Malicroix by Henri Bosco
Translated by Joyce Zonana

Back in April there was quite a buzz about a new release from NYRB Classics, and a number of bookish Twitter types did a bit of a readalong. Now, somehow I’d managed to miss this book coming out, which is odd because I follow NYRB releases closely and often review their titles. The book in question was “Malicroix” by Henri Bosco, and fortunately another kind fellow blogger was able to pass on a digital copy to me, so I was able to join in and read alongside others (thanks, Damian!)

Alas no picture of a pretty book, as I e-read this – not a format I enjoy, but it was worth it in this case! 😀

Henri Bosco (1888 – 1976) is a writer I hadn’t come across before, and it seems he might have been one of French literature’s best kept secrets. A prolific author, only a handful of his works have been translated into English in the past; and this from a writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature four times!! So kudos to NYRB and translator Joyce Zonana for bringing his work to us Anglophone readers.

“Malicroix” was first published in 1948, and it tells the story of a young man coming into his inheritance. Martial de Megremut is an orphaned young man who lives a quiet life with his extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins and the like. However, his mother was a Malicroix and so when his uncle Cornelius de Malicroix dies, he leaves an inheritance to Martial who is now the last survivor of Malicroix blood. Contacted by the Malicroix family notary, the alarming and mysterious Maitre Domiols, Martial travels to a small island in the Camargue (an area of southern France characterised by marshes, swampland and lagoons). Here he is met by the other inhabitants of the island, Cornelius’s old retainer Balandran, and his dog Brequillet. The climate is hostile; his fellow man and dog taciturn; and the isolation overwhelming. For man like Martial it’s a real shock to the system, but Cornelius’s will makes it clear that Martial must spent three months on the island to come into his inheritance – which is in fact the island and all that’s attached to it (sheep and the like…)

No two times of solitude are alike, for we are never alone in the same way

It’s quite an ask for someone like Martial, used to calm, quiet inland living with a loving family; in fact, quite a simple and bland lifestyle. However, something stirs inside him, and despite the threatening presence of Domiols and his slippery servant Uncle Rat, Martial discovers a stubbornness which makes him want to see out the three months and claim the island as his. However, it will not be as straightforward as that; for Cornelius has left a codicil, and a final test will be faced by Martial to right a wrong of the past, if he wants to truly become a Malicroix.

That’s just a brief outline of what’s going on in this marvellous and immersive novel, and to be honest the plotlines as such are not the major focus of the book. What seems to me most important is the changes which we see taking place in Martial as he wrestles with the very essence of what makes him who he is. Although outwardly Martial recognises the Megremut in himself, represented by the image of his life as a quiet botanist in a greenhouse, inwardly he can feel the wild Malicroix blood that’s in him, symbolised by the wild untamed nature on the island. Those two types of blood are raging through him leaving us to wonder which will win; and while that battle is going on we can’t help but puzzle on what the secret of the island and inheritance actually is.

The island—I wanted it; I had become its spirit; I haunted it like a ghost; my soul depended on its possession, and in the auspicious darkness through which Dromiols vainly searched for me, I moved ahead toward my destiny, tormented by a growing anxiety, but lucid, my head lowered, like a blind force.

I must mention Bosco’s writing, because the narrative is quiet beautiful and the prose lyrical, often hallucinogenic. Martial goes through many trials on his journey towards his inheritance, with a number of stumbling blocks on the way. There are others on the shore across the river: the strange ferryman, another figure initially unidentified and descendents of ancient enemies. Early on in the story, the mysterious Maitre Domiols tells Martial the family history, and it’s a dark one; though at this point neither Martial nor the reader knows how the past will affect what plays out in the present. Bosco’s narrative captures Martial’s heightened state of awareness, his digging down into himself to discover what kind of man he really is, and his final appreciation of the two strands of blood within him.

A little later, he would give me news of the flock, always the same. How could it have been otherwise? The Malicroix solitude, the island, our wild and barren lands—all kept people away, and where people do not enter, nothing moves, except imperceptibly. Yet ever since Balandran loved me a little, I hardly suffered. He loved me like a Malicroix, an enfeebled Malicroix, to be sure, but still stamped with the seal. I had had my night of madness. And he had seen in it the strong blood of that old, wild lineage. From that moment on, he was my man, for this is a blood that binds and commands, even in me, who usually would not know how to insist on anything nor how to give an order, so much am I a Mégremut. Yet, through my innate gentleness, Balandran had scented the old, wild blood.

Reading “Malicroix” was a completely immersive experience; each time I picked up the book I was transported to the island in the Camargue to experience its landscape along with Martial (and it *is* a very dramatic landscape). The lyrical prose is almost hypnotic at times, and yet much is left elusive and unsaid which adds to the mystery of Martial’s story. The location itself is a powerful force in the narrative, dominating at times and almost taking on a personality of its own.

Had I not already entered the outline of a disturbing dream? Hanging by a frail thread at the center of the ravenous river, the boat seemed an improbable memory. Yet it was more than a dream, for my eyes had truly seen it, and in my sleeplessness I was tempted to interpret it as an emblem of a lonely thought—man on the water, awaiting night and death.

There’s a small supporting cast in “Malicroix”, but they’re beautifully drawn characters. Balandran and Brequillet, both initially wary of the incomer, warm to him as he comes to love the island and are loyal friends. A mysterious woman comes to Martial’s aid at a time of great distress, and may have more to do with the story of the Malicroix family than is immediately obvious. Even the dubious Uncle Rat is not as straightforward as he seems. And Martial’s family, initially portrayed as rather soft and bland, are revealed as good people, powerful in their own way and able support their errant family member; his return visit to them before a final trial is very moving.

She had not heard me approaching. Now, for the first time in my life, I could contemplate her at leisure, seeing her with new eyes, the eyes of another. For the stranger had followed me. The stranger was here—I was the stranger. Caught between these two natures that nevertheless interpenetrated one another, body and soul, I was reluctant to trouble the peace of this charming old woman who, while she waited for me, bent over her rose point lace, carefully stitching.

Looming over the book is the monumental, larger-than-life presence of the mysterious notary Domiols; his willpower is spelled out and it often seems that he will overwhelm Martial by sheer force of personality, compelling him to leave the island. However, the latter discovers that his Megremut blood gives him hidden strength in his patience and his ability to copy with isolation. Whether it gives him enough strength to cope with facing his ultimate fear – the chaos and disorder of the river – is something you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Henri Bosco [Souricette-du-13 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

As you might guess, I absolutely loved this book. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read, really (though the nearest comparisons I can think of are The Marble Cliffs and The Other Side, also both from Twentieth Century European authors). I grew extremely fond of Martial, Balandran and Brequillet in particular, and had some bad moments about the fate of all of them! And I can understand the fuss that’s been made about this book, because it really is something special. Beautifully written, totally absorbing, emotionally affecting and quite haunting, “Malicroix” is a book to get under your skin and into your soul.

*****

I feel I should say a special word of thanks to translator Joyce Zozana for her work on bringing Malicroix to us. From what I understand, she first encountered the book back in the 1970s when it was praised in another work she was reading – Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space”, which oddly enough has been lurking on my TBR for a few months. Now there’s synchronicity… Anyway, apparently Joyce was inspired enough to want to start translating it at the time, but then life got in the way. Fortunately for us, she was able to return to the book in the 2010s and we now have the chance to read Bosco’s electrifying work. Thank you so much Joyce!

(Many thanks to NYRB for allowing Damian Stuber to kindly pass on the e-reading copy to me – much appreciated!)