Clochemerle – Gabriel Chevallier
I was driving a little while ago listening to Wimmins’ Hour on the cat’s whiskers when an earnest professor (female, natch) came on talking about the provision of women’s public conveniences and what it said about their (women’s, that is) role in society. We can ponder this until the cows come home but in my experience the public spending cuts have meant that you will be hard pressed, particularly if you are, to find an open convenience these days, irrespective of gender. When I started out in my career in the financial services sector I accompanied a new business inspector with a notoriously weak bladder who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the public karsies in the inner and outer London area. This feat would be considerably less impressive nowadays.
Not so in earlier days. A public convenience was seen as a symbol of municipal pride, although the erection of a pissoir, men only I’m afraid, in the sleepy town of Clochemerle-en-Beaujolais had tragic and comic consequences. The mayor, Barthelemy Piechut, wanted to leave his mark on the place and bearing in mind the wine-growing heritage of the area and the propensity of the menfolk to sample the produce with gusto, a pissoir seemed to be the obvious answer. Leaving it to his halitosis ridden deputy, the earnest socialist schoolteacher, Ernest Tafardel, the motion was passed by the council, the structure erected adjacent to the church and was opened with all due ceremony.
But the pissoir became a symbol of the deep divide in Clochemerle society, splitting the town between urinophiles and urinophobes. Leading the anti-pissoir brigade were the rather ineffective Cure Ponosse and the stalwart of the church, Mademoiselle Putet. There is a set to in the church during which the icon of the patron saint, Roch, is damaged, and such is the ill-feeling caused in the town that the military is called in to restore order. The book ends with Mme Putet having what can only be described as some form of nervous breakdown and being carted off to a sanatorium.
Chevallier uses this rather thin plot to pierce the façade of what seemed a sleepy rural town, exposing the petty jealousies, rivalry and sexual ambitions that lay dormant waiting for a suitable catalyst. In many ways Clochemerle is the French equivalent of E.F.Benson’s Tilling – I must get round to concluding my review of the remaining three books of his Mapp and Lucia series – and all the pettiness of rural life is stripped bare. Perhaps there was something about the fracture of society following the First World war which prompted comic writers to exercise their satirical bent.
But Chevallier goes further, eviscerating the Catholic church. The neighbouring priests have a reciprocal arrangement whereby they can receive mutual absolution for their regular excursions into the sins of the flesh. The church is portrayed as hypocritical, the bastion of conservatism and a major obstacle to progress, even if it manifests itself in a structure for the public’s convenience.
Reading the book in translation means that you are at the mercy of the translator and unsure as to their felicity to the original. But the story trundles along at a good pace and the characterisation and satire is engaging enough to make it a good read.