17 April 2015

C. F. Ramuz: Jean-Luc persécuté (1908; repr. 2008)

Charles Ferdinand Ramuz (1878–1947) spent a little time in the earlier half of his life in Paris and to a lesser extent in Germany, although in 1914 he returned permanently to French-speaking Switzerland (La Suisse romande), where he was born in Lausanne and died just three or four kilometres away in Pully.

Ramuz was therefore born in the canton of Vaud, although he was commissioned in 1907 to write a book on life in Varais – a canton adjacent to Vaud – in collaboration with the painter Edmond Bille, which resulted in the publication Le Village dans la montagne (1908). Ramuz spent various periods in Varais between September 1907 and the autumn of 1908 writing this, and a bi-product was that he began to write a fictional book which was to become Jean-Luc persécutée.

Jean-Luc persécutée is set in mountainous Varais. But unlike other fictional French Swiss works set in alpine areas there is no romantic nostalgia here, no picturesqueness: this is a depiction of Hell.

Ramuz's novel is intense and violent and to some extent reverses norms, particularly sexual ones. Essentially this is the ageless story of a sexual triangle, a book that the back cover suggests has the impact of a Greek tragedy. I can't argue with that, although it's a little unusual that a back cover should so precisely reveal the end in the beginning: the husband Jean-Luc burns to death in a barn his wife Christine and her child by her lover Augustin and then throws himself off a precipice. Surely this is the ultimate spoiler?

Well, not exactly because I'm sure Ramuz himself wouldn't have minded spoilers: what matters is not what happens, but how.

So, to the how. This is a very powerful novel, although I appreciated the first of its thirteen chapters the most. Here, Jean-Luc leaves his wife and baby Henri to see a man about a goat, but the man is ill so Jean-Luc calls off the project for the time and walks home. But his wife isn't there and the more he investigates her absence the more he worries and then he begins to trace her footsteps in the snow. For me it's the description of the minute, almost forensic details that lead Jean-Luc to his (secretly) discovering his wife in the hayloft with Augustin that make this a highly unusual read, written – like the other chapters in a very fresh style considering when it was written.

And the gender reversal that will play such an important part in the book is also notable right at the beginning, setting up this – as the back cover will have it – 'Aeschylean' tragedy. Christine comes right out with the fact that Jean-Luc was aware right from the beginning, before their marriage two years before, that she preferred Augustin but that her parents didn't approve because he hadn't enough money, and that she'd never concealed from Jean-Luc that she'd still 'kiss' Augustin (a seasonal hotel worker) even when married. Obviously stunned, Jean-Luc goes back to his mother.

But he returns to Christine, even though he's not too sure why, and when he breaks his leg they become close again, although she continues to see Augustin on his return to the area and eventually Jean-Luc throws her out and keeps Henri. But he begins to drink a great deal, abandoning his child to friends and neighbours. He starts to sell his property to drink more, Henri is discovered accidentally drowned in a stream, and Jean-Luc begins a descent into insanity: he walks around with his imagined child in his arms, talking to it and caring for it, until he 'loses' it.

Christine now has a child by Augustin, but Jean-Luc shuts his wife and her baby in a hayloft and sets fire to it. Imagining that his child has returned to him, he evades his pursuers by jumping off a cliff: 'his head cracked like a nut'.

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