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The customs in the country

August 25, 2012 6 comments

Les âmes fortes by Jean Giono 1949 Not translated into English.

After reading Ramuz, I wanted to read Giono again. I picked up Les âmes fortes because I thought it was set in Châtillon near Paris; I was curious to read Giono out of the countryside setting. Actually, the Châtillon of the book is located in what we call now La Drôme provençale, not far from Romans. So it’s in the country, so much for wanting to read Giono in an urban context.

Alfred is dead and several women gather to vigil over his corpse. Among them is old Thérèse, aged 90. They start chatting and gossiping, preparing a snack for the long night to come. One thing leading to another – and it took approximately 100 pages – Thérèse starts recalling her life in the 1870s. She eloped with Firmin and ended up living in Châtillon. Firmin was an orphan, a cheap blacksmith but a golden scoundrel. Thérèse happened to meet Mme Numance, who was 65 at the time. She was a much admired woman in Châtillon, always dressed in classy clothes and taking long walks in the woods. The Numances were a happy couple, still in love with each other and they mostly kept to themselves. One day, they were ruined and rumors spread to explain how they lost so much money. But before that ruin, Thérèse and Firmin had come to live in a pavilion in their garden. Mme Numance was childless and loved Thérèse as a daughter. The latter took advantage of it. Mme Numance wasn’t fooled but let Thérèse have her way with her.

It seems that the name Thérèse is linked to muddy characters in French literature. Thérèse Raquin, Thérèse Desqueyroux and now this Thérèse. She’s an unreliable narrator and when she walks away from the truth, another woman cuts off and puts the story straight. Firmin is either a conning individual or a fool, according to who narrates the story. And when Firmin is a fool, Thérèse is the scoundrel and vice versa. In the end, it’s difficult to know what really happened.

I had difficulties with this story. The Numances have a strange addiction: they’re addicted to giving. They get a kick out of giving their love, their fortune, even to the wrong persons and always without publicity. I didn’t buy the main plot of the Numances addicted to charity. Their behavior is sick; it isn’t even mixed with religious feelings. They just sounded unreal and weird. Thérèse and Firmin are just parasites who’d rather spend their energy in conning people instead of working.

The villagers in this novel are as nasty as Balzac’s urban characters, greedy and fighting for someone’s inheritance even before their death, plotting to get richer at any cost. Giono shows the little traffics that occurred in the country when they built new tunnels to improve the road network. Some took advantage of this and I thought about the fortunes made when the railway was built across America or when Haussman started the piercing new streets in Paris. Giono is far from a bucolic vision of life in the country. However, I know a little the region described in the book and Giono has a knack for vivid descriptions of the nature, the winds and the seasons in this place.

I’m reading The Age of Innocence right now and it struck me that the social rules and conventions in Thérèse’s life are as complicated as the ones in Newland’s. Subtle differences of class separate people, displayed by clothes, manners or living standards. Châtillon is in the country but none of the characters of this book are peasants. It’s a market town, travelers change horses there and the inhabitants live upon trade and servicing around the mail.

I have to say I was rather bored by Les âmes fortes, I almost abandoned it. Although I could imagine Thérèse and Firmin, the Numances were too strange to be plausible. I didn’t get into the story, I thought the narrative labored; it could have been more powerful if it had been shorter. It had the material to be a striking novella like The Murderess by Papadiamantis but Giono failed there. Perhaps this is why it was not translated into English. This novel has been made into a film in 2001. It was directed by Raoul Ruiz. The actors were Laetitia Casta (Thérèse), Arielle Dombasle (Mme Numance), Frédéric Diefenthal (Firmin) and John Malkovitch (M. Numance). The Numances are thus a lot younger than in the book.

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