John Ruskin first coined the phrase “pathetic fallacy” in the mid-1800s, writing with contempt about how the Romantic poets of that time attributed human emotion to inanimate elements of the natural world. It’s since become a classic literary device and an example of contemporary literary criticism—of how writers in their day responded to and reshaped the interpretation of the works of their peers. There’s some irony, then, in the way that the largely forgotten French-speaking Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz—a contemporary of the so-called Modernists who likewise rejected the tenets of Romanticism—so wholly and purely embraces pathetic fallacy in his work. Two of his most recently rediscovered publications, the novel Beauty on Earth and the book-length prose poem Riversong of the Rhone, in new translations from Onesuch Press by Michelle Bailat-Jones and Patti Marxsen, respectively, show how Ramuz employs this fluid experimentation with language that was emerging during his day to communicate a oneness between man and his environment. Part Longfellow and Tennyson, part Eliot and Whitman, Ramuz straddles a line between the old and new on the level of content and form, and in both he strives to convey the eternal quality of existence and, in particular, beauty.
In work and in life, Ramuz was not one to let his individual inclinations go unheeded. A native of Lausanne (in Vaud), his first trip abroad was to Paris in 1903, where he remained until the outbreak of World War I in 1914—a journey in the opposite direction of many of his more famous peers . His aesthetic preoccupations likewise challenged expectations of a person of his standing and his time; although his family was comfortably middle-class, he focused his prolific writings (nearly thirty publications during his career) on the lives and environments of the poor, of locals in remote villages throughout Europe. His outsider’s point of view may have given him the advantage he needed to see beyond the parochial confines of such worlds, and the modernity he knew from life often became the source of conflict among his characters—human and not. From that external, slightly elevated, and singular vantage point he’s able to tease apart the connections between people and place that those on the ground are too close to fully appreciate.
In Beauty on Earth, a short novel set and written in 1927, such omniscient narration is key to gleaning the deep allegorical meaning that the seemingly simple plot belies. Milliquet, a café owner in a lake-side village in Switzerland, one day receives a notice from Cuba that his brother has died. What’s more shocking, though, is that he’s now the legal guardian of his niece, nineteen-year-old Juliette, who can arrive by boat if Milliquet consents to taking her as his charge. To the locals of the sleepy town, who have only brought fish onto land from the water, the arrival of a new person by boat is great news. Great, and frightening. All means of preparation are taken for Juliette’s arrival weeks later in April, whereupon they are introduced to a staggeringly beautiful yet taciturn young woman disoriented by her new surroundings. To her, having come from a place her uncle and his neighbors can barely locate on a map, the village is backward and provincial—the book states plainly “Here everything was small”—and they take her silence as passive mocking.
A somewhat latently resentful fascination with Juliette suffuses the local men’s gossip, but only one man, Milliquet’s friend Rouge, goes further. Despite being old enough to be her grandfather, the fat and ruddy (hence his name) fisherman makes it his duty to look after Juliette in a parental sense and a romantic one. To Rouge, the young creature embodies the beauty of the natural world around him, that which often is taken for granted by himself and others. When Mrs. Milliquet throws her out of their home, Rouge takes her in; when she later sends the police out to take her into government custody (a right that Milliquet has as the keeper of her papers), he hatches a scheme for them to escape together on his boat back to Cuba and away from their societal oppressors.
Not much happens in Beauty on Earth until the final chapters when this escape is set in motion, and in the hands of another writer it would be an extremely bland, predictable narrative lacking in character development or a nuanced philosophical backdrop. Ramuz, however, elevates his game by means of linguistic acrobatics: he uses pronouns, tenses, and devices like metonymy and metaphor to inflect the fabulist novel with meaning that extends beyond the text, literally and figuratively. Translator Bailat-Jones discusses the complications of preserving Ramuz’s intent when bringing his French into English; besides moving between past, present, and conditional tenses at dizzying speeds, he uses the pronouns on, vous, and nous—one, you, and we, which are often in English interchangeable ways of talking about a general subject—to mean different, specific things. He speaks not only of “one” as an abstract third-person, but “one” as an all-encompassing mankind; “you” can be you the reader, plural or singular; and “we” can mean a group of characters speaking a plural second-person or, again, all humanity. Nothing is consistent, as in the following passage:
What is wrong? She doesn’t know. And people were even singing in a boat on the water; bathers at the foot of the cliff were calling to one another with loud voices, with laughter muffled by the water; she goes out, she went to join Rouge; at that moment the church bells had all started to ring.
We could see, over the forest of pines, the square tower and its roof with the rusted white iron ridges, topped with a red-painted rooster. She came to stand beside Rouge; then he showed her the belltower. Then he showed her other things all around. [. . .] The bells are rung, people sing in the water on their boats;—he watched her from the side. We heard the sound of the dishes from the kitchen [. . .]
Suddenly, “Isn’t that a pretty sound? It’s just that it’s Sunday today. Everything makes itself beautiful.”
He continued, “Except for you.”
He stops speaking, they listened to Sunday.
For a translator, working through these few paragraphs would be quite a task, for there’s the undeniable temptation to make them coherent and logical; to “correct” Ramuz’s inability to keep track of a single time or character for his scene. Bailat-Jones, however, has done due diligence to let us experience the exquisite way he “blurs the distinctions between [characters’] private thoughts and general human reactions or tendencies [. . .] moving the reader into and outside the village and into different characters.” We are at once inside Juliette’s head, concerned about Rouge’s whereabouts; hovering over the trees like God over His earthly kingdom; down among the sounds of the village; watching Juliette observe her new surroundings and also observing them with her. We are in the past, present, and future simultaneously because this beauty of Sunday has, and always will, be the same, just waiting for us to acknowledge it.
Gorgeous descriptions of nature abound throughout Beauty on Earth, and they have value in and of themselves as proof of the book’s title. Yet their greater significance is in how they give Juliette a reason for existing at all, a reason for tearing an irremediable hole in the villagers’ lives and universe. Aside from being a lens on the world around her, Juliette doesn’t have much substance on her own. She speaks very little, does even less, and despite her foreign background has virtually no past to bring with her (metaphorized by her new orphanhood). Her beauty is more compelling for the way it innocently and refreshingly reflects nature, to which nature obligingly responds: a two-way pathetic fallacy. Her disruptive arrival coincides with the riotous reemergence of nature in spring, “that time when the trees were all working together above the paths, working to hide the sky with their leaves [. . .] when in just a few days the grass grows all the way up to your knees, as high as it will grow.” In the same vein, Rouge argues with Milliquet that Juliette should be spared from working (and earning her keep): “Leave her free, and then there’s no risk of extinguishing her . . . It’s like butterfly wings: if you touch them they turn gray . . . let her run about . . . when you don’t know what to do anymore, just send her to me.” A few pages later, she arrives at his house “And the girl unwrapped her shawl from over her beautiful arms; she unwrapped it from around her curved neck”: a butterfly unfurling from her cocoon.
Over the course of the book, Juliette becomes increasingly interchangeable with her surroundings; in this sense, she’s like Ramuz’s pronouns, because through her being and Rouge’s (and “one’s” or “our”) appreciation of it, “we are drawn into beauty’s orbit”—we’re elevated above where a more straightforward narrative would keep our gaze, where “Down here on the earth we don’t see enough of it; we want to possess it.” Instead, we don’t merely possess beauty but, through the observations of this absorbent woman, we become it. Juliette’s transformation culminates at the end of the book, during the village party concurrent with her and Rouge’s planned departure. A violent storm descends upon the festivities, flashes of lightning in dialogue with the fleeting, illuminating, and startling foreigner’s presence:
And the girl also changed the light, the light around her becomes all white. There was this great black sky, but everything around her was lit up (or she was the one lighting it). They were watching her come, and she was still in the bottom of the valley, still fairly far away; she was red against the night. [. . .] And now it seems nothing is in proportion and she is no longer her usual size; the wind has taken her, the wind pushes her, she is lifted up. [. . .]
We see two flames as long as canes, two white flames in the white day. Fire! Fire! Two flames, each a full meter long; then the two lines of short grass tumble down the hillside, hit against one another.
The landscape is utterly transformed by Juliette, revealing to “we” the party-goers and “we” the readers a previously unknown palette for the familiar landscape. That this is such a violent epiphany suggests on one hand the disastrous results of modernity and society (Juliette as an exotic foreigner, American in their view, being chased by the authorities) interfering in a rural, harmonious community. But on the other hand, it suggests the more radical—Modern, even—idea of beauty in ugliness and change. Juliette’s streaking red, disproportionate figure, the “white flames” that engulf the previously placid sky, are frightening unknowns, but awe-inspiring all the same. And from this place, Ramuz shows us how the beauty of our lives indeed comprises all shades, all that we know and don’t, once we’re cognizant of our inextricability from nature and each other.
The allegory of man and nature’s harmony is even more transparent in Ramuz’s earlier (1919) work, the prose poem Chant de notre Rhône. The literal translation of the title is “Song of Our Rhone,” but again here the “our” has meanings beyond the merely second-person-plural possessive. In the poem, the river not only belongs to those living in and from its immediate surroundings, but to a collective humanity that springs from its fecund waters and shores. Often narrated from a higher vantage point (i.e., atop a mountain, above the river’s valley), the poem shows us how in various ways the river and mankind are codependent. During the wine harvest, for instance, the people “gather themselves in the wine that contains them, contains their life, and them, and the best of their acts, at the same time that it contains the sun and the soil from whence it came,—if there were, nevertheless, another wine also born of this land, born of a man of this land, that too would contain him and contain the land.” The narrator of the poem thusly speaks to us with langue d’oc, the medieval “root” language of the Provençal area, and sees with an “All-seeing Eye, a torn opening, eye that looks and eye into which you are looking, and you search within that gaze in response to your own without ever finding its depths.”
To read a biblical or Christian meaning into this passage, and the entire poem, is one obvious, and not wrong, interpretation. Ramuz describes the river as a source of rejuvenation and perpetual youth, where “everything is new, because everything is fresh and not yet said, ô very old, very young land, the ancient Rhone, always and forever younger than anything else”—an image that evokes a baptismal cleansing of the soul. It is also a “book of blood relations, great book of living flesh, [of which] it is necessary to read your pages to the end”—i.e., the bible, bringing together Old and New Testaments in the voice of God and the body and blood of Christ. We even see places of worship and pietàs, religious rituals that take place along the river’s banks. But rather than a strict, manmade religious system, Ramuz’s faith might be more pantheistic. God is everywhere because beauty is everywhere in His creations, including the literary preservation of said beauty. He worships “Words for the beauty of words, image for the beauty of the image, which is to say for the joy that we derive from images; the Son of God placed there before us as a figure so that he alone might be cherished and venerated.” The writing, then, is a form of prayer, and invocation of a universal song with which all life can harmonize.
Indeed, more so than in Beauty on Earth, and no doubt because of the more explicit poetry of the language, Riversong of the Rhone is fueled by an entrancing, hymn-like music. (One of Ramuz’s few contemporary alliances was Stravinsky, for whom he wrote a libretto in 1918.) Patti Marxsen’s agile translation of the poem reveals a musicality within incantatory repetitions and images of a rocking cradle—an aural and visual evocation of a shared birthplace. Ramuz writes, for instance:
I watch the cradle rocking, a riverbank on each side.
The side that is Savoy, the other that is the Vaud.
Here and now is the cradle: I watch the cradle move, with its border of riverbanks.
The Savoyard side and the Vaudois.
I watch the cradle rocking between the two riverbanks joined at the ends, giving the cradle its shape and, at the same time, placing them asymmetrically across from each other.
Here, the cradle is at once connective and discriminating: it links together discrete paragraphs/stanzas into one melodic line while also recognizing the asymmetry of its two footings. In this way, Ramuz introduces the crux of his collective identity that’s as much founded upon individuality as it is unity. Recall that Ramuz himself was from Vaud, and here there’s clearly a first-person narrator observing the scene. And so just as Juliette was a necessary agent for the revelation of the village’s inherent beauty, here the “I” is the only eye fully aware of everything happening along the river’s coursing path—and able to put it to such music, to render the landscape in a verbal painting. Emphasizing that singular perspective is not, then, self-aggrandizing but self-diminishing and in service of a common art that “will announce from the heart of the world who I am and who we are, who all of those assembled here are [. . .] no longer anything other than one single person.”
To read Ramuz in 2015 raises many questions about the current state of our literature and our society. Were these two works to be published today, they might be received as naïve and didactic, too simplistic a response to our complicated relationships with other countries, ethnicities, religions, and other broad markers of identity. To say “there is a kinship of the heart in all things” in a way erases the many values of individuality, a central and prized tenet of Western culture. Reading him now, though, also suggests a kind of harmony between two contradictory philosophies of life, an end to the battle between self and society. Rather than posing a threat to the natural world (via pollution, global warming, overpopulation) and to each other (wars, genocides), mankind in Ramuz’s view can perpetually self-generate instead of self-destruct by embracing an inner beauty that is the source of our self-worth and empathy. He reminds his readers that an eternal state of flux is the only way to uncover those hidden layers and webs of selves, where we can stretch ourselves among others for a more whole and transcendent being: “All that changes, and never changes, fusion and union and interdependence, every kind of utility, for all kinds of beauty; for nothing is beautiful that does not, first of all, dwell in life and in the free circulation of life, endlessly creation new destinations and dwelling places.”
Jennifer Kurdyla is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf in New York.