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Songs for the Gusle
Prosper Mérimée ; translated from the French by Laura Nagle
Translator Laura Nagle offers English-speaking readers the chance to experience renowned French romantic writer Prosper Mérimée’s controversial 1827 collection of annotated “Illyrian” folktales and songs in full for the first time, nearly two centuries following the original publication. At first blush, readers may take Songs for the Gusle for a 19th century French travel writer’s earnest anthology of folklore from the Illyrian provinces (parts of Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy during the Napoleonic Era), tales that the narrator translates from Illyrian, his umbrella term for several languages spoken in those regions, into French. But soon Mérimée’s creation takes on surprising satirical complexity, especially in the original’s footnotes, which stud most pages and playfully anticipate 20th century experiments like Nabakov’s Pnin.

Previous English translations of Songs for the Gusle were primarily concerned with the ballads, songs, and stories themselves and all but ignored the narrator-translator’s extensive footnotes, in which (as Nagle notes) “the ‘translator’ emerges as a recognizable character” in his own right, inviting readers to question the translator’s cultural analyses and the narrative voice itself. Those footnotes are often pompous and include inaccurate information about the regions upon which the original translator claims to be an expert: a corpse’s still-growing hair and nails, one footnote insists, are “clear evidence of vampirism.”

The power of Songs for the Gusle for contemporary English-speaking readers is in this puzzling tension between the real and unreal, which is darkly familiar in the online age, wherein truth is continually uncertain and subject to cultural biases. The fictionalized tales, crisply told and alive with mystery in Nagle’s translation, fascinate, but the richer pleasure and meaning comes from what Nagle calls the “untangl[ing] [of] La Guzla’s threads of fact, fiction, and satire.” Readers fascinated by quasi-fiction and 19th-century French literature will relish this chance to explore Mérimée’s “fakelore” creation.

Takeaway: The first full English translation of Prosper Mérimée’s playful work of “fakelore.”

Great for fans of: James Macpherson’s The Poems of Ossian, Gabriel de Guilleragues’s The Letters of a Portuguese Nun.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A