Beauty on Earth
For the past year or so Michelle Bailat-Jones has been patiently translating Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’ La Beauté sur la Terre into a quietly lyrical English prose. Here is how Valerie Trueblood opens her foreword for us.
Through the terrace door of a Swiss inn the reader steps into a painting. The figures at the table move: two men, bumbling at first glance, elderly. They could be stagehands in the moments before the actors come on. In an opera they would be the villagers, and in fact, they are the villagers, giving no sign of having any further role to play. There’s an awkwardness to the scene; the prose seems to be feeling its way. The paint is still going onto the canvas. The two men talk to each other and before long the writer—someone like them, one of them—begins to address us. Thus commences the fugue that is La Beauté sur la Terre, in which the coming of a beautiful orphan to her uncle’s inn brings a gradual chaos upon his town. The great Swiss novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz published La Beauté in 1927. A few libraries around the world hold an anonymous English translation published two years later, but this new translation by the writer Michelle Bailat-Jones is a gift for which readers of the few works of Ramuz in English have waited decades.
Onesuch Press is proud and delighted to announce that Beauty on Earth is now available through all major online sellers. Ebook edtions will follow shortly.
This is the back cover of our edition of Oriental Encounters by Marmaduke Pickthall. It was very nearly the front cover and it will probably be the cover image for the kindle edition. It is for me one of the most striking photo portraits of the 20th century. This captured moment of time resonates powerfully in this very moment. One of the great hooks of photography is this freezing of a moment of time. That captured now, in this photo, is now still. Will be always.
We don’t know the man and the girl in this photo. Their names and story are not recorded. On the steps of the Scots Mission Hospital, Tiberias, Palestine, they have come seeking help. The photo was taken in 1934 by a photographer of the utopian Christian sect, the American Colony. The photo is described as ‘Blind man being led by daughter seeking help at hospital’.
The photo has the stopping power of that 1984 photo of the Afghan Girl, by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. True, the girl in this photo doesn’t have those piercing green eyes, eyes that were seemingly electrified by the terror that left her a war orphan.
But the girl in this picture has just as much presence. She is as beautiful as the Afghan girl. Her being seems just as much transformed, not from terror but from care. It’s as if she has grown up (and tired) from seeing the adult world for her father. His eyes as it were. On her face we can read something of the rawness and shock of what it can mean to be human. To love and care, and suffer another's suffering. Look at her stance – she is what, eight years old? – yet she seems so assured. She leans comfortably into her father as much to protect as to be protected. Her hand placed on his knee – this, the two of them – is her whole world. It is where she lives. She looks straight at the camera, us, with a haunting combination of care and defiance. There is much that the world might still do to her father but she won’t allow it to happen, not if she can. We know she is a fighter.
He is maybe thirty and handsome, utterly without pride. Life has beaten him into submission. What cares he must have had for his daughter? How to be her father? He can never look after her the way she should be looked after. How cruel, to be the loss of her childhood. But his blindness, his reliance on her, and her reliance on him have forged a fierce bond. They probably have no one else.
This picture and Pickthall’s book are both emphatic metaphors. Both are encounters with a lost world, real characters with desperate histories.
There is another photo of them - this is a series of two. In the second they are standing, posed as walking. They are tall and straight. She poised rather than posed. It’s the last we see of them before they disappear into their future and our past. And we are left, long after they have gone, with a keen and lasting sense of their humanity.
Great photographs, like great books, work magic on us.