Saturday, November 25, 2023


Respon moy, meschant Loir, (me rens-tu ce loyer,
   Pour avoir tant chanté ta gloire et ta louange)
   As-tu osé barbare, au milieu de ta fange
   Renversant mon bateau, sous tes flots m’envoyer?

Si ma plume eut daigné seulement employer
   Six vers à celebrer quelque autre fleuve estrange,
   Quiconque soit celuy, fust-ce le Nil ou Gange,
   Le Danube ou le Rhin, ne m’eust voulu noyer.

Pindare, tu mentois, l’eau n’est pas la meilleure
   De tous les Elemens : la terre est la plus seure,
   Qui de son large sein tant de biens nous depart.

O fleuve Stygieux, descente Acherontide,
   Tu m’as voulu noyer, de ton chantre homicide,
   Pour te vanter le fleuve où se noya Ronsard.

(Pierre de Ronsard) 

Answer me, wicked Loir, why do you pay
   Me thus for all the praise I've sung of you?
   Oh monstrous stream! Is shipwreck then my due,
   My boat capsized, to lie in mud all day?

Had I but six lines ever deigned to assay
   In tribute to some other stream than you,
   Whether the Ganges, Nile, or Danube blue,
   Or the great Rhine, would drowning be my pay?

Pindar, you lied: for water's not the best
   Of all the elements; earth is more blest,
   Whose bosom broad with foison doth abound.

Oh Stygian stream! of Acheron's foul brood!
   You would have slain your poet in your flood
   That you might say, "In me was Ronsard drowned!"

(Translation by William Stirling)


The Loir (sometimes called "the Loir without an E") is the river of Ronsard's birthplace and home, the Manoir de la Possonière at Couture-sur-Loir, 45km north of Tours. The Loir is a sizeable river in its own right, about 300km long. It flows westward (parallel to and north of the Loire with an E), eventually meeting the Sarthe and soon afterwards the Mayenne. The confluence of the three, a wide river but less than 8km long, is called the Maine; it flows south through the strategic city of Angers before joining the Loire.

(Proust's Vivonne is also based on the Loir, but this is at Illiers-Combray, far upstream from Ronsard's home.)


As often with Ronsard, the textual history isn't straightforward. The poem appeared in the 1555 Continuation des Amours (Wikisource) as Sonnets en vers héroïques XIX,  but in a different version ("Mais respons, meschant Loir, me rens-tu ce loier"). The revised version I've quoted appears in the editions of Blanchemain and Marty-Laveaux. In Blanchemain (V, 359) it's Les Sonnets Divers LXXXIX, subtitled A LA RIVIERE DU LOIR. I presume both editors found it in the 1584 Oeuvres, the final edition to appear during Ronsard's lifetime (Google Books; the poem is on page 254 among the SONNETS A DIVERSES PERSONNES ("SONNETS DIVERS." on the running titles)). I dare say it's in the 1560 Oeuvres too.

from the 1584 edition of Ronsard's Oeuvres 


William Stirling isn't a reliable translator: he's prone to absurd fills (Cassandre's brown eyes are "far browner than a dove's"), sometimes he's deliberately approximate (e.g. "fresne" becomes beech, not ash, in the epigram from Anacreon), and sometimes he just gets the wrong end of the stick*, but he has some successes too and I've found this 1946 volume of Ronsard's lyrics very enjoyable. (The following year he translated an anthology from Machault to Malherbe, and that's everything I know about him.)

* For instance in the ode "Sur tout parfum" where some of the lines he applies to the rose are actually talking about the "fleurette de Mars" (sweet violet), Ronsard's other favourite flower.

[Penguin offer a tempting Ronsard selection, but the translations are in prose. Some people -- James Fenton, for example -- say they find prose translations of lyric poetry helpful (if accompanied by the original-language poem), but a feast of husks is not my idea of fun.]


I discovered, glancing through Sidney Lee's The French Renaissance in England (1910), that I've been very insufficiently aware of how much the English poets of the 1590s owed to Ronsard and the Pléiade. General influence (and even blatant borrowings) often went unacknowledged but the French poets were an everyday source of inspiration for Shakespeare's generation. He himself could read French easily, and even write it at a pinch (as in Henry V). Some of the most striking features of his Sonnets owe something to French predecessors: urging the young man to marry and father a son (a variant on the Pléiade's intense meditations on Carpe diem); the immortality conferred by the poet's verse (a note much struck by Ronsard); even, apparently, the idea of a dark-haired lady who causes all sorts of trouble.


But I can't blame my teachers, only my gift for tuning out what I'm not interested in. Every time the Pléiade was mentioned I must have switched off: who cares about the influence of poets you never read and can barely name?

One of the things that's turned Ronsard into more than a name for me is his unexpectedly deep feeling for nature, manifested in eg the rose-and-violet ode mentioned above, the hawthorn ode, and the lament on the cutting down of the Gastine forest (near his Loir home).

It's in this Loir poem too. Ronsard has praised his home river in other poems, but now that he's annoyed with it there's no more idealizing, he talks not of the river's sparkling water but of its "fange" (mud, silt): and his mentioning the Ganges and all those other august rivers is clearly a pettish reminder to the Loir that, fondly as he may have praised it, it isn't really all that. The abiding affection is apparent, and the river becomes more real for having silt as well as all the things rivers are usually praised for.

And of course it's a wry comment on Ronsard's enormous fame that the river cares nothing for his immortality-conferring verse, but only (as he jokes) for his celebrity: it sees the benefit of being a news item.


I've been looking for Ronsard translations online. Considering how prolific Ronsard was, I haven't found much. As so often, I turn first to A.S. Kline's incredibly valuable site Poetry in Translation. There are 26 Ronsard poems here that give a sort of flavour (mostly love sonnets):

Andrew Lang translated nine poems by Ronsard in Ballads and Lyrics of Old France: With Other Poems (1872). 

(They also show up on internet poem sites, invariably without naming the translator).

Three poems translated by George Dillon:

'Twixt Love and Death (translator not named, but it's Curtis Hidden Pages, 1870 - 1946):

To the Hawthorn-Tree (translator not named, but it's Curtis Hidden Pages, 1870 - 1946):

I haven't found any of the translations made by Sylvia Plath in 1956, nor by the recent translators Anthony Mortimer (verse) or Malcolm Quainton and Elizabeth Vinestock (prose).

Keats once wrote a sort of translation of most of a Ronsard sonnet (but he had forgotten how it ended):

The Loir at Sougé

[Image source: .]

Friday, November 17, 2023

Émile Zola: Madeleine Férat (1868)


[Donald E. Green's jacket for the 1960 reprint, rebadged as Fatal Intimacy, of Alec Brown's 1957 translation of Madeleine Férat.]

Original French text of Madeleine Férat from La Bibliothèque électronique du Québec (PDF):

The jacket is based on a scene in Ch 1. Guillaume, nervously sick from the lightning flashes, has persuaded Madeleine that they should go inside. (They're at an inn in the Verrière woods.)


A maid carried the remains of their meal into the common restaurant. This was a large room with blackened walls. It was sparsely furnished with tables and benches. Guillaume sat in a chair with his back to the windows. Before him was a plateful of raspberries, but he did not touch one. Madeleine gobbled hers down, then went to open the window into the courtyard. Leaning her elbows on the sill, she gazed out at the inflamed sky.

The storm now broke with incredible violence, right over the woods. The air became oppressive with the smouldering weight of the clouds. Then the rain stopped again. Brusque gusts of wind rustled through the trees. Flashes of lightning followed one another so rapidly that outside it was like day, but a bluish daylight which lent the countryside the appearance of a romantic stage set. The thunder-claps did not roll echoing away down the valley, but broke off sharply, as dry and brittle as the detonations of gunfire. Trees all round the inn must have been struck. After each clap of thunder there came a terrifying silence.

At the thought of this window open at his back, Guillaume experienced painful anxiety. In spite of himself, with a sort of nervous reflex, he turned his head, to see the white figure of Madeleine outlined against the violet illumination of the lightning flashes. Her auburn hair, damped by the first drops of rain before they came in, lay loose over her shoulders, and it glowed brightly at each sudden flash. 

"Oh, isn't it lovely!" she cried. "Guillaume, do come and look. There is a tree over there which looks as if it had caught fire. The lightning flashes skip among the trees like animals run wild . . . . And the sky! . . . It really is a wonderful firework display!"

But Guillaume could no longer resist the crazy desire he felt to go and close the shutters.

"Look here," he said, getting to his feet, "do shut that window. What you are doing is dangerous."

"Don't tell me you're really afraid," she replied with a throaty laugh, one of those mocking laughs of a woman who despises. Guillaume lowered his eyes. For a moment he wavered, before, with an agonized mumble, he begged her again to shut the window and resumed his place.

(from Émile Zola's Madeleine Férat Ch 1, translated by Alec Brown.)

Some people have remarked that Green's pulpy cover is actually fairly appropriate to Madeleine Férat, and I kind of agree with them, but it isn't as simple as that. In the novel Madeleine is just leaning and gazing, not ecstatically offering her body to the energies of the storm. (Nor, by the way, is her dress particularly revealing.) To some extent Green is also thinking of a later scene in the book, in which Guillaume witnesses the sleeping Madeleine moaning with arms spread as she dreams of her former lover (Ch 11). Anyway, what the picture expresses very well is Guillaume's latent insecurities about his new girlfriend, his fear of her superior strength and his anxiety about meeting her deepest needs.


Chantal Bertrand-Jennings has written a useful survey of Zola's women characters*, demonstrating how for all his progressive beliefs he tends to work with misogynistic stereotypes and to portray women as the source of evil.

All the same I was rather taken aback by this: 

Femmes fatales who devour both men and their wealth and who are best represented by Nana, crowd all of Zola's thirty-one novels. Among the best-known are Madeleine Férat, Thérèse Raquin, Renée Saccard (La Curée), Christine (L'Oeuvre), and La Cognette (La Terre). These infamous nymphomaniacs exercise the most pernicious influence on men... Perverted to the marrow of their bones, they soil, debase, ruin, destroy and kill everything around them, leaving in their wake ashes and death .... (p. 29).

For after all when it comes to particulars Madeleine doesn't fit very well into that composite description. For instance she's singularly uninterested in Guillaume's wealth, and in fact takes care, when she first moves to the country, to do so on the basis of financial independence; she marries him reluctantly (Ch 5). As for nymphomania, it's true she feels an unconquerable physical responsiveness to her former lover Jacques, but to no-one else; when in desperation she (like Guillaume) considers seeking love outside their dying marriage, she can't rouse the slightest interest in the project -- that is, until she sees Jacques, who leads her helplessly into the bedroom (Ch 12). As for the terms of moral obloquy that Bertrand-Jennings has fun with;  well, Madeleine isn't an angel, her early life was difficult and she's having to deal with that legacy, her words can be harsh and brutal, yet it's obvious she doesn't have an evil bone in her body, is scrupulously conscientious, has essentially no meanness or cruelty or greed. 

So it's a paradox that, nevertheless, you can understand why Bertrand-Jennings  puts her into the list of Zola's femmes fatales

Zola allots her what might appear physical marks of a femme fatale (well brought out in Green's illustration), especially her "magnificent shock of auburn hair" and "vividly scarlet lips". ("Indeed they were too red for a face so white," the narrator comments (Ch 1).) What follows in the rest of the book is a sequence of fateful accidents that increasingly pressurize the characters, Madeleine herself included, into accepting this dire categorization. 

The deranged old fanatic Geneviève (Guillaume's housekeeper) maintains a constant background rumble of horrible accusations; for her, at any rate, there's no doubt that Madeleine is the embodiment of Satan and will certainly bring destruction to her master. Guillaume is apparently impervious to Geneviève's monstrous mutterings, but his own insecurity and jealousy can lead his thoughts in similar directions. For instance when he learns that Madeleine's former lover was his friend Jacques (the late Jacques, as they had believed) his thoughts turn toxic:

... Guillaume went so far now as to persuade himself that she must feel a perverse pleasure in it all, with her past embraces playing an obbligato to her immediate union with him. ...  How was he to know that this woman was not deceiving him all the time with a ghost, using him as a mere instrument, the love-sick sighs of which recalled familiar tunes she knew of old  till he disappeared altogether, and in her heart of hearts it was with that other man that she coupled.... 

With such reflections and such shaming reverie, prompted in his heart of hearts by the nightmare of his brain, he stared at this young woman's nakedness and felt profound revulsion, thinking on the white bosom and shoulders to detect outrageous markings, where deep kisses had for ever ineffaceably marked the skin with suffusing blood.

Madeleine all this time kept stirring the fire. Her features maintained an impenetrable fixity. Little by little, each time she moved her arm to move the embers, her gown slipped farther from her shoulders,  till now Guillaume became powerless even to look away from that body, with each spasmodic movement revealed to him more and more in all its shameless plenitude. It seemed frightfully unclean to him. Every time the arms stirred, re-indicating the outline of the rich shoulder muscles  he thought he espied a lewd orgasmic leap of the flesh ... She now seemed a woman possessed by another, whom only love of debauch could have brought into his arms ....(Ch 8)

And as hammerblow follows hammerblow Madeleine too comes to see herself as a curse, someone to be condemned.

"What sort of a woman am I then?" she whispered to herself. "I went to that man [Jacques] to raise myself in his eyes, and I fell into his arms like any whore. He had only to touch me with his finger-tip, and I offered no resistance. Indeed, I found degrading enjoyment in feeling myself yield to him. .... I must be accursed, as Geneviève says. My flesh is foul! Oh, how filthy!" (Ch 12)

"... My body is cursed, it turns all about me to gall .... I have tried myself and I have condemned myself to death ..." (Ch 13)

The novel ends with her suicide and Guillaume's descent into madness.

* Chantal Bertrand-Jennings, "Zola's Women: The Case of a Victorian 'Naturalist'", Atlantis Vol 10 No 1 (Autumn 1984), pp. 26-36, available as a PDF download here:


And maybe there's another point to consider, the novel's title. Because, keeping our heads, this a study of a relationship between two people who both contribute their destructive potential and their weaknesses. Why is the novel named Madeleine Férat and not, say, Guillaume and Madeleine (its opening words)? Not easy to answer, but part of it is that the dramatic tension, our uncertainty as we read, concerns Madeleine:

She fell into a revery, then vaguely, as if speaking to herself: "I do not know what will happen to me later," she said. "I think I have the will-power to manage my life, but it is not easy." (Ch 1)

As we read on we cling to our belief in the possibility of her life not being a catastrophe, if only fate would stop hammering. With Guillaume less so; he, we can easily see, isn't made for happiness. So which of the two is actually the fatale here?

And Madeleine, more often than not, supplies the point of view through which we see events, the most normative or at any rate least damaged perspective. The story seems pitched around making her an object (e.g. a femme fatale) but at the same time proposes her as subject. When at the end she refers to "our poor, sick minds" we can see that this true, but also that there's a stature to Madeleine's mind that's evinced by the clarity of this perception. 

When the novel was serialized, its title was La Honte (Shame). The emphasis of that title seems at first glance to be on Madeleine. It's only a more considered reflection that sees how it could be meant as a statement about others in the novel (for example the young Guillaume being jeered as a bâtard), and even about the whole of French society.


Madeleine Férat is Zola's fourth novel, the last one before embarking on Les Rougon-Macquart. It's distinctive among Zola's novels and part of that is because it was based on a play (uniquely,  I think). But "based on" is a slippery term, as we'll see. 

Zola wrote his three-act play in 1865: it was called La Madeleine (i.e. "The Magdalene", a repentant sinner) and there were no takers. Retitled Madeleine, it was performed once in 1889. It appeared in Zola's Works in 1927 and you can download a PDF here:

Some of the information below comes from Midori Nakamura's interesting essay '“L’annonce” et “l’amorce” chez Zola: Madeleine, du théâtre au roman', Excavatio Vol 27 (2016):

The rejected play isn't particularly good; Act 3 feels a bit perfunctory, Madeleine's suicide inadequately motivated. Nevertheless, it became the kernel of a far more arresting novel. Zola added to his original story, changed his original story, and even criticized his original story. The relationship of the novel to the play is to a certain extent dialectical. 

Act 1 corresponds to the novel's Ch 7 (the unexpected reappearance of Jacques). Act 2 corresponds to Ch 9 (the inn at Mantes). Act 3 corresponds to Ch 13 (Madeleine's return to the marital home and her suicide). 

Some of the play's dialogues are closely followed in the novel, for instance, in Act 1 Francis (=Guillaume) talking with Jacques about his marriage. And, as in the novel, there's a fanatical servant who relishes telling us that God the Father did not forgive.

But the differences are numerous and substantive. Here are some of the major ones. 

The play is set in about 1802 near Montpellier. (Jacques' rumoured death was at the battle of Marengo.) The novel is set in the present day and much closer to Paris. 

Different names: Guillaume was Francis. Geneviève was Marguerite originally, changed to Véronique for the 1889 performance. The fallen companion Louise was originally Laure (Laurence in 1889). In what follows I'll use the 1889 names, because they're the names in the published text.

Francis and Jacques were fellow medical students at Montpellier. Francis is a doctor now. Francis is more romantic/idealistic than Jacques, but that's as far as the contrast goes.  There is no suggestion that Francis is chronically weak, insecure, reclusive or pessimistic (as Guillaume is). Guillaume's sad history, the childhood bullying, Jacques taking him under his wing, etc, are all new material in the novel. 

Francis has a mother, Mme Hubert, who lives with them. Theirs is a respectable household. In the novel Guillaume's own background is not respectable, he has no profession, it is only his unexpected wealth that keeps tongues from wagging openly. (In Act 3 Madeleine's suicide is triggered by Mme Hubert not pardoning her faults ... This is true enough, but Véronique implies more finality than there really is, when she falsely states that Mme Hubert has fled the house with her grand-daughter.) The novel eliminates Mme Hubert entirely. In the novel the Noiraude household is much lonelier, and so is Guillaume, who clings timidly to Madeleine as to a refuge or mother. Guillaume has no living relatives since the death of his eccentric father, and the young couple's concern about respectability is limited to the judgments of provincial society (and their servant Geneviève).

Like Guillaume's, Madeleine's early history (e.g. Lobrichon's attempted rape) is all new in the novel. In the play all we're told is that she was a happy child who became a fun-loving girl and in due course Jacques' mistress.

In the play, Madeleine has no residual feelings for her former lover and never yields to him again (as in Ch 12 of the novel). There is no madcap science about the supposedly permanent imprint of a first lover and no suggestion that Madeleine's child strangely resembles Jacques. 

In the play Madeleine's suicide is prompted solely by the feeling of being unable to escape her unrespectable past, her sense that her respectable life is just a dream (e.g. after the meeting with Laurence). At the end her husband, child and mother-in-law all survive, so she's fatal only to herself. 

The novel darkens the story in many ways, adding nightmarish and gothic elements. Examples are Lobrichon's attempted rape of Madeleine, Guillaume's misanthropic father and his sinister closed up laboratory, the unspeakable de Rieu trio, the much elaborated descriptions of Geneviève and Louise, the dismal arrival at the neglected cottage, the description of Lucie's smallpox. 

In sum, the novel vastly elaborates the story -- and crucially changes it. In the play the key issue was that Madeleine couldn't maintain the respectability of her husband's household. But in the novel Madeleine and Guillaume never really have this respectability. Instead, the key issue now is Madeleine's continuing obsession with her former lover. Almost as important, the novel now charts the working out of Guillaume's vulnerabilities as well as Madeleine's: a relationship that looks doomed: unhealthy, static and isolated even in its palmy days.

As is well shown by one more difference from the play. At the end of Act 1 it's Madeleine who is determined to flee the house to avoid seeing Jacques, and Francis who says it would be better to explain things to Jacques. In the novel the roles are reversed: it's Guillaume who wants to flee, and Madeleine who sees that the only way to resolve matters is to talk with Jacques.

... The mere thought of Jacques' proximity, the idea of his old friend's approaching him and holding out his hand, now caused him increasing pain. There was one thought and one only in his mind, that of flight, that of avoiding any explanation, that of taking refuge in some lonely place where they might hide. In difficult situations his character invariably sought time and also craved solely to resume further on his dream of peace. When he raised his head, it was to whisper:

"Let us go away. My head is bursting, for the moment I cannot see what to do . . . He was only going to spend a day here anyway just now . . . When he has gone, we shall have a month ahead of us to recover and make sure of our happiness."

 But flight such as he suggested seemed repugnant to Madeleine, with her upright character. She saw too quite clearly that this settled nothing and would leave them with all their fears unrelieved.

"It would be far better to put an end to it," she insisted. 

"No, come please," he whispered, pressingly. "We'll go over to the cottage to spend the night, and stay out there all day, till he has gone. . . . You know how happy we always were there. That cosy atmosphere will soothe us, we shall forget and love each other again just as we did when I used to steal out there to see you . . . Were either of us to see him again, I feel that would be the absolute end to our happiness."

Madeleine made a gesture of resignation. She too was badly shaken, and she felt Guillaume was so upset that it was no use trying any longer to get a brave decision from him.

"Very well," she said. "Let us go. . . . Wherever you wish."

 (Ch 7)

This shows the developed dynamic of the couple at work. Madeleine is stronger and more clear-sighted than her husband, but not strong or clear-sighted enough. Both characters avoid frankness and confronting difficult situations, and together they're apt to relapse into passivity and resignation. The shadows close in around them. They seek refuge in the past (for instance, their neglected cottage) but these bolt-holes never bring the hoped-for tranquillity. 


The play's opening tableau was the image of a model respectable family. It went on to depict the personal tragedy of Madeleine failing to maintain her place in that image, but it didn't question the image itself; rather, it subscribes to a solidly bourgeois morality. Certainly we're not meant to agree with Véronique's view of Madeleine, but the play may well seem to confirm Jacques' worldly wisdom when talking to Francis, his view that it's not clever to marry your mistress and it always ends badly. Jacques' point, I suppose, is that a gentleman's wife should be a virgin. Mistresses are fun but they're a different breed (as Jacques, an inveterate user, should know). The play might appear to confirm his view. The figure of Laurence exemplifies the naturally downward trajectory of the loose woman's existence. When Madeleine introduces Laurence to Francis, and herself starts to speak coarsely and brazenly as in her former life, isn't she underlining the same point: this is the real me, you don't want to bring me home?

These scenes remain in the novel but conventional ideas of marriage are now sharply problematized. After all, it's the horrible old Lobrichon who is anxious to have a virginal wife (and thinks he can achieve this by preparing a child for the role). The de Rieus show how sour a society marriage can turn even if it does not begin by marrying one's mistress. Guillaume is insecure from the start, he already knows that Madeleine had a previous relationship but he doesn't want to hear anything about it. Guillaume is particularly unfitted for a grown-up relationship but his outlook and behaviour often seems like a visionary exposure of conventional assumptions about marriage. In him there's both a fear of frankness and an unrealistic idea that one should possess and control every aspect of one's wife, even her past.

I don't have much patience with Zola's scientific ideas of heredity and all the rest, but in Madeleine Férat he does at least use them to make a valid point. People always have pasts and they always have character aspects that pre-date a marriage. Guillaume's conception of marriage doesn't allow for the inevitable independence of the two people who comprise it. For Guillaume and Madeleine the upshot is a descent into the abyss. But behind their nightmare lies the glimmering of other possibilities, for instance a way of doing relationships that would be more in harmony with the conditions of life.


Katherine Rondou,"Madeleine Férat ou la mémoire dans la peau : l’imprégnation comme procédé mémoriel dans le roman naturaliste", e-Scripta Romanica 11 (2023), pp. 9-22'impregnation_comme_procede_memoriel_dans_le_roman_naturaliste

An excellent recent article, which argues that Zola's fatalistic notions (e.g. heredity, imprint of first lover) transform the Magdalen figure from a Christian hero to a tragic hero: she may repent, but she cannot be redeemed.


Two earlier posts that touch on Madeleine Férat:


Friday, November 10, 2023

Motorway services are lush

 Dear readers 

Today I'm handing over to a friend of mine who is highly opinionated and observant and always seems to have plenty to say about everything and who I've probably stolen many ideas from of which you've probably read and thought how interesting it without further ado here she is.. sit tight for a fascinating insight into health, the cosmos hilarity and beyond.. random ideas from a free thinker.. ☺ ☺ ✌ 

👋 ✌🚜

There's something really lush about driving along in the autumn sun as you get to the border between France and Spain.. there's mountains and heat and blue skies and freedom like it could just carry on for ever.. and then you pass through the border and drive off into the mountains and find yourself a motorway services for the night and you get quite picky.. they are not all the same.. some have loads of lorries and there's hardly any room or there's no hot food and we really like hot food.. and big mugs of tea which is much much cheaper all of a sudden.. although no-one can understand us any more.. dos tès Verde por favor.. I say.. so it takes a while.. infusiones? Que? And it goes on like that.. we think it's quite funny so fall about laughing a bit.. but there's something lost in translation that means it's not funny at all to them. What we love is adapting.. somehow we always make the best of it.. we always find some magic in this unlikely place of lorry fumes and droning engines with incessant traffic driving by ..and sometimes it really really smells bad and the toilets get blocked and there's nothing to eat and the freezer lorries come in late when we are just trying to settle down and they hum and drone all night.. but in the morning we say we had the best sleep ever and we are so content in our fuggy waking up world with a big tall cup of tea made in the back by my fair hands in an old Starbucks cardboard cup that we reuse until even we think it's past using and have to recycle it.. We love every single bit of it.. all the scab and making do.. and we think why have we left all that stuff at home when we don't even need it.. and we drive on to the next services for elevenses 😁 🚛  🚙 🛣  ☀ ✌ 

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Two trees in the aires

Two trees I noticed at places we stopped when driving home through France. Even if you get no further than the aires, as we largely didn't,  there's always plenty to look at. (The previous day I was at Aire de Port Lauragais learning about the jazz singer and poet Claude Nougaro,  the day before at Salses where you can walk to Ferdinand and Isabella's fortress and on to Claude Simon's house, as I've mentioned before.)

The first was on 28 October 2023 at Aire de Le Bazadais, SE of Bordeaux on the A62, and it's a 3-needle pine with heavy smooth cones; I'll go with Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata), widely planted in Europe. Not with any great confidence, but at least that ID isn't obviously wrong, though the bark seems a bit untypical.

I collected two of the closed cones on the ground for Laura's grandson, who enjoys shaking out the seeds. 

Here's the other tree, one of a group that I photographed the following morning, after a night of rain. This was at Aire de Saint-Lèger on the A10, just south of Saintes.

The trees are top-grafted mulberries. The naming of mulberries is a highly confusing topic, but I was greatly helped by finding this excellent article on Trees and Shrubs Online:

So I will go with this being the plane-leaved variety of White Mulberry (Morus alba 'Platanifolia'). It looks very different from the white mulberry in Mum and Dad's garden. White Mulberry has many cultivars, unlike the Black Mulberry (Morus nigra), which is renowned for its exceptional genetic stability.

The author of the above article says that 'Platanifolia' is widely planted as a shade tree in Europe and is usually top-grafted. Lobed leaves are frequent and are not restricted to the youngest growth, but may also occur on 1- and 2-year-old shoots.

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Saturday, November 04, 2023

Horse traffic

I've read somewhere that a century ago almost every male adult could ride a horse; now, hardly any can. It was one of the least remarked of social revolutions.  (The author must have meant in parts of the world where there were plenty of horses, not e.g. tsetse areas of Africa where horses catch nagana.)

Few people in the west can now remember the time of horse-drawn vehicles, though even in the 1960s they still vied with motor vehicles in remote communities e.g. in the rural north of Sweden, as I discovered from reading Bo R. Holmberg's Dagsmeja.

Through the nineteenth century some of the quintessential elements of motoring were already appearing in the car's horse-drawn predecessors. 

Their two head lamps reached out yellowish fingers of light on to the road, with its thin coating of rimy ice. The cones of illumination raced ahead, picking out the ditches on either side with jerky bounds.

Every motorist will recognize that, but it's from Zola's Madeleine Férat (1868). Guillaume and Madeleine are travelling from Vétheuil towards Paris. (The D147 joining the A13 at Mantes, I see on Google Maps, and, so to speak, nod understandingly. I was on the A13 at nightfall myself, a week ago.)

Their vehicle was "a two-seater with a collapsible leather hood". Alec Brown mistranslates it as a "brougham" but Zola's original word is "cabriolet". A brougham was a specific brand, four-wheeled with paired horses, and the passengers were enclosed with the driver outside; but a cabriolet was two-wheeled, drawn by a single horse, and it seated just two people, one of whom drove.

(Brown was anglicizing, as when he turned the inn at Mantes from the Grand-Cerf to The White Hart.)

I didn't know any of this carriage info until now. In all my years of reading nineteenth-century novels I've blanked the innumerable hansoms and gigs and dogcarts and troikas and whatever, barouche or surrey with the fringe on top, treating them all as basically interchangeable. But for contemporary readers these would have been precise terms carrying a host of connotations, like Citroën or  Mitsubishi.

Apparently Jane Austen mentions horse-drawn traffic over 400 times. 

This cabriolet has two relevant connotations in Zola's novel.  Guillaume is really starting to lose it. A cabriolet is a far from ideal vehicle for driving all the way to Paris through a winter night, it's a slightly crazy idea, verging on desperate (they were too late to get the last train). And it shows how Guillaume in acute distress always clings to the idea of solitude with his wife. Just the two of us; that's his recipe for security. 

Apart from head lamps, the horse days were also like ours in terms of traffic accidents. The vehicles didn't travel so quickly, but they had minimal protection, horses were unpredictable and so were the roads. Geri Walton has an interesting post about this:

The topic often appears in local history, e.g. here from New Hampshire and Maine:

where I learned that Sarah Orne Jewett's writing career ended with a carriage accident in 1902. Her horse slipped on a loose stone and she sustained head and spinal injuries. Here's her entry on Poetry Foundation:

She was one of many, I mean as regards the accident.  

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's life was doubtless shortened on October 24 1776 when he got trapped between a speeding carriage and the Great Dane that was running alongside it; a head injury again. 

The profoundly deaf Ludwig van Beethoven was reported as being struck by a carriage in 1819, but this report may be rather exaggerated or even founded on a mere tumble.

In the days when horses were essential working animals many people found it convenient to regard them as undifferentiated disposables, like the nags in a bullring or like the contents of a burger. Some people even got off on the spectacles of cruel mistreatment at London's many horsefairs, as I learned here:

But horses were also the focus of the first glimmerings of more humane sentiments, which I wrote about here:

Guillaume's neurotic sensitivity doesn't seemingly extend to the horse that he urges "to faster gait with flicks of the whip" and the occasional "sharp word of encouragement". It's 66 kms from Vétheuil to Paris, which is no way to treat a horse, 30 miles is usually considered the upper limit for a single horse-drawn journey, but maybe Guillaume was reckoning on changing horses. That's if he was thinking clearly at all. (In fact, the ill-fated couple will get no further than Mantes.)

The other book I've been reading recently, Claude Simon's The Flanders Road (1960), might be regarded as a sort of apocalyptic epitaph to the horse age, amid the carnage of anachronistic French cavalry in the early days of WW2. This extract from Georges' thoughts begins with a race meeting before reverting sharply to the present.

... and she (she hadn’t turned her head either, hadn’t shown that she had seen him) sitting on one of those iron chairs in the shade, and perhaps in her hand one of those yellow or pink sheets with the last odds written on them (but not looking at that either), talking desultorily with (or listening desultorily to, or not listening to) one of those men, one of those retired colonels or commandants never seen except in such places, wearing striped trousers, a grey bowler (and probably stored away somewhere, fully dressed, for the rest of the week and taken out only on Sundays, quickly dusted off, smoothed out and set here along with the baskets of flowers on the balconies and the staircases of the grandstand, and immediately afterwards stored away in their box again), and finally Corinne standing up casually, moving calmly – her vaporous and indecent red dress swaying, swirling around her legs – towards the grandstand… 

But there was no grandstand, no elegant public to look at us: I could still see them silhouetted ahead of us (Quixotic shapes diminished by the light that gnawed, corroded the outlines), ineffaceable against the blinding sunlight, their black shadows sliding beside them on the road like their faithful doubles, now foreshortened, hunched or rather telescoped, dwarfed and deformed, now stretched, spindly and distended, repeating in miniature and symmetrically the movements of their vertical doubles to which they appeared to be joined by invisible links: four points – the four hoofs – ....... the four hoofs and the four telescoped shadows separating and rejoining in a kind of motionless oscillation, a monotonous trampling, the dusty ground the cobblestones or grass running underneath like an ink blot spreading and shrinking, leaving no trace on the rubbish, the dead, the scar, the stain, the wake of wreckage war leaves behind it, and that must have been where I saw it for the first time, a little before or a little after we stopped to drink, discovering it, staring at it through that kind of half-sleep, that kind of brownish mud in which I was somehow caught, and maybe because we had to make a detour to avoid it, and actually sensing it more than seeing it: ... (like everything lying along the road: the trucks, the cars, the suitcases, the corpses) something unexpected, unreal, hybrid, so that what had been a horse (that is, what you knew, what you could recognize as having been a horse) was no longer anything now but a vague heap of limbs, of dead meat, of skin and sticky hair, three-quarters-covered with mud – ... 

(from Claude Simon's The Flanders Road (1960), translated by Richard Howard)

Simon's prose is endlessly quotable but interlaced in a complex way. From the midst of that passage I reluctantly omitted a wonderful and painstaking description of rain dripping from a roofline; it could have formed the centrepiece of another post.


Sarah Orne Jewett was an unknown author to me, and of course I couldn't leave it like that, so I've just finished her best-known novella, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), an absorbing and beautiful book.

[The fir in question is the conically-shaped Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), which along with the Black and White Spruce is a principal component of Maine's heavily wooded landscape.]

Given today's topic, I've chosen an extract where they're discussing having to borrow the grocery wagon rather than the chaise. 

MRS. TODD never by any chance gave warning over night of her great projects and adventures by sea and land. She first came to an understanding with the primal forces of nature, and never trusted to any preliminary promise of good weather, but examined the day for herself in its infancy. Then, if the stars were propitious, and the wind blew from a quarter of good inheritance whence no surprises of sea-turns or southwest sultriness might be feared, long before I was fairly awake I used to hear a rustle and knocking like a great mouse in the walls, and an impatient tread on the steep garret stairs that led to Mrs. Todd's chief place of storage. She went and came as if she had already started on her expedition with utmost haste and kept returning for something that was forgotten. When I appeared in quest of my breakfast, she would be absent-minded and sparing of speech, as if I had displeased her, and she was now, by main force of principle, holding herself back from altercation and strife of tongues.

These signs of a change became familiar to me in the course of time, and Mrs. Todd hardly noticed some plain proofs of divination one August morning when I said, without preface, that I had just seen the Beggs' best chaise go by, and that we should have to take the grocery. Mrs. Todd was alert in a moment.

“There! I might have known!” she exclaimed. “It's the 15th of August, when he goes and gets his money. He heired an annuity from an uncle o' his on his mother's side. I understood the uncle said none o' Sam Begg's wife's folks should make free with it, so after Sam's gone it'll all be past an' spent, like last summer. That's what Sam prospers on now, if you can call it prosperin'. Yes, I might have known. 'Tis the 15th o' August with him, an' he gener'ly stops to dinner with a cousin's widow on the way home. Feb'uary n' August is the times. Takes him 'bout all day to go an' come.”

I heard this explanation with interest. The tone of Mrs. Todd's voice was complaining at the last.

“I like the grocery just as well as the chaise,” I hastened to say, referring to a long-bodied high wagon with a canopy-top, like an attenuated four-posted bedstead on wheels, in which we sometimes journeyed. “We can put things in behind—roots and flowers and raspberries, or anything you are going after—much better than if we had the chaise.”

Mrs. Todd looked stony and unwilling. “I counted upon the chaise,” she said, turning her back to me, and roughly pushing back all the quiet tumblers on the cupboard shelf as if they had been impertinent. “Yes, I desired the chaise for once. I ain't goin' berryin' nor to fetch home no more wilted vegetation this year. Season's about past, except for a poor few o' late things,” she added in a milder tone. “I'm goin' up country. No, I ain't intendin' to go berryin'. I've been plottin' for it the past fortnight and hopin' for a good day.”

“Would you like to have me go too?” I asked frankly, but not without a humble fear that I might have mistaken the purpose of this latest plan.

“Oh certain, dear!” answered my friend affectionately. “Oh no, I never thought o' any one else for comp'ny, if it's convenient for you, long's poor mother ain't come. I ain't nothin' like so handy with a conveyance as I be with a good bo't. Comes o' my early bringing-up. I expect we've got to make that great high wagon do. The tires want settin' and 'tis all loose-jointed, so I can hear it shackle the other side o' the ridge. We'll put the basket in front. I ain't goin' to have it bouncin' an' twirlin' all the way. Why, I've been makin' some nice hearts and rounds to carry.”

(The Country of the Pointed Firs, opening of Ch XVI.)

It's strange how randomly assembled authors may suddenly reveal curious resemblances to each other. You could say of Sarah Orne Jewett, as of Claude Simon, that she was one of those novelists who had no particular interest in or talent for making up stories, she worked with her own experiences. And what's immediately arresting about both authors is their styles, so different yet both distinguished for a certain effortless buoyancy and a constant flow of insight. 


Or consider this surprising crossover, when Guillaume and Madeleine reach Mantes and put up at an inn:

This room, which the innkeeper had thought he had made most comfortable by putting a mat under the round table, exuded that indefinable odour which is common to all such places. That is, it was redolent of airlessness and mould, plus a vague suspicion of old linen, threadbare upholstery and damp dust. Big, ramshackle and chilly, it was like a public hall through which the whole world had passed without anybody leaving behind anything of his heart or his habits. It had the vacant commonplaceness and the stupid bareness of a dormitory in any barracks. Here, in this narrow bed, half-way between double and single in size, men and women, old and young, had spent their passing nights, and all left it as cold as a bench in a public vestibule. No doubt both sorrow and delight had sojourned here, but the room had absorbed no trace of either any tears or laughter which had passed through it. ...

(from Émile Zola's Madeleine Férat (1868), Ch 9, translated by Alec Brown)

Cut to Claude Simon:

... and he floating in the shadows, listening to the silence, the night, the peace, the imperceptible breathing of a woman beside him, and after a while he made out the second rectangle of the wardrobe mirror reflecting the dim light from the window – the eternally empty wardrobe of hotel rooms with two or three hangers dangling inside, the wardrobe itself (with its triangular pediment framed by two pineapples) made of that urine-yellow wood with reddish veins which is apparently used only for this kind of furniture doomed never to hold anything except its own dusty void, the dusty coffin of the reflected ghosts of thousands of lovers, thousands of naked, furious and clammy bodies, thousands of embraces absorbed, mingled in the glaucous depths of the cold, unalterable and virginal mirror – and he remembering:) ...

(from Claude Simon's The Flanders Road (1960), translated by Richard Howard)

The passage from Madeleine Férat proves ironic: in this novel of ripped-down defences, Guillaume will soon learn that he is not insulated from the past, the room is not silent and its previous occupants are not without trace.

But bringing Claude Simon alongside Zola provokes another line of thought, that novels like hotel rooms are not impermeable, that every writer is unwittingly contributing to a vast communal book, and every reader's occupation consists of reading that one book to the best of their ability, and in fact all our lives are part of one single life, the subject of the one book that we can only gesture at comprehending.

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Sunday, October 29, 2023

Putting aside

There is so much that doesn't matter, you taught me,
But of course we would both misapply this lesson sometimes, we both knew that,
And yet as we climbed the hill, paths diving away to left and right,
It seemed desirable and honourable to stay on track
To the summit of our own preoccupations and not to agonize or fuss.

In the windows shadows on their way past
Or a wide screen spitting light; windows across the landscape, denizens sleeping or still out, shut in their living rooms with widescreen entertainment, sleepy children and wakeful overtired children coming back and leaving someone shouting and crying the banging down of a pan 

We drove for miles and miles
And we did eat piles
Of food and tea and things like that
And we did see a lot of cats.
When we went up the hill our ears did pop
But we didn't stop
Because we wanted to go down the other side
It was like a great big slide
The sea was blue
The sky was as well
We went for loads of walks 
And went to cafés with nice smells
We jumped in foamy water
And had to crawl out on our hands
And when we sat down on our towels
We cleaned off all the sand
And picnicked with Philadelphia,
It made us feel much healthier.
And when we took a selfie
It smoothed out all our wrinkles
And we thought that was quite good.
On our dusty trail back
We had a jumping contest,
Flying through the air,
One of us was best.
The sun went down, it made us frown,
We loved to watch it change from red
                to purple then down
And then we watched the moon come up
And out came all the stars,
And sat there in our wonderment
What it was like on Mars. The End.

(Poem by María)

Saturday, October 21, 2023


Olivarda (Dittrichia viscosa). 

A perennial, woody at the base. At a time of year when there are very few other wild plants in flower, this very common plant is reassuringly blooming. "Olivarda" is just one of its numerous vernacular names in Spanish. 

It is strongly aromatic,  somewhat camphor-like. We relish the smell ourselves, but others regard the plant as a stinker and some of the names allude to this. (I'm not bothering to quote the English names that I've seen because I doubt if anyone uses them.)

Albardine (Lygeum spartum). A remarkable grass, each flower-head consisting of just a single spikelet that contains one or two flowers.

You can be fined for leaving litter on this land but if you have the right authorization you can level it.

Monday, October 02, 2023

In Europe


Trying to capture the sunset gleam on needles of Maritime Pine.

Breakfast: I had Portuguese sardine paté on Finnish rye crispbread. That's really the ends of Europe, Pentti!

European words for "peach" join hands. In Swedish it's "persika", in Portuguese "pêssego". All these words mean "Persian", the supposed origin (actually eastern China). 

Spanish goes off-piste with "melocotón", but anyway there are lots of words once you start looking. E.g. in Catalan:

El préssec, bresquill, auberge a o melicotó és el fruit del presseguer (Prunus persica).


More successfully catching the gleam on the sticky leaves of this Cistus species.

Maritime Pine (Pinus pinaster).

Pinaster: "like a pine", i.e.  pine in the original sense of Stone Pine.

Maritime: I suppose because its native heartland is Europe's southern Atlantic seaboard of Portugal, NW Spain and SW France. However, it is not narrowly or especially a coastal species.

Maritime Pine, a bit later.

The big cones open on the tree, cracking open in hot weather. It's hard to find an unopened one on the ground. 

According to the old tree book I found, it has the longest needles of any two-needled pine.

A pretty grass on this arid granite land.


Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Autumn cleardown

Brewer Spruce (Picea breweriana). Victoria Park, Frome, 11 September 2023.

Preparing for a road trip. Every bit of space in the van is important, so I've been emptying the accumulated cultural artefacts into self storage or giving them back to their owners. Yesterday I finished Karen Joy Fowler's 2013 novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a sort of dark family comedy that keeps disclaiming what it's doing, as it quietly unwraps the delusions and horrors of animal research. That was borrowed from Laura, and I've given it back, but I'll drag the internet for a quotation or two. The novel has touched a nerve, evidently; there are more than 30,000 Amazon reviews.

The first few chapters:

Language does this to our memories – simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture...


There's science and there's science, is all I'm saying. When humans are the subjects, it's mostly not science....

I didn't want a world in which I had to choose between blind human babies and tortured monkey ones. To be frank, that's the sort of choice I expect science to protect me from, not give me....

The only book left in my bag right now is a miniscule Troilus and Cressida, but I reckon I've already said all I can about that.

I've reduced the CDs in the van from twenty to five; when we travel we don't listen to anything except the landscape. So it doesn't really matter that what's left is a strange unbalanced mix; Mildred Bailey, Mattias Eklundh, Duffy, The Jam, and Liszt's Années de Pélerinage (the Swiss part). (Last time I listened to "Vallée d'Obermann" I felt suddenly sure that this piano piece was the key inspiration for Wagner's Tristan and Isolde music.) It seems strange not to be carting around armfuls of Haydn, my current delight. 

It would be nice to say more about that. Alas, my classical music thoughts amount to little more than "Oh my God I bloody love Haydn..." (or Chavez, or Berio, or Andrea Torrodi, or whatever is currently playing). Maybe that's the place of music in my cultural life, an art I can truly surrender to without being the least bit preoccupied with what I'm going to say about it.

Well, if I need any Haydn there's always YouTube. But we won't be using our phones very much either, the charging is a bore and reception is fitful. The latter, at least, won't get in the way of finally finishing Claude Simon's The Flanders Road and probably immediately starting over. My Kindle download dates from last year's trip, when I found myself eating quiche outside the house of this amazing author that I knew nothing about.

[Basically, you stop at the Aire du Château de Salses on the A9, take a short walk across fields to the stupendous Fort de Salses, a massively fortified stronghold of Ferdinand and Isabella, then keep on walking into the village. Claude Simon's house is in the village square. (In Salses he was principally a winegrower, only secondarily a Nobel prize-winning author.)]

When I'd written this much, I decided I'd gone too austere. I should take at least one paper book for when I didn't want to use the phone, I thought. So I revisited self storage and picked up an early Zola novel (Fatal Intimacy (Madeline Férat)). It was published in 1869; weird to think that's only twenty years after Cousin Pons.

In the first chapter (in Alec Brown's translation), it says "Skirting under the hill where those enormous castanea Robinsonia chestnuts rear their domes, they reached Aulnay". I know this has nothing to do with the story, but I'm instantly intrigued, having totally failed to find any reference to such a tree. *

For good measure, and because it was so slim, I also grabbed Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society (1971). I hardly ever read that kind of book of ideas -- it's something to do with distrust; as soon as someone delivers their opinions in their own voice, I worry that it's a performance, or not what they really think. Consequently, such ideas as I receive from books usually come from novels or poetry. But I'm hoping that, in the bubble of travelling, I might be more receptive. 

[I read a couple of pages of Deschooling Society, enough to see that this was a most inapposite rant. Illich's book was the fruit of vast experience and its ideas emerged communally from much debate with colleagues. All the same, I left my copy in Spain and who knows when or if I'll get back to it.]

This will be the last blog post before we set off. Probably there won't be much for the next month or two.


* I think I've worked it out now. Alec Brown invented the quasi botanical Latin; he didn't know what else to make of "châtaigniers de Robinson" in Zola's original text. Consulting the map of SW Paris made it clear. The lovers are walking from Fontenay (Fontenay-aux-Roses) to Aulnay by a direct route avoiding Sceaux. To their right is the area still known as Robinson. It was named for a well-known guinguette (cabaret) called Le Grand Robinson, opened in 1848. Unlike most guinguettes this one didn't have a waterfront location; instead, its iconic feature was the interconnected "tree-houses" set among large chestnut trees. The guinguette's  name alludes to the tree-house in The Swiss Family Robinson (1812 novel by Johann David Wyss), whose own title is an allusion to Robinson Crusoe. Anyway, those are the chestnut trees that Zola is talking about.

Brewer Spruce (Picea breweriana). Victoria Park, Frome, 11 September 2023.

In its native Klamath Mountains (N. California,  Oregon), the striking growth form of Brewer Spruce is an adaptation to heavy snowfall.

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