Called the French ‘Huck Finn,’ This Book Has Pleasures All Its Own

Called the French ‘Huck Finn,’ This Book Has Pleasures All Its Own

Henri Bosco's is concerned with nature and its influence on human minds. Credit…Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images THE CHILD AND THE RIVER, by Henri Bosco. Translated by Joyce Zonana. The life and literary career of Henri Bosco spanned two centuries, two world wars, two continents, an empire and its aftermath. Born in 1888 in Avignon, he trained as a composer, spent World War I on the Balkan front, then became a teacher in France's “overseas departments” — notably in Rabat — until Moroccan independence in 1955. His experience of modernity was wholly provincial, but no less real for happening in places where people still lived much as they had before the steam engine. Bosco remained close both to the Provençale landscape of his youth and to his Catholicism, transforming into one of those writers apparently determined to heal themselves and others of the horrors of the 20th century through an immersive, lyrical and highly local writing nature and its influence on human minds. “Malicroix,” his 1948 masterpiece, takes place almost entirely on an island in the middle of the Rhône estuary in the Camargue. A young man discovers he has been named the heir of a rich hermit uncle, “the embodiment of wildness,” only on the condition that he endure three winter months of solitude in the uncle's isolated cottage. Although Bosco remarks in a preface that “a reader who wanted to date this tale could set it in the first three decades of the 19th century,” his indifferent phrasing indicates that the situation is not meant to be historical. The is existential or, more appropriately, elemental: Earth, air, fire and water — these are Bosco's instruments along with the passions, fears and fantasies each of them evokes. The result is a strange kind of gothic romance about the human attempt to reach a real peace with wildness and wilderness without pacifying them, subduing them, paving them over. This feat is accomplished through a singular prose poetry about solitary humans trying to make a home amid elemental forces that's unlike anything I've read in any language with […]

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