The fall 2019 issue of NER features “The Black Virgin,” a strange and haunting story by Greta Knutson, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain and Christina Cook. We wanted to know a little more about the author behind this dark tale, and how it came to be translated now, more than thirty years after the author’s death. Here’s a brief Q&A between editor Carolyn Kuebler and translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain.
CK: Your bio note for Greta Knutson says that she was born in Sweden but moved to Paris as a young woman, in 1920, and made connections with artists and writers, dadaists and surrealists. She’s described as a prolific painter and writer, though her writing wasn’t published until after she died of suicide in 1983.
What first captivated you about Greta Knutson: her paintings, her biography, or her writing?
A: All of the above.
Q: How did this translation project come to be?
A: I first came across Greta Knutson through her paintings and poems about twenty years ago, when as an undergraduate, I was researching French expatriate writers and artists from the twenties and thirties. The fact that Knutson was a multigenre and trilingual artist who led a low-key life spoke immediately to me.
After my studies, I returned to France and worked as a musician and tutor. By turns of coincidence, on my way to one of my students, I would often pass by Knutson’s and Tzara’s former residence in Montmartre, which was designed by Austrian-Czech Modernist architect Adolf Loos. This renewed my interest in the couple’s literary work, and triggered me to study them seriously.
In 2005, I reread Knutson and started to study her work keenly. Most of my sources have been in French and Swedish. My colleague Christina Cook came on board soon after I decided to work on Knutson’s translations. Like Knutson, Cook has Swedish heritage, and she shares my interest in twentieth-century French poetry (she is a published poet and translates contemporary French poetry). This has been a passion project of many years for us.
Until today, Greta Knutson remains little known not just in the Anglophone world: in France she, too, seems largely forgotten. Je ne sais pas pourquoi, I don’t know why.
Q: Do you know why her writing wasn’t published during her lifetime?
A: Possibly because Knutson was both a discreet and highly independent woman, brought up in a noble family . . . We do not have the impression that she needed to exist in the limelight as an artist, nor had the urge to make public her identity as a writer. In that sense, she seemed a true artist: her work came first, and it was the process of artmaking, and life above all, that might matter most to her. Of course, it is likely that she was overshadowed by the male writers and artists in her circle, including her ex-husband Tristan Tzara, her ex-lover René Char, and friends such as Albert Camus, André Breton, and Alberto Giacometti. Sexism isn’t something new.
To be precise, however, Greta Knutson’s literary writings, art criticism, and translations did appear during her lifetime in various journals and publications, including Le Surréalisme au service de la revolution, Le Nouveau Commerce, Obliques, and Non-Lieu. A book in German of her writings—Knutson herself translated her texts, or rewrote some, into German—was published in 1980, even though her volume of collected texts in French was only published posthumously in 1985.
Q: Her paintings are said to reflect Surrealism and post-Cubist tendencies, but her writing—or this story at least—is very earthy, told from a child’s perspective. It’s almost like a tale from an earlier time, rather than a story by a wealthy, worldly expatriate in twentieth-century Paris. Do you know what year the story was written?
A: The story was possibly written in the seventies, when Greta Knutson was already in her seventies.
Q: The story takes place in the “karst.” This term wasn’t familiar to me, but apparently it’s a landscape characterized by eroded limestone, with lots of caves and underground funning water, such as you’d find in Kentucky, or the Kwangsi area of China, or the Causses of France. Do you know if this landscape figured into Knutson’s life? Why would she write about this area?
A: For many years—during and after the Second World War—Knutson sojourned in southern France; she lived on a farm in Vaucluse in Provence, in the villages of Gordes and Maubec in Luberon, for instance. She had also stayed in Aix.
Q: How does “The Black Virgin” fit into her writing in general, including the poetry if you’re familiar with it, and why did you and Christina choose to translate this story in particular?
A: “The Black Virgin” is probably our favorite story of Greta Knutson. It is a dark tale—an early twentieth-century Bildungsroman where transgressions fueled by erotic drive, maternity, violence, and possession are set against the stifling social conventions and religious politics of a typical southern French village. The fact that it was told in the first person by a young girl, even though Knutson was already in her seventies when she wrote the story, heightens the covertness and tension of non-dit that stays immune to time, and the tragedy of circumstantial alienation that a reader isn’t quite prepared for until very late into the plotline.
Q: Can you tell us a little about her paintings? Did she have more success with them in her lifetime?
A: Greta Knutson’s first solo exhibition was held in Paris in 1929. A retrospective of her paintings, drawings, and sculptures was just on view at the Norrköpings Konstmuseum in Norrköping, Sweden earlier this year, from March 23 to September 1.
Q: I hope there are more Knutson translations on the horizon for you two and look forward to seeing what comes next!
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, translator, editor, and zheng harpist who writes and translates in English, French, Chinese, and occasionally Spanish. She is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Ruined Elegance (Princeton University Press, 2016). Her latest translation is Ye Lijun’s My Mountain Country (World Poetry Books, 2019). She serves as the 2019–20 Abigail R. Cohen Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination. She lives in Paris.
Christina Cook is the author of A Strange Insomnia (Aldrich Press, 2016), Ricochet (Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press, 2016), and Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press), for which she received the 2012 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize. Her poems have been anthologized in Poet Showcase: An Anthology of New Hampshire Poets and Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place. Her poems, translations, essays, and book reviews have appeared in New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorse, and more. She is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Writing and Rhetoric Program at Penn State University.