Thursday, 12 December 2013

'Beauty on Earth' by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (Review)

Today, I'm introducing yet another small press to the blog, another of those wonderful publishers who focus on fiction in translation.  Onesuch Press started out a couple of years ago, specialising in revitalising old, forgotten classics, or minor works by great writers.  The book I received for review is by a writer I hadn't heard of before, Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.  The main theme of the novel is a very familiar one though - beauty...

Beauty on Earth (new translation by Michelle Bailat-Jones) begins with a letter, one in which Milliquet, a Swiss café owner, learns of a rather unusual bequest.  His brother, who emigrated to Cuba, has recently died, and along with a few hundred dollars he wishes his brother to take possession of the niece.  While the dollars never eventuate, Juliette does, and her arrival is a catalyst for all kinds of events in the sleepy town.

The reason for the uproar is that the quiet Juliette, as well as being an outsider, is beautiful, strikingly so, and her appearance casts a spell on the men of the village from their very first sight of her:
"All of a sudden we stopped laughing.  We grew timid.  This was when she raised her head.  If we had started to say something, we grew quiet.  And now they no longer dared look her in the face, because it felt then like a long knitting needle entering your heart."
p.25 (Onesuch Press, 2013)
Unable to avoid the attentions of the café patrons, she escapes to live with Rouge, an elderly fisherman, in his house down by the lake.  However, if she thought this was the end of her troubles, she was sorely mistaken, for the men of the village simply can't bring themselves to leave her in peace...

It's a fascinating story, both familiar and unpredictable.  Juliette, transported from Cuba and dropped onto the shores of Lake Geneva, is an exotic element, and in such a small, traditional location, she can do nothing but disturb the status quo.  In truth, she is anything but a heart-breaker, being rather withdrawn and shy.  Initially, she locks herself in her room and prefers dark, unflashy clothing, and it must be said that her beauty is never explicitly stated - it is simply assumed from the locals' behaviour.

Nevertheless, the men are driven wild.  The customers at the café only want to be served by her, turning away Miliquet and his helpers when they dare to approach, carafe in hand.  The mayor's son, Maurice Busset, simply abandons his fiancée once he's caught sight of Juliette, just one of the hordes of men desperate to snatch her away from Rouge, jealous of his possession.  Rouge himself, while more grandfatherly in his attentions, eventually becomes possessive and protective, taking to arms to protect his charge (or perhaps his interest in her).

Juliette, however, has no interest in the men; she just wants to live life in peace and enjoy herself.  She loves the lake and fishing as it reminds her of home, and several people share the thought that:
"Oh, she is exactly where she should be!" (p.101)
Rouge helps replace her father (Uncle Milliquet was only interested in the money and the increased trade her looks brought...), and her love for music is catered for by another outsider, a hunchback with an accordion.  They're all happy for a while, but with the male blood pressure rising, it's unlikely to last...

Beauty on Earth is a beautiful(!) book containing some fascinating writing.  The translator's brief foreword explains certain peculiarities of style, many of which I had already picked up on.  Ramuz enjoys using an unusual jumble of tenses (past and present) and chooses a mix of direct action and the comments of those narrating.  In fact, it is the identification of the narrator which is most interesting, as Ramuz switches from you to we to they with alarming frequency.  If you add to that a penchant for short sentences, idiosyncratic punctuation and some casual repetition, it's no wonder that it took me a while to adjust - but I did, and I enjoyed it :)

Part of the attraction of the book is also the description of the environment.  The action takes place in wonderful surroundings, and the book is full of descriptions of the lake, the trees and the hills.  The beauty of the title is apparent not just in Juliette, but also in the place she finds herself:
"He had seen that at this moment the mountains were touched on their side by the sun dipping down, at the same time the light turned less white; there was a color like honey between the walls of rock.  Lower down, on the slope of the fields, it was like powdered gold; above the woods, like warm cinders.  Everything was making itself beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry.  All these things making themselves more beautiful, always more beautiful, the water, the mountain, the sky, all that is liquid, all that is solid, all that is neither solid nor liquid, but it all holds together; it was like an agreement, a continual exchange from one thing to another thing, and between everything that exists.  And around her, and because of her - what he is thinking and telling himself up there.  There is a place for beauty..." (p.95)
Perhaps in such an idyllic spot, the beauty Juliette brings is simply too much for one village to bear...

Beauty on Earth is a book which is probably very little read in English (despite an earlier translation), but it's a wonderful way to spend a few hours.  It has all the elements of a standard tragedy, but it's fairly unique in the way it unfolds.  It's also unusual in that its centrepiece is probably the least developed character in the novel.  Juliette is less a person than an idea, the symbol of beauty, and her story shows that beauty is not always such a good thing.  As Valerie Trueblood says in her introduction, it can be a form of natural disaster - as well as bringing joy, it can cause great destruction...

P.S. While I was writing this review, I stumbled across a short piece by the translator over at Necessary Fiction, in which she discusses the issues of translating Beauty on Earth and her own connection to the landscape - well worth checking out :)