Reading this book during summer was a weird experience. The more I read, the more I had this feeling of déjà vu. (By the way, I love how English speakers pronounce that word. It’s even weirder than when I say it in French).
Then it came back to me. When I was a teenager, my mother had gotten some old literature classics textbooks discarded from the school library, and I remembered being bored and hot during the summer holidays, and reading my heart out. I have this tactile memory of lying on the wooden floor on the top floor of our sun-drenched home and turning the pages for whole afternoons. What else did I read that summer? No idea. As you can see, it rather entered my subconscious brain than my readily accessible culture, because I could have bet I’d never read the book before.
But indeed I had, in large excerpts. The sad tale of this awkward child plagued with a horrible mother (and a horrible father too, but I guess he’s more pathetic) is indeed memorable. All Jacques (the child, but actually Vallès himself) wants is to roam freely in the countryside, all she wants of him is to make him a proper bourgeois. She is petty, mean, cruel, and ridiculous in her social-climbing. She’s not as cruel as the other famous evil mother in French literature: Folcoche, written by Hervé Bazin in Vipère au poing / Viper in the fist (the nickname given by her rebellious son, the narrator, is the mix between folle-crazy and cochonne-pig), but Bazin’s book was published in 1948, while Valles’ was in 1878!
What surprised me most was how modern, realist and yet very funny Valles’ writing has remained. Laugh out loud funny. This is highly readable and I didn’t force myself to read at the child’s naivety and his mother’s stupidity. Valles was a friend of Hector Malot, and Malot’s book about a miserable childhood is in my experience (one or two decades ago, so I may be mistaken) a tear-jerker that had aged a lot. If readers were accustomed to melodramatic books dealing with heavy issues, no wonder that they might have been shocked when Valles was being snarky and sometimes even resorted to slapstick comics (the one being slapped being, you’ve guessed, the poor child.)
Considering the dark subject it was indeed a pleasant surprise. Of course the book has a political background of revolt (I don’t know if American readers would classify it as anarchist or very liberal) but it doesn’t pollute the flow and the brisk pace of the book. I had very little knowledge of Jules Valles’ life, although it’s very easy to guess that he’s speaking of himself there), but when I read the Wikipedia article I connected the dots with lots of other familiar names, events and places in history, centered around the 1870 Commune and its bloody aftermath. I knew of Le Cri du Peuple from distant history class, but I didn’t know this libertarian and socialist newspaper was his idea. This made me want to try the second book of his trilogy: The Graduate (Le Bachelier).
PS. You can find the English version at the ever-excellent NYRB, or in French in free electronic format from Gutenberg.org