Thursday, 3 April 2014

Firelight and Woodsmoke: Claude Michelet, reviewed by Kathleen Jones

Firelight and Woodsmoke

Claude Michelet

This is a great doorstop of a trilogy, which I cut into its three component parts with a Stanley knife and have been carrying around with me on my travels, abandoning each section as I finished it. I’d like to think that they got adopted by a traveller on a train, a curious customer in Costa’s, or a bored passenger at Stansted Airport.

The Firelight and Woodsmoke saga was recommended to me by a friend who knows how much I enjoy European literature. Claude Micheletis one of France's most distinguished authors. The books are translated into English, but aren’t currently in print in the UK or available as e-books. I managed to get an omnibus edition second hand for 82p. Worth committing book murder for though. It’s the story of a village and four generations of the Vialhe and Dupeuch families, in the Limousin region of France. They are peasants in a community that still has a medieval structure - the Vialhes are relatively prosperous; the Dupeuchs at the bottom of the heap.

The first novel opens with three children tracking a wolf on the last day of 1899. A few hours later, a baby girl is born, Mathilde Dupeuch - the first child of the 20th century. The story takes the inhabitants from the oppressive (and often heart-breaking) observance of centuries old traditions and superstitions to a modern age of international flights and mechanisation. We see the arrival of the first car, the first train, the first electric light, and observe the effects of two world wars and the ravages of economic boom and bust - all through the eyes of this small rural community.

It’s difficult to summarise such a wide ranging plot with so many different characters. The narrative focuses mainly on the children - Pierre-Edouard, Louise and Berthe Vialhe, Leon and Mathilde Dupeuch. Pierre-Edouard and Leon are of similar age, but very different temperaments. They are all the children of uneducated peasant farmers and their parents expect them to conform to traditions they believe to be written in stone. But times are changing fast and there is considerable conflict between the generations. Berthe escapes the oppression of her family to become a fashion designer in Paris; Louise runs away to marry the man she loves rather than accept the marriage her family have arranged for her. The friendship of the two young men soon turns to enmity in a clash over land and politics.

Pierre-Edouard stays on the farm, marries and creates a new generation of Vialhes. His eldest son Jacques excels at school and quarrels with his father over the way the farm is being run - wanting to introduce more modern farming methods. Jacques marries Mathilde, the youngest sister of his father’s enemy, Leon Dupeuch. Leon, whose father committed suicide when he was young, comes from a family who barely had enough to eat, sometimes living like gypsies. As an adult, he becomes a successful cattle dealer, wealthy enough to buy out the local gentry who have been impoverished by the Great Depression.

Jacques and Mathilde quietly consolidate the family land as their neighbours, less willing to adapt to 20th century innovations, are forced to sell off their ancestral acres. But the grandchildren they are preserving the land for want something different. They are interested in other careers, not the back-breaking life of a rural farmer.

There is real poetry in Claude Michelet’s prose, and the narrative has the quiet quality of a French film. It’s a beautiful account of how life changed forever in a dramatic fashion during the 20th century - how moving away from our roots in the land that ultimately sustains us has created a fractured society that, although economically more prosperous, is otherwise impoverished. The Correze has wifi now, but there are no more wolves left to track.

Kathleen Jones is a biographer, novelist and poet who blogs at ‘A Writer’s Life’.  She has a new novel called The Sun’s Companion, and a biography of the poet Norman Nicholson. You can find out more about her books at