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.
There was a point, early on, although I do not remember exactly where, when there had been enough “blood” that I looked up Bosco’s politics. I was having the same concerns. I still don’t know how seriously to take the metaphor. Yes, 1948 seems a little late to embrace the metaphor so vigorously.
I’m glad you don’t think I’m making something out of nothing. The language is just *so* insistent.
I really like what you say about “blood”- those kinds of thoughts certainly crossed my mind, but I left them in the background, I suppose because it seemed to me more like a peasant thing rather than a Fascist thing- the idea that blood is what ties one to the land and gives it meaning (not the entirety of what’s going on here, but part of it). I seem to recall Irène Némirovsky’s only slightly earlier Fire in the Blood, also set in rural France, as having a similar fascination with blood as a determinant of behaviour. Which is of course not to suggest that this version of blood can’t or doesn’t shade into a more sinister one. And you’re definitely right that an extraordinary amount of weight is placed on that term in this book.
As for what the heck actually happens in this book, I have questions too. In my post, I explained some of this confusion as having to do with its dream-like logic, but I confess that I sometimes wanted more concrete answers. For example, you refer to Uncle Rat as a mole, but whose side is he really on? His warnings don’t actually seem to help Martial at all (do they?) and he continues to skulk around. Is he a double agent? A triple agent?
Not really sure what to say about the ending- I took it as a symbolic act to expiate the old man’s sin, which seems to be successful… hence the potential “new order” (not sure why I put it in quite that way now) but we don’t really get much beyond that…
The new order idea is good. Offers a way past the essentializing stuff. I started to write a comparison to Proust’s distinction between Swann’s way and the Guermantes way–bourgeois vs aristocrat, Jew vs Gentile, connoisseur vs. philistine, etc, etc–which seemed to me at first a bit similar to Bosco’s distinction between the Mégremuts and the Malicroix. As Alison Bechdel shows in her beautiful comic book Fun Home, though, Proust eventually shows these “ways” to have been connected by all sorts of secret transversals (not least around the homo-hetero binary, which collapses). Literally, the paths/walks the narrator thinks are so different from each other turn out to join up, which obliges/allows him to re-envision everything he thought to be true.
Your “new order” idea could be a version of that rethinking. But I didn’t quite buy Bosco as Proust, if you take my meaning. I didn’t see Proust’s self-awareness about the futility of oppositions, though I did take your lovely point about how in every Mégremut there is Malicroix. Not sure that’s the same deconstruction that Proust offers.
Very interesting about Némirovsky. I own quite a few of her books but have yet to read any. Would love to hear from more Francophiles about the prevalence or not of “blood” in this period.
I must confess that I don’t know Proust very well, but that’s a very interesting idea, and I do take your points, both about how Proust might fit here, and how he doesn’t quite. It strikes me that Bosco’s emphasis on blood might seem to refute my claim that in every Mégremut there is a Malicroix; the book often seems to be suggesting that this is ONLY true of Martial because he has the Malicroix blood. But there are other parts, especially Martial’s return home, which I found so utterly uncanny, and which shows that there are hidden depths to the Mégremuts, that seem to suggest otherwise.
You have such a treat in store for you when you make it to the P shelf…
I’m regretting I didn’t get a copy of the book in time to read along. It sounds fascinating. The idea of its being tied to the long-time religious exceptionalism of that part of France is quite interesting.
Can you say more about the religious exceptionalism? I’d love to hear more.
Not having read it, any comments I’d make are at third hand… 😉 and mostly come from Tom’s comments. And it may all just be my left-over classicist training. But I was thinking of Tom’s allusion to Mithraism–the regular Mithraist sacrifice of bulls would certainly suggest a lot of blood around. And while the main trend of the Cathar tendency has to be drawn from Gnosticism, I think it’s also been suggested (but I can’t give you cites) that Catharism was influenced by Mithraism. That would make sense, since Mithraism was popular in the Roman provinces, especially among Roman soldiers.
In any case that area is close to the heart of Catharism. That’s what I was thinking. I don’t really know if it’s relevant.
I just peeked at E. R. Dodds’ Pagans & Christians in An Age of Anxiety, but no reference to Mithraism. I thought maybe that was where I read it. I’m no longer up on the latest in classical scholarship, but as far as I know Franz Cumont is still the best book on Mithraism, though very dated. Interesting book anyway.
And all I really know about the Cathars comes from tootling around in the south of France ten years ago…
Great summary of our experiences with what really is a complex book! I still think I barely scratched the surface of it on first reading, and I’m sure I personally missed much of the symbolism. And I confess that I’m also not entirely sure what the ending meant. But the question of blood is such a fascinating one, and it does dominate the book. Thinking back, I wonder whether I missed the whole concept of this being a metaphor for the two sides in the war; those who collaborated and those who resisted, although there are no simple divisions in a situation like this. Or that it was the two different kinds of human nature. Or the masculine drive versus the feminine drive. See – this book is *still* making me think!!
It *is* a complex book, isn’t it? And so worth reading.
That’s really interesting about the “two sides” possibilities. But if so, who would be the collaborators and who would be the resisters? The wildness of the Malicroix might suggest that they’re the resistance–but I’m uncomfortable with the suggestions of purity and strength that the Malicroix also seem to stand for.
But as your comment suggests, the book at least *seems* thoroughly dualist in its thinking!
The book certainly is split between the passive and active blood, but I take the point about purity et al – not a comfortable thing to be thinking about in an only-just-post-War setting. However, I did feel that this was tempered a bit by Martial’s discovery and acknowledgement of the strengths under the surface of the Megremuts, who turn out to have more to them than meets the eye. I really believe I’ll be thinking about Malicroix for a long time to come!
You’re right about the Mégremut–I wish I’d written more about them (though I already wrote too much!). I thought Martial’s visit home was so interesting–his relatives are much more sympathetically portrayed than I expected.
I’m really hoping more Bosco gets translated soon.
Me too on both counts. I expected to find the Megremuts flimsy and weak but actually I loved them! Which was really surprising…
At first I thought it was just because I am a domestic, settled Mégremut myself–but I really think Bosco wants us to see their genuine value. Maybe it’s just me, though, but I think the novel tips toward the Malicroix side of things.
Definitely. I’m a Megremut too, and I think you’re right that Bosco wants us not to dismiss them, but for Martial the Malicroix part of him is stronger.
The Mégremut chapter was full of curiosities. That dreaming uncle! The Mégremut is basically part of an alternative fantasy novel, a different fantasy than the one out in the swamp. Provence, even, in the 1820s, was mostly not actually populated by matriarchal extended families living in communes.
Martial spends most of the novel perched on the far eastern edge of Cathar territory. I believe that’s the “religious exceptionalism.” That part of France is full of heretics.
Not the Mégremuts, who are conventional Catholics. “I see the scene…, facing poor Ines, reading with application her [Spiritual] Calendar:page 38, month of November.” It was at this point in the novel when I felt there was no longer any mystery about whether or more importantly why Martial preferred to stay on the island.
Forgetting the “blood” aspect, it is not the Malicroix side of Martial, but rather a choice he makes.
Tom, you mean because the Mégremut are conventional? If so, to me, it makes the novel more conventional–story of a rebellious young man.
But your point about how the Mégremut chapter is *also* a fantasy (patron saint, Fourier?), that is interesting.
Cathars–yeah, got it. I can see that fitting into the gnostic-syncretic mix.
The detail, in that chapter, where three different related “households,” full of people, are all next to each other and essentially share the same space — that is a lot of family! And then at Easter, two more branches of the family come over. They live all the way down the street.
Too bad we don’t share page numbers, but this passage, just after what I quoted above, is exactly the kind of thing we find in a conventional rebellious young man story:
“‘When you are a little older, you will marry your cousin Ines. She is stupid[?] and patient. Your children will look like you. And if you have, as is likely, a daughter, she will read, like her mother, the Spiritual Calendar.'”
When you are a little older, you will marry your cousin Inès. She is simple and patient. Your children will look like you. And if you have a girl, as is probable, she will read the Spiritual Calendar, like her mother. (106)
Of course I love this ongoing discussion of Malicroix. Thank you for reading so carefully and generously. I will try to respond to some of the important issues that you and others have raised.
About blood: I too was very disturbed by its prevalence in the novel and worried about Bosco’s use of the term so shortly after the war. But, as far as I can tell, he was neither a collaborator nor a fascist. Mostly he stayed studiously apolitical in his writing, though while in Morocco he edited a journal called Aguedal. During the war, a double issue in 1943 featured “Homage à la France,” from English writers: one example from John Masefield: “La douleur de la France est notre douleur ; l’espoir de la France est notre espoir. Avec la France en esclavage, l’esprit humain est en prison.” [France’s suffering is our suffering; France’s hope is our hope; with France enslaved, the human spirit is in prison.]
So why did he make so much of blood in the novel? [And even “race,” which I translated as “lineage” or “family” or “clan” so as not to go there.] I don’t know. But I have some thoughts.
One bizarre one: that Malicroix is figured as in fact Jewish, and that in claiming his Malicroix heritage, Martial is owning that “lineage.” Note that the true inheritance comes through the “mothers’ blood,” as in Jewish identity; the Malicroix are remarkable for their hawk noses (which Martial doesn’t have); and the Rambards seek vengeance on the Malicroix because one of them killed the bull/god they worship. Cornélius initially wants to take revenge on the ferryman, but his “eye for an eye” Old Testament justice (is that why the ferryman is already blind?!) is tempered by the mercy encouraged by the spirit of Delphine. Martial’s task is simply to frighten and somehow reprimand the ferryman, who conveniently dies anyway. The final moments of the novel occur on Eastern shore of the river, beneath the calvary; Bosco has written that he chose to end the novel under the symbol of Divine Love; so the New Testament somehow triumphs over the Old, but only after Martial has connected with and honored that other part of himself. Maybe?
Interesting! I confess myself rather allergic to overtly symbolic, almost allegorical readings of this sort. That said, I too had wondered about Malicroix as Jewish, largely because of the detail of the maternal line. I hadn’t noticed the other “clues” you note.
If that’s true, though, I am (a) nonplussed by Bosco’s depiction of replacement theology (the cruelty of Jewishness replaced by the kindness of Christiantiy) and (b) surprised at the Malicroix wildness–not the way Jews were stereotypically figured, especially in this period (when effete, bloodsucking, rootless, etc would be more habitual connotations).
I like (b) but have a hard time reconciling it with (a).
(I don’t really see the novel as allegorical at all; the possible Jewish connection is one of many strands, and maybe not the dominant one—though of course I agree, “replacement theology” is deeply disturbing, and I doubt that Bosco actually adhered to it.)
Yes, there’s too much particularity in the novel for it to be allegorical, I agree. I assume it’s that material (weather, atmosphere, emotion, setting) that Bachelard responded to, though I’ve never read him.
I agree with those who see the ending as somehow an undoing of the binaries that dominated the novel, or at the very least a merging of them. Wild Cornélius has already been tamed by Delphine (who stayed away from the hunt, for example); and the Mégremuts reveal themselves to be not as “gentle” as Martial had thought.
(And of course I think that Anne-Madeleine is both real and an incarnation of Delphine. The conclusion of the novel owes a great deal to Frederic Mistral’s Lou Pouèmo dóu Rose (The Poem of the Rhone) . . . there’s a scene there where the souls of those who have died in the river can be called back and retrieved by people on shore . . . I don’t have my copy of the poem with me now, so I can’t check all the details, but I am certain that it inspired that crazy scene on the river with the candles and the mass for the dead and the reunion with Anne-Madeleine.)
I also agree with you that it’s best to think of Bosco as “Mediterranean” and not French. Absolutely. He wrote poetry in Provençal and was devoted to that terroir, seeing it as quite different from the rest of France. And he was also very indebted to Jóusè d’Arbaud, whose La Bèstio dóu Vacarés is very much in the background of Malicroix. Place-names and character-names are derived from it; also, I see Malicroix as something like a version of d’Arbaud’s life: as a young man, he abandoned a promising career as a writer of French poetry to go and live a “rude” or “wild” life in the Camargue, where he chose to write in Provençal and to work as a bull herder. Bosco spoke of his own Martial as a “poet.” D’Arbaud believed that the Camargue was the one place that most embodied the spirit of Provence that had been subjugated by France. He thought the old spirit lived on there. Another reason for Bosco’s emphasis on “blood”?
So, these are some random thoughts. There may be more . . .
These are such interesting, rich, and helpful thoughts. I hope others see them and benefit from them as I have.
Just a public note of thank you for bringing this mysterious novel into such remarkable English. I also love how long you had the project in mind–perseverance rewarded!
The pleasure is all mine. “Perseverance furthers” as the I Ching reminds us.
We need t shirts!
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