New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.
A friend gave me this a couple of weeks ago, knowing I'd fall under its enchantment. The author was in her middle sixties when it was published to good reviews but few sales by David Godine. Harper's Perennial Library republished it in 1988; again it went out of print. Perhaps it's to the credit our country's advance in literacy that it was picked up again for this Harper Perennial paperback, two years ago, with a warm foreword by Ann Patchett, who likens its urgent, disciplined, fascinating package, running fewer than 150 pages, to that of The Great Gatsby; Miss Lonelyhearts; So Long, See You Tomorrow — "each… a world in miniature. I haven't read that third title; let me substitute Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café.
To describe the plot is to "spoil it," but the author does that anyhow after the first sixth of the novel. It concerns Thomas and Enda Dunn, who have lived together as man and wife in Dennery, County Mayo, as hidebound Catholic a setting as imaginable for nearly fifty years, well respected for their simplicity and hard work, and sympathized with for their lack of progeny.
Tom dies having revealed the immediate reason for this but before getting to the proximate cause, persuading Father Declan, warm but strict, to file a customary death notice by promising his widow will provide it. When she does, on page twenty-seven, she has concluded an extraordinarily tense yet seductive short story, a psychological inspection of Father Declan and Enda as they draw the triple revelation into the light of day.
But that's not The All of It. That develops through the rest of the book, which you can hardly help continuing to read without once putting it down. It's a conventional story of abusive father, deprived children, utter poverty; then freedom, fear, flight; ultimately haven. Beyond these rather Brontëesque qualities lie late 20th-century views of the peasant life, the transcendence of Nature, and the virtues of work and frugality — written without sentimentality or nostalgia.
All couched in a literary style that's elegant, compelling, and — well, here's an example from a description of Father Declans trout-fishing through a downpour:
Trekking the lengthy distance back to the glide, he looked up once from the slippery shoreline and saw a kestrel sitting in the drench of the sky and thought of Kevin — or his tame, envying fondness for the wild, unlimited creature. The bird lingered above him, watching, interested: Ariel observing Caliban… The notion bestowed on him for the first time that day a sense of relationship to the immutable in nature, and, in the soothe of the perspective, he felt himself growing calm.In the end you may be thinking of the form of this marvelous book, whose first sixth is the rest of the book in microcosm; or you may be reflecting on the two principal characters, fully three-dimensional and engaged in a relationship whose nature is never really revealed or resolved. Or you may, as I do at this moment, be reflecting on the inevitability of death in the opening chapters, and of Life through the rest. As Patchett says, it's "a tale of morality in which we are asked to examine our own judgment," yet also a tale of fidelity and acceptance that urges us to examine ours. "It's a marvel that anywone could accomplish so much in such a short space," but a reassuring marvel and a reminder of other examples in other genres.
• ÉMILIE CARLES: A Life of Her Own: a countrywoman in twentieth-century France. Translated, with an introduction and afterword, by Avriel H. Goldberger.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991; ISBN 0813516412
This book, for example, with its even more curious publishing history. Written in a series of short chapters, apparently throughout the 1970s, it was completed through dictation to Robert Destanque, who provided the introduction to the original small edition, Une Soupe aux herbes sauvages (A Soup of Wild Herbs), in 1978.
Une Soupe aux herbes sauvages immediately became a best-seller in France, according to the Introduction to this edition, and in the original French and translations into Italian and German in much of the rest of Europe. It was repubished in a "definitive edition" in Paris in 1988 (Éditions Robert Laffont). Yet this English translation didn't appear until 1991, and then in a university press listing, not under a commercial imprint.
Not hard to guess why. The author's tone careens from the colloquial to the philosophical; you can't be sure whether you're reading fiction or history; the structure; much of the content is in the context of French peasantry, local politics, and the curious French elementary educational system which has for nearly two centuries had the overriding motives of impressing centrist and secular values along with a modicum of literacy on children too often prepared with nothing but prejudice and localism by their parents.
Carles was born in 1900, and lived her nearly eighty years in the Alpine valley village where she was born: Val-des-Prés, on the scintillating Clarée river, a good day's walk north of Briançon. She spent short periods in Paris in school, and was assigned briefly to other villages in the Maurienne near Briançon, but much of the time was allowed to teach in the school where she herself had learned to read, the only one of her five surviving siblings to take it up with pleasure and continue it after the short école maternelle (elementary school) curriculum — basically, as few years as you could possibly contrive. It was, after all, a peasant life. One doesn't know if her mother read — she could hardly have had time to, with the children, the fields, the cooking, the household, and the early death, struck by lightning while haying, when Carles was four years old. Her father learned to read in his old age.
A marvelous preface opens the book, a lyrical, thoughtful page or two describing the setting:
The Clarée, that river blessed by the gods, runs by at my feet. Through the branches of the trees, I can make out the clear undulating waters, constantly shifting in color and intensity: tumultuous, calm, roaring, or monotonously quiet. All around me, birds are singing. I speak to them and they answer, and I arrogantly take this concert in as if it were meant for me alone. They are singing a hymn to the sun, the one Rostand speaks of in these words: "Oh sun, though without whom things would not be what they are." … Right before my eyes is the most beautiful place on earth.I quote this at length, because it exactly matches my experience an hour or two's walk downstream, at Plampinet, hardly more than a month ago. It is still a remarkable paradise, at least if no thunderbolts threaten; and that it has remained so is in fact to a great extent Carles's own work.
Her book is arranged chronologically but artfully spun, leaving clarifications and fuller contextualizations of events seen in childhood, for example, to later in the book, when a richer accumulation of experience reveals relationships and motivations a child would not suspect. In the same way, the patient reader discovers the complex ramifications of the deceptively simple life of a paysan.
Private moments, intimate family moments, and public life are similarly juxtaposed. We see her improbable yet utterly credible meeting, in a railway coach, with her future husband, eleven years her senior — a freethinking bachelor exactly suited to her independent intelligence.
The narrative comprises both World Wars and the Depression between them, poignantly describing their effects on both her valley and the national temperament. Throughout those years Carles continued to teach, almost exclusively in small one-room schools, and to participate in the community, often negotiating villagers's resistance to her commonsense charity and political skepticism, generally prevailing through her obvious goodness of heart — about which she is modest! — and her dedication to work.
The life she describes will strike most readers today as incredibly restricted, devoid of comfort and entertainment, and hard. But between the lines of her book lies a persuasive hymn to frugality, generosity, tolerance, and dedication to the pleasures and the obligations of daily life. A Life of Her Own goes on my bookshelves next to Gillian Tindall's Célestine and Pierre-Jakez Helias's The Horse of Pride, Laurence Wylie's Village in the Vaucluse and John Berger's Pig Earth. These are books about terroir, but also about humanity. It seems to me they are particularly apposite at the present moment.