Marie-Hélène Lafon’s latest novel delves into the sources of her work through the intimate story of a family settled in an isolated farm in Cantal, under the yoke of a violent husband and father.
After son’s storyPrix Renaudot in 2020, more than 160,000 copies sold, Marie-Hélène Lafon publishes The sources, a short novel in which she concentrates and draws the sources of everything that makes the salt of her work. The book was published on January 5 by Buchet-Chastel editions.
The story : a woman, almost thirty years old, mother of three children, and a husband. This seemingly normal family lives on an isolated farm in Cantal, in the Santoire Valley. This Saturday in June 1967, the mother is busy in the house. It’s day of “large children’s toilet”. You have to do the laundry, tidy the house. Be ready for the next day’s visit to the grandparents.
While the father takes a nap (a respite), she thinks back to the past, to her childhood, to what she has become today. She has been married for eight years, her body has grown heavier. “Thirty years old, three children, Isabelle, Claire and Gilles, two girls and a boy, seven, five and four years old, a farm, a beautiful farm, thirty-three hectares, a large house, twenty-seven cows, a tractor, a cowherd, a clerk, a maid, a car, a driver’s license”. On paper a good life. In truth, an ordeal that has started “immediately after marriage”. To hold on, she makes lists, and sticks to them.
In three acts
Marie-Hélène Lafon describes in this short, very dense novel, the intimacy of a family that experiences violence on a daily basis, in silence and isolation, and its consequences. We are at the end of the 1960s, in a rural region where “you have to pretend in front of people”where pride “block the words”. The novelist articulates her story in three movements, around the family home. Three movements and three points of view.
We start with that of the mother, 1967, in the days preceding her emancipation. Then comes that of the father, in the 70s, left alone in an empty house, who ruminates “this funny time” Or “women want to take the place of men”and his nostalgia for Morocco, where there was military service, warmth, and a woman.
The father also thinks of his daughters, who are successful, and of his aunt Jeanne, professor of mathematics in Paris, luminous and reassuring female figures, reasons for pride in his mind, while for his son, his “boy”, “He doesn’t see clearly, he feels that Gilles is all on his mother’s side and his maternal grandfather; they will make a noodle of him, not a man capable of keeping a farm”.
And finally in the third and last chapter, we find Claire, the second daughter who became an adult, fifty years later, in the fall of 2021, on the threshold of her childhood home, that of Calvary then alternating visits, which comes to be sold.
“It passes quickly, life, time”
In a hurried handwriting, each word weighed, in its place, without bold, the novelist manages to suggest an atmosphere tense like a bow by the violence of the husband, who makes reign in the house a deaf terror, in which each one measures his gestures , his breath, so as not to trigger “circus, bullfighting”.
In the second movement, shorter, more relaxed, the novelist paints the impotence and incomprehension of the husband and father. No judgment. We understand between the lines how much weigh on all the injunctions of the time (“Wives followed husbands”), how much the rural, agricultural environment weighs on the bodies, “damaged”, “heavy meat”, and on spirits. The father knows that none of his children will take over the farm, “that there will be no sequel”, and it is a tragedy for him.
The third and last “act”, short, but full of languor like a last held note, brings a soothing denouement. “Claire breathes in the warm, sweet smell of languid leaves in the yard”. The yard, the maple tree, the swing haven’t moved, but time has passed. Claire does not enter, she stays outside, the refuge of her childhood, she is there to say goodbye to this “house of the little years”to “sources” (term that Claire prefers to the word “roots”), of a life and also of a work.
This is about emancipation. We hear it in the text, remarkably written, but also through the ellipses, two leaps in time, punctuated by three dates which structure the novel, giving an off-the-record view of the path traveled by the different protagonists. The construction of the book, three increasingly short chapters, supports this idea. “How quickly life and time pass”.
The land (his land, the Cantal), the family, the emancipation, the transmission, the silence, the language of the bodies, of the objects, of the landscapes, the paths of life and the words which spring like a source after having been retained … All the themes that have occupied Marie-Hélène Lafon since her beginnings in literature are pressed here to the point of extracting a full-bodied sap that irrigates the whole of this great novel.
The sourcesby Marie-Hélène Lafon (Buchet-Chastel, 128 pages, €16.50)
“She thinks of her mother and her aunts who always say that life goes by quickly, the time, the years of youth when you have small children with you in the houses. She begins to understand it, she swallows in the silence of the siesta, she rests her chin on her hands and her elbows on the oilcloth, on either side of her plate, she swallows again. Almost eight years since her marriage; she counts, in six months and ten- seven days, they were married on December 30, 1959. She doesn’t like to think about that, you mustn’t. Eight years of marriage, and four years on the farm, here, far from everything, at the end of the world. would like to get up, go out, pick up the laundry, do what is necessary, get a little ahead of time before the big children’s wash, the Saturday wash which takes longer when you go down to the grandparents the next day, at home and at home, all three have to be impeccable, always. Her body weighs. She waits.” (The sourcesp.15)