Blake Robinson’s 2008 translation of Le Garçon savoyard (The Young Man from Savoy) was the first novel by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz (1878–1947) to appear in English in over fifty years. In reviewing it for Absinthe, I noted that Robinson had succeeded in making Ramuz’s terrain “real enough to be interesting to modern readers while expressing the deliberate artlessness of Ramuz’s prose.” With Michelle Bailat-Jones’s 2013 translation of La Beauté sur la terre (Beauty on Earth) it is clear that Ramuz’s “artlessness” was, in fact, an artistic strategy that helped to transform him into a modern writer of enduring relevance.
La Beauté sur la terre was published in 1927 and first translated, anonymously, into English in 1929 for G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an effort Bailat-Jones describes in her “Translator’s Note” as “an edited version of Ramuz’s original.” Not surprisingly, she was drawn to the plot of a beautiful foreigner’s arrival in a Swiss wine village as a destabilizing force. Bailat-Jones goes on to explain how she grappled with the difficulty of bringing Ramuz’s narrative voice into English because it is “not a fixed entity within the text or even outside of it.” She remarks that Ramuz’s “strange yet compelling voice shifts and moves, transforming itself continuously as the story develops—moving outward, moving inward, inviting the reader inside of scenes and, even, at times, settling ambiguously in a narrative location that hovers between a single character and an entire village chorus.”
This echoes Philippe Renaud and Vincent Verselle’s analysis of Ramuz’s récit fragmenté (fragmented narrative) in their note to the prestigious Pléiade edition of La Beauté sur la terre (2005): “If this novel appears particularly masterful, it is not because of the, more or less, great density of action, but rather because of the surprising narrative structure, which is modern in that it prefers rupture and juxtaposition of apparently incongruous elements to continuity and homogeneity . . .” Suddenly, Ramuz’s narrative prose begins to look as shockingly modern as Picasso’s cubist portraits once did with their shifting perspectives, “misplaced” noses, and eyes gazing in opposite directions. In her effort to remain true to Ramuz’s effects, Bailat-Jones wisely avoids the temptation to smooth his prose, just as one would not dare to “touch up” a Picasso to suit the tastes of those unaccustomed to multiple vantage points.
Through the telescope of time, it is now easy to see how navigating both fluidity and fragmentation allowed Ramuz to join those twentieth-century novelists who redefined literature—Proust, Woolf, and Mann, among others—by focusing not only on the revelation of a subject’s inner life, but also on a portrayal of human subjectivity itself. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze reminds us, such insubstantial knowledge can only be apprehended through the signs and symbols of art. “Only the signs of art possess immateriality,” he writes in Proust et les signes (1964). Through the prism of Proust, Deleuze offers a definition that helps to explain the ongoing relevance of C. F. Ramuz’s work:
What is an essence, as it is revealed in a work of art? It is a difference, the ultimate and absolute Difference. . . . This is why art, insofar as it manifests essences, is singularly capable of giving us what we search for in vain in life.
In a 2014 Swiss radio interview Bailat-Jones was asked what it was that had fascinated her enough to translate Beauty on Earth. In response, she spoke of Ramuz’s introduction of a “very exotic stranger”—the orphaned niece of a Swiss wine-maker who arrives in her uncle’s village from Cuba. Juliette’s presence challenges the habits and attitudes of a closed village community and, ultimately, wreaks havoc on its social structure. For Bailat-Jones, Ramuz remains a “very modern author” because “everyone in this book is very sad, everyone is angry.” What could be more relevant in today’s world with its waves of refugees, exiles, and “others” turning up in unexpected places?
Ramuz was not born into modernity. Only in the wake of the First World War did he begin to grasp the human dilemmas that would turn him into a writer of stature: the shock of separation, the yearning for peace, and the deep desire for unity in a world inhabited by dark and mysterious forces. Even if Ramuz’s novels of the 1920s and 1930s can be read as romans paysans (“peasant novels”), the shock of modernity rips through his postwar work like shrapnel. The world itself is fragmented and torn as each subject stands alone with his or her unique perspective. Or, as Deleuze has said in another context, “Each subject expresses the world from a different point of view. But the point of view asserts difference itself, absolute internal difference. Each subject therefore expresses a world that is absolutely different.” In other words, many worlds exist simultaneously, which implies that everyone, sooner or later, becomes an other. By the age of forty, Ramuz was hard at work creating tales of destabilization told from multiple vantage points.
The vehicle for destabilization in Beauty on Earth is Juliette, the adolescent orphan who serves as a catalyst for apocalyptic destruction. As literary scholars Renaud and Verselle point out, Juliette was initially conceived as an almost classical figure in a novel entitled ‘Vénus revenue’ (‘Venus returned’). Had that title remained, it would have cloaked this modern novel in the myth of Venus emerging from the sea as a symbol of eternal beauty. Ramuz was clearly undecided about his original idea—and about Juliette’s identity—for his working titles went through a series of intriguing metamorphoses: ‘La Beauté sauvage’ (‘Savage Beauty’), ‘L’Apparition de la beauté’ (‘The Ghost of Beauty’), and ‘La Beauté terrestre’ (‘Earthly Beauty’), among others.
Beauty on Earth is also undoubtedly in conversation with Luisita, a novel by Édouard Rod first published in 1903, in which the beautiful Argentine female protagonist engenders dramatic conflicts within the huis clos of a murderous family drama. Unlike Rod’s novel, however, Ramuz’s is not a family tragedy, but a universal tragedy. In the larger world of Beauty on Earth, Juliette represents Ramuz’s familiar “elsewhere” that entwines foreignness, freedom, and dislocation in opposition to traditional ways of life. Then as now, otherness was perceived as threatening to the community as a whole.
Michelle Bailat-Jones has described Beauty on Earth as “a modern novel” largely in terms of its thematic relevance. Indeed, familiar themes echo through this story of a nineteen-year-old immigrant who enters her uncle Milliquet’s home and his popular tavern overlooking a maze of stone-terraced vineyards. As the other whose existence disrupts Milliquet’s household and his social identity, it is this innocent girl who unmasks a pact of traditional values in a world suspended in a hallucinogenic landscape of water, sky, and snow, poetically rendered by Bailat-Jones’s translation:
Below is the water, but there are three things. The water is below, then she looks a little higher and sees the land (if it is truly land on that other bank, when it looks more like sculpted air, air that has been squeezed between your hands). It was like air surrounded by air, blue surrounded by blue, until higher up, but then she didn’t understand at all anymore: up there beautiful laundry-like fields of snow were hanging on a rope of sky . . .As she attempts to become a part of this place, Juliette is exposed to the stunned fascination of Maurice, a young villager already engaged to be married, and also to the aggressive desires of the “Savoyard,” a despised outsider from the French province of Savoy across the lake. Her only friend is the solitary hunchback, Urbain, who plays the accordion at the tavern. This “instrument of freedom,” rather than Urbain himself, becomes Juliette’s true friend, as French scholar Philippe Amen suggests. After a brawl inspired by these undercurrents, Madame Milliquet throws Juliette out of the house. She and Urbain make their way down the hillside to the shore, and to the protection of the house of Rouge, an aging fisherman who has struggled to locate Cuba, Juliette’s home until now, on a map. It is, of course, a mere fragment, an island in a vast ocean that serves as an example of Ramuz’s ominous “elsewhere” floating in opposition to a settled place.
Juliette is a symbol of modernity in and of herself. However, she is far more than that. Indeed, in a familiar paradox, the more modern Ramuz’s characters are, the more he seems to delight in mythologizing them. Some have even interpreted Juliette as a glimpse of the divine. Stepping beyond physical reality, we might even “read” her like a poem, or as unspoken language in search of form (for she barely speaks in the novel). In any case, Juliette achieves a magical quality as she crosses traditional boundaries of culture, gender, time, and space.
Among other things, Juliette demonstrates her skill with boats and fishing nets. And because Urbain’s accordion music lifts her spirits, Rouge invites him to his house, where she now lives freely. She dances there at the water’s edge, swathed in her shawl embroidered with flowers, mirroring the mythical birth of Venus. But Juliette is not as welcome as Venus on these earthbound shores. Milliquet files a legal complaint against Rouge, charging him with the corruption of a minor. As we see every day in our own multiple world(s), human emotion often leads to banal social conflict, if not outright violence.
As the end-of-summer celebration at Milliquet’s tavern approaches, Rouge hatches a plan for Juliette’s escape to the other side of the lake. Over there, she will be in France, out of this narrow-minded village society and beyond the reach of Swiss law. Rouge speaks to Juliette’s silence in a kind of tragic soliloquy that the translator renders as an almost theatrical pacing and pausing:
So you pack your things and we’ll take your boat, Juliette. We’ll get out of here, no one will notice a thing, no one will know where we are . . . we’ll cross the water . . . we’ll cross the water and over there it’s another country and they can’t do anything to us . . . we’ll stay there until . . . until you’re of age, yes, and it’s only a few months anyway. So you decide. Because I’ll adopt you. If you like . . .Rouge continues in this pleading tone, then listens to the silence on the other side of the door with his hands in his pockets. “Nothing easier than that,” he adds. “So, okay, you pack up your things. We’ll cross the water, it will be better . . . here, I would have done something terrible . . .” Juliette says nothing, not even when Rouge bids her good-night.
Like most characters in Ramuz’s universe, the villagers in Beauty on Earth do not voyage out as self-actualizing individuals but, rather, seek a sense of plénitude (fulfillment) in their own surroundings. They turn toward the collective in unspoken solidarity, ever-conscious of a palpable sense of elsewhere that both repels and terrifies. Meaning is found in mythical archetypes: a young man’s quest, an elder’s wisdom, good vs. evil, and—as we see in both Le Garçon savoyard and Beauty on Earth—the life-altering impact of beauty and desire. For most of Ramuz’s characters, this is enough.
Until he introduces an “exotic stranger” like Juliette—or Besson the basketmaker in Passage du poète or Miss Anabella the circus performer in Le Garçon savoyard—whose otherness destabilizes not only the singular world of an individual but also the community as a whole. And because Ramuz’s characters are so firmly embedded in their collective worlds, they share a collective incapacity to cope with “difference,” even when some are stunned into consciousness by a new form of being, best described by Deleuze as an “essence” announced by “difference.” With this distinction in mind, Juliette asserts herself as a useful example of Deleuzian essence because she is confidently self-contained and, therefore, unknowable:
The world does not exist outside of the subject that expresses it, but it is expressed as an essence, not of the subject himself, but of Being, or of the region of Being that reveals itself to the subject. This is why each essence is a homeland, a country of its own.This idea of subjectivity described by Deleuze as “a country of its own” is, effectively, the alienating elsewhere that feels so confrontational when we observe it in a person we do not and, ultimately, cannot know. We stare and stagger, like Maurice. Or call in the law, like Milliquet. Or opt for suicide as the only way out of a dilemma that cannot be resolved, as does Joseph Jacquet from across the lake in Le Garçon savoyard, a place not far away but far enough away to evoke the dilemma of elsewhere. So often, Ramuz’s view of the world rests on such shocking effects, effects that Deleuze approaches as “hieroglyphics” that must be deciphered in order to excavate truth from reality. Among his talents, Ramuz possessed a gift for deciphering the “hieroglyphics” of people and places, a gift he clearly developed in the era of the Great War, as his collaboration with Igor Stravinksy on his still-popular Histoire du soldat (1918) reminds us. Indeed, this play performed every summer in Switzerland remains a dissonant musical prototype of Ramuz’s mature novels.
Rouge’s paternalistic gesture to save Juliette does not work. Rather, his boat, renamed “Juliette,” detaches from the dock and floats out onto the lake as Juliette herself climbs the hill to the festival with the hunchback, his accordion trailing behind her. This strangely incandescent moment reads like an English prose poem thanks to Michelle Bailat-Jones:
And the girl also changed the light, the light around her becoming all white. There was this great black sky, but everything around her was lit up (or she was the one lighting it). They were watching her come, and she was still in the bottom of the valley, still very far away; she was red against the night. Behind her was the hunchback, the hunchback was also in the shadow. He was at the limit of the darkness where we see the pine trees leaning off together in one large group. He was holding his instrument in front of him, tilting his head to the side, pulling on the bellows; then he presses his two hands upon them, making it twist. He has two humps; we can only see one, the one in front of him. He is just in the line of the shadow creating the night; every time he leaves it, the line comes farther forward. And farther forward is the girl; and there on her is two times the light because she calls it to her, and adds to it at the same time; she is lit up and she lights up.Suddenly, Juliette is dancing again in her red shawl, turning and twirling, hair flying, naked arms revealed. In their intriguing analysis of the role played by the four elements of air, water, fire, and earth in the novel’s catastrophic ending, Renaud and Verselle describe Juliette as “essentially a creature of the air.” Soon, however, the reviled Savoyard of Beauty on Earth, Cyprien Ravinet, will have his revenge against her and all those who have rejected him. With Rouge still “at sea” struggling with a wayward boat, Ravinet descends from the rocks to Rouge’s bungalow, going from room to room with a box of matches.
From the happy chaos of the festival where Juliette is dancing, a flicker of flames catches someone’s eye. There is great commotion, as a collective effort—a collective eye?—focuses on the flames at the water’s edge where Rouge’s house burns to the ground. Everyone is shocked. Everyone is helpless. In such moments of desolation, it’s difficult not to hear the echo of a classical chorus in Ramuz’s writing as the inevitable tragedy is announced in unadorned speech that Bailat-Jones replicates in stark, simple language: “Now the air was gray, on gray water, a fine gray rain; and in the midst of it, black smoke.”
Rouge returns to chaos, only to be taunted by Milliquet, who accuses him of hiding Juliette or, more to the point, of stealing her. To make matters worse, vicious jeers come from the Savoyard now out on the lake, laughing triumphantly from the vessel he has stolen, rowing the hull of the Juliette to the other side just as Rouge had planned to do on this very night. As the flames die down and the rancid odor of smoke rises, only sound remains: the storm’s thunder quieting in the distance and the faint musical notes pressed out of Urbain’s accordion somewhere out of sight.
As Bailat-Jones observes in her Translator’s Note, the narration becomes confused in the chaos, at which point Ramuz performs a final “hat trick, that of the narrator shifting away from his characters and stepping backward to become one of them.” All vantage points converge as the world seems to collapse and the voice of the story assumes a universal timbre after the shock of lightning, flames, shouts, and mudslides. Assuming the role of witness, Ramuz reports the moment in a deceptively simple sentence: “It is as if the world is coming into existence and it isn’t the same as before.”
Meanwhile, Maurice, who has been indifferent toward his fiancée ever since Juliette’s arrival, rushes blindly down a path, cutting through rain-drenched trees, chasing after vanished beauty. He is searching for something he cannot name, even if the reader—and the writer—are aware of all that has been lost. Here we have what Renaud has described in Ramuz ou L’intensité d’en bas (1986) as the destructive unraveling of a carefully constructed espace festif (festive space), a space “dedicated to a social and psychic opening” with which several of Ramuz’s twenty-two novels draw to a calamitous close. This occurs because fragile and potentially explosive elements have coexisted all along, as Renaud explains: “In Beauty on Earth, the arrival of Juliette is not only the catalyst for endemic conflicts; she breaks a fragile equilibrium that has, until now, contained the impulses of conflagration, of destruction, and of death.”
At the end of the novel, Ramuz tantalizes the reader with visions of a new beginning in scorched darkness. But instead of finding Juliette on the path, Maurice encounters his fiancée Émilie. “Someone has come, but it isn’t the one he is looking for,” Ramuz states flatly. These words return, quietly, after a tender description of this helpless girl who waits patiently: “This is not the one he is looking for.” The clock of the novel stops as Émilie smiles hopefully and waits in utter silence, a perfect parody of John Keats’s “bride of quietness.” Meanwhile, Maurice teeters on the edge of all that is here and all that is elsewhere as Juliette’s footsteps recede in the infinite distance and Ramuz’s last words express a tragic finality: “And the footsteps move away, move always further away.”
If beauty has vanished, what are we to make of its passing? As Valerie Trueblood asks in her foreword to Bailat-Jones’s translation, “Is beauty a kind of natural disaster?” Or is the destabilizing power of beauty proof, as Keats (and Deleuze) would have it, that the essence of beauty can only be captured through art? Ironically, the community that drives Juliette away becomes a community of others unto themselves, unmasked and trapped within boundaries of their own creation. If beauty on earth exists in this place, it can only be as a fragile and fugitive force.