Thursday, November 12, 2020

A return to the Camargue with Joseph d'Arbaud

We all enjoyed our trip, several months ago, to the Rhone River delta, the Camargue, when we poked around in in Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (1948).  The narrator of that novel, though, barely set foot in the Camargue itself.  Joyce Zonana, Malicroix’s translator, published a second Camargue book recently, one that makes for much better tourism, Joseph d’Arbaud’s novella La Bête du Vaccarès (The Beast of Vaccares, 1926).  This time we get to really see the landscape, the rills and reeds and ponds (Vaccarès is a pond – maybe more of a lake), and also the famous black bulls and white horses and French swamp cowboys.

As with Malicroix, I read d’Arbaud’s novella in French, the 1969 Grasset edition, not having seen Zonana’s translation.

La Bête du Vaccarès is also La Bèstio dóu Vacarès; d’Arbaud wrote versions both in French and Occitan, and the book I read contains both.  I was able to occasionally look at the Occitan text and see that I could not read it.  I do not know how useful that was.  D’Arbaud was one of the writers active in the early 20th century Provençal revival, alongside, most famously, Frédéric Mistral (Nobel 1904), which mostly involved poetry.  D’Arbaud took two unusual steps: first, he returned to the Camargue and worked as a cowboy, and second, he wrote prose fiction.

French literature had had a longstanding debate over – prejudice against – the merits of “regionalist” literature that looks a lot, to me, like similar arguments about American literature, even given the enormous difference that French regionalist literature is not even in French. But I may be deceiving myself.  What do I know about this.  Faulkner demolished the argument in both countries.  What I want to say is that the tourist to the Camargue ought to read this book.  It is micro-regionalist, not about Provence in the sense that the books of Marcel Pagnol or Jean Giono are about Provence – the hill country, basically – but a more specific place.

I am digressing about tourism, obsessed by not being able to travel, but I want to point to the second story in the book, “Le Regret de Pierre Guilhem” (“Pierre Guilhem’s Regret”), which takes place behind the scenes at a bullfight in Arles, which means, although d’Arbaud takes this for granted, that the setting is a two thousand year-old Roman arena, one of the most famous tourist attractions in the region.  This is what I mean by micro-regionalist.  I have not been to the exact spot where the character stood, but I have been quite close, as have millions of visitors.

Pierre Guilhem is a cowboy who has gone to work for the rodeo – bullfight – and tries to rescue a horse that he knew and loved back when he worked in the Camargue.  I urge interested readers to investigate the Arles Arena website, from which I stole the images above and below.  Those parasols are in the story.

Boy am I ever ready to go back to France.  I have not written anything for a while; thus the babble.  I will get to The Beast of Vaccares tomorrow, I guess.  There are reasons to read it aside from tourism, although tourism is a good reason.


  1. It will be nice to travel again. It would be nice to go back to Arles & the Camargue. Should that blessed day ever come, I'll remember about this book. Maybe even read it before then.

    Looking forward to further thoughts.

  2. Boy won't it be nice. A little tour around Provence accompanied by Pagnol, Giono, Izzo, and so on. And I am not even as Provence-crazy as many people.

    Tourism is rarely the best reason to read literature, but it is a good reason.

  3. I've read the second post before the first. Oh well...

    Arles is really worth visiting, that's the only part of Camargue I've seen as an adult.

    I imagine that your copy is both in French and Occitan for Occitan students since it's a language you can choose to learn in school.

    PS: there's no ç in Provence. :-)

    1. (Actually, d’Arbaud wrote the book in Occitan — he called it “Provencal”—and translated it himself into French. It has always been a bilingual edition since first publication in 1926.

    2. Thanks for the info. I'm curious about this book now. (in French)

  4. Thanks for the correction - I got a little too happy with the cedilla. Fixed now, I hope.