I have been familiar with the character Jean de Florette since I was little girl, hearing about the original Marcel Pagnol novel and the extremely successful 1980s French films through my family whilst holidaying in the south of France. Consequently, this read (or at least the first half of the entire story of Les Bagnols, I still have Manon des Sources to dig into at some point in the future…) has been a long time coming…
Marcel Pagnol was born in Aubagne in the very south of France and the dramatic landscapes and earthy inhabitants of this part of the world really are the true stars of these novels.
At the beginning of the story we meet César ‘le Papet’ and Ugolin Soubeyran; an uncle and nephew who are central figures within the local village and who, with dreams of amounting riches for themselves, set their sights on owning a property down the valley that is ripe for cultivating, with a sizeable farmhouse and, more importantly, a spring that will allow Ugolin to grow thousands of carnations and sell them in the nearby town.
Following the untimely (and rather suspect) death of the recluse, Pique-Bouffigue, who owns the land, the Soubeyrans set to work protecting their interests and concealing the spring before relations arrive in the hills to claim their inheritance. Jean Cadoret, Pique-Bouffigue’s nephew and a hunchback from out of town promptly arrives with his beautiful wife and daughter, intent on becoming a true peasant and making a home and business for himself and his family by tilling the land. Land that is now as dry as a bone. What then follows, unsurprisingly, is the painful downfall of this spirited, initially carefree man and the strong women who are there to support him; a decline that is uncomfortable both to watch (Jean is masterfully played by Gérard Depardieu in the 1986 film) and to read about.
**Apologies for those of you who don’t understand any French – I can’t find an appropriate clip with English subtitles but I think this trailer gets the feel of the film across quite well :-)**
I have to say, and hate to say, that I actually prefer the film in this case. Each and every character is brought to life, and indeed, rejuvenated somewhat by the brilliant performances by the likes of Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil and I really think that watching the film first and reading the book afterwards may be a more accessible way into this story, particularly if you aren’t familiar with that region of the world. I have started this book twice before in the past and sadly never made it to the main part of the story until now. I suspect I simply have never been quite ‘in the mood’, and probably need to actually be down in France to fully immerse myself in the provençal spirit of it all. Although as a reader you are right behind Jean, trudging along those dusty tracks and cursing the peasants’ relative disinterest in his plight, right up to the harrowing climax of the book…I did find it slow to get off the ground. Although I know my Mum (and probably Dad, Auntie and co) will no doubt passionately disagree with me, I did reach a stage where there one too many descriptions of planting chickpeas going on and I was desperate for something to happen.
That said, something did happen in the end and this is definitely worth picking up…just make sure you watch the film first.