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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Winter Reading 

Lots of people know Maurice Pons as the author of the story on which Truffaut's Les Mistons is based. But of course he wrote some other things, among them Les Saisons (1965), which appears to have a sort of cult status.

It's a very odd book, and makes me think of the early Martin Amis's Dead Babies, but that's probably just because of its treatment of the lighter side of decay and corruption. In reality it cleaves more to the European tradition of legless peasants cackling raucously through rotten teeth as they drown in mud.

It opens with a man coming into a barren, rain-swept valley where nothing but lentils can grow. He finds lodging in a featureless room, reached only by ladder, above an inn that sells only lentil soup and some sort of alcoholic drink also made of lentils. Our hero, however, has apparently come from the desert where he was locked in a cage and made to witness executions, so this new-found abundance almost makes him weep with gratitude. He decides to write wondrous books to help the people, as he happens to have some lovely paper and pencils in his backpack, his only possession.

I think any reader can see where this is going. Suffice it to say it goes there. Nevertheless, it's compelling and simple. Readers of fantasy might be intrigued and then disappointed, as there seems to be no system at bottom, no allegory or general metaphor. Instead it resembles a visceral impression of something, almost the sensation of a dream reduced to a fairly reasonable sequence of events; motivation is always clear, and only the unimportant things fail to make sense. For example, it is said to be so cold in winter that birds fall from the sky frozen, yet hardly anyone in the village has a stove, or bundles up properly, relying instead on slumbering animals tied to their bodies for heat. But that's neither here nor there. The big question remains: what to do? This short novel offers a few disheartening answers.

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