Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The birds, the birds, sir! - visiting the Camargue and other marshes with Henri Bosco

A number of people are readalonging or have readalonged Henri Bosco’s 1948 novel Malicroix, newly translated by Joyce Zonana.  I’ve mentioned that French literature lacks nature writing, which is widely read in its English and American incarnations, but somehow not much produced by French writers.  Bosco is an exception, a novelist known not just for a strong sense of place but for writing seriously about nature.

Malicroix is set on an island in the Camargue, the delta of the Rhone River, my old friend from Lyon, although with a different character further south.  I hope the novel’s readers have been looking up the Camargue.  Much of It is a nature reserve now, known for its superb migratory birds, including France’s flamingos.  A character in the novel calls the marshy plain a harsh country, but concedes:

“When one goes to the shore of a pond, especially at dawn, when the water barely ripples, the coots, the flamingos and even the sacred ibises fish solemnly in the warm mud.  A little before winter a flight of cranes and ducks fly very high in the air in quest of clouds…  The birds, the birds, sir!...  ah! the birds…” (p. 67 of the 1948 French edition, translation mine, ellipses in the original)

The region is also famous for its herds of white horses, it herds of black bulls, and, logically, its cowboys, who ride the white horses to round up the black bulls for use in French bullfighting.  French cowboys!  French swamp cowboys!  There is a lot here that violates received ideas of France.  Part of the history, within the novel, part of the conflict, is an old feud between cattlemen and sheepherders, like in an American Western, except this one also involves a legendary white bull that almost – well, we know what crimes white bulls on Mediterranean shores commit.

I have stolen all of the photos from the Arles tourism site.  I have meant to go the Camargue, and in fact planned to go on three separate visits to France, but I have not yet made it.  Someday.

I’m about a quarter into Malicroix.  Another Bosco book, The Boy and the River (1945), was one of the first novels I read in French.  It is a juvenile novel, a real boy’s book, where one boy rescues another from a kidnapping, and they escape down a river to a hidden marshy area where they simply enjoy nature for a while.  The beginning is exciting enough, an adventure story with a bit of a Tom-and-Huck flavor, but the middle third of the novel is more like pure nature writing.  The boys fish, swim, mess about in a boat, hide from a wild boar, watch birds:

At dawn, nothing at first was visible but one great bird.  It stood, utterly motionless, upon the thing line of a mudbank, fifty yards or so from our boat.  Its pointed beak hung threateningly above the surface.  High-perched upon its legs, with pouter breast, the grey heron was fishing solemnly.  We looked at it with wonder, but in silence, for the slightest sound would be enough to startle it.  (p. 68, tr. Gerard Hopkins)

L'enfant et la rivière is a terrific book for language learning because it is full of bird, plant, boat, and river vocabulary.  Just the verbs describing the movement of the river, how useful.  I read an edition that had, in the back, labelled drawings of the novel’s plants and animals – now that was handy.

At some point, the nature idyll has to turn back into a novel, and the boys have to find families.  To my surprise, the novel moved from the real to the unreal, becoming an imitation of Alain-Fournier’s Goethean Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), including a several-page recounting of a symbolic puppet show.  I don’t know if Malicroix will follow the same path.  It seems likely.  Maybe no puppets.

Given the pace of my French reading, it will be, or at least feel like, approximately forever before I write more about Malicroix, and it’s not even especially difficult.


  1. A number of curious paths in the Camargue region are pursued in the comments on languagehat's "Daube" post.

  2. I'm halfway through the French - no puppets so far, but some delicious surprises - but I don't think I'll be finished with the book for a while, nor am I feeling any desire to be.

    I really hope you get to the Camargue on your next trip. Compared to anywhere else on France's Mediterranean coast it feels intensely exotic, and one of the only places I've been in Europe where I've felt anything akin to a sense of the "wild west." Even though it's right between Montpellier and Marseille, it feels cut off, insolite. That's helped along by the exotic aspects of the place milked by Bosco in Malicroix. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer looks like a North African town might have drifted over and washed up on the shore, an impression ratcheted up by the flocks of flamingoes. It's a big gitan gathering spot. Horses are everywhere, not just the white ones, but all kinds being ridden upon the long white beaches (the 1953 Lamorisse film version of "Crin Blanc" offers some striking images of the place). I recall taking a charming ferry that only had room for two or three cars in addition to our own, plus one horse. It traversed a width of river about the size of the ferry, the cars and the horse placed end to end. And those black bulls you mention contributed to some truly memorable main courses during our stay...

  3. Oh thank you very much for bringing this author to my attention, I've never heard of him before though I'm French !
    I think I will start with "L'Enfant et la Rivière", then maybe "Malicroix" eventually.

  4. I've read L'enfant et la rivière as a child but not this one.

    I should visit Camargue too.

  5. I've seen photos of Camargue horses on the ferry - what a sight. I'll note that the signature bull dishes like the gardiane de taureau are available in restaurants in Arles, for people too afraid of the malaria and magical white bull-gods to venture into the marsh itself.

    Bosco was not quite in the mainstream of French literature, as a gather it, more of a mystic and Romantic, reaching back to the 19th century. He is possibly most known as a children's author, with L'Enfant et la rivière and the one about the girl and her donkey (they make a cameo appearance in L'enfant.

    Emma, we finally conceded, when we were in Montpellier last summer, that the Camargue requires a car. Someday we will have to rent a car.

  6. It took me much longer to read this than the number of pages would have indicated; I felt I dwelt on the island with Martial, and I wasn’t in a hurry to leave it. (Although I do not fear water, nor rivers, as he did. Far more alarming to me would have been the lack of books.) I would love to discuss the ending with you when you get there. It was obscure, I thought, and gave an interesting meaning to Malicroix: bad faith.

  7. I have been wondering about that name. It is pretty openly symbolic.

  8. It's clear I'm going to regret not scoring a copy of Malicroix for the readalong, though I would have read it in English. One of these days.

    I'll also second (or third) recommendations to visit the Camargue. We did have a car. Without planning it we stumbled into a fete votive in Aigues-Mortes: they rode the white horses around town & had bullfights (more like bulldances--no bulls were killed) just outside the walls.

  9. How fortuitous. How much of good tourism is planning, and how much is stumbling?

    The protagonist in Malicroix is stuck on an island in the (main) Rhone, so I doubt he ever gets to Aigues-Mortes, but maybe some other character will tell me about it.

    It is kind of funny. Malicroix is a deeply regionally "placed" novel where the character barely moves.

  10. I loved Aigues-Mortes! What a spectacular, singular, special “city.”