Jules Renard, a French author who lived from 1864-1910, is probably best-known in the English-speaking world for Poil de carotte (Carrot Top), an episodic work about a boy’s difficult childhood that has been translated into English, and his eminently quotable journal. However, Renard wrote several other books that have never been translated into English or are not readily available to read in English currently, including Le Vigneron dans sa vigne.
Below is an English translation of the first pages of Le Vigneron dans sa vigne (The Vintner in His Vineyard). You can see the original French text here.
The Vintner in His Vineyard
by Jules Renard
Mores of the Philippes
The Philippe house is perhaps the oldest in the village. Its roof of patched and mossy thatch that goes down to the ground, its low door, its little casement window that doesn’t open, give it the look of being at least two hundred years old. Madame Philippe is ashamed of it.
“It takes being poor,” she says, “to let it remain in this state!”
“Well, I think,” I say to her, “very well of your house.”
“When you touch the wall,” she says, “the plaster comes away with your fingers.”
“No one’s stopping you,” says Philippe, “from plugging the holes, with issues of the Petit Parisien.”
“I don’t require a house fit for the rich,” she says, “I only ask for cleanliness, and if I had four sous in savings, the dump would be repaired tomorrow.”
“Don’t do that, Madame Philippe; I assure you your house is superb.”
“It’s not holding up.”
“Don’t worry,” says Philippe. “It’s solid enough to bury you here.”
“By falling on my head,” says Madame Philippe, whose response makes only her laugh.
“Don’t fear anything,” I say, “and don’t mock your house. You’d be wrong to do so; it has a lot of value. Consider it a legacy from your ancestors, and as you have reverence for the dead, respectfully keep all that’s come to you from them. Your house, it’s a keepsake from the old days, a sacred relic.”
“I’m not telling you otherwise,” responds Madame Philippe, already flattered.
“In your place, I’d refrain from changing a stone. I prefer it to new houses; yes, yes, from an aesthetic and educational point of view, I like it better than a modern château, because this good old house reminds us of the past and because, without it, we wouldn’t know how the houses of our fathers were built.”
“You hear?” says Philippe, almost always sharing my opinion against his wife.
“It’s true,” she says, turned around, “That you’d have to go far to see a house like ours, and that, in all the country, it has no equal. So come in, please!”
What’s first striking, from the doorway, is the wooden bed as wide as it is long on its legs without casters. I imagine that it must have come through the chimney; the door was too narrow.
“It comes apart,” Philippe says to me.
Madame Philippe never moves it. Once pushed against the wall, it has remained there. As she doesn’t have much reach, she makes use of a pitchfork to move aside the sheets and tuck in the bed on the wall side.
“In the old days,” says Philippe, “there was, above the bed, a square frame of planks supported by four pillars and all around were hung yellow curtains with green borders.”
“Curtains of thick wool woven on canvas,” says Madame Philippe, “They called that poulangis; it was made to last forever.”
“You saw no end to them,” says Philippe, “They were hung and never taken down. They enclosed the bed. They were only opened to enter, like at the theater, and when your father went in to lie down, he would say, ‘Goodnight, children, I’m going to the theater!'”
“Those kinds of curtains don’t exist anymore,” says Madame Philippe. “The lady of the château destroyed them. She bought them for wall hangings.”
“My father sold her his for fifty francs,” says Philippe, “It was a good price. They weren’t worth twenty.”
“We still have,” says Madame Philippe, “a bed of those dimensions in the attic.”
“Why don’t you use it? At your age, you would be better off each in your own bed.”
“Let Philippe sleep, if he wants, in a separate bed,” replies Madame Philippe. “Me, I’ll sleep in mine.”
“In yours! It’s mine, too,” says Philippe.
“It’s our wedding bed,” she says.
“And you believe you would sleep badly in another bed?”
“I wouldn’t be well-disposed to sleep,” she says.
“And you, Philippe?”
“I never sleep elsewhere.”
It has nothing to do with affection or fidelity. They sleep together a first night and there’s a habit taken for life. Neither one nor the other will leave the shared bed until death.
They don’t make use of their pillows. They set them on a chair at night, because these pillows must remain on the bed during the day, full and firm, white and fresh to the eye.
“That way it’s pretty and we musn’t,” Madame Philippe says to me, “let people see them rumpled.”
“Hide them under the cover, no one will see them.”
“It’s the fashion to leave them on top.”
“It’s only natural, though, when you have a pillow, to put it under your head!”
“They put it under your head,” says Philippe, “in the coffin. Heirs always leave a pillow to the dead.”
“But they give any old one,” says Madame Philippe, “They aren’t obligated to make a gift of the best.”
The Philippes sleep on a pallet and a featherbed. They aren’t accustomed to a mattress. Wool and horsehair cost too much, and they have the feathers from their geese for nothing.
“I’ve often seen,” I say, “on the road, geese so badly defeathered they were in pain. I believed them to be sick.”
“They were defeathered intentionally,” says Philippe, “only too much. You musn’t remove the feathers that hold the wing, without which the wing hangs and fatigues the animal.”
“It must suffer and cry out, when you pluck it still alive?”
“You wait,” says Madame Philippe, “for the feathers to mature and come off by themselves. That’s the moment to collect them. You collect them three times a year.”
“A capable housewife never mistakes the season,” says Philippe, “and she doesn’t let a single feather be lost. It’s even claimed that a girl isn’t good for marriage until she’s jumped a stream seven times to pick up a feather.”
“That’s a charming tale.”
“Oh!” says Philippe. “That’s a joke.”
Philippe sleeps on the near side and Madame Philippe at the back.
“Do you put on a nightshirt?”
“Is the day’s shirt not good enough?”
It’s so good it lasts at least a week and sometimes two. I’m not sure that Madame Philippe takes off her petticoat. What’s the advantage of undressing that much? It’s been a blue moon since they’ve gone to bed for anything other than sleep. Anyway, they sleep in the featherbed as if in two separate nests. They press in, each on their side. They rest there without stirring, stifling; they breathe and they sweat, and in the morning, when they open the door, it smells of laundry.
“Do you dream, Philippe?”
“Rarely,” he says. “And I don’t like it much, you sleep badly.”
He believes you can only have disagreeable dreams. As for Madame Philippe, she never dreams.
“Or if I dream,” she says, “I’m not aware of it.”
“And so you don’t know what a dream is?”
“I explained it to you,” says Philippe.
“You explained to me what happens in your head, and I replied that nothing like it happens in mine; so?”
In exchange, it’s always she who rises first.
“At what time?”
“That depends on the season.”
“In summer, it’s not the time that decides for me, it’s the sun.”
“Despite the shutters?”
“I never close them,” she says, “I would be afraid of the total blackness, and I like to be woken by the sun. It lives over there just opposite the window, and as soon as it comes out of its box, it comes to play on my nose.”
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Translation and art by Elisabeth Cook © 2016