The Boy by Marcus Malte

October 23, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Boy by Marcus Malte. (2016) Not available in English. (Yet) Original French title: Le garçon.

malte_garconRemember, back in September, when I introduced you to the Rentrée littéraire and I told you I’d visited a bookstore and asked for a recommendation? It was Le garçon by Marcus Malte. (The Boy) With 550 pages, it’s a river novel that flows from 1908 to 1938 and tells us the life of a boy. He doesn’t have a real name. He never talks but he’s still the hero. The novel opens in 1908, the boy’s mother is dying. They’re taking a last trip together and she’s told him what to do with her body after her death. They lived as hermits. He knows nothing of the world and behaves like an untamed animal.

But he leaves his shelter to go and meet the men. He travels like an animal and arrives to a hamlet. He spends a few months there among of community made of four farms and four families. Joseph is their leader. His had married an Indian from Mexico. She’s dead now and their son is mentally disabled. Joseph’s wife brought her culture to this village and this part of the novel rings like old stories. The boy doesn’t speak and he tries to understand the world he’s in. He doesn’t really think in abstract words but with images. Malte uses this trick to make the reader understand that the boy’s mind is expanding, it’s growing and making connections but so far, putting articulated thoughts on abstract thinking evades him.

Ainsi l’homme-chêne et la femme-nuage avaient donné naissance à l’enfant-ruisseau qui était devenu l’enfant-rivière puis l’enfant-torrent. De même, l’homme-renard et la femme-mante ont engendré l’enfant-crapaud et l’enfant-ver. C’est une chose étrange. C’est une notion parmi les plus délicates à saisir pour le garçon : ascendance et descendance. Fratrie. Les liens du sang. Difficile à démêler pour quelqu’un qui n’a pas idée de leur existence, ou si vague. (page 87) And the oak-man and the cloud-woman had given birth to the stream-child who became the river-child and then the torrent-child. And the fox-man and the mantis woman had fathered the toad-child and the worm-child. It’s a strange thing. It’s one of the most complicated notion to grasp for the boy: ancestry and progeny. Siblings. Blood ties. Hard to unravel to someone who has no clear idea of their existence. (Page 87)

He stays in this hamlet until the end of 1908. An earthquake happens and they think he brought it on them and he’s thrown out of the community.

He ends up with Brabek, a huge wrestler from Romania. He lives in a travel trailer and goes from village to village to make wrestling shows and earn money. He’s lonely and he takes the boy in. Brabek accepts the boy, loves to have an attentive ear for his stories and craves companionship. The boy gets attached to the giant softy and his horse. Brabek is a Quasimodo in love with Victor Hugo and he shares Hugo’s talent freely with the boy. This section of the book reminded me a lot of Les Enchanteurs by Romain Gary, for the atmosphere, the shows and the thoughts about life included in this section. I wish I could ask Marcus Malte about it.

Then Brabek dies and the boy takes the horse and trailer and travels further. We leave picaresque literature and enter the playing field of 19thC novelists. A carriage accident brings the boy into the house of Gustave van Ecke and his daughter Emma. This scene reminded me of the meeting between Marianne et Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Gustave van Ecke used to grow apples. A Gustave who grows apple, the fruit of Normandy and has a daughter named Emma? Flaubert came to mind and Marcus Malte writes:

La voici. Elle qui porte ce prénom d’amour déchu, celui d’une héroïne qui cherchait l’or et trouva le plomb. p184 Here she comes. She has the name of fallen love, one of a heroine who was looking for gold and only found lead.

The name van Ecke sounds like a Flemish painter and this section of the book brought back images of portraits by Dutch painters or outdoors scenes by impressionist ones. Emma and Gustave are lonely. She’s an only child and needs a companion. He never recovered from his wife’s death. Her name was Laure, like Petrarque’s great love. The boy still doesn’t talk but he fills a void. Emma, like Austen’s namesake, is not looking for a husband. She’s happy to take care of her father and she cherishes the freedom being single brings her. The boy finds his place in this generous household.

The boy will spend four years with Emma and Gustave in Paris. Time goes by and Malte anchors us back in the world history through lists of informations about the time. It helps us put the boy and his friends in perspective in the grand scheme of things.

In 1912, the boy is 18 and his senses are fully awake. Emma and the boy fall in lust and in love.  Their love story is a meteor and a hot and naughty affair. It is a whirlwind of feelings, sensations and experiences. It’s joyful like I Want You by Bob Dylan and the images are as vivid as the ones on I Want You in the film I’m Not There by Todd Haynes.

Meanwhile the boy grows up. He observes things and people. He adjusts. And Malte describes all this as if it were a film.

WWI arrives with its horror and its absurdity. In a chapter, Malte describes all the family ties between the ruling families in Europe. All the countries have kings and queens and France is the odd man out with their Prime Minister Poincaré. It emphasizes the

The boy is in Verdun and in other desolate places in the Somme. In a paragraph, Malte describes the trauma of the war.

C’est un pays de labours. Un pays de fermes, de villages, de blé, de vignes, de vaches, d’églises. C’est un pays de pis et de saints. C’était. La magie de la guerre. Qui tout transforme, hommes et relief. Mets un casque sur le crâne d’un boulanger et ça devient un soldat. Mets un aigle sur son casque et ça devient un ennemi. Sème, plante des graines d’acier dans un champ de betteraves et ça devient un charnier. p355 It is a land of ploughing. A land of farms, villages, grain, vineyards, cows and churches. It’s a country of udders and saints. It was. The magic of war. Which changes everything, man and land. Put a helmet on the skull of a baker and he becomes a soldier. Put an eagle on that helmet and he becomes an enemy. Sow, plant steel grain in a beetroot field and it becomes a mass grave.

That’s for the boy’s reality. Emma’s reality is different but cruel too.

Chaque courrier est une menace. C’est de là que vient le danger. Chaque jour des obus, des milliers d’obus délivrés par la poste. Timbrés. Propres. Des balles à domicile. A bout portant. Combien de victimes tombées en silence devant leur boîte aux lettres ou dans leur cuisine, dans leur salon ? p353 Each mail is a threat. That’s where the danger comes from. Each day, bombs, thousands of bombs delivered by postmen. Stamped. Clean. Delivered bullets. Close range bullets. How many victims fallen silently in front of their mailbox, in their kitchen or their living-room?

I think this quote really nails the violence of the pain brought by these letters and the use of war terms is particularly effective. The violence is direct and physical on the front but it exists too for the ones who are back home.

I won’t tell you more about the story or it would reveal too much. This is a beautiful book and I’m glad I read it. The fairy godmothers and godfathers of literature and poetry have sure cast their spell on Marcus Malte and his novel. It’s novel with a literary family tree. It is built on the foundations of previous works and relies on different novel shapes. Picaresque. Correspondance. 19th century novel. Poetry. Traditional tales and oral tradition of ancient storytellers. It’s subtle. Grave. Funny. Erotic. Violent. It intermingles the boy’s personal story with History. It’s a coming-of-age novel. It questions the roots of humanity and the path between anima and human. It’s incredibly well-done. My only complaint is that it was a bit too long at times.Otherwise, it’s a fantastic novel chiseled by a writer whose style is indescribable. Pure beauty and a reminder that Literature is an art.

So, a big thank you to the independent bookshop L’Esprit Livre and their passionate libraire.

Nancy at Ipsofactodotme has also reviewed it here.

 

  1. October 23, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    Marcus Malte comes nearly every year to Quai du polar, so you may be able to ask him then.

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    • October 23, 2016 at 8:49 pm

      He was at L’Esprit Livre on October 8th. Unfortunately, I was out of town.
      I might get a chance at the festival de Bron.

      Like

  2. N@ncy
    October 23, 2016 at 10:24 pm

    Wonderful review….and I know the ‘scope’ of this book so your summation is appreciated.
    Your complaint is valid. The sections during the WW I push on the battlefiled were lenghty to say the least. This book at times cast a spell on me….I read the narrative while listening to the classical music mentioned in the scene. The effect was magical. Ever so grateful for you ‘link’ to my review and most of all….guiding me to this book be if via your local bookstore!

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    • October 24, 2016 at 8:27 pm

      Thanks Nancy, it means a lot from someone who’s read it.
      I agree with you: the WWI section was too long at times.
      And I’m glad you had a great reading time thanks to a French independent bookstore 🙂

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      • N@ncy
        October 24, 2016 at 8:51 pm

        As I type this…the book comes back into my mind. I struggled with the first 2 chapters (mother and son stumbling alone…leaning on each other). Malte was very ‘cryptic’ describing them like a creature: 2 head 8 limbs. Oh,I too am glad I know somebody who as had the Le Garcon ‘experience’!

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  3. October 24, 2016 at 8:35 am

    Great review, Emma. I like the way you’ve made a range of connections with other books and creative works. They help to paint a picture of your impressions of the novel. It sounds like an ambitious story with a broad canvas.

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    • October 24, 2016 at 8:29 pm

      Thanks Jacqui. I’m glad it’s readable for readers who haven’t read the book. It wasn’t easy to sum up or to give back its special voice.
      It’s a multilayered book and my billet could have taken another direction.
      I hope it gets translated into English.

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  4. October 24, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    This sounds wonderful. A bit too long for my taste but I’m still very tempted.

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    • October 24, 2016 at 8:30 pm

      I think you’d like it. I can imagine you enjoying the style and the form of the narrative.

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      • October 24, 2016 at 8:32 pm

        I’m sure of it but I think I’ll wait until it’s out in paperback. I just have too many books on my piles.

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        • October 24, 2016 at 8:33 pm

          I hope it gets a literary prize, it will make it in English then.

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  5. October 24, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    I don’t think I’d like this–although I know you did. Perhaps it’s the picaresque qualities that turn me off…

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    • October 24, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      Not one I’d pick for your birthday, to be honest.
      I’m not too fond of picaresque myself -the Gary I mention I’m my billet is not among my favourite Garys – but it doesn’t last the whole book so it was OK.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. November 3, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    The length sounds 19th Century too.

    I am rather fond of the picaresque, but what strikes me here is that it sounds like to get the most from this it’s helpful to have a good grasp of various forms of 19th C literature.

    Why does he never talk? I get it early on, but by the time he’s had a girlfriend and been to war I’d have thought he’d have picked it up along the way.

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    • November 4, 2016 at 10:20 pm

      I certainly missed some references but it doesn’t matter.
      We don’t know why he never talks
      He understands but doesn’t speak.
      I think you’d like it. It won the Prix Femina, so there’s a better chance for a translation now.

      Like

  1. October 23, 2016 at 10:33 pm
  2. November 29, 2016 at 1:12 am
  3. January 7, 2017 at 7:13 pm
  4. March 31, 2017 at 10:24 pm

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