Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

Grey Souls — Les Âmes grises — By a Slow River

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What is the value of one small life when thousands are being slaughtered in a nearby war? What is the price of justice in such circumstances? Who defines the truth? These ultimately unsolvable puzzles are the subject of the narrator’s brooding in Philippe Claudel’s Grey Souls.

The critical deeds of what becomes known as the Affaire take place during WW1 in a small town in northern France, literally over a hill from the front. The town is insulated in many ways from the carnage. The main industry is essential to the war effort, the men who work there exempt from military service. There is soon a divide. The townsfolk become disgusted with the droves of injured soldiers. The soldiers resent the townsfolk for being spared.

The narrator, a retired police officer whose name we never learn, recounts events from the vantage of hindsight 20 years later. He has been pondering the Affaire for all that time, obsessed with trying to piece together what really happened.

A 10-year old girl is found strangled, her body left by the canal. Deserters from the front are immediately under suspicion. They are tortured into a confession. But are they the true perpetrators? A year before, the young school teacher inexplicably hung herself. Why? Are these tragedies linked? Does privilege shield the guilty? Only the narrator asks in retrospect.

As the grim story unfolds, we see that nobody is free of guilt. As if the misery of war has permeated the morality of the town. Or perhaps this is human nature. We are left with these dark thoughts, these grey souls.

A rose by any other name?

You may be wondering about the three titles for this post. All are the same book. Les Âmes grises is the original title in French. Grey Souls (a literal translation of the French title) is the first English translation, published in the UK. By a Slow River is the US translation.

I could have read this in the original language, but I was feeling lazy and By a Slow River was the most readily available at the library. By page 5, I started to wonder how some passages were written in the original. To the point of distraction. A word or a turn of phrase didn’t seem quite right.

I am fortunate to live a city where the library has all three versions. I acquired Grey Souls and read it (mostly without pondering about particulars of language) while awaiting Les Âmes grises. When it arrived, I went back and compared all three.

In some cases, By a Slow River better reflects the colour of the original:

Des fouines s’étaient battues. Leurs pattes tout en griffe avaient laisse des calligraphies, des arabesques, de mots de fou sur le manteaux de neige. (Les Âmes grises, p 125)

Some stone martens had been fighting, and had left crazy curling words inscribed all over the blanket of snow. (Grey Souls, p 79)

Some stone martens had fought a skirmish here. Their claw-studded paws had left calligraphies, arabesques, a madman’s testimony on the snow. (By a Slow River, p 85)

In others, Grey Souls wins out:

Le maire l’inaugura le 11 novembre 1920. … On se quitta au bout d’une heure en s’apprêtant à rejouer ainsi, d’année en année, la comédie des coeurs lourds et du souvenir. (Les Âmes grises, p 226)

The mayor inaugurated our memorial on 11 November 1920. … It lasted an hour and everyone promised to put on this little show of heavy hearts and memories every year. (Grey Souls, p 147)

The mayor unveiled it on November 11, 1920. … The living parted an hour later, ready to reenact year after year this sham of heavy hearts and remembrance. (By a Slow River, p 154)

By a Slow River is probably the closest translation of the original words. Its editors admit to emending the original text. The changes and additions may make it clearer to a North American audience, but result in some passages that do not ring true to me. Grey Souls strips down the language, but better captures the overall atmosphere. In a moody novel about morality, I prefer that.


Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

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