A nice young man, of stolidly unimaginative, good bourgeois stock, is surprised to inherit a house on an island in the Rhône, in the famously desolate and untamed region of the Camargue. The terms of his great-uncle’s will are even more surprising: the young man must take up solitary residence in the house for a full three months before he will be permitted to take possession of it. With only a taciturn shepherd and his dog for occasional company, he finds himself surrounded by the huge and turbulent river (always threatening to flood the island and surrounding countryside) and the wind, battering at his all-too-fragile house, shrieking from on high. And there is another condition of the will, a challenging task he must perform, even as others scheme to make his house their own. Only under threat can the young man come to terms with both his strange inheritance and himself.
That’s how the good people at NYRB Classics summarize Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, first published in 1948 and now available in English in a translation by Joyce Zonana. Bosco (1888—1976) was born in Provence but spent much of his life abroad, teaching in Algeria, Italy, and Morocco. Maybe all that moving around is why he’s known as a great writer of place.
Bosco is sometimes thought of as kin to his near contemporary Jean Giono, who grew up just a bit to the north. A few years ago, several bloggers and I read and wrote about Giono’s Hill, a wonderful novel (also published by NYRB). Doubtless that’s why the publisher reached out to us to encourage us to read Malicroix. Most of us didn’t need much convincing: after all, what could be more relevant than a novel about isolation? Yet the novel also gives us a taste of what so many of us are missing these days: freedom. Like Malicroix’s first-person narrator, our lives have been suddenly upended, but unlike for him the upheaval hasn’t been of our choosing. If the first ten pages are any indication, the novel is both exciting and philosophical. The perfect book for a time when so many of us are thinking a lot about place.
Frances of Nonsuchbook, Meredith of Dolce Bellezza, Grant of 1streading, Nat Leach (@gnatleech), and Scott of seraillon will join me in blogging about the novel in the second half of April. We encourage you to join us: either at your own blog or by writing a guest post here at mine. We’re using the hashtag #malicroix2020 on Twitter if you prefer to participate that way. We hope to arrange some other Malicroix-inspired material, perhaps an interview with translator Zonana. Stay tuned, and drop me a note in the comments if you’d like to join our little group!
Tempting, though I don’t know if I could get hold of a copy (I hate e-reading….)
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So glad to see Bosco getting this wider exposure. I have read several of his books in French — my favorite being «Le Mas Théotime» — and just re-read «L’enfant et la rivière» a couple of weeks ago. It’s lovely to see that NYRB Classics is supporting translations of both Bosco and Giono. Also on my wish list? Joseph d’Arbaud’s «La Bête du Vaccarès» which was released in 1926 in Occitan and French, published in side-by-side format.
Thanks for stopping by, Bruce! Do you know Scott of the blog seraillon? (He is sadly/wisely not on social media) but I think you two might have similar (impressive) reading taste.
Re: Giono. I see Archipelago are just putting out his Occupation Diary. Have you read that and if so do you recommend?
Do not (yet) know Scott or seraillon. And not familiar with JG’s Occupation Diary. The only Giono non-fiction on my shelf is «Provence» (Gallimard, 1995, en poche).
Hi Bruce — Northwestern UP will be publishing my translation of “La Bete” next fall! The English title will be “The Beast, And Other Tales.” D’Arbaud very much influenced Bosco, and I was led to him by my research on Malicroix.
Joyce, For the future wish list: How about working on a translation of Le Trestoulas ?
I love Le Trestoulas. I’m hoping to do a few more Boscos . . . and I’m also working on another wonderful d’Arbaud: La Sauvagine.
My translation of La Bete du Vaccares will be published by Northwestern UP next fall, under the title “The Beast, and Other Tales”! I hope you’ll keep an eye out for it. I was led to it by my research on Bosco and the Camargue.
This is wonderful news. Congratulations! Such a mysterious and wonderful book. I always thought it curious that Bête had been translated into German but not into English. As someone who does not speak Provençal I love reading the dual-language book so that as I absorb something in French I can look over and sound out the music of the Occitan. I first learned about Bête from reading R. T. Sussex’s biography of Bosco back in the 1990s.
This, too, will be coming coming out, in another wonderful translation from Joyce Zonana, and together with three amazing short stories!
I guess I am reading this, but there is no way I will match your schedule. Although the French is pretty easy. But no, there is no way. Maybe I will write about L’enfant et la rivière as some kind of background.
I hope everyone looks up pictures of the Camargue on tourist websites or what have you. It is one unusual place, far from most people’s idea of France. It has flamingos. It has cowboys. Swamp cowboys.
What was the exciting part in the first ten pages? I missed it.
The background piece would be much appreciated.
Ok maybe exciting oversells it. But I was impressed how fast things move. Page 10 and he’s already spending his first night at the house.
Hi Tom, L’enfant et la riviere is perfect background for Malicroix: there’s the river, the “tame” and the “wild” characters as alter-egos, the same cosmic reveries. I’m hoping to do a translation of that soon too! I encourage readers to GO to the Camargue, though I hope some of the writing in Malicroix takes them there.
In case a few of you reading this do not yet know it, I’d point you toward Giono’s «Le Hussard sur le toit» / “The Horseman on the Roof” which I decided to revisit around the time this Covid-19 insanity began. In the book Angelo (a young Piedmontese ex-cavalry officer, who appears in several of JG’s books) makes his way through rural Provence at the height of a cholera epidemic, evading barricades outside villages, sleeping rough, and generally confronting adversity on every page. I was drawn to read this again out of a kind of morbid fascination, and came away very satisfied, though not any more comforted by our current situation . . .
I remember Tom (of Wuthering Expectations) writing about this book. As I recall he liked it too. It almost seems too on the nose… Similarly, I’ve been wondering if I have the fortitude to try The Betrothed just now…
Right, go to the Camargue. But not, you know, anytime soon.
Horseman on the Roof is superb. It is not so much on the nose. The epidemic faced by the characters in the novel is much, much worse than ours. Oh so much worse. That is another novel that sort of pounds down the Romantic tourist view of France and Provence.
Maybe even a consoling novel for right now, then.
I’ve started reading this and I’m already enjoying it, though I am trying to take it slow. Coincidentally, I’ve just ordered Giono’s Occupation Journal, and I would also add to the neglected French writers published by NYRB, Emmanuel Bove.
I love le Chant du Monde. Giono’s language is so beautifully evocative. It reminds me of a lovely story by DHLawrence, “The Blind Man.” Both about the way in which naming and categorizing violates the essence of nature.
Ah, now that is a comparison that intrigues me. “The Blind Man” is a favourite of mine–and students are always drawn to it as well. That last sentence is an excellent distillation of Lawrence’s core idea.
Been meaning to get to Bove for a bit now. Let me know what you make of the Journal. I’m intrigued. And so glad to have you on board for Malicroix.
I have my post scheduled for the 15th of April, hope that is okay? I can change it to later if you wish. There is much to talk about, but for now, let me say what a wonderful read it is for any time, but especially this season of self-quarantine. I loved the contemplative atmosphere, so beautifully described with its gothic undertones.
Wonderful, Meredith! Look forward to reading it. Although I’m only a few pages in, I’m really enjoying the book too.
Yesterday I ordered a copy of Malicroix from my local indie bookstore (via Bookshop online) so once it arrives later in the month I’ll be catching up with the rest of you.
We’ll be glad to have you along, Bruce!
I will definitely be trying to catch up to the rest of you, as I’m just at the half-way point in French, and there’s no way I’ll get to the end this week. But I’m reveling in the book so far. A French friend, a great reader, actually clapped when I told her I was reading Bosco.
Yes, the Camargue is quite an impressive, atmospheric place. And I’ve just now realized that I have some riz rouge de la Camargue (Camaguais red rice, a rice almost good enough to stand on its own as a meal) in the pantry! Okay, adding that to tonight’s dinner menu.
Scott, don’t worry, I’m the worst at “deadlines” so I’m sure I won’t finish this week either. (Currently about 35 pp in and loving it.)
I hope you can “meet” Bruce and Joyce through this comment thread–I think you all share some pretty serious knowledge of Mediterranean lit.
Thanks, Dorian. And hello Bruce and Joyce! I’ve already added all your suggestions to my wish list, Bruce, and Joyce, thank you for making more of this literature accessible to readers of English!
Salut Scott !
It’s my total pleasure to do it, Scott! And the real pleasure is finding readers who are interested . . .
Also, one further Bosco note. For any anglophone readers of this thread who wish to explore «Le Mas Théotime» it was published as “The Farm Théotime” in London by The Readers Union (a subscription book club) in 1949. Very nice translation by Mervyn Savill — whose name doesn’t even appear on the title page for some weird reason. Joyce may have other info but I believe this is the only English translation of the book. From what I can suss out on the © page, Savill’s translation had been published earlier by Aldus Publications in 1946, but I have never seen a copy of that edition for sale. The 1949 club edition must have been printed in larger numbers and copies are floating around, to be found occasionally on bookfinder/abe/etc. That’s how I know of it — I wanted to get a copy to lend to friends who cannot read French. Here’s the description I submitted to the amazon site as a review (of the French version) back in 2000:
I came upon this title last summer while working on a project in Provence. A friend suggested that I try this book, even though Bosco is not heavily identified with provençal literature in the same way as Giono, Pagnol and Daudet.
It’s a “little” story. Not a whole lot happens, yet Bosco manages a high degree of suspense, in addition to some fine character development. You don’t meet many people, and you don’t go many places. In thumbnail form, the novel is about some remote farms in Provence [the word “Mas” means farmhouse in provençal], lying far from the nearest village, and the interactions between the owners and tenant farmers who work the land. Most of the book happens right on these fields and hillsides. Family history plays a part in the plot. Romance and foul play are central to the plot, but this is not a thriller or a romance novel!! It’s quieter than that, slower, more subtle.
Bosco’s imagery is less intense than Giono’s but equally descriptive of the landscape. Forgive the analogy, but if Giono writes the way van Gogh painted, Bosco is more like Corot. I found myself increasingly drawn into this long-ago world via his descriptions of buildings, weather, seasons, clothing, people. I learned a great deal about how country people lived a century ago, how they treated one another, celebrated marriages and funerals, etc. If you happen to know the Italian film “Tree of Wooden Clogs” you’ll be able to imagine the cultural riches that await you in “Le Mas Théotime.”
On rare occasions, I read a book and find myself so completely and perfectly satisfied at the end, I cannot bear to start another book. Just want to exist for a time, held in the magic of the work just finished. I read “Le Mas Théotime” in July, and as i write this review in December, I am still filled with the quiet beauty of it. A wonderful experience.
Bruce, thank you for sharing. What a beautiful and enticing description. (Sounds like NYRB should pick this immediately!) I also appreciate the van Gogh/Corot comparison. V helpful, and I can already see what you mean.
Speaking of beautiful writing: I hope you’ll consider writing a response to Malicroix. I would be happy to post it here at the site!
Hi everyone . . .
Perhaps you’d like to join me and Edwin Frank, editor of NYRB Classics, for a virtual discussion of MALICROIX, this Thursday, April 16th, at 7 p.m. Eastern:
Note that you need to register in advance. Looking forward to “seeing” you there.
Sounds great! If we aren’t available at that time, will it be archived somewhere?
I think so. They’re working on it, last I heard. I’ll keep you posted.
Thanks, Joyce. I was able to work out my schedule–look forward!
I do not know what the protocol is here, since I am late to arrive here and have not even finished the book. And I am new to this crowd, hesitant to say anything before the Usual Suspects have chimed in. However, inspired by Joyce’s and Edwin’s live appearance on Thursday, I wanted to put down a few of my reactions.
I knew of «Malicroix» but had not read it before now. A friend in Provence introduced me to Bosco’s work in 1995, when I was there working on an Alphonse Daudet project, and living right at the edge of the Camargue in a tiny village called Franquevaux. (Daudet is another writer associated with Provence.) At my friend’s recommendation I first read «Le mas Théotime» and adored every moment of it, then sought out «L’enfant et la rivière» and «Le Trestoulas». Following these, I located a copy of d’Arbaud’s «Bête du Vaccarès» (he having been a strong influence on Bosco) and devoured that as well. A few weeks ago I re-read «L’enfant et la rivière» and enjoyed it even more than the first time. I’m glad to hear that Joyce is working on a translation of this, as it’s a really wonderful story.
What strikes me about «Malicroix» as being different from the other Bosco books I have read is the wealth and intensity of internal dialogue, and the uninterrupted flow of the poetic narrative. Bosco liked to write in first person, so his other characters are certainly self-reflective, but none so much as the central character here. Pascal, the protagonist in «Théotime», comes to the country from a more town-centered life, so this is a similar situation to the one in «Malicroix». Pascal also feels a sort of rip-tide of familial currents within himself, the crashing together of inherited tendencies from his Dérivat and Métidieu relatives and ancestors — a more sober and sedate side conflicting with a wilder, less-moderated side. Pascal also has an attic where he collects herbs and wild plants from all over his property, and then carefully curates and classifies them, so he shares with Martial an interest in botany. The attic is Pascal’s principal sanctuary, but even the house itself — the mas, as farmhouses are called in this part of France — is a shelter for him. So again, I am experiencing in «Malicroix» what seem to be central themes for Bosco: the symbolic power of a lamp or candelabra surrounded by vast darkness; the sanctity and shelter of a building that envelops and protects a human, and which has a spirit of its own; the presence of full-blooded animation in nature all around; and the inner conflicts of blood and family history.
But in «Malicroix» all of this seems to find a more distilled and refined pitch. I am swept away by the beauty of Bosco’s language (brought to us so skillfully and sensitively by Joyce). In music there are forms such as the symphony, the concerto, the overture, and the tone poem (as used by Richard Strauss and others); I would certainly vote for «Malicroix» being called a literary tone poem!
A couple of links to earlier literature have come to mind for me so far. One is the wealth of Martial’s inner dialogue here, balanced beautifully by Bosco with his astonishing and vivid descriptions of nature. Martial’s soul-searching and trying to make sense of his own emerging selfhood remind me in some ways of Raskolnikov’s struggles, even though the latter are struggles of a different stripe. I have not read «Crime and Punishment» since college, but the parallel keeps coming up for me. (Although Martial seems far more at ease with all of this than was poor Raskolnikov, and certainly murder is not a part of the equation here . . . at least, not yet! I am still only halfway through the book.)
The other notion that arises for me is Keats’s idea of negative capability. Not trying to know or define objectively, but rather to remain open, to embrace mystery and beauty and not-knowing. To turn toward the transcendent. I am only a passionate reader — an amateur in the true French sense of the word — and not someone who teaches literature and language as many of you probably do, so my understanding of Keats may be scrambled a bit. For me, «Malicroix» presents a stunning presentation of this negative capability, as Martial simply surrenders again and again to the enormous presence of everything around him, and allows these elements to flow into and through him. As much as any character I can ever remember meeting in literature. This book is really quite extraordinary.
So those are my two centîmes.
Also, one quick mention about the translation. I am fortunate to have strong French. Often when I read something in translation, the individual words may be fine, and the overall meaning of a sentence will be preserved in the translation, but there will be subtle interruptions in flow. As if a ghost of the original syntax has managed to persist, to sneak insidiously into the new language, and this causes for the reader (well, for me, at least) a vague sense of uneven rhythm. The language becomes wooden, and I’m suddenly aware of the presence of a second voice, not just the author’s. In the case of «Malicroix» I do not have a copy of the French text to use for comparison, but I feel confident about Joyce’s handling of the words and the overall meanings conveyed. Of equal importance though, for my experience as a reader, is that her translation flows along with all of Bosco’s power and beauty and with nary a hint of stiffness. As if she is a perfectly transparent window through which we are able to feel all of Bosco’s world.
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