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Why France can't get enough of Gatsby

AFP
AFP - [email protected]
Why France can't get enough of Gatsby
An English-language copy of "The Great Gatsby." by F. Scott Fitzgerald is displayed in 2013 at Sotheby's in New York. The item was part of the "Fine Books and Manuscripts, Including Americana" (Photo by DON EMMERT / AFP)

It's an American classic but a Gallic obsession -- France can't stop re-translating "The Great Gatsby" whose 11th version hit the stores on Thursday.

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The novella, considered the defining account of jazz age America in all its high spirits and tawdry excess, was actually written mostly in France, where F. Scott Fitzgerald spent much of the 1920s.

First released in 1925, it saw four French translations in the 20th century and another six after Fitzgerald's books fell into the public domain in 2011.

"It's a story full of charm and mystery, and it's become more than that today because Jay Gatsby has become an internet meme thanks to Leo DiCaprio raising his glass of champagne," said the latest translator Jacques Mailhos, whose luxurious edition was out Thursday.

DiCaprio played the titular hero in the glossy 2013 adaptation by Baz Luhrmann.

Having been the most famous writer of his generation in the United States, Fitzgerald's star was already in decline by the time he settled on the Cote d'Azur in southern France.

Already in the grip of alcoholism, the poor initial sales of "The Great Gatsby" did little to help and Fitzgerald did not live to see its meteoric rise, dying at the age of just 44 in 1940.

It was Fitzgerald himself who paid for the first French translation in 1926, by one Victor Llona, whose work he praised.

But a recent translator, literature professor Julie Wolkenstein, has said she was "shocked" by the "word-after-word clumsiness" of Llona's version.

Karaoke massacre

She was the first to take advantage when the book went into the public domain, meaning she did not have to share royalties with Fitzgerald's descendants.

Many were affronted by her decision to shorten the title from "Gatsby le Magnifique" to simply "Gatsby", but her work was praised as "inspired and fresh" by Le Monde's book critic.

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That was not everyone's opinion.

One Fitzgerald fan, writer Frederic Beigbeder, told Le Figaro newspaper that her "respectable work gives the impression of hearing a Beatles hit massacred in a karaoke bar by a musicology student."

And so more versions were inevitable -- making it tricky for bookstores to know what to pick.

"It's a very complicated question for us," the Kleber international bookshop in Strasbourg told AFP.

"There are some titles where the translations have not aged well. But that's not the case with Gatsby where they are so recent."

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