The first time I read Pierre Lemaitre, I was sick with fear. Partly because his gut-wrenchingly visceral thrillers can make Mo Hayder read like Enid Blyton, partly because I had been asked to translate him. Having spent many years teaching before setting out as a writer, Pierre brings a sweeping passion for literature to his crime fiction – while Irène is a homage to noir fiction, Pierre is just as likely to trip up a translator with allusions to Dumas, Javier Marías or Shakespeare.
I first met Pierre at Bristol Crimefest, shortly after translating Alex, and within the space of two pints, we were firm friends. He could talk excitedly and intelligently about Proust and Musil, but when he met William McIlvanney (author of Laidlaw) at the festival it quite literally brought a tear to his eye. Pierre and I bonded because, like him, I have always been a voracious reader with little time for distinctions between high-brow and low. Both of us, I think, ask only that books move or thrill, excite, inspire or stimulate. . .
As a reader of Irène will discover, Pierre’s touchstones when he became a writer were McIlvanney, Ellroy and the first (and perhaps greatest) Scandiwegian crime masters Sjöwall and Wahlöö. For my part, crime fiction has always held a special place for me and the chilling amorality of James M. Cain, the clear-eyed compassion of Barbara Vine and the profound humanity of Denise Mina have all affected me as deeply as anything I have read. For these and a host of other reasons, translating Irène was a huge pleasure.
It proved, in the end, to be a much closer collaboration than is usual with an author. Irène was Pierre’s first novel, one of which he was justly proud, but he was keenly aware that a number of standalone novels separated it from Alex, and Camille (the other volumes in the Commandant Verhœven trilogy) and wanted me to ensure that, in English, the style was in keeping with the later books. The changes in the text are small and subtle, the result of many conversations and of Pierre’s faith in translation and those of us who practice it. He understands, to quote George Steiner, that “Without translation we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence.”
Spending three years translating a trilogy of books written over a ten-year period is akin to watching a writer grow up in fast-forward; seeing confidence blossom and characters grow and intimations or mortality creep in. I recently delivered the third volume of the Verhœven trilogy, Camille (published in March 2015). By then, I had a sense of the breadth and scope of Pierre Lemaitre’s ambition and imagination, so it came as no surprise to me that he won the Prix Goncourt – France’s most distinguished literary prize – for Au Revoir Là-Haut which some have called his first “serious novel”; but all Pierre’s novels are serious – the only difference is that it has no detective.