18 May 2017

Lachlan Mackinnon: The Lives of Elsa Triolet (1992)

About fifteen years ago Alison Macleod phoned me to talk (with some incredulity) about my interest in Lionel Britton, about which she'd noted in the TLS (Times Literary Supplement), although she failed to understand my concern with a writer of 'pretentious piffle'. (I have to add that the Alison Macleod I'm writing about is the former TV critic of the Daily Worker and the author of The Death of Uncle Joe (1997), not the novelist Alison MacLeod).

The Alison Macleod speaking to me not only considered Britton's writing to be bad, but also called Britton's great friend Herbert Marshall's translation of Mayakovsky's poetry 'cloth-eared'. Which is where Lachlan Mackinnon's The Lives of Elsa Triolet comes in, as Mackinnon mentions Marshall's Mayakovsky (1965) as one of the key five works he consulted in the writing of this book. Mayakovsky was the lover of Elsa Triolet's sister Lili (and perhaps briefly the lover of Elsa herself), but more importantly was responsible for introducing Elsa to her second husband Louis Aragon.

Does Herbert Marshall's translation of Mayakovsky matter here? Probably not at all, although I'd have appreciated the knowledge that Mackinnon was quoting Marshall long before I searched for translation sources at the end of the book. In fact, I'd have appreciated knowing who translated the many quotations from French into English, because I suspect they come from the author himself. In a word, I find it difficult to accept this as a scholarly publication (in spite of the knowledge on the back flap that Mackinnon regularly writes for the Times Literary Supplement), and I can't bring myself to trust it. There is a Bibliography, but no footnotes or endnotes to support quotations used.

As a general introduction to Elsa Triolet's life and work (and indeed to some extent the life of Aragon) I find this perfectly acceptable, although as I'm relatively new to Triolet and Aragon I shall wait to read deeper into the lives of the pair from more scholarly works written in French.

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