11 July 2018

Jules Renard: Poil de Carotte (1954; repr. 2012)

Jules Renard (who was born in Châlons-du-Maine (Mayenne) in 1864 and died in Paris in 1910) was a novelist and playwright. His family moved to Chitry-les-Mines, where his father François Renard was born and later bacame mayor. He was the youngest of the Renard's children, and Poil de carotte (translated as Carrot Top in English) is an autobiographical series of non-chronological stories of his childhood and youth. Some have called this children's literature, but this collection resembles no children's literature that I have known, and I'm sure none that I'll ever know: writing can be deceptively simple, but this is far from it.

Poil de Carotte is called by this name throughout the book because of his red hair, and his parents are formally called Mme and M. Lepic, who live with Poil de Carotte, his brother Félix and sister Ernestine in a rural community. Poil de Carotte's siblings are nothing to shout about, his father is cold to him, but his mother is a sadistic monster depriving him of an outlet to toilet facilities at night, distorting things his says, and acting towards him in a tyrannical fashion.

For me, one of the highlights of the book is when Poil de Carotte is in boarding school and, through jealousy, takes his revenge on the mild homosexual behaviour between the maître d'études Violone (a name surely too close to 'rape' ('viol') for comfort) and the student Marceau: he tells the headtecaher that they are 'doing things', and although he doesn't elaborate on this it leads to the dismissal of Violone in a rather bizarre drama.

Renard's most important book is generally considered as his Journal, in which there are some sexist comments. For instance, in February 1888 he wrote: "A quoi bon tant de science dans une cervelle de femme? Que vous jetiez l'Océan ou un verre d'eau sur le trou d'une aiguille, il n'y passera toujours qu'une goutte d'eau." ('What is the point of so much science in the brain of a woman? If you thew the ocean – or a glass of water – through the eye of a needle, still only a drop of water would get through.') Er, what?

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