Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue Part I: Translation Comparisons

At almost 1400 pages, I’m not going to claim that I’m close to finishing the mega volume, Mysteries of Paris from Eugène Sue. This  Penguin Classics edition is the first new translation in more than a hundred years, and with free or very low cost e-versions on the internet, the big question becomes, ‘is it worth it to spring for this new version?’ My opinion: if you’re ready to commit a large chunk of your reading life to this book, then it’s worth forking out for this new edition.

the mysteries of ParisThe Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. The Penguin edition’s excellent foreword from Peter Brooks introduces the novel with an overview of the main characters and also details the reception of the series by its French readers, stating that it  “was perceived by many of Sue’s contemporaries to be dangerously socialist in its political agenda.”

It was certainly the runaway bestseller of nineteenth century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time. It’s hard to estimate its readership, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafes and in workshops and offices throughout France. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls, because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was truly a national experience, riveting in the way certain celebrity trials have been on our time, breathlessly maintained from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial.

Brooks goes on to explain that Sue was only a “moderately successful author of seafaring tales and sentimental fiction” before he hit his stride with The Mysteries of Paris, and that “he began his exploration of low-life Paris largely from sensationalistic motives.” As the serial grew in popularity, fans wrote to Sue and “Socialist reformers, too, began to bombard Sue with ideas and tracts.” Sue’s work became part of a feedback loop between reader and author:

Sue began responding by way of his novel, introducing such reformist schemes as a nationally organized pawnshop that would provide credit to the poor, public defenders for the accused, and a hospice for the children of convicts. A real dialogue developed, and by the time the novel drew to its close, Sue was ready to proclaim himself a socialist.

Since one of the originally unintended, inadvertent results of The Mysteries of Paris was to raise social consciousness regarding the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, it’s inevitable that comparisons must occur between Sue and Dickens. It’s certainly something to think about…

The translators, while discussing the difficulties presented in translating slang note that “all three of the 1843 translations have considerable shortcomings and inaccuracies. None of the translations have been available in book form since the early twentieth century (all current e-book translations reproduce the British translation, which is characterized by significant omissions).” **Actually The Mysteries of Paris is available in another printed book form, but the edition available on Amazon states it’s just over 400 pages and one reviewer complains that the pages appear to have been scanned from a really old edition. Not sure what’s missing there….

This matter of omissions became glaringly apparent immediately. In the Penguin Classics edition, Sue begins chapter one “The Joint,” thus:

In the slang of murderers and thieves, a “joint” is the lowest sort of drinking establishment. Ex-cons, called “ogres,” generally run these taverns; or when it is an equally debased woman, she is known as an “ogress.” Serving the scum of Paris, inns of this variety are packed with freed convicts, swindlers, thieves, and assassins. Whenever a crime has been committed, the police first cast their nets in this mire, so to speak. And here they almost always find their man.

This opening should alert the readers to the sinister scenes that await them. If they proceed, they will find themselves in strange places, foul urban abscesses that teem with criminals as terrifying and revolting as swamp creatures.

We have all read the legendary work of the American Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, whose pages describe the brutal ways of savages, their quaint and poetic language, the countless tricks they use to pursue or flee their enemies. Their readers tremble for the welfare of the colonists and town dwellers when they consider how they are surrounded by these wild tribes whose bloody ways mark them off from all things civilized. For our own readers, we are going to attempt some episodes from the lives of French savages who are as far removed from civilization as the Indians Cooper so vividly described. And these barbarians are all around us, We will spend time in their dens in which they get together to plan murders and robberies, in the holes where they divvy up their victims’ spoils among themselves

And there’s more, a lot more, I’m not adding here….

This entire preamble is missing from the earlier kindle versions (either free or low cost), so it’s up to you to decide if you think this preamble added anything to the story. I think it did. If I’m going to spend a portion of my life reading a book this big, I want to read the whole thing–not the Reader’s Digest condensed version, thank you very much. In this preamble, Sue creates a titillating atmosphere, ramping up the thrilling, delicious suspense and naughtiness, coated with a collaboration between the writer and the reader to take this mysterious “journey” into the criminal underworld together.

Thus forewarned, readers may wish to follow us on the journey we are inviting them to take among the denizens of the infernal race that fills our prisons and whose blood stains the scaffolds. We do not doubt this investigation will be new for them. Let us reassure our readers that once they begin this story, with each step on its way, the air becomes purer.

Anyway, I’m reading The Mysteries of Paris, so there will be multiple posts this year–(there are ten “books’ with an epilogue), multiple translation comparisons (or omissions as in this case). In terms of readability, so far, I’m reminded of Dumas. The pages go down like honey.

Translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg.

Review copy



Filed under Fiction, Sue Eugène

26 responses to “Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue Part I: Translation Comparisons

  1. I think you’re right to push for the newest translation. This is exactly the kind of book that the Victorian translators would have had to cut and tone down to be published without ending in a courthouse.

    Good luck with this. It was such a HUGE thing for the society of the time that it was mentioned in history class in school.

  2. This sounds like such a worthwhile, fun and interesting thing to read.

    I hate omissions and avoid them like the plague so in my opinion reading the entire book is the way to go.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Guy! We’re toying with the idea of making it the summer read at 19thCenturyLit so this will be something good to post and help members decide whether or not to spring for this new translation. I’m really looking forward to it!

  4. I have vague memories of reading Eugene Sue at university, but I won’t be reading it again even though “low life Paris and sensational motives” sound just my sort of thing. I’ll content myself with following the Savage version.

  5. Thanks for specifically addressing the issue of the translation, that’s helpful:)

  6. Good, good – I’ll be happy to read about this novel. Thanks in advance.

  7. It is a huge commitment – sounds like you’re enjoying it so far, which is good. Looking forward to hearing more about it in due course.

    I’ve been working my way through Miklos Banffy’s The Writing on the Wall trilogy over the last few couple of months. It’s wonderful and hugely rewarding, but I doubt whether I could take on more than one mammoth read per year.

  8. It’s good to hear you are enjoying this so far, I’ll watch out for updates.

  9. Fantastic that you’re reading this! I’ve had this as something of a long term project, but have struggled a bit with some of the more archaic French. I was happy to see that Penguin had released a new translation, and even more happy to read a positive assessment of it.

  10. I downloaded it last year. A free French version but I have my doubts now. It might have been cut. It doesn’t always say on the free versions.
    I’m looking forward to hearing more. It’s high up on my list of books I’d love to read. But it’s a commitment.

  11. I have only read Atar Gull by Sue – part of my opium-lit preoccupation. This one sounds like a book for me, although I think I will purchase as an ego ok to save room 😀.

    Did you get my email or comment suggesting Heinrich Boll for your Germanic reading? He’s really good. I started with The Safety Net because I’m on a Bader-Meinhoff jag.


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