I’m rereading Lawrence Durrell’s Justine after many years, enjoying the writing as much as ever: “The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind…” But I just hit an example of something that baffles and infuriates me every time I run across it. The narrator is describing a novel written by “a French national, Albanian by descent… a certain Jacob Arnauti” about the very woman he himself is in love with, Justine (who in the novel is called Claudia: “whenever I read the book, and this was often, I was in the habit of restoring her name to the text”). The book is in French (the title is Moeurs) and the characters presumably speak French with each other (“I have told her I am French”), but on pp. 74-75 (of my Dutton paperback edition) occurs the following quote from “Arnauti”:
‘Damn the word’, said Justine once, ‘I would like to spell it backwards as you say the Elizabethans did God. Call it evol and make it a part of “evolution” or “revolt”. Never use the word to me.’
I suppose most people just accept it without thinking about the linguistic situation, but I always get stuck on these things. None of that makes any sense in French. I see this sort of thing in movies a lot, where the characters make jokes or puns in English when they’re supposed to be Germans or Russians, but somehow it seems worse in a book. Couldn’t he have had her say “Damn the word amour, it always makes me think of mort,” or something?