Always True to France

Paris and Elsewhere

by Richard Cobb, edited and introduced by David Gilmour and (Distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square)
London: John Murray, 276 pp., $45.00

Richard Cobb
Richard Cobb; drawing by David Levine

Last year I was on a walking holiday in the Vercors, south of Grenoble. On a perfect May morning, two of us were traversing a high upland plateau just below the snowline. Turf impeccable enough to re-lay fairways at the Augusta Masters was crossed by thin, pure streams; here, in boastful profusion—Nature showing what it can do when left alone—were a billion gentians, edelweiss, dwarf narcissi, buttercups, and orchids; once or twice, against the melting snow, we glimpsed what was probably a small fox, depending on how big marmots grow. A padlocked shack denoted a seasonal human presence in what was otherwise a swathe of changeless France. In the late afternoon we descended into a small village, some forty buildings jammed between two hills. As the grass track gave way to semi-asphalt, we encountered another item from changeless France: a peasant pasturing his goats on the public hedgeside. He was ancient, rubicund, and toothless, accompanied by an automatically hostile dog of mixed ancestry, and as he told us the long story of his rheumatism he would, as punctuation, give the nearest goat a thwack with his stick.

The village was as you might expect: a church, a desiccated water fountain, a former school still bearing a faded RF on its forehead, a boulangerie open one hour a day, an auberge, two walkers’ hostels. Some of the houses had been freshly made over, with parchment stone and custard mortar; others were in restauro. Over dinner we asked Madame how many indigènes still lived in the village. Just the one, she replied: the peasant whom we had met. He may look eighty, she said, but was only about sixty—“Et pourtant il vit une vie très bio, très écolo.” We agreed that you could have too much bio and écolo in your life. Was drink the cause of his seeming dilapidation? No, it was his cousin, the village’s penultimate peasant, who used to drink. Or at least he did until the day he went down the mountain to vote, and someone in a café told him he didn’t look too well. They took him to the hospital for observation, he didn’t drink for eight days, and promptly died.

The surviving Ultimate Peasant followed a rigidly structured life: he rose at five, and went up the mountain to collect dead wood for a fire he would ritually light at five in the evening, every day, regardless of season or weather. He lived with and off his goats; he had a certain amount of money, but didn’t spend anything. He had never married. “I suppose he could get a Russian,” said Madame. There is still a bachelors’ fête not too far away, where women would traditionally come for husbands. In the old days they were Portuguese or Spanish; now they are Polish or Russian. But this solution is improbable. In the meantime, everyone in the village does…

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