Bosco, Henri. “Malicroix”, translated by Joyce Zonana, NYRB Classics, 2020.
A Life of Solitude
I love reading in the stream of consciousness and am so glad that Henri Bosco’s “Malicroix” (first published in 1946) has finally been translated into English and beautifully so by Joyce Zonana. It is a perfect read for those of us living alone in the age of quarantine. Martial Mégremut is a recluse who lives on the French countryside and shares how he came to a life of solitude. It is his coming-of-age story. Set inthe early nineteenth century, “Malicroix” is widely considered to be Bosco’s (four time Nobel Prize nominee) greatest book. Here he invests a classic coming-of-age story with “a wild, mythic glamour.’
Martial inherits a house on an island in the Rhone, a desolate and untamed region. It was bequeathed to him by his great-uncle who specified in his will that in order to take possession 0f the house, Martial must live there alone for three full months before it becomes his property. The only company he has is a shepherd with whom he bumps heads at first and his dog. The property is surrounded by the Rhone, an active river that seems to always be in threat of flooding and it is bombarded by a very strong battering wind that shakes the house and presents a symphony of sound that is none-too-pleasant. But that is not all—Martial also has to deal with another challenge in order to gain the house as others try to do the same. Under threat, he has to deal with both himself and his inheritance.
Having been a student of philosophy as well as something of a philosopher myself, I felt right at home reading about the relationship between man and nature. The fact that Bosco’s prose is so lyrical is an added bonus. I have always felt that good literature stays with you long after the covers of a book are closed and I find myself going back to reread passages and mull over both Martial’s and my own reactions to what I read here. I cannot stop thinking about “Malicroix”. I am haunted by it. In fact, I feel that Ihave been living with Martial de Mégremut, on the island his great-uncle required he inhabit.
It all begins in mid-November when Martial de Mégremut heads for La Redousse. He has been summoned by Master Dromiols to get what his great-uncle Cornelius de Malicroix has left to him. However, the notary is not at the meeting and Martial waits him for a week on the island threatened by the river with Balandran, his uncle’s servant and the dog Bréquillet.
Dromiols wanted Martial to experience the wildness of the site and the elements because the will stipulates that the young man will inherit it only if he resides there for three months on the island without going out. He expected Martial to flee but is mistaken. Martial is seduced by the Camargue, and will stay and live against the odds .
Martial Mégremut is a young bourgeois orphan who was sheltered by a large family of uncles, aunts and cousins. He grew up hearing terrible stories about his long-absent and mysterious uncle Cornelius who the family had not seen in fifty years and from whom nothing was expected. Nonetheless, Martial developed an adolescent admiration for the uncle who lived alone according to the rules of nature.
Martial begins a life of isolation fighting against silence and its effects on the mind as well as the dangers of nature and the tension of that which is not known. It is this tension that absorbed me so completely.
There are mystical elements to the novel as well as religious symbolism and themes of revenge, the power of spirits, the influence of nature and romantic feelings. Henri Bosco shows the boredom of nature by writing repetitive and long passages in which very little happens. This is a novel of loneliness, and loneliness and silence are states of mind. There are secrets that are hidden in the prose and the mysticism of the story. Bosco investigates the relationship between environment and mentality through modern gothic themes and I found the house to be metaphorical for the feelings of the heart.
Fittingly,much of the action seems to take place at night when people come and go, quietly and quickly— they appear suddenly, and disappear suddenly. Martial often follows them through the nature outside. We wonder if he would have been able to live without Balandran who brings Martial his meals and cleans the house. The house is little more than a hut with just a bed, a desk, a chair, a fireplace and a storeroom. No books, or diversions of any kind exist and all Martial has are his own thoughts and Bréquillet, Balandran’s dog. Bosco gives us a sense of place which is unforgettable, something of a cave-like existence in which decisions are to be made and survival is the answer.
Joyce Zonana’s translation is glorius and slowly paced allowing me to join Martial in his isolation and seclusion (not unlike this isolation from Covid 19). Martial has to overcome his fears just as we must. His strength is tested just as I feel mine is right now. Like him, I find myself reviewing my life trying to understand how I got to where I am (or should have been).
When pursuing post-graduate studies, Joyce Zonana was one of my mentors and I will never forget how she taught me to read as a woman and heightened my enjoyment of feminist texts. I can never read “Frankenstein” or “Jane Eyre” the same way again. Once again, with “Malicroix” she has taught me to read in a new way through her perception of Bosco’s wonderful novel. I can only wonder why it took me so long to read this book.