A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’ll be honest – when I was going through my tbr shelves to decide what I’d read for this theme week, it was entirely length that dictated my decision. Michel Quint’s Strange Gardens (2000 as Effroyables Jardins; translated into English by Barbara Bray a year later, and also published as In Our Strange Gardens, I believe) is only 71 pages of quite large font. It’s really more of a short story than a novel, but let’s split the difference and call it a novella.
I bought it a couple of years ago, intrigued by the title, cover, brevity, and blurb – which tells of two generations getting to understand each other through a tale of wartime. But before we get into that, we chiefly see the son (and narrator) thinking about his father’s life as a clown. A part-time clown, who is really a school teacher – and one who does not pretend to expertise in his craft. The son is a little embarrassed, a little perplexed and resentful, but it is his father’s altruistic clowning that sticks in his mind:
He never asked a penny for a performance – for having mucked up a Saturday or Sunday or some fine holiday from school we might all have spent together. People used to ring him up at home to book his act. He’d just listen, ask when he was required and where, and then tell my mother what had been arranged. And she’d look on as he got his suitcase out of the cupboard in the cellar and checked his props. The petrol for the car, the tram fares and any other incidental expenses were paid for out of his own pocket. But before he set out there was a ritual to be observed. He would look at us hesitantly, as if he didn’t really like leaving us behind and sacrificing us just to please himself. He’d waver, almost decide not to go. He’d make as if to put down his case: no, he wouldn’t go – it was too unkind to neglect us like that. The object of this rigmarole was to make us join in the charade, go along with the pretence that we couldn’t bear to be parted – and to get my mother to act as if she was proud to go with him. My sister Francoise and I were included in her surrender.
The novella is split in two; the second half shows the son discovering how this love of clowning came about, and involves a tale of sabotage, hostage-taking, and bravery in the French Resistance. I shall say no more, because there is much to spoil for a short text, but it is very impressive how Quint handles that notoriously tricky feat of having a narrative relayed by somebody after the event (for this section is told to the narrator by his father’s cousin, and the narrative becomes this cousin’s voice). It is the modus operandi of Victorian novelists, and long fell out of favour, but Quint does it exceptionally well – allowing the reader to join the dots between the first and second halves, and also guess at the son’s new understanding of his father, because this perspective does not break into the cousin’s narrative.
Indeed, the whole construction is handled very well. Revelations that could come at the end of 500 pages somehow hold the same weight in such a brief book. Which is, I suppose, testament to Quint’s impressive skill at investing characters and relationships with depth. My (admittedly limited) experience of French fiction has found that it often seems to dwell too much on introspection and analysis – but Quint builds the dynamics of a father/son relationship with speedy subtlety.
Any short novella is liable to be labelled a ‘gem’ or a ‘jewel’ – and I’m afraid Strange Gardens doesn’t quite escape that fate. I’m still not quite sure why it gets that title, and there is a curious moment where ‘terrible gardens’ are mentioned in the narrative. Effroyables jardins was the novel’s original title – I’d be intrigued to know if that is what was used when Bray uses ‘terrible gardens’ in her narrative (which seems a good translation to my very weak French). But it is curious to translate effroyables jardins as ‘terrible gardens’ in one place and as ‘strange gardens’ in the title. Maybe the title was not the translator’s decision. This is all a sidetrack of the variety that comes when a book is read in translation.
It’s only now, writing this, that I realise that the other foxes participating in French Week could probably read the original and the translation – which I certainly cannot – and I feel incredibly lacking. But I would be intrigued to hear from anybody who has read Strange Gardens in English or Effroyables jardins in French. In English, it is certainly a poignant novella that, at the same time, manages never to overindulge in that poignancy. It is matter-of-fact and without undue sentiment in its style; Quint – or at least Bray; presumably both – manages to let the tale do its own telling, and the people present themselves.