- Nature Stories by Jules Renard, translated by Douglas Parmée
NYRB, 165 pp, £8.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 59017 364 0
I own two photographs of Jules Renard (1864-1910). There is no indication of when either of them was taken, and at times I have wondered if they are really of the same man. In the first, from a series called ‘Nos contemporains chez eux’, he sits at a cluttered desk; behind him is a scruffy bookcase and a calendar showing the first of some month; on the floral wallpaper hangs a looped speaking tube, perhaps for ordering his mid-morning coffee. He looks wary and fierce, badger-like, as if he has just been dragged from his sett, stuffed into a suit that scarcely fits and ordered to face the camera: the result is one of the most ill-at-ease author photos I have ever seen. The second shows a leaner, older figure, perhaps thinned by final illness, identifiably the same person from the hairline, big right ear and droop of the moustache; otherwise he seems a different man, a different writer. Fingers elegantly interlaced, he poses in a tapestried chair of the studio photographer Pierre Petit (of place Cadet, Paris); he is in morning dress, with a huge knot to his tie and the visible ribbon of the Légion d’honneur (which dates the portrait to post-1900). He looks worldly, a confident man of achievement: perhaps a city mayor whose recent improvements to sewerage and street lighting have been much applauded by the bourgeoisie.
In fact, Renard was a mayor as well as a writer, though only of the tiny village of Chitry-les-Mines in the Nièvre, a remote part of northern Burgundy. Today, his statue stands a few metres from the mairie occupied before him by his father, a peasant turned builder, who was locally famous as the first suicide and the first public non-believer to be buried in the local cemetery. His son Jules, elected mayor in 1904, enjoyed his civic duties, handing out school prizes and marrying the locals. He also noted in his Journal the bifurcated feelings that came with being a writer-administrator: ‘As a mayor, I am responsible for the upkeep of rural roads. As a poet, I would prefer them to be neglected.’ However, there had been a much greater bifurcation to resolve earlier in his life: that between the Nièvre and Paris. Renard had the soul of a countryman, the ambition of a metropolitan, and the neediness of almost every writer. Talent, hard work and his wife’s dowry helped unify him as an individual, while her money allowed him to become the largest shareholder in the cultural monthly Mercure de France when it was founded in 1889.
His most famous work remains Poil de carotte (1894), the recognisably autobiographical tale of a red-headed boy growing up in a village much like his own. Its continuing power comes from its rejection of fiction’s sentimental myths about childhood: Renard wrote elsewhere that a child is a ‘small, necessary animal, less human than a cat’. Poil de carotte was much disliked in Chitry, not least for its harsh portrayal of the author’s mother. Even Renard’s father, to whom he felt closer, employed that parental withholdingness which infuriates writers even as they understand it: François Renard would notice copies of the books on his son’s desk but never ask to borrow one. Poil de carotte did not at first bring Renard the success he craved. This came only when he reworked the novel as a play, in 1900; for the Parisian stage then, read Hollywood now. Fame arrived, and the bridge between the two parts of Renard’s life was finally complete. You could say that in those two photographs, the first shows the countryman novelist, the second the citified playwright.
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[*] The excellent, much abbreviated version by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget (1964) was reissued in 2008 by Tin House Books, in Oregon.