12 July 2023

Some like it hot

Some like it hot

Temperature here in Montpellier site was a sizzling, brain-boiling 40 degrees Celsius yesterday (thank God the air-con at Alpha’s office is working reliably). When I remarked on the heat this morning to the baker who emerged with a tray of freshly baked croissants from backroom with the oven at the Boulangerie Artisanal down at the bottom of the road, he was unperturbed: “Ah oui, mais ce n’est que le début …”.

Had I heard right? Only the beginning? This spooked me. Would have sent a cold shiver down my spine if it was less hot. For only last night I was reading:

… One takes note of these beginnings and that, on the whole, there had been no extraordinary signs until the end of July. Outside there was still nothing but dryness and great heat, the thermometer rose to 30 degrees at midday, then to 32, 34 degrees. One suffered a little, but it was bearable, because there was this beauty of the sky, and after all, we are at a lake here …


All life will end. It will get hotter and hotter. The heat will be unbearable for all living things. It will get hotter and hotter, and quickly everything will die. And yet, nothing can be seen yet.

The lines are from C.F. Ramuz‘ short dystopic novel “Présence de la mort” (working titles: “La terre qui retombe au soleil” and “La fin du monde”), published in French in 1922 (US-English translation “The End of all Men”, by Ross MacDougall, 1945, and in Great Britain as “Triumph of Death”, by Ross MacDougall and Alex Comfort, 1946). I am in fact reading it in German (“Sturz in die Sonne”), in a fabulous new translation only just published in May this year, by Steven Wyss.

C.F. Ramuz (1878-1947) is one of the most highly regarded authors from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the Romandie, who was also a poet, and a great visionary. Bear in mind that back in 1922 no-one was talking about global warming. Ramuz was simply engaging in a philosophical/ethical experiment. His dystopic novel was inspired by the very hot summer in 1921 when temperatures in Geneva reached an unprecedented 38,5 degrees C. This is how the author himself explains his inspiration: “En souvenir d’un été où on aurait pu croire que ce serait ça.”

It was certainly not a bestseller at the time. In fact it got a rather cool reception across the border. French literary critics conceded that Ramuz‘ stories were nice but felt they needed translating into French, i.e. Parisian French. Ramuz‘ style was clearly not to their liking. Ramuz, who was born in Lausanne and spent most of his life in the Canton Vaud, is famous for his unpretentious, laconic way of writing that is reminiscent of spoken language. His sentences are short and un-cluttered, stripped of any baroque embellishments and unnecessary detail or artifice. They have a particular rhythm, many repetitions for emphasis and a great lyrical quality. They are also striking because of unusual changes in the use of tenses. All this gives his writing a sense of urgency, and doom. At other times of great calm and contemplation.

All these idiosyncracies, Wyss says, pose a challenge – both for the reader, but even more for the translator. For example, there is a striking, almost biblical tone at the start (“Dann kamen die großen Worte; die große Botschaft wurde von einem Kontinent zum anderen über den Ozean gesandt”) and the end (“Ihre Augen, ihre Ohren waren ausgewechselt; sie habe wieder gelernt zu hören, sie haben wieder gelernt zu sehen …”). Then there are philosophical passages, descriptions of landscapes, utterances by people reacting to the doomsday news: “Es könnte doch sein, dass es stimmt …”. “Dummes Zeug”. “Die Nachricht kommt aus Amerika, Sie wissen doch, was das bedeutet. Die Zeitungen haben sich nicht mehr verkauft …” (“But it might be true …”. “Nonsense”. “The news is coming from America, you know what that means. The newspaper weren’t selling any more …”).

“Présence de la mort” went the way of many deserving books that did correspond to critical taste: it went out of print and was largely forgotten, certainly outside French-speaking Switzerland. Until recently that is, when it was re-discovered and found to be a genuine “trouvaille” by the curators at the Literaturmuseum Strauhof in Zurich during their preparations for a Climate Fiction exhibition.

Steven Wyss was asked to provide a new translation of a few chapters (they are all very short), and on the basis of this, was commissioned by Limmat Verlag to do a new translation. A truly great translation, in my view. Wyss really manages to capture the author’s idiosyncratic tone and style and does not shy away from mixing tenses; he does not attempt to smoothen the rough bits, or “normalize” the writing. He points out that Ramuz himself was much more inspired by Paul Cézanne’s brushstrokes than by contemporary French literature. The result is a kind of de-construction of literary style, with fragmented syntax and elliptic formulations. Wyss says he’s taken an utterance from one of the novel’s characters as his guiding principle: “Schauen, was ist, und nichts hintun, als das, was ist.”, i.e. “Look at what there is and do not put anything else but what there is”, which I take to mean the translator should not add anything, or explain anything, but just present what the author has written.

The story is one of doom, of the earth being propelled into the sun, causing the death of all life. In the beginning, there is a scientific discovery. Because of an accident in the gravitational system, the earth is plunging back into the sun. The people on the shores of Lake Geneva refuse to believe this at first and simply enjoy the beautiful weather. The lake still provides a cool refuge (until bodies start floating in it). The good burgers of Lausanne resist the rumours and the worrying news coming in from around the world, not least perhaps because of a lack of imagination (says Ramuz). But as the story goes on, it becomes evident that there is no escape from the heat,  and joyfulness turns to fear. The glaciers melt, the rivers dry up, the trees wither. It’s bleak. But utterly gripping and definitely worth reading.

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