What is being lost in France's southwest uplands is the past. But W. S. Merwin's marvelous book of sheep grazers, walnut harvesters, plum gleaners, an itinerant wine merchant, a traveling distiller, a priest with skin-itch, a no-account count and others gives us a loss that is so gradual and richly disputed that it has the aftertaste of triumph. It is an evocation, not an obituary; autumn, not winter; a story of things passing but present.
Merwin, a singular poet, lived for a number of years in the stony and beautiful region of the upper Dordogne. He no longer does, and he has waited to write this book. The comparison with aging wine is too obvious, but that is precisely what has happened with his memory and his imagination. His prose is open, lively and inveigling; poetry works inside it as an invisible discipline, making a potent phrase an irreplaceable one.
The three long sections of "The Lost Upland" are fictional, but there are facts in every line, or echoes or projections of facts. As with the upland stonework houses, the stones are shaped to a design but they are also a natural history of the hills. Each section has a leading story. In "Foie Gras," it is the schemes and connivances of a broken-down nobleman; in "Shepherds," it is a farmer whose runaway sheep are killed by a train; in "Blackbird's Summer," it is the efforts of an aging wine merchant to find someone to carry on the traditions of his business. But these themes are trawler nets; each brings in all manner of other characters and stories.
Merwin rambles deliberately, telling part of a story, digressing, digressing from the digression, inserting another story and coming back to the first in a manner reminiscent of Jane Kramer's Letters from Europe in the New Yorker. Instead of simply moving us through a landscape, it gathers the landscape around us.
"Foie Gras," for example, begins by telling us that the man whom Merwin variously calls Fatty the Count, the Count of Allers and Pierre, relies on the pharmacy of M. Bruyere for his supply of the delicacy. This oddity is raised and seemingly dropped; we go on to hear of M. Bruyere's time as mayor of the town; of other mayors, of Fatty's quarrels with all of them as "modernizers"; and then of Fatty's own richly crooked existence.
Only at the end do we really get back to the foie gras; M. Bruyere gives it to the count for his dying mother, the widow of a general. Fatty devours it on the way home. His story, in fact, is the story of a region's long patience with the schemes and devices of its most colorful character and the whiff of aristocracy he provides, along with--he rarely washes and his clothes are filthy--a lowlier kind of whiff. Patience runs out in one terrible scene; Fatty dies soon after.
Merwin's account of Fatty's outrages are to be savored. He scours the region acquiring broken furniture and bric-a-brac, mends it crudely, and arrives at the home of some newly arrived stockbroker or foreigner. He is the Count of Allers, he announces, and he is willing to let an heirloom go "at a friendship price." He is not above removing an old wooden statue from an empty church, or engaging in a bit of blackmail.
"Blackbird's Tour," less extravagant, is finer. Blackbird is a man totally in love, and after many years his love is dying. Son of a wine merchant, he knows every vineyard in the region. His specialty is the rich Cahors wine; he also buys and sells the cheaper Minervois. More and more, though, growers are selling to the big cooperatives that blend the wine and turn it into something generic.
Blackbird is a slow, eloquent man. He notes and reflects upon everything he sees as he travels around in his small truck, buying a few barrels here, a few there, and calling on his aging customers who still appreciate a wine's individuality.
We hear time passing. His daughter is modernizing the family hotel, to his regret. His son-in-law is nice but weak, and has no interest in wine. An eager nephew is unable to make the fine discriminations or respect the traditions that have made up Blackbird's life and art. Schemes form in his mind; he offers to sell the business to an old customer, an Irishman. Over a splendid lunch, they consider the idea; it is a lovely bubble. The nephew will take over.
Other stories spin off. Blackbird befriends the local priest, whose skin bothers him. Late at night, and secretly--it is a matter of clerical dignity--they go to a forest spring with healing properties. They sit there in the dark, the priest naked, immersed and freezing, and companionably finish off a bottle of Cahors. "Blackbird's Tour" is a tour of place and time; it is a rich portrait of the spark of wildness that keeps a settled man alive and sentient.
"Blackbird" is memorable, but the heart of the book that has so much heart is its middle section. "Shepherds" begins with the deceptive matter-of-factness. The narrator--a man very much like Merwin--has bought an upland farmhouse and is gradually restoring the overgrown vegetable garden. It is slow, patient work, and the work and the days are beautifully described. At first it is solitary; then, bit by bit, there are the approaches from the neighbors, shy or distrustful, then gradually helpful, and finally companionable.
Bit by bit the narrator learns about the uplands life and the struggle to maintain it. The feed companies have encouraged the introduction of factory sheep-raising; some of the farmers adopt it, others insist on grazing their sheep for better flavor, still others use both methods. There is a bullying mayor who wants to get rid of the old public slaughterhouse in favor of a private one he has an interest in. There is his comically aborted attempt to widen a local bridge so that his trucks can get through. There is the night-time gathering of fallen plums, in season, and the rounds of the brandy-maker who drives a copper-tubed contraption up to the village green, hoists an umbrella over it, and sets about distilling.
Out of this variegated picture emerges the tragedy of M. Vert, the neighbor. One night, his sheep find a gap in the fence and wander down to the railroad track. Forty are killed; many others are mangled. M. Vert is not ruined but he is shattered. "They were like flowers," he laments. There is a wake at his house. The veterinarian comes, sympathizes and does what he can; he also sternly warns M. Vert that he must burn the bodies immediately or be fined. The butcher comes; he sympathizes, accepts a brandy and offers half-price for the meat.
Life has its rights in this passing France, and the things of life have their rights as well: the grazing sheep, the railroad, the state's sanitary regulations. Grief demands its rights and M. Vert gets them; profit demands its rights and the butcher gets them. Contradictions have lived together for hundreds of years; there is never a final resolution. In the uplands, Merwin tells us, all hard bargaining--Vert's and the butcher's, for instance--begins with the words "We'll come to an agreement." What life demands is not justice. Everyone has his own, after all. What life demands is a settlement, however painful.
Gathering Fallen Fruit:
"Gathering is older than agriculture and the gatherer knows it. Gathering is on happier and calmer terms with the unforeseen than are the later efforts of our kind to control the living world so that there can be more of us in every measured part of it. Gathering fallen fruit is a stage beyond picking it from its branches. When you pick you choose the fruit. With fallen fruit the tree and the fruit have made the decision before you. You have to find where the fruit has gone on its own. In the autumn nights when there was no wind I could hear the plums falling in the dark." --From "The Lost Land"