Sunday, 17 October 2010

Penguin no. 797: Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevallier

Gabriel Chevallier originally published Clochemerle in 1932. It must have been a popular book, because my copy is one of the Penguins with the full colour covers published 25 years later in 1957-1958 . These editions don’t look a lot like Penguins, and apparently the coloured cover experiment was short lived as people didn’t buy them for that reason.

The story concerns a series of disasters that strike the small French village of Clochemerle during 1923, culminating in the ruin of the grape harvest . It’s a little tedious initially; it feels like we are being invited by the author to join him in laughing at the quaint ways of the French peasants. The first two characters introduced are caricatures – the scheming Mayor Piechut and the schoolmaster Tafardel, a child of the French Revolution.

The story is a farce and a satire, the characters are all fairly one-dimensional, but it soon becomes clear that the author is not laughing at his characters, but enjoying them. He points out their hypocrisy and tells us their motivations, and it becomes clear that everyone is motivated by either ambition, greed, passion, hatred of the Church and nobility, money, revenge or bitterness. But in general, this is all revealed without condemnation. This is just how people are. In many ways it’s like reading Portnoy’s Complaint, though less graphic: you are invited into a man’s mind, and the way men think and their motivations are laid bare. The writing is absolutely delightful. He uses the most original and unlikely descriptions and similes, but a moment’s reflection reveals them as perfect.

The actual storyline seems irrelevant and only a vehicle to reveal his characters’ thoughts. It concerns the decision of the Mayor to erect a urinal in the centre of town. The jealous and bitter old maid of the town agitates against it, and the town becomes divided into urinophobes and urinophiles. The troops are called in, people are injured and a freak storm ruins the wine crop on which all in the town depend for the livelihood. But time allows the events to be seen in perspective.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1275. Clochemerle-Babylon
Penguin no. 1056. The Affairs of Flavie


  1. There was a TV serialisation of this, I hate to think how many years ago.

  2. I have tried to read for the book group to which i belong but it but it was so tedious and the characters were so unbelievable that I did not finish it. It is very rare for me to not finish a book once I have started.

  3. Good review. I read it in French (took me over a month cos I looked every unknown word and cultural/geographical reference up) and loved it. If you're looking for a book where characters and plots are developed intricately, it's not for you. I definitely thought the start was a bit tedious as well, but once you get into it, the idea is pretty funny and parts are very good.



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