By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Have you ever wondered what The Importance of Being Earnest reads like in French? No, neither have I. But to anyone who would like to find out, I can recommend Charles Dantzig’s new translation, in a nicely presented bilingual edition published by Grasset. The title itself is a telling choice for a French version:L’Importance d’être constant plays on the not very common name Constant. Jean Anouilh, by contrast, called his version, in 1954, Il est important d’être aimé.
Charles Dantzig is indefatigable: by my calculation that is his third publication in a matter of months. (His À propos des chefs-d’oeuvre will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.) Maybe he’s in too much of a hurry: in his preface he refers to The Portrait of Dorian Gray – a common enough error, perhaps.
According to his biographer Richard Ellmann, Wilde considered applying for French citizenship: “If the Censor refuses Salome, I shall leave England to settle in France where I shall take out letters of naturalization”. Elsewhere Wilde proclaims, “There is a great deal of hypocrisy in England which you in France very justly find fault with”. But in spite of these sentiments, Wilde's work seems to have been a little neglected in France, its author held up, in Dantzig’s phrase as an “amuseur de petites bourgeoises sentimentales”. Un Mari idéal was only first staged, successfully, in Paris in 1994. And I see there’s a production of The Importance of Being Earnest – again, in a different translation – scheduled for this year’s Avignon Festival.
Dantzig’s introduction has some good nuggets: a musical comedy entitled Oscar Wilde opened in the West End in 2004 and closed after one night. It was described by one newspaper as “the worst musical in the world, ever”. He has rather camply titled his introduction “La Première Gay Pride"; in it, he breezily runs through the well-known story of Wilde’s triumph and downfall.
But Dantzig claims to have unearthed some new information, "not told in any account of Wilde’s life up till now, not even the excellent Richard Ellmann”, whose account of the funeral in Bagneux, some 7 km south of Paris (his remains were transferred to the Jacob Epstein tomb in the Père Lachaise cemetery in 1909) includes this: “At the graveside there was an unpleasant scene, which none of the principals ever described – perhaps some jockeying for the role of principal mourner. When the coffin was lowered, [Lord Alfred] Douglas almost fell into the grave” (Oscar Wilde, 1987).
We learn from Dantzig that the poet Paul Fort (1872–1960), the author of Ballades françaises, gave a description of the funeral on French radio in 1950. But, as relayed by Dantzig, Fort’s account doesn’t appear to add much. Ellmann mentions a “Marcel Bataillant” as having attended. Fort refers to Marcel Batilliat, “petit romancier charmant venu spécialement de Versailles” (not that far away). Batilliat was apparently a friend of Émile Zola (although he doesn’t feature in the index of Frederick Brown’s mammoth biography).
The TLS had a paragraph on one of Batilliat’s novels, La Liberté (1913), that goes: “There are three heroines in this story, and all three wish to lead their own lives. One seeks liberty through a loveless marriage; another in a brief liaison; and the third in a series of lovers. One can imagine such a book being humorous, but, like so many French novels of the kind, the author has written it with a purpose – this being, it is hardly necessary to say, to show that true liberty is found in normal, sane surroundings”. You had to be there.
Oh, and the line everyone knows from the play: "Un sac de voyage?"