Texts belong as much to the reader as to the author

In a previous entry, “No challenge for the Provincial Lady” (http://camilledefleurville.blogspot.fr/2015/06/no-challenge-for-new-provincial-lady.html), I talked among other books about “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, that I had read in French as “Le Chardonneret”.

I am afraid my comment was not entirely positive. There it went:

“So, I grabbed “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt because it was close and handy (paperback) while heavy and full of promises of a universe of its own between its front and back covers, being so big – a page turner? -, and because I dimly thought it spoke of Flemish painting, and nothing seemed better appropriate in this calm than the calm of Flemish masters. […]

I have read a page turner, as a page turner it is, full of more or less veiled allusions to Pip and Estella, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, to memories of Henry James, to the glare and blare of the USA, to the deserts of Nevada, the wilderness and sophistication of different New-York Cities, to the Russian-Ukrainian mafia, to the traffic of “oeuvres d’art”, to the American middle-class whose dreams seem broken, to the lower shallows where drugs and adulterated alcohol are more usual than sleep and food, to the heights to the upper class where money is far from being the only criterion to be a member of the “caste”… 

A dancing, stunning, rich, full and replete book where the loose threads of the beginning get woven together little by little to be rounded off at the end. A compelling book that went with me in the early morning, the lazy hours around tea in the afternoon, and at night when I could not sleep. But a book that left me with a hangover and a pasty taste in the mouth: why pseudo-philosophical comments as a final touch? The braid that had been woven seemed to be over-weighty and contrived by a useless load of “morale”, as these fables that always carry a “preach” and lesson.

But a “tour de force”.”


Since then, I have talked with friends and read the blog of some one I do respect as literary competence are involved.
The first friend with whom I talked is American. He told me that this book was among his five top ten readings of last years and he thought highly of it. As he is not very talkative about description of his feelings, I had to be let with this cryptic statement but I knew he meant it because my friend is eminently truthful. I know as well that he knows the desert of Nevada and the life in New-York City and has travelled to The Netherlands. He is a keen connoiseur of paintings and the arts. He is receptive to atmospheres. He knows about the problems of youngsters smoking, smoking drugs, and drinking. He knows the “Bohemian” side of the Village well and the upper-classes of NYC as well. He has read and reads a lot and was appreciative of Harry Potter. Lots of assets to make a clever reading of “The Goldfinch”.
My second friend is Russian and deely in love with English literature. She underlined the relationship with Cherles Dickens, with the Bildungsroman and “David Copperfield” and mentioned Pip and Estella – the latter split between Kitsey and Pippa. But of course, she insisted upon the links with Dostoyevsky – “The Gambler” of course, “The Idiot”, “The Brothers Karamazov” – and I saw the point as with philosophy and reflexion upon arts and the “oeuvre d’art” at the end of the novel, the last pages of Dona Tartt’s novel. My Russian friend is a pianist and senses things I tend to let aside.
The third opinion came through an exchange with a university professor of literature specialised in Henry James. She was reading “The Goldfinch” as one drinks water in small sips when one is thirsty. She enjoyed her reading and used the techniques she knows about close reading, reading against the grain, making notes, comparing with other sources and critics – or so I imagine. And she gave us her comments in a blog entry this morning: https://pigeonfiles.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/donna-tartts-the-goldfinch-the-imagination-of-disaster/.

I am definitely defeated. What I thought and felt as heavy lesson in the last pages of the novel, my two friends and the lady blogger qualify as a gem.

What is wrong about me? I have re-read those few pages and still find them as heavy as a 17th century sermon and as demonstrative, without any of the lightness of touch and gauzy approach I prefer. I feel a lesson is given to me and I have no option but to learn it. As a fractious child, I tend to rebel and would have preferred to be incited to consider it and to make an opinion by myself. But the majority is against me. I must me wrong. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

What my American friend has told recently comforts me a little: a text belongs as much to the reader as to its author. I will add: and each reader is free to own the text his or her own way, if he/she does not misrepresent it!

Meanwhile has already such a wee slip of a bird had so much interest focused on him?

Nights of juin

After I had written about the fête de la musique, I was unhappy with the entry and said so rather vehementy to a friend who retorted that he, as a reader, thought it did not need anything else and found that it was perfectly complete as it was. He added that a text belongs as much to the reader as to the author. I was very angry and almost deleted the entry but in the end let it stand as it was. And it is still here.

Nevertheless, this was still nagging at the back of my mind and I knew I wanted to talk about the nights of June, those without the noises of the fête, these particular nights of the year.

These particular nights that come late and very slowly and leave us early for morning light. A few hours of respite and peace, of semi-silence. The night to which Mrs Dalloway escapes when the weight of her party becomes too much.

In French, I would say that these nights come à pas de velours, with velvet steps or on tiptoe. It is nine o’colck and the sun is still here, the light more golden than during the day. There is a mellowness that the birds recognise and although it is warm, they begin to sing their adieux. The notes are not the same as in the early morning, as if they were drowsy and calling their young ones or saying good bye to their friends. In the house, the dining room is almost deserted, the table cloth almost naked, the china, glasses and cuttlery in the kitchen. Only crumbs and decanters, the fruit in a basket – the first peaches and apricots and nectarines -, a water pitcher, napkins.

Voices outside. In the now fading light, we are watering the flowers and their scent rises more pungent with the odour of wet earth.

Time to talk leisurely while cutting the wilted roses from the rose trees, gathering them in baskets. A walk perhaps after that along the path near the river. The sky is turning a deep deep blue and the birds are quiet. Frogs are croaking near the pond and little green frogs skip over the water from grasses to waterlilies. We talk quietly: all noise wants to be banished. From time to time, car headlights pass by on the road. We breathe at last. And we are cloaked by the perfume of cut hay and new straw. One of us look up at the sky. It is the dark velvet night of June.

Time to go back home where children are asleep. The house is waiting for us. Lights open to the outside blackness. A stop in the garden and the creaking rattan armchairs to taste the coolness that has come at last.

Our talk is but a whisper that ripples the silence as do the footsteps of our neighbours on the gravel and then the squeaking of the iron gate behind them. We exchange good byes.

It is a quarter to eleven.

Night insects are singing and their chimes are shrill.

I think of Tosca and the last aria of the tenor remembering the nights when he was coming to Floria’s garden and house.

It is time to go inside and close the shutters, leaving the windows open for the fresh night air to come in. Time to dive in white beds; which are like pools of slumber waiting for us.

Tomorrow, tomorrow, the morning light will be here soon with dew and blue tints, lighter blue than this evening, birds chirping and twittering. Tomorrow. Tomorrow…

La Saint-Jean Bonfires

Last Saturday, I was looking through my e-mail box when I found the parish news with a special annoucement.

There is no Parish Magazine in the village. The village is not even a parish in itself anymore. Of course, being of Roman Catholic culture, each village in France, even the smallest one, has a RC church even when the Protestants have fought and won the majority of the population in centuries past. However, as everywhere in the Western world, less and less people go to church, less and less people consider themselves Roman Catholics, less and less people consider themselves Christians and one is considered either slightly backward or devout fanatic when one is neither atheist or agnostic. In fact, one has to be either a Jew or a Muslim to proclaim one’s religion – at one’s own risks…

No church-goers, no priests. No priests, no individual villages with individual parishes. These are gathered in large entities called “parishes” as well. Our village is part of one of these entities and the parish includes no less than around fifteen or twenty villages and churches, which cover a large area. As there are not enough priests, the diocese has concluded an agreement with an order of monks who form little congregations in former disused abbeys. And the monks serve the villages forming the large new parish.

This is an awkward understanding and disposition.

Of course, rectories or vicarages are empty, like ours.

And the rectories were almost at the heart of the villages, near the churches, like ours again.

Our former old vicar was a pittoresque to be seen opening the doors of the church every day, crossing la place, the main square, to go and buy his bread at the baker’s, or shopping at the shops’ and not at the supermarket, gardening his plot of land around le presbytère, the vicarage, or sat at his desk, the presbytère door wide open to all and sundry.

He was a character. Born of Italian parents in Northern Italy, in a village of the Dolomites, come to France at the age of ten months when his father migrated with the whole family to find work in the coal mines of Lorraine, in the East of France; treated as migrants; his father slowly falling ill to the breathing illness of miners; uprooted again to be farmers in the South of Dordogne where the mine’s owner had farms; his father given another job both by “Christian charity” and voting purposes as the mine owners were from a political family searching people support to be elected; being selected by the priest of his parish as a clever boy and sent to study at the petit séminaire, the minor seminary in Bergerac; being ill himself and having to stay in bed for a year; going back to the seminary and deciding that he would be priest by intense faith and calling. He was gruff. He could be unpleasant. He could be as soft as the wing of a dove. He was loving and caring. He did not show his feelings. He hunted for the sake of walking at dawn and watching nature awaking. He frightened his parishioners and his non parishioners and all the children. He was loved by his parishioners and his non parishioners and all the children – and all were proud of his oddities. He would love philosophy and theology, his computer and internet, music, football, Italy, his family, his friends, painting, sculpting, his patch of potatoes and tomatoes, a plate of pasta bolognese, and quarelling with his best liked parishioners. He was sure and upstanding in his faith, meek, irritable, generous, straighforward, frank, an accumulation of contradictions. He was human.

He died one morning at dawn, in his beloved Dolomites, while he was on holidays in Italy, visiting his cousins. He died on a mountain path, alone in the dew, on an August morning. He left no public image of himself.

Of course, the village was used to see him every day. Of course, bells were ringing. Of course, there were regular church activities.

Nowadays, one monk comes each Sunday morning and each Tuesday morning for mass, and goes back to his abbey or the centre of activities of the parish, which is the next village ten kilometres away. This is not far away. But a seeping feeling is growing of secularity and death of Christian culture which are seen through little things like the continuing death of the heart of the village. The vicarage and the church are empty shells at the core of an emptying bigger shell. And new activities are being born around the supermarket.

Paradox. In all this secularisation, the monks have revived one thing: le feu de la Saint-Jean, the bonfire of the feast of Saint-John-the-Baptist!

In their desire to create something that would take back young people and children with their parents to church, they have ironically revived the old Midsummer pagan festivities that had been progressively forgotten during the last cntury! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer)

Therefore the announcement in the parish leaflet I found in my mail box, inviting all people to come and share a picnic, and then music, dance and leaping over the bonfire on the 24th June – not on the Saint-John’s Eve… (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_John%27s_Eve)

Who says that religions are dangerous? They are, certainly they are. They are also on the long run but a veneer. Long live traditions!

https://youtu.be/Lqy36hliTnQ

Summer is ycumen in

The Cuckoo Song (Sumer is icumen / ycumen in)

Middle English:

Sumer is icumen in,

~Summer has come in,

Lhude sing cuccu!

~Loudly sing, Cuckoo!

Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

~The seed grows and the meadow blooms

And springþ þe wde nu,

~And the wood springs anew,

Sing cuccu!

~Sing, Cuckoo!

Awe bleteþ after lomb,

~The ewe bleats after the lamb

Lhouþ after calue cu.

~The cow lows after the calf.

Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,

~The bullock stirs, the stag farts,

Murie sing cuccu!

~Merrily sing, Cuckoo!

Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;

~Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.

~Don’t you ever stop now,

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.

~Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.

Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

~Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

From *Sumer is icumen in: chants medivaeux anglais, performed by the Hilliard Ensemble, directed by Paul Hilliard. Used by arrangement with Harmonica Mundi USA.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature 

Composed probably in the twelfth century, this is one of the oldest surviving Middle English lyrics.

“Sumer Is Icumen In” is a traditional English round, and possibly the oldest such example of counterpoint in existence. The title might be translated as “Summer has come in” or “Summer has arrived”.

The round is sometimes known as the Reading rota because the manuscript comes from Reading Abbey though it may not have been written there. It is the oldest piece of six-part polyphonic music (Albright, 1994). Its composer is anonymous, possibly W. de Wycombe, and it is estimated to date from around 1260. The manuscript is now at the British Library. The language is Middle English, more exactly Wessex dialect.

*

Cuckoo – Cuculus canorus – Family: Cuculidae

The cuckoo is a medium sized bird about the size of a pigeon. A summer visitor to England, cuckoos arrive in April and the adults leave as early as the end of July. The young leave later, finding their way back to an Africa they have never seen before. This is, famously, a parasitic bird – the female lays a single egg in the nest of smaller birds such as reed warblers, dunnocks and meadow pipits. When the young cuckoo hatches, it forces the other eggs out of the nest, and is then reared by the hosts. It has declined in abundance since the 1980s, possibly because of similar decreases in the numbers of nest host species such as dunnock and meadow pipit.

Cuckoos are generally a grey colour with the females being slightly browner. The primary feathers on the wings are black as is the tail but with white markings along its length. When the bird is perching the wings are held in a downward position, looking as if they do not fold properly, and the tail is held up, making it look slightly awkward. In flight, their appearance is superficially similar to the kestrel, with sharp, backswept wings and a powerful wing beat. It is only the male who makes the familiar call at the beginning of the breeding season in spring. Occasionally, three notes are heard rather than two. Cuckoos are found in a range of habitats including woodland, marshland, heath and open moorland.

They can often be heard from gardens and occasionally seen passing overhead but you need to be a little fortunate actually to see one in your garden.

Food

Insects: this is one of the only species able to eat hairy caterpillars. On arrival in the spring they are often seen gorging themselves on newly emerged caterpillars of the drinker moth. Predator of butterflies, moths, spiders and worms.

Prey

Drinker moth, Dunnock, Meadow pipit, Moths, Spiders and harvestmen, Worms

*

You may shake your heads and mutter “almost an academic blog” today with all these references both musicological and ornithological! Very starched introduction to a very simple fact: summer is coming in today! Let us be happy and sing its arrival.

This arrival coincides in France with the Fête de la musique who was born in the years 1980s under the President Mitterrand and the ministre de la culture, Jack Lang. Every French person was invited to come down into the streets and play instriments or sing or give concert. It was to be a celebration of music as the cuckoo celebrates summer with its song.

Of course, all French persons did not go down in the streets or squares or roads, singong and playing. Of course, some did and were more wreckrages than success. Of course, time passing, the joyous and spontaneous celebration became institutionalised and nowadays there are more concerts than individual happy enterprise. Nevertheless, la fête de la musique marks the beginning of summer in all cities, towns and villages.

The house is about one kilometre from the village but I am sure that this evening we shall be able to hear the pounding and thumping sound of some music from groups invited by le Centre multiculturel and followed by some more loud pounding and thumping music from groups invited by the local café.

At the same time, the French State TV channels will broadcast variety and/or classical music from somewhere in Paris and the host will be some well-known master of ceremony who will try to teach classical music to the spectators.

I long for something different that will happen tomorrow evening and every day that will follow during summertime.

I long for the noises of summer.

No challenge for the new Provincial Lady

I do admire bloggers who read books and review them seriously and publish their reviews regularly. I am too whimsical for this.

But what I admire most, and know that I shall never reach this ability and mastership, is to set oneslf or with others, challenges and to achieve them.

Stacks of books neatly labelled as TBR (To Be Read), One Hundred Books for the Twentieth Century, Classics To be Read This Year (and a number of them allocated per month), the XXX Publishing House Month, the YYY Author week, the Fellow Bloggers Shelves, the Second-Hand Books To Be Read during the Year, all sorts of challenges may be found in the blogging community.

They find me amazed, astonished, abashed, and humbled. At least.

Therefore last week I tried to give myself a small challenge to test my mettle:

  • to re-read and review the last of the “Miss Buncle” books, “The Four Graces” that I am reading with an internet reading group;
  • or to read and review two books by O. Douglas (John Buchan’s sister), The Proper Place” and its sequel, “The Day of Small Things”, of which I have already read the first;
  •  to read seriously Bring Up The Bodies” by Hilary Mantel with another internet reading group, as I have just finished “Wolf Hall“, and was delightfully surprised by the style and mastery/proficiency of the author (I had left the book aside after a few pages when it was first published in paperback;

  • or to re-read for the umpteenth time “Wild Strawberries” and “Marling Hall” by Angela Thirkell for I should have given months ago a paper about “Angela Thirkell and the French” to the American Society and approached the British Society about it.


All this was easy enough.

I took a new A4 notebook organiser with coloured partitions to insert between the sheets and make proper sections that divide one’s work.

I bought myself a wonderful automatic pencil with automatic – or semi-automatic – lead pencil and incorporated rubber. I chose it to match the colours of the notebook. And I made sure I had enough lead refills.

I prepared lovingly the places where I would read and write, the hours where I would never ever be disturbed, and I set the challenge to myself: one week to do one of the four projects upon which I had set my heart, mind and desires.

Still easy enough.

On the first day, I sat in front of the books to choose one and looked at them squarely in the eyes. Cool-headed, unflappable and seemingly unconcerned, they looked at me squarely in the eyes in return. I decided not to be nervous and reached out to take “The Proper Place” but let it hover over “Wolf Hall”, while my right hand tried unsuccessfully to grasp the notebook while hesitating over the laptop.

I persuaded myself that discipline overruled and that no distraction or fluttering was admitted. I made my heart, mind and desires as hard as rock and steel.

But I had forgotten that it was a June day and already a summer day.

In front of the window, after the formal garden and trees and shrubberies, I could glimpse the meadow with its buttercups and wild orchids and red clover, dandelions, and wild campion and all sort of different flowers and herbs of which I do not know the name but are nonetheless beautiful. The meadow was going down slowly to the stream that I could hear gurgle gently in my inner ear, seeing  its dragonflies, grasshoppers, bees, and minnows and all the dams we had tried to build when we were children, my brothers, my cousins, and I. On the left, I knew there was a wheat field. Poppies mingling with the hard, pointed, blue-green spears of the stems and spiked ears of the still young and tender wheat. But already a fresh scent of straw as yet unripe. And high above this quiet splendour, long lazy white clouds, so soft one would wish to lie in them.
Not a weather to stay inside.

So, I grabbed “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt because it was close and handy (paperback) while heavy and full of promises of a universe of its own between its front and back covers, being so big – a page turner? -, and because I dimly thought it spoke of Flemish painting, and nothing seemed better appropriate in this calm than the calm of Flemish masters.

And so, once again, I have lived my week out of my initial projects, far from my timetable and my laptop, notebook, pencil, and my carefully set for books. I have read a page turner, as a page turner it is, full of more or less veiled allusions to Pip and Estella, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, to memories of Henry James, to the glare and blare of the USA, to the deserts of Nevada, the wilderness and sophistication of different New-York Cities, to the Russian-Ukrainian mafia, to the traffic of “oeuvres d’art”, to the American middle-class whose dreams seem broken, to the lower shallows where drugs and adulterated alcohol are more usual than sleep and food, to the heights to the upper class where money is far from being the only criterion to be a member of the “caste”

A dancing, stunning, rich, full and replete book where the loose threads of the beginning get woven together little by little to be rounded off at the end. A compelling book that went with me in the early morning, the lazy hours around tea in the afternoon, and at night when I could not sleep. But a book that left me with a hangover and a pasty taste in the mouth: why pseudo-philosophical comments as a final touch? The braid that had been woven seemed to be over-weighty and contrived by a useless load of “morale”, as these fables that always carry a “preach” and lesson.

But a “tour de force”.

And now, instead of coming back to my discipline and rules, as it is the week-end, I have grabbed (“encore!”) another “tour de force”, almost as heavy as “The Goldfinch”“The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair” by Joel Dicker. As compelling and page turning. As technically perfect. But technique shows.

I remember when I was dazzled by “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” or “Possession” or “Mary Swann” or “Alias Grace” or “Fingersmith”: there was a lot of technique in them but one did not see easily the seams of the various means that had been used. These I have read this week, “as my whimsey took me”, are different. In a way, they look like those cold, detached, evenly lighted paintings by Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell with a touch of Andy Warhol. They are self-possessed and this self-confidence is fascinating.

I know I shall come back to my “initial challenges” once I shall not see them as challenges anymore. Meanwhile, these books where in limbo, as my stacks cheerfully juggle with “Read”, “TBR”, “TBRe-Read”, and colonize the house! Thus I feel virtuous in having decluttered some of them and shall perhaps go on with “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” – if I do not think of it as part of a project I have set myself to accomplish.
And the wheat turns slowly yellow, the hay is cut in one meadow, the roses have the red darkness and heady scent of wine. No more lazy clouds in the afternoons but the promise of the harsh white light of July bathe the garden and the landscape around.

Proust again

I have realised only now that I am talking of la Dordogne and its surroundings without showing where all this happens! So, here is a map of France (the French do believe that the whole world knows where their country stands and I do not think otherwise) and la Dordogne is on the North-East of Bordeaux (around 100kms), South-West of Paris (around 500kms), where the arrow points.

It belongs to la Guyenne (name of the past, under the Kings…) and now (as in former times) to l’Aquitaine (remember Eléonore d’Aquitaine who married a French king and then treacherously married Henry II of England? – source of the Hundred Years War…) I am perhaps a little biased on this… ? No, true to myself and country!

L’Aquitaine was much bigger during Eléonore’s time (XIIth century) and the realm of France was trying to build itself and centralise things. Did not need the English to come and take some territory from us (being grumpy). The entity “département” was created under the Revolution (1789-1794), the chaos of Directoire and Consulat that followed until the Ist Empire (Napoleon I – 1804-1814/15). It would be rather like a county in the UK or a State in the US. La Dordogne is my Midsomer County. Département capital city: Périgueux; main towns: Bergerac, Sarlat and Nontron.

Divided in four colours for the tourists: White (Périgueux) because of the limestone that is the the main soil sub-basement; Green (Nontron) in the North because of the water, rivers, ponds, mists that keep the landscape green most of the year and not as parched as other areas; Black (Sarlat) because of the truffles that are found there, and the trees that cover the ground in some places making few room for light and much for shade; Purple (Bergerac): the wine country with Montbazillac, Saint-Emilion, & al. For more detailed information, please, follow the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dordogne

The least touristy area is le Périgord Blanc but it follows the valley created by the River Isle that could make its bed more easily in the limestone. The river crosses Périgueux and goes down to Libourne (before Bordeaux) where it meets the Dordogne River which in turn meets the Garonne Main River at Bordeaux to create the Bec d’Ambès. The Dordogne River flows at the South of the Dordogne département to which it gives its name, through Limeuil, Trémolat, Lalinde, Bergerac…

Unfortunately, we live in le Périgord Blanc. Not touristy but useful. So, fortunately, we live in le Périgord Blanc. The new motorway that crosses France from West (Bordeaux) to East (Lyon) is very close and the railway connections with the TGV (our super-fast railway train) are easy. Perigueux is within easy reach, Bordeaux is now within easy reach as well. We are not too lost in the countryside and yet we live in the countryside!

The house is close to three “market towns”, up-graded villages, which are called “bourgs”, have a largest population than smaller villages around, a church (RC), a “mairie” (town hall  or Parish Council), kindergarten, schools and high school up to 5th grade (non included), a library (tiny and uncomfortable and without English books), shops, market one or twice a week (what English speakers call farmers’ markets), one or two supermarkets (nothing to do with malls or great supermarkets as in the US – human sized!), local administrations and services or Agencies, little factories (industry was important in the 1950s-1970s but  has declined and almost died since).

These are two of these closest market towns:

All villages or “market towns” are built around the church. Some of the churches are former priories, sometimes fortified, most dating from a thousand years back with changes made along the centuries. The market towns are also built along or very close to the river.

These were the places inhabited during peaceful times. Most are old habitats, dating from the prehistory and there are

“private caves” with paintings (one friend of  ours had one years ago) and prehistoric artefacts are rather commonly found when digging. Gauls and Romans fought here. Romans had “oppida”, their fortified camps on the hills on each side of the river and then went down to the valley and the river where they built their “villae” with craftsmen and agriculture. Traces were found in one of the market town in 1964 when a new factory was built.

In the Middle Ages, fortified castles were built on the site of the oppida.

and the simple chapels of old became those fortified priories where the land belonged to the Church.

Both were shelters during intestine wars or during international wars as with the English. Later, when the Renaissance came, these fortresses were either transformed or abandoned and new castles were built close to the church, and the villages permanently established in the valley.

Enough of History and geography for today. Some views of the various market towns to which we go shopping:

The main square of the closest village.

The market

 The markets in winter or when it rains are under this kind of old building (“la halle”)

And the river with one of the “new castles (dating from the XVIth century with changes and parts added in the XVIIth and XVIIIth century.

More perhaps other times to illustrate this diary. And more pictures from la Dordogne (the river) itself, which is more impressive!

Why Proust then? Why this title?

In a previous entry I invoked his name and his writing about the small things that come so important an imprint upon our lives like the “aubépines”, rosehips, described in the first volume of la “Recherche du Temps Perdu”, “Du Côté de chez Swann”. Today, I am thinking more of the last volume, “Le Temps Retrouvé”. After WWI, the narrator comes back in the “salons”  he has been so eager to visit and that were the centre of his life. But the gauze veil that was giving charm and youth to these people and these rooms has gone and there is some kind of roll call of those who are now dead.

When going shopping and taking time to talk to people my family has known for generations, I sometimes hear the same roll call of the dead. The villages are slowly dying; the centres themselves of the market towns are slowly dying to the benefit of the nearest supermarket or the bigger supermarkets closer to Périgueux or Bordeaux. Young people have no reason to stay in areas where unemployment reigns: they go away, and old families slowly die. Traditions are revived by societies but they do not have the true ring of older days. Our neighbours are coming on holidays, briefly. The long summer evenings when the sky was turning from pale blue and rose-pink to mauve twilight, then to darker and darker blue until it was all black velvety sky and brilliant stars, when I listened to adults talking in a soft breath mingling with the breeze, have gone: no more time for them.

This was a time for Anthony Trollope and Angela Thirkell, “a time of innocence, a time of confidence”, and now, although I know things must move on, I conjure the names of Proust and Trollope and Thirkell for another breath of sweetness and softness. Yet, another breath. Another breath. Another…

Miss Buncle goes to la Dordogne

I love DCI Barnaby. Not the John Barnaby, the new, slightly too townie, sophisticated, dog-owner, and DCI with a degree in psychology. No, not this one. But the former, Tom, husband to Joyce and father to Cully. John votes Tory, Tom votes Labour or Lib-Dem at the utmost. John is definitely middle-class; Tom comes from the lower classes – I have always imagined that his father was a thatcher by trade (no pun intended) and that our Tom began as a PC who gradually went up the step of the professional and social ladders: Detective sergeant, Detective Inspector and Chief Detective Inspector of Causton Constabulary. From this long climb, DCI Tom Barnaby has learnt about how to observe and how to deal with people, from the lower-lower classes to the upper-upper classes. Yes, these do exist: look at the number of manors and Halls we visit when we accompany him during his investigations and the eccentrics we meet there… Tom has carved his own private niche and life in the professional middle-class and Cully is an actress but not only partnered, married in the bosom of the Church of England. Joyce belongs to an infinite number of societies and practices all sorts of crafts and arts: choir, botanic, archeology, library, member of charities, RSPB, National Trust, painting, theatre, films: you just name. And, of course, Tom is the least and last informed of all the gossip that goes through Midsomer County, although he would only have to turn to his wife or his daughter to know who is who and why, when, how…

Midsomer County is reputed in the French homes to be the most dangerous place where to live in England. Its constabulary is exceptional but it needs at least three or four murders before the DCI and his sergeant find the murderer both by logic and by a stroke of genius (well, sometimes, the stroke is not there). Otherwise, this is the dreamland county of the French – and MY dreamland county, my dream England.

There the French find all that seems (for them) all that is quintessentially English – not British, English:

the idyllic landscape:

the idyllic village:

the pub:

the church:

and its vicar, choristers (I hope they are choristers), and congregation:

and, of course, the vicarage:

This is England as we see her from the Dordogne, as Midsomer County. And this is England as I first imagined her from my Dordogne when I discovered such writers as Mrs Thirkell, Barbara Pym, Miss Read, Elizabeth Goudge, D.E. Stevenson and others – these “neglected middle-class women writers from the 1890s to the 1960s” as they are called nowadays by newcomers in what becomes rapidly an expanding field of research in Eng Lit.

These “neglected women” were well alive and kicking (sorry, ladies: it is only an image, I know you were not kicking) on the shelves on our libraries in the various houses of the families and I read them as a youngster and then as a not-so-much youngster. They have been with me for a long time, before I discovered and admired the seminal books of Nicola Beauman, Nicola Humble, Alison Light, Kate MacDonald, and the new publishers that were slowly rehabilitating them: Virago PressPersephone BooksGreyladies booksSourcebooks, and others, little by little.

One of my favourite heroines was and still is Miss Buncle cretad by Dorothy Emily Stevenson – Miss Buncle whose life expands on three books and very cleverly on a fourth, even over spilling on a fifth, very indirectly I must say.

She is the true and full heroine of the two first books, which have been reprinted by Persephone Books: “Miss Buncle’s Book” and “Miss Buncle Married”.

Miss Barbara Buncle lives in one of these idyllic, rural, pastoral, villages described above with trains commuting easily for one day spent in London. She is a “spinster”, not as young as she has been but not yet “on the shelf”. She lives with her faithful Dorcas who has been her nurse, her maid and now is cook general and housekeeper. We are at the beginning of the 1930s and the Great Depression is beginning to take her toll, heard by the middle classes. Since then, Miss Buncle has lived from revenue of money carefully invested but now the bonds are slowly coming to no value and the revenues are thin. What is there to do? A lady does not work, which means she has no paid job. She does little in the house: the rough and the less rough work incumb to the servant(s). What would Dorcas do and where would she go should Miss Buncle stop to be Miss Buncle-as-she-is?

Miss Buncle finds the solution to this problem in falling back to eternal resource of the British woman since the XIXth century – after Jane Austen: she will write a book!

Alas! Miss Buncle has no imagination, or so she says. Therefore she will describe what she knows. The village where she lives, Silverstream, will go under the thin disguise of Copperfield and will be inhabited by … its inhabitants, also thinly disguised under false names. Mister Mason will become Mister Fortnum, etc. And we meet these people both through the eyes of Mrs D.E. Stevenson and those of Miss Buncle.

The population is almost stereotyped for a French reader of nowadays for we find almost the same in Agatha Christie’s village mysteries: the bachelor major or colonel retired from the Army (India); the vicar, young, full of zeal and self-sacrifice, with missionary projects among his own flock; the landlady (or just a lady) who lets rooms to commercial travellers and clerks (reminiscences of Leonard Bast from “Howards End” but on a cheerful tone), the poor widow who does not know consciously that she should and will remarry, the “nouveaux riches” in the big house who think themselves the “crème de la crème”, pander to more ancient and titled families of the neighbourhood, and look down their noses upon the “villagers”, the families who follow blindly every fad of the “nouveaux riches”, the doctor, his wife and their children; the young girl on the brink of being a young lady but still something of a tomboy, the lady who consciously seeks a husband and a rich one as well as a remedy for her dwindling revenues, but who likes to be courted by one and all men (heart breaker or vamp?); and the shopkeepers, the “fish”, the maids, the cooks, the gardeners, the men and women of-all-jobs, and even the grave digger. This is the population of a typical Midsomer County village, eighty years ago.

Miss Buncle writes what she sees, losing all appetite and sleep, a flurry of paper sheets around her and ink on her fingers and nose. As a final flourish, the end of the novel is a fairy tale morality where the Villains are punished and the Good Ones will live in peace and happiness for ever and ever.

She chooses a “nom de plume” as she cannot write under her real name in the village she describes in her novel and takes the very bland name of “John Smith”. Of course, it will be thought that the author is a man and will fool readers, but just stop to think a minute of all the women writers who wrote either as wives (Mrs Gaskell, Mrs Oliphant, Mrs Humphrey Ward) or under a man’s name (the Brontë sisters, George Eliot) or anonymously (Jane Austen). And this went well into the 1930s and 1940s.

“John Smith” sends his/her manuscript to an editor who thinks marvels of the book (as well as his nephew who will become a prominent character in the two further Miss Buncle books), asks to meet the author and discovers during the following interview the delicious Barbara Buncle. No, it was no sarcastic or ironic fiction; it was a straightforward story with a fairy tale end. No tongue in cheek yarn. But readers in the country will think it is, and here stands a best seller that, Mr Abbott, the publisher, will not let go.

The book is published, makes a hit but … is read in Silverstream. And it is a revolution in the peaceful village. There will be no murder as in Midsomer Parva or Badger’s End or in Saint-Mary’s Mead. However, the “nouveaux riches” being unmasked are murderous and will find the culprit at all cost – even if their drawing-room is to be an improvised court room where the entire village down to the grave digger is invited. A storm. A tempest. A revolution. A hunt. Who is John Smith who dared criticise Silverstream and its inhabitants?

More revolution to come as Mr Abbott asks Miss Buncle to write quickly a sequel to her first novel that sells like hot “petits pains”. And she does. With another fairy tale at the end: her narrator (herself) is getting married to the publisher (Mr Nun – instead of Abbott) before the entire village again, reconciled and reunited, to live happily for ever and ever.

It is too much for Silverstream. The culprit is found (not the right one); children are kidnapped; blackmail is afoot; Miss Buncle pleads guilty; lovers elope and get married and spend their honeymoon in Paris; other lovers break their troth; others again plight their troth; nobody believes Miss Buncle; it is a whole turmoil getting faster and faster like a crazy roundabout. And… Miss Buncle is finally believed.

I shall tell no more but that Miss Buncle and Dorcas find their way out peacefully with Miss Buncle married with Mr Abbott, which is no great revelation since the title of the second book is “Miss Buncle married”. Reader, now take thy book and enjoy!

This is the awkward review of a book that perhaps most of you have read or heard of. A book that has been reviewed many times. Why find it here and which links does it have with la Dordogne?

First, I belong to the D.E. Stevenson internet reading group and as with other “specialised in one neglected feminine writer”, I enjoy the wit and the nimbleness of mind of its members. I admire their dedication to the promotion and revival of the author’s books, the lobbying they make with the publishers, the links they tie with the families, the researches they make, the ground work, sometimes ungrateful, they undertake for academics, their friendship, their welcome to new members, their wit, their wish to let you into this happy world and forget or share your daily burden.

Do you know about D.E. Stevenson? This is her maiden name, Dorothy Emily Stevenson (1892-1973), whose father was the lighthouse engineer David Alan Stevenson, first cousin to the author Robert Louis Stevenson. She married in 1916 captain Peploe of the 6th Ghurka Rifles, connected to the well-known Scottish colourist Samuel Peploe.

Second, this book belongs to my family library, and I can well imagine my Grand-Mother, sitting in the garden, in the afternoon around teatime (“le goûter”) and reading this with a smile. The perfect book to relax in her busy days. And my Grand-Mother had busy days although they were not far from those lived in this and other fictions – but without flights of fancy: we are in France and Reason is foremost! My Mother had almost the same and now I mill around likewise in their foosteps.

There is the village with its characters – not the same but there are always and everywhere social classes, climbers, well-established “county people”, followers, doctors, wives, children, single ladies per choice or per chance or per bad luck, married couples who function more or less, “prêtres” full of zeal for their parishioners (and others more lazy), cleaning ladies, self-styled gardeners, men of all jobs, shopkeepers, and even grave diggers (though not so “pittoresques”).

But times have changed as well. And the French society has never been structured like the English and British one. The division in “classes” is not exactly the same and never been. The number of lady authors seems to be less extensive. The climate is different and so is the idyllic village in its idyllic landscape. The Church is different and the activities linked with it are slightly different.

I am interested, fascinated, by these two countries so close and so different, by these two cultures so close and so different, by these two people and these nations so close and nevertheless that have evolved so differently.

I shall come back to this matter often. I regret deeply that the field of “neglected middle-class women writers from the 1890s to the 1960s” has not been similarly open in France but I make my own research and would be glad to be pioneer in the French field. I regret that the British “neglected middle-class women writers from the 1890s to the 1960s” have not been more translated in French and that no great enthusiasm was shown when I offered to create a mixed reading group with the British ex-pats and the French residents in the village.

But I rejoice that there are reprints of this fiction in the USA as well as in the UK. They part of their history of literature and although very often conservative and patriarchal is a testimony of something that lived only by and through women.

This would be called in French a “matrimoine” in lieu of a “patrimoine”: something that belonged and was transmitted by women. A testimony of their lives and the way they saw or were bound to see society.

One may be enthralled while others will be shocked.

My only point, as far as gender studies are concerned, is that it is always fruitful to start by knowing the story and the history of ideas and ways of life. Literature does not escape from this scope.

But this is only MY point of view. And for the time being, I feel happy and comfortable in Midsomer County with Miss Buncle as one of its resident. God keep her from meeting DCI Tom Barnaby but at the church fête when she will be introduced to him by his wife Joyce!

V Day Commemoration

1945 V Day commemorations in the village. All roads (the two crossing in front of the church, which make them four – do you follow?) blocked hours before the “Maire” and the “Conseil municipal” and the “ancients combattants” and other influential representatives of the “commune” come to put flowers at the foot of the “monument aux morts”.

In fact there are two war memorials because one is placed where there was an execution made by the Nazis in 1944.

Am on my Sunday and “special days” errand to the bakery for fresh croissants. Croissants are synonyms of “fête” at home. But centre of the village blocked, locked, closed. No parking place left. Try before the newsagent/bookseller shop. Car noses slowly. Yes! The parking place for handicapped persons free so may park even if handicapped sister is not with me. But have all papers with me to prove she might have been. Administrative papers very effective and efficient in France. Most of the time, saved by them more than by facts…

Hurry to the bakery. “Morose” attendants and baker’s wife: this blockade is bad for trade.“Who will come now? They could  have waited later to close the roads. But what can you expect ? These are ‘les cantonniers’ for you!”  “Les cantonniers” do all menial things in the “commune”, bear the burden of all unpleasant things that happen in the streets, on the backroads and lanes, and other common public grass cutting. It is only nine a.m. and the ceremony does not start before two hours, to be ended by the “verre de l’amitié” (the wine and orange juice drinking for friendship) that marks the high point and the signal of departure in all celebrations of South-Western France. More grumbles at the newsagent’s. “No wonder the “bourg” (the centre of the village) is dying: people will go to the Intermarché (local supermarket) and find all they want: flowers, newspapers, books they have heard about, bread and pastries. Everything. I tell you, mademoiselle, this is the end for us!”

It is true of course. But when must the village should have been blocked? Not at the last moment. And the fight against the supermarket is almost lost. Little shops are closing, one after the other. The remaining ones make a gallant try to survive and some patrons help them out of sheer fidelity. Some of these shops go back to the end of the nineteenth century and their owners are great-grand-children of their founders. But this tradition is slowly fading into history (or perhaps, more exactly, History).

Mission completed. May drive back slowly home. No need to go to the supermarket. Shall go leisurably by the back lanes. What will there be at eleven a.m? Flags, flowers, a neat little speech done by the “Maire”, the “Conseil municipal” partly in attendance, war veterans – less every year -, the music band, the “sonnerie aux morts” and “la Marseillaise” – flat, as usual. Some people who remember – less every year – and some people who care – less every year. But do not touch at the day which is a holiday. The French like their holidays!

Coming back slowly through the lane, caeful of the ditches with their grown wild flowers and the hedges of hawthorne. Thinking of the writers and the war poets. Louis Aragon, Vercors, Sartre, Camus, Paul Eluard: “Liberté”, Jacques Prévert: “Barbara”-

“…. Don’t forget

That good and happy rain

On your happy face

On that happy town

That rain upon the sea

Upon the arsenall

Upon the Ushant boat

Oh Barbara

What shitstupidity the war

What’s become of you

Under the iron rain

Of fire and steel and blood

And he who held you in his arms

Amorously

Is he dead and gone or still so much alive

Oh Barbara

It’s rained all day on Brest today

As it was raining before

But it is not the same anymore

And everything is wrecked

It’s a rain of mourning terrible and desolate

Nor is it still a storm

Of iron and steel and blood

But simply clouds

That lie like dogs

Dogs that disappear

In the downpour drowning Brest

And float away to rot

A long way off

A long long way from Brest

Of which there’s nothing left.”

This is part also of V Day, this complaint of those and that which disappeared. Not all joy and smiles although we tend to remember these only, until they are forgotten and disappear as well in History.

But right now, errands accomplished. Croissants and bread and newspapers secured. Let’s smile! It is a holiday and breakfast only looms ahead in safety, peace and freedom thanks to those who fought for V Day.