Phil Campbell and Lorin Stein: The Mystery Guest Q&A

My friend Phil Campbell, author of Zioncheck for President, will be putting his reportorial skills to work with a series of Q&As for this site. Below he discusses Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest, and interviews its translator, Lorin Stein.

Grégoire Bouillier’s memoir, The Mystery Guest, is a slender, perfect little book that investigates one man’s comic adventure in uncharted social waters. He is invited to a party of strangers by an ex-girlfriend who unceremoniously and without explanation dumped him several years before, and, to his own surprise, he agrees to attend. Bouillier’s story works because he finds comedy in his angst and in his unusual situation (his anxieties about his predilection for black turtleneck sweaters alone are worth the cover price). Moreover, Bouillier expands his narrative with a wonderful sense of literary and cosmic coincidences, a skill that ultimately enlarges everything about The Mystery Guest.

As I recently discovered, the translation of The Mystery Guest into English has its own interesting backstory. Lorin Stein is an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and an occasional critic for The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books. He is not, however, a translator. He took on the project in part because Bouillier’s agent ruffled his feathers a little, essentially telling him he didn’t understand the book. Judging by what I read, the agent was wrong.

Stein and I recently exchanged a few emails about The Mystery Guest and other issues in publishing.

Q: Let’s start with the YouTube video advertising the book. It’s a bit corny, like a bad Saturday Night Live skit that spoofs a French perfume ad. Why did they do this?

A: You should ask the filmmaker, David Teague. He made the whole thing himself. I think it’s a very smart pastiche of a very silly advertisement — or, really, of several kinds of advertisement. It could be selling perfume or underwear or a movie. That was the point, I think. None of us wanted an ad that had much to do with the actual book. How can you really advertise a book, after all? Books strike me as one of the least advertisable forms of entertainment there is — which may be one reason the market isn’t as strong as it should be.

Q: Every writer and every piece of writing carries with it its own translation challenges. What was the biggest challenge of translating Bouillier?

A: The Mystery Guest is above all a monologue, so the task was always to write for Grégoire, maybe in the sense that a sit-com writer writes for one character or another? And he is a complicated character — he says many different kinds of things — so sometimes I had to revise my idea of him completely. The translation went through four or five distinct drafts.

Q: In a previous interview, you noted that your command of French “isn’t all that great.” Why did you undertake to translate something like this if you were not confident of your fluency?

A: It may have been a mistake. But I wanted the English to sound funny to me the way the French sounded funny. So if we had hired somebody else to do the translation, I was afraid I’d rewrite the whole thing anyway and be a pill and we’d end up at best with a compromise version that nobody loved. This does happen with translations even when the editor doesn’t know the original language. Editors tend to choose smoothness, the sound of accuracy, over accuracy itself because we want people to read what we publish. So in a sense the original text is neither here nor there — if the new version doesn’t sound convincing, no one will want to read it, and if nobody reads it, who will care that it’s faithful?

I also wanted to prove a point. Violaine Huisman, Bouillier’s agent, had told me I “didn’t get” the book, just because I’d told her it would be impossible to publish, and I wanted to show her that I did get it, so I translated the first page and …well, you see what happened. The more I worked, the more literal the translation became (and the better my French got), but there are still many lines I’m waiting to figure out. Some day I’ll wake up and know how I should have translated “lancer un debat” on page five.

Actually, an artist friend of mine has suggested that we make a sort of on-line piece out of my mistakes and second guesses and rationales, using these as a way into the text itself. People could write in with their suggestions and criticisms. I like the idea because I’m always curious what the original said, and why the translator chose the words he or she chose. I’ll let you know if it happens.

Q: I saw copies of The Mystery Guest at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square this weekend. It was on a lone table on the fourth floor, closest to philosophy but also not too far from fiction/literature. When its initial release is over, where in a bookstore should this book ultimately be shelved?

A: Literature? I can’t think where else it would go. Autobiography, maybe — but I’m not sure B&N has an autobiography shelf.

Q: But, as an editor at FSG, how much does it concern you to know that a book may not be so easy for sellers to categorize? This reminds me of the time I saw Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief in a bookstore’s gardening section, and Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau in the travel section.

A: If you’re asking whether it’s harder to publish a book that defies easy categorization, I suppose the answer is — all things being equal — yes. But of course all things never are equal. A memoir like The Mystery Guest is actually much easier to describe than most novels. “A man gets a call from his ex-girlfriend who disappeared from his life five years before and she invites him to a party.” Try explaining what makes a novel like Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica so beautiful and gripping. “An unhappy woman takes a walk and looks back on her life as a model … ” I think it’s much harder to do.

Q: I enjoyed the book a great deal, but after reading some details about Bouillier’s earlier memoir — Rapport sur moi — in retrospect I feel slightly cheated. Specifically, there were some biographical details in Rapport sur moi that were left out of The Mystery Guest, details which could have made The Mystery Guest richer, even funnier than it already is (i.e., the story of how, exactly, this girlfriend of Bouillier’s actually dumped him several years before). Why did Bouillier leave this stuff out? Did he expect everyone to have read Rapport sur moi first?

A: As I understand it, The Mystery Guest is a sort of outtake from Grégoire’s first book — an episode that took on a life of its own. I agree that you miss something by not knowing how his girlfriend left him. But then, there’s a lot we never know about him or her. I love the tininess of The Mystery Guest. If Grégoire started explaining the backstory, where would he stop? It would be a very different kind of book, don’t you think?


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