Sylvie Germain: Jours de colère (Days of Anger)
We start off in the small village of Oak-Wolf. In French it is called Leu-aux-Chênes, leu being an archaic word for loup, the modern French for wolf. The village has only five families, with the men making their living as loggers, cowherds and river-drivers.
Germain does not hold back on the Gothic and often archaic style she uses to show that this area is not just a straightforward French farming community but one where there are strange goings-on and a strange atmosphere. Indeed she focusses immediately on the madness in two of the main characters. The first is Ambroise Maupertuis and she uses the phrase frenzied madness for him. He is a widower who lives with two of his sons (the third died) and, for some inexplicable reason, he has managed to obtain the three forests previously owned by Vincent Corvol, a much more refined and previously much richer man than Maupertuis. Maupertuis’ sons suspect dirty deeds and they are not wrong as we soon learn that blackmail is involved over the disappearance of Vincent’s wife Catherine who allegedly fled off to Paris with her lover but, as we know, never even caught the train, being intercepted beforehand by her husband, the whole event witnessed by Maupertuis. It is at this point that Maupertuis fell in love with Catherine.
Maupertuis is determined to cause harm to Corvol, whom he resents for his upper-class ways and takes not only the forests but a requirement that, when she reaches the age of eighteen, Claude Corvol, his daughter, will marry Ephraim, Maupertuis’oldest son.
Marceau, Ephraim’s younger brother, burns himself one day and Ephraim is sent to get some salve from the local healer, Edmée Verselay. Edmée is the other character Germain has told us at the beginning is suffering from madness but only little by little. She is unreservedly devoted to the Virgin Mary but also to her daughter, Regina, aka Fat-Ginnie. Regina has only one interest in life – food. She eats all she can but is still hungry. She does a little needlework but, generally, when not eating, lies down by the window or fire. Not surprisingly, she is gargantuan. Her mother indulges her, her father, Jousé, keeps quiet.
When Ephraim turns up, he is immediately smitten by the recumbent Regina despite or maybe because of her size. The Verselays are flattered that someone as rich as Ephraim is interested in their daughter. They remain satisfied even when Ambroise beats and then disinherits his wayward son. No matter, the couple marry and every 15 August, Assumption Day, Regina produces a son. Jousé dies before the third one appears. When the ninth one has a hare lip, Edmée takes it as a sign from the Virgin that there will be no more, as is the case. Meanwhile Claude has married Marceau, both resignedly accepting their fate.
The nine boys grow up and even build their own cabin as the house is too small. All are introduced to us, with their various nicknames, indicative of their character. All work locally in various forestry and agricultural jobs and work, moreover, for their grandfather, despite the fact he will have nothing to do with their father. For both sides the relationship is purely an employer-employee one and not a grandfather-grandson one.
Marceau and Claude have had a daughter, Camille. As she looks very much like her grandmother, she is the apple of the eye of Maupertuis and grandfather and granddaughter are very close. For his part, he tries to keep her away from everyone else but obviously, as she grows up, this is not going to happen. He has a ceremony involving installing a cross in his wood, to which the whole area is invited , except for his grandsons and their parents. The grandsons however turn and their singing and chanting impresses everyone except their grandfather but particularly impresses Camille who now sees her cousins for the first time.
What makes this such a superb novel is that it expertly mixes the Gothic novel with Greek tragedy. Many of the main characters are just slightly, but only slightly, exaggerated – Maupertuis and his exaggerated love for a dead woman and his vicious enmity towards Corvol who has done him no harm; Regina and her perpetual eating and yet her ability to produce nine sons all born on 15 August, Leger, Maupertuis’ son who after his mother disappears when he is fourteen, stops growing up so he will be the same when she reappears, Claude who seems to spend her life playing the piano and not much else and so on.
As regards the Greek tragedy element, Germain gives us lots of clues with references to various myths (not only Greek) . We have Simon being taken away on a white bull, like Europa being abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull and then his slaying of the bull like Mithras. We have references to the Rapunzel story with Camille and Catherine’s death, stabbed in the throat recalls Polyxena‘s murder by Neoptolemus. I am sure an eager Ph.D. students would find other such references.
The whole book is something of a Greek tragedy, with betrayal, untimely deaths, including a few brutal ones, caused in part by passionate love, men falling from high estate to disaster because of their character flaws and a remote setting though, obviously, some of the elements are to be found in other tragedies. Indeed, it is likely that Germain was influenced to some degree by the great French tragedians Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille who were both influenced by Greek tragedy. However, this book is very much her own, whatever her influences.
Dedalus, the English publishers of this book, recently recently tweeted I can’t take seriously a list of 100 books by women writers in translation that has no place for Sylvie Germain. How can you promote women authors in translation when you ignore or are ignorant of the works of one of the truly superstars of contemporary fiction? I can only agree.
First published in 1989 by Gallimard
First English translation in 1993 by Dedalus
Translated by Christine Donougher