I have the honor and pleasure of being the translator of your admirable book…”). This was the letter I mailed her.
Marie’s reaction was not what I had foreseen. She later told me that her first impulse was to drop everything and get on the next train to Venice. She wanted to see this mysterious American who had unexpectedly appeared in her life. It was as though my original letter had been encrypted in its typewritten replacement. (This incidentally delighted me as definitive proof of the superiority of classical restraint in writing to the rhetoric of expressionistic overtness.)
Our next contact occurred a month later: a two-hour phone call whose pretext was the clarification of certain passages in The Laurels, in effect a chance to start knowing one another. At the end of our conversation I painfully learned how deep I had already been drawn into Marie’s world: she mentioned that her next book was an account of her mother’s life as seen from the moment of her death. This death had not been mentioned in The Laurels. I was incredulous—I had longed to meet Marie’s mother. After we hung up, I immediately fell prey to the worst migraine headache of my life, spending four hours lying on my bed in darkness and pain, from which I finally emerged as soon as I realized I was indulging in “unjustified mourning”—a passion of love and grief for someone I had never even met.
In early March 1976, Marie began visiting me on successive afternoons at my tiny apartment on rue de Varenne. Her first visit revealed that we were each drawn to the other; on the second, we kissed; on the third, our affair began. In both our minds it was an affair of pleasure, with no thought of serious consequences.
But out affair did not proceed as I expected. Marie returned home, then came back to Paris to see me. We found ourselves in love, gradually but inexorably slipping into the realization that we were meant to stay together, forever, or something like it.
I went back to Venice for the summer to wind up my life there. Marie would come and fetch me in early September. As planned, she drove her Volkswagen Kombi to Genoa; I came to meet her by train. In the main station of the city I found a woman in tears, full of fury and shame at having abandoned her family. She would not listen to reason or reaffirmations of love. I then had the sense to take her for lunch to a good restaurant nearby, and there, gratifying food and a bottle of wine began calming her anguish. She drove us to Venice, where the next day I loaded all my gear into the Kombi, and we set off for France, picking up her two daughters at their grandparents’ on the way to my house in the mountains, where we lived for the next ten years.
Since then we have lived in Paris, in New York, in Bennington, Vermont, and finally in Key West. We married in 1992, after sixteen years of life together. That life began on September 6, 1976. It’s not over yet.
Harry Mathews is a renowned novelist, poet, and translator, and a longstanding friend of the Review. He was the subject of the Art of Fiction No. 191.
The Laurels of Lake Constance is available from Dalkey Archive Press.
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