A little while ago, I went into the wonderful Book Hive in Norwich for a browse around. Upstairs by their front window, they had the most wonderful display of translated fiction, with books from Peirene, And Other Stories, Alma, Melville House and many more.
The book that caught my eye out of all that was Maurice Dekobra‘s The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars (translated from the French by Neal Wainwright) because it’s such a wonderful title. Originally published in 1925, it was a massive international bestseller in its day, but had been out of print for 50 years before being revived as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library of “books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored” in 2012. Whether it’s a transatlantic thing, or a generational one or what, I don’t know, but it took me a while to pick up the fact that the title actually refers to sleeper carriages on trains and not somnulent motor vehicles, but having seen the book and read the appealing blurb, I just couldn’t get it out of my head and eventually found my feet heading back there to buy a copy.
Taking place just after the Russian Revolution shook Europe to its core, it tells the story of Lady Diana Wynham, who relishes trampling on the sensibilities of British Society with her cross-continental escapades, and her secretary, Prince Gerard Séliman, the perfect gentleman, equally at home in an Istanbul bazaar or a London charity matinée.
Faced with the prospect of financial ruin, Lady Diana launches a plan to regain control of her inheritance, a field of oil wells seized by the Soviets. She dispatches Gerard on the Orient Express to take care of the matter. As he travels across Europe, his path is crossed by Soviet spies, old loves, the ominous Tcheka (Russia’s new secret police force), and a disturbing dearth of toast. Will he live to sniff a tea rose again?
As both the back cover and the quote from Emily St John Mandel on the website make clear, this is “the kind of book that gets described as a ‘delightful romp'”, which indeed it is. The characters are engaging and the prose is light, even when describing such serious matters as the abuses that went on in Soviet prisons. I found its combination of frivolity and journalistic depth neither heavy-going nor lightweight and an utterly refreshing change from all the reading matter that had been annoying me previously.
It did strike me as slightly odd to have American spellings of British things, particularly references to Laborites and the Labor Party but I can entirely see why Dekobra and Wainwright became friends – the book is actually dedicated to its American translator – as their styles seem perfectly matched and Wainwright makes the translation seem as effortless as the storytelling.
This was a groundbreaking book that laid the foundations for the 20th century spy novel and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining but serious read. Hats off to Melville House for rescuing it from English-language oblivion.