Caroline’s Review of Lafontaine’s Claire Duplessis et Clairant
Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1797) 259 (Wednesday, 16 August 1797) 422–24
Braunschweig. Claire Duplessis et Clairant: Histoire d’une famille d’émigrés François. By the author of Rodolphe de Werdenberg, trans. from the German by M.***. 1796. 8vo. Vol. 1, XVI and 230 pages. Vol. 2, 250 pages. Vol. 3, 1797, 250 pages. (1 Rthlr. 16 gr.).
The enterprise of translating this enormously popular novel into French has been wholly justified by its successful execution, for this Clara du Plessis reads like a French original, returning to us the original’s wealth and grace in a new light.  To wit, the overall impression remains quite the same and will doubtless captivate foreign readers as well. For despite the various and sundry mistakes and oversights that might well be adduced with respect to the original, so much charm resides in the warm, artless presentation, in the animated elements of life regnant there, and even the melancholic conclusion is so deftly accompanied by youthful emotion that a reader is inclined to overlook such considerations entirely, or perhaps even, given the piece’s blossoming florescence, to reckon this fleeting and pleasant tableau among the truly great works of art.
The translator, on the other hand, seems to pass cooler judgment in his preface, commending the piece to his countrymen primarily from the perspective of probability or reality, thereby also seeking to excuse various features not cast entirely in the costume of French customs. Insofar as he did indeed allow himself modest alterations here and there, one might sooner have wished that he had taken even greater liberties, for example, with the most trenchant transgression against probability and deleted or restricted those scenes in which the mother allows Clara to learn certain theater roles with Clairant and then appear in an amateur theater performance as his beloved.
Several fatiguing repetitions at the beginning might also better have been simply deleted. Both the translator and the author return three or four times to point out how this passion, “qu’un rien avoit commencée, qui n’étoit au fond qu’une méprise de l’amour proper, exagerée ensuite et exaltée par l’imagination” [approx. “that nothing had begun, which was at bottom only a mistake of self-esteem, then exaggerated and exalted by the imagination”], acquired more consistency only by way of this or that new chance occurrence. Although these psychological remarks betray an intentional attempt to shape the portrayal more subtlety, their effect is not to the latter’s advantage. The details of straightforward, ardent passion, the manner of its origin and course, did not really need such admixture. As usual, the author was quite fortunate in this instance, and in translation these details have lost nothing in the way of delicacy.
The most attractive feature in this translation, however, are the letters of the two lovers, of which one might justifiably maintain that they really could have been written thus. Here one encounters the casual, flowing language of nature and true tenderness whose content is admittedly spiced not by the philosophy of the heart, but rather by characterization of the sort generated by the age itself and the situation at the moment, and by a vivid evocation of the setting. Should our neighbors perhaps miss the element of masculine ardor or pointed articulation of emotion to which they are otherwise accustomed, they will nonetheless become acquainted with the simpler, more straightforward German disposition of love in its most pleasing vestment, and will doubtless be pleased by a more naive perspective.
Click on the image below to open a gallery of illustrations to several editions of Lafontaine’s novel:
Translation © 2018 Doug Stott