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They walked back to the village, a volcano in their heart

May 17, 2011 19 comments

Aline by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. 1905. 144 pages. Not translated into English, sorry, sorry, sorry…

 Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878-1947) is a French-speaking Swiss writer. Aline is his second novel, written in 1905. Born in Lausanne, Ramuz spent 14 years in Paris and came back to Switzerland in 1914, before the war started. His work is centred on country life in the Canton de Vaud.  

Aline is a short tale about a tragic love story in rural Switzerland. Julien, only son of the richest man of the village, is infatuated with Aline, a seventeen year old peasant. She lives alone with her ageing mother Henriette. It is summer, the heat is almost unbearable. Julien and Aline meet on a trail as they go back home from work in the fields. Julien flirts and persuades her to meet at night, when her mother is asleep. She accepts and they start dating secretly in the woods. Their affair lasts several months and their love follows opposite paths. While Julien progressively falls out of love with Aline, Aline’s love grows to passion. Julien is a young womaniser and for him, she’s nothing more than a summer romance. It was true love for her. The ingredients of a tragedy are all there.  

Aline reminded me of Félicité (A Simple Heart by Flaubert) and of Emma Bovary. Like Félicité, she’s good and loving. She’s a simple heart, ill-prepared to face life and inconstant boys. Like Emma, she gives herself away, as Flaubert said. She’s overwhelmed by her feelings. I don’t think Julien can be compared to Rodolphe though; he just grew tired of Aline and didn’t realize she was so deeply in love with him.  

Ramuz writes with simplicity about peasant life. Aline’s heart is pure and simple and Ramuz’s language is as pure as a mountain spring. His style comforts our image of Aline, an adolescent experiencing feelings she fails to understand and tame.

Et elle était devenue bien jolie ; ses joues étaient plus roses, ses lèvres plus rouges, ses yeux plus bleus. C’est la jeunesse qui vous sort du cœur, parce que le cœur est content, et elle est devant vous comme le matin des prés. And she had become really pretty; her cheeks were pinker, her lips redder, her eyes bluer. It’s youth pouring out of your heart, because the heart is contented and it lays in front of you like a morning on the fields.

Ramuz brings to life the village, the people, their way of life, the gossips. He points out the difference between boys and girls: when the affair is known, everybody blames Aline and Julien remains unscathed. A girl can’t fall in love but a boy can seduce whomever he wants, it’s sport.  

I didn’t know Ramuz had influenced Giono but I truly heard Giono when I read Aline. And also Pagnol. I could feel the summer heat, smell the scent of wet grass after the rain, imagine the blue sky, the fields and the bushes.  

Avril avait paru, poussant devant lui ses petits nuages comme des poules blanches dans un champ de bleuets. April had shown up, pushing before him his small clouds like white hens in a cornflower field.

It’s evocative. His description of nature reminded me of paintings by Van Gogh (Wheatfield with Crows or The Sower) or Monet (Poppies Blooming). Simple words and forceful images. It’s set in Switzerland but it could be in France. I thought of the innocence of life before the horrors of the trenches and lives untimely ended by war, throwing everyday life off balance in towns and villages.

I’m not usually fond of bucolic novels. I couldn’t finish La Gloire de mon Père by Marcel Pagnol, I thought it was mushy. However, I liked Regain by Jean Giono (Harvest) and Aline reminded me of this book. It is fresh and lovely and I’m sorry it isn’t translated into English. For readers who can/could read French or would like to speak French again, it’s easy to read and short. For other readers I recommend Regain by Giono, it has the same flavour.

PS : The perfect soundtrack for this book is La Chasse aux papillons by Georges Brassens. I borrowed a line for the title of this post.

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