“Time, People, Art”: A Conversation with Alex Andriesse

"The Right to be Lazy"

Alex Andriesse and I met some time in the mid-aughts in New Paltz, New York. He was an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz but living in Manhattan, and I’d just recently completed my M.A. there and was living in the Bronx. We both found ourselves up in New Paltz often—he was still taking classes, and I was visiting old teachers and friends, and I’d often give him a ride back to the city. On those drives, our friendship was cemented. We’d talk books, movies, and music. Auster. Jarmusch. Dylan. We had so many writers and filmmakers and musicians we loved in common. I think it was Alex who first urged me to listen to Sharon Van Etten. I probably talked his ear off about Jason Molina. In any case, that friendship continued across miles as I moved to Mississippi and Alex moved to Massachusetts. I’d meet Alex in Hudson, New York, when I was home to visit family—halfway between the Hudson Valley, where I was stationed at my mother-in-law’s house and Alex’s place in Massachusetts. We’d get coffee at Spotty Dog Books and Ale and walk around, talking. Alex and his partner came down to visit me and my family in Mississippi for a few days, and we had a lovely time. Soon after, they moved to the Netherlands, and I’ve been lucky enough to see them in France several times over the intervening years during book tours. Our long email exchanges remain like those initial conversations—full of talk of what we’re reading (most recently, I picked up Gwendoline Riley’s First Love and My Phantoms on Alex’s recommendation), listening to, and watching, as well as what’s going on in our lives. I’m thankful for Alex’s friendship in a million ways, not the least of all being that he encouraged and supported my writing when it felt like I was headed for a dead-end. Alex is an accomplished poet and essayist, and he has spent years working as an editor (first at Dalkey Archive and now at NYRB) and translator. His translation of Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazyand Other Writings is just out from NYRB and—as you’ll hear below—three other books he’s edited and/or translated have also been released this year.  

We were on a long walk in Paris last fall, and you told me about The Right to Be Lazy and about Lafargue’s wild biography—his relationship with Karl Marx, his marriage to Marx’s daughter Laura, their “rational suicide” late in life. I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of Lafargue before that. In her introduction to your new translation of The Right to Be Lazy, Lucy Sante says that the Charles H. Kerr edition of this book was a fixture on the shelves of “dissident-Left and anarchist bookstores” but its availability has waned a bit with the demise of such stores. How did you get interested in Lafargue, and how did you discover the book? 

Alex Andriesse: Well, first of all, that was a great walk. Wending up the hill to Montparnasse Cemetery so that we could swing by Baudelaire’s grave, then winding up at Jean-Paul Belmondo’s tombstone just a couple of days after he’d died. All those flowers and notes! Such a moving thing. Google tells me we’d have had to go to Père Lachaise to see the Lafargues’ stone…But to answer the question, I don’t remember where I first ran into Lafargue. At some point I bought Le Droit à la Paresse in a little paperback put out by the French publishing house Allia—they specialize in good books so small you can eat them—and then finally read it after seeing Lafargue pop up in Sante’s The Other Paris. I do remember noticing the Kerr translation at East Village Books in New York and Revolution Books in Cambridge (RIP), but I never picked it up until I started translating the thing myself.

What made you want to do a new translation of it? I imagine that the process of deciding what to translate has many factors–your relationship to the work, what publishers will be interested in, the quality of previous translations, and more considerations I’m not aware of. 

The truth is I’m less and less sure I decide anything. When I quit my job at Dalkey Archive Press a few years back, I wrote to Edwin Frank, the founder and editorial director of NYRB Classics, and joked that I was reading The Right to Be Lazy to console myself—and that’s how this book came about. He thought a new translation might be interesting, one or both of us realized there should be some other pieces to round it out, and I ended up choosing what I chose. (This was way back before the pandemic and talk of the Great Resignation started, by the way.)

The Kerr translation isn’t bad at all, just dusty, and I guess my idea was to make a book that would give some sense of who Lafargue was without having to pretend I was a historian of French socialism or compose a slew of footnotes. So there’s The Right to Be Lazy, then a “Capitalist Catechism” (which comes from a longer pamphlet called The Religion of Capital), an essay dissing Victor Hugo (whom he loathed), and a short memoir of Marx (whom he loved). I especially wanted to include the Hugo essay because Lafargue wrote a fair bit of literary criticism, which he called “historical” but which would now be called Marxist, attempting to analyze the social structures upholding a reputation like Hugo’s. I felt duty bound to include the Marx memoir. It’s somewhat soft focus and hagiographical, but it also has some wonderful images, like Marx constructing and burning fleets of paper boats in a big tub to entertain his daughters (and himself, no doubt).

As Sante says so eloquently in her introduction, Lafargue isn’t a profound analyst of capitalism in the way that Marx and Engels are—which is part of why I felt okay not including more expressly political pieces than I did—but he is inspired when railing against the top-down sadism that’s apparently inherent in capitalism. I admire the way Lafargue continues to get under people’s skin. The phrase “the right to be lazy” sounds like a joke, but it is and it isn’t. Mostly it isn’t.

The Right to Be Lazy had a massive impact in France, which is part of the reason why I’m ashamed I didn’t know about it before now. How does its influence reverberate there? What kind of impact do you think it can have on readers here and now? It struck me—aside from a few dated elements—as deeply relevant to not only the current American moment but the current global moment.  

Massive’s a good word for it! Kristin Ross, who writes a bit about Lafargue in her book about Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, The Emergence of Social Space, says The Right to Be Lazy sold more copies in nineteenth-century France than any other political pamphlet except The Communist Manifesto—and there was no shortage of pamphlets being printed back then. I have no idea how it reverberates there today. But I think, in France as in much of Western Europe, there’s a sense that reasonable working hours and plenty of paid leave are human rights. And that sense comes out of a history of labor rights and socialist activism in which Lafargue played a part. He was a provocateur, and The Right to Be Lazy remains provoking. His arguments aren’t necessarily sound in every particular, but there’s a fundamental insight driving them—the insight that being overworked not only limits our free time, it limits our sense of what life can be, what we and other human beings can be. When Lafargue is arguing for a three-hour workday, he’s arguing for a system where people could at least conceivably thrive in noneconomic ways, as opposed to a system where pretty much everything is reduced to its utility or monetary value. Time, people, art. A system still very much in place out in the world and in our brains.

I know we both greatly admire Lucy Sante. I’ve read much of her work (Low Life is an all-timer for me, but I’ve only dipped in and out of The Other Paris, which—I guess—explains why I don’t remember Lafargue’s name from there) and always pick up any NYRB book she writes the intro to. That’s how and why I first read both Simenon and Manchette. Her translation of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines (she also wrote the intro) is a book I treasure. Sante calls your Lafargue translation “clear, stately, [and] inviting.” That must be truly rewarding. I’m assuming that Edwin Frank at NYRB knew she’d be the perfect person to write this introduction and that’s how it came about? What kind of impact has Sante’s work had on you? 

When I was a senior in high school in the sad, drab suburbs of Atlanta, a knowledgeable and generous girlfriend gave me the Criterion edition of Down by Law as a Christmas present. Sante wrote the essay in the liner notes (or whatever they’re called; there were no sleek booklets back in those days, just plasticky sheets of paper, like every other DVD). More importantly to me at the time, though, Criterion had included an audio Q&A where Jim Jarmusch listed a bunch of books he liked. That became one of my life’s defining reading lists. And one of the books was Sante’s The Factory of Facts. Then a year or two later, after I moved to New York, I lived on East Twelfth Street (on the same block Sante had, I learned later), and there was a period when I used to try to talk roommates, or anyone proximate and pliable, into going on walks around the neighborhood looking for traces of establishments mentioned in Low Life. Needless to say, I went on most of those walks alone. So her work has shaped me for sure! She was a shoo-in to write the intro, and Edwin did ask her, though I think I may have asked Edwin to ask her. Anyway, it was in the cards. Without a doubt, those are the three nicest adjectives ever applied to one of my translations.

As a writer, I get bored by questions about craft and writing routines and rituals, but I’m so mystified and curious about the art of translation, so I’m going to bug you with those same sorts of questions. What’s the process of translating like for you? Are you consulting previous translations (if they exist) as you work? What other books do you have at hand? What’s it like to occupy the headspace of another writer in such an intimate way? We’ve been friends for a long time now, fifteen or sixteen years, and—if memory serves—it seems translation is something you’ve been interested in and pursued for as long as I’ve known you. When and how exactly was your interest in working as a translator awakened? You’re also a great writer and editor—what is it like to transition between those different roles?    

Now that you mention it, I realize I have been translating for fifteen or sixteen years, but for most of that stretch I had no thoughts of publishing translations, at least not book-length ones. In college I heard from teachers—and from Pound and Merwin and Auster, among others—that translation was a way of sharpening your senses as a writer; I could read French, and so I gave it a try. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Saint-John Perse—a fairly run-of-the-mill mélange. It was all meant to stay in my notebooks.

Later, I sat in on Rosanna Warren’s Translation Seminar at Boston University, which combined traditional roundtable seminars with weekly guest speakers (including Michael Hofmann, Donald Keene, Arthur Sze), and it was Rosanna who really gave me a sense of how much was involved in translating well. Then one fall I sat down meaning to work on a novel and ended up translating a few dozen pages of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs. I sent those pages to Edwin with a very formal, effusive letter and ever since then I’ve been a translator, off and on.

It’s hard to talk about the process in a general way. I find it so completely absorbing when it’s going well I don’t quite know what’s happening, and when it’s not going well it’s like carrying pebbles, or maybe water, in your shirt from one side of the road to the other. It’s also very intimate, as you’d imagine. Chateaubriand, because I’ve been living with him for so long, has annexed a part of my brain. I feel oddly close to him. Roberto Bazlen, too, perhaps because his work was so difficult to translate, it required me to learn to think like him—or at least to learn his patterns of thought. A similar thing has happened to me more recently with the Italian essayist Cristina Campo, whose book The Unforgivable should be out, a Dio piacendo, in another couple years…

When a previous translation exists, as with most of Lafargue and Chateaubriand, I look at it after I’ve done a first draft and then never again. Often a translator closer to the author in time will have grasped certain subtleties or idioms that eluded me. Realizing that can be frightening, but it’s healthy to be frightened. Translation is, among other things, managing one’s ignorance.  

I can’t ever seem to work at a desk, but I like to have a desk nearby, or at least a square foot of floor, to pile books on. French or Italian dictionaries mostly. While I’m in the thick of a translation, I cultivate a habit of reading what I think of as “deep English” (I don’t mean profound—more like things that lock me into the language and get me wondering at it). Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Emerson have been my standbys for the long haul of Chateaubriand. I realize this sounds like an affectation but, besides being enjoyable, it’s like lemons to scurvy when it comes to translatorese. Or so I hope.

I find it jarring to go straight from writing to translating or from translating to editing, etc. I like to go for a walk or sweep the floor or stare at the wall for a while in between. That’s how I weather the transitions between these roles, I guess. That editing for NYRB has become the day job is a dream come true, needless to say.

You complimented me, so I gave you a long answer! I still reserve my greatest respect for people with the discipline to do mostly one thing and do it well, like you with fiction.

You have three (!) other books out this year: you edited and wrote the introduction for The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, out earlier this year from NYRB; your translation of the second volume of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1800–1815 was just released by NYRB; and your translation of Marcel Schwob’s Spicilege from another one of my favorite small publishers, Wakefield Press, was released on the same day as The Right to Be Lazy. Incredible. I have all three but haven’t dug into them yet. How did it happen that these books all came out almost simultaneously? How many years of work is represented in what’s been released this year? 

God knows. Ha. I mean, to be clear, it wasn’t onerous labor, but I’ve been collecting Hardwick’s unpublished pieces since 2011 (when I was researching a dissertation on Robert Lowell); I’ve been working on the Memoirs since 2012; and I’ve been translating Schwob since 2014. Wakefield is a cabinet of wonders, isn’t it? The Lafargue book just kind of fell into place in 2018. And then somehow it all came together—and out—this year. Chalk it up to the quiddities of publishing. Though, if anyone were paying attention, they could be forgiven for thinking I was very hardworking.


Alex Andriesse is a writer, a translator, and an associate editor at NYRB Classics. In addition to Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy, two volumes of his four-volume translation of François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave have been published by NYRB. His translation of Marcel Schwob’s essay collection Spicilege is available from Wakefield Press.

William Boyle is the author of five novels: Gravesend, which was nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France and shortlisted for the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in the UK; The Lonely Witness, which was nominated for the Hammett Prize and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, winner of the Prix Transfuge du meilleur polar étranger in France; City of Margins, a Washington Post Best Thriller and Mystery Book of 2020; and, most recently, Shoot the Moonlight Out, listed by CrimeReads as one of the ten best noir novels of 2021. He has also published a story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy, and a novella, Everything Is Broken (published initially in France and subsequently serialized in Southwest Review). 

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.