This week at The Rumpus I reviewed With the Animals by Noelle Revaz – this book was published this year as part of Dalkey Archive’s Swiss Literature Series:
Paul, the narrator and subject of Noëlle Revaz’s With the Animals, is a rustic Swiss farmer with strong opinions but a weak intellect; he is a man of formidable emotion but has a rather small heart, metaphorically speaking. The book asks its readers to sustain an intimate encounter with this difficult and often violent man, an intimate encounter because of the way the reader becomes so tightly locked inside Paul’s narrated vision—the story unfolds in his voice and through the representation of his thinking as Revaz has conceived it. Paul’s voice is exceedingly rustic, so much so that at first it seems the book might be set several decades before its initial French-language publication date of 2002. As the story continues, however, it becomes clear that while the story is contemporary, Paul is a living anachronism – out-of-date even by the standards of other neighboring farmers.
Not only is he wary of modern technology—he has trouble using an ordinary landline telephone, for example—and ultra-conservative in his vision of family and society, he is also attached to his farm and to his animals in such a way that he actually sits just outside the usual polarity of city and rural; he is nearly more animal than he is human. And this set-up leads to the central question of With the Animals– can Paul be humanized?
You can read the entire review here.
And, now, just a quick word, a more personal reaction to the book. In W. Donald Wilson’s short Translator’s Note, he comments that With the Animals isn’t written in any particular French dialect, that it was an invention of Revaz’s. Also, Revaz does not name the Swiss canton where Paul has his farm, but it isn’t hard to narrow down the options. First, it’s a French speaking canton: either Valais, Jura, Geneva, Fribourg, or Vaud. We can cross off the Valais as it’s a mountainous region and mostly Catholic, Fribourg is quite Catholic and so is the Jura (and most farming regions of the Jura are up on a high plateau – the beautiful but anarchist Franches Montagnes – that give a very particular farming and community culture). I mention this Catholicism as an excluding factor because I believe that in With the Animals Revaz is really working with a particular Swiss Protestant aesthetic, a bit of Calvinism gone mad, if you will, and so that leaves the cantons of Vaud and Geneva – basically any of the rural communities that dot the hillsides overlooking Lake Geneva.
So I believe, although cannot prove, that the book is set in the canton of Vaud – this is where Revaz currently lives, although I believe she is originally from the Valais. And this is where I live. I live in a small farming community in the canton of Vaud, and I rent a farmhouse from a local farmer. I read the book in French first and then read Wilson’s translation (which is excellent, as I mention in the review at The Rumpus). Much of Revaz’s French felt incredibly familiar to me – the rustic expressions, the cold awkwardness about matters of emotion and physical sensuality, this strange tenderness toward the animals. It’s all worked into the language of the book, and this language is the Swiss French that I’ve come to listen to most often. (Not to mention the one farmer – about Paul’s age – who comes into our local shops still covered in manure, still reeking of spoilt milk and speaks in a patois I cannot understand at all. I see this man at least once every few weeks and now he’s become Paul to me, a pure embodiment of the book.)
So because of all this, I can’t help but disagree with Wilson – Paul’s unique speech is absolutely drenched in this little corner of Switzerland and its rural culture, it’s tension between modernity and traditional Swiss Protestant ethics and aesthetics. And I think it’s a bit of a shame to play that down.