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Au pied du sapin, a collection of Christmas texts

December 22, 2012 6 comments

Au pied du sapin, which means Under the Greenwood Tree, but I think this title is already taken.

Someway the Christmas spirit was evading me this year and I decided to put myself in a Christmas mood. So I bought a CD of jazzy Christmas carols and started reading Au pied du sapin, a collection of texts related to Christmas. It’s a small book, most stories aren’t more than a few pages long. As you won’t find the exact equivalent in English, here are the stories included in the book:

Unexpected Christmas Eves:

  • Le Réveillon du Colonel Jerkoff by Joseph Kessel
  • Nuit de Noël by Guy de Maupassant
  • Un Réveillon dans le Marais by Alphonse Daudet
  • La Petite Fille aux allumettes by Hans Christina Andersen

Dream Christmas Eves

  • Noël by Théophile Gautier
  • Les santons by Jean Giono
  • Noël sur le Rhin by Luigi Pirandello
  • Un arbre de Noël et un mariage by Fedor Dostoyevsky
  • Noël quand nous prenons de l’âge by Charles Dickens

Unconventional Christmas Eves

  • La Fascination by Honoré de Balzac
  • La fugue du Petit Poucet by Michel Tournier
  • Conte de Noël by Alphonse Allais

Au_pied_du_sapinIt’s a great list from various authors and it’s a good way to read in French if you want to improve your knowledge of the language. My favourite stories were the ones by Maupassant, Pirandello, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. I tried to read the Dickens twice but I couldn’t finish it. It’s only nine pages but its patronizing tone put me off.

Maupassant relates how a man got trapped for life for looking for the company of a woman on Christmas Eve. It’s Maupassant, so it’s not what you think and it’s quite surprising.

Pirandello’s story moved me. It’s a first Christmas in a family after the father died. A man helps decorating the Christmas tree. Sadness filters through the narration, Pirandello’s sensitive prose shows subtly how merriment in marred by the loss of a beloved husband and father. Life is fleeting, he seems to say in an undertone.

Balzac brings us into one of his familiar settings: the family of a former officer of Napoleon’s army. They are gathered for Christmas Eve, the servants are gone for the night. They’re sitting in the living room and Balzac describes the caring father, the loving mother and the children with many relevant details. He depicts the light of the candles and the fire on faces, the shadows in the room and how the feelings of the characters reflect in the setting. It looks like a Dutch painting. The peace is disturbed when a stranger pounds on the door and begs for hospitality. He brings a storm into the household…

Dostoevsky is bitterer as he relates a Christmas Eve party where he witnesses how a grown man lusts for a girl after her parents made it clear she would get a hefty sum when she marries. The contrast between the man looking at this eleven year old girl as his future bride and the girl playing with a doll is striking. It’s sordid, tainting innocence with greedy thoughts. It’s also even more shocking on a Christmas night. Dostoevsky makes it clear that daughters are commodities, livestock. Pretty, they’re valuable because a good marriage can bring in money or connections to the family.

As you can read, the stories are quite different and some are more essays than stories. (the Dickens and the Giono) I enjoyed reading this collection of texts, it was a sort of journey into time and places, visiting Christmas nights in different countries. It showed Christmas under a kaleidoscopic light: poverty, traditions, parties, family, grief, love, lust and all kinds of notions mixed up in one night.

A nice introduction to that time of year.

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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