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A Sense of Place

ISSUE:  Winter 1980
The Horse of Pride: Life in a Breton Village. By Pierre-Jakez Helias. Translanted and abridged by June Guicharnaud. Yale. $15.00.

At the end of the last century, the French social philosopher Gabriel Tarde remarked on the disappearance of what most people took to be a permanent institution: the French peasant. Now Pierre-Jakez Hèlias offers a highly personal chronicle of the loss. The strength and attractiveness of The Horse of Pride (the title refers to the only horse a peasant can afford) reside in its concrete detail and oral style. Here, for example, is Helias describing his father’s position as grand valet on a farm in Brittany 80 years ago.

In certain places the foreman’s preeminence was due to the fact that he was responsible for the horse or horses, and capable of getting the best out of them, while at the same time keeping them in good condition. He was required, most especially, to know how to whistle in such a way that they would pee at a specific time—or “pour themselves out,” as the saying goes. It was no small matter. Some farm-hands never managed to do it. The foreman was also the one who not only rode the finest animal on the farm when there were races or shows, but who got them into the sea, into the Bay of Audierne, for their yearly ritual bath.

Later Hélias devotes a whole section to whistling, as an initiatory experience among boys and as a means of luring birds. He seems to have forgotten nothing of his Breton past. The lore of peasant customs and manners has the closeness, and remoteness, of an old photograph: the record of lost accomplishments.

At first the book resembles a straightforward memoir: the story of Helias’s coming of age in Plozévet, a village near Quimper, His two grandfathers, both steeped in the oral traditions of that locale, were almost as important to him as his parents. It was initially assumed that young Hélias would become a hired hand like his father; then his performance in school earned him a full scholarship at the lycee in Quimper and partial release from—or rejection of—an indigenous way of life that had lasted for centuries. The author concludes his account when he receives his bac at the lycée and goes on to the university. Hélias’s unwillingness to turn his back on Breton culture shadows every paragraph of the text. Autobiography gradually turns out to be the armature of a larger project.

The center of Hélias’s concern, the natural thesis of the details he recounts, is that modernization destroys community. Village schools teaching the French language to replace Breton, the introduction of machinery, and universal service in World War I broke the back of Breton village societies. In anger and sadness, Hélias speaks out:

Finally, instead of fields peopled with families at work, instead of a great many “groups” helping each other with their tasks, one now sees nothing but a few tractors, each driven by a man, a lonely man accompanied by a flight of seabirds as he ploughs his furrows. . . . There is no longer any visiting among neighbors, no longer any community. I know one man who was reduced to talking to his tractor, as he had once talked to his horse. But the tractor didn’t neigh; it never brought forth a foal.

Hélias makes us feel the loss through passages reminiscent of the magnificent scene in Anna Karenina in which Levin joins a group of 40 men scything the wheat fields on his estate. Helias describes the daily chores, the seasonal round of farm activities, and the stages by which a boy learned his place in an elaborate village culture. Mostly, it was a life of constant work, so much so that a woman walking a few miles to a field would knit or crochet along the way. But in spite of, or because of, their poverty, these peasants celebrated feast days, weddings, funerals, and pilgrimages with immense gusto. To accommodate scores of guests at a banquet on a farm, trenches were dug in an open field and people sat eating on the sod with their legs in the trench. In the absence of a single dominant family the village was polarized between two factions: the Whites, supporting the church and conservative politics, and the Reds, upholding the Republican tradition. The Helias family was Red; they also went faithfully to church. There was little leisure, and little doubt about just how everything was to be done—even whistling. That world was full to the brim and running over with traditions and conventions. Few saw it as oppressive.

The book’s coherence derives above all from Hélias’s sense of place: of Finisterre, Land’s End, the End of the Earth, the country of King Arthur and Merlin the Magician. We see Plozevet, Helias’s village in le pays bigouden, not far from where Gauguin and his friends settled in the 1890’s to record the luminous landscape and its colorful inhabitants. Oddly enough in this village near the sea, people scorned fish and avoided seafaring as a way of life. They lived stubbornly on the land; that was their secret.

This sense of place reaches us because Helias writes with passion and at first hand. His sensitivity to the resonance of the most ordinary incidents and habits is manifest throughout the text:

Anyone who had even watched a Breton peasant eating his piece of bread knew what gastronomy was. A peasant would cut his chunk straight from the loaf; he did not like being served slices that had been cut in advance. He enjoyed smelling his bread between bites, chewing it slowly and peacefully, moving it from one side of his mouth to the other before swallowing. And you had to see the attentive expression on his face and the look of concentration in his eyes while he was indulging. It was almost like celebrating Mass—the Mass of our daily bread. Indeed! Who had sown, hoed, cut, and then threshed the grain that was destined for that peerless food? Who had broken his back and got dripping wet if not he? The time had come to taste the fruits of his labor.

Excesses of idealization and sentimentality creep in here along with accuracy of observation. More often, Helias lightens his reminiscences with wry humor; thus Grandfather LeGoff’s subtly contrasting moral advice to Helias himself—be firm like the gorse—and then to his sister—be douce like the broom. (June Guicharnaud’s supple translation—of what is already the author’s translation from the Breton—serves the text well, and for the most part her editing is discreet.)

A set of clearly drawn objects or symbols recurs throughout the book. The domestic scene is made vivid by wooden shoes carved by the grandfather; by the mother’s tall coiffe pinned into her hair early every morning; by flails, scythes, wheelbarrows, and other tools; by crepes and cider and soup. But above all the lit clos or box-bed embodies the spirit of the book. Inside their one-room houses people slept in wooden beds enclosed on all sides for privacy and warmth, like tiny nested bedrooms for two or three members of the family. From the dark protection of these lits clos the children, presumed to be sleeping, observed many of the transactions of adult life when callers came or when ritual occasions were prolonged late into the night. At the lycee Helias had to sleep in a vulnerable, open bed. After that his life changed. Bergson provides the terms that seem apt here: closed societies and open societies. Hélias’s lit clos is emblematic of the difference, and it is disappointing to find no photograph of one among the illustrations. Today, he says, people buy them at antique shops to be used as liquor cabinets and planters.

But nostalgia is not the basic key in which this book is written, even though it reminds one at times of George Sand or the painter Millet. It is more appropriate to compare The Horse of Pride to Gorky’s memoirs of his childhood and youth, of which the Russians have made a series of beautiful films. Helias appropriately calls one of his chapters “Les Tres Riches Heures,” referring to the late-medieval miniatures depicting the seasonal activities of castle life with attention to the tiniest domestic details.

One wonders about the unreported underside of Brittany’s golden past. It could not have been all an idyll. But nonetheless, Hélias’s observations are persuasive. In a passage omitted in the American edition he argues: “The peasants I knew were not a class, but a complete society with the struggles and fermentations so implied.” France has lost not merely a fragment of itself but a world discrete and entire.

Living together in the communal manner of Breton peasants comes to seem infinitely more desirable than living separately in the isolated intimacy of automobiles, television, and air-conditioning. But on this point Helias is ambivalent. He is himself caught inextricably between his loyalty to the Breton way of life and to the mainstream of French culture that has favored him and equipped him to evaluate and describe the mores of the peasantry. Hélias frets because he can find no villain, no person or institution responsible for the peasantry’s disappearance. “What am I leading up to? Nothing. What do I want to prove? Not a thing.” Helias cannot stifle his anger and the final pages explode with his desire to find a culprit: The times? The French language? Growing towns devouring the landscape? Tourists ruining everything? Sociologists studying what they will never grasp? None will do, and the fact that his anger can discover no suitable object is itself revealing, sociologically and morally. Helias cannot in the end follow his own wise maxim: “It is easier to belong to one’s time than to come from somewhere.” Since he proposes no political solutions to regional problems, his book has not been well received by the independence movement in Brittany.

Contrary to what Lawrence Wylie states in his foreword, The Horse of Pride is not an epic. We find no large-scale action or heroic achievement. It comes far closer to being the confession of a man divided against himself.

The “collection” in which The Horse of Pride was published in France also issued Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss. This superb ethnographic autobiography presents a striking reverse counterpart of Helias’s story. Deep in the South American jungle, Lévi-Strauss reaches the point where he must face the double-bind of every ethnographer studying another society. He is lost “half-way between” his own and the other culture. He wishes to advance as far as he can toward understanding that alien culture from inside. But if he goes too far, he will lose his objectivity and identity; even the fascination of the exotic will diminish. Lévi -Strauss writes as someone approaching an alien society from outside and wanting to see inside it. Helias writes as a person leaving a dying culture and still wanting to present it from inside. Is it possible to live and write on such a precarious frontier? Helias and Lévi -Strauss succeed by acknowledging and scrutinizing their dilemma. It was learning Latin that finally brought home to Hèlias that he was being changed from a Gaul into a Roman. “I was then leading a double life, and I expect I always will.” The anger at the end does not displace the haunting sadness of this book.

Both a convincing historical document and a personal record, The Horse of Pride will speak eloquently to anyone aware of living on one of the other 20th-century frontiers—for example, the one between overloaded privacy and vacuous community. We are all on edge.


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