I’ve owned this copy of Beauty on Earth by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz for several years. It was translated, after all, by my good friend Michelle Bailat Jones, and I trust both her literary taste and her translations, since she is a very sensitive, poetic writer herself. But, for some reason, it did not click with me at first reading and I abandoned it after a few pages.
When I started it this time round, I was craving something more specifically Swiss, after the rather disappointing LA setting of Pascale Kramer’s novel. Well, Ramuz certainly is the master of that: the landscapes, the descriptions of village life (and suspicion and gossip) were so spot on that I felt transported back to this…
During his lifetime he was often dismissed (especially by the French) as a ‘regional writer’, but his reputation has grown since his death in 1947 and he is the only Swiss writer to achieve that highest of French literary accolades, i.e. be published in the ‘Bibliothèque de la Pléiade’. Yes, he often sets his novels and novellas in the Swiss countryside he knew and loved, but the landscape is never described just for the sake of prettifying the text. Instead, it is perceived as THE main character, sometimes benign, often threatening, with an inestimable impact on humans.
Beauty on Earth is one of his major works, but the only previous English language translation of it was a curtailed and anonymous version published in 1929 (the novel itself appeared in 1927). The beautiful orphan Juliette is brought from Cuba to Switzerland to live with her uncle, the village innkeeper. The uncle Milliquet is not sure he wants her there, although at first his earnings go up as people crowd on his terrace in the hopes of catching a glimpse of her. However, she soon causes turbulence in the village, through no fault of her own except for her ‘strange ways’ and love of accordion music. The innkeeper’s wife kicks her out and she finds refuge with the fisherman Rouge, who soon starts to feel over-protective of her. The turmoil her presence creates in the village can only end in a huge (literal and metaphorical) storm. Yet she is not the only outsider in the village: there is a tension between the fishermen and the farmers, a hunchbacked Italian musician and a secretive Savoyard are frequent guests on the cafe terrace. The border is just across the lake, and beside, this has always been a region of shifting borders and loyalties.
It is easy to see why there haven’t been that many translations of Ramuz: his style, even for fluent French speakers, is idiosyncratic and difficult. He soon abandons any pretence at chronological storytelling, he wanders from one point of view to the next and has a tendency to use that amibiguous French pronoun ‘on’, which could mean ‘it’, or ‘we’ or ‘you’. The translator’s notes at the beginning of the book describe the impossibility of being consistent in translating this simple word. The actual narrator often seems to be an all-seeing figure somewhere above the common fray, who makes grave pronouncements from time to time, generally meditating about the nature of beauty and the damage it can cause in everyday life.
… we are drawn into beauty’s orbit. Down here on the earth we don’t see enough of it. We are greedy about it, we hunger for it; we want to possess it… do we know what to do with beauty among men?
This ‘voice’ gives the story the gravitas and solemnity of the choir in Ancient Greek tragedies. We watch the actors playing their roles in those beautiful landscapes, we hear their dialogues and see their gestures, punctuated by commentary. Overall, there is a sense of inescapable fate, no matter how much the villagers try to fight it.
Ramuz is a poet as well as a novelist. His long sentences and sensuous descriptions are works of art and if anyone can do them justice, it is Michelle, with her own talent for writing (honestly, I am being objective here, I have no qualms about criticising my friends if I don’t like their style). His creation of atmosphere through minute description of people’s appearance, of landscapes, of set scenes (often described as ‘stepping into a painting’) is at a far slower pace than contemporary readers might like. That is possibly what made me stop reading a few years ago. However, if you allow yourself to slow right down and follow his pace, it feels timeless, following the natural flow of the seasons, remaining in close proximity to nature, observing and respecting it. He describes a world that was already vanishing in his day, a world that was in equal parts enchanting and menacing.
How can I not love the tranquillity and beauty he describes, which can still be observed nowadays on the shores of Lac Leman?
The door was wide open; the entire beautiful Sunday came in, with its rowboats, with its steamboats. On Sundays people love to come down off the mountain and from the villages up the hill or behind the hill; young people, boys and girls; and it’s when this beautiful water starts to shine between your field stakes and it calls to you from the lake over your little walls… And there are the big steamboats, all white with their red, green and white, or tri-color flags, and their big wheel beating the water, each flat thud can be heard before we even see the boat; or we can even hear singing…
And yet all this calm beauty also hides constraints – the rules and regulations that Rouge feels land people are bound by (I have to add: in Switzerland perhaps more than in other places), whereas he, as a fisherman, is less hemmed in.
…alls these winemakers or the people who cut the hay and rake the hay, these owners of a corner of a pasture, of a part of a field, of a tiny piece of the land, you see all of them forced to follow a path and always the same one, between two walls, between two hedges, and here this is my home and next door it’s not. It’s full of rules over there, full of No Tresspassing… they can’t go left nor right… As for me, for us… we go where we want. We’ve got everything because we have nothing.
I allowed myself to be engulfed by the magic of Ramuz and was suddenly extremely homesick for the Swiss village he described (although not for its inhabitants). At the same time, we can never forget that this village is the whole world and the whole world is represented in this village.
This was exactly the sort of reading from Switzerland that I’d hoped for. Dare I read him next in the original French? Not sure, but luckily Onesuch Press has brought out some further translations: the poetry collection Riversong of the Rhone, translated by Patti Marxsen, What If the Sun, translated once more by Michelle Bailat-Jones, Derborence translated by Laura Spinney, and an earlier novel The Reign of the Evil One, translated by James Whitall. You can find more details about their books here.