French author Adrien Bosc explores the lives of the passengers of an ill fated 1949 Air France flight in his new book Constellation. Based on the real people aboard the plane, Bosc extrapolates fictionalized vignettes and narratives about their lives drawing from what they left behind. He spoke with David Samuels, the literary editor at Tablet, at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. The book was translated from the French by Willard Wood.
The Constellation model aircraft was an early commercial passenger plane designed to cross the Atlantic. It required refueling at waypoints, and in the case of the 1949 flight of F-BAZN, a routine stop at the Azores turned into a deadly crash.
Samuels begins by explaining why literary nonfiction writing is such a fascinating topic: it allows authors to explore the idea of coincidence. In fiction, coincidence can feel artificial. However, in works based on fact, those verifiable facts lend a degree of verisimilitude into that coincidence.
Bosc cites Charlotte Delbo’s accounts of the Holocaust as one source of inspiration for the book. Delbo recounted the personal stories of women she met on the Auschwitz train as told to her by the other women. Bosc describes each of these as having the power of a novel, even though most are just a few pages. His goal in Constellation was to try and capture the same narrative technique.
Samuels says he finds it humorous that in the United States, where there are strict distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, it is through a description in the negative that nonfiction exists. In French, there is more flexibility. In that case, the story is not the main point.
The question of fiction versus nonfiction is getting more attention these days in France, Bosc says. But anytime information is organized by chapter and through narrative, there is a fiction that develops. Ask ten writers to write about the same nonfiction story, and there will be ten different narratives, ten different lines of coincidence. There is no objectivity, he says. It is a fiction to write and say it is a reality. The goal is to find something bigger than the reality.
Often finding the narrative means determining which facts to keep and which to throw away and where to invent. Bosc threw away a lot of facts. He had to. Constellation was not meant as an exhaustive history. Some of the characters ended up with much less written about them.
At one point in writing the book, Bosc visited the mountain where the plane crashed. He had spent a long time in the personal lives and intimate details of the passengers. He describes the visit to the mountain like a pilgrimage. It was weird, he says.
Though Bosc speaks English, he did need a translator to bring the book to English reading audiences. He says translating into English is great because he can read the version, but more importantly he credits the translator Willard Wood. The best way to know how good a translation is, Bosc explains, is by looking at the questions the translator asks. Wood asked good questions. For instance, in one of the translation in a language he does not read, the mocked up cover included a modern airplane rather than half-century old Constellation. He expected that translator probably missed the mark.
The goal of translation is is not always perfection but rather to attempt to recreate, as best as possible, the style of the language of the original source. He says he tries his best not to ask the translator to change anything.