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  • Translator’s Note
  • Edward Gauvin (bio)

The beauties of Jean-Yves Masson’s story are almost architectural, like the house at its center: three neat parts—the dream, the cracks, the reality—each of which ends on a note at once conclusive and contingent. Like the house, the story is not what it at first seems. Rather, it is not the story the unnamed narrator sets out to live, much as the house turns out to provide something other than the anticipated return to a childhood haven.

If all literature honors the individual voice, the fantastic tradition traps that voice in the desperate plight of not being believed—the anguish of a very specific ostracism. Either the account, one of singular witness, is wrong, or all the rest of us are, and one man’s madness is an explanation often to be preferred over any irreplicable suspension of physical laws or even the consensus of his peers.

The haunted house, the vanished paradise, the hint of incest, prophetic dreams and recurrent nightmares, a reclusive and misanthropic bachelor, his eccentric predilections and obsessive compulsions—to these classically fantastic and decadent motifs, Masson introduces the figure of the translator, traditionally a metaphor for creative alienation, if not emotional estrangement. The translator is someone whose own voice has gone silent from having so long subordinated it to others’. That Masson’s narrator is a translator—that curious profession damned for slavishness but held to fidelity—complicates his unreliability. Indeed, in a clever twist on the fantastic formula, the translator’s professional pledge to fidelity becomes the narrator’s badge of sanity.

But Masson, himself a translator from English (Yeats), German (Rilke), and Italian, knows better. No translation is or can be faithful—at least no more so than memory can be to lived experience. In either case, a mind intervenes to alter and color—over time or through interpretation. Just as Masson’s narrator cannot restitute his childhood home in a way faithful to his memories, so no translation can reconstitute an original, its victories more often measured in difference. Every attempt to translate a single text turns out differently—something the author understands, but his hero does not, about this “return”: it is one of many possible [End Page 608] returns, and hence not dignified by the definite article. Fidelity—its very possibility, its lodestone status and the shadow it casts—is a shibboleth long overdue for demolition. You can’t go home again.

Borges, applying his circular notion of time to writing influence, claims “each writer creates his precursors,” which is to say we read through our own pantheons and contexts. English readers encountering the contemporary Masson for the first time might see in his prose and chosen genre a hint of H. P. Lovecraft’s fearful, pedantic academics, though Masson eschews the cosmic for the intimate, the beyond for the interior. Or perhaps, Masson’s mastery of unreliability might recall the calm of Kazuo Ishiguro—plainspoken with a pinch of fuss—whose placid surfaces belie shifting sediments of memory beneath.

Fabulists, I am fond of believing, fall into two broad categories: imaginers and nostalgists, tricksters and yearners. Which is to say, Lucifer and Lot’s wife: mad inventors whose visionary phantasmagoria rage into ever more extravagant spectacle, and those instead ruined by a glimpse, whose gazes are turned forever backward. The work of the latter trades in subtlety, wistfulness, time’s unconscious and surely unconscionable slippage. For memory, that mysterious thing, is best stirred by the fleeting. How much more fragrant was Proust’s madeleine once dipped in tea—but also, more friable. Nostalgia, alas, is not a load-bearing emotion. Perhaps that is why no houses can be founded on it. [End Page 609]

  • A Return
  • Jean-Yves Masson (bio)
    Translated by Edward Gauvin (bio)


I don’t usually remember my dreams. A few scattered images at most: loved ones now gone; people I passed in the street and never thought to remember so well; probably places, too, where oddly enough I’ve never been. All this, made to astonish the dreamer, escapes me on waking, and though these fragile images sometimes still float in my consciousness...


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