A few weeks ago I finished my first reading of Jules Renard’s Nature Stories (Douglas Parmée, trans. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011). I read a few short chapters every night before bed. Now I am reading Moby Dick. The two works really do not bear comparison–except that that I am reading them in succession. Nature Stories is so happy, unguarded and fearless (in an innocent way) about its contradictions. (For Renard, caging a canary or a bullfinch is a senseless brutality, but there’s no better recreation than shooting hares and partridges.) Renard, like most good writers, is an excellent witness, but he is not a distant one. He simply enjoys stomping around the French countryside and acquainting himself with the local critters, domestic and wild. And yet, his affections are not the principle focus of what he writes; they are communicated incidentally, in passing, or by some magic of tone. For Renard, the countryside is a place of rest; there “nature” is, not without pain, but on the whole, benevolent.
Some of Renard’s sketches in this book are short enough to pass as haiku:
In the end, she’s bound to spoil her waistline.
Others are longer than this blog post and are truly essays–not quite travel writing, not quite memoirs, not quite expository–his jubilant account of his war against partridges (“Oh, they’re absolutely diabolical! How they’re making me run!”) fills five pages and is the longest piece in the book. Between these two examples, most selections are about the length of a short prose poem–a page or a page and a half. Perfect length for bedtime.
Here Renard observes how flies pester cattle and how rain eventually gives them some relief:
But for the flies, they’d be very comfortable. … Whenever an ox moves its leather apron or stomps on the dry ground with its hooves, the cloud of flies buzzes off. You’d think they’re fermenting. … And over there, a first flash of lightning shoots across the sky; there’s no sound. A drop of rain falls.
The oxen see the warning, lift their heads, move to the edge of the oak, and breathe, patiently.
They know the good flies are going to chase away the bad ones.
At first gently, one by one, and then thick and fast, out of a sky torn by lightning, they swoop on the enemy which gives way, little by little, fewer and fewer, as they fly away.
Soon, with water streaming from their snub noses to their indefatigable tails, the oxen will be squirming with delight under the swarm of victorious water flies.
I suppose we have no idea what kind of relief cattle find in a rain storm, but were we to assume ourselves as cattle, this would be our narrative of ease–a gentle rain washing away the nuisances of life.
Melville’s Moby Dick is another matter–the rain is never gentle, the wind is always in the face of the protagonist and the world must be endured. I have only just begun, but it seems that Ishmael seeks more than a mere respite from the constraints and complications of civilization. He finds, instead, in his struggle against the environment a kind of brutal cleansing or, at least, a way to prove himself dead or alive. At the same time (although Renard has a few points of soft persuasion, made transparently) one can feel in Melville a great machine winding up, positioning and calculating to imprint its designs upon the reader.
I am a patient reader and Melville is worth every minute, but after long days, now and then, I feel a vacancy fit exactly for Renard’s winsome little sketches.