Saturday, May 2, 2020

but her true name, she hides it still - Malicroix's tricky narrator - "Breathe, sir, the exhalations of the sauce!"

I need to pin down the narrator of Malicroix first.  He is a first-person narrator in 1948, so I can assume in advance that he is unreliable, the question being exactly how.  He blames the fever that knocks him out halfway through the novel for his unreliability:

I have tried, as faithfully as I could, to rediscover and recompose my memories.  But a memory burnt by the powers of the fever does not offer a precise guarantee of the past.  Reason will not know how to pull the clear pictures, the legitimate visions.  My imagination, without my knowledge, to fill in the fatal gaps, has had to haul in some invented colors and shadows.  (224-5, tr., as always, mine)

Fitting the theme of silence in the novel, Martial frequently does not state information directly related to the story he is supposedly trying to tell, even when he knows the truth, or at least has an opinion.  He is writing in some kind of “present,” for example, and knows how the story ends.  He could tell me at any point, but does not.

He knows what happens after the story ends.  I know I had trouble catching the moments when Martial switched to the present tense, or to something like it as in the above passage.  With my French, it is an accomplishment if I get the verb right, much less the tense.  If I were to read the novel again, I would keep track of the tense shifts.

For example, during Martial’s fever, a new character appears, a nameless young woman who cares for him.  It takes a while – forty pages – for her to reveal her name:

Later, she told me her name, what she called her “earth name”; but her true name, she hides it still.

Quite a lot of “after-story” is contained in that last clause.  I wonder how much more I missed.

Anne-Madeleine’s refusal to reveal her true name returns me to the theme of silence in all its varieties, its “five songs,” whatever that means.  The true name is the magic name, the one that contains power.  Martial is so often silent or, at his noisiest, indirect, because saying the thing itself somehow breaks the spell.  Thus it takes Martial three pages to tell me that a sheep is, in fact, a sheep.  There is not so much magic in a plain old sheep.

Often he allows others to do the talking.  Martial is on the island because his great-uncle Malicroix has left it to him in his will, given magic spell-like conditions.  The lawyer Dromiols visits the island early in the book and does nothing but talk for fifty pages, filling in the entire back story of the novel and revealing that he is possibly Malicroix’s illegitimate son, and thus feels disinherited.  He is the novel’s villain, and his fatal weakness is that he talks.  It helps the reader, though.

I am wrong, Dromiols does more than talk.  While talking, he eats the most magnificent savory pie I ever hope to encounter in French literature.  Woodcock, plover, grouse, venison, rabbit, mushrooms: “Breathe, sir, the exhalations of the sauce!...  Breathe! Breathe!” (73).  Dromiols is trying to undermine Martial’s mysticism with his delicious materialism.

I don’t know why I promised yesterday to write about the mythology of Malicroix.  The narratology took longer than I expected, and then I got distracted by the pie.  Tomorrow for the mythology.  My point here is that the narrator is a mystic,  by temperament but also as a result of the events of the novel.  It is the mystic, post-novel, who is narrating the novel so the entire substance of the thing is mystical and mythical and esoteric.  Don’t tell the story directly.  The meaning of the story, of the world, is in the gaps, the silence.  The narrator, and the author, somehow have to use words to describe the gaps.


  1. Well, but it’s not a “plain old sheep” after all, is it?! I love that pie too . . .
    And silence is at the center, isn’t it? I like it that you point out that the evil person is the one who talks the most!

  2. Right, a special ram. So you have to draw out the suspense a little. I love that it is made into a little mystery.

    The other character who talks a lot, I think, is tante Philomène, but the rules in that setting are totally different. Although it was curious how many characters there are also silent or close to it.

    The "Halte" chapter was fascinating all on its own. I don't think I'm going to write about it. I hope someone else does.

  3. My husband and I just finished reading aloud Joyce Zonana's translation this evening. We looked at each other in considerable bewilderment after so much wind and rain and so many tree scents moist and dry, so many cycles of day and night and said what just happened here, what kind of redemption/rebirth is going on. And thank the the Sacristan, we found your blog posts. Very much appreciated.

  4. Just follow the magic ram!

    Thanks for the kind words. It is nice to be useful. This is a novel that goes to some unusual places.