Clochemerle was originally published in France in 1934 and translated into English by Jocelyn Godefroi. The story takes place in the 1920s in the sleepy Beaujolais town and begins with two inhabitants of the town, the mayor Barthélemy Piéchut and the schoolmaster Ernest Tafardel, trying to decide upon something that will show the world just how progressive a town Clochemerle is. Every town has a war memorial, a public library will be of no interest to the locals, but Piéchut thinks he knows what the town needs—a public urinal. And where will it be situated? Well, the position of the urinal is what drives much of the novel, as Piéchut intends the urinal to be placed close to the church. The church is ‘wedged in between two blind alleys’ and it was at the opening of one of these alleys that Piéchut proposed the urinal should be placed. Looking out on the urinal will be the Curé Ponosse from his classroom and Justine Putet, the most devout inhabitant of the town. Piéchut’s intention is to irritate the church and to ‘be seen’ to irritate the church as he had recently been criticised as being under the control of the church and nobility.
Chevallier populates the town with a whole load of brilliant characters and spends two chapters just introducing us to some of them. We meet the Curé Ponosse who first came to Clochemerle thirty years earlier and we learn how he acquired a taste for the local wine and of his arrangements with his housekeeper, Honorine, to satisfy any other urges—in fact, it is Honorine who suggests it to him.
‘Poor young man,’ she said, ‘you must find it very hard at your age, always being alone. It’s not human, that sort of thing…After all, you are a man!’
‘Oh dear, oh dear, Honorine!’ the Curé Ponosse answered with a sigh, turning crimson, and suddenly attacked by guilty inclinations.
‘It’ll end by driving you silly, you may depend on it! There have been people who’ve gone off their heads from that.’
‘In my profession, one must mortify oneself, Honorine!’ the unhappy man replied feebly.
But the faithful servant treated him like an unruly child: ‘You’re not going to ruin your health, are you? And what will it be to God if you get a bad illness?’
When Ponosse discovers that Honorine had a similar ‘arrangement’ with the previous Curé, he relents and makes confessional arrangements with the Curé in a nearby village who has similar arrangements with his housekeeper. At the time of the novel Ponosse is more interested in the local wine and his pipe, much to the annoyance of Honorine.
Other characters include the Baroness Courtebiche, a rather imperious noble woman; Judith Toumignon, the beautiful wife of François, owner of the Beaujolais Stores. All the women of Clochemerle were envious of Judith and all the men desired her; Hippolyte Foncimage, Judith’s elegant lover; Dr Mouraille, the incredibly brutal and insensitive doctor; the notary Girodot, his wife and his nineteen year-old daughter, Hortense—described as ‘a strange family’ who seemed to like money above everything else. Chevallier delights in giving us the details of all these characters; and with the description of Justine Putet, Chevallier really excels himself:
Enter Justine Putet, of whom it is now time to speak. Imagine a swarthy-looking, ill-tempered person, dried-up and of viperish disposition, with a bad complexion, an evil expression, a cruel tongue, defective internal economy, and (over all this) a layer of aggressive piety and loathsome suavity of speech. A paragon of virtue of a kind that filled you with dismay, for virtue in such a guise as this is detestable to behold, and in this instance it seemed to be inspired by a spirit of hatred and vengeance rather than by ordinary feelings of kindness. An energetic user of rosaries, a fervent petitioner at her prayers, but also an unbridled sower of calumny and clandestine panic. In a word, she was the scorpion of Clochemerle, but a scorpion disguised as a woman of genuine piety.
And so, it is on a glorious April day, ‘as though the world had had a fresh coat of paint’, that the urinal is ‘opened’ to the public. The inauguration is part of a fête and there are many guests and many speeches, and although the Baroness declines the offer to attend she sends her son-in-law in her place. This snub by the Baroness is just further proof to Piéchut that he has succeeded in his political manouevrings.
And so, what could possibly go wrong? Well, the urinal becomes a sort of hang-out for the local teenagers who start to lark about and there is a steady stream of visitors. As Justine Putet’s house overlooks the urinal she watches what is going on and is furious with the depravity of her fellow citizens, especially with the larking about of the boys. She tries to get others to support her opposition to the urinal but it’s a slow business as most people aren’t as bothered as she is. But she persists and whenever something bad happens she’s the first to blame the corrupting influence of the urinal; such as when a girl gets pregnant. Slowly support grows and the battle ensues between the Urinophobes and the Urinophiles.
I won’t reveal much more of the plot but it’s all rather funny and farcical. The characters are all expertly described and then let loose to cause chaos. Tensions between the inhabitants of the town escalate culminating in a fight in the church between Judith Tourmigan’s husband, François, and Nicholas, the beadle. Up to this point Chevallier has expertly ramped up the tensions between the characters but I feel he loses control of the story a bit from hereon, especially when he switches the focus of the story to Paris as the scandals start to get the attention of the Parisian politicians. In the end the army get involved but I feel it would have worked better if he’d kept the focus entirely on Clochemerle, which would have made it feel more claustrophobic. The ‘interludes’ in Paris just seem unnecessary.
A BBC series was made of Clochemerle in 1972 and it was released on DVD in 2013—I have a copy and shall be watching this soon; as it was scripted by Galton & Simpson I’m hoping it will be entertaining. There were also two sequels to Clochemerle; Clochemerle Babylon (1951) and Clochemerle-les-Bains (1963) which I aim to read soon.
There is nothing in human affairs that is a true subject for ridicule. Beneath comedy lies the ferment of tragedy; the farcical is but a cloak for coming catastrophe.