The Eleventh Novel by Yolande Brun

As a child Katya swam in backyard pools with grotto landscaping. She knew without anyone saying so that she lived in Fresno’s best neighborhood: the most rose bushes per capita and almost no single-story houses. Beds, in her experience, had footboards and dust ruffles. Trucks and window air conditioners were apart and alien, but in passing merely curious, like a film reel flickering. Her first palpable bewilderment came at a classmate’s house: the house not a house, but an apartment, downtown near offices. The fact of the front door being upstairs was irreconcilable in a way that made her legs brittle. Then the classmate’s mother never alluded to dolls or butterfly nets, but took the girls on errands to waiting rooms and the post office. Katya — disoriented, undervalued — resented her friend’s nonchalance. “Your house is weird,” she struck out at her, the word “weird” a basket in which to catch expectations unmet, the lolling-head boy on the public bus, and fish sticks for lunch. When soon the classmate moved away, Katya felt order restored; in time she used her as a reference point — “That was when Nicole was here, so it was second grade” — without collateral disruption. Ultimately, she lapsed from referring to her, as eventually she also forgot that once she had not just withstood, but burrowed into the suburban.

In Paris as a college student, Katya studied comparative literature. She adulated her female professors with brains like lion’s teeth, their scarves of geometric design the flags of their intellect. These professors lectured on restraint: “not the baggy confessional, but the icicle strike” of an exactly rendered instant. Duras was the general heroine; Katya wrote numerous essays relating lacework, flower painting, and miniatures to Moderato Cantabile. Moreover, speaking French
in France was quotidian; in California, it was glamorous…. like Zeus dispensing with his shepherd’s cloak, she enjoyed her own effect.
“Duras’s jagged subjectivities, repulsive and magnetic, are the modern symbolic equivalent of Maria van Oosterwyck’s insects.” The microscope became her ideal. Often, reading a thin French book, she imagined her own eyes and mind as lenses in correspondence. Professors praised her specificity but alluded to limitations of arc and range: “Your strength is at the word level. You have a high, close perimeter.” She took this more as an assessment of talent, than of deficit. The perimeter was irrelevant, when within its walls, there was so much of such resonance, as to be inexhaustible. She began translating the novels of Duras’s disciple Yolande Brun, still alive and typing in her ancestral hôtel, subsisting as far as Katya could tell on campari and sponge fingers. Yolande’s books constantly reprised fracture and icicle strike. Her ballerinas and society wives were surfaces sufficiently complex for Katya’s microscope.

Of necessity, Katya returned to the States. The market for her Brun translations was naturally not Paris, but Berkeley and Cambridge. She needed to be close to foundation officers and her university press. Moreover, speaking French in France was quotidian; in California, it was glamorous. She rode the bus and grocery shopped disguised as a young woman her own age, who possibly worked in publishing or possibly at a nonprofit; but her accented ordering of quiche lorraine revealed her radiance, and like Zeus dispensing with his shepherd’s cloak, she enjoyed her own effect.

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