Recently the author of a French blog mentioned Simone de Beauvoir’s voluminous “essai” on aging, La Vieillesse. It was translated into English as The Coming of Age by an author who in the past provided me with many pleasant hours of escapist reading, Patrick O’Brian.
Amazon offers a used paperback copy in French at an astonishing $89.85 versus the English Paperback edition of $10.49, while my local bookstore, the famous Powells Bookstore, asks for $15.95. What gives here? Is the used bookseller touched? It makes no mention of some rare quality, the book wasn’t signed by Simone de B, and is "probably not" a first edition.
So why the astronomical price tag? The latent Luddite in me leans toward Powells rather than the amazon.com machine. I shop at Powells regularly and as I write this have a suitcase filled with books I hope to sell them next week so I can spend a delicious hour or two deciding on my next in-store purchase, like the English version of La Vieillesse, for instance.
These price discrepancies have me wonder what my own French lit collection, some of it going back to my first purchases as a teenager, might be worth. However, they may be too old to interest Powells and, in any case, they have kept me company for half a century or more: they are me and therefore not for sale.
More troubling than the price is reading the essay in English. It seems a form of intellectual laxity to opt for my preferred reading language, English. I have thought about, talked about, engaged in, agreed and disagreed on the goods and ills of translation, and when I do I never fail to remember Jane Eyre, the sheer wonder of reading it in its exquisite English original version, after several reads of (a dreadful) French translation.
By reading The Coming of Age would I miss the subtleties, the beauty of Madame de Beauvoir’s style? I could only know by reading at least one chapter of each version. As it happens, in a few weeks I'll be here and will look for La Vieillesse in this lovely store, and later, dear reader, I will let you know what I found.