'La grande misère': the story behind the story

Clarissa Mansfield
Western Libraries
  • Maisie Renault receiving the prix verité in 1948 for her book, "La grande misère."
    Maisie Renault receiving the prix verité in 1948 for her book, "La grande misère."
  • Maisie Renault
    Maisie Renault

As part of the Western Libraries Winter Reading Series, Western Washington University Professor Jeanne Armstrong will give a presentation about her most recently published book, an English translation of "La grande misère," from 4 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26 in Western Libraries Special Collections on the sixth floor of Wilson Library.

The story behind the story:

When Professor Jeanne Armstrong was a student studying comparative cultural studies and literary theory at the University of Arizona back in 1987, she met Suzanne d'Autremont Pratt, a woman who would ultimately have a profound effect on her life. Armstrong, who at that time was writing an article about the anthropologist Gwyneth Harrington, arranged to interview Pratt as part of her research. Pratt, who was then 87 years old, agreed to a meeting with Armstrong, but what began as an interview quickly evolved into a friendly talk as the two women realized that despite their age difference, they had several things in common.

“I discovered rather early on in the conversation, that although I thought I was interviewing her, she was actually interviewing me,” explained Armstrong. “She found out I knew French and had a cat, and these were two things she liked very much.”

Pratt eventually invited Armstrong to live in her guest house, and the meaningful friendship that developed thereafter would ultimately lead Armstrong to the pursuit and completion of her most recently published work, an English translation of Maisie Renault’s "La grande misère."

Great Misery is Renault’s story, as the editor's cover note relates, of her nine months in this “man-made hell, where brutality, starvation, sickness, filth, and degradation took a daily toll on women whose principal offense was having opposed the Nazi regime.” Armstrong’s translation is the first published English version of Renault's compelling account of how the women at Ravensbruck formed powerful friendships that helped them emerge as survivors from the terrible and traumatic experience of living inside an SS concentration camp. Originally published in French in 1948, it was through her friend Pratt that Armstrong first became acquainted with Renault’s inspirational narrative. Armstrong recalled being captivated by the book right away.

“I thought it was an amazing story,” she explained. “Maisie Renault writes in the present tense, and the feeling of the narrative is one of intensity and immediacy.”

As it happened, Pratt was very good friends with François Dixon, whose mother Lucienne Dixon was one of the women at the camp with Renault, whom she writes about in the book. In 2000, Armstrong was introduced to Francois Dixon at the party to celebrate Pratt’s 100th birthday. Dixon later arranged for Armstrong to meet Renault, who was then 93 years old, at her home in France, and it was during this meeting when Renault gave Armstrong permission to translate "La grande misère."

In many ways, this meeting with Renault signified a culmination of Armstrong’s enduring and meaningful relationships, both with Renault’s book, but also with her friend Pratt, who passed away shortly after Armstrong returned from France. After receiving Renault’s permission to translate her book, Armstrong immediately began her work. Strongly motivated by both her friendship with Pratt and also Renault’s inspirational story, Armstrong wanted to share Renault’s powerful voice with an even larger audience. However, despite generating notable interest and support when she presented papers on "La grande misère" at several conferences, it was initially challenging to find a publisher for this work, which is often the case with books that are historically significant but unlikely to be profitable.

Fortunately, it was during a Bepress webinar last November, Armstrong learned about the University of Nebraska’s Institutional Repository and their interest in publishing books of historical value. Shortly after the webinar, Armstrong contacted Paul Royster, who oversees digital publishing at the University. After they reviewed the translation and Armstrong’s introduction, the University of Nebraska decided to publish Armstrong’s translation of "La grand misère" ("Great Misery") via the University of Nebraska Institutional Repository Zea Press as an open access e-book available in print on demand.
For more information about the Western Libraries Winter Reading Series event featuring Professor Jeanne Armstrong on Wednesday, February 26, 2014, contact Clarissa.Mansfield@wwu.edu.
For more information about this book, see the DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska here.

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Friday, February 21, 2014 - 11:22am