Monday, July 22, 2013

The Silence of the Sea

I've never regarded this my blog to be concerned solely with garden-making. I could also say that garden-making is, to me, a life-affirming practice. As a big reader, the books I most value say something about the human spirit, something about the beauty of life, the beauty that often needs defending.  As gardens do.

"Vercors" was the pseudonym of Jean Bruller (26/02/1902-10/06/1991), an author and member of the French Resistance during WWII. This very small novel of only 40 pages, first published in France in 1942 ( translated by Cyril Connolly and published in London by Macmillan and Co. in 1944 as Put out the Light ) has also, more than once, been made into a film. The above still comes from Jean-Pierre Melville's version  (1947), with Jean-Marie Robain, Nicole Stephane and Howard Vernon.
A German officer is billeted with an elderly man and his niece in a French village. A man of honour and uncommon integrity, Werner von Embrennac has, initially, a romantic vision of his nation's role in overtaking France. His presence, however, is never actually acknowledged:
"By a tacit agreement, my niece and I had decided to make no changes in our life, even in the smallest detail, just as if the officer didn't exist, as if he had been a ghost. But it's possible that another sentiment was included in this resolve: I can't hurt anyone's feelings, even an enemy's, without suffering myself". ( Page 6 )
The situation the three find themselves in is highly charged:
"...when sometimes he would let the silence, like a heavy unbreatheable gas, invade the whole room and saturate every corner of it, it was he of us three who used to seem most at his ease". ( Page 19 )
Only after a return from Paris, where he has met his violent and cynical colleagues - and after having resided with his hostages/hosts for six months - has he, von Embrennac, become aware of Germany's terrible intent. He immediately requests a post on the Eastern front.
"That day I learnt that, to anyone who knows how to obscure them, the hands can betray emotions as clearly as the face - as well as the face, and better - for they are not so subject to the control of the will. And the fingers of that hand were stretching and bending, were squeezing and clutching, with an extreme expressiveness that was quite uninhibited, while his face and his body remained motionless and under control". ( PP 30-31 )
You know the outcome is going to be bleak. This is one of the most solemnly quiet books I have ever read, without a single wasted word:
"My niece had just snapped her thread, and before going on he waited until she had threaded her needle again. She did it with great concentration, but the eye of the needle was very small and it was no easy task. At last she succeeded". ( PP 20-21 )
I was reading it outside in the winter sunshine, and started crying. None of it should ever have happened, but it did, just like this.
The story is dedicated to the French Symbolist poet Saint-Pol-Roux ( Paul-Pierre Roux ):
"During the night of 22-23 June 1940, a drunken German soldier invaded the manor ( Saint-Pol-Roux was living in ), killed the family's faithful governess, raped Saint-Pol-Roux's daughter Divine, and seriously injured her in the leg with a revolver bullet. Saint-Pol-Roux escaped death in the incident, but was later taken to hospital in Brest on October 14, where he died of a broken heart when he heard that the manor had burned down with his unpublished manuscripts inside". ( Wikipedia )

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


He plants the seeds to see them grow -
each one a Destiny - go, life, go!
What isn't yet waits to become -
vessels murmur, forces hum.
Some will gain and some will fade -
hope re-kindled, hope relayed.
And so he sees his garden made.