Off the Shelf: Malicious gossip after Mass: Derek Severn on The Postman, a neglected work by the Nobel laureate Roger Martin du Gard

'MILTON, madam,' said Dr Johnson to Hannah More, 'was a genius who could cut a Colossus from a rock; but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones.' And not only Milton. The novelist who writes on the epic scale is unlikely to write good short stories; but very occasionally one finds a writer with such a gift.

Between the wars France was singularly rich in great writers. Proust died in 1922, but those who came to their full powers in that period included Gide, Jules Romains, Mauriac, Duhamel and Colette, all of whom established considerable reputations. There was also Roger Martin du Gard (1881-1958) who, although he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937, was not elected to the Academie Francaise, and whose reputation in the UK has not survived. Yet he was a writer of great scope and power.

I have been re-reading not the massive series of eight novels called Les Thibault, which occupied him from 1922-40 and was designed to emulate War and Peace, but his 'little album of village sketches', Vieille France, which Andre Deutsch published in 1954 under the title The Postman in a fluent translation by John Russell. Here indeed are heads upon cherry-stones, and they are admirably carved.

Martin du Gard's purpose is to present a portrait of the village of Maupeyrou as it appeared one day some time in the 1920s, and he does it by following the village postman, Paul Joigneau, on his rounds.

Joigneau's is a brooding presence in this village. He knows everyone; but he also knows everything about everyone. Letters which look interesting are delivered a day late, so that he can steam them open in his attic. Someone wants to take possession of an old woman's cottage: it is Joigneau who, for a percentage, acts as fixer. He drops a hint to the Mayor about the reliability of his secretary, the schoolmaster . . .

From the opening lines of the book we are plainly in the hands of a master; a few swift strokes delineate a character, a paragraph fills in the background. An aspiring novelist could learn much of his craft from Martin du Gard's use of detail.

They are a remarkably diverse group, these villagers: an elderly stationmaster secretly advertising for a wife; old Paqueux, senile and kept prisoner by his son and daughter; a deaf old woman endlessly knitting behind closed shutters; Monsieur de Navieres, devoted to his little collection of worthless 'antiquities'; the three holy women who attend Mass every day but gossip maliciously; Joigneau pursuing his lecheries deep in the woods . . . They love and hate, scheme and deceive, nurse hopes and frustrations, are scarcely aware of the great world outside Maupeyrou.

But they are not caricatures. Martin du Gard writes of them with sardonic humour, understanding and an inflection of irony. By the end of Joigneau's day, and of the book, we know Maupeyrou well. A good deal of rural France must still, in its secret life, be more or less like this.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week