The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (transl. by Charlotte Collins): Death and how to survive it

Cover image This may sound obvious to seasoned readers of literature in translation but one of the things I’ve learned to look out for is the name of the translator as well as the author. The penny dropped when I noticed how many of the translations I’d enjoyed were by the late Carol Brown Janeway. Now I’d point to Jamie Bulloch and Anthea Bell as favourites but top of my list is Charlotte Collins for her beautiful translations of A Whole Life and The Tobacconist. That said, the premise of Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness, which follows three children into adulthood after an accident leaves them orphaned, was always going to attract me. Collins’ name was the icing on the cake.

The novel opens with forty-one-year-old Jules in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life, much of which has been spent daydreaming about how things might have been. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. The children were sent to a state boarding school where they were immediately separated. Jules is the youngest of the three each of whom deal with their loss in very different ways. Liz, the oldest, takes to promiscuity and drugs long into adult life. Already a misfit, Marty loses himself in study, finding solace in a lifelong friendship and a lover who understands him. No longer the fearless seven-year-old he was before his parents died, Jules becomes a dreamer, trying his hand at all sorts of work but unable to settle at anything, always yearning for Alva, his fellow pupil who seems to understand his pain but carries her own and disappears from his life. When these two eventually find each other again it seems that all is set for a happy resolution.

Wells narrates his novel through Jules’ voice, unfolding the family’s story through his memories and dreams, from the years before his parents died to his recovery from his own accident. Jules’ loneliness and pain is sensitively portrayed, the happiness of his early childhood tempered by the adult knowledge of his father’s depression and his retreat into fantasy and daydream painfully real. His writing vividly evokes loneliness and grief – And now here we were, sitting at the table like three actors meeting again after a long time who can no longer remember the script of their most famous play – but Wells neatly avoids the maudlin. As Marty tells Jules: From the moment we’re born we’re on the Titanic. Death cannot be ducked; it’s what we choose to do with that knowledge that helps shape our lives, along with chance and circumstance. All this may sound somewhat gloomy but it’s not: The End of Loneliness may well explore what many of us would rather not think about but the clue’s in the title.

22 thoughts on “The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (transl. by Charlotte Collins): Death and how to survive it”

  1. I do like the sound of this one. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while now, so it’s not a question of if I’ll read it but when. I guess it makes sense that if a translator’s taste and yours match up, you’ll like most or all of the books they choose to work with. Other translators I’ve had good luck with are Sam Taylor and Alison Anderson (both from the French).

    1. I hope you enjoy it when you get around to it, Rebecca. I’ve enjoyed Sam Taylor’s work and I’ll look out for Alison Anderson. I probably read more German fiction than I would otherwise as that’s the language all the translators I’ve mentioned work in.

  2. This does sound like an interesting one and I like the little clue you provide, in the last sentence “avoids using that word”. I have a feeling sometimes or at least I wonder if the choice of translator might also mean that they are translating something that they themselves particularly enjoyed, so there is a connection with a certain kind of novel that resonates. I would hope that translators have that much influence anyway, that they accept the work based on that being one of the criteria.

    1. My partner tells me that a radio programme about translation he heard years ago suggested that translators often put forward novels to publishers for translation. I hope so. It would significantly increase the chances of them enjoying their work. I imagine it depends on how established they are in the field.

  3. How nice to know that “the clue’s in the title”… It sounds like the characters deserve a break.

    I like the idea that translators can bring forward books they want to work on… It would be nice if that were the case!

    1. Indeed they do!

      I hope it’s true, too, and it’s certainly the case that I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read that Charlotte Collins has translated which suggests not just excellent translation skills on her part but a similarity in taste.

  4. I agree about translators – it’s a definite art and I also notice recurring names in the translations I read. I think the International Man Booker splitting the prize equally between author and translator is a good acknowledgement of this. I’ve not read anything by Wells but I really like the sounds of this & the themes that are being explored so I will look out for it!

  5. I find the role played by translators in bringing us literature from around the world to be endlessly fascinating. It’s a job I would love to have in another life…! Anyway, I wonder if you have any thoughts on men translating the work of women or vice-versa as in this case? I can imagine that it is difficult enough to convey the essence and spirit of the original, without having to second guess the author’s own personal perspective. Perhaps it makes absolutely no difference at all, just like skilled authors can write characters of either/any gender?

    1. I hadn’t considered that, Liz, but you’ve made me wonder about going back over the books I’ve read in translation. I think it’s a fascinating topic: how one writer can get inside the head of another and capture the spirit of their book, particularly when use of language is an important aspect of their writing. Two books on this subject have particularly interestested me – Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation about immigrating to the States from Poland when she was 13 and trying to fully express herself in another language, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, In Other Words, about her passion for Italian which was written in that language and translated by someone else into English, Lahiri’s mother tongue. Sadly, I’m a monolinguist.

      1. Those two books sound excellent, thank you – will follow up. I got to a good standard with French and German at school and planned to use both for a career but life had different plans for me! I am very rusty now and in fact trying to get back into French – it’s a strange mixture of easy and difficult the second time around. 🙂

  6. I think it’s just the double l’s, in the authors’ last names, but this calls up Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness for me. The ramblings through memory and dreams sound like they would add essential depth to this story. I enjoyed reading about it!

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