Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Celestine by Gillian Tindall



As a biology student I became fond of mosses and leafy liverworts. The fun bit: finding a rare species in some rocky crevice. These plants have an uncanny ability to revivify from dry. The usual procedure is to build up a reference set by putting identified samples in paper envelopes made of a specially folded sheet of paper. If a rather difficult to identify specimen crops up this collection is used for comparison. A few shreads of a dessicated specimen dropped into a spot of water under a microscope will twist and turn back into life, pretty much in the state it had been when first found.

Gillian Tindall has in some ways achieved this with Celestine. It was not for me, however, the woman and her relatives who sprang to life so much as the sense of place and time and the detailed social history. The tough, poor, rural existence. The coming of the railways. The looming war. The inexorability of change.
Chassignoles’s progress from almost medieval isolation in the 19th century to assimilation with the outside world in the 20th.

What would make you pick up this book and what would make you keep reading it?
Would you need to be interested in rural France between 1850 and the First World war?

.....

Echoes from experiences and other books when you read a new one. Things in the bag before reading Celestine: tramping about places just like this in the Never area in the early 70s while staying with the family of my French girlfriend ; camping in the Loire valley; previously reading Le Grand Meaulnes; already knowing something about George Sand, Chopin and Nohant.

One thing I can recall from reading Celestine is descriptions of the cart-tracks, muddy in winter, which meant someone walking from another village (Celestine's suitor, par example) would be splattered in mud when they arrived at the door.

New York Times review by poet and translator W. S. Merwin:

Ms. Tindall's own life and sympathies led her to the village of Chassignolles, south of the Loire in the region known as the Berry, one summer evening ''of unearthly light'' in the 1960's. She ''arrived here by chance, with my husband and our then small son, driving south on minor roads, hesitating before obscure signposts by fields where white Charolais cattle drifted in ghostly herds and mistletoe hung in swags from the trees.'' The village where they stayed that evening lured them back repeatedly, and in 1972 they acquired a cottage there from one Georges Bernadet, who insisted on cultivating the vegetable garden for them for the next 16 years and whose portrait and place in the weave of the village are part of the whole story.

In the village the family became friends with an Australian painter who had come to France as a soldier near the end of World War I and in the days of the liberation after World War II had met a secretary of more or less his own age in Paris, and had begun spending his summers with her in the house her parents had left her in Chassignolles (he spent the rest of the year in England with his wife). The secretary, Zenaide, died before he did, leaving the house to him for his lifetime. When he had closed it up and left for the last time and Zenaide's cousins, her heirs, had taken the contents and sold the place, Ms. Tindall went there to pick up an object that had been promised to her, a footstool with a cat embroidered on it in gros point by Zenaide's grandmother, Celestine. Nothing else in the house was wanted any longer, and the cousins had ''left behind, on a corner of the mantel shelf in the darkened, empty room behind the shutters, a small cardboard case meant to contain those cards that are distributed in pious families to commemorate baptisms, first communions and Masses said for the dead. Perhaps they assumed that cards were what was still in it and therefore, with some half-formed sense of respect or superstition, refrained from putting it on the great garden bonfire which had already consumed so many long-paid bills, so many mildewed cushions, wormy chairs, quilts sticky with moths' eggs and mouse-wrecked packets of sugar.''
....

Chassignolles is situated in the part of France where George Sand lived and wrote, and Sand's evocations of the region are recurring presences in Ms. Tindall's story. The Berry is also the landscape of ''Le Grand Meaulnes,'' by Alain-Fournier, and the schoolmaster of that novel is a faraway colleague of one of Celestine's suitors. The history, as Ms. Tindall has revived it, reminded me of Marguerite Yourcenar's magisterial reconstructions in ''Les Archives du Nord.''


Nohant

Nohant: Department

Chopin at Nohant


"La Mare du Diable", Sand's novel


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