Thursday, May 19, 2011

Paul et Virginie, by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre

I became interested in this largely forgotten novel because of a passage in Edward Goldsmith's The Way, which I wrote about a few months ago. In response to arguments about the essential randomness of nature, Goldsmith quotes a passage from Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Etudes de la Nature:
If snails, nay bugs, caterpillars and locusts ravage our plains, it is because we destroy the birds of our groves which live upon them; or because on transporting the trees of foreign countries into our own, such as the great chestnut of India, the ebony and others, we have transported with them the eggs of those insects which they nourish, without importing likewise the birds of the same climate which destroy them. Every country has those peculiar to itself, for the preservation of its plants.
This seemed like an unusually wise man, both for our own time and the late 18th century. My French is bad, so I decided not to take on the multi-volume Etudes, which were once famous. At the end of these volumes, though, Bernardin placed the small novel Paul et Virginie, which he considered a distillation of his ideas about the natural order.

The book must still be read in France, because I found several new editions in a foreign language bookstore, although the introduction indicates that it is regarded by French critics as an embarrassment, something like Uncle Tom's Cabin in American literature. Paul et Virginie was an enormous popular sensation in its day, and admired by everyone from Napoleon (it was apparently his favorite book) to Alexander von Humboldt, who had it virtually memorized.

A copy also made its way into the room of little Emma Rouault, who would grow up to become Madame Bovary. This paragraph is probably the only place where English-speakers regularly encounter the book. Saint-Pierre's novel is mentioned at the beginning of the famous fourth chapter -- which, incidentally, I have always found very unconvincing as psychology -- where we hear about the reading that gave rise to Emma's dreams of romance:
She had read Paul and Virginia, and had dreamed of the bamboo cabin, of the Negro Domingo and the dog Fidele; and especially she dreamed that she, too, had a sweet little brother for a devoted friend, and that he climbed trees as tall as church steeples to pluck her their crimson fruit, and came running barefoot over the sand to bring her a bird's nest.

The story is simple. Two women end up alone with young children on the Île de France, a colonial name for modern-day Mauritius: one's husband has died, and the other has been abandoned by her lover. The two decide to live near each other and raise their children together, along with their faithful slaves Marie and Domingue, who grow to love each other. The novel's attitude to slavery seems to be that it's fine as long as the masters are nice to them.

Their son and daughter are Paul and Virginie. They are beautiful little children, in touch with the natural world, free from the corrupting influence of civilization, healthy and vigorous. The earth provides everything they need, and they care for their little piece of land and make it blooming and beautiful. As they get older, possibly from lack of other options, they begin to fall in love with each other. Their mothers want them to marry one day, but Virginie's mother -- in one of those refreshing bits of openness often found in French novels -- is worried the girl will get pregnant too young. She is also concerned that the two will have no money when they grow up. So, when a rich aunt in Paris offers to make Virginie her heir if her mother will send her back to France, the girl is put on a boat. As you can imagine, things begin to go wrong when she leaves the island.

It is, in many ways, a silly novel. In addition to its offensive depiction of slavery, long conversations are devoted to dated social criticism, people burst into tears on virtually every page, and its depiction of natural morality is often ludicrous. Virginie, for example, is unwilling to be saved from a foundering ship because it would require that she strip off some of her clothes in front of a male sailor. And this modesty, which she apparently learned from wandering around the forests of a tropical island, is presented as quite noble and right; only a corrupt, civilized woman would expose herself so shamelessly to save her life.

And yet, as easy as it is to mock, the book, somehow, is not dead. Many parts, to my surprise, are still extraordinarily beautiful. For one, the descriptions. The forests are painted with wonderful felicity, heightened for me by the lovely feel of certain French words: "La rivière qui coule en bouillonnant sur un lit de roche..." ("The river which runs foaming over a bed of rock..." but how inadequate "foaming" or "bubbling" feels in the face of a word like "bouillonnant"!) I loved the image of the palms rising above the other trees, and looking from above like a second forest planted on the ground of the lower canopy.

So -- if you wipe away the lugubrious melodrama and all the criticism of civilization -- which none of Saint-Pierre's city readers, from Napoleon down, seem to have taken very seriously -- something genuine still remains, and that something is a sense of reverence for the tropical landscape. Virginie, for example, will never eat a fruit without making sure that she places its seeds in good soil. Her intuition, her natural sense of gratitude, tells her that this is somehow part of the arrangement. When she writes a letter to her family from France, she makes sure she includes some European seeds, which, despite Paul's attentions, don't flourish on the climate of the island.

As you can tell, Bernardin's sense of realism is much better with plants than people -- none of the characters in this little novel are particularly real, but the sense of integration between their lives and the world around them, the respect for the terms on which the gift of abundance is given -- all of these still feel genuine, and continue to give the myth of Paul et Virginie a certain power.

D. H. Lawrence mentioned Saint-Pierre in the chapter on Hector St. John de Crevecoeur from Studies in Classic American Literature. He names him in a list of all of the other back-to-nature writers. "I used to admire my head off," he writes, "before I tiptoed into the Wilds and saw the shacks of the Homesteaders ... Poor haggard drudge, like a ghost wailing in the wilderness, nine times out of ten.

"Hector St. John, you have lied to me. You lied even more scurrilously to yourself ... Jean Jacques, Bernardin de St Pierre, Chateaubriand, exquisite Francois Le Vaillant, you lying little lot, with your Nature-Sweet-and-Pure!"

Lawrence, I must admit, is right. There is lying in this book, which is why every type of person from dictators to dreamy little provincial girls have found what they were looking for in its pages. But, as Lawrence continues, "Crevecoeur was an artist as well as a liar, otherwise we would not have bothered with him," and the same can be said of Bernardin. What remains true in this book is worth more, for me, than all of the dry ironies of Madame Bovary.

Randall Jarrell once wrote that "Soon we shall know everything the eighteenth century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us." Well, it is worth blunting your sense of the ridiculous (temporarily), finding your inner Emma Rouault, and trying to rediscover some of what Paul et Virginie has to teach.


Anonymous said...

Thought you might appreciate it.

Akshay Ahuja said...

Hmm... I do appreciate the Shaggs, although the link with Paul et Virginie is mysterious. Primitivism, the natural sincerity of the heart -- something like that?

Unknown said...

Where can I get a dvd of the movie?

Kolakaluri SriKiran said...

Is there any English translation of this Novel? Pls give the name of the translation. Thanks in advance. Regards, K.SriKiran

Akshay said...

There seems to be an older English translation available online on Project Gutenberg:

Anonymous said...

I just read the book (in French)and I must completely agree with your oppinion. The book is funny and irresistibly seducing at the same time. Although the characters are quite far from being real, they still trigger inner surge of compassion.
Matej, Prague, Europe