Pharricide, by Vincent de Swarte, is a dark, lyrical, complex and at times grotesque novella. Set in the Cordouan Lighthouse, a masterpiece completed in 1611, the narrative charts a lighthouse keeper’s descent into madness. Best read in one sitting, the novel is compulsive, unsettling and deeply memorable. De Swarte died in 2006 at the age of 42. However, the novelist Nicholas Royle has long campaigned for an English translation to be published. Having translated the book himself, it was finally released by Confingo this year. Here, he talks to Minor Literature[s] about the novel, the work of translation, and the struggle to bring this great novella to the English-speaking public.
First of all, can you give us a short introduction to Pharricide?
Pharricide is the first adult novel by the French author Vincent de Swarte, who died in 2006 at the young age of 42. Published in 1998, it won an award bestowed by French psychiatrists. It’s the story – in journal form – of a lighthouse keeper’s mental disintegration. The moment those words are out of my mouth I realise how inadequate they sound. It’s a novel of extremes – passion and despair, sex and death, and taxidermy. A lot of taxidermy. I like taxidermy.
What drew you to the novel originally?
I was asked to read it by a friend who was working for Transworld at the time. (I studied languages, lived in France for a year and had continued to read French novels.) Transworld were thinking of acquiring the translation rights. I read it and immediately fell in love with it. I wrote a report saying they should acquire the rights and let me translate it. Unbelievably, they decided against this course of action.
Translating Pharricide, and having it published in the UK, has been a long journey for you – can you tell us about how it came to be released by Confingo this year?
Transworld lost interest but I didn’t. I tried to find a publisher, but didn’t get anywhere. Over the years I would try again whenever the mood took me, but still, no joy. With a fair degree of confidence I approached Peirene Press, specialists in translations of European novels and novellas. Meike Ziervogel responded, drawing my attention to a blog post in which she had written about the novel, saying she wouldn’t publish it in the UK because it wouldn’t sell. Then I got to know Tim Shearer, who runs Confingo. They published a collection of my stories a couple of years ago. I talked to him about Pharricide and he became very enthusiastic and said, Let’s do it.
How did the experience of translating a novel differ from your process as a novelist?
That’s a very good question, because it is a similar process, but at the same time completely different. You are always feeling you have this responsibility to render the original as closely and accurately as possible. But it would be a mistake, and would do no one any favours, to translate in a slavishly literal fashion. It’s often a matter of finding the right idiomatic language to reflect the idiomatic language of the original. I found it enormously challenging, but I had lots of fantastic support from one of my former MA creative writing students from Manchester Met, who lives in Paris and is bilingual.
How closely does your version of Pharricide match the original? Did you give yourself any room for interpretation?
Well, as discussed, there’s the question of idiom. But there was one passage over which I agonised for days. In the original, the lighthouse keeper, Geoffroy, is visited by an English couple, who speak to him in bad French. I had to work out what to do with that, whether to leave it in bad French or render it in equally bad English. I opted for the former, but that took a lot of staring at my screen and making cups of tea and then staring out of the window while drinking them. Something else that required a lot of thought was the title. We toyed with numerous ideas. There were two previous translations, into German and Italian. The Germans called it The Lighthouse Killer, in German, of course, and the Italians The King of the Atlantic, after the actual Cordouan lighthouse in which it is set, but we didn’t fancy either of those. We tried a number of other approaches, and almost settled on one, but in the end we decided to go with the original title. I had an answer worked out for anyone who said we didn’t actually bother to translate the title, which would have been that we did, but that we translated it as Pharricide. It’s a neologism in French – a pun on parricide and le phare (lighthouse) – and it’s a neologism in English. ‘Phar-’ exists in English as a root for certain words connected with lighthouses. So why not? But nobody ever said it.
This is the second Lighthouse-themed novel you’ve worked on, after editing Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse. Is this becoming a niche for you?
Indeed. I have always loved lighthouses. Some of my childhood was spent in Whitley Bay in Northumberland. There was a lighthouse – St Mary’s Lighthouse – just at the bottom of the road. I was always struck by how at low tide you could walk out to it, but at high tide it was cut off. It sounds banal, perhaps, but it gave me a sense of the isolation one might feel to be cut off. I loved Alison’s novel and was delighted she agreed to write an afterword for the translation of Pharricide. When I asked Patrick McGrath if he might be interested in writing a foreword, he revealed that he actually has a small library of lighthouse literature. I struck lucky there – as I did with Confingo, both in terms of them taking it on but also in terms of the amazing job that Zoë McLean did on the design and production.
Pharricide was Vincent de Swarte’s first novel, another long-term area of interest for you. What is it that particularly appeals about literary debuts?
It’s the one thing that all novelists have in common – the first novel. One has expectations of a first novel. That it should make a statement, a declaration, of some kind. It’s like you’re opening your mouth and saying for the first time, Here I am, as a novelist, and this is what I have to say. I’m struck by how many writers’ first novels remain their best novels, in my assessment, often despite their flaws. I don’t think anyone would ever claim my first novel is my best novel – it was full of the kinds of elementary mistakes I advise students and authors against making – but I would hope, at this point in my career, that they would say my First Novel is my best novel. I just have to try to ensure that my First Novel is not my last novel.
Finally, do you think you’ll work on more translations in future?
Well, at several points during the work on Pharricide I did think to myself that I wasn’t sure I would ever want to do it again. But Vincent de Swarte did publish, posthumously, a very interesting short story collection, Pharanoïa, in which, in a couple of stories, he reflected on the experience of becoming a published author with Pharricide. And there are a couple more stories in which he writes, with great courage, I think, about what he knew was coming. I would be tempted to have a go at that, but a short story collection by a deceased French author is a tougher sell even than a novel by a deceased French author, so I think my French dictionary is fine where it is, on the shelf, for the time being.
Vincent de Swarte (15 June 1963 – 24 April 2006) was a French writer author of varied novels ranging from books for youth (Le Carrousel des mers) to adult fictions (Pharricide).
Nicholas Royle is the author of three short story collections – Mortality, Ornithology, The Dummy and Other Uncanny Stories – and seven novels, most recently First Novel. He has edited more than twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories. Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year, and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize. A new short story collection is forthcoming from Confingo Publishing.