It’s a cliché that bi-nationals never feel they really truly belong anywhere, that they always have another, unlived life ticking away in reserve in the back of their minds—mine’s in an emptying village in the most rural region of France. The Auvergne is a poor part of the country, wilder than the image of France abroad. As a child it seemed to me a place heavy with tradition and significance, the kinds you couldn’t determine for yourself but were imposed by others. Many generations of my family are buried in the graveyard up the road, and many neighbours are cousins. Gossip straddles generations. When I brought friends over from my usual life in the UK I had no idea what they’d make of its harsh landscape, its unfriendliness. We sheltered from the heat in the cellar with its smell of turpentine. We climbed to the tops of volcanoes and ground commemorative coins out of machines that recorded their exact altitude. We canoed down stretches of river with a second cousin that couldn’t swim and limply dropped herself into the water at intervals, testing our capacity for rescue.
Two summers ago I asked my grandfather if he knew any stories from the area. It was dinner, I was trying to connect, and maybe it had been hot that day. I can’t remember what I was after, family yarns, or something older. My grandfather wracked his brains for people who would answer my question better than him, lamenting after every name that this person, the guardian of precious local knowledge, was already dead.
Back in London, months later, I was pacing outside a tube station and it was sleeting. My grandfather was on the other end of the phone. I felt we had been out of touch, and wondered if something was wrong—some miscommunication or offense. At one point he mentioned the legends he had sent me, I sounded confused, and he realised they had become stuck in his outbox. I came home to an email with an attachment of sixty-six individually labelled pages.
He and my grandmother had worked hard on my question, the message said. They had asked a charming elderly lady, a former classics teacher who looked after a colony of cats in a nearby village. She had initiated them into the hundred-year-old learned society of a local market town, a group of people who watched over a collection of archives and published a yearly ‘almanach’ about its local history, archaeology, arts, economy and social life. My grandparents had been allowed to take one of the collection’s old books home and scan its pages. The fruit of their labours, I saw when I clicked, was a trove of folk stories named Contes de la luneira. On the left-hand page, Brivadois, a regional dialect; on the right, French. ‘My first knickers,’ the first tale was called. ‘The chimney that talks.’ ‘Poor Bartoneau.’
The book was yellowed, from 1932, and had belonged to a certain Albert Masseboeuf (literally ‘Albert Massages-Beef). I imagined a man leaning over a bull with a muscled rear formed like a bell pepper. The stories were blunt, humorous, sometimes sentimental. In ‘My first knickers’ (knickers as in knickerbockers or breaches), a boy has newly graduated from robes to trousers, a station on the way to maturity. His first pair are ‘brown, striped with black’. He celebrates by going out with the other be-trousered boy in his class to buy cigarettes, which they smoke stealthily behind a hedge. ‘The smoke rose, turned above our heads: it made white crowns, blue ribbons that we dissipated by blowing at them. It seemed to us that we were rising into the air with this light smoke. We were in paradise with the angels.’ Hearing footsteps, the truants panic and the narrator falls into a river, so that he needs to be saved by the passer-by—a monk!—his trousers ruined.
As I read on, my favourite tales were more about character foibles than sin. They were about the weird things that people do to get their way and how they are punished by fate or other people. The stories progressed at a clip and with confidence, the narrator steering me from one sentence to the next, relishing action over psychology in their study of human behaviour. As Italo Calvino described in his lecture on quickness in folktales, ‘the secret of the story lies in its economy: the events, however long they last, become punctiform, connected by rectilear segments, in a zigzag pattern that suggests incessant motion.’ There was little backstory or room for reflection. ‘Thirtyhairs, from La Voute, was in the good graces of a pleasant widow, Catherinette Fromageon, and, as you can imagine, he paid her secret visits…[He] scratched his itch, took pleasure and a good time, and kept Catherinette from boredom.’ The detail was sometimes concrete, others—like this—euphemistic. It could work in the service of mystery. Take this, about Thirtyhairs’ wife, Margoton, who knows her husband is having an affair:
Always get the last word.
Updates and special offers straight to your inbox.
Keep up with the latest from ZYZZYVA by subscribing to our newsletter.
‘We shall see,’ she thought, ‘if it lasts.’
But anyone who might have seen her, when she was alone, would have found her sewing, assembling pieces, her scissors creaking in black fabric, then she added sawdust, and skewers, so that it imitated legs, arms, a head, a face, there were two horns in the middle of the forehead. What was she doing? No-one could have said, and, before telling anyone, Margoton would have rather tear out the yellow beard that adorned her chin, hair by hair…
The determined woman using her time home alone to construct an unknown thing is revealed as if through a keyhole. I was being shown a character acting but not told for what purpose: the narrator seemed either to be withholding or letting me in on something half-known, something that therefore seemed to have its own agency. Part of this effect comes from having an omniscient narrator who does not practice the tricks of novel-writing we have since become used to—there is no free indirect discourse to allow the reader to access a character’s psychological workings, for example. Such explanation might make this scene appear made up, and take away its mystery. It would undermine its claim to having happened: we can only not fully know about something if there is a true version to fully know. These folk stories had the garrulous tone and agile voice of tall tales recounted in a pub, and they dealt with the condition of not having all the information.
There’s a line of poet Mark Strand’s: ‘we live in mystery but we don’t like the feeling.’ This is an unfashionable view post-Enlightenment, but perhaps we have come closer to accepting the limits of our understanding in this plague year. Mystery may be closer to us than we like to believe, even today: our everyday lives are full of speculation and interpretation. Gossip dissipates the unease caused by the mystery in the world, whether it comes in the shape of a stranger or a future event. The desire for conversation around uncertainty seems to me also to be behind the recent trendiness of reading tarot and horoscopes.
‘In a school—I won’t tell you which—an inspector came,’ another story starts. This inspector, ‘poor Bartoneau’, doesn’t like the children speaking in dialect—he is a snob, a product of the centralised education system brought in by the French Revolution. ‘He was ugly, good God! He was so ugly a sow would have renounced him! He had a head like a pumpkin, hair razed like the grass in a field burnt by the sun, the big eyes of a calf, long ears that moved when he talked, a mouth that yawned like a pot; and he didn’t have a beard; he was forced to cut it, otherwise fleas would have moved in!’ The ears that moved when he talked dazzled me. The absolute state of him, the disgust and scorn the narrator pours, the precision of the insult. My great-grandfather had also been a school inspector, and I wondered if he commanded a room, or been teased and laughed at like the ugly, pedantic inspector in the story. My mother told me that he made a few things in the kitchen, ‘beurre noisette’ (brown butter), ‘lait de poule’ (hen’s milk, a kind of eggnog), framboisine (a raspberry liqueur that her brother would sip in the library), but that he would only cook if he had an audience watching. Whether this was a way of compensating for professional humiliations or a natural enjoyment, I don’t know.
Reading through these stories last winter, I remembered that several years before I had received a book at Christmas, Le trésor des contes, first published in 1948. As I unwrapped it my grandfather had told me the author, Henri Pourrat (1887-1959), had collected the oral stories of the region and turned them out so that they worked on the page. I had neglected Le trésor des contes several years, and then taken it in my suitcase when I went to live in America, alongside other tomes I’d hoped to force myself to read. I’d opened it in New York, and amid homesickness and the maddening frenzy of Trump’s ascent to power had found the surreal transformations in these tales—boys turning into crows, and so on—liberating. In a more sentimental story, a flea couple honeymooned, as my grandparents had, at Besse-en-Chandesse, a resort town in the area, though unlike my grandparents they did not have to leave early because of bad rain.When I FaceTimed my grandparents, and described the seven brothers who turned into birds, my grandmother’s brow furrowed. ‘That sounds very unhealthy,’ she’d said. Attachment for the area had justified giving me the book; now I was enjoying the wrong thing: its strangeness.
I ordered another of Henri Pourrat works, L’histoire fidèle de la bête en Gévaudan (1946), a chronicle (among many) of a deadly local beast. Of all the stories of the region, the tale of the beast of Gévaudan was the one I’d known longest, having been scared and tantalised by it as a child—a monster of indeterminate species, most likely a wolf, which my grandfather had told me could leap over the valley from one mountain to the next. The idea of a predatory monster stalking your every move was very present in the fairy tales of Perrault, and in many stories told in order to discipline children—little red riding hood and the wolf adorned the wallpaper in my cousin’s bedroom. This local beast fitted in with that idea neatly. I looked out for it every time we drove along a stretch of road along a wooded ravine, just as I thought of the tragic family car crashes I’d heard had occurred there. Maybe the beast had been what I’d wanted to hear about when I first asked my grandfather for stories over dinner. I never felt I had been given sufficient details.
The book came illustrated with woodcuts of hunting parties encircling a beast in a clearing; the beast reared up on its hind legs before two terrified peasants; death with his scythe, after a hard day’s work, removing the beast’s fur, which he’d be wearing as a disguise. The artist, Philippe Kaepellin, had been a friend of the author’s, a sculptor who made a bestiary of imaginary animals: hybrids named ‘steam bull’ (an locomotive with a bull’s head), the ‘collapsible top-hat bird’ (a bird in the shape of an opera hat), ‘woodlouse deer’ (a woodlouse with antlers), ‘soft-horned owl’ (an owl with squashed horns).
‘The beast of Gévaudan is a secret,’ L’histoire fidèle de la bête en Gévaudan begins. Everything started in the summer of 1764, when something indeterminate started slaughtering women and children. Whenever anyone seemed to have dispatched the monster, bringing its head to a community leader, another attack would happen in a nearby village. Detailed and gruesome, the book is a catalogue of the killings made by the beast, and the different survivor accounts of its unfixable appearance.
It’s full of insights about class. The periodic efforts by noblemen to hunt the beast become oppressive to the peasants. ‘No one,’ they think, ‘from the King in Versailles to the commander of the local dragoon, should be able to come into their spaces and get involved in their business.’ Nevertheless, a series of jumped up emissaries are parachuted in, before being defeated by the difficulty of the land, and escaping, their sons in tow. Then, ‘In June 1765, nineteen of them came, sent by the King: M. Antoine, his son, a captain (…), gamekeepers, bloodhound handlers with their bloodhounds.’ M. Antoine goes to a village where the beast has killed. ‘He examined the cadaver, the tracks, he questioned people.’ But he falls behind in his work, as the peasants don’t let him know when the killings are happening. Finally M. Antoine shoots a large wolf with his arquebus, has it embalmed, and goes home to Versailles—conveniently right before the cold season strikes and the ‘three months of hell’ give way to ‘nine months of winter,’ when there descends ‘a fog you could cut with a knife’. M. Antoine presents the cadaver as the beast to Louis XV; he is given an enormous reward, a generous pension, and an honour. The beast turns up in another area. After three years of devastation, a peasant, Jean Chastel, finally kills it with a silver bullet, and has its carcass badly stuffed with hay. At Versailles, its stench makes the king recoil, and he orders Chastel to bury its foul-smelling carcass, turning on his heel without giving him any recompense.
‘People perhaps never believed exactly what they believed, or knew what they agreed to know of the beast,’ the last chapter of the account begins, speaking to a kind of shared fiction, what might today be called ‘collective hysteria’. The peasants’ speculation about the beast—was it a witch? A man from next door transformed into a werewolf? The devil?—serves other purposes. Village-women, for example, have an excuse for not going to church—with the spectre of the beast hanging over everyone, they can claim they had a bad feeling upon seeing a certain man on their way there, suspected that maybe he was the beast in human form, and thus explain away their absence. As time passes, the locals’ shared grip on events loosens and these become a mere story, closely guarded by an older iteration of the archivists whose learned society my grandparents had visited. ‘A hundred years and more, old men repeated it, pushing vigil fires with a burned stick and looking ahead of them both at these bloody things and the dancing flames. But little by little that was lost, as at the end of a chimney smoke loses itself in the clouds.’
As I was reading, flashes of memory came back to me. White wolves in vast cages howling in the animal sanctuary after a visit to the resistance holdout on the Mont Mouchet, where la Bête du Gévaudan was eventually killed by Jean Chastel. Swimming in a lake looked down upon by Henri Pourrat’s turreted castle. No one had mentioned on any of these occasions what I found out next, which was that during the Second World War, Pourrat was visited by Marshal Pétain, the leader of occupied France who collaborated with the Axis powers. Pourrat published a work dedicated to Pétain and became a bard of the so-called ‘National Revolution’, especially its policy of ‘Return to the land.’ It’s easy to see how Pourrat’s peasants and their relationship to the land fit into the fascist rhetoric of blood and soil; they also lean into their religious overtones, work with ideas of shame and sacrifice and the danger of wandering away from the flock; their interest in mystery and the arcane, too, could go hand in hand with esoteric views. These are stories that both tell and dissimulate. Later on, Pourrat is said to have denounced the Vichy regime in letters, but this episode, too, is hard to retrieve.
I live in London now, in a block of flats built where a workhouse infirmary once stood. I rent, and lately I have moved every year. When I arrived in this place, my bed would travel across the floor as if pushed by a ghostly nurse with every rumbling of the overground train. The landscape of the Auvergne had never been more beautiful, more pastel-coloured, more generous, like an old friend leaving gifts for me, as when I escaped there this summer when it became a refuge from the pandemic, from decisions, from pressure, from the pieces of my life at home that seemed to be falling apart. The region had at that point been almost unstruck by the virus. I realised that it was the most familiar landscape I knew.
Masked up at the market, my grandparents and I ran into the lady who had initiated them into the learned society. She was a gentle, perceptive woman who had decades ago given them their favourite pet, a mad, jealous dog called Filou, meaning ‘scoundrel.’ Filou was famous in family lore for leaping through glass windows, biting through electrical wiring, and never being trusted in the same room as a baby. My grandmother led me to a narrow, elephant-grey door where the learned society met every Friday. It was down an alley named after a highwayman called Mandrin, the ‘Robin Hood of France’, who targeted greedy tax collectors, bought cloth, hides, canvas, and spices with his spoils, and sold them tax-free. Mandrin was said to have hawked tobacco in the house where the learned society now met, to a man who had mysteriously died that same night. Buying bread in another village I saw reams of Frexit posters stuck on electricity pylons and a portrait of Louis XV in a window with a little shrine around it—a royalist’s home, I guess.
I’m too far away to feel I’m the person to write about life in this forgotten part of the world, close enough to the complexity of the task, and to know what I don’t know. I am, in other words, at about the right distance to see how the desire to connect with previous generations and to belong to a place can lead to a dangerous fetishizing of ‘authentic’ stories, stories in which I recognise a hamlet’s name or a certain tone, or which remind me of how, when we were younger, we dressed in traditional costumes and paraded around the village in a horse-drawn cart, tripped over new-born chicks in the farmyard, processed with candles down the aisles in church services, played pinball and rode motorcycles five people deep to a roadside cross—before always escaping at the end of every summer, escape being the privilege that meant we didn’t belong.
Lucie Elven has written for publications including The London Review of Books, Granta, and NOON. The Weak Spot is her first book. She lives in London.