Marie Chaix stopped writing when her editor, Alain Oulman, died unexpectedly in March 1990. His death backed her ‘against a wall’. It constituted yet another abandonment in a life that now seemed defined by them. Only this time it was worse. She couldn’t mourn without writing and she couldn’t write without Oulman. The once-prolific author published nothing until, in 2005, this short memoir of abandonments appeared at last. L’Été du sureau was an attempt to work through her writer’s block, to force the work of mourning. She has written nothing since, but the text is its own reward, its variously contemplative and aphoristic prose accumulating to form ‘a compendium of phantom books never finished’.
The translationis a travesty. It makes a full-phantom of its referent. Chaix’s prose is altered to include an outburst of disorienting commas and inelegant gerunds (‘their being islands’, ‘their evoking a journey’). New clauses come clunking in from nowhere. At one point, ‘l’héritage pesait lourd mais les passeuses étaient légères’ becomes ‘the legacy was heavy but the women who did the passing on had a light touch’. The Summer of the Elder Tree makes heavy work indeed. Still, despite its obvious failings, the translation is the much richer text. In ‘abandoning’ style, and sometimes meaning, it realises the concerns of the original. Infidelity, it turns out, is just a more profound way of being faithful. Or so I expect the translator tells his wife, the once-prolific author Marie Chaix.
This review originally appeared in the December issue of Totally Dublin.