Friday, May 1, 2020

Henri Bosco's mystical Malicroix - the five other songs of silence

A translation of Henri Bosco’s mystical swamp-quest novel Malicroix (1948) recently appeared, translated by Joyce Zonanna, who fell in love with the novel when she was eighteen and has been carrying around her translation for decades.  Dorian Stuber suggested a readalong.  A number of people have been reading along.

All of the many readers of Malicroix have been building the above map in their heads, if they did not happen to come across it earlier.  It is based on Bosco’s own map of his novel.*  The scale is not to be taken entirely seriously.

I was delighted to find the map after I had finished the novel, since I read the book in French and heaven knows what errors that has made in my understanding of it.  But that map was the map I had constructed, element by element, which was reassuring.  I would make the entire west channel of the river more narrow – shift the entire island west a little.

The narrator and protagonist, young Martial Mégremut, spends most of the novel in the one main room of the little house right in the center of the map, in the center of the island in the Rhône.  For long stretches he does as close to nothing as is novelistically possible.  He sits in an armchair, stares into the fire, eats meals prepared by a servant invariably described as “taciturn,” although there is really only one character in the book who talks much, and goes to bed.  Sometimes he is joined at the hearth by an outstanding Briard shepherd dog.  It has become a cliché in contemporary literature to drop in “A dog barked in the distance” or something like it as color, I guess, but in this novel the line is meaningful.

Up to the middle of Malicroix, the novel could be described as “plotless.”

There is a major episode, for example, in which the servant, who is also a shepherd, brings a mysterious beast to the island.  It smells like wool, it has horns, it bleats – what could it be?

Near him, Bréquillet [a Briard shepherd dog], sitting in the grass, contemplated the scene and lifted his sensitive snout towards the moon.  The moon enchanted the clearing, Bréquillet, Balandran [the servant], the beast.  When a breeze touched them, the acid odor of wool crossed the woods. (168, tr. mine, don’t blame Zonanna for my clunks)

Did you guess that the beast is a sheep?  It is, I learn two pages later!  A ram.  This is the art of symbolic anti-climax.  “The next day winter came” (170).  Brought by the ram, in some sense.

Why does Martial spend months on this island with little human contact or other activity?  Some nonsense about a will.  He’ll inherit the island, and a flock of sheep, if he can stay on it for three months.  Psychologically, the interest is that he never quite decides to stay.  Sometimes the weather stops him, and at one point he is ill for quite a while, but even when he has the choice he prefers to let his unconscious mind do the work.  He is not passive, exactly.  He is a mystic.

Martial spends Christmas wandering around the island in blizzard-induced trance, falling deeply into the silence of the snow.  This is what he means by silence; this is what I mean by mysticism:

And wave [of solitude] succeeded wave, solitude succeeded solitude.  Sometimes, as if several chords had composed the inaudible song from it, a silence lifted itself from the silence, a silence more gentle, or more serious, or more pure.  And when the serious silence slid under the pure, the songs superposed from the secret waves called from the great chords the five other songs of silence, and all the snowflakes became stars… (178-9, ellipses in original)

My impression is that readers have been enjoying reading about solitude, watching the fire, and the weather, the wind and rain that keeps Martial from even going for a walk.  This is certainly part of the novel.  But the mysticism is central to what I take the novel to be, as is the quest story, which I am not seeing anybody mention.  Zonanna, in the article I linked above, describes her early reading of the novel: “Having grown up speaking French, I was able to make my way through it–but much of the novel, with its long poetic passages and mysteriously mythic plot–eluded me.”

The mythic plot was exactly what I was looking for, as I was working through the basic “What is this book?” question.  Tomorrow, I will push on to the magical white bull, the sun goddess, the scheming illegitimate son.  East versus West.  Real names versus earth names.  Malicroix is, in a sense, a strange, strange novel, a little bit crackpot.

Page references are to the original NRF edition.

* The map is from Geneviève Lévesque's Une écriture à l'oeuvre dans "Malicroix" d'Henri Bosco, p. 542, her 2010 PhD thesis, available here as a PDF.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you Tom for this insightful view of Malicroix! I look forward to your further reflections. Think Mithraism. (Also, I mistakenly attributed the map to Bosco. It’s based on his map, but not actually his.)

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  2. Yes, Mithraism! The white bull had me fooled at first, pushing me more towards Greek myths, but once I started noticing the east-west theme, and the sun god theme, I thought, ah ha!

    I see I did not put a source on the map, how irritating. I will add that and clean up that line. Thanks!

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  3. Of course the Greek myths are there too—they always are with Bosco, who was a classicist—but Mithraism has center stage, as it did in the Camargue. I’ll be interested in what you have to say about East-West.

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  4. Well, I thought a little bit about the narrator would take 100 words and it took all of them. So tomorrow for Mithras and the sun goddess and so on. At least I got Anne-Madeleine into the story, now.

    The overlay of the Greek stories with the Christian symbols and the pagan stories is quite interesting - and quite Modernist.

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  5. It has become a cliché in contemporary literature to drop in “A dog barked in the distance”

    It goes back to the nineteenth century!

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  6. That's a great post - great comments.

    I guess the question is when does the motif becomes a cliché. In Flaubert, the dog barking in the distance is part of an elaborate motif. Or so I tell myself, or deceive myself.

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  7. Sheltering at home has probably made me "crackpot" too, but this book sounds really good, haha. I've never heard anyone mention it that I can remember. Will see if I can find a copy!

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  8. The English translation, the NYRB Classics book, is brand new.

    It is a book that gets stranger the more I think about it.

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