The French are very attached to their rural past. Many French people born in the countryside move to Paris to work, but move back when they retire, or keep a second home in the country.
Large numbers of Aveyronnais, for example, moved to Paris to find employment and became one of the most visible and cohesive groups of provincial emigrants. Many of them opened bistros specialising in Aveyronnais dishes. They remain loyal to their home département and to the traditions of their youth.
End of an era
This attachment to provincial life has given rise to a genre of novel writing in France called ‘romans de terroir’ or country novels. Many of these novels describe the extensive changes that took place in rural life during the late 19th and 20th centuries, often through the prism of family history.
The agricultural revolution was slow in coming to France but, when it did, a way of life that had lasted for more than a thousand years was swept away in the space of about fifty. Mechanisation spelt depopulation: our own village numbered 4,000 inhabitants in 1900; now it has 1,500. The spread of universal education, paid holidays and better job prospects in the towns also made young people turn their backs on the land.
The turmoil of World War I had a profound effect on the countryside. The flower of French youth was mown down, as the monuments des morts in even the tiniest villages testify. Much farmland reverted to nature, lacking enough hands to cultivate it. Defeat and occupation by the Germans in World War II also left deep scars, which are still evident, even today.
The Brive school
Romans de terroir often chronicle these events. They are frequently set in southwest France. The best-known exponents of this type of fiction are probably Claude Michelet and Christian Signol, but there are many others. There is even a ‘Brive school’ of writing, established in the 1980s around the Brive-la-Gaillarde Book Fair. Claude Michelet, who lives near Brive, is one of its most prominent members.
Here are some of my favourites: there are many more. Some of Michelet’s novels are translated into English and are available on Amazon (I indicate these below). I am surprised to see that none of Signol’s, Anglade’s or Crozes’ novels appears to be available in English. Maybe there isn’t a market for this type of novel, or maybe it’s just too difficult to translate some of the nuances.
Des Grives aux Loups, Claude Michelet
Part I – Des Grives aux Loups (Firelight and Woodsmoke); Part II – Les Palombes ne passeront plus (Applewood); Part III – L’appel des engoulevents (Scent of Herbs); Part IV – La Terre des Vialhe (not translated?)
This is a fantastic series by the doyen of le roman de terroir. This has to be Michelet’s best work: I find some of his others disappointing by comparison. It chronicles the history of the Vialhe family in the Corrèze from 1900 up till about 1988. It’s all there: the agricultural revolution, rural depopulation, World War I, World War II, the desertion of the village by the younger generation and a panoply of realistic and well-drawn characters.
Michelet originally intended to finish the saga at the end of the third book, but under pressure from his public and publishers, he wrote a fourth. In my opinion, that was a mistake: it’s not bad, but it lacks focus.
Also worth reading by Michelet:
- Les promesses du ciel et de la terre: three-volume saga of two French couples who move to South America in the mid-19th century and eventually get involved in the construction of the Panama Canal. Not strictly a roman de terroir, but they all suffer in different ways from homesickness for France.
La Rivière Espérance, Christian Signol
Part I – La Rivière Espérance; Part II – Le Royaume du Fleuve; Part III – L’âme de la Vallée
Signol is a prolific exponent of this type of novel. He has written a number of family sagas. Latterly, his novels have focused on a single character from cradle to grave. I find them less satisfying.
This three-volume saga deals with a family of bâteliers, or barge-owners, who plied the River Dordogne in flat-bottomed boats. They brought wood, coal and cheeses from the upper reaches of the river and brought back wine, fish and salt from Bordeaux. It was hard, dangerous work, requiring a thorough knowledge of the river and its currents and hazards. The coming of the railway brought about the end of this ancient line of work.
Also worth reading by Signol:
- Marie des Brebis: true story of a woman abandoned at birth in 1901 and brought up by a shepherd, who lived a simple life on the Causse de Gramat (Lot).
- Ce que vivent les homes: two-volume saga of the Barthélémy family in the uplands of the Corrèze, 1900-2000.
La Soupe à la Fourchette, Jean Anglade
Delightful, bittersweet tale of a little girl, Zenaïde Pujol, who is evacuated from Marseille during World War II and ends up in the Cantal with a farming family, three generations of which live in the same household. She might as well have come from Mars. To start with, she and the family have trouble understanding each other, the Auvergnat customs and lifestyle are totally different from Marseille city-life and the young son of the family, Adrien, is jealous because his mother is kind to Zenaïde. Eventually, the two children become inseparable, but Zenaïde has to return to Marseille when the war ends. The book ends mysteriously and sadly.
La Gantière, Daniel Crozes
Daniel Crozes writes with passion about his native Aveyron. In addition to novels, he has written several guidebooks and books about ancient crafts.
Much of the action in this novel takes place in Millau, but I still count it as a roman de terroir because the heroine never renounces her attachment to her native countryside. At the beginning, farmer’s daughter Alice works in the cheese caves at Roquefort (click here for a post I wrote about the cheese). She gets the sack for joining a strike and ends up in Millau working for one of the glove factories.
Millau once had a thriving glove making industry, using sheepskins from the nearby causses. Alice eventually sets up on her own account and the novel recounts the ups and downs of the glove making industry through the 20th century.
See also my other posts about French novels:
French novels: ten of the best numbers 1-5
French novels: ten of the best numbers 6-10
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Thank you again, Vanessa, will explore these works, as this is very close to home for me (not the least reason of which is that I worked for a thinktank at UC Berkeley, properly if rather flippantly named “BRIE” – Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, an institute dealing very strongly in Western European political economics; one of the doyennes of the group chronicled the very postwar French agricultural exodus you raise, in his book “Governments, Markets and Growth.”
I have long since abandoned any semblance of love for academic treatises, particularly those dealing in political economics; but have the lingering and almost corporeal taste of what this means for a way of life I long for, if only romantically so. Many thanks again.
I would affirm, from your two articles on French novels and novelists, my love for Pagnol, Flaubert, and would add my personal favorite, Stendhal. The others are unknown to me, and again, I am looking forward to the digging.
Thanks, Paul, for following my ramblings and for taking the trouble to comment. I was interested to read about BRIE (!) and your colleague’s researches into postwar rural depopulation. There is certainly much nostalgia in France for the old way of life; sometimes the spectacles are a little too rose-tinted, but some of the novels I describe provide a fascinating insight into how it was. You should be able to find most of them on Amazon, even though they are not translated, as well as the novels in my other articles.
Yes, Stendhal. I haven’t got to grips with him yet. Le Rouge et le Noir is on my list, but I have to get through Balzac’s Le Lys dans la Vallée first (epistolary novel, no chapters, few paragraph breaks and full of classical and historical allusions but, thankfully, well annotated by the editor).
I really do appreciate your blog, Vanessa. I have Le Vin Bourru on my cart, to get to once the mountains stacked bedside are accomplished. My work for BRIE was as a lowly grad student fact checker, and academia is a world I long left behind – still, the story told in Dr. Zysman’s book, of an entire way of life ending, cannot be more bleak, to me – the benefits of modernity notwithstanding. <>. Whether by the rose glass of specs or a grand swallow of pinot, sometimes I guess I have to admit that I do find solace in a dreamt-of world and time, filtered through the prism of someone like Stendhal, Flaubert, Pagnol…..
Looking forward to more; happy winter!
Thanks, Paul, for your kind words about my blog. I write about what interests me, which I hope is also of interest to others. Like you, I take refuge from modernity in literature, which is why I find so fascinating these tales of French rural life in a not-so-distant past.
Yes it is amazing how some of us Expats get sucked into our adopted country’s culture. I have been reading and discovering some great books about Spain written by some very knowledgable expats and others, some of which I have reviewed for a local magazine.
Hi, Rob. For me, one of the best things about moving to France (apart from the food and wine, of course) was the opportunity to improve my French and immerse myself in the culture and literature. It’s opened up whole new vistas.