Live During Wartime: An interview with Brian Newsome (by Curtis Smith)

Invasion14Brian Newsome is Associate Professor of History and newly-appointed Dean for Curriculum and Assessment at Elizabethtown College. He earned his PhD from the University of South Carolina and teaches modern European, Middle Eastern, and North African history. Newsome specializes in the urban, religious, and literary history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France. His latest project, which McGill-Queen’s University Press published in June 2016, is a translation and annotated edition of Invasion 14, French novelist Maxence Van der Meersch’s semi-autobiographical account of the German occupation of northern France during World War I. Runner-up for the Prix Goncourt in 1935, Invasion 14 has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in recent years. Literary critics today recognize it as Van der Meersch’s finest work, and historians have come to value it as a unique lens onto the civilian experience of World War I.

Curtis Smith: How did you discover Maxence Van der Meersch’s work? What about this particular novel spoke to you? What’s his reputation in France?

Brian Newsome: I encountered Van der Meersch while conducting research on interwar Catholic Action groups. Van der Meersch established ties with chaplains and lay members of the Young Christian Workers, and in 1940 he published a novel, Pêcheurs d’hommes, based on their experiences. During World War II, the book was quite influential among young Catholics. I became interested in Van der Meersch’s oeuvre and decided to read more of it after completing the article upon which I was working.

Thus did I discover Invasion 14, Van der Meersch’s novel about the German occupation of northern France during World War I. Van der Meersch survived the occupation. He conducted extensive research among other survivors. And he dealt frankly—evenhandedly—with issues of collaboration, resistance, and the many shades of gray between those two poles. I had never encountered another book like it, not for World War I. Other novelists, such as Henri Barbusse and Erich Maria Remarque, examined combat. Still other writers, such as Edith Wharton and Vera Brittain, analyzed the home front and connections between the home front and the battle front. But none of these authors dealt with the occupation.

The most comparable novels were not about the occupation of World War I but that of World War II, most notably Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française, which I had recently used in one of my own courses. Issued posthumously, Némirovsky’s bestselling novel examines for World War II many of the same themes that Invasion 14 explores for World War I. In fact, I later discovered, Invasion 14 likely served as one of the inspirations for Némirovsky’s own work. When I first read Invasion 14, it immediately struck me as “Suite française avant la lettre” or “Suite française for World War I”—the type of book that could grab students’ attention and facilitate analysis of the occupation of 1914-18. If only Invasion 14 were available in a good translation, I thought—yes, an annotated edition with an introduction that would set the novel in context—then I would use it in my own classes. After all, the centennial of World War I was drawing near. What could be more appropriate? Then I came to the conclusion that I should undertake the project myself.

Van der Meersch wrote in the tradition of the naturalists, whose meticulous research and detailed imagery provided an ideal medium for a novel about war and occupation. By the 1950s, though, such a style seemed passé compared to the works of not only surrealists like André Breton, with whom Van der Meersch had been competing at the time of Invasion 14’s publication in 1935, but also with existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, who rose to prominence as tuberculosis drained Van der Meersch in the late 1940s. By the time the latter died in 1951, his audience had declined precipitously.

Van der Meersch’s nuanced examination of collaboration and resistance also made Invasion 14 controversial. In the 1930s, regional critics accused Van der Meersch of exaggerating the extent of collaboration. Van der Meersch was rather tough on the peasantry, reflecting the embittered memories of a cousin harassed by neighbors in a small village. But overall Van der Meersch’s treatment of collaboration and resistance was quite balanced. National and international critics praised the book accordingly. Yet in the aftermath of World War II, when French national discourse focused mostly on heroes of anti-Nazi resistance movements, few individuals were anxious to read a book about a different war and a different occupation that focused on the many shades of gray between collaboration and resistance. Invasion 14 was the victim of almost willful neglect. Only after the reevaluation of the Vichy regime, in the 1970s, did scholars begin turning to Van der Meersch again, and only since the 1914-1918 occupation evolved into a subject of sustained scholarship, starting in the 1990s and 2000s, did Invasion 14 enjoy a true renaissance. In 2014 Albin Michel reissued Invasion 14 in French, and now, thanks to McGill-Queen’s University Press, Anglophone readers can enjoy an annotation edition of the novel.

CS: I’m a history buff, especially the First World War. Are you especially drawn to this period as well? If so, what calls you?

BN: Yes, certainly. World War I molded so many subsequent trends: feminist movements, civil rights movements, anti-colonial nationalist movements, and the evolution of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, to name only a few phenomena. To understand these developments—and many aspects of the political, economic, and social systems that exist today—one must examine World War I. The conflict also provides a fascinating window onto the complexity of the human experience. Why did some combatants, such as Ernst Jünger, embrace both World War I and war itself (as an ultimately beneficent crucible), while others, such as Henri Barbusse, embraced World War I (as a means of crushing militarism) but not war itself? Why did some civilians in northern France collaborate with German occupation forces while others resisted and most simply attempted to survive? These are the questions that elicit the most meaningful discussions in my classes, and they are the ones that investigation of books like Storm of Steel, Under Fire, and Invasion 14 elucidate.

CS: I think translation is its own art form, one that’s often overlooked. I imagine the process isn’t one that has an even pace—I’m guessing there are pages that must come easily while there are paragraphs and even sentences that can take just as long. Can you address the process in general? And in particular, were there instances where the process for his book was different from other projects? Do you ever find yourself fighting the urge to shade a passage in your own voice rather than the original author’s?

BN: Translation is an art, or perhaps better yet a craft, one in which repeated revision plays a decisive role. I first draft a translation of a paragraph. Then I go back to analyze similes, metaphors, alliteration, and nuances of word choice that I might have overlooked the first time. I proceed from paragraph to paragraph in like fashion, and when I have completed a chapter I read it as a whole and revise it. Then I proceed to the next chapter and start the process again. When I finished the entirety of Invasion 14, I read it aloud and revised the text once more. The final stage took the better part of a summer. The process is slow, tedious—rather like refinishing a piece of furniture (one of my favorite hobbies)—but one that is ultimately worthwhile. Deconstructing a text line by line, word by word, leads to a deep appreciation of the author’s methodology, and bringing such a remarkable novel to life for English readers is an endeavor that I find deeply meaningful.

The most difficult aspects of translating Invasion 14 were the chti dialect and archaic allusions, both of which were unfamiliar to me. To deal with the Picard dialect known as chti, which appears in dialogue, I utilized a number of contemporary dictionaries. One passage, from a scene in which two smugglers are preparing to cross the Franco-Belgian border, reads as follows:

“T’a pris des peunn terre? ”
“Plein min saclet, ouais…”
“Mi, du burre”
“Mi, de l’farine de soil…”

And here is the translation:

“You got some taters?”
“Yep, my bag’s full …”
“I’ve got butter …”
“And I’ve got rye flour …”

In an effort to give the conversation the informal flavor that it has in the original, I used English slang whenever possible: “got” instead of “have,” “taters” instead of “potatoes,” “yep” instead of “yes” (ensuring, of course, that those words themselves were in use between 1914 and 1935, the era in which the novel was set and written).

To deal with regional allusions, I had to engage in historical research. One such passage involves the characters Jacqueline and Camille Laubigier, two deportees based on Georges Pannier, one of Van der Meersch’s informants, and Georges’s sister Jeanne. To free themselves of les bouches inutiles, German authorities transport the Laubigier siblings from northern France to Belgium, Luxembourg, and then Switzerland, where they are handed over to French authorities. To ensure that the deportees can provide the Allies with no actionable intelligence, the Germans force them to make a month-long stop in a Belgian village. Jacqueline and Camille stay on the second floor of a cabaret. Van der Meersch states,

“Il y avait dans le plancher de la chambre un trou qui servait à jeter les bagues des pigeons les jours de concours. Par là Camille regardait danser les femmes et les Allemands.”

I wanted to translate these sentences as follows:

“In the bedroom floor was a hole for tossing down pigeon rings on race days. Through it, Camille watched the women dancing with the Germans.”

But was that interpretation accurate? What on earth was a pigeon ring? And why would anyone drop it through a hole in the floor? After a little research, I found Martin Johnes’s great article on pigeon racing, a sport that was popular among urban workers in Belgium, northern France, and parts of Britain. Trainers fixed rubber rings, each with a unique serial number, to the legs of their birds. When the latter flew to their roosts on race days, trainers detached the rings and put them into timing clocks that stamped an internal ribbon, which race officials would subsequently remove to determine average speeds and the competition winner. The clocks were expensive, so trainers often shared clocks and therefore roosts. In the foregoing scene, the room doubled as a pigeon roost, and to accelerate the process of inserting the rings into the clock—which typically remained on the ground floor—the trainers dropped the rings through a hole in the floor of the second storey.

Passages filled with such allusions of require far more labor than others, but I enjoy deconstructing those passages the most. Finding a way to render them faithfully is so satisfying that it eliminates the temptation to lapse into my own voice.

CS: In translation there is the source material—but you went beyond the book itself in preparing this translation. Can you describe the other methodologies and background research you conducted?

BN: Beyond the research described above, I examined the Van der Meersch archives, which are held by the City of Wasquehal, a small town between Roubaix and Lille, where Van der Meersch lived as an adult. Van der Meersch took copious notes. The archivist, Victor Godon, gave me full access to them, and I was able to unearth key elements of character construction and narrative composition.

In addition, I steeped myself in the works of authors who influenced Van der Meersch. Particularly notable are Leo Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola. To set Invasion 14 in context, I also read many other war novels, such as Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, as well as the scholarship devoted to such literature. In my opinion, one of the best examples of the latter is Leonard Smith’s The Embattled Self, which shaped my understanding of Invasion 14. Because Smith focused on soldiers’ testimony, he did not examine Invasion 14. But I concluded that Van der Meersch drew on the same themes of tragedy and victimization that characterized other works penned during the 1930s, particularly Roger Martin du Gard’s Summer 1914 and Jules Romains’s Verdun. Such research proved invaluable not only as an aid to translation but also for the introduction and the annotations.

CS: How did you come to work with your publisher? Did you have an agreement before you started the translation? Or did that come in the middle of your work—or at the end?

BN: McGill-Queen’s University Press has a wonderful tradition of publishing literature in translation. Excellent examples include the works of Seyhmus Dagtekin, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Joe Neil MacNeil, Leopoldo Marechal, and the collection of Italian poetry translated by Roberta L. Payne. I thought that Van der Meersch’s Invasion 14 would also fit well with MQUP’s many non-fiction publications on World War I, particularly the memoirs of Will R. Bird and Frederick George Scott, the diaries of Clare Gass and Owen William Steele, and the histories of Peter Barton, Philippe Bieler, Duff Crerar, Suzanne Evans, Susan Mann, and Gerald W. L. Nicholson.

Given such affinities, I submitted a proposal to Mark Abley, MQUP’s literary studies editor. Mark is himself a poet, novelist, journalist, and non-fiction writer who has received numerous accolades, including Canada’s National Newspaper Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the LiberPress Prize. Mark immediately recognized the quality of Invasion 14. He convinced the editorial board to take the project under consideration. And he shepherded the manuscript through the review process. He also negotiated a rights agreement with Albin Michel, the original French publishing house, and he secured a grant from the Institut français to defray the expense of translation rights acquisition. When I had first begun the project, I had contacted Solène Chabanais, Albin Michel’s rights director, to confirm that the translation rights were available, but Mark negotiated the final arrangements. I am of course deeply indebted to both Solène and Mark and to the entire team at MQUP: the anonymous reviewers, managing editor Ryan Van Huijstee, copyeditor Claude Lalumière, and many others.

As far as timing was concerned, I completed the translation, the introduction, and the annotations before submitting a proposal to MQUP. While working on the project, I had sent proposals to several other publishers. But only when I had finished the translation—when I could say in a proposal, “Here are two sample chapters, and I will be pleased to send the entire manuscript upon request”—did I have any luck. Naturally, I am thrilled with the result. MQUP is an internationally renowned publisher, and I have been privileged to work with the press’s outstanding staff.

CS: In your opinion, how does Invasion 14 compare to the other classic WWI novels? In what ways is its focus the same? In what ways different?

BN: As I noted previously, Van der Meersch’s Invasion 14 shares some themes with Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire, Roger Martin du Gard’s Summer 1914, and Jules Romains’s Verdun. Like Barbusse, Van der Meersch condemned war in the abstract but not World War I in particular, yearning for the sacrifices of 1914-1918 to stamp out war itself. Unlike Barbusse, though, Van der Meersch wrote not in the 1910s but in the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression and with Nazism rising in neighboring Germany. As a result, Van der Meersch’s concept of redemptive suffering was more uncertain than Barbusse’s, filled with far more shades of gray, reflecting the themes of tragedy and victimization pioneered by Erich Maria Remarque and which one can see in the contemporary works of Martin du Gard and Romains.

Yet Van der Meersch did not write about combat. In Invasion 14 the shelling is routinely audible, but it is always just out of reach, leaving the focus on French civilians and German occupation troops. Other writers, such as Edith Wharton (A Son at the Front) and Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth), analyzed the home front and connections between the home front and the battle front. But neither dealt with the occupation. In this respect, Van der Meersch’s Invasion 14 is unique.

CS: The novel was translated in the late 30’s. How does your version differ from the earlier take?

BN: In 1937 Gerard Hopkins, a prolific translator and novelist, completed a translation for Viking Press. Only two years after Invasion 14 first appeared, Anglophone readers thus gained access to it in their own language. In this respect, Hopkins made an important contribution. Unfortunately, he translated the novel so quickly that substantial errors are littered throughout the text. He attributed some dialogue to the wrong characters. He routinely misinterpreted military terminology (limited though the latter is in Invasion 14). And he often overlooked important metaphors. Hopkins also took considerable liberties with the text by eliminating phrases and occasionally entire sentences. My translation is truer to Van der Meersch’s original, both in terms of meaning and style, the latter of which is characterized by alternations between flowing prose and staccato exposition.

CS: What’s next?

BN: This summer I am analyzing reflections on regime change in some of Van der Meersch’s later works, particularly his 1943 novel Corps et âmes (a critique of the contemporary medical establishment) and his 1945 non-fiction work Femmes à l’encan (a critique of legalized prostitution). Though several scholars, such as Robert Vanderbussche and Françis Nazé, have situtated Corps et âmes in the context of the Vichy Regime’s “return to nature” programs, none has reflected more broadly on Van der Meersch’s discourse on regime change from the Vichy Regime to the Fourth Republic. I have found that Van der Meersch’s position was evolving and complex, moving from support of Vichy to limited resistance activity, while maintaining a conservative but nuanced and highly emotional stance on social issues, such as prostitution, that he urged the founders of the Fourth Republic to address. Van der Meersch’s efforts in this regard were by and large unsuccessful, and his resulting disappointment reflected nationwide disenchantment that the Fourth Republic was so much like the Third Republic. Though pleased that brothels were shut down, for example, Van der Meersch was aghast that prostitution itself remained legal, with penalties for solicitation imposed on prostitutes (rather than clients) and almost nothing done to assist women seeking alternate employment. The project will deepen understanding of Van der Meersch and provide a crucial lens onto emotional responses to regime change among ‘Christian non-conformists of the right’ (to adapt a turn of phrase from fellow Van der Meersch scholar Michel David). I hope to present my research at the Western Society for French History’s upcoming conference, which will be devoted to the theme of regime change, and to use audience feedback to inform revision of the paper for a journal article.

Perhaps another translation project lies in the future as well. Quand les sirènes se taisent, Van der Meersch’s 1933 novel devoted to Depression-era labor unrest, would be a good candidate in this regard.

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.

One response to “Live During Wartime: An interview with Brian Newsome (by Curtis Smith)

  1. I am so pleased to read your interview. I just translated some letters from 1939/1940 and the writer is discussing Invasion 14 with her husband. Maybe your interview will open a door to research my letters further. Thank you.


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