Month: November 2014

Book Review – “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Andre Gide

I became giddy when I found that Walter Ballenberger had translated yet another work of Andre Gide’s. Discovering Gide wrote his own rendition of a parable made this discovery Biblical in proportion for me. As I’ve learned from novels such as The Immoralist and especially Corydon, Gide didn’t hold back in terms of taking shots at society and social mores. I jumped in to “The Return of the Prodigal Son” with stratospheric expectations.

While not the controversial polemic I anticipated, I still enjoyed the story. It took me between a mere half-hour and 45 minutes to read, but it contained a deep multi-layered premise. The concepts of searching, liberty and service repeated throughout the story. During a discussion between the Prodigal Son and his mother, the following exchange appeared.

“I was not looking for happiness.”

“Then what were you looking for?”

“I was looking for…who I was.” (Loc 157)

While speaking with the Youngest Brother, the Prodigal Son revealed the following thoughts.
“I lost the liberty that I was searching for. I became captive in having to serve others.” (Loc 243)

And

“Ah! To serve or not to serve, does one not have the liberty to choose his serfdom?”

“I was hoping for that. As far as my feet carried me, I walked, like Saul in pursuit of his asses, in pursuit of my desire, but where I was awaiting a kingdom, it was misery that I found. And, however…”

“Did you take the wrong route?”

“I marched straight ahead.” (Loc 251)

The author presented most of the story in the form of dialog, a la Corydon, limited to two characters at a time. After rehashing the original story of the Prodigal Son, the author included more chapters to explicate it. In each, the protagonist discussed his journey with his father, older brother, mother, and youngest brother, respectively. All of these elements gave the story an intriguing structure.

I’d recommend Gide’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” to a wide audience. Those familiar with the New Testament parable will enjoy the author’s interpretation. People interested in great French Literature will also find it enlightening. Even though brief, deep, philosophical people will get the most out of this tale. If one does happen to read it after reading this review, please clue me in on the meaning in the various layers of the story.

Gide once wrote, “Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who find it.” Nothing illustrates his application of that view better than “The Return of the Prodigal Son”.

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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.