It is confirmed: Jean-Marie Le Clézio will never write his memoirs which, like those of Chateaubriand, would erect his statue for eternity, nor even a chronologically organized book of memories: “memories are boring” (Cb , 13). The author of “Breton Song” and “The Child and the War” knows too well how “memory is a fragile fabric, easily broken, contaminated by stories, photos, films” (E&G, 125). This is the meaning of Georges Perec’s “I have no childhood memories” (1993, 13). To the canonical forms of autobiography, Jean-Marie Le Clézio prefers tales, “stories that mix life, imagination, legends” (Le Figaro, April 2, 2020, p. 21) and he proceeds rather, as Montaigne, “in leaps and frolics” (1962, 973), mixes the present, different strata of the past, even feels close to the mystery of primordial time in certain places “where the centuries touch” (Cb, 79): the moor at Penmarch’ or the site of standing stones. The refusal of chronology is so imperious that the two stories, forming a diptych, compose a journey back in time: vacations in the Bigouden country of the pre-adolescent to the founding sensations and the awakening of the consciousness of the very little boy, the infant who does not yet have the words to name what he saw, in Nice and Roquebillière, during the War. Light and carefree summers in Brittany, the whole family reunited, in the gray prison of the Côte d'Azur: another paradox. How to talk about the child that we were without betraying them? questioned J.M.G. Le Clézio during the program La Grande Librairie. By rediscovering, as he does in these two tales, sensations, images, impressions, faces, shards of happy – or painful – times, a whole affective and sensory memory, fragmentary but preserved, that writing revives, extends and transmits: “Even if I regret what has disappeared, there remains the impression of intoxication and total happiness to have known these landscapes, this farmer's wife, this fisherman who painted pictures on Sundays. It was all so amazing that I want it to continue and the only way for me is to write it down. (Le Figaro, ibid.)
“Breton Song” thus brings the village of Sainte-Marine at the mouth of the Odet back to life in the 1950s, despite the “veneer of provincial modernity” (Cb, 16) that time has deposited there: a mixed habitat already, where granite houses rub shoulders with the opulent villas of the Parisians, furniture “from the depths of time” and traditional crockery in the Naour farm, the rituals - the quest for milk in enamelled jugs, the fetching of water at the communal pump, entrusted to the children –, the fever of the harvest and the threshing, the party at the Château du Cosquer given by an enigmatic marquise whose pale shadow can only be seen behind a window, between Sylvie and Le Grand Meaulnes. The text restores the colours, the “gold” of the gorse, “the pink and red lakes of the heather” (Cb, 78), the scents of kelp, of the sea, of the moor, and “the acrid smell of the wheat dust” (Cb, 53) at harvest time, the taste of pancakes, lukewarm cider, and the sound of bagpipes, this music which, like Proust’s “la petite madeleine” (1987, 44-47) “carries the eternity of this place”, has the magic power to bring back “everything that has disappeared” (Cb, 55). The Breton “kids” frequented by little Jean-Marie and his brother introduced them to angling in the river, walking on the foreshore, cooking shellfish on the beach; they take them on bicycle rides on the sunken lanes while gently making fun, in Breton – for them the language of the holidays – of speaking “ar parizianer”.
This book is a hymn to the Breton language, whose author introduces many terms concerning the landscape, everyday objects, food. This language, whose gift Father Maunoir miraculously received to better evangelize the countryside, if we are to believe the legend illustrated by the fresco by Yan'Dargent in the cathedral of Quimper, J.M.G. Le Clézio regrets that he no longer hears its particular music: “the diphthongs, the velar vowels, the hissing consonants” (Cb, 28), because if part of the younger generation, encouraged by some well-known singers – Alan Sivell, Dan ar Braz, L’Héritage des Celtes – went back to Breton, it is no longer quite the same language. And the author regrets that the Bretons were unable to resist the diktats of the republican school and a centralized power which led to the erasure of regional languages. Not that he is nostalgic for the Brittany of yesteryear, nostalgia not being for him “an honorable feeling”, because “the present is the only truth” (Cb, 86). The text weighs with a lucidity not devoid of humor the ravages and the benefits of progress for this region: on the one hand, the shrinking of space and the disfigurement of the landscape by the constructions of the Bridge over the Odet, roads and roundabouts, shopping areas, the sprawl of the coast, the eradication of “identity markers of cultural minorities” (Cb, 27)”; on the other hand, the reduction of poverty, hygiene, prettier houses, the preservation of prehistoric sites and the signs of hope for the future represented by the development of organic farming, the restoration of paths according to “the school of the embankments” (“Skol ar kleuziou”, Cb, 89), and especially the human richness of this region embodied by Hervé and his wife Marie-Ange, the guardians of “the magic of the place” (Cb, 100), to whom the author dedicates his “Breton song”.
The traces of the Second World War: bunkers in the moor, on the beaches at the Pointe de la Torche, the reminder of the excesses of Breton nationalism which had led Olier Mordrel, Roparz Hemon to ally themselves with Hitler, link this tale to the next devoted to early childhood in times of war. If for the story of the very first years of his life in “The Child and the War”, the factual memories prove to be uncertain, the sensations of violence, hunger, confinement are intimately inscribed in the body of the author: violence of the explosion of a bomb, next to his grandmother's building, which knocks the child down on the bathroom floor, hunger not occasional, but plural (“for food, for love, heat”, E&G, 126) and throbbing, like “a void in the center of the body” (E&G, 128), “faceless, nameless, storyless fear” (E&G, 107), loneliness and seclusion . Remanent, these sensations inspire the writer with a lively empathy towards the children who, “in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon” (E&G, 110) see their innocence and their joie de vivre destroyed by the wars of adults. Recalling the outbursts of fury he was seized with, J.M.G. Le Clézio deplores this inevitable trauma of children “born in the middle of a war” and wonders: “How will they recover from it?” (E&G, 110). As for the experience of confinement, he declares, during his interview with Emmanuel Kerad, that it prepared him to live the one that was imposed on him seventy-five years later because of coronavirus! (La librairie francophone, June 20, 2020).
However, Manichaeism is no longer appropriate in this tale. The author credits these dark years with the sumptuous light of summer, the games in Vésubie, in Roquebillière – “I believe that I experienced summer and death at the same time” (E&G, 132) – and, in the absence of the father who remained in Africa, the cocoon both “disturbing and soft” of the mundus muliebris: the softness of the maternal breast, the love and fantasy of the storytelling grandmother who invents the stories of the Monami monkey to reassure his grandsons. And then, as in Brittany, there are fine examples of humanity: the daily heroism of women in times of war, still little known, the courage and solidarity of the villagers in the hinterland of Nice who, despite the risk of reprisals, welcomed these “fugitives” of British nationality, helped Jewish families to flee the cruelty of the Nazis, just as their descendants, today, rescue illegal migrants from Italy on the banks of the Roya river (Baudoin, 2018). Separating these two times from the writer’s youth, there is the ardent parenthesis in Africa, like an access to “civilization” after the barbarism of the war, and of which the Breton holidays prolong the magic.
The familiar reader of the work finds in this opus pages which reveal or confirm the autobiographical source of certain great scenes of the novels and short stories: the friendship with an octopus as in “He who had never seen the sea”, the race of beetles that fiction transforms into a massacre in Terra Amata, Maude's “herd” of cats and the terrible mask of Shylok, already present in Ritournelle de la faim. And above all, the dramatic death of Mario, the young Resistance fighter, compared to that of child soldiers in Africa, or the murder of the Jews in Berthemont: founding, haunting scenes, told in Étoile errante and unforgettable for the author, because they are inscribed “in the memory of the country, the memory of the grass and of the bories, of the birds which the shooting frightened […]” (E&G, 139). In these two inseparable tales, because they condense all the complexity of life, bringing together dark hours and moments of grace and happiness, Jean-Marie Le Clézio wished “to rediscover the time both short and long of childhood” (Cb , 29) not to regret it, but so that it illuminates the present, so that it continues to vibrate in him and “resounds” in the sensibility of the reader.
Translated by Adina Balint
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