Off the Shelf: Malicious gossip after Mass: Derek Severn on The Postman, a neglected work by the Nobel laureate Roger Martin du Gard
Saturday 17 July 1993
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.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Game of Thrones season 5: Emilia Clarke praises characters who 'accept their femininity'
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate