Pure acoustic material

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“Nevermore”, the fourth of eight stories that make up Maylis de Kerangal’s Canoes, opens with the narrator entering a studio to record her recitation of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe (“The Raven”) whose refrain of “nevermore” gives the story its title. The studio belongs to the fabled Klang sisters, Inge and Sylvia, who are undertaking a “monumental work” aiming “to restore to literature its oral aspect, to embody it, to give each text a voice all its own, the right one”. The sisters tour “the country”, “panning” for voices “like gold in a river”, then return to their home and describe the various timbres, textures and – a deliciously technical term – “tessituras” they have found. What truly interests the sisters about the voice is “the listening it creates”.

In an afterwordde Kerangal describes this collection as being “about the human voice”, and it is hard not to see the Klang sisters as a mirror image of the author herself. Canoes is a slim volume of seven very short stories and one central novella, “Mustang”. If the sisters translate text into voice, de Kerangal’s work is the translation of voice into the material for text. Like “Nevermore”, each of the shorter stories focuses on the human voice and the kind of listening it creates. In “Mountain Stream and Iron Filings” a friend becomes a different person after she lowers, deepens and calms her voice in order to become “less feminine” and to succeed at work. In “A Light Bird” a widower struggles to delete his dead wife’s voice from the family answering machine, fixating on the recording’s “mysterious remanence of a fade-out”. And appropriately enough for a collection not just about translation but here published in translation (by Jessica Moore), “Ontario” captures the distinctive phrasing of a translator, Faye: “her particular way of accelerating at the end of a sentence, compressing the syllables and sending them forth with fervour, the way someone might throw shovelfuls of earth over their shoulder”.

“Mustang” seems at first to be distinct from these brief stories, each in their own way allegories of de Kerangal’s vision of the writer’s task. It follows a French woman who has moved with her son to Denver so that her partner, Sam, can take up a prestigious research post. Adrift, alone, she gradually finds her freedom by learning how to drive, only for her act of American assimilation to end in near-catastrophe. Yet in this more expansive and realist story we can observe the effects of voice in a wider social world. Sam speaks “louder and slower” as he adapts to the United States; she does not. Instead she yearns to “disappear like the species that didn’t adapt”, rather like the fossils she regularly visits in museums.

The Klang sisters are recognizable figures from de Kerangal’s oeuvre. In novels such as Mend the Living (2016), The Cook (2019) and Painting Time (2021), the author has revealed a consistent fascination with skilled, expert, dedicated workers – respectively, heart surgeons, chefs and painters. As the novelist and critic Lauren Oyler has suggested, de Kerangal’s immersive depictions of worlds of work can be understood as being of a piece with her interest in acts of translation: we see her characters transfer one heart to another body; alchemize raw food into cuisine; sublimate emotion into visual art.

And translation, in one form or another, is central to Canoes: translation from one country to another, from old pasts to new presents. Then there is the matter of translation and its consequence – transformation – as the task of the writer. “Klang” is the German word for “sound”, and Inge and Sylvia do not simply passively record voices, as if writing were merely transcribing reality. In their studio the voices “metamorphose: soon they have no gender, or age”. No longer mere “social or geographical voices”, they become “pure acoustic material” – which is the true subject of the sisters’ art.

Kevin Brazil is the author of Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness?, 2022

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