domingo, 16 de agosto de 2020


Malicroix (Gallimard, 2019)
by Henri Bosco
France, 1948

When his great-uncle Cornélius de Malicroix dies sometime in the early 1800s, the 25-year old Martial de Mégremut learns that he stands to inherit his distant relative's inhospitable island home amid the salt water lagoons of the Camargue near the floodwaters of the Rhône as long as he can fulfill two provisions of the old man's will.  The first--a three months staycation in his humble new home far away from his loving and close-knit family in the company of the taciturn Balandran and his dog Bréquillet--seems rather pedestrian in nature although it comes with complications in the form of conniving humans and the unforgiving natural world now surrounding him.  The second, which Martial only learns about much later, will require the young dreamer to risk his life as a man of action in the fulfillment of a supernatural-tinged task which will take place alongside a mass for the dead overseen by his newfound enemies.  Will Martial be the "guest of honor" or remain alive and kicking when that funeral mass is finally celebrated?  Malicroix, a difficult novel to sort out in some respects (and not the quickest thing to read when looking up the translation for words like salicornes or pickleweed, previously unknown to me in any language!), struck me as a strange but alluring tale.  Conceptually, it situates a quest novel or medieval grail romance within a series of meditations on nature and solitude and Gérard de Nerval-like dreamscapes.  Is the action therefore "real," taking place in the narrator Martial's imagination or the product of the fevers and poisonings that beset some of the novel's characters?  Thematically, it's appropriately hermetic in the sense that the road map to understanding it provides mirrors the initiate's search for meaning.  Meaning that wasn't always clear to this uninitiated reader.  Still, it was fascinating to see how Bosco handled some of these genre juxtapositions and narrative misdirections.  Gérard de Nerval and Homer provide two telling examples of Malicroix's rich allusiveness and elusiveness, of the multiplicity of readings it offers.  When the evil notary Dromiols first meets the hero to read him the terms of his great-uncle's will, Martial overhears him talking in his sleep later that night and remarks upon how the thought processes evident "venues de cette vie seconde" ["coming from that second life"] (106) reveal a logical if nefarious intent--a clear reference on Bosco's part if not his narrator's to Gérard de Nerval's famous opening line from Aurélia where he declaims that "Le Rêve est une seconde vie" ["Dream is a second life"].  In a subsequent chapter, we get a multi-page sequence in which Martial lingers over a description of the wind transitioning from a forbidding squall into a full on hurricane.  While the line that caught my eye was the Nerval-like image of disasters gushing forth from the "cités aériennes" ["aerial cities"] above (130), I'm not so sure that the poetic prose can be easily written off as an uncomplicated allusion in light of a certain animism also present in the text: the river itself gets characterized as "un être...un être redoutable" ["a human being...a dreadful human being"] (186) with an agency of its own on one of the many occasions when the rising waters make Martial fear for his life, and to complicate things Anne-Madeleine, Martial's eventual love interest, is introduced as a spirit-like water creature who bears "cette odeur de vent et d'eau vive" ["this scent of wind and flowing water"] (186) wherever she goes.  Nice, mysterious, but lyricism + animism = what exactly?  Of course, the supernatural tension between "ce pays sauvage" ["this wild country"] (35) and a pre-Christian conception of the land of the dead unfolding in geographical proximity to the modern day Occitanie commune of Aigues-Mortes ["stagnant water"] also figures in the scene where Dromiols attempts to scare Martial away from his new home by claiming that many people believe it's a "royaume des Ombres" ["kingdom of the Dead"] (91).  Citing from the Greek, Dromiols' allusion is to Book 11 of The Odyssey, where Odysseus travels to the land of the Cimmerians where he pours libations to and actually speaks with various shades from the underworld.  For those of you as rusty as I am on my Homer, suffice it to say that it's enough to note that this scene sheds light on one aspect of the end of Malicroix even if I have run out of steam to speak of the blind ferryman and the "taureau de combat, d'une stature colossale" ["fighting bull of a colossal stature"] (221) that also haunt its vision literature-tinted pages.  It's all a bit much to process in a single reading.

Henri Bosco (1888-1976)
 photo: Sophie Pacifico le Guyader

Malicroix was the subject of a readalong earlier in the year which I didn't pay much attention to until two or three posts by Dorian and Amateur Reader (Tom) made me realize some of the erudite fun I'd been missing out on.  Here's the complete set of those posts for collectors.

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations

Dorian, Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

2 comentarios:

  1. Look at noble, heroic Bosco!

    I am glad to see the specific references to Nerval; so interesting.

    1. I was kind of amused by that Bosco photo even before your comment. However, now, I'm really amused! Didn't expect to find so successful an application of some of Nerval's tendencies that late in the 20th century. An attempt maybe but not a successful one. That was a nice surprise even though you had warned me about it.