Wednesday, January 16, 2013

France, 1949

                                                                                                                             as night
                                                                               follows day
                                                                                                                                Pierre Moinot

Two men are found murdered in a little village in the Poitou region of western France, a baffling, inscrutable killing that infects the lives of its inhabitants who are suddenly forced to regard each other with suspicion and fear.  Set in the wake of WWII, in a region sacked and settled by marauding tribes since time immemorial (by the Celts, the Romans, the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Franks, the Vikings, and most recently the Nazis), this short novel is a powerful, often exceptionally tender depiction of the weight and trauma of the past.  Shifting between the perspectives of seven different villagers, male and female, young and old, the story that unfolds is distinguished by the author’s intimate knowledge of and abiding affection for these humble, rough-hewn folk—farmers, shepherds, and guildsmen—who, for all of their fatalism and poverty, are richly illuminated by their propensity, their capacity, to love.

In the opening section of the story an elderly woman named Maria, perhaps my favorite of the many characters, reflects upon a former lover of hers in a language and phrasing typical of Moinot: “Maybe the effect that he had on me, the stone, there, in my chest, maybe that was jealousy after all. But never a word. I would have gotten nothing but cajoling from him; he did not know how to hide what he tried to win forgiveness for.  And maybe I never, never forgave anything…” Moinot’s description of these people is never condescending, but he invests them with an intelligence—however unschooled—that is often blithesome, poetic: “Early in the morning, closing the little valley gate, Lortier gradually concealed behind one of the thick doors the image of his happiness: over there, in front of the house, Mo was folding a sheet with one of her girls and both of them were laughing because one of them had pulled too hard at the wrong time on the folded cloth, and the other had let it go; behind them a very old rosebush was studded with white blossoms, and the structure of the arbor bending into the flower and vegetable gardens marked off a verdant foreground.  At the center, the brilliant whiteness of the sheet contrasted dramatically with the golden stone of the old walls and seemed to reflect the sun into Mo’s gray hair so she appeared blond.  This timeless scene erased forever the wars, the murders, and the cruelties that the fortified house had withstood. Lortier gently closed the door again behind him, as though to protect it.”

While particularly adept at tracking the emotional lives of his characters, their fears and joys and failings, Moinot devotes a significant part of his power to describing the natural world around them—the plants and animals, the seasons and cycles to which these villagers are bound, quickening this otherwise dark and fallow tale with a lyricism that is often  sublime. The countryside of small farms and shallow valleys is alive with blackbirds and cuckoos, with calyxes and violets, with foxes and weasels and hares.  The characters themselves have a special affection for such georgic details, noting with pleasure, as they sit alone or cross a field or wood: “the vibrant trembling of the dragonflies”, “the little fox and badger trail”, “ “the perfect sphere of a leek flower gone to seed”. 

Described by Booklist as a “masterful literary thriller”, As Night Follows Day is nothing of the sort, that is, unless the thrill you seek is the thrill of language itself, in which case you will speak with wonder about this adroit and compassionate tale. 

Pierre Moinot, born in 1920, is the author of over a dozen novels as well as works for  the stage and television.  Friend of André Malraux and Albert Camus, Moinot was elected in 1982 to the prestigious Académie Française.  As Night Follows Day (Le matin vient et aussi la nuit, Editions Gallimard,1999) is published in New York by Welcome Rain Publishers.

Peter Adam Nash

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