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.

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