MURIEL BARBERY The Life of Elves. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
This story concerns two changeling babies who are found in strange circumstances. One is adopted by a family in rural France and the other is raised in Abruzzo, Italy. The girls are important because they have mystical and magical powers, which will be valuable in the coming war between differing groups of elves and humans. One elfin group wishes to exterminate humans and the other nurtures the children with a view to the future confrontation and ultimate victory.
Clara, with a human mother and elf father, initially raised by Father Centi in Italy, is taken to Rome when she is 12 to pursue her prodigious pianoforte skills and develop her powers of mind reading. Maria, of totally elfin parentage, is a well-loved child raised by adoptive parents and several elderly aunts in a French peasant village. Her value will be to provide a bridge between elves and humans.
The plot is a simple one. It involves preparation for the coming battle between good and evil. Evil is personified by the Governor of Rome, an elf, Raffaele Santangelo, and a shady other, named Aelius, both of whom seem unaware of the powers of the girls. Good is manifested by the elves who surround Clara: Gustavo Acciavatti, the Maestro, and Petrus, a strange servant who is often drunk and has a fondness for telling stories, and many others. The people and environment that cradle Maria are the essence of basic goodness and Barbery gives many of the characters a detailed and affectionate description before the final battle is joined. Village life is lovingly detailed, the everyday rituals of the good life of hunting and farming, herbal healing, and above all, the food:
Ordinarily they would have supped on soup, bacon, a half cheese per pair of feet, and a smidgin of Eugénie’s quince jellies, but instead they were busy preparing a stew and a chanterelle pie: they’d just opened three jars from that year’s harvest. On Maria’s plate was a big pear drowned in honey fragrant with the thyme the bees had frequented all summer long, and she was silent.
While the plot is simple, the prose is not. My limited experience of French literature has led me to believe that, on the whole, French writers write with tender, sensuous, unrelenting acuity; not so here. There is no sharpness in the writing style, it is all hint and allusion and very long sentences. Muriel Barbery asks a great deal of her readers – and her translator. That is not to say that there is no charm in the writing, but readers are not left to sink into easy imagery – rather they are required to pay a great deal of attention if they want to understand what is happening:
Then Clara played … Just as she was playing the final note, he felt a dizziness of prodigious intensity that left him reeling before it burst into a spray of images, only to vanish again almost at once – but the last image remained etched on his mind long after he left the village, and he looked respectfully at the frail child thanks to whom the miracle of this rebirth had come about: superimposed on her face was the face of a woman, laughing in the chiaroscuro of a forgotten garden.
However, I think that the extraordinarily poetic imagery in the writing will seduce, and that readers who allow the poetry to wash over them will enjoy Barbery’s rich style. Images of the landscape are very beguiling; trees and snow-covered farmland are rendered with real beauty:
The countryside that morning was dazzling. There had been a frost at dawn, and it sparkled from one end of the land to the other; then the sun came up, all of a sudden, above an earth now covered with a cloth that glistened like a sea of light.
Those who want clarity and evidence of cause and effect may be less keen, particularly when it comes to the final battle, which is so allusive as to be very confusing:
Naturally it was Gégène who was first to call the men’s hearts to arms. It should be said that his dream, as will be revealed anon, was hardly the least significant of all those ephemeral and sublime dreams, but the fact remained that on that day he was still the same man of duty and decision as always; and once his initial stupefaction at the enemy’s raging fury had subsided, along with his dismay at discovering how powerful and vile they were, he felt that they had wasted too much time prevaricating with fear, and now they must pay their tithes to a life of good wine and love.
The real message in the tale is the redemptive importance of art in human lives. This is made clear by various comments from and moments in the life of the many characters; both those of the Inner Elfin Council and the good peasants of the farm where Maria grows up. Muriel Barbery’s respect for music, painting, and language, as well as the everyday arts of the good life, is very clear in this challenging and rather beautiful work.
Muriel Barbery The Life of Elves Text 2016 PB 272pp $29.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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