Book Review – Precedence by Francois Mauriac

I’ve completed reading Walter Ballenberger’s latest translation of great works of French Literature. Unfortunately, Precedence will not be taking precedence among the works in this series.

I’d like to thank Mr. Ballenberger for taking the time to translate the novels of Andre Gide and Francois Mauriac into English. As I’m not fluent in French I’m greatful to have the opportunity to read works I’d otherwise be unable to. As both these authors received the Nobel Prize in Literature, monolingual philistines such as myself now have the opportunity to experience their novels.

Mr. Ballenberger included some fantastic lyrical flourishes in his interpretation. Among them I found a memorable use of synesthesia: “In the exasperation of the cicadas and the flies, he went as if he was drunk with sun, and he became irritated by my complaints.” (Location 303) He added an unusual description of “fauve hair.” (Location 321) Even I had to look that one up. The following more than justified the $4.99 cost of the e-book: “But then I thought that perhaps this was her real face, like the one that God had created with love before the world had caused it to change.” (Loc 418)

While I enjoyed the prose overall, I did discover a few issues. I found the following sentence too much “telling”: “She put her two hands on her face in a gesture that expressed shame.” (Loc 1345) I can’t visualize what such an expression looks like. While I understand Mauriac wrote the novel in 1921, I thought the translator could’ve used this opportunity to provide a bit more description. It would’ve made this passage for digestible to a modern audience.

The use of passive voice in the following sentence jarred me. “Some steps were heard in the vestibule.” (Loc 1382) Once again, while I understand French and English two different languages with divergent means of expression, the translator could’ve cleaned this up.

As I instruct the writers in my Critique Group: was is the mother-of-all “tell” words. Ballenberger overused it in a few cases as the following passage illustrates:

He sensed this was a disaster brewing and made fewer visits, He was already trying to investigate. Since he was an employee in our offices, the people who were alerted to the situation showed him a lot of reserve. (Location 1522)

Was appeared near the beginning of three sentences in a row. In the last phrase, the translator used the word were, which is the daughter-of-all “tell” words. As Mauriac wrote the original novel close to one hundred years ago, the use of action verbs would make this story more appealing to contemporary readers experiencing this work for the first time.

In terms of Mauriac’s novel itself, the overall story came across as hackneyed and banal. I assure everyone reading this that the quote below actually appeared in the story. It’s not a plot summary I wrote myself. It showed up in Location 1004 in the e-book version.

At that point I could no longer contain myself. I described to her the peril. I recalled for her, when we were children, our humiliation and shame of belonging to a class of merchants that was not engaged in wine. I recalled for her our ruses, our strategies, and the triumph of her marriage. She interrupted me and cried out her disgust for such schemes, and that the unforgivable crime of her life was to have misused Augustin (she called him “The unique child”) in order to fulfill our ambitions of belonging to the most horrible of possible worlds. (Location 1011)

Yep. That’s pretty much the entire book. I saved readers 2-1/2 hours of perusing Precedence. I think even those interested in the Machiavellian machinations of those trying to enter vintner high society in early 1920’s France will pass on this one. I’ll spare readers a diatribe on the perils of poorly used exposition.

Precedence didn’t live up to the high expectations its title established. I’m still glad I had the opportunity to read this novel written by a French Nobel Laureate. I’d strongly recommend those interested in English translations of great French Literature to check out some of Ballenberger’s other interpretations of Mauriac and even the works of Gide. They undoubtedly take precedence over this one.

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