Getting the Knife.

Wyatt Mason’s NYRB review of a number of translations of Pierre Michon (an author with whom I was unfamiliar) is an interesting read (as is pretty much everything Mason writes); Michon doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I love the anecdote that introduces the review. Mason begins: “When I was twenty and studying French literature in Paris, I signed up for an independent project in translation. My adviser’s only stipulation was that I translate something that hadn’t made its way into English.” He asks around and is told repeatedly that Pierre Michon is “one of our greatest living writers”:

In 1989, this was very much a minority opinion. Michon’s complete works amounted to three slender books, as I discovered in a bookstore near my school. The earliest, Vies minuscules (1984), ran to two hundred pages; Vie de Joseph Roulin (1988) was fifty-nine pages; and a third, L’empereur d’Occident (1989), was forty-nine pages. And while it would speak well of me to claim that I devoted the remainder of the afternoon to reading all three until the store closed, wringing my hands as I weighed the merits of each while hesitating over which to choose, I spent all of thirty seconds deliberating. The slimmest, the pages of which were printed in uncut signatures—to read them, I would need a knife—was unapproachable. The longest, which wasn’t long, seemed by comparison huge. So I chose the middle one, because it was short, and because I didn’t have a knife.

I got the knife thirteen years later. I was sitting with Michon and his wife in a restaurant down the street from their townhouse in Nantes. Across the intervening years, I’d translated four of Michon’s books into English and found them a small US publisher. [He met with the author each time.] These meetings had always been productive. Michon, who speaks little English, was generous with his time and clear in his responses, able to illuminate the many thorny passages in his work that his translator couldn’t unpack and dictionaries didn’t help decipher.

The 2003 meetings in Nantes were different. Michon was curt, dismissive. In the past, my incomprehension was met with patience, instruction; now my perplexities displeased him. […] And yet despite that morning’s agon, Michon proposed lunch out. In a booth, across from his wife, he sat between me and the wall. Confit de canard was ordered and served, accompanied by large serrated knives. I attempted conversation; conversation did not form. Plates were cleared. Michon held on to his knife. As he turned toward me in the booth for the first time, a tap of the tip of the knife he’d retained, now pointed at me, punctuated each word he spoke.

“So,” he began, “you’re an acceptable translator. Actually, no. You’re fine. But Vies minuscules is an exceptional text. It needs an exceptional translator. Understand?”

Michon’s face was gray, grim. I made a few sounds that attempted to communicate that I didn’t understand; that we had worked together for years; that I wasn’t clear what had changed; that I’d done the same work I’d done in the past and arrived with, I thought, the same kinds of questions but—

“But you haven’t even deciphered the text,” Michon said, loudly, pounding the table now with the fist that held the knife. The voices of the lunchtime crowd dimmed as the restaurant registered the disturbance. “You haven’t even deciphered it.”

With a terminal clack, Michon released the knife to the table.

“Let me out!” Michon shouted, pushing past me. “Let me out!”

Ouch! Many thanks to Trevor Joyce for the link.


  1. It would serve Michon right if Mason had only translated half the pages.

  2. But it’s L’empereur d’Occident that was uncut…

  3. What the translator would have needed to cut the book’s pages was not an actual knife, but the similar-looking tool called in English “letter opener” and in French le coupe-papier ‘paper cutter’, made to cut folded paper like envelopes or livres brochés. But using this tool in a bookstore would have been an absolute no-no, marking the book as used (some pages would still be readable if all one wanted was a peek). It is still surprising that in 1989 a recently published book would have been issued uncut.

    It looks like by 2003 the author had read about the quality of English translations of his work, and opinions of this translator’s work were not very positive.

  4. What the translator would have needed to cut the book’s pages was not an actual knife, but the similar-looking tool called in English “letter opener”

    Such a tool can also be called a “paper knife”…or, at least, they were so called in the era when newly-printed books required such an implement.

  5. Squiffy-Marie van 't Blad, Dutchman-at-large says

    (I am happy to inform the assembled that should one for whatever reason happen to lack a paper-letter designaturing implement a common or garden kitchen knife can, with care, be substituted.)

  6. Beginning with my own and continuing with those of my well-meaning successors, these translations haven’t adequately conveyed Michon’s qualities.

    As a translator—a sometime literary translator, even—this is excruciating and wonderful to read. Is this what the new Buruma-led NYRB is going to be like? Can it be a coincidence that they sent me a special offer that just arrived today? (In an actual envelope, with little boxes to write my credit card number in. Opening it was like falling into Lascaux Cave.)

  7. Yes, so far I’m cautiously pleased with the new Buruma-led NYRB. I will even renew if they send me a decent offer!

  8. In Ian Serraillier’s children’s book “The Silver Sword”, the titular sword is actually a paper knife. After some confusion I deduced that this did not actually mean a knife made of paper.

  9. Squiffy-Marie van ‘t Blad, Dutchman-at-large:

    Of course you can use a kitchen knife to open a letter, but a coupe-papier ‘s blade (often not made of metal) will not cut your hand if you make a wrong move.

  10. “That blade is pure silver, Master [Sorcerer] Sean?” Lord Bontriomphe asked.

    “Pure silver, my lord.”

    “Tell me: how do you keep a razor edge on anything that soft?”

    Master Sean smiled broadly. “Well, I’ll admit it’s a hard job getting the edge on it in the first place. It has to be finished with jeweler’s rouge and very soft kidskin. But it’s only used as a symbolical knife, d’ye see. We never actually cut anything material with it, so it never needs to be sharpened again if a man’s careful.”

    “But if you never cut anything with it,” said Lord Bontriomphe, “then why sharpen it at all? Wouldn’t it work as well if its edges were as dull as, say, a letter opener?”

    Master Sean gave the London investigator a rather pained look. “My lord,” he said with infinite patience, “this is a symbol of a sharp knife. I also have a slightly different one with blunt edges; it is a symbol for a dull knife. Your lordship should realize that, for many purposes, the best symbol for a thing is the thing itself.”

    —Randall Garrett, Too Many Magicians, a murder mystery set in a world in which the Laws of Similarity and Contagion are laws of nature, and the sun never sets on the Anglo-French Empire.

  11. a world in which the Laws of Similarity and Contagion are laws of nature

    Readers might be interested in Emily Short’s Savoir-Faire, one of the greatest interactive fictions of history, which takes place in a world with similar characteristics.

  12. Lord Bontriomphe, by the way, is the bagman of the Marquis de London, a sedentary fellow and herb fancier who enjoys using words like flummery, imbecilic, tomfoolery, and pfui! His cook, of course, is Swiss, and goes by the name of Frederique Bruleur.

  13. January First-of-May says

    My own kitchen has a large variety of what I believe to be Soviet butter knives (most of them between 40 and 80 years old) – though perhaps some of them are just plain knives that hadn’t been sharpened properly.
    I commonly use them to cut potatoes by holding the potato in my left hand; the knives are just sharp enough to cut the potato but not the hand, so it all works out nicely.

    I’m not sure if they are sharp enough to work as a letter opener, however – I’d probably expect them to rip the pages!
    The item I recall as a “paper knife” is a retractable blade that is very much sharp enough to cut if used incorrectly.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Frederique Bruleur

    Brenner is a perfectly cromulent surname, not even that rare. But less common than Brandstätter, which might mean “was there at the site of the fire, but we can’t prove anything”…

  15. There’s a famous anecdote of the young Jean-Paul Sartre first hearing of phenomenology — “you can do philosophy about this cup of coffee!” — and being so excited that he bought Levinas’ translation of Husserl & began to read it walking back from the bookstore, in the boulevard, without cutting the pages.

    But my favorite reference to cutting pages, or not, comes from The Great Gatsby, when a character, commenting on Gatsby’s nouveau riche library full of essential titles in good editions, observed that the appearance of the spines is clearly the important thing for the impression Gatsby is going for: “He knew when to stop… the pages aren’t cut.” Actually reading the books is not the point.

  16. When I took Introduction to Phenomenology, taught by Gian-Carlo Rota, who was the only person who had ever been a joint professor of mathematics and philosophy MIT, we were advised that there were no good translations of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations in English. Rota himself had at least two English versions, and he pointed out some passages where, comparing the translations, it hardly seemed possible that they had started from the same original. I think he mostly read Husserl in a French translation himself, since his German was not good enough.

  17. which might mean

    I can’t figure out if this is really Stout’s joke: to have the best cook in America called “burner”. It can’t be coincidence.

    the appearance of the spines

    Hence the expression, and reality, of buying books by the yard.

  18. I think I remember coming across some German pun from the 1930s about Brenner Pass burning. It would have been referencing German-Italian-Austrian intra-fascist conflicts from ca. 1933-1936. Googling has not turned it up, but I learned that “Brenner” is actually cognate to “pruner,” which seems obvious in retrospect, but which I had never before realized.

  19. Etymonline disagrees, s.v. prune:

    early 15c., prouyne, from Old French proignier “cut back (vines), prune” (Modern French provigner), of unknown origin. Perhaps [Watkins] from Gallo-Roman *pro-retundiare “cut in a rounded shape in front,” from pro “forth” (see pro-) + *retundiare “round off,” from Latin rotundus. Klein suggests the Old French word is from provain “layer of a vine,” from Latin propago.

    As for the pass, per WP:

    Prenner was originally the name of a nearby farm which derived from its former owner. The farm of a certain Prennerius is mentioned in documents in 1288, a certain Chunradus Prenner de Mittenwalde is mentioned in 1299. The name Prenner is traced back to the German word for somebody who clears woodland [presumably by burning it off]. A name for the pass itself appears for the first time in 1328 as ob dem Prenner.

    How did the /p/ revert to /b/, though?

  20. David Marjanović says

    It didn’t. Following the infamous consonant shift, High German simply didn’t have a /p/, but this constituted a hole in a system that had a /t/ and then reacquired a /k/. So, when the first Romance/Latin words with /p/ came in, they filled this gap and kept their /p/, but confusion began to reign over the native words. It’s still there; my dialect has a few words with /p/ from etymological /b/, and a few where I’m not sure which one they even have (prunzen ~ brunzen “to piss”). Place names are a mess (Perg < *Berg “mountain”, Pyhrn < things man wasn’t meant to know), and to a lesser extent so are surnames (Puchberger < *Buch(en)berger “beech mountain man”).

    Edit: Alemannic and Tyrolean turn every /sp st/, not just word-initial ones, into /ʃp ʃt/. That includes Augsburg and Innsbruck, which surprised me a lot when I found out. I don’t know what they do to |sd|, though…

  21. There is also an Asimov mystery story, “The Unabridged”, which depends on the idea of uncut volumes that are closed up at the bottom as well as the outer edge, and a semantic confusion between uncut and unabridged.

  22. John Cowan says

    A bit more of Too Many Magicians, the Darcyworld analogue of one of “Wolfe’s charades”, the Nero Wolfe version of the discussion at the end of many mysteries where the murderer is finally revealed. The Marquis de London, however, is actually an official with judicial powers, so when he runs one it’s an Anglo-French Court of Inquiry. The setting is exactly Wolfe’s office, and our detective hero Lord Darcy appears for the prosecution; the rest are witnesses.

    There were nine guests in the office of my lord the Marquis of London that night. Sir Frederique Bruleur had brought in enough of the yellow chairs to seat eight. Lord Bontriomphe and the Marquis sat behind their desks. Lord Darcy sat to the left of Bontriomphe’s desk, in the red leather chair, which had been swiveled around to face the rest of the company. From left to right, Lord Darcy saw, in the first row, Grand Master [of the Sorcerer’s Guild] Sir Lyon Gandolphus Grey, [Lady] Mary of Cumberland [Darcy’s friend, sometime lover, and quondam suspect], [Chief of Naval Intelligence] Captain Percy Smollett, and Commander Lord Ashley [of Imperial Naval Intelligence]. And in the second row, Sir Thomas Leseaux [a brilliant purely theoretical sorcerer based on T.A. Waters], Lord John Quetzal [a Moqtessumid, indeed the son of the Duke of Mechicoe, and a sorcerer and witch-smeller], Father Patrique [a Sensitive, someone with psychic powers], and Master [Sorcerer] Sean O Lochlainn. Behind them, near the door, stood Chief Master-at-Arms Hennely Grayme [Cramer cum Lestrade], who had told Sir Frederique that he preferred to stand. Sir Frederique had served drinks all around, then had quietly retired.

    Of course, the victim, Master Sorcerer Sir James Zwinge [real name of the Amazing Randi] isn’t present, except in spirit.

  23. I was just reminded of this mention of an only partially cut book—evocative of stasis—from The Picture of Dorian Gray:

    The flameless tapers stand where we had left them, and beside them lies the half-cut book that we had been studying, or the wired flower that we had worn at the ball, or the letter that we had been afraid to read, or that we had read too often.

    I suppose it makes sense to have incompletely cut books, since each gathering of pages would need to be slit separately. However, I don’t think I had ever thought about the possibility of a half-cut book until I read that in Wilde.

    I was actually reminded of Wilde’s passage again today—leading me to leave this comment—by a Star Wars concept art book that I got for my son. It was supposed to have a fold-out with an early sketch of an AT-AT, but the seam had accidentally been sliced off when the pages were trimmed.

  24. Now, this is puzzling. My impression is that books are cut using a guillotine early on, maybe after the signatures are sewn and before the boards are attached. The only uncut books I recall were either fancy books of the early-mid 20th century (to let the owner have the ritual of opening them?), or editions bound in paper, the idea being that you might want to have them more durably bound, and then could have them cut. I saw that much more in Continental books than in British or American books.

    Michon’s books in the original post were slim, cheap, and French. I can visualize them as being sold paperbound and uncut. But Dorian Gray’s Victorian upper-class books? I must be missing something.

  25. Lars Mathiesen says

    In Denmark that continued as a cheaper option until my parents’ generation (1960s), and then the perfect bound paperback took over the market. As in, we had books like that at home, but I never bought one from new myself. Apart from the public libraries, I doubt very many of those were bound professionally — on the other hand my grandmother did take up bookbinding as a hobby, that would account for some as well.

    You were supposed to slice all the pages in one go, however, from the front to the middle and then back from the end — doing it as you went along would warp the spine. This may have been a superstition, but a half-cut book is very decadent. (You didn’t cut them as such, since you wouldn’t have a tool to do it with — you used a paper knife to slit the folds, so you could always recognize a book that had been bought uncut from the slightly ragged edges of the pages. Always octavo printing in my experience, 16 printing pages to the ligature — first a vertical fold, then a horizontal one, so first you had 8 pages (4 leaves) with the self edge of the printing sheet on the outside, with 1/2 and 7/8 connected over 3/4 and 5/6 at the top — you would slit both pairs open in one go, unless you were very particular — and then the next four leaves were connected pairwise on the outside and like the first four at the top. All pages had self edges at the bottom, and the sewing was visible between page 8 and 9).

    Uncut books continued to have some cachet, the newest one I could find on my Mom’s shelves was a big (single author) poetry collection from 1992, while a multivolume set of Danish literature from the early 60s was sold cut though paper bound.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Pretty much all the originally-uncut books I’ve got are French paperbound ones; they date from whenever up to about the 1970’s.

  27. @Y: I don’t know when fancy editions of books stopped being sold uncut, but in the 1920s the fictional Jay Gatsby had virtually an entire library of uncut books—presumably all hardbound, since they were purely for show.

  28. I associate uncut (or obviously home-cut) hardbound books of that era with “collectors’ editions”, as you say. You can open them, but they are no longer mint condition. Like cabbage patch dolls in the original cellophane or whatever.

  29. Lars Mathiesen says

    Putting hard covers on a book without trimming the edges is — a statement, I guess. But in normal trade, uncut and hardbound is a contradiction in terms.

    Also you can’t put pictures on the edges if they aren’t trimmed.

  30. @Lars Mathiesen: I agree that it is not normal for hardbound books to be uncut today. But do you know what the situation was in Wilde’s time or, two generations later, Fitzgerald’s?

  31. Lars Mathiesen says

    All descriptions of the bookbinder’s art that I’ve seen start out by squaring and trimming the ‘block’ — as here. But it also mentions something called deckle edge that could be imprecisely be called uncut and was thought of as v. fancy, maybe that’s what Gatsby had.

    (And the thing with the paper knife is called opening the book, cutting is what the bookbinder does with a guillotine, if you are that sort of book collector).

  32. @Lars: I hate deckle edging on books.

    It is easy to find pictures online of hardcover books from, say, the nineteenth century that are slit un-cut. And “half-cut” was what Wilde wrote in 1890, in a context where cut cannot possibly mean something done by the binder, rather than the consumer. So I think you are retrojecting more recent practice onto a past when uncut books were more common, and both the practice and terminology were different from what they became in the twentieth century.

  33. Lars Mathiesen says

    Never having encountered bound and uncut books, I just assumed that Wilde’s half-cut book was paper bound, like the unopened ones I know. But the bound ones I can find pictures of are not trimmed/cut at all, they have all the original edges of the printing sheets as well as folds that would need to be opened; and the untrimmed sheet edges overshoot the folds, which makes sense if you intend to trim the book: a sheet edge may be uneven and need more trimming that a fold which is by its nature straight. Also the covers are very plain — it is very possible that my google skills are failing me, but they do not look like something the Great Gatsby would spend money on, they are only on the collector sites because old.

    (The paper-bound ones on my Mom’s shelves were folded more precisely, and the sheets were more precisely made, so that the pages form a pretty even block after opening the folds. That is probably newer technology).

    Is it possible that the glue needed for paper binding only came in after Wilde’s time, so even books that the printer didn’t give a ‘proper’ binding were sold bound in boards, but uncut?

  34. My assumption would have been that “half-cut” books have been cut / trimmed along the long edge, but not the short, of a twice-or-more-folded folio. Back issues that I have of evidently cheaply-bound journal / periodical issues from the early 20th century sometimes did this. Some of these incidentally also had perforated folds for being easier to cut open by the reader. (Past tense since I’ve cut them open myself by now, generally indeed by a general-purpose knife.) Some used ones actually appear to have been originally torn open by a finger or some other blunt instrument, which is doable but leaves quite extensively ragged edges. Aluckily these also have accordingly wide margins in the 3–4 cm range.

  35. Lars Mathiesen says

    As I kid I did open a book that I wanted to read with a finger. Once. (Piet Hein Grooks).

    And yes, the top folds were often perforated. I’m not sure if it was for ease of opening or because that was the second folding in octavo printing and the perforation made it easier or prevented uneven folding of some kind. (Though I’m guessing a journal might have a larger page size and be printed in quarto so only the top edges had folds).

  36. Complementary distribution really: I’ve seen some with A4-ish size (“quarto size”, apparently) and with the long side pre-cut, some with A5-ish size (“octavo size”) and perforation on the edges, not both at once though. (I’m ruling out the first being just a case of two leaves folded together, since the same series had also other releases of the same size but with two uncut sides.)

  37. Lars Mathiesen says

    Yes, quarto and octavo double as names for book / magazine sizes, but originally described how many leaves you got from one printed sheet (and thus how many of the edges were folded and how). Your sizes correspond to an A2 sheet of paper, in practice presses (and paper moulds) could be both larger and smaller than that (says the Internet).

    I don’t know if it was a general rule that each printed sheet of paper formed one sewn set of leaves, or if printers saved on the sewing by nesting more sheets of paper together — after folding, not before. (For what I call octavo the thread goes through four thicknesses of paper, that seems to be very practicable).

  38. A unit of pages that are sewn in together is called a gather (among other names). I think the sheets of a gather are laid down one atop the other, then all folded at the same time. That way, a single slit along the edge(s) opens the whole gather.

  39. There were a number of uncut and partly or wholly cut (by hand) books in my parents’ library, all of them hardbound. The uncut ones were open at the top, making them useful (as is told in another Asimov story) for hiding small flat things such as money. I presume they were bought on impulse (my parents had many books, but they were no book collectors) and unread. I cut a few myself using a letter opener; as the paper was acid-damaged, this sometimes made the pages ragged, but dammit, I wanted to read the books.

  40. I’ve seen references in novels and stories from before the mid-20th century to uncut or partially cut books, implying that they hadn’t been read or that the reader had lost interest. In one Borges story (IIRC, El Aleph) the author gives editions of his poetry to the love of his life, only finding out after her death that they had never been opened, as the pages hadn’t been cut.
    Personally, I’ve never seen a totally uncut book, but I had books where a set of pages hadn’t been cut, probably a production fault.

  41. I never got the hang of cutting a signature prefectly. When you get to the very end, near the spine fold, it’s hard for the knife to hold on to that last millimeter without tearing. If you don’t cut it then it will tear anyway.

  42. Lars Mathiesen says

    Also you don’t use a good knife to open a book, the fibres damage the edge. Just like the death penalty for using tailors’ scissors for paper.

  43. Back in Olde Days everyone had a stone or a strop handy to hone their knives, or could take them to the street-corner knife sharpener.

  44. Stu Clayton says

    What is a “good knife” good for if cutting paper with it damages the edge ? Do you mean only that cutting paper with it for weeks at a time will ruin it ? What about knife sharpeners – the real people, I mean, not those sandpaper blocks from the hardware store ?

    Edit: took out by Y.

  45. Lars Mathiesen says

    True. But everybody also had letter openers which are purposely not sharp.

    (Purposely — fun derivation of a sentence adverb. Hopefully go home. Where are the purists?)

  46. Lars Mathiesen says

    I was instructed that using the good scissors on paper once meant they had to be sharpened again, otherwise they couldn’t cut cloth cleanly — and opening letters with a kitchen knife was likewise verboten. It may be superstition or tools jealousy, I was not given an explanation on the metallurgical level of why paper is the villain in this story; cutting flowers was not as bad for instance.

    There’s a reason why X-acto knives have replaceable blades. Your expensive cooking knife doesn’t.

  47. Paper supposedly has silica crystals in it that dull metal. Now that I think of it, that would be wood pulp paper. I don’t see how cotton-rag paper would be worse for scissors than cotton fabric.

  48. David Marjanović says

    Where are the purists?

    They’re purposefully coming after you.

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