‘The Spirits of the Earth’ by Catherine Colomb (Review)

img_5548While most review requests I get are from small publishers, I do occasionally have other people, particularly translators, asking me to take a look at a book (and I’m not always as good at responding as I should be…).  Unfortunately, I have to turn many down, simply because I know I won’t get around to them, or because they don’t sound like something I’d usually choose to read, but today’s post looks at one of the exceptions, a novel that piqued my interest from the start.  Of course, the fact that it’s published by Seagull Books probably played a part in that decision…

Catherine Colomb’s The Spirits of the Earth (review copy courtesy of translator John Taylor) starts with a bang, plunging the reader into the world of the Swiss upper classes with barely a chance to draw breath.  There’s a tragedy on the very first page, as a child called Abraham is said to have fallen to his death from a walkway at the top of his family’s spacious château, and worse still, loud voices are accusing his uncle, César, of being indirectly responsible.  The story then moves on (and back, and forwards once more) describing the two families inhabiting the château at Fraidaigue on the shores of Lake Geneva and the Maison d’En Haut up in the hills, slowly explaining the family history.

César is the focal point of the novel, albeit one whose thoughts and feelings are hidden from the reader for the most part.  Despite his position as the eldest son of a wealthy family, he has been usurped by his two younger brothers, who married at an early age and installed themselves in the two large family properties.  César, seemingly content to spend his days in the family vineyards, or lying on the beach by the lake, gazing vacantly into the sky, divides his year into two halves.  In autumn, he climbs the path to the Maison d’En Haut to spend six months with his brother Alphonse, returning in spring to enjoy the hospitality of Eugène’s household at Fraidaigue.  However, the eldest son’s wanderings act as a sword of Damocles for the other two (and their wives), who are constantly preoccupied by one question – what will happen if César marries and demands his share of the inheritance?

So far, so V-lit, but that’s not the case here at all.  In the book’s blurb, Colomb is compared to Virginia Woolf, and The Spirits of the Earth certainly has a fair amount in common with some of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style.  The novel doesn’t progress quite as simply as it appears from my summary above, instead becoming tangled in a thicket of mixed-up dialogue and description, where we’re occasionally unsure as to who is actually talking, or thinking.  At times, we’re not even sure if the characters are alive or dead; certainly, Abraham appears fairly frequently for someone who is supposed to have plunged to his death…

Even more complex, though, is the way the writer plays with time, her narrative refusing to flow in a calm, stately manner, instead moving with a frenetic, circular motion.  Events, and characters, appear and reappear, seen from different angles at different times, with details gradually added to the picture.  In his informative introduction, Taylor quotes Colomb herself:

Doesn’t memory constantly intervene, creating a parallel life, bringing along hundreds of recollections, fleeting visions, and daydreams until, suddenly – you don’t know why – everything vanishes and for an instant subsists only the image of periwinkle growing around a grave or, in a parlour, white rose petals slowly dropping off, and plunking down on the beige felt tablecloth embroidered with gold thread?
p.xviii (Seagull Books, 2016)

Within this seemingly random structure, an order of sorts does appear, allowing a portrait of César to emerge from the chaos.  The rhythm of the book comes from the regular movements of the wandering bachelor, defined by the seasons, and there’s certainly a hint of the regular flow of Woolf’s The Waves here.

One of the strengths of the book is its construction of the main characters, and even if we usually stay on the outside, we get a clear picture of their motives and fears.  Eugène’s wife, called simply Madame by all around (and nicknamed ‘Semiramis’ by the bitter César) is a classic matriarch, an imposing figure of a woman who can crush opposition by her shadow alone, and the sight of her cleaning her fingernails can cow the most contrary visitor.  Her husband, by contrast, is a weak figure, a hen-pecked little man hoping the sky won’t fall in one day, following in his Amazonian wife’s wake and secretly regretting his impetuous decision to marry young.

It’s César, though, around whom the story revolves, and if he is initially drawn as a crazed outsider, he soon wins our sympathy as we realise his secret hopes for a happy future:

He was vaguely daydreaming about a cheerful future; all in all, he was happy that Eugène, who had been the first child to marry, had taken Fraidaigue; he, César, would not have wished to have Fraidaigue because of the demolished tower from which the turtledove had fallen.  The frightened children were listening to their father demolish the tower, then he set off in a boat, crossed back and forth all night long in front of the château and its painted windows, caught a bad cold and died.  Not a single blade of grass grew where the tower had stood.  He, César, would marry Gwen and take the Maison d’En Haut.  But then what about Adolphe? (p.113)

The tragedy of the story is that the inheritance, as substantial as it is, won’t suffice for three sons (their sister, Zoé, is nowhere in this race for a legacy…), meaning that the happiness of one brother contributes to the misery of another.  As Adolphe and Eugène fret (and Madame plots), César attempts to assert himself and finally get what he deserves.  Sadly, his own hesitation and the vagaries of fate combine to push him down once more.

While hard to date, The Spirits of the Earth appears to be set in the interwar period, and there’s certainly a modernist feel to the novel.  The family is in decline, the crumbling tower a symbol of the loss of status and power, and the vineyards have been decimated by a harsh winter.  Colomb fills her work with minor characters, particularly women, who are destined to remain alone and unloved, and she doesn’t shy away from describing physical flaws in details, with many characters given flab, greasy skin and dirty thinning hair…

…and yet there’s also a lively feel to the novel, with the reader pulled along in a breathless race along the comma-laden sentences:

Charlotte waddled fast and heavy after her, loosening the cobblestones along the way, and forcefully placed on her cousin’s shoulders – how skinny she was! – her own Boyard coat that was moth-eaten even before the countess had tossed it to her after rummaging in a chest as big as a whole region of Europe, nothing but her big Russian derrière with its thousands of fatty folds showing as she threw furs and woollens down to the governesses standing in a row at the bottom of the staircase, and when she turned around, her poppy-red, terribly wrinkled face could be seen, she dealt out two or three more slaps and sat down to drink some black tea. (pp.54/5)

The lack of sections and a paucity of paragraph breaks make it hard to put the book down, particularly when time, place and point of view can shift mid-sentence, leaving you floundering until a familiar detail emerges like a rock to cling to in the midst of a stormy lake.  Taylor discusses the challenges of translating the novel in the introduction, particularly regarding Colomb’s interesting use of verb tenses, and bringing this story into English would definitely have been a formidable task.  Initially, I was a little concerned about some of the obvious Gallicisms, particularly in terms of word order (I’m not a huge fan of making the new text sound foreign), but in this book, with a text which deliberately distances the reader, it actually worked very well.

Colomb wasn’t a writer I’d heard of before receiving Taylor’s message, but it just shows (again…) that there are a lot of very good writers out there whose work is waiting to be discovered – and translated.  With the usual aesthetically pleasing Seagull Books treatment adding to the appeal, The Spirits of the Earth is a book many readers (those who enjoy something a little less plain) will enjoy.  She wasn’t a hugely prolific writer, only producing four novels, so perhaps we’ll see more of her work in English in coming years.

Of course, I know just who to ask about that…

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