Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic

Octave Mirbeau, trans. from the French by Justin Vicari. Dalkey Archive (Columbia Univ., dist.), $14.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-62897-030-2
Justin Vicari, the translator of this latest volume in Dalkey Archive's French literature series, has set for himself a difficult task: modernising Mirbeau's 1901 novel for a contemporary anglophone readership, while also maintaining the bite of this satirical roman à clef. Writing after the disgrace of the Dreyfus Affair, Mirbeau takes aim at the whole of French society, declaring it hypocritical and insane. The narrator, Georges Vasseur, has traveled to a resort town in the Pyrenees, "which turns my general boredom of travel into a heightened form of torture." Georges is depressed, anxious, and wildly funny. The book details encounters and stories with his wild cast of friends and acquaintances, who are "like most people, some grotesque, others merely repugnant; perfect scum whom I would not recommend young ladies to read about." There is the vain Clara Fistula, a 17-year-old wonderkid who needs 20 francs to publish his opus, Cosmogonic Virtualities, a work that once and for all solves the grotesque problem of human reproduction; old Baron Kropp, who kills himself to make an iron ring for his beloved, to which she replies "I would have rather had a pendant"; and the Marquis de Portpierre, a royal con, who despite his brutality is beloved by his peasants. The work is filled with episodes that are amusing and revolting in equal measure; a story detailing flesh-eating sea winkles stands out. Vicari's translation is airy and accessible, retaining the endless ellipses of the original French text. While the modern reader might not appreciate every subtlety of Mirbeau's broadside against his society, its essential targets of corruption and cruelty remain timeless. (July)
Reviewed on: 06/22/2015
Release date: 07/01/2015
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