A bas les chefs!
- The Child by Jules Vallès, translated by Douglas Parmée
NYRB, 343 pp, £8.99, August 2005, ISBN 1 59017 117 9
Of all the pre-textual bits and pieces lying like speed humps in the road of an impatient reader – epigraphs, ‘author’s notes’, prefaces, expansive acknowledgments to a full address-book of expert peers, talented editors and fond next of kin – the one we are least likely to slow down for is the book’s dedication, a kind thought directed offstage that has nothing to tell us about the contents ahead. This is not the case with Jules Vallès. The dedications to the three books by which he’s mainly known are not meant kindly, are hard to avoid because they are printed directly underneath the title, convey the gist of what is coming and set the tone for the language it comes in. They are addressed not to some admired individual – Vallès did not go in for admiration – but to all the many in 19th-century French society who might have had the same bad experiences as he had. Into his dedications can be read the resentment he felt towards the ideological apparatus that he saw as working to suppress liberty in France while purporting to secure it: the family, schools, the army, bourgeois culture, society as a whole, in fact, and the political arrangements, whether monarchical or republican, that sustained it.
The Child is the first volume of what was to stretch into a largely autobiographical trilogy, a memoir, give or take occasional escalations into fiction and enjoyable slides into farce, that is also a memorable work of literature. The dedication to The Child reads: ‘To all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents.’ So even before we have arrived at page one we as good as know that the child whose story this is had the kind of start in life that no child ought to have, but which cohorts of French boys no doubt did have.
The bad times did not end soon, or ever, for this writer, once he’d made his escape from being beaten at home and bullied in school after school. The second volume in the trilogy, Le Bachelier (‘The Graduate’ in English, although Vallès himself never got beyond the baccalauréat, which he passed at the third or fourth attempt), is dedicated ‘To those who, fed on Greek and Latin, died of hunger.’ Which sarcastic link between the glories of Greece and Rome and the starvation that followed on the punitive years spent having them forced on you had already been brought out in The Child, where the schoolteacher father, who for years earns practically nothing as he slowly makes his way up in the professoriat, is cruelly set on turning his son into a teacher after him. But this bloody-minded boy is set on throwing in his lot with the proletariat; he sees social climbing as a betrayal of those for whom the prospect of social mobility is a mirage. ‘I want to be a worker,’ he tells his father, and why not a charcutier, just the sort of mucky trade to upset a parent desperately aspiring to the clean hands of the professional classes.
The dedication to the last of Vallès’s three volumes again strikes a bitter note but a moving note too, commemorating as it does real deaths this time, brought about not by immiseration but by the savagery with which those who exercised power in France had set about punishing the efforts of the powerless to remove it from them. L’Insurgé is dedicated ‘To the dead of 1871. To all those victims of social injustice who took up arms against a crooked world and formed the great federation of sorrow beneath the flag of the Commune.’ This third volume in fact serves as a memorial to the ultimate and most terrible of the defeats Vallès had met with in his life, when the Paris Commune collapsed in the slaughter and then the sustained persecution of the dispersed insurgents, one of whose most impassioned leaders and publicists he had been.
The trilogy was published between 1879 and 1886, the final volume appearing in the year following Vallès’s death. It could not to start with be published with his real name on it. The year before it came out as a book, The Child had been serialised in a French paper, as the first instalment of a work purporting to be the life story of Jacques Vingtras, who had his initials in common with the actual author, along with a closely similar, if less than identical childhood and adolescence behind him. (Modern French editions preserve the impersonation by subtitling the volumes ‘Jacques Vingtras I’ etc; this new, very welcome English translation has for some reason dropped the subtitle.) The serialisation was signed with the name La Chaussade, but by the time it appeared in book form the following year, the author had become Jean La Rue. Both pseudonyms – Chaussade is close to chaussée, the French word for ‘a roadway’ – were the semi-disguise of a man who had long opposed, to its advantage, the loud, promiscuous life of the streets to the hushed and careful life lived indoors by the propertied classes.