Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville. QC Fiction, Québec, 2019. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge. ARC
My whole childhood was nothing but dread, drifting, and disappointment. And yet I wanted to be happy.
These opening words of Éric Mathieu’s novel The Little Fox of Mayerville give an indication of most of what follows. Émile Claudel is born in 1945 into an ‘austere, joyless family home’ in the small, gossip-ridden village of the title, a rural place in Lorraine near where, significantly, Joan of Arc had lived. He too is born to suffer France’s pains.
It’s a magical realist bildungsroman; for example, the boy is able to speak from the moment he’s born, and he babbles competently in several languages, quoting from an early age from canonical literature he can’t possibly have read. From the outset this precocity – and everything else about him – arouses only hatred in the rest of his family.
With his red hair and vulpine features he quickly acquires the eponymous nickname. It’s not a token of affection. His slyness, tricks and (often cruel) pranks, usually perpetrated with his only friend Max, don’t endear him to his community.
As the narrative proceeds we learn that he suspects the man he calls father isn’t his biological father (he’d returned from the war, having been a POW, too late for the dates to fit). Much of the time Émile desperately searches for clues about the identity of who his father could be.
His supposed father is a shadowy, barely-present figure. His mother is moody, volatile and unloving towards the boy – he presumes out of guilt about his illegitimacy. She also seems to be promiscuous, especially with a sinister neighbour, Ducal. Could this demonic man be the one? Or was it an American GI who’d been quartered at the Claudel house during the war?
Aged about eight, before he can find the answers to these questions, he’s abandoned by his family and sent to an orphanage, euphemistically called ‘boarding school’. This place makes Jane Eyre’s Lowood seem like heaven. After suffering and growing up there he absconds and has a number of picaresque adventures. Falls in love. The sixties arrive: rock and roll, Bardot, liberation. Kennedy is shot. Maybe what’s coming isn’t liberation.
The novel never flags – in fact at times it’s almost too packed with incident, so the scenes blur. The protagonist is protean: at times feral, a kind of werewolf (werefox?), at others a scared, lonely child. It’s often unclear if what’s narrated is his fantasy. Dreams are interwoven with the narrative without distinction from ‘real life’, adding to this magical quality. Most of the people he meets are monstrous, distortions, like nightmare figures.
The poignancy of Émile’s childhood is the most affecting aspect of the novel: he’s lost, searching for some kind of identity – he assumes finding out about his father will solve this problem. Like most of us, he discovers that the truth isn’t always what you really want to find – or expect. The epigraph to Part III highlights this ambivalence: a quotation from The Brothers Karamazov – ‘who doesn’t desire his father’s death?’
He craves love and affection, and when it’s withheld not surprisingly his dark side exerts itself. I suppose The Little Fox is best summed up as a kind of postmodern fairytale. There are elements resembling Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. But I was most reminded of Truffaut’s seminal film ‘Les Quatre cents coups’– Émile, like Truffaut’s alter ego, barely copes with his abrasive contact with mid-20C French conservatism and duplicity. Its society is scarred by memories of war. It attempts to gloss over its dubious record under German occupation. Maybe Émile’s quest represents in microcosm that of modern France.
Although the narrative seemed (for me) to lose its way a little towards the end, I was always engaged in Émile’s troubled, delinquent quest. The short chapters, some just a sentence or two, and the nimble, restless narrative voice, create a breathless, other-worldly effect that accords well with the theme.
The translation by this innovative Québec imprint’s fiction editor, Peter McCambridge, is lively and fluent. My thanks to the publisher for the ARC, and a welcome addition to its growing, impressive catalogue.