Review: An Accident in August, Laurence Cossé

My half-assed, unenthusiastic effort to make myself love books in translation continues apace. Yes, I am aware that it is a very very half-assed effort indeed. No, I would probably not have done anything about it had not Europa contacted me to offer me a copy of An Accident in August for review. (Hey FTC! There’s a disclosure encased in that last sentence, if you care to look for it.)

On a late night in August 1997, Lou has a minor car accident. Minor for her: the car that sideswipes her crashes spectacularly, and Lou speeds off in terror. The next morning, she learns that the car that crashed was carrying Princess Diana (or, as the French very correctly call her, Lady Di) (I only know this from Amelie, y’all). Lou realizes that she sort of caused the accident, that she will be caught up in a media frenzy if she comes forward, that she will lose any semblance of a private life, forever, that she will be blamed and universally loathed for not stopping to help. And from there, her life falls apart.

I think I have said before that I find unbearable suspenseful stories in which people have done wicked deeds and are eaten alive by guilt and fear and are waiting waiting waiting to see if they will be found out. Macbeth is my favorite of the Shakespeare tragedies (though this may be attributable to its having been the first one I ever read; or to the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, which, goddamn, is just a magnificent piece of writing); The Secret History rocks my world each and every time I read it; and some third example to complete this ascending tricolon. (I can’t think of a third example. I love guilt books, is what I’m saying.) So in spite of the presence of my usual problems with books in translation, the maybe-will-get-caught stuff kept me reading and interested. Plus I am a fairly private person my own self, and I greatly sympathized with Lou’s terror of permanent, unrelenting media attention.

However, there were parts of the book that went a little slowly for my taste, and stopped me getting emotionally involved. I wanted Lou to confide in someone — let’s face it, what’s interesting about books (and life, dude) is interaction between characters, and there’s precious little of that in the first half of An Accident in August. We have very little opportunity to know who Lou is apart from her predicament, and that makes it hard to care. I didn’t know what the stakes were. What did she have to lose? Who were the people she loved, what were the things she enjoyed, what kind of life did she have? The book suffered by maintaining such a tight focus on the circumstances.

In spite of this and in spite of my translation-phobia, I enjoyed An Accident in August, and I am looking forward to Cossé’s other translated work by Europa, A Novel Bookstore. Up with books about bookstores! One day by God I will learn to love books in translation. YES. I. WILL.

An Accident in August will be published by Europa on 30 August 2011. Watch for it!

24 thoughts on “Review: An Accident in August, Laurence Cossé

  1. English teachers cry easily and must be made fun of because kids have always been and will probably always be ruthless. I have trouble with books in translation, too. And I’m not fond of guilt books. But I do have a bit of fascination with stories about Diana because I got married a year after she did and her influence of weddings was still a very big deal.

    • No! No. I will not permit sympathy for this English teacher. She was really mean. She made everyone hate me by saying all the time how I was smart. By contrast, she told nasty lies about Indie Sister. She wrote her up for unfair reasons and told lies on the reports. She was a nasty person and deserved to be mocked.

  2. I meant to say her influence ON weddings, but the way I put it makes it sound like I meant that she had influence on how many people got married back then, and that is not it, that is not it at all.

  3. Haha, Jeanne, did your gown have sleeves as big as Texas? 🙂 I am not fond of guilt books either OR books in translation, but I do like Europa. And this sounds more interesting than I thought it would be.

  4. I have been hearing a lot about this book lately, and have to say that my interest in it is certainly piqued, but I haven’t gotten around to grabbing my own copy yet. It sounds like it’s a fairly suspenseful read, what with all the guilt and the hiding and all, and I wonder how it all turns out. Very interesting book, it seems, and once again, a great review 🙂

  5. I think I’ve read nine books in translation so far this year. (The number might be a little inflated because of My Big Fat Greek Summer.) I guess I like em because otherwise I would never, never get to read the Metamorphoses or Gilgamesh or Anna Karenina (another guilt book) or whatever, because I have not got time to learn Ancient Sumerian. What are your usual problems with books in translation, out of curiosity?

    • Anna Karenina is a guilt book like a guilty pleasure, or a guilt book like you read it out of guilt?

      My problem is that the translations sound weird. Dialogue comes out completely stilted, and I just have a hard time getting through it. Most often the characters don’t feel like people. I’m sure it’s just that different countries have different conventions, and I’m accustomed to the US character conventions.

  6. There seems to be a teeny theme of Diana books emerging – Monica Ali’s Untold Story is another one. I’m intrigued by this, but could not agree more about character interaction being the best part. A whole half a novel without any would be quite a challenge.

  7. Reading this post makes me wonder if this translated book I just finished would work for you:

    a.) a guilt book – but we’re not sure exactly what the character is guilty of (but you’ll read the end first and know
    b.) a roadtrip book where two characters spend a lot of time together, interacting in strange ways
    c.) people keep recognising guilty character and he has to not exactly flee but walk away quite briskly

    It’s called ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’, translated from the Dutch and I loved it (also while it’s not #teamboyskissing it is located in #gaysubtextland.

    The thing is there’s no confiding, the guilty character is very anti-confiding, but he does have flashbacky sequences where his story is confided to the reader and in which he interacts with other characters…

    Anyway newbie translated lit fan rec for you 🙂

  8. I’m baffled. Thought the Lady Di thing was universal!

    Want some perspective? When I was younger, I was so accustomed to read English (or French) books translated to Spanish that those originally written in Spanish seemed… too colloquial in comparison. The translations are in neutral Spanish, most of the time and sound *way* more formal than any Chilean children book I read as a girl. For some reason, I used to love that 🙂

  9. I wish I knew good suggestions for books to make you like translations. I grew up reading them, what with native Dutch people not writing a whole lot of fantasy and all, but I’ve more or less grown out of it now. Most translations I’ve read in recent years make me twitchy because you can tell it’s a translation. (One day, I want to try this and see whether people really can tell something is a translation based on random excerpts. Because it’d be fun to know.)

    But, yes, point is: if it’s possible for me to be turned off translations it should be possible for you to start liking them. Right?

  10. Agree with your comment on other Jenny’s comment, that it’s often the dialogue where the translation is truly tested. That’s been my problem with the very few translated books I’ve read.

    Not sure I’m interested in this particular book, as I’m not sure that I like books where a guilty person stews around for the entire story.

  11. LOVE the Mumsy-sponsor notice. 🙂
    Can’t think of any guilt books off the top of my head.
    Want to now find Tomorrow Pamplona re: Jodie’s comment.
    I would not have know Days of Abandonment was translated when I read it. Another Europa book, by Elena Ferrante.
    But I seem to like most of the translations I’ve read.

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