Guest Column: Valerie Trueblood

This week, Seattle writer Valerie Trueblood contributes a column about Swiss writer C.-F.Ramuz. Valerie’s first novel, Seven Loves, came out this summer from Little, Brown. She is at work on an essay about the fiction of Ramuz, a book of dog stories, and a second novel.

In July, it got so hot in Seattle–a near-100-degree, breathless, un-Pacific-Northwest heat–that I thought of a novel I used to love, and took it off the shelf and read it again: The End of All Men. It made a hot night even longer. It’s not a book to take your mind off global warming.

The great Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, who wrote of life on the steep pastures of the Swiss Alps, published Présence de la Mort in the twenties. Here we waited until 1944 for a translation, The End of All Men. Ramuz has been compared to Hardy for his depiction of rural life, but his barely individualized characters are no kin of Tess and Jude. Hardy would recognize the way their fates dog them, but fate, for a character in Ramuz’s disaster novels, is nothing deserved or tragically earned, it’s a blow dealt straight from earth and sky onto the body. Reading Ramuz is an exercise in giving up ideas of human cause and effect, and feeling the rumble of tectonic plates. But the humans are there, tiny figures living lives of great particularity on the ground-and somehow we want to go along on their hopeless errands. What is to become of them, these men and women in whom character is beside the point?

And how do these stories conceived just after the Great War differ from our earthquake and asteroid and Ebola-virus blockbusters? For one thing, they’re masterpieces. For another, there’s nobody in them with foresight, nobody who takes measures, no brainy-romantic operator to get the world out of a fix. There’s no way out.

The events Ramuz describes are of mythic enormity. For him, the technology dear to most speculative fiction does not exist. In The End of All Men, hope, not surprisingly, is gone, but it is barely missed as the physical details of existence go on accumulating-and in the hands of this writer these are glorious.

Something has disrupted gravity and the earth has begun to fall towards the sun. It’s getting hotter by five degrees a day, and the climbing mercury, only touched on in a glimpse of sweat running off fingers or a cow lying with its horn stuck in mud, inhabits every scene. Ramuz writes as one who, sitting looking out his own window, sees his book going on. It’s all happening in a “here,” told in three persons: I, Ramuz, comes and goes in the heat, coolly summoning you, the reader, to see what they, the villagers, are going to be driven to do.

Scenes ugly and tender unfold, impassively described, utterly lacking what we now call “edge.” In the face of extinction a married pair bicker about their savings, police are posted at the bank, men go on shoeing horses, people get drunk and have an orgy, there’s a final war. Ramuz’s narrator, but for his grave sadness, would seem to have the calm relish of an auteur strolling the set. His picture comes at us in pixels, intimate and broken: a boot or a neck, “suspenders stitched with crosses,” a foraging kitten. It fills in until the vast scale is apparent (see this photograph of his region), as aloof from individual ruin as Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Drought, and then a great heat: everybody’s about to die. Why read on? Because Ramuz, who says, “I tried to close my eyes to see heaven: it was the earth,” poses the question of exactly what our own attitude is to the earth, and by the time we finish reading this eighty-some-year-old fantasy we’ve lost our comfortable environmentalism and begun to grieve. And we read because the book is mesmerizing. Some of the cool, regular caress of his French prose is lost in English, but its walking pace and oddly confiding formality survive. He called the washing of lake waters his teacher: “teaching me accent, teaching me repetition, teaching me length.”

“Set down nothing but what is seen.” Ramuz is a philosopher at heart and doesn’t obey his own rule, but his village is voluptuously itself, every detail corroborated by another. A swollen, unmilked cow moos “behind a sack-cloth curtain somewhere; first one cow and then another, and still another now, because they all imitate each other.” Water fools people; instead of drying up it rises as the glaciers melt, “running between the blackberry and the gooseberry bushes, the great clumps of dahlias…it has ventured right into the kitchen.” This awful, inquisitive, domesticated water “is no longer as it was, so disturbed and warm it is.”

The lens zooms in and out: close-up of a pointless murder, upward pan to the hanging ice. Glimpses of village and family life dimming, going out. Wide view of towns, each one a republic organized to guard its pond. A band of men chasing another from a mountain retreat, the expelled returning to smoke the usurpers out with a smudge-bomb and shoot them. Boats from cities (these amusingly outside Ramuz’s frame), loaded with passengers trusting to the polar ice for rescue.

We live in a country where many are awaiting the end-time in just the imperturbable mood of the village imbecile in this book. I wish the president, who is said to be reading Camus, would spend one of these hot summer nights in Crawford reading The End of All Men. It’s simple enough. Anyone can look up from the page and picture a glacier melting. There’s even a divine figure of some sort at the end, where we get something the president might identify as the Rapture, only no one is left behind.


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