To the Manure Born

David Coward

Jean-Marie Déguignet was born near Quimper, in Brittany, in 1834, the fifth of ten children born to an illiterate tenant farmer. A succession of bad harvests drove the family off the land into the town and at six, Jean-Marie was sent out to beg. He survived fevers, the potato famine of 1845, and a near-fatal accident which happened when he was ‘no taller than a riding-boot’. A kick from a horse left him with a dent in his left temple, which he believed made him ‘different’. To it he attributed his quick intelligence and a spirit of independence which was to prove a mixed blessing. He asked questions and took nothing on trust, but his siblings were happier, he thought, for they existed on a ‘physical and animal’ level and wanted nothing better than to live in luxury and die in a state of grace, ‘so as to go upstairs and keep on living even more luxuriously’. Jean-Marie spent 15 years as a soldier, 14 as a farmer, six as a shopkeeper and finally 16 as a pauper. He died alone in 1905 in a Quimper slum.

Excerpts of Déguignet’s memoirs dealing with his military experiences were published in 1904 and sank without trace. Then, in 1980, 43 school exercise books, laboriously written in self-taught French and studded with Breton words and turns of phrase, were produced miraculously intact by Déguignet’s descendants in response to a newspaper appeal by a local history project. From them, local historians derived a continuous narrative, and the resulting Mémoires were brought out in 1998 by a small Breton publisher. The book proved popular with local readers, and when it was reissued in 2000 it became a national bestseller. Subsequently, other titles have appeared under Déguignet’s name: a book of Breton folk-tales, a selection of his angry poetry (Rimes et révoltes) and the uncut autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (2001). Linda Asher has now given Déguignet a splendidly faithful English voice: pugnacious, tetchy and opinionated.

From the start Déguignet punctures the romantic myth of Brittany, land of dolmens, Arthurian legend and fairies. He regularly went hungry, never had a friend, never enjoyed the affection of his family. Poverty made neighbours unkind. Beggars stole from each other, wreckers lured ships onto the rocks, and teams roamed the countryside stealing horses. Entire families of landless, workless Breton peasants were wiped out by diseases caused by malnutrition and squalid living conditions, which proved resistant to potions, prayers and holy water. Predatory village matrons got up to sexual antics which Déguignet calls ‘natural’ and which the local curé was prepared to tolerate more readily than the moral and scientific teachings of secular educators.

Brittany was the most Catholic, feudal and superstitious province of France. Many had actually seen the devil and they blamed him for every calamity, from pestilence and bad harvests to curdled milk. But by his early teens, Déguignet knew that the real devil wore a cassock. He came to believe that most Breton legends were the invention of priests, who used them to keep people in line. They taught boys and girls catechism Latin, but nothing else. Déguignet learned to read Breton from a seamstress, but the only books available in that language were dull works of pedagogy and lives of saints, which were also part of the clerical conspiracy. Everyone he knew spoke only Breton and they received little news from the outside world.

The first words of French he heard were spoken by Napoleonic veterans who told him the emperor had been defeated because God had punished him for repudiating his lawful wife. By his teens, he realised that the Breton language was as much of a prison as the land of his fathers. He leapt at the chance to work as cowman at a model farm, set up to promote progressive agricultural methods. Lush fields and plump herds failed to impress the peasants, who shrugged and said no good would come of interfering with nature; but from his employer and the students who passed through he picked up some French and taught himself to write it with the help of an elementary school alphabet book. In 1853, aged 19 and not five feet tall, he took the only way out of Brittany open to him: he enlisted.

For seven years he wore his uniform proudly and continued to improve his French. In 1855, his regiment was sent to the Crimea and he took part in the siege of Sebastopol. His memories of being under fire are detailed and vivid, as is his recollection of the effects of dysentery, typhus and plague on the victors. It was while serving as a volunteer medical orderly that his education was taken in hand by a bored convalescent corporal. From him, he acquired the elements of history and science and saw that metaphysics was what he had always suspected: so much ‘nonsense made up by swindlers to take advantage of the idiots’.

This view was amply confirmed in 1856, when he was given leave to visit Jerusalem. It was a ‘den of thieves’, and he was appalled by the ‘shameful commerce’ practised by all the faiths which had set up shop there. The Greek Orthodox monks, Christians and Armenians he saw were not holy men but ‘saloon-keepers’, who lived by fleecing gullible pilgrims. What he witnessed was final proof that religion was another name for superstition; with barely contained fury he denounces ‘the great bandit of Nazareth’, the ‘stupid psalms’ and the ‘nonsense and absurdities’ of the Bible.

After the Crimea (which had given him a low opinion of France’s generals), he saw service in Italy as part of the French force sent to support Austria’s opposition to Garibaldi’s struggle for independence. There he acquired an equally dim view of the imperial houses of France and Austria, which were intent on carving up the peninsula for their own purposes. In 1861, having served his time, Sergeant Déguignet returned to Brittany but, after failing to find work, re-enlisted for seven more years. He was sent to pacify the Kabyle tribes of Algeria, which he decided were as backward and downtrodden as his fellow Bretons. He was also part of Napoleon III’s ill-considered adventure in Mexico, where he sided with the liberals and republicans, found new reasons for hating Jesuits and learned to mistrust the newspapers he could now read.

When he left the army for a second time in 1868, he had achieved his main objectives: he had seen the world and educated himself. He could read, write and count the money he had saved out of his army pay. He spoke French and had picked up a nodding acquaintance with Italian and Spanish. He was a devout atheist and an enemy of all established religions. He despised Napoleon III and loathed both the imperialism of old Europe and the new capitalism of the United States, which he predicted would soon subdue Mexico with electricity and steam power. In short, he reckoned himself to be a materialist philosopher and, in politics, an anarcho-republican: a fierce defender of popular freedoms against the clerical, aristocratic and monarchical forces of reaction.

Now 34, he decided – for no good reason beyond an atavistic homing-instinct – to return to Brittany, the least suitable destination in the whole of France for a man of his opinions. He calculated that the army pay he had saved would finance seven years of self-sufficient country living on a smallholding. Instead, he was propelled into marriage and found himself – a republican, free-thinking atheist – forced into the role of cap-doffing tenant of a grandly feudal marquis. He surrendered meekly and devoted every waking hour to supporting his pretty wife, her rapacious sisters and his gruesome mother-in-law, who thoroughly disapproved of him, as did assorted curés, the marquis and most of the ‘obtuse’ Bretons he encountered. It was a poor return for two months of married bliss, which he recalled as the happiest in his life.

From time to time news percolated through from outside. He took grim satisfaction from France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which he blamed on the incompetence of the chiefs of staff. He deplored the bribery and ballot-rigging which made a mockery of the new ‘democratic’ elections, and stood firm, but alone, against the forces of reaction. He also had misfortune to deal with. Two of his six children died, his house burned down, he was accidentally run over by his own cart and nearly died. None of this stopped him becoming a serial trouble-maker in the eyes of his landlord, who in 1882 refused to renew the lease on his farm and turned him out, ‘48 years old and half-crippled’.

While he was at death’s door, his wife had taken a lease on a tavern at Quimper, where she proceeded to drink herself to death. Ruined once more, he obtained a licence to sell tobacco in the most reactionary, clergy-ridden commune in Finistère, where he was preceded by his reputation: he was now ‘the Protestant, the Freemason, the Red Republican’, a ‘priest-eater’. Using threats and blandishments, the local curé orchestrated a campaign which eventually forced this ‘devil’s henchman’ out. No one would rent him a shop and most villagers believed that buying tobacco from him meant eternal damnation. The priests, abetted by his mother-in-law, also turned his children against him. Alone and unemployable, he retreated to an unheated garret in Quimper. Never a man to waste time which could be put to good use, he began writing the history of his life ‘in utter frankness, with no literary claims, and here and there interpolating my political and religious views, and my moral, social economic and philosophical ideas’.

A first version was sold in 1897 to a Breton antiquarian called Le Braz for 100 francs. To see his name in print would have been the vindication of his embattled life. But its failure to appear as promised was a crushing disappointment, and in 1902 he attempted suicide and spent three months in a mental hospital, suffering from the persecution mania that colours the story of his life, which he now rewrote to pass the time and keep his brain alert. He berates his fellow Bretons (willing architects of their own misery) and their limited language, which kept them ignorant. He rounds on the collectors of local lore who sentimentalised the country: not merely the ‘thief’ Le Braz but George Sand, whom he accused of refusing to accept that manure is as much a natural wonder as a pretty flower.

He regarded the proliferation of ‘No Fishing/Hunting/Trespassing’ signs as a clear indication that the old feudalism of the landed gentry had mutated into the new capitalism, masquerading as rural renewal. He denounced the machines and novel methods which were said to make light work of toil, and suggested that the question ‘Who gets the benefit?’ should be asked before any new machine or system was introduced. When French dock-workers and miners agitated for better pay and conditions in 1901, he wrote that they had the bosses their past docility deserved, but commended them for seeing, at last, that violence, not petitions, was the only way forward. In 1902, he regarded the Republic’s decision to suppress the Catholic Congregations and ban the use of Breton in church services as a victory over the diehard clergy, the old aristocracy and the peasantry, who were such willing slaves.

In the end, Le Braz kept his promise and Déguignet saw his name in the Revue de Paris before he died. But it has taken a century for it to become well known. Regionalist literature has prospered in France since the 1970s, in the wake of the devolutionary policies adopted by successive governments. Déguignet makes an attractive new stop on the heritage trail. His tale is suitably harrowing, his memories of old customs are vivid, and his personality is an engrossing mix of genial pícaro, Rousseauistic self-destruction and Kafkaesque incomprehension. He has been absorbed into the national patrimoine as a forceful witness to the waning of rural life and those country virtues which are still assumed to be synonymous with ‘Frenchness’.

Cultural historians can safely add him to the list of Belle Epoque writers who promoted ‘le réveil des provinces’, a movement intended to defend a semi-mystical appreciation of the values of ‘La France profonde’ against the nation’s rush into the industrial 20th century. It stood for permanence, honest toil, loyalty and neighbourliness, qualities that loomed large in the autobiographical novels of peasant life that dominated the Prix Goncourt before World War One. Taking advantage of the Third Republic’s education programme, a new generation of writers and intellectuals (from which Pagnol, Duras and Georges Pompidou would later emerge) took up their pens. Most wrote to celebrate their region for glory or for money, but a few turned their personal testimonies into political statements. The hero of Eugène Le Roy’s Jacquou le Croquant (1899) makes his feudal overlord pay for the misery he and his kind have inflicted on the peasantry over the centuries. Émile Guillaumin (La Vie d’un simple, 1904) delivered a sharp rebuke to the middle-class novelists who went among horny-handed peasants, notebook in hand, collecting picturesque sayings to put into their predictable but commercially successful tales of grim, earthy, rapacious peasants.

But none was as angry as Déguignet, who denounces the shoddy motives of the political and religious oppressors and the willing collaboration of the oppressed. There is no romance or nostalgia in him, only a deep hatred for a society made by and for the rich at the expense of the poor. Some of his attitudes, like his mistrust of American economic imperialism, make the case for values that conservative France considers once more to be under threat, but it is as an uncompromising champion of the secular, democratic republic that he strikes a resoundingly modern note.