Monday, 28 March 2016

à plus, Louise Rennison! - Clémentine Beauvais

Keren has already written a lovely post about it, but I still wanted to add a small tribute to Louise Rennison who died last month. Being part of the 'Georgia Nicholson generation', it was moving to see what seemed like the whole of Facebook (well, at least the female half of it) shedding tears, but also sharing the funniest extracts, at the news. It's difficult to think about Louise Rennison without smiling - even at such a sad time.

I've never actually read Georgia Nicholson's diary in English. In the early 2000s, when the first book was left for me under the Christmas tree by a prescient Santa, it was in the form of Mon nez, mon chat, l'amour et moi: "My nose, my cat, love and me": a much more prudish title than the original. I read, reread and rereread the whole series in French throughout my teenage years.

Thankfully, Catherine Gibert's translation for Gallimard was exceptionally good. It takes a bit of genius to translate funny books in general, but it takes a lot of genius to translate funny books for teenagers. To keep up with Rennison, Gibert had to make up many words (not an easy exercise in French), twist and break traditional syntax (even less so); she pretty much invented a 'funny teenage voice' in French.

The neon-coloured covers were a bit of a novelty in the very ivory/cream/white aesthetic of the French literary landscape of the time (even for children):

Gallimard had hired, to illustrate them, one of the punchiest and most famous French female cartoonists, Claire Brétécher, whose legendary renditions of slightly ugly, very endearing teenagers fit perfectly with the theme. 

At the time, there were few authors in teenage literature who rang true, who were funny and modern and spoke to us. Louise Rennison was one of them, and my friends and I couldn't get enough of it. But interestingly, while everyone in the UK says that they found themselves in the books - that they identified with Georgia - for us French girls it was a very foreign world. We didn't have all-girls' schools, we didn't have uniforms, we had much less P.E. (seriously, I couldn't understand why Georgia was doing sports pretty much everyday - in France we had 2 hours a week, and spent them half-heartedly playing ping-pong). And, at least in Paris, we didn't have those residential streets with cats sitting on walls - though I was familiar with that concept from Harry Potter. And what??? teenagers drove motorbikes???

Only later (when I arrived in the UK) did I realise that Georgia Nicholson's diary also gently mocked the British suburban middle-class, with its bored yummy mummies, its numerous opportunities for gossip, its populations of slightly immodest teenage girls looking for love by rolling up their uniform skirts. All of this very British lore felt just as unreal to me as the daily routine of Narnian fawns.

Yet it was still hilarious, and I still identified, because there's no need for social reality to make immediate sense when everything about the characters and their reactions feels so true. Rennison's teenagers were entirely contextual, and absolutely universal. They could not have been anything else than British, and yet they were every teenager in the world's best friends.

Louise Rennison was a teenage-literature genius, a redeemer of sad days, an exquisite social satirist, one of the best comedy writers in this country. I'm very sad I never got to meet her and thank her in person.


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.


Emma Barnes said...

That's a really interesting point about her Britishness, Clementine, which didn't prevent her books being enormously popular in so many different countries. Sometimes trying to make things universal can lead to blandness - Louise Rennison was an example of the opposite, so specific in language and culture, but universally popular because it all rang so true!

Ann Turnbull said...

Fascinating to see how the titles were changed for the French market.