Documenting Rural Touraine: Yvette and Caroline

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 What follows is an unashamed plug…

In 2005, my friend the French documentary filmmaker Sylvestre Chatenay suggested I visit his neighbour’s farm to buy some goat’s cheese and to meet Yvette. Dropping in on Yvette was like entering a time capsule from another era. In her 70s, she had lived all her life with her elderly mother and two brothers on this smallholding with crops, livestock and dairy farming – the father was long dead. None of the children had married, in accordance with their mother’s orders. Yvette had wanted to in her youth. She obeyed her mother’s unreasonable demand but, as a sign of protest, announced that she would not cut her hair for the rest of her life, a promise she has kept to this day. Their way of life seemed and seems the last glimmer of a dying flame, an eccentric vision of rural France that is on the cusp of extinction.

With the family’s somewhat puzzled permission, Sylvestre spent a year filming life on the farm and capturing this waning world through four seasons and the death of the mother. It is an intensely parochial, self-contained world, but not without surprises. Chatting to one of Yvette’s brothers, I discovered that he had been to England to study pig farming techniques on a local cooperative grant. It turned out that, on similar grants, he had travelled the world and was a mine of agricultural information. 

Today, when the garage collection truck arrives on their rural road, it roars past the farm because there is nothing to collect. Everything is used, or recycled. The end-of-the-line family is almost entirely self-sufficient. And above all, this is a world that centres on the lively, alert, informed and ever-active personality of Yvette. On the first day of snow, she emerges into her courtyard exclaiming “Ah, the snow has fallen! And it’s white this year!”

Sylvestre’s film, Yvette, bon dieu !, is a little masterpiece of documentary making that combines sensitivity, humour, hardship, visual beauty, pathos and poetry. It has appeared in several French film festivals to great acclaim, and deserves an airing elsewhere (any film festival organisers listening?). The trailer can be viewed here

Following a TV film about the socialist minister Marisol Touraine, Sylvestre’s most recent documentary is Un costume de maire pour Caroline. Remaining in the quiet pastoral world of southern Touraine, he documents the day-to-day life of Caroline, a woman mayor in the village of Sennevières who, in common with Yvette, is larger than life. Whether preparing the village play or discussing how and when potholes in a country road are going to be plugged, once again we are drawn into an affectionately detailed world which, without the slightest sentimentalism, captures another facet of what may one day be the stuff of memories. The trailer for this film can be seen here.

 Sylvestre Chatenay has a special gift for finding the richest subject matter right under his nose.

Everybody Wants to Be a Cat

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I’d just like to say to those who object to photos and videos of cats and kittens on YouTube, Facebook and other social media, that they have missed the entire point. The single overriding purpose of these sites is to promote cat worship on a planetary scale. This would be entirely obvious to any aliens studying the Great Chain of Being on Earth: the felines are at the top of the chain and, having need of beings with opposable thumbs to do useful things like opening cans, at the Dawn of Time they elected them to be their vassals and votaries. In the words of the late Terry Pratchett,  “In ancient times, cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” Nor indeed have we, and there is substantial evidence that cat worship is now at its apogee, a global phenomenon rather than one limited to certain ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, the Peruvians and the Chinese. 

 It was announced yesterday that three new books are to be published this year, compiled from the posthumous papers of Charles Bukowski. One of these, scheduled for September 2015, is On Cats“If you’re feeling bad, you just look at the cats; you’ll feel better, because they know everything is, just as it is,” Bukowski once said, adding: “The more cats you have, the longer you live. If you have a hundred cats, you’ll live ten times longer than if you have ten. Someday this will be discovered, and people will have a thousand cats and live forever.” 

 Whether called Cat (Holly Golightly’s pet in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Tobermory,  Skimbleshanks or Tabitha Twitchit, cats have always had a special place in literature, beloved by the likes of Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, Hemingway, Samuel Johnson, Yeats, and Patricia Highsmith. In the words of Charles Dickens, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?” 

 My favourite encomium to our furry overlords is “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” – an extract from “Jubilate Agno” – by the 18th-century English poet Christopher Smart, written when he was confined for seven years to a lunatic asylum and the eponymous cat was his only companion. Here it is in full, for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with it:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For First he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For Secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For Thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For Fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For Fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually – Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is affraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly,
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

Christopher Smart (1722-71)

 

 

Elena Ferrante

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One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.

Thus begins Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. Olga, a 39-year-old woman, with two children and a dog, is left by her husband Mario for a younger woman. What follows is her attempt to cope with this abandonment, day in, day out, and the increasing probability with time that there will be no return. A banal premise for a novel? Not here. From the outset, we are in the hands of a magisterial writer who takes us through every detail and depth of Olga’s inner and outer life with an intimacy, candour and emotional power that cannot leave you unmoved. At times the writing reminded me of Amos Oz, at other times of Ivan Klima or Javier Marias. In other words, Elena Ferrante is clearly in the front rank of international writers today. 

But who is Ferrante? The name is a pseudonym and, though theories exist, no-one is really sure who she – or possibly he – is, beyond a Neapolitan background. Ferrante is also the author of Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter, and a four-book series of Neapolitan novels, to be concluded later this year.  The Days of Abandonment was published in Italy in 2002 and remained a bestseller there for over a year. It was warmly recommended to me by friends, and I recommend it in turn and with equal warmth. Each page felt like striking gold, the thrill of discovering a contemporary writer with a unique and complex insight into what makes people tick, coming from a direction that was least expected. Any other Elena Ferrantes out there?

 

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

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I am the suburb of a non-existent town, the prolix commentary on a book never written. I am nobody, nobody. I am a character in a novel which remains to be written, and I float, aerial, scattered without ever having been, among the dreams of a creature who did not know how to finish me off.
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
© 2018 Adrian Mathews