What Can We Steal From Marcelle Thiébaux’s “Motoring”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Motoring,” short story
Author: Marcelle Thiébaux (on Twitter @MarcelleThx)
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece can be found in the May 2014 issue of decomP, a cool online journal.  You can read the story here.

Bonuses:  Ms. Thiébaux has done a fantastic job of making it easy for us to check out her work.  Her official site is a great example of what we should all be doing.  The author offers us some advice in her “free resources” section.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Foreign Languages

Discussion:
Ms. Thiébaux’s story achieves a very difficult goal: I remember “Motoring” even though I read it on the same day that I read a T.C. Boyle story that knocked me out.  I’m a huge fan of Mr. Boyle’s work; my memory of “Motoring” would have suffered were the story less interesting and cool.

“Motoring” takes place in February 1933.  The narrator is a young woman who is working in the American embassy in Nazi Germany.  (A fascinating time and place for a story, isn’t it?)  Jane attends a big party for the Nazi bigwigs and learns from her friend Gilda that the führer may attend.  Jane learns that Gilda has been working in an elite–double-check in case my German is faulty–whoo hoo!  I was right–bordello frequented by some powerful men.  Jane sees a beautiful Citroën alongside the German automobiles that are filling the exhibit hall.  She slithers into the car and…well, why don’t you read the story and allow Ms. Thiébaux to tell you her story?

Ms. Thiébaux has set her story in a place where German surrounds her characters.  This creates a problem for people who don’t speak German.  (Or for those whose German is rusty at best.)  How do you remain true to the language that would be used by the characters without leaving readers behind?  If you’ll recall, the film version of The Hunt for Red October notably had the Russian characters begin the film speaking subtitled Russian.  Then they simply slip into English.  I suppose this is a clever way to get around the problem.  We’ve all seen old films and wondered why the Germans were speaking English…often with a British accent.  Those who made Red October didn’t want to distract the viewer with subtitles, but tried to mollify the problem I just noted by compromising.  (I think it’s successful…it’s all about maintaining the suspension of disbelief.)

Ms. Thiébaux offers enough of a German flavor to add verisimilitude and to maintain the illusion she created.  Early in the story, Jane describes her dress:

I compared myself to the willowy models in Kultur und Sport, the illustrated society glossy, Culture and Sport, and decided I looked trim and not too conspicuous.

I did wonder why Ms. Thiébaux offered a graceful translation for two apparent cognates, but I suppose she was making the same “switch” as we find in The Hunt for Red October.  The reader would likely have been able to figure out “Kultur und Sport” without too much difficulty, but she seems to be holding out her hand, telling us, “Hey, there’s going to be a little bit of German stuff here.  But you can’t blame me, seeing as how the story takes place in Germany in 1933.  I promise that I won’t prevent you from reading and enjoying the piece.”

From there, Ms. Thiébaux defines what she needs to and allows the rest to add color.

Toffi’s was the most élite government bordel in Berlin. I knew where it was because one of my girlfriends at the Embassy had pointed out to me Frau Stefany “Toffi” Schmidt’s luxury cathouse villa on Savigny Platz. This was definitely news. The last time I’d seen Gilda was outside our apartment on the night of the Reichstag fire. She was sobbing in the street because the police were hunting for her communist boyfriend.

“Whatever happened to, you know, that kerl, that wild typ you were—” I started to ask.

She hissed in my ear, “Shut up, dummi, he’s dead meat around here.” She drew back and smiled with affection. “Let’s have champagne, sweetie, and not talk about the old days, ja?”

“Bordel” and “dummi” are cognates.  “Kerl” and “typ” are German words that many folks would know.  Ms. Thiébaux uses the German like spice to add an appropriately Teutonic flavor to the story.  I certainly won’t name any names, but there are plenty of pieces in which I have found the non-English content challenging.  Instead of reading the story, I was scratching my head, trying to make sense of the two-page dialogue conducted entirely in Sanskrit.  (I’m exaggerating.)

Ms. Thiébaux balances the needs of the needs of the reader with her obligation to maintain the illusion of reality in her fiction.  That illusion may have been broken had she used some of these beautiful and unwieldy German words:

Freundschaftsbezeigungen

Kaftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung

Siebentausendzweihundertvierundfünfzig

I also love the way Ms. Thiébaux depicts a very small moment from a time that is packed with drama.  Do I love the film Downfall (Der Untergang)?  Heck, yeah.  It’s all about Hitler’s final days in his bunker:

Do I love the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan?  Heck, yeah.  Can you imagine what it was like for those men to storm the beach?

But I also love the smaller stories that take place in the shadow of the BIG AND MASSIVE AND SCARY drama setpieces.

Like “Motoring,” Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) ignores the highest-profile narratives that a writer can tell.  Instead of making a film about the most important people in the Stasi or the most important members of the resistance in East Germany, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck turned his eye on a low-level member of the Stasi and a German playwright.  Is “Georg Dreyer” an important man?  Sure, but he’s not exactly the most important character in East Germany.

Ms. Thiébaux offers us a plausible and compelling story of a regular person who was witness to the some of the quieter and smaller moments that certainly took place in Nazi Germany.  We often forget that what World War II was not just a clash of global superpowers…it was also a clash of hundreds of millions of individuals with their own frames of reference.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ non-English languages in a felicitous manner.  You must fulfill your obligations to verisimilitude without ordering your reader to grab an English-to-Farsi dictionary.
  • Remember that the smaller stories can be just as compelling as the bigger ones.  Do I want to read a cool story about the people who confront the first wave of an alien invasion?  Sure.  But what about the people far away who realize that the world has changed, though they have not yet been directly affected by the coming storm?

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