‘Book about life with my dog touched so many people’

We speak to Cédric Sapin-Defour, author of the surprise bestseller which describes in lyrical language the relationship between him and his dog, Ubac

Cédric Sapin-Defour was the literary sensation of 2023 with his book about Ubac, his Bernese mountain dog, who died in 2017
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Cédric Sapin-Defour was the unexpected French literary sensation of 2023.

Released on March 29, 2023 in relative anonymity, his book, Son odeur après la pluie (His smell after the rain) sold 160,000 copies in eight months, won animal charity 30 millions d’amis literary prize (known as the ‘Goncourt des animaux’) and was selected for another; a success that forced publishers Stock to reprint it 19 times.

The book tells the intimate 13-year relationship between him and Ubac, his Bernese mountain dog, who died in 2017.

Read more: What is French Prix Goncourt and who is the new winner?

The author’s style makes the most of the beautiful, poetic nature of the French language in sentences heavy with meaning.

“When I meet readers, many tell me ‘you’ve put my story into words’,” he told The Connexion, still amazed at the nationwide success and by the intimacy of the stories readers share with him.

After the sports teacher and mountaineer had written six books on mountaineering, it seems that his tale about Ubac hit a nerve.

In his book, Mr Sapin-Defour struck a chord with French people for having avoided clichés and elevated the human-pet relationship by exploring love, brotherhood and camaraderie.

Son odeur après la pluie is to be translated into many languages for release in 2024, including English, and The Connexion wonders how translators will climb this seemingly impossible mountain. We gave it a try at the end of the interview.

Read more: French writer reveals secrets of translating a great novel

Why this title for the book?

These were the first words I scribbled on a sheet of paper before I started writing the book. Each conveys three essential ideas of existence.

Rain, because it suggests the exterior world, the fresh air, the elements, and where I live and grew up. I wanted readers to know that we were about to spend a lot of time outside.

Smell because the company of a dog expands our senses. An animal has a range of sensors far superior to ours. I wanted here to suggest that the book will be talking about frictions, two beings, two species that will be attentive, available and receptive to what surrounds us, a sense that I think humans have deserted over the years.

His because it suggests we will be talking about the life of a species, with all its originality and singularity. I am often told that the title is a reference to the smell that any non-dog owner hates the most but…

Photo: ‘I wanted readers to know that we were about to spend a lot of time outside’; Credit: Cédric Sapin-Defour

This is what my sister, a dog owner, told me. She found your title very powerful because of the sense of emotional attachment it conveys.

Yes, the smell of a dog after rain has a particularly strong odour, but it is its own. And over time, you come to love it.

The company of an animal, particularly a dog, where there is so much affection, is a permanent presence, particularly with its smell, the sound of its claws on the parquet floor.

There is such a void, such an unfathomable void when it is not there. The dog’s smell persists, then fades away slowly, but there is this trace, like an olfactory comet tail. It can be a balm or an intense pain when the animal is no longer around.

But maybe the smell is also an illustration of the lack of understanding between the two worlds. Some even like the smell of a wet dog. I have always compared it to salted caramel, whereas others perceive it as something disgusting.

What is the book about? The media have put an emphasis on mourning a pet, but I think it is more than this.

I am very happy you brought that up because I have noticed that emphasis too.

Of course, it is one aspect, but it is more about the celebration of life and a joyful testimony of our shared moments, of a shared life.

Grieving for an animal is a hot topic right now and the book is often mentioned during such debates. But I chose to give myself a period of time after his death before starting the book because I did not want death to overwhelm its content.

I wanted to show that his death was not the end and that readers should remember that life always wins over in the end.

What role did Ubac have in your life? Was he a comrade? A friend? Or simply a dog?

He was a dog, first and foremost.

Dogs are a different species, let us not fool ourselves about that. What is fascinating is the mysterious relationship we have.

If life is all about surrounding ourselves with things that allow us to live very easily and mechanically, with the absolute certainty of what we face – and by that I mean humans – I find that very uninteresting.

Living with a dog is about building some sort of mutual comprehension without speaking the same language.

As for a friend or a comrade, I claim responsibility for love and friendship in our relationship.

What I know is that I have always avoided terms like owner or master even if, during his lifetime, I determined many of the choices in our relationship.

What do readers tell you about your book? What has stuck with you?

The universality of its reception. The more you dive into intimacy, the greater the power for sharing that intimacy.

Behind Ubac lies what love represents to each and every one of my readers, something that is sometimes not a dog.

I am genuinely marked by the people who talk to me about their love, and the vast array of living things and inanimate objects embodying that love.

Apart from Ubac, the hero of the book is love.

Read more: Six things that show the French love for books and reading

Does your book fill a void in the media, politics and law with how society should treat animals, to show us a new way to look at the animal world?

I think there are two possible traps when writing about the relationship between animals and humans.

Anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to an animal) and misanthropy (a dislike or distrust of people).

I have found myself befuddled at authors writing about this relationship, because many feel an obligation to express mistrust or disdain towards human beings who love animals, because to do otherwise would show disdain for humans.

I do not see why loving animals means we are devaluing our peers. I do not like that animals are referred to using the vocabulary of cuteness or the words we use for sweet, small things. Maybe my rejection of this caught the attention of readers.

Beyond the world of animals, you are also a sports teacher and a mountain climber. Isn’t this book questioning our relationship with nature?

Precisely, completely, definitely. My previous books were about that very issue, questioning our pretension to feel superior to it.

The relationship between Ubac and myself is one that happened in nature and I am convinced that that relationship differs from one built in an urban area.

In nature, an animal is considerably more equipped than humans, or even mountain climbers who present themselves as ‘experts’. The presence of animals in my life forced me to confront this.

Some of our readers will have to wait for the English version to be able to understand its beautiful complexity in French. Is it a book about a man in love?

Oh yes! In love with life and the species around me. In love with words, also.

I fell in love with writing and how precise words can be through my students, when I realised how vulnerable they were if they felt they did not master words.

And being French, your book reminded me of a saying about the French language being the ‘language of love and music.’ How good do you think the English translation will be?

Unfortunately I am very bad at other languages. It is a great shame because I am curious to know where the French language ranks among the ‘languages of love’.

What is its ability to express nuances, precision, the smell of perfumes, does it have more tools in the toolbox than other languages? I do not know.

What can I say? I do not – absolutely not – realise how easy or difficult it is to translate. You imply that it is the latter…

Read more: 10 French words and phrases that are untranslatable in English

I am not saying it is impossible. There are professional translators out there who will do a terrific job, but I am just curious to see how they will retain the power of your French version.

Yes, especially considering that it is a requirement and something to be vigilant about, but which is ultimately in vain.

I would not be capable of reading a translation, whether English or Italian. I will have to trust the translators they choose.

My publisher has raised the same point as you. They do not want to ‘betray’ my style, and they will end up choosing whoever is the closest to it.

We’re lucky because we can choose the publishing houses we want to work with.

One last question: what is your opinion of French expressions about dogs, such as avoir un mal de chien (to be sick as a dog)?

I have an allergic reaction when dogs are associated with negative meanings. For example when people protest about being treated like a dog (ça va, je ne suis pas un chien) I often point out that I do not see why being a dog would allow unfavourable treatment.

We hurt dogs just as much when we deify them as when we reify them [meaning to treat them as an object].

Read more: French phrases that feature dogs (and some cats)

An English translation attempt...

Ahead of the official release of Son odeur après la pluie in English, The Connexion made an attempt at translating Mr Sapin-Defour’s writing style, praised by readers and critics alike, and often described as being immensely poetic.

The following excerpt is taken from page 116:

C’est une décision. Lorsqu’il entre dans une pièce, il ressent sans délai si l’humeur est à l’accord ou au malaise, je crois d’ailleurs qu’il la mesure, quelque chose dans l’air lui énonce et par quel je ne sais quel tour de passe-passe, il en régule la teneur pour en faire une plénitude, sa seule présence est un bienfait, il avale toutes les biles et par d’invisibles fanons les filtre en allégresse, j’espère qu’aucune saleté ne reste en lui ; ceux ne comprenant rien au chien, surpris d’aller bien, doivent se demander ce qui subitement se dénoue dans leur vie.’

Five members of The Connexion team – both French and British – submitted their translations and we chose sub-editor Sarah Henshaw’s version, which captured most closely the intensity and emotion of Mr Sapin-Defour’s words.

She said she spent most of a morning perfecting it.

‘It’s a judgement call. When he enters a room, he immediately senses whether the mood is one of ease or discomfort. I believe he weighs it up. Something in the air tells him and, as if by magic, he recalibrates the atmosphere to make it better. His mere presence is a blessing. He swallows all the rancour and, as if filtering it through an invisible gill, releases joy. I hope it doesn’t taint him. Those who aren’t used to dogs, surprised to be feeling suddenly so much better, must wonder what has imperceptibly loosened in their life.’

The official release date of the English translation is not yet known.

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