Since I took a lot of French language classes both in high school and college, I was exposed to a wide range of French literature and movies. Both media help to give insights into French sensibilities, thinking, and history. Sometime in college, I watched My Father’s GloryLa Gloire de Mon Pere (My Father’s Glory) and was charmed by its sense of innocence and nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time.
The volume I finished last weekend, virtually in one sitting, includes two of the four semi-autobiographical books of Souvenirs d’enfance by Marcel Pagnol: My Father’s Glory & My Mother’s Castle: Marcel Pagnol’s Memories of ChildhoodMy Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle.
My Father’s Glory introduces Marcel at the turn of the 20th century. His father is a school teacher who was trained at a very anti-religious ecole normale, a fact which brings out some humorous incidents with his brother-in-law. Marcel is raised in Marseille. As the family’s monetary situation improves over the years, they rent a cottage in the country to spend their summer vacances.
It is clear that the time spent in the country had a profound effect on Pagnol. The descriptions of his adventures hunting and exploring have a moving emotional element to them.
The main incident in the book begins to shake Marcel’s view of his father’s omnipotence. His father and Marcel’s Uncle Jules plan a hunting expedition, hoping to shoot the legendary bartavelle (a rock partridge). Jules tells of his hunting prowess and instructs Marcel’s father how to track and flush these fowl, telling him that there is a specific shooting technique. His father practices before the scheduled day, but Marcel is worried that he’ll miss, humiliate himself, and destroy Marcel’s faith in him.
On the eve of the appointed day, Marcel assumes he’ll be going with the hunting party. They lie to him about the date and then sneak out of the house long before dawn. But Marcel is tipped off and follows them secretly. He becomes lost in the woods, but is there to see his father pull off a perfect shot, killing two bartavelles. In the village, he is able to see his father basking in the glory of his achievement. Marcel’s faith is confirmed.
My Mother’s Castle is a direct continuation of the story, telling of the end of the summer vacation and Marcel’s reluctance to leave. The family determines to visit as often as possible (every weekend!) and the Pagnol describes how they manage to reduce the length of the trip by following the canals which cross over others’ property, including manor houses (the castle in the title).
I found the stories very charming and very cleverly written. For example:
Pagnol relates a story of how his father discovered he could read. When very young, his mother left him in his father’s classroom when she needed to run errands.
One morning, my mother left me in my usual place and went out without a word, while he wrote on the blackboard in big beautiful letters: ‘ The mother punished her little boy who had been naughty.’
As he was rounding off an admirable full-stop, I shouted: ‘No! It isn’t true!’
My father spun around, stared at me in amazement and cried: ‘What did you say?’
‘Mama didn’t punish me! You didn’t write down the truth!’
Another incident arises from his father’s infatuation with purchasing junk from antique dealers. He purchases a number of furniture items to take to the cottage, repairing and refinishing them.
[My mother] admired above all a small pedestal table which I had given three coats of ‘mahogany varnish’. It was really a joy to the eye, but it was wiser to look at it than to touch it, for if you put your hands flat on the table-top, you could lift the table up and carry it about, as mediums do. I believe everyone noticed this inconvenience but nobody said a word that might have spoilt the triumph of our expedition.
Later, Pagnol notes that even errors can be turned to good:
…for this pedestal table, placed like a precious period piece in a well-lit corner, caught so many flies that it ensured the silence and hygiene of the dining-room….
A very pleasant read. The translator, Rita Barisse, did a great job maintaining the literary quality of the writing yet retaining the subtle humor intact.
4 out of 5 stars (finished December 4, 2010)