Sunday, 5 June 2011

Penguin no. 1275: Clochemerle-Babylon
by Gabriel Chevallier

Ignorant of the outside world, the Clochemerlins had only one wish, to sell their wine and to sell it at a fair price. Was that an unreasonable demand? The thing to do was to find out what the big shots, those in power, had to say about it. Not being in office, the Opposition parties were ready to promise you the earth. They could offer to share out the moon in slices, it cost them nothing. The Socialist theory, founded on equal shares in all wealth, attracted numerous Clochemerlins. Not that they were disposed to share what they had. On the contrary they hoped, when the great share-out took place, to receive more from those who had more than themselves.

It's a lovely idea for a book: take a secluded, rustic, wine-growing village in the Beaujolais region of France, where traditions are long-established and nothing has changed in years, and explore what happens when the inhabitants are exposed to all the new ideas and products of the modern world. Up until the 1920s the fictitious village of Clochemerle was staid and secluded. Things were done as they had always been done, son succeeding father, with life lived according to patterns imposed by the seasons, and the processes of ageing. Village pride came from the certainty that they produced the finest wine in all of France, and what else could possibly matter? All that was needed for a happy life was favourable weather, a cellar full of wine, a good vintage each year, a satisfied wife and a house full of children.

But the advent of the car changed everything. It brought new risks and dangers, along with the possibilities of speed and excitement, and the opportunity to explore new places. And it brought visitors to Clochemerle, and new business opportunities. Suddenly the world seemed much smaller, and the future much brighter. Everyone became enthusiastic about the idea of progress; the young no longer had time for the traditions of the past. They wanted to embrace everything new that the world had to offer: jazz, dancing, cinema and movie stars, mechanised production, household appliances, and new and exciting paths to fame and wealth. And those a little more radical became fired with the new ideas of freedom, Socialism and equality.

But all this doesn't really convey how delightfully amusing the book is. It follows on from Gabriel Chevallier's earlier novel Clochemerle, continuing the story of many of the town's inhabitants, regretting the ones which have died, and introducing a few new ones. Once again it is a satire on village life, and an analysis of the discrepancy between what people are and what they pretend to be. But in most cases all this is explored with amusement and without condemnation. There is this sense of a French shrugging of the shoulders: this is what people are like, why not accept it? And he is a firm advocate for celebrating the passionate side of life. He likes his women voluptuous and preferably plump, and considers that a woman fulfils her destiny only through her sexuality and through motherhood. Educated women are gently mocked for being boring, and celibate ones are completely condemned, portrayed throughout as bitter, withered and ugly.

And it is one of these unfortunate women, lacking the qualities necessary to attract a husband, who christens her town Clochemerle-Babylon, implying that the infiltration of modern ideas has corrupted the villagers and encouraged licentiousness and wickedness. She searches eagerly for portents, evidence of God's judgement, always keen for proof of the ascendancy of the virtuous, as some kind of recompense for being denied physical pleasure on Earth. But the author, together with the other Clochemerlins, prefers the idea of a liberal God willing to look beyond the minor sins of these well-meaning villagers.

There is very little plot. It is a story simply about the characters, and the small events in their lives. Those that embrace life and look for enjoyment have happy outcomes, despite their minor transgressions, and those who harbour jealousy and bitterness in their hearts find only disappointment. His message is that happiness comes from an enthusiasm for the small pleasures, such as wine, food and the sight of a pretty girl, and also from thinking about others. Inevitably progress and the modern world never quite deliver enough to meet the expectations they engender. All they do is make it impossible to be satisfied with the old way of life.


  1. This sounds like a delightful read and if nothing else an interesting look at life.

  2. This is an amazing blog, full of the "gentle fanatacism" that only book collectors possess! I look forward to spending many hours browsing here!!!

  3. @Dr. Moxie Awesome Both Clochemerle and Clochemerle-Babylon are delightful and insightful books, and very amusing, and this is even though the author had these very old-fashioned ideas about women and left me in no doubt that he could see no value in a woman who was slim, studious and over 40, as I am.

    @Freya Thanks for your comment. I sometimes recognise that this is an unusual way to choose what to read, but I just fell into it. When I was a young University student with little money and no one to guide my selection, I somehow worked out that a book with an orange spine was a safe bet. I started buying any that I saw, and simply never stopped, so I think of myself as a reader first, and a collector second. But I have found so many interesting books this way that I otherwise would never have known about, and that encourages me to keep on going.

  4. Karyn, I am and always have been a reader, but generally of "series". For example, as a young girl, I always collected the Chalet School series. Currently I am just finishing my blog on UK/US Vintage Vogue magazines which I also started to collect because I enjoy reading old magazines (it's interesting to wallow in the culture and speak of decades past) so I started uploading them on my blog for other people to read too.
    The Pelicans are a favourite for me as there's not much about history or science or space or nature that can't be discovered in one of those little blue books...
    Finally, I took the liberty of printing out your comprehensive lists and I have been able to fill in some of the blanks if you'd be interested. You might prefer to email me if you want,
    Thanks again!



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