Staff Picks: 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes' & 'Mouchette'

Robert Louis Stevenson is justly famous for his children’s stories, but he also wrote some excellent books for adults. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes is one them. Stevenson buys Modestine, his porter and companion, at the outset of his journey in Le Monastier and sells her twelve days later in St. Jean du Gard. During their short time together, man and beast traipse through some beautiful country, staying along the way in villages that had changed less in five hundred years than they would in the next fifty, when the railroads began to modernize and homogenize rural France. Stevenson anticipated the coming transformation: “[T]here are many proposals afoot and surveys being made, and even, as they tell me, a station standing ready built in Mende. A year or two hence and this may be another world.” During his brief sojourn at Our Lady of the Snows, a remote Trappist monastery, this Scottish freethinker develops an appreciation for a monk’s tight schedule: “[F]rom two, when he rises in the dark, till eight, when he returns to receive the comfortable gift of sleep, he is upon his feet and occupied with manifold and changing business…. Into how many houses would not the note of the monastery bell, dividing the day into manageable portions, bring peace of mind and healthful activity of body? We speak of hardships, but the true hardship is to be a dull fool and permitted to mismanage life in our own dull and foolish manner.”

Mouchette, by George Bernanos, is also set in rural France. It tells the story of a young girl who must bear too much too soon—too much poverty, too much loneliness and, finally, a rape. Spoiler alert: It ends with her suicide. But this is not a suspense novel, and there isn’t much plot. This is a book about chance, frustrated tenderness, and weariness unto death. As Fanny Howe writes in her beautiful introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Mouchette: “Suicide, like little else, makes people aware of chance…. One feels that it could have been prevented because it has the force of an accident (but whose?) in the trajectory of the person’s life. The whole plot got derailed. Someone lost the storyline. Who? The others around the suicide or the suicide herself.” Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is the more dramatic and conventional Catholic novel about suicide, but Mouchette is the deeper of the two.

Tags

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

Also by this author
Coarse

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Collections
Collections