Every younger generation views their elders as comic, mundane, absurd. Every older generation strives to impart the lessons of history on those who follow.
In Les champs d’honneur – Fields of Glory in English translation – Jean Rouaud revisits childhood in Loire-Atlantique in the 1960’s. The eccentricities of grandparents and countless other relatives who surround the family are seen through the eyes of a young narrator and two siblings.
Grandfather Burgaud drives around blind in a smoke-filled, foggy, muddy Citroen 2CV (the vehicle is a character in itself). Grandmother is long-suffering in her arranged marriage and rainy climate. Aunt Marie is intimate with all the obscure saints, knowing their cures for every imagined condition. The family peculiarities are described in loving, humorous detail: “all by himself he smoked up whole fields of tobacco” (p 1) “an accumulation of petty resentments” oozes out of daughters with well-suppressed feelings (p 23); the children “were getting to be last kiss specialists” in the face of family deaths (p 101).
An entire chapter is dedicated to the description of ever-present rain in Loire-Atlantique:
Undeniably it’s a damp climate, but in the end you get used to it. Under a persistent drizzle you swear in all seriousness that it’s not raining. Wearers of glasses wipe the rain off them twenty times a day without thinking, get used to walking behind a constellation of droplets that diffract and break up the landscape, creating a gigantic kaleidoscope in which, unable to take bearings, they let themselves be guided by memory. (p 9)
Trying to sort out the people and relationships is a bit like being the new in-law who comes from away. Who is Mathilde? How is she related to Remi? Oh, are there two Joseph’s? Are they related on mother’s side or father’s side? No need to explain … everyone else knows who they’re talking about.
It’s a lovely, comical tale of the ordinary. Until the lessons of the elders, hinted from the start, come clear in the memorabilia carefully collected in a shoebox. The effects of family deaths in WW1 were profound and linger on.
An open secret, to be sure, from the very start. But each time so well covered over that now, when it burst upon us once again, it hit us like a hammer, leaving us dazed, stunned with grief. (p 1)
Les champs d’honneur won the Prix Goncourt in 1990. Translator Ralph Manheim exquisitely evokes the mood of the original text in Fields of Glory. A few explanatory endnotes add contextual facts that may not be well-known to English readers. In one instance, he acknowledges an untranslatable pun: couler denotes a sinking ship and a running nose.
Les champs d’honneur – Fields of Glory is first book in a series of five based on Rouaud’s family history (Le cycle romanesque familial et autobiographique). Not all have been translated into English. Others in the series are:
- Des hommes illustres – Of Illustrious Men
- Le monde à peu près – The World More or Less
- Pour vos cadeaux
- Sur la scène comme au ciel
I look forward to reading the rest of the series.