12 March 2016

Jean Carrière: L'Épervier de Maheux (1972)

L'Épervier de Maheux (lit. 'The Sparrowhawk from Maheux') gained the Prix Goncourt in 1972, the year of its publication. It is set in the Cévennes, a relatively small area in central south France, a mountainous region forming a small part of the Massif Central, to the south-east extremity. It is a land of extremes of temperature, as vividly described in this intensely powerful book. In the nineteenth century, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about the land in his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879).

The plot takes place in the mid-twentieth century, and the characters in it – principally from the Reilhan family – are not exactly sympathetically portrayed. If the bleakness and the extreme harshness of the area – from which most of the people have already moved and most remaining ones move in the process of the book – suggests Jean Giono (who was Carrière's friend), another author is suggested in the book itself by two quotations: William Faulkner. There is certainly more than a hint of Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha here.

One of the quotations is from Sartoris and the other from Absalon: 'Tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.' The rather farcical coffin scene also recalls Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Perhaps more than anything, though, the names of the brothers Abel and Samuel – and the apocalyptic nature of the pitiless weather, the violence at the end, recall the Bible.

L'Épervier de Maheux sold almost two million copies, and Carrière suffered because of this literary Grail, went into a deep depression, probably never really recovered. It was eight years before he published another book, and fifteen years after the Goncourt he wrote Le Prix d'un Goncourt (better translated as 'The Price of a Goncourt' rather than its homonym 'Prize', and it was also published as Les Cendres de la gloire ('The Ashes of Glory')). Essentially, Carrière's problems were existential: the way others saw him, the sensation of being divorced from himself. Fame, fame, fatal fame.

Maheux is a fictional name, and although the hamlet Mazel-de-Mort exists, its true location exists in a different place than in the book. And as far as I know there are no characters in the book who bear the same name as any living characters in the region, although locals certainly recognized some of the characters and were very less than happy about it. Ah, Life...

This is a demanding book but the effort pays off.


John Simmons said...

L'Épervier de Maheux was a major success for its publisher, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, whose 2004 memoir has just appeared in translation as SADE'S PUBLISHER from Paris Writers Press.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

I'm no fan whatsoever of translation in general, but at least it can give give an idea (no matter how distorted) of what a book is about, its style, etc, to those unable to read it in the original language. Oddly, although L'Épervier de Maheux is said to be translated in fourteen languages, not one of these seems to be English. And the English Wikipedia site – for what it's worth – suggests that none of his other works appear to have been translated. Now does that say anything about the Anglophonic universe? This is not a blip: it is quite normal for many excellent French writers not to be translated into English.