‘Beauty on Earth’ by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (Review)

Today, I’m introducing yet another small press to the blog, another of those wonderful publishers who focus on fiction in translation.  Onesuch Press started out a couple of years ago, specialising in revitalising old, forgotten classics, or minor works by great writers.  The book I received for review is by a writer I hadn’t heard of before, Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.  The main theme of the novel is a very familiar one though – beauty…

*****
Beauty on Earth (new translation by Michelle Bailat-Jones) begins with a letter, one in which Milliquet, a Swiss café owner, learns of a rather unusual bequest.  His brother, who emigrated to Cuba, has recently died, and along with a few hundred dollars he wishes his brother to take possession of the niece.  While the dollars never eventuate, Juliette does, and her arrival is a catalyst for all kinds of events in the sleepy town.

The reason for the uproar is that the quiet Juliette, as well as being an outsider, is beautiful, strikingly so, and her appearance casts a spell on the men of the village from their very first sight of her:

“All of a sudden we stopped laughing.  We grew timid.  This was when she raised her head.  If we had started to say something, we grew quiet.  And now they no longer dared look her in the face, because it felt then like a long knitting needle entering your heart.”
p.25 (Onesuch Press, 2013)

Unable to avoid the attentions of the café patrons, she escapes to live with Rouge, an elderly fisherman, in his house down by the lake.  However, if she thought this was the end of her troubles, she was sorely mistaken, for the men of the village simply can’t bring themselves to leave her in peace…

It’s a fascinating story, both familiar and unpredictable.  Juliette, transported from Cuba and dropped onto the shores of Lake Geneva, is an exotic element, and in such a small, traditional location, she can do nothing but disturb the status quo.  In truth, she is anything but a heart-breaker, being rather withdrawn and shy.  Initially, she locks herself in her room and prefers dark, unflashy clothing, and it must be said that her beauty is never explicitly stated – it is simply assumed from the locals’ behaviour.

Nevertheless, the men are driven wild.  The customers at the café only want to be served by her, turning away Miliquet and his helpers when they dare to approach, carafe in hand.  The mayor’s son, Maurice Busset, simply abandons his fiancée once he’s caught sight of Juliette, just one of the hordes of men desperate to snatch her away from Rouge, jealous of his possession.  Rouge himself, while more grandfatherly in his attentions, eventually becomes possessive and protective, taking to arms to protect his charge (or perhaps his interest in her).

Juliette, however, has no interest in the men; she just wants to live life in peace and enjoy herself.  She loves the lake and fishing as it reminds her of home, and several people share the thought that:

“Oh, she is exactly where she should be!” (p.101)

Rouge helps replace her father (Uncle Milliquet was only interested in the money and the increased trade her looks brought…), and her love for music is catered for by another outsider, a hunchback with an accordion.  They’re all happy for a while, but with the male blood pressure rising, it’s unlikely to last…

Beauty on Earth is a beautiful(!) book containing some fascinating writing.  The translator’s brief foreword explains certain peculiarities of style, many of which I had already picked up on.  Ramuz enjoys using an unusual jumble of tenses (past and present) and chooses a mix of direct action and the comments of those narrating.  In fact, it is the identification of the narrator which is most interesting, as Ramuz switches from you to we to they with alarming frequency.  If you add to that a penchant for short sentences, idiosyncratic punctuation and some casual repetition, it’s no wonder that it took me a while to adjust – but I did, and I enjoyed it 🙂

Part of the attraction of the book is also the description of the environment.  The action takes place in wonderful surroundings, and the book is full of descriptions of the lake, the trees and the hills.  The beauty of the title is apparent not just in Juliette, but also in the place she finds herself:

“He had seen that at this moment the mountains were touched on their side by the sun dipping down, at the same time the light turned less white; there was a color like honey between the walls of rock.  Lower down, on the slope of the fields, it was like powdered gold; above the woods, like warm cinders.  Everything was making itself beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry.  All these things making themselves more beautiful, always more beautiful, the water, the mountain, the sky, all that is liquid, all that is solid, all that is neither solid nor liquid, but it all holds together; it was like an agreement, a continual exchange from one thing to another thing, and between everything that exists.  And around her, and because of her – what he is thinking and telling himself up there.  There is a place for beauty…” (p.95)

Perhaps in such an idyllic spot, the beauty Juliette brings is simply too much for one village to bear…

Beauty on Earth is a book which is probably very little read in English (despite an earlier translation), but it’s a wonderful way to spend a few hours.  It has all the elements of a standard tragedy, but it’s fairly unique in the way it unfolds.  It’s also unusual in that its centrepiece is probably the least developed character in the novel.  Juliette is less a person than an idea, the symbol of beauty, and her story shows that beauty is not always such a good thing.  As Valerie Trueblood says in her introduction, it can be a form of natural disaster – as well as bringing joy, it can cause great destruction…

*****
P.S. While I was writing this review, I stumbled across a short piece by the translator over at Necessary Fiction, in which she discusses the issues of translating Beauty on Earth and her own connection to the landscape – well worth checking out 🙂

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8 thoughts on “‘Beauty on Earth’ by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (Review)

  1. I am pretty sure I first heard of Ramuz from Bailat-Jones, but years ago, back when she was the Incurable Logophile (now she is pieces).

    Once I had his name in mind, I began to come across it occasionally. Ramuz is utterly obscure in English, but still actively read in French, with lots of his own books in print and lots of books about him. Bad judgment by English-language readers, but here is another chance.

    I hope Michelle is able to translate more Ramuz. She has done some short stories and scattered them around in literary magazines.

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  2. I'm happy to see another review of Ramuz (and of Michelle Bailat-Jones' welcome efforts in getting him some much-deserved attention from readers of English). I've relished each of the Ramuz novels I've read so far – that peculiar, painterly style, scenes etched as dramatically as a woodcut, such affecting depictions of the impact of events large and small on placid village life. Since you appreciated this one, you might also like When the Mountain Fell and the end-of-the-world, apocalyptic The End of All Men.

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  3. Tom – I was surprised when I looked at his Wikipedia page at how big he actually is (I'm sure you don't get on a banknote for nothing…). I loved this one, and I agree that he deserves more coverage in English.

    Of course, I can always just read him in French if I feel the urge 😉

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  4. I'd never heard of Ramuz before, I'll have to look him up, in French though. Do you have other Onesuch Press titles to review? I like their catalogue, it's nice to see in translation some of the older, quieter books that also make up other countries' literary traditions.

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  5. Dear Tony,
    We’re Swiss and live on the shore of the lake of Geneva, but discovered “Beauty on earth” only this year. It describes so well the place, the people, the lake, and the landscape we know, we would never have guessed that Ramuz’ style could make it to the heart of a foreigner, in a translation! Your analysis is right to the point, it pinpoints exactly what we feel when we read him in French. To us he is so modern because he was able in a rather rigid grammatical environment to free himself from the usual rules, to say the things like he feels them. He does not try to avoid repetitions if these repetitions give more sense to the text. And then he has a real sense of suspense. This last Sunday…

    Thank you so much for your review! It helped us to focus on what this novel really means to us, why we fell for it.

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    1. Cecile and Jerome – You’re welcome 🙂 Sad to say, I haven’t yet found the time to try more of his work, but I’d love to read some more when I get the chance. I can also imagine that living in that kind of setting would make the book even better…

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