Monday, June 23, 2014

My second is full of surprise and tears - a grim return from vacation with Jules Vallès's comic novel The Child

The book I’ll start with, now that I am back from vacation, is The Child by Jules Vallès (1878), a brutal childhood memoir with the names changed to make it a novel, “one of the funniest in French literature,” according to the back cover copy on the salmon-colored NYRB edition (2005), translated by Douglas Parmée, but then come self-serving blurbs by Émile Zola (“a book composed of the most exact, the most poignant human documents”) and Maurice Barrés (“He is the man who liberates us from the family, who liberates us from our father and our mother” etc.) that suggest, or warn, that as funniest novels go this one may not actually be all that funny, and may even be a little bit on the grim side.

Sorry, I’ve been away for awhile, and needed to stretch a little.  Anyway, The Child is an abuse novel:

I didn’t try to kill my father.  He would have liked to cripple me.  He kept screaming, “I’ll break every bone in your body!”

Oh no, you won’t!  You’re not going to break anybody’s bones.  I’m not going to hit you but you aren’t going to lay a single finger on me!  It’s too late, I’m too big now and too grown up.


Not so funny, but this is something like the emotional climax of the book, when the author, writing thirty years after the fact, abandons irony to reveal the continuing pain of his abuse by his father, a schoolteacher with a neurotic respect for the discipline of his profession, and his mother, a peasant with a cruel streak.

So my earliest memory starts with a beating; my second is full of surprise and tears.  (6)

I have gone back to the beginning of the novel.  The author moves from the author’s childhood in rural, scenic Le Puy-en-Velay to an eventual escape to Paris, where he becomes a well-known radical journalist.  In between, paradise is a stay in the countryside with his uncle, and hell is studying Latin and Greek, useless, all useless, while his parents alternately punish him.

My mother often comes down to pinch my ears and give me a clout.  It’s for my own good, so the more she slaps me, the more I’m convinced that she’s a good mother and I’m an ungrateful brat.  (12)

The book is dedicated “To all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents” (3).  It is a fine member of the lively French anti-school genre, stretching back, at least, to Rousseau’s Émile and continuing today with Daniel Pennac.  And a lot of it of course is funny.  What a poor start I have made.  Tomorrow I will try to undo some of the damage.


  1. You are being provocative (which means I am intrigued by your reading) when you characterize a book about childhood miseries as funny. Hmmm.

  2. From the back cover, and other descriptions I had read, I certainly expected a book that was more jokey and less brutal.

    Having said that, miserable or semi-miserable children are a standard part of childhood memoirs and fiction. Hyman Kaplan wasn't always so happy, was he? Still, The Child is something different than funny stories about the stern Catholic school nuns.

    There is some relation in tone to the Irish misery memoirs - Angela's Ashes, etc. - which often contain genuinely funny stories amidst bleak poverty, drunkenness and abuse.

  3. I haven't read this one, I'm intrigued now.

    I don't think Pennac is anti-school, but that's my opinion.

    Have you read Poil de Carotte? La guerre des boutons?


    PS: I think of Rousseau as Swiss, not a Frenchman.

  4. Anti-school is certainly an oversimplification. Vallès is not really anti-school, either, but rather against the form of education he received, the constant pounding by Greek and Latin. I am trying to name a genre. What would you call Chagrin d'école? "School skepticism." Hmm.

    I don't know either of the works you mention, although I think I have heard of the Renard, which definitely belongs in the genre.

    Rousseau may be Swiss, but he nevertheless wrote French literature. If in doubt, I always mean literature. I am so narrow!

  5. Actually, "chagrin d'école" is a good enough name right there. The Child is an example of chagrin d'école.

  6. Vallès is sometimes cited as an influence on Renard. I've only read snippets of both, so I can't say.