Malicroix

Henri Bosco is French writer, famous enough in his time to be nominated more than once for the Nobel Prize, who has largely been forgotten in English. Though some of his work was translated in the 1950s, these translations have never been reprinted, and there have been no new translations – until now. Thanks to Joyce Zonana, we can now enjoy Bosco’s 1948 novel, Malicroix, without having to first learn the language it was written in.

Malicroix is an adventure novel without much adventuring. It begins when our narrator, Martial de Megremut, is declared heir to a great uncle he has never met. The catch is that, in order to inherit, he must first stay for three months in the solitary residence of his relative on an isolated island with only the company of his great uncle’s taciturn servant, Balandran, and his dog, Brequillet. As well as withstanding the loneliness and hostile climate of the island, he must also outfox the machinations of his great uncle’s notary, Dromiols, who seems less than keen that Martial should inherit. Even should he manage to last the allotted time, there is a further action he must undertake in a codicil which he will only discover at that point.

Mood, rather than action, is to the fore, as Bosco creates breath-holding tension merely by relaying Martial’s impression of the landscape. Crossing to the island he feels “as if we were floating on a shadow lake, itself adrift through the night’s dark.” Once there he tells us:

“My nerves were on edge, and nothing could escape me that might reach my senses.”

From the moment of Martial’s arrival, there is a sense of foreboding and threat, though the danger is always on the periphery of our vision, hinted at rather than revealed. Martial himself is torn between a determination to stay for the three months, and a desire to leave as “I was in territory foreign to my natural life.” The novel’s title is reflective of the question it asks: whether Martial is, indeed, a Malicroix. This is frequently discussed in terms of the landscape, for example in his wariness of rivers:

“As a man raised in the hills, I like to look at them from afar and from a high vantage point…But now I was in the lowlands, surrounded on all sides by waters…”

Also with reference to the difference in climate, as he recalls the land he is used to:

“Even in winter, the brisk wind does not harm the orchards, protected from above by small rose-coloured cliffs and from below by hedges of reeds over which cypress trees bend when the wind blows.”

The island, on the other hand, is prone to storms which keep him unable to venture outside for days at a time. To emphasise the point, we learn that Martial’s main occupation is as a horticulturalist, someone used to the greenhouse rather than the wilds. He even uses such imagery when he describes himself:

“You are a hothouse plant, a friend to fruits and flowers, a scholar.”

As Dromiols is quick to point out to him: “I imagine you must find yourself quite out of your element here.” At one point he sends Martial a cutting from an exotic plant as a reminder of his promise to return home.

This conflict is also played out in blood – not through violence, but through the blood of the two families which Martial feels flowing in his veins. Speaking to Dromiol he senses:

“…he probably judged me insignificant and malleable, even as I, for the first time in my life, sensed a darker blood flowing into my peaceful heart, a bitter blood that warmed me.”

This blood is the Malicroix blood, in competition with the gentler, Megremut blood:

“This blood, the last of the line, a Malicroix blood—strong, warm, brisk, wild—but whose strength, warmth, briskness, and wildness within me had evaporated.”

Much of the narrative tension is therefore created by the ebbing and flowing of Martial’s determination to last the three months. This is exacerbated by his isolation, both on the island and in the sense he seems to have no allies (“Did I have a friend? No, not a single one…”). Yet Balandran treats him kindly – he awakes on his first morning to find he has laid his coat over him as he slept. Dromiol’s servant, Uncle Rat, also offers him advice which seems to go against his master’s intentions. And when he is ill, a woman nurses him. In each case, however, Bosco makes the intentions of the other characters ambiguous, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

For some reason, the novel reminded me a little of Robert Louis Stevenson, particularly his Scottish novels such as Master of Ballantrae and Weir of Hermiston. This was not simply the result of a similarity of climate (and Bosco does enjoy describing the weather at length) but perhaps can be more generally ascribed to a strong sense of place (something Bosco does of course share with that other Provencal writer, Jean Giono). Master of Ballantrae is, of course, all about inheritance, and in Weir of Hermiston Archie must leave Edinburgh and his family to live in the relatively wild Borders. Both writers are adept at creating tension and threat, and Dromiol in particular felt like a character Stevenson could have written, though no doubt his version of Martial’s story would have been a little more action-packed.

Malicroix is a novel which keeps the reader on high alert from beginning to end, even when Bosco spends pages describing a storm, or we find ourselves alone with Martial and his thoughts. The success of its execution (and translation) is evident in the growing feeling that you are not simply reading his story, but are living on that island alongside him.

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21 Responses to “Malicroix”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve noticed the various Malicroix tweets flying around Twitter over the past week or two, so it’s good to hear a little more about the book through your review. Robert Louis Stevenson sounds like a great reference point for this. An adventure novel without much adventuring – I like the way you’ve put that. It reminds me of how a colleague describes Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: a ghost story without a ghost.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It’s great, isn’t it? Such an immersive book. Interesting comparison with Stevenson, as those are works of his I haven’t yet read.

  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

    Have you read The Silverado Squatters, by any chance, Stevenson’s “honeymoon in California” book? It has a chapter, “The Sea Fogs,” that is one of the best things he ever wrote, just a superb piece of weather writing.

    I have just got to the fever section of Malicroix, so I suppose Bosco is done with weather for a while.

  4. banff1972 Says:

    Glad Jacqui mentioned Du Maurier. As I was reading this lovely review, Grant, I was thinking less of Stevenson (who I have barely read, to my loss I’m sure) but to Du Maurier. I could imagine *her* writing Dromiol too.

    The book’s atmosphere is something else. But what exactly happened at the end? I am very confused!

  5. Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

    Does the end involve renunciation? No need to answer that. I am at the 70% mark, to my surprise a plot has erupted, and I am still betting, for literary-historical reasons, that something will have to be renounced.

  6. Emma Says:

    I’ve seen tweets about Malicroix. Who started this readalong?

    To be honest, he’s a forgotten writer in France too. I read L’enfant et la rivière as a child and I don’t remember I particularly liked it.

    Reading your review about this one, I wonder how it compares to American Nature Writing.
    It’s not frequent to see a French book about someone who needs to live isolated in the wilds for three months.

    Your review also makes me think of Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

    • banff1972 Says:

      I did!
      I’m thinking the book might do quite well here precisely because nature writing is such a thing in the Anglo-American world right now.
      Grand Meaulnes is an interesting comparison.

      • Emma Says:

        Nature-writing is almost non existent in France (not much wilderness in Europe anyway)
        This book stands out in French literature, then.

      • banff1972 Says:

        Seems to be an inverse relationship: the less wilderness is left the more we want to write/think about it. Which makes it all the more surprising that nature writing isn’t a thing in France.

      • Emma Says:

        Not really, unless it’s in the US or in Canada.
        We don’t have a tradition to spend time in cabins in the woods or even to walk in the country.
        If you think about French lit of the 19thC, characters don’t spend time walking around in the fields like in Jane Austen.

      • Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

        Colette introduces nature into French literature. From Janet Flanner’s review of Colette’s Sido:

        “French literature is peculiarly devoid of nature – indeed, there is hardly a tree in the whole lot of it; and to the French, despite their instinct to appreciate him, Hardy reads rather like pages from a see catalogue. In their fine letters, Colette is the first dendrophile they have possessed, the first writer to give them news of nature; she has the strangeness of a traveler who tells of an unknown land.” (Paris Was Yesterday, p. 70)

        Then the Provence writers – Pagnol, Giono, Bosco – are the next cluster of nature writers. As Emma says, writing books where characters go for walks. Giono even wrote one of the great environmentalist classics, the story “The Man Who Planted Trees.” But they stand out as unusual.

  7. Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

    Alain-Fournier, now that is a good comparison!

    So nobody read this, fine, fine. And I even decorated it with flamingos. That’s why I’ve been talking about Goethe and renunciation, because of the Alain-Fournier connection.

    We have in this house a book titled The French and Nature: Why So Little Love (Les Français et la nature: Pourquoi si peu d’amour?) (2017), by Valérie Chansigaud, but I have not read it yet. The French love love love travel writing, but not nature writing.

    There is another glaring comparison with a French(-language) writer who did in fact isolate himself on an island for a while. There is a lot of Rousseau in Bosco’s novel.

    • banff1972 Says:

      Glad to hear you say this, Tom. Was describing Malicroix to my wife, and she immediately said: Rousseau. (Esp given what Joyce said in her session with Edwin Frank about translating the word “sauvage”–a favourite Rousseau word.
      I have been to St. Petersinsel a few times, though, and it is nothing like Malicroix’s island. V bucolic.

      • 1streading Says:

        It’s juxtaposition of the naturalist and the wilderness almost seems like a commentary on nature writing! It’s genre that has become recently prominent in Scotland where previously writing about the land was agricultural.

  8. “The Old, Wild Blood”: Henri Bosco’s Malicroix | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau Says:

    […] 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 […]

  9. Richard Says:

    I really enjoyed this novel, Grant, and I like what you say about “the ebbing and flowing of Martial’s determination.” That is of course exactly what’s going on for huge chunks of the novel, and yet I never stopped to think of it in that way despite all the water imagery!

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