Translator’s Note on Cyrille Fleischman’s Work:
I fell in love with Fleischman’s work the first time I read it, probably twenty years ago, while perusing short story collections for possible use in my undergraduate French courses. I loved his light touch, unpretentious style, and the humorous compassion with which he treats his characters, who exhibit human foibles which we have all experienced. For me, they also brought to life the Jewish Marais, a neighborhood in which I had lived while doing research in Paris. Individually, Fleischman’s stories seem at first anecdotal; then suddenly, with a twist of a phrase, they rise to embrace the universal. When read collectively, themes of being and identity and their fragility emerge. One of the reasons that “M. Lekouved’s Revolt” appeals is that it is such a joyful affirmation of being. A great challenge in translating Fleischman’s work into English is maintaining the delicate humor, tenderness, and subtle depth; in other words not letting his stories become merely comic in translation.
Cyrille Fleischman (author) was born on February 3, 1941, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, home to a large community of Ashkenazi Jews. Fleischman studied law, but while practicing, began writing short stories portraying Yiddish characters of the Marais in the 1950s. He published his first collection of short stories in 1987, but is best known for the three volumes centered on the neighborhood of the Saint-Paul metro station. The focus of his thirteen short story collections, like their author, would always remain in the Marais. Fleischman has been compared to Isaac Bashevis Singer, even Marc Chagall for his portrayal of Yiddish culture in the Marais. In 1995, he was awarded a Prix d’Académie by the French Academy, and in 2002, the Max Cukierman award for the promotion of Yiddish language and culture. He died in 2010 after a long illness.
Lynn Palermo (translator) is an associate professor of French at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. She has published the translation of another story by Cyrille Fleischman in World Literature Today (Sept/Oct 2010), as well as academic translations. She recently translated four academic essays for a special issue of Dada & Surrealism focusing on the Romanian surrealist movement (to appear in 2015). She is collaborating on a translation of one of Fleischman’s short story collections, while working solo on a novel by a contemporary French author and short stories by other writers of the Francophone world. Her research focuses on the literature, art, decorative arts, world’s fairs and cultural politics of period between the World Wars.
Monsieur Lekouved’s Revolt
Alexander Lekouved gave a big, friendly wave, as the waitress deposited two slices of meat on his plate, next to the mashed potatoes.
–Who are you saying hello to? asked the waitress, looking around, Nobody’s here yet at this hour.
–I’m greeting this veal roast! I think it’s the same one as yesterday. And the day before. Maybe even last month. I feel like we’re old friends by now.
The waitress shrugged and went back to the kitchen.
Alexander Lekouved had been taking all his meals at this restaurant since becoming a widower. He always arrived around eleven-thirty, a habit that predated his retirement, when he used to eat lunch at home before traveling out to a suburb to tutor students in philosophy—students who had failed the high school graduation exam. And despite maintaining a friendly rapport with this waitress for weeks, he had just become her enemy. He acknowledged this without regret.
The waitress brought him the next course—fruit compote—which she practically threw onto the table, and before he could order coffee, she had already scribbled his bill on the paper tablecloth. He had barely paid before she cleared the table, tossing the paper tablecloth into a big wastebasket over near the counter. When he left, she did not say au revoir.
The weather was lovely. Monsieur Lekouved slipped a hand into his vest pocket to check his watch. Still not yet noon and the whole day stretched before him with nothing to do. He breathed deeply in the breeze and decided to cross the street to a café with sidewalk terrace.
He would take his coffee there.
He chose a table, sat down, and stretched out his legs. A waiter hurried over to him. Since he was only ordering coffee, could monsieur please take a seat inside the restaurant? At this hour, the terrace was reserved for customers ordering a meal.
The waiter looked like one of Monsieur Lekouved’s former students, the type who repeated the last year of high school several times without ever graduating. Lekouved tilted his head back to take a better look at him.
–Are you telling me that I have to sit inside when I prefer to have my coffee out here, on the terrace?
–Oui, said the waiter, growing annoyed and snapping the white cloth on his shoulder toward the front door, Inside!
Lekouved raised his hand for quiet.
–Tell the owner that I’d like to speak to him.
–Perhaps we should put our policy in writing, and have it stamped and notarized for you, snorted the waiter. I’m telling you, the tables on the terrace are reserved for people having a meal.
–That’s the problem. I’ve already eaten. Across the street. So, just bring me a cup of coffee.
–I said, no! Now move! The waiter was downright aggressive.
Alexander Lekouved did, indeed, move. He rose to his feet and grabbed the waiter’s right ear. Slowly, calmly, he twisted it until the waiter tore himself from his grip. Then Monsieur Lekouved sat back down.
–Bring me a coffee, please!
People passing on the sidewalk had stopped to stare. The waiter rubbed his ear, stammering, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it…”
Lekouved insisted gently, “A coffee, if you please.” Then roared, “Bring me a coffee, or else I’ll take care of your other ear, too, the one that’s so big you could blow your nose on it!”
The waiter was thunderstruck. He retreated into the café to tell everyone sitting at the counter. Five minutes later, the owner himself strode toward Lekouved, a cup of coffee in hand, which he set on the table in front of him.
–You had no right to…
–Yes, I certainly did have the right to! interrupted Lekouved. Don’t you know the stipulations of the paragraph of the statute of the municipal law governing the sale of coffee on café terraces?
The owner argued no further. This pain-in-the-neck might have connections down at city hall. He just shrugged.
The people who had been watching the scene, wandered off. Lekouved drank his coffee, glanced at the cash register receipt left by the owner, and left a few coins on the table.
He felt good. He even had a revelation: it felt good to rebel!
He stood up, did a few calisthenics to get his blood circulating and, since this was a day of revolt, decided to go visit his brother-in-law who owned a clothing shop not far away. Three years earlier, his wife’s brother had borrowed two candlesticks that he had never returned. Alexander hadn’t needed them since his wife died. He no longer hosted family reunions at the holidays, but still, that was no reason…
He walked slowly, deep in thought, but before he knew it, he was standing in front of his brother-in-law’s shop. Which made him think maybe he should spruce up his wardrobe. Upon entering the shop, the first words that flew out of his mouth were, “I stopped by to say hello and buy a few shirts. At the same time, you can give me back those candlesticks you never returned.”
The brother-in-law, who had smiled upon seeing him, stiffened.
–The two candlesticks that you borrowed from your sister, three years ago when she was still alive.
His brother-in-law laid his hand on Alexander’s shoulder.
–You mean the candlesticks that your wife had inherited from my mother?
–Of course! I’m not talking about chandeliers from the Opera House!
The brother-in-law frowned. “Forget it. They’re a memory of my sister.” He changed the subject. “What kind of shirts are you looking for? Solids? Stripes?”
–I’m not sure if I understood you correctly, interrupted Lekouved. Are you saying that you are not going to return my candlesticks?
Without even waiting for an answer, Lekouved went behind the counter, glanced up and down the rows of shirts organized by size, and calmly removed ten white shirts, size 39, and ten fancy vests. Whatever he could reach. Alexander Lekouved put the ten shirts and ten vests into two large plastic bags from a stack on the counter and walked out of the shop. His brother-in-law, at first spellbound, chased after him out to the sidewalk.
–Where are you going with those? You’ve got a fortune in clothes there, not even counting the shirts!
Alexander Lekouved stopped, his two plastic bags dangling. “When you return my candlesticks, then maybe I’ll return the vests. But I’m keeping the shirts!”
Lekouved left his dumbstruck brother-in-law standing on the sidewalk. Happiness welled up inside him. As he walked away, several people nodded to him. Acquaintances, probably, he wasn’t sure. He had done so much for this neighborhood! Rendered service to so many people! Before becoming a teacher in the suburbs, he’d worked in one or two private schools not far from here, he’d acted as secretary to a politician in the arrondissement, he’d been copy editor at a Yiddish publishing house. He’d…he’d… above all, he’d been polite and affable. Yet, in none of those capacities had he felt as much satisfaction as he did today.
With his two plastic sacks full of clothes, Alexander Lekouved strolled along, humming under his breath. He wasn’t far from home, now. He raised his eyes to the blue sky. For a moment, he was tempted to give thanks. But at his age, one no longer bothered to thank the heavens for so little. He continued down the sidewalk in the sun, a little spring in his step. At seventy-two years of age, Alexander Lekouved, retired school teacher, honorable but not honored, belated but enthusiastic rebel, felt that at last he was going to start having fun.