When I have returned from long vacations I have had trouble writing, so this will be a shallow, digressive post about minor bookish aspects of my trip, designed more to rev up the word-generating machine than to make a point. Why would anyone want to read such a thing? Follow that logic, though, and it’s the end of book blogging; extend the argument a bit more and it’s the death of criticism; then follows literature, the humanities in general, and, finally, civilization. Working backwards, reading this post is a defense of civilization.
In a related attempt to defend civilization, France has a law banning the discounting of books, in effect protecting bookstores and publishers at the expense not just of French Amazon but also many book buyers. One result of the law is more and better bookstores, marvelous bookstores, like Le Bal des Ardents or Librarie Passages in Lyon, the latter recommended to me by Emma of Book around the Corner, or the larger, deeper, crowded Librarie Kleber in Strasbourg.
I emerged from these stores weeping, or saying I was weeping, since I just meant it metaphorically. How I would love to live near such a store. With the books in English, I mean.
New topic. We plan our travel loosely. I knew we would be in Auvergne, the mountainous region in the center of France, but I did not know that we would visit Le Puy-en-Velay. When I began to read The Child by Jules Vallès, the 1878 comic autobiographical novel about the abuse the author received at home and at school, I did not know that it was set in Le Puy-en-Velay. Yet it is, and we in fact did spend a couple of days there, so I found I had directly if inadvertently prepared for my travels.
The town has some distinctive features:
The image is borrowed from Wikipedia. On the left is an 11th, or really 14th, century church topping a pillar of volcanic rock. On the right is the old city and its cathedral, the original starting point for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. In the center is a colossal statue of the Virgin Mary planted on an even taller volcanic pillar. The statue is made of melted Russian cannons. Many of the tourists, including me, clamber up each of the pillars. Many others seem to be happy to see them from below.
Vallès mentions almost nothing distinctive about the town. Streets are steep, and at one point he mentions the unmistakable smell of the mold used by the blue cheese makers. Why doesn’t he mention that giant red statue? Well, it did not appear until 1860, long after Vallès had moved elsewhere. How about that aerial church - it was there? Now I know the answer – he would almost never have seen it from any of his typical vantage points in the dense walled town.
Le Puy-en-Velay comes off well enough in The Child that the town can easily embrace him. Vallès’s misery was not their fault. Signs mentioned him frequently. This square contained the market described in the book; here is the street where he lived and the hospital, previously a church and a revolutionary meeting hall, where he was born. I had not gone looking for Vallès, yet there he was, and there I was, accidentally ready to meet him.