A while back I suggested a group reading of Henri Bosco’s 1948 novel Malicroix, admirably translated by Joyce Zonana and published by NYRB Classics. Quite a few readers took me up on the suggestion, and some of them wrote about their experiences, either on their blogs or on Twitter (#Malicroix2020). It was great to see so much interest. Here I’ll highlight some of their observations, and then add some of my own.
At the centre of Malicroix is its narrator, Martial de Mégremut, a young man who comes into a mysterious inheritance from a great-uncle on his mother’s side, the last full-fledged member of the Malicroix line. As the man’s only heir, Martial now owns “some marshland, a few livestock, a tumbled down house” on an island in the Rhone, that is, he will if he manages to live there for three months without setting foot on the mainland. He’s not alone, as he has the company of old Malicroix’s servant Balandran, as competent as he is silent, and the latter’s Briard, Bréquillet. (Everyone loves that dog; NYRB should make t-shirts.) From time to time, Malicroix’s lawyer, the sinister Dromiols, and the lawyer’s dogsbody, the oddly named Uncle Rat, drop in to make ominous noises. The lawyer turns out to have a personal interest/vendetta in the matter, and wants Martial to leave; by contrast, Rat turns out to be a mole, helping instead of harming the young man. The first half of the book details Martial’s first months on the island, through autumn fogs and winter storms, but Malicroix is not really a tale of survival—Balandran sees to Martial’s modest needs. It’s more a tale of psychological endurance, in which doing must be replaced by being. After the initial three months, however, Martial learns of a codicil that requires him to perform one more task, to exorcise a past wrong, and the last half of the book describes how he manages it.
Our little band of readers liked Malicroix a lot. (Though people who didn’t might not have felt compelled to write about it, so my sample might be skewed.) My comrades repeatedly described themselves as captivated by the novel’s depiction of isolation. But this atmosphere also made them uneasy. A novel that at first seems to be a primer on mindfulness eventually reveals itself as ominous, even threatening. For Karen, it was “immersive,” “hypnotic,” and “hallucinogenic.” That immersion also resonated with Meredith, who described herself as “living with” the book, not just reading it. Trevor found it “enriching,” but also “inquisitive” (a nice distinction—as if it’s not just readers who are curious about what’s going to happen, but also the text itself). Guy similarly found the novel “mysterious” and “cryptic.” Grant said the book put him on “high-alert”; he admired its “foreboding” and “threat.”
I too was drawn to this solitude. Given the circumstances in which we read it—sheltered in our homes around the world—the topic appealed to me even more strongly than usual. (I’m a sucker for books about people who jump the tracks of their lives to spend time alone—something I always fantasize about but am too frightened and/or constitutionally disinclined to do.) To live alone in a little house on a little island in a great river, with a small but doughty fire to keep off the chill and simple meals of lentils and rough wine to keep one’s spirits up—this minimalist, faux-peasant fantasy appealed to me. (Though I was frankly horrified that Martial has no books with him. None at all! Books, however, would distract from the matter of existing. The Mégremuts might have recourse to books. Books are not for the Malicroix!) The novel even sometimes plays up this minimalist element, as when Martial describes the house as one in which “everything was so clearly reduced to the soberest utility.”
Reading late at night, during a semester unlike any other, I was calmed by this aspect of the novel. I wasn’t the only one to think about it as a nighttime book. Meredith notes how many of its important actions—even if those “actions” are rain, wind, storms—happen at night. As befits this attention to surroundings, Malicroix is a great book of weather. It is atmospheric in the literal sense. The daily changes of Martial’s immediate environment matter a lot. No wonder the philosopher Gaston Bachelard cited it at length in his The Poetics of Space (which is where translator Zonana first encountered it). Bruce—whose erudite thoughts you can read in a comment on my original post—thought of this darkness in both literal and figurative senses. Comparing Malicroix to Bosco’s other work (which, with luck, non-French readers will be able to read before too long), he concluded that Bosco’s primary concern is:
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.
(Note that Bruce has used the term “blood” twice—fittingly, as it is Bosco’s central term; I’ll return to this in a moment.) Like Meredith and Bruce, Trevor also picked up on the novel’s captivating physicality. He writes:
This is a book to read in the late hours, which is also when much of it takes place. There are winter wind storms that will make you pull up the covers no matter what the temperature is in your room. The fire place in Martial’s room will also bring you comfort. Bosco — and his skillful translator Joyce Zonana — helped me to feel the physical and mental strains and comforts with our poor protagonist. I was particularly swept up in Martial’s lonesome Christmas Eve. Normally, surrounded by the Mégremuts who pray and feel the presence of angels, Martial, no matter how skeptical the rest of the year, is lifted by angels himself; not so on this Christmas in the Camargue.
Nighttime can be comforting, if one is inside, by a small fire, especially after coming inside from the elements. Even better if you’ve a dog “sigh[ing] with well-being” by the fire, “long tremors [running] along his spine as he closed his eyes to savor the pleasures of a warm hearth.” But nighttime is also, as Meredith notes, a time of obscurity, and this obscurity can be unsettling, to character and reader alike. For me, the vivid descriptions of night are inversely related to the confusing references to what happens at night: the more I thrilled to those scenes, the less I knew what happened during them. What is the task that Martial is asked to take up on July 16th, the anniversary of a terrible event in the old man’s life? Who is the woman who appears one night to tend to him? Is she real? Is she a figment? How does Martial respond to Malicroix’s final demand? (I mean this literally: what the hell actually happens at the end?)
What I’m saying is that the longer I read, the more confusing I found the book. I was wrongfooted by the turn from plotlessness to plot, and then wrongfooted once again by my inability to comprehend that plot. I was as adrift as the book’s few characters risk becoming any time they venture near the river. But then I read Tom’s series of excellent posts, which helped me see that reading Malicroix as a hymn to the simple life misses the point:
My impression is that readers have been enjoying reading about solitude, watching the fire, and the weather, the wind and rain that keeps Martial from even going for a walk. This is certainly part of the novel. But the mysticism is central to what I take the novel to be, as is the quest story, which I am not seeing anybody mention.
Pulling together otherwise disconnected bits of the text (references to east and west, the appearance of a blind ferryman, the role of a white bull), Tom reads the novel through the lens of Mithraism, the Roman mystery religion. Not only is Tom’s reading textually convincing (he explained stuff in the novel that made no sense to me), it’s also psychologically consoling, at least for me. The reason I was so confused is that the novel is about confusion! Or, more accurately, about the esoteric. Its questions are: who is an initiate—and what is the secret knowledge into which they are being initiated? Its plot forms a quest, undertaken by a hero who completes it in his own spirit, in Tom’s words, “for redemption and rebirth, rather than revenge.”
In making his claim, Tom referenced Frazier’s The Golden Bough, that late 19th century study of comparative religion and mythology that exercised such outsized influence in modernist Europe. That was the clincher for me—it made total sense, and also explained why I liked the book less as it went along. I’ve always been allergic to that sort of key-to-all-mythologies mystical revelation stuff (The Frazier-inspired parts of “The Waste Land” are my least favourite, for example.) But Tom’s reading, as always attuned to the big literary historical picture, allows us to characterize Malicroix as a (late) modernist syncretic text.
Emphasizing Mithraism in particular also brings out the Mediterranean elements of the novel, which fits with Bosco’s own life experiences (he spent decades in Italy and North Africa, as well as southern France). To me, it makes a lot more sense to call Malicroix Mediterranean than French—its Frenchness is evident primarily in the repeated term “wild,” Zonana’s translation of sauvage, which I can’t help hearing as a reference to Rousseau (no idea if that’s accurate).
But the cultural-mystical-philosophical sweep of the novel interested me less than the psychology of the narrator. Tom’s point, I think, is that the latter always leads in this novel to the former. But I was interested in a strange push-pull in Martial’s character. Sometimes he seems passive (he never quite decides to stay on the island; he just doesn’t leave; he is depicted as a child, as exemplified by his first night in the little house, when he awakes to find that someone—Balandran, of course, though he doesn’t know it yet—has pulled a blanket over him). But other times he is active, deliberate, as in his “solution” to the task imposed by the codicil. In this regard, I was drawn to a passage cited by Chris. When Martial stays on after initial difficult days, he tells us:
To stay was becoming my function. It was useless to try to explain my conduct: my arguments seemed laughable. You do not debate your hunger.
“Hunger” is such a fitting word here—in English, at least, it can be used as a synonym for “drive.” But it also refers to a sensation that merely arises, under the right conditions. You don’t say “I think I’ll have hunger now.” The word is both active and passive. It speaks of something that acts upon one. Fittingly, Chris interprets this quote by referring to blood:
[Martial’s] change of heart is related to the centrality of the metonymy of blood for breeding, lineage, and citizenship.
If Malicroix has a politics—as opposed to a mythology—it is centered on the idea of blood. And this is where the novel made me nervous. Even the merest amount of Malicroix blood, we learn, is enough to make Martial not just a satisfactory but in fact a fully-fledged member of the line. (Cue 19th/20th century discourses on race.) The novel believes in blood so insistently, as shown in the way all of its characters speak of it more or less constantly. Old Malicroix, Martial reflects, was “besotted with his blood.” But despite the implied criticism of that “besotted,” Martial is similarly obsessed. Even though he is superficially almost all Mégremut, when it counts he is pure Malicroix. The latter, he explains at the beginning of the book, is “hidden within the darkest part of myself,” but “seemed more alive than all the Mégremuts who inhabited me with such ease.”
Martial and his great-uncle aren’t the only ones taken with blood. The lawyer Dromiols—old Malicroix’s perhaps illegitimate son, the possessor of “a deep, spiteful spirit”—complains about the harshness of the region’s “untamable wildness,” despite having been “shaped by this blood and this land.” Dromiols’ subordinate, the surprising Uncle Rat, has a “passion for secret knowledge” in his blood. Dromiols later thunders on about “the blood that has transmitted the strength, the will, the courage.” Explaining how the mysterious Anne-Madeline (the woman I mentioned earlier, who at first seems imaginary, but then isn’t), Rat tells Martial in a “muted but passionate tone,” “she has the blood.” When Martial asks what blood, Rat replies, “There is only one blood.” Martial himself adds, “the true blood always speaks.” (These italics are all mine.) Maybe the apotheosis of the idea of blood as a force that only slumbers, never dies appears in old Malicroix’s codicil to his will:
For it is through this [the completion of the task Malicroix has set Martial] that you will enter into possession of the blood that is in you, but which most likely still slumbers. Have no fear, my child, it is a blood that always awakens.
Malicroix is steeped in blood. But not in gore. This blood isn’t corporeal; it’s essential, a synonym for value and meaning. Such references litter the novel’s pages. Just a few examples:
[F]or the first time in my life, [I] sensed a darker blood flowing into my peaceful heart, a bitter blood that warmed me.
And [Balandran] had seen in it the strong blood of that old, wild lineage. From that moment on, he was my man, for this is a blood that binds and commands, even in me, who usually would not know how to insist on anything nor how to give an order, so much am I a Mégremut. Yet, through my innate gentleness, Balandran had scented the old, wild blood.
And I have a great deal of Mégremut within me. At every moment their blood speaks to me; at the least emotion, it quickens and throbs. I can hear its gentle murmur at the very tips of my smallest veins. Never has good-natured, stay-at-home tenderness and nonchalance—the legacy of a blood opposed to action—shown such deep-rooted vigor, such overpowering strength. … I bathe in and breathe a Mégremut air. It is as a Mégremut that I drink, eat, sleep, love, think, act, dream. I would be them and not myself were it not for that tiny, entrenched, irreducible something—three drops of Malicroix blood. I had always felt them present, gliding through the Mégremut blood without mingling with it.
Even when we might expect another term, the novel prefers blood. Martial girds himself “to face—without any aid—the five enemies of my name and of my blood” (instead of, say, “my family” or “my people”). He worries, for the nth time, about whether “the gentle blood… would from now on be replaced by the dark, bitter blood I had also inherited” (instead of, say, “my gentleness would be replaced by bitterness”).
The metaphoricity is relentless. The only reference to physiological blood comes when Martial describes his body relaxing after the tension incited by a terrible storm:
My heart was unclenching, regaining a more natural rhythm—the slow, gentle pulse of my peaceful, easily dilated blood. My lungs swelled, and air entered in steady breaths without disturbing the thousands of sensitive veins through which my blood was patiently flowing.
Even here, Martial’s description shades into metaphor—his “peaceful” blood flows “patiently.” These terms have been used earlier to describe the Mégremuts. A later example uses blood as a synonym for body or vitality:
My convalescent blood, sweet with youth, rose from my life’s depths toward my soul, whose outline, taken up again by my body’s flesh, grew firmer.
I’d like readers who know more about Bosco to weigh in on the topic of blood. Because the more I read Bosco’s essentialism—the Mégremuts’ and Malicroix’ respective ways of being: these aren’t just habits and manners, or choices about how to live, or contingent differences based on a tangle of history and happenstance, but fixed essences—the more I thought about fascism. (It seemed fitting that the novel reminded Karen of Ernst Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs.)
I was especially troubled by these repeated references to blood in a book published just three years after the end of WWII. What, I wondered, had Bosco been up to during the war? Was he a pétainiste? A fascist? An apologist? There doesn’t seem to be much about Bosco in English, but I did learn he was in Morocco from 1931 – 1955, where he taught classics and ran the Alliance Francaise. Born in 1888, Bosco was in his fifties during the war years, too old to fight. (He did serve in WWI, at the front in the former Yugoslavia.) The novel’s set in the early 19th century, well, probably anyway—a teasing prefatory note explains, “A reader who wanted to date this tale could set it during the first three decades of the nineteenth century”—and nothing in it lends itself to being read as an allegory of the French Occupation. In France, Bosco seems to be known as a writer of adventure, of nature (inasmuch as the French go in for that sort of thing, which, I gather, they don’t really), and of the region of the Camargue. All of this information suggests Bosco wasn’t fascist, maybe not even political. Of course, adventure stories can absolutely be political (think Haggard or, more interestingly, Kipling). So I’d love to hear from readers who know more.
Grant noted that the title poses the question of inheritance. Is Martial “deserving” of his great-uncle’s name? (It could be called Malicroix?) What is a Malicroix, and is Martial himself one? Again, I can’t help but read this insistence on inheritance, especially when it is insistently figured in terms of blood, as reminiscent of fascist rhetoric of authenticity and nativism. By the end of the book, when we see how the protagonist answers the demand of the codicil in his own particular way, we can see that the answers to these questions are complicated: Yes, he is a Malicroix, but in his own way. What the novel doesn’t answer satisfactorily, for me, is why he might want to be.
One answer comes fromNat, who suggests the novel refuses the oppositions it sets up. (Which is why the end, he writes, intimates “a new order.”) There’s Malicroix in every Mégremut. Extrapolating from those family essences, as they are given to us in the novel, Nat concludes that the novel shows how the rational is always troubled by the irrational. It might be worth adding that the novel inserts gender into this binary: conventionally, it is men who are associated with reason, but here the Mégremuts are the reasonable ones and they are associated with stereotypically female qualities of domesticity. Interesting, too, that Martial’s link to the Malicroix comes through his mother. (When I say “interesting” I mean I don’t know what that means.)
Nat refers to Levinas and Blanchot’s contemporaneous ideas of the power of radical weakness or passivity. Both thinkers are reacting to Heidegger in particular and the ideals, if I can put it that way, of fascism in general. This is a brilliant reading, but I’m left wondering: how abstract is the novel’s investigation of the power of the irrational? And why does it have to be figured in blood? Again, I find the novel’s Gnosticism—its fascination with secret truth that is available only to a selected few—uncomfortably close to the mysticism of fascism.
For me, Malicroix’s ending was unsatisfactory because I was unconvinced by its suggestion of what Grant describes as inheritance, Nat calls a new order, and Tom calls redemption. Ostensibly, the ending is triumphant, a liberal rejection of the atavism of grudges and vengeance. But in practice it feels like a let-down, because, deep down, that unrepentant, old, wild Malicroix blood continues to boil. Martial’s actions might calm the ferment, but I didn’t believe the novel wanted that calm. Who wants calm when you can have a storm, it seems to say—and not one to hide out from, one to exult in.