Posts Tagged ‘Henri Bosco’

Best Books of 2020 Part 2

December 27, 2020

For part two of my favourite books of 2020 I’m going to focus on those books which bridge the gap between the past and the present – that is, those books which, often after many years of waiting, have finally made it into English this year

The first of these, originally published in 1948 and translated by Joyce Zonana, is Henri Bosco’s Malicroix in which the narrator, Martial, must live in the solitary residence of his newly deceased great uncle for three months in order to inherit. The house is on a remote island in a wild part of the country, complete with a looming, silent servant and an obsequious lawyer who seems less than keen that Martial should be successful. This is a novel of mood and atmosphere, from its strong sense of place to its unremitting tension – a novel the reader lives in alongside the narrator

Another French writer whose work resurfaced this year was Jean Giono, in the shape of his Occupation Journal, originally published in France in 1995 though written between 1943 and 1944, and now translated by Jody Gladding. It was particularly interesting reading this during lockdown as Giono was experiencing much the same at the time – unable to travel and faced with an uncertain level of risk: “More and more I am immersed in a very great solitude,” he tells us. By its very nature, there is no great structure to the journal, but it is full of insights into both the occupation and Giono’s life as a writer

Also set during wartime – in this case the Spanish Civil War – Ana Maria Matute’s The Island appeared in a new translation from Laura Lonsdale. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Matia, who is staying with her grandmother as her mother is dead and her father is fighting, it is a coming-of-age story steeped in the oppressive sunlight of the island. Matute uses the setting to show the civil war in microcosm as it becomes an excuse for age-old prejudices to resurface. Matia’s attempts to understand and negotiate these make for a gripping picture of growing up

In Magda Szabo’s Abigail, originally published in 1970 and now translated by Len Rix, we also find a young girl, Gina, caught up in a conflict she does not understand. Set in Hungary during the Second World War, Gina finds herself sent away by her father, a General, to a boarding school where he cannot visit her and only rarely makes contact. Instead she must rely on the mysterious ‘Abigail’ to protect her – a statue to which pupils traditionally confide their problems. What begins as a typical boarding school novel soon becomes a thrilling story of wartime resistance

Finally, set in Germany in the 1930s and also featuring a child narrator, Gert Hofmann’s Veilchenfeld, originally published in 1986, was translated this year by Eric Mace-Tessler. Here the title character is an elderly Jewish philosopher who is increasingly persecuted in the course of the novel, much to the bewilderment of the young narrator. Hofmann brilliantly demonstrates the small cruelties which will ultimately lead to genocide by keeping a tight focus on one small town. A moving individual story, as well as a warning.

Malicroix

April 20, 2020

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.