Friday, November 13, 2020

“It’s like the bulls, reading, it’s a passion.” - various interesting bits of Joseph d'Arbaud's The Beast of Vaccares

Some interesting things in or about Joseph d’Arbaud’s The Beast of Vaccares (1926).

The framing narrator, a young Camargue cowboy, is given a 15th century manuscript by an old cowhand, who hands over the family treasure because the young fellow reads, even keeping a “little library” in his hut.  The old guy prefers experience to book learnin’:

“Books, though! And you say that, all of this on the paper, you can make it pass into your head.  Me, I don’t get it.  It’s good, learning, I don’t say different, but it ain’t natural.”  (43)

Any translations are mine.  I kinda added some extra cowboy to that one.  I have no idea what is in the Occitan version of the story, but d’Arbaud’s French is entirely standard except for some exotic italicized regional words scattered around.  He keeps his books in his estanié, for example, a little Provençal kitchen cabinet.

The page or so of discussion about the value of reading, that struck me as very French.

“It’s like the bulls, reading, it’s a passion.”  (45)

I’m still in the frame.  Most of the story is that 15th century manuscript, in which a cowboy writes about that time he met, in the swamp, Pan, the Greek god, old, in hiding, and perhaps dying.  The Beast of Vaccares is in the “old gods walk the earth” genre, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) and John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981).  Here is Pan, or maybe he is just a close relative, I don’t know, telling his story to the cowboy:

“Here, in this salty mud, cut by ponds and sandy beaches, listening to the mooing of the cattle and the cries of the wild stallions, watching, hidden, the day, all the way to the horizon, shiver the veils of the mirage over the warn earth, and watching, at night, the dance of the bare, sparkling moon on the waters of the sea, I knew for some time what, for me, was like happiness.”  (85)

Old Pan is a Romantic poet.

Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (1948) was about the survivals of the old religion in the Camargue, more Gnostic and intellectual, while d’Arbaud’s book is more about the superstitions and folk religion.  Both are challenges to the Christian church, which triumphed but not as thoroughly as one might think.

The one part of the story that I thought was especially good was the great Dance of the Herds, led by Pan.  The scene was a fine mix of the sublime and the ridiculous.  Cows are not, generally, such graceful dancers.

Joyce Zonana, the book’s real translator, does not use the word “cowboy” for gardian, like I have been doing.  She uses “bull herder,” I think?*  “Cowboy” has so many associations, although I want them.  The setting is utterly unique, but the work of the gardian is familiar.  A fairly long scene, for example, describes in detail the narrator’s work breaking a horse.  It could be inserted into any number of American Western stories with minimal change.  La Bête du Vaccarès was good for my French horsey vocabulary.  Bits and spurs and lassos and so on.

Zonana is not the first translator of d’Arbaud’s story, but rather the first to translate it from Occitan, with reference to the French version, which is apparently quite different in places.  In this regard, she is following the example of the frame narrator, who has to fix up the illegible, mite-eaten manuscript.  “I have often had to adapt it, almost to translate it, to make intelligible the most incredible mix of French, Provençal and bad church Latin” (47).  So neither the French nor the Occitan are the “authentic” version of the story, and the new blended English translation is as real as either.

What have I forgotten.  French swamp cowboys carry tridents, for fishing.**  They didn’t do that in Montana or Texas.  Nor did Texas cowboys often ride out carrying a lunch of “a bite of cold rabbit… some walnuts and dried figs” washed down with a swallow of “that aromatic liqueur made by the monks at the abbey” (109).  Barn owls, in Provence, are called “oil drinkers,” because they sneak into churches and drink the lamp oil.  All right, that’s everything.

* No, the publicity material uses "bull herder," but Zonana keeps gardian.

** Looking again, obviously not for fishing. See comments below for a link to a photo of d'Arbaud with his trident.


  1. I assume d'Arbaud is riffing on that story. The reports of Pan's death were greatly exaggerated. He just went on a long ramble.

    At the end of this novella, Pan's status is ambiguous.

  2. Thanks for this lovely overview Tom. You could do a stint as a translator too! I like the “extra cowboy”! One “point,” though: the tridents are used to prod the bulls, not to fish as far as I know. And, yes, old Pan is a Romantic poet. Part of what I love about the text is its unabashed Romanticism coupled with a kind of Classic restraint.

  3. Thanks! Thanks for translating the book. Now I need to correct my errors. I was looking right at "gardian" and still spelled it wrong.

    Looking at photos of the trident (including one with d'Arbaud himself), it is obviously not for fishing. The Montana cowboys should have carried one.

  4. How do you get to read this?

    Now with all the Montana/Wyoming books I read, maybe I should try books about local cowboys.

    Oddly, Camargue is not a part of France I've visited. Maybe in the spring or next summer, when we're allowed to travel again. After all, it's not that far from home.

    This made me laugh: "La Bête du Vaccarès was good for my French horsey vocabulary."
    I can relate. It's the same for me with Nature writing books, plus the fishing vocabulary.

    (Btw: Son, reading the flavor of his yoghurt, "Pêche passion", cheekily remarked: "This could describe Mom's reading". Glad to make the family laugh.)

    1. Hi Emma - The book is available from Northwestern University Press, under the title THE BEAST, AND OTHER TALES. Your local bookstore can also order it!

    2. Emma is in Lyon and will want a French edition, available sur commande.

      Although look at that "Editions des regionalismes" edition. Very interesting.

      The bad part is that, in the Grasset, we only get one of the "other tales" that you translated.

    3. I'll have a look at it, thanks.