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Henri Calet: La Fièvre des Polders [Polder Fever]

If you have read Calet’s La Belle Lurette [A Long Time Ago] or bio, you will know that, when his father ran off with his girlfriend, Calet and his mother went to Belgium, where she was from, living not far from the Dutch border, where polders – land reclaimed from the sea or a river – abounded. That first book covered his story as a child. His second book was something of a flop but this one had more success.

This story is set in the village of Burrh, which is near The Town, which is never named. We are following the story of Ward Waterwind. Ward sells beer. Written on his cart, in which he carries the beer in containers to his clients, it states Agent of the Royal Crown, the Royal Crown being a brand of beer. His wife, Nette, runs a small inn where she sells the beer.

He has various problems. The first is his main competitor, Le Scaphandrier (it means diver). Every time Ward tries something – coal, scrap iron, beer – Le Scaphandrier tries to go one better. Another problem, at least according to his wife, is that he tends to drink the profits and is too cosy with his customers, drinking with them. He maintains that Nette knows nothing of business but that he does. Clearly, she is in the right. It is not helped by the fact that Ward is illiterate. She wants him to stop selling beer and sell oil, instead, not least because he cannot drink the oil.

The couple have two children. Odilia is a seemingly very shy, somewhat neurotic young woman. She helps her mother in the inn, where she likes to dance, which, when they are not drinking, the customers like to do. However, we gradually learn that she seems to be having sex with various people, including her own brother, Basilius, which leads to the inevitable consequences.

Brother and sister share a bedroom, despite being almost adults. Nette has asked Ward several times to put up a partition wall but Ward will not do anything that is not what he calls business, i.e. selling his beer and entertaining actual and potential customers. Basilius is meant to help him but does not, spending his time at the Le Scaphandrier, hanging out with the mudlarks and wooing Le Scaphandrier’s daughter, returning home only to sleep and have sex with his sister.

There are two other people residing in The Anchor, Ward’s place. The first is Nette’s mother. Ward and she really do not get on and are always criticising one another. She had nineteen siblings. All are dead. Her husband is dead, as are six of her eight children. The survivors are Nette and her son, also called Ward. With her is Anneke, daughter of her son Peet (he and his wife are both dead, the son poisoned by his girlfriend, according to his mother). Anneke still goes to school and sticks closely to her grandmother. She never knew her mother and barely knew her father. She rarely speaks.

The grandmother makes a small living as a corpse washer. We see her washing the corpse of a woman who had twenty-four children, five still-born.

A baracks is being built nearby and it is experted to increase trade. While The Anchor is nearest to the barracks, The Eel, Le Scaphandrier’s inn, has a prime position on the quayside. The Town is developing the quayside and Le Scaphandrier hopes to benefit from this.

Ward has grandiose plans – he is planning to get a petrol-driven lorry – while as Nette and we see, his financial situation is not good. He seems indifferent as he is doing business

It all comes to a head the day that there is a grand celebration for the opening of the new quayside development. Everything goes wrong and then horribly wrong for Ward and his family.

This is a far better book than La Belle Lurette [A Long Time Ago]. Calet really gets in to the heart of the village, as we see its physical environs, the people who have lived there for centuries and the struggle they have to make a living, though they all seem to have plenty of time and money for drinking. Indeed, it seems every third house is an inn and Ward seems to visit several of them during the course of the book. The village is mainly Flemish – Ward barely speaks French – but there are some Walloons and, at one point there is a fracas between the two groups but it ends amicably.

Above all he digs into the issues surrounding Ward and his family. There is Ward with his lack of business sense, contrary to what he think, and his total irresponsibility as regards both his business and his family, his difficult relationship with his mother-in-law, the quiet Odilia having sex with her brother (and others) and Nette, knowing that things are getting worse but seemingly powerless to do anything about it. We have a mixture of other characters, the Adjutant who comes to the inn when Ward is out, nominally to play toad in the hole with Nette but, in fact, to have sex with Odilia, The Widow, another inn owner who allegedly sleeps with many of the village husbands, the quiet twin sisters who run another inn and the Machinist, another man after Odilia.

As far as I can tell, this book has not been translated into any other language, which is a pity as it is certainly a worthwhile book, giving a portrait of an area not visited all that much in French literature, and telling a very fine story of a hard life and the price to be paid for not being responsible.

Publishing history

First published 1939 by Gallimard
No English translation