Category Archives: Chevallier, Gabriel

‘Clochemerle-Babylon’ by Gabriel Chevallier

Image source: scan of personal copy

Last year I read Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevallier and wished to continue my reading about the inhabitants of that village in Beaujolais. Clochemerle was published in 1934 and the events in the novel took place in the early ’20s, whereas the sequel, Clochemerle-Babylon was written twenty years later and the events take place in the early ’30s. So, it’s ten years since the ‘scandals’ in Clochemerle—how has it changed? Well, first of all we’re informed that the curé Ponosse, a central figure in the first book, has died. Ponosse was well-loved by his parishioners, partly due to his love of wine.

The death of the Curé Ponosse occurred in the vintage month, when his beloved Clochemerle was impregnated with the odour of new wine, in the golden glory of a brilliant, hot September. The old priest died in the apotheosis of a great year, famous for its wine, one of those years whose fragrant soul is destined to be poured, later, from bottles, to rejoice the heart of man, to celebrate earth’s abundance, the memories of happy days, and perfect summers.

It’s a good year for Clochemerle wine and Ponosse’s name is forever linked to such a great wine year, which would have pleased him immensely. Ponosse died peacefully in his garden after a frugal meal and a glass of wine, muttering ‘Clochemerle…dear Clochemerle.’ After he is laid to rest the question is, who will replace him?

In Clochemerle-Babylon there is little plot, as such, even less than in the first book, instead Chevallier concentrates on characters and allows them to develop throughout the novel. Chevallier is also determined to show how much has changed in the ten years or so since the end of the First World War, even if outwardly it seems to be much the same. The title of the book refers to how some of the older, more prudish, characters see the ways of the modern world and how Clochemerle is on a slippery slope into decadence and immorality. But even those that aren’t so critical are still taken aback by the pace of change.

It was true that the elders found everything changing all about them with a precipitation which was leaving them stripped of authority. The girls (kids they remembered no bigger than that) suddenly flowered and married. The lads returned from their military service with blasé airs and a new vocabulary. A horde of new brats was born, making their disprespectful uproar in Clochemerle.

So, in this age of jazz, electricity, aeroplanes and motor cars who is Ponosse’s replacement? The Curé Noive who is the complete opposite of Ponosse:

He was a tall, heavy fellow, this priest, his face bloodless and sinister, in his forties, sombre as the ace of spades, all bones, hands, and feet. His profile was aggressive, his chin like a fender, his whole person seemed black, including the sombre eyes glittering with the light of fanatical piety.

And his sister, who serves as his housekeeper, is even more severe. Even worse than his intense piety, in this region of winemakers, is Noive’s dislike of wine. Chevallier humours us with a few chapters illustrating just how incompatibe the new curé is with Clochemerle before getting rid of him after nearly all of the villagers, including the Baroness, plead with the Archbishop to get rid of him. The Archbishop is soon convinced of the mistake in imposing such a pious curé on the village—the case of Clochemerle 1929 also helps him decide that the villagers are best left to doing what they do best, making wine, and not concerning themselves with religious ideas.

The Clochemerle 1929 was a magnificent wine. Drinking it in small sips, his grace the Archbishop felt himself well disposed towards the Clochemerlins. It takes all sorts to make a world and a Church, to people Heaven and Hell. But there was no denying that it took capable vignerons to make a wine like this, men whose minds must on no account be distracted by excessive metaphysical cares.

So Curé Noive leaves Clochemerle and is replaced with a more suitable man, the Curé Patard, an ex-military man who declares that God ‘knows you’re a sinful lot of swine. He’ll put up with you as you are.’ He likes his wine too, which is good.

With Patard taking up his new position Chevallier switches his focus with Part Two. Clochemerle is now being affected by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. There is less demand for their wine and the good times now seem to be over. Clochemerle even has its first registered unemployed, Tistin la Quille. In an amusing chapter titled Tistin has himself Registered, Tistin convinces the council of Clochemerle to register him as unemployed, something that had never happened before in Clochemerle. The council is happy to do so as it shows them in a benevolent light and highlights their democratic principles. Tistin becomes a bit of a local clebrity due to his unemployed status and ends up getting two young widows pregnant; he doesn’t want to marry either as this may jeopardise his unemployed status. Chevallier’s satirical eye passes over much of the politics, religion, sexual differences of Clochemerle society; much of which is amusing though a lot of his views may seem outdated, or sexist, these days.

Clochemerle-Babylon is an amusing book and one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It’s got even less of a plot than the first one but it’s fun catching up with some of the old characters from the first book as well as being introduced to new characters. There’s a lot more characters than the ones introduced in this review. The next, and last, book in the series is Clochemerle-les-Bains which I hope to read soon.

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‘Clochemerle’ by Gabriel Chevallier

Chevalier_Clochemerle-fcXC-700pxClochemerle 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.

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