It’s the High Middle Ages, with its beautiful images, assiduous scribes, and horses.
Pierre Michon, as publishers Yale University Press and Archipelago Books (for “Small Lives” and “The Eleven”) is a multi-award winning French writer, including the Prix Décembre, Grand Prix SGDL de literature, the Prix Louis Guilloux, and the Prix de la Ville de Paris.
Our work is actually two works, Mythologies d’hiver, published in 1997, and Abbés, 1992, are combined here in what, is still, a short work (totalling 116 pages). However that doesn’t mean it is a light read, this prose is denser than the forests portrayed.
As the opening quote alludes to we are in the High Middle Ages and our book opens with “Winter Mythologies”, twelve character portraits, thee miracles in Ireland and nine passages on “the Causes”. Our story opens with “Brigid’s Fervor”, where the daughters of a King are bathing in the river and are approached by Patrick, the archbishop of Armagh. They are convinced that baptism will help them see “the true God” and take part as well as preparing for their first Holy Communion. Brigit, the eldest daughter, is convinced she will see the Son of God, with tragic consequences.
Next up is “Columbkill’s Sadness”, “it is winter in the year 559”, and Columbkill reads from the library of Finian the abbot. He comes across St Jerome’s translation of the psalms copied by Faustus.
“Suibhne’s Levity” tells us the story of king Suibhne’s battle with his trusted abbot, Fin Barr’s, brother.
The Annals of the Four Masters recounts that Suibhne, king of Kildare, has a taste for things of this world. He is a simple man. Simple happiness and simple pleasures are his way. He is heavy and course, with nasty fair hair on his head like moss on a stone – and no delicacy of mind or soul. He wages war, he eats, he laughs, and for the rest he is like the brown bull of Cuailnge which covers fifty heifers a day. Fin Barr the abbot follows close behind this human monolith, and tries to remind him that the hereafter reckons even the thickness of a hair. The thickness of the soul is worse. Fin Barr lived for nine years at the tip of a headland, and nine more years on the lake, at Gougane Barra, with the seagulls and the crows: he is all mind and hands of glass. Curiously, he loves Suibhne because Suibhne is like a bull or a rock that might possibly have a soul. And Suibhne loves Fin Barr, who makes him feel, beyond the joys of this world, the joy of having a soul.
These opening three stories “Fervor”, “Sadness”, and “Levity” in their titles reveal the breadth of these emotions, a religious fervor, a sadness of loss and the levity of relationships. An exploration of the lives of Saints, which continues throughout the latter vignettes.
Our stories are well researched with Michon creating a fictional world for the characters who became saints, a reality where these minor players again have centre stage.
“Abbots” also explores minor historical characters with a lot more depth than the opening “Winter Mythologies” where some sketches run to only three or four pages.
Our tale opens with the story of Eble, lord of the monastery on a small broken island. He has two passions, Glory and female flesh:
Glory, which is the gift of spreading fire within the memory of men, and flesh, which has the gift of consuming bodies at will in a spike of flame or a bolt of lightning. And the tall woman who is standing in front of him, and who is already walking away on her feet of marble, has the unbound vertical force of a lightning flash.
We have the tale of a wild boar, a beast who could be the devil himself:
Around the Feast of the Holy Cross in September the men and the blue hounds are busy with hart: the women hunt hare on the shore with hawks and sheld-fowl with slender, quivering dogs from Syria. The gray boar emerges from the russet oak wood, and twenty paces off he trots the length of the procession, as if he were following them. The few Syrian dogs foolish enough to approach him are gored without causing him to even swerve from his path. The women turn back and retreat to the castle; they set up a gallop, the boar gallops too, twenty paces off; they take fright, but not Emma. She has a sort of fondness for this monster: it’s like night in full day, like a horse that has scented wild cat and quivers beneath her, like Fierabras who quivers on top of her in the night. He doesn’t leave them until they reach the postern; he trots unhurriedly back toward the tree cover.
The translation of this work would most probably have been a difficult task with Middle Ages terms, equipment and places all to the fore, however the atmosphere of those times slowly unfolds through the murk and as a reader you are transported to habits and armor. A story where an occasional glimpse into Michon’s task of research is added. For example the tourist activity of visiting Saint’s bones is discussed…when you go to the countless churches and see the countless Saint’s bones, “we gawp at the little notice that summarizes the saint’s life which is always fundamentally the same one.” Through this work Michon adds flesh to these forgotten saint’s bones, he adds light to those dark caverns in those churches.
An interesting work, transporting you to times long forgotten, resurrecting the stories of minor players in sainthood, unfortunately I feel as though they are soon to be forgotten again, as this is a slender and “minor” work in that the stories are scant and although the times are recalled the characters are still minor. Fun reading but not a work that I would include on my own personal shortlist for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.