The next post will be on or before Monday April 3rd
THAT STRANGE INVISIBLE WORLD
‘I am extremely sensitive to the virtues of summer and although I was born under a stormy autumnal sign, I live to my fullest at the time of the great heats, for it is then that the earth transmits its ardour most easily to me, and I commune with it in waking and in sleeping with a power that is wedded to the radiance of matter’
The Farm Theotime by Henri Bosco
Henri Bosco from Avignon (1888-1976) was an extremely gifted and prolific Provence writer who can be compared alongside two other regional virtuosos: Jean Giono from Manosque (1895-1970) author of Blue Boy (1932) and Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974) born near Marseille, who was not only a powerful playwright and autobiographical novelist (e.g. the 1957, My Father’s Glory) but a legendary filmmaker who made the vibrant Marseille love stories Marius (1931) and Fanny (1932). Anyone who likes world cinema will very likely have seen Jean de Florette (1986) adapted from Pagnol’s 1964 novel of the same name and directed by Claude Berri. Set in the 20s, it stars Gerard Depardieu (born 1948) as a hunchbacked townie who tries to the point of exhaustion and worse to make a go of a barren Provence farm…only to be subverted by 2 appalling rogues, a wily old farmer played by Yves Montand (1921-1991) and his halfwit nephew, a carnation grower, portrayed with real genius by Daniel Auteuil (born 1950). There is a kernel scene in that film where Montand gets in a dispute with a surly old rustic neighbour and eventually yanks him brutally out of the tree branch he’s perched upon. The old man dies on impact with the ground whereupon Montand coolly grunts to the effect he had it coming. There is a very close parallel here with a crucial episode in Bosco’s masterpiece The Farm Theotime (1945) which rightly won the Prix Renaudot and which is available in English in the old Readers Union imprint (1949) and no doubt from the usual second hand book sites. The hero Pascal, a reclusive landowner and passionate amateur botanist, has his mesmerising and beautiful cousin Genevieve staying with him at his farm Theotime, close to the village of Puyloubiers. She has been warned at the outset against befriending a notorious neighbour at La Jassine , another cousin of Pascal’s called Clodius. The latter is wickedness personified, a friendless solitary who is fanatically jealous of all his neighbours and spends his time trying to smoke them out with carefully placed fires. One day Genevieve is more or less kidnapped by an unusually friendly Clodius, and when Pascal goes to retrieve her from La Jassine, he confronts him so violently that his cousin stumbles and knocks himself unconscious on the ground. For days to come Pascal is in a state of profound anxiety that he might have killed him as there are no signs of life coming from Clodius’s farmhouse, aggravated by the fact that the latter is so paranoid and reclusive that in ordinary circumstances days can pass when no one sees him anyway.
Pascal is painfully anxious about the imminent attentions of the police, the advocate, the country judge, should he have killed him, but he feels no compunction whatever about Clodius’s possible death. Pascal must be one of the strangest narrators of any novel not manifestly in the Gothic mode, as he maintains an unbelievably rigid inner discipline about which he is infinitely eloquent, and finds it hard to unbend even with the woman he loves, his cousin Genevieve. Before she arrives in worrying circumstances (she had left her husband and then married a volatile man who she’d also fled) he happily spends much of his time farming alongside his amiable tenant neighbours, the austere and simple-hearted Aliberts. But as a natural solitary he prefers his lonely botanizing, and he has a kind of attic retreat at Theotime, in which he keeps his specimens and where he often sleeps on a couch overnight. He also has another retreat of a former shooting box up at Micolombe, beyond which is the very old disused and beautiful chapel of St Jean, both of which become passionate hideaways for Genevieve once she starts to live with him.
The two of them had once been childhood friends and would have been natural sweethearts, if Pascal hadn’t been so boorish and dismissive with this cousin who had loved him from her earliest years. Once when the young girl became too openly affectionate at a family gathering, he had slapped her hard across the face, to the amazement of all. His kindly cousin Barthelemy had tried to make a joke of it, but Pascal had turned on him so viciously that he had burst into tears. Pascal now as a young man has the strongest feelings for this relative who is sharing his lonely house, but he can’t help being harsh to her at the most tender and vulnerable of times, and worse still he has a fearful sense of his own natural savagery or brutality which she awakens in him. Pascal justifies this on the grounds that he has a similar temperament to crazy Clodius, for the pair of them share the same genetic inheritance. Like that other Frenchman obsessed with heredity and personality, Emile Zola (1840-1902), Pascal thinks that when it comes to a person’s deepest nature everything is determined by one’s random legacy of forebears. On one side, on cousin Genevieve’s, he has her tenderness and gentleness, on the other he is capable of being a monster. The fascinating thing is that this savagery he feels encumbered with, as an otherwise mature adult, never once in the story manifests itself tangibly to Genevieve, nor to anyone else that he cares about. To that extent, it is a kind of imaginative, entirely inner nastiness that he is wrestling with, and which stops him manifesting the deep love he feels for his beautiful cousin.
Meanwhile and thankfully Clodius is not dead, and indeed his unneighbourly tricks and harassment get ever more ingenious and perverse. First of all he discovers an ancient law that allows him to take his animals though old abandoned footpaths and he duly leads 3 half-starved sheep every day through Theotime. That is all, and apart from the bizarre spectacle he does no actual damage, just makes everyone extremely anxious. But then a few days later a dozen wild boar go tearing through Pascal’s corn and destroy it all. This communal rampage is unusual behaviour for these animals, and Genevieve presciently recalls some hoary ancestor of theirs who was supposedly capable of charming wolves. Everyone thinks that Clodius is responsible for the boars, and after they come down en masse a second time, Genevieve who happens to spot them turns them round and leads them back to La Jassine, just as if a timeless figure out of Homer or a fairy tale. But the next day she is very feverish, and when Pascal gets Bourigat the local doctor in to see her, the old man’s dour, unfoolable scepticism is striking to say the least.
‘Do you really want me to see her?’ he asked incredulously ‘It is quite useless in my opinion. The sick are what they are, and one cannot change them. It is better to care for them as you think fit.’
Once Genevieve has recovered she feels that the man she loves so deeply still resents her, so departs to stay with cousin Barthelemy some distance off by train. Pascal is utterly bereft and on a roasting summer’s night he sleeps out in a hammock where he awakes to see a ghostly figure hovering above him, who he assumes to be a travelling pedlar. The next day Clodius is found dead of a gunshot wound, and two policemen alongside a detective and an irritable old magistrate arrive to interrogate Pascal. The magistrate scoffs at the pedlar story but everyone is confounded when Clodius’s will is read out and his sole heir is his hated cousin Pascal! Meanwhile the ‘pedlar’ intruder, wounded by Clodius has established himself in Theotime, for Pascal, as if the whole thing is a haunted dream has sheltered him in a long disused and suffocatingly hot barn. But everyone including Rambout the detective, the Aliberts and Genevieve when she returns to visit Pascal, hear suspicious noises around the farm and it is only when his capture is inevitable that the killer flees and Pascal later learns he had vanished abroad. Genevieve at the same time departs fatefully for Marseilles where for a time she stays with a religious order, and as a gentle and moving coda Pascal eventually finds love with the Alibert daughter, the handsome and hard-working Francoise.
Both Bosco and Giono have a phenomenal capacity to describe the natural world with tender and vivid precision, and they make our vaunted English versions (e.g. DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Mary Webb, John Cowper Powys) look like fumbling amateurs in comparison. Bosco writes about the world of farming and harvesting with a loving and immaculate and microscopic detail and like Giono he sees the rustic life as infused with a powerful spirituality.
‘Theotime stood there serenely among the trees, and its tranquillity amazed me. Rising up out of the shadows, it appeared to me like some moral image, a wise and holy edifice of domestic friendship’
In Bosco’s case, underneath that serenity is a kind of worrying and ceaseless spiritual battle between Good and Evil, whereas Giono’s larger than life rustics (e.g. the extraordinary wanderer Bobi in the 1936 Que ma Joie Demeure ) are depicted with the dimensions of the ancient Greek epics, of which Giono was a lifelong student. They are both declared Provence pantheists then, but Bosco has a unique and very unusual vision of the country life, inasmuch as he sees dead ancestors as well as beloved inanimate objects like the timeless soil, old farmhouses, ancestral furniture, antique kitchen implements and the like, as having a spiritual presence too. These ever-present ancestors and their artefacts are neither ghosts nor not ghosts, neither metaphor, nor not metaphor, and combined with Bosco’s/Pascal’s duality of Tenderness and Savagery = Good and Evil, it can be an unsettling and disturbing vision at times. Just contrast what follows with the previous quote about the serenity of Theotime.
‘The least notebook, the most modest tool, melts naturally into this little world, lovingly based upon laws of meditation and reverie which cause it to gravitate noiselessly around my thoughts. I do not see them: I live them…These mysterious relationships suit my savagery – a quality which alienates my fellow men – for they establish bonds of affection between the objects and myself. I live in a magic society, where I no longer see the material form but only the suggested image, and I am so intimately attached to this friendly world that once I am in it, I never encounter the least obstacle to disturb the trend of my dreams’
If you come across The Farm Theotime in a second-hand bookshop, don’t be put off by the appearance of the Readers Union postwar ‘authorized economy standards’. Also ignore the illustrations which make it look like a children’s book and are so bad it looks as if I did the drawings.