A few months ago, I posted on Life on La Lune’s Facebook page that we were re-watching the films of Marcel Pagnol’s classic Provence novels, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Do watch them if you get the chance. Someone commented that I ought to write about the films of his childhood memoirs, La Gloire de Mon Père and Le Château de Ma Mère. Your wish is my command. I will try not to give away any spoilers.
Marcel Pagnol was born in Aubagne near Marseille in 1895, the son of a schoolteacher and a dressmaker. The family moved to Marseille following the promotion of Pagnol’s father, Joseph. From an early age, Marcel showed signs of high intelligence, and went on to become a playwright, film director and novelist. He was the first filmmaker to be elected to the Académie Française, whose 40 members are the custodians of the French language.
In addition to his plays and novels, Pagnol also wrote a series of autobiographical novels about his childhood, entitled Souvenirs d’enfance. The four books were La Gloire de Mon Père, Le Château de Ma Mère, Le Temps des Secrets and Le Temps des Amours. The final book was a series of fragments that he never finished and was published after his death.
The first two books were made into films in 1990. I read the books before seeing the films and found their accessible style helpful in improving my French. Pagnol was a good storyteller and his affectionate portraits of his parents and relatives make the books enjoyable reads.
Pagnol’s mother, Augustine, was never in good health, so the family rented a house for the holidays near the village of La Treille in the hills outside Marseille, a healthier environment than the city. Thus began Pagnol’s love affair with the Provençal countryside and his fascination for the stories and traditions that he wove into his books.
La Gloire de Mon Père
La Gloire de Mon Père recounts the family’s adventures in La Treille. A key part of the book is Joseph Pagnol’s initiation into hunting by his more experienced and patronising brother-in-law, l’Oncle Jules, a wonderful character, who is also an expert and merciless boules player. He is brilliantly played in the films by Didier Pain.
Marcel Pagnol idolises his mother, admires his father and gently bullies his younger brother, Paul. He makes friends with Lili (a boy, despite the name), the son of a local paysan, and together they roam the hills and enjoy the kind of freedom that children rarely can today. Joseph’s apotheosis occurs near the end of the book, but I won’t give it away.
Le Château de Ma Mère
Le Château de Ma Mère continues the story of the family’s excursions to their holiday cottage. The journey there is long and complicated, involving a tramway, an uphill walk and then a donkey cart from La Treille to the house, while carrying all the paraphernalia needed for a long stay. Pagnol’s mother, Augustine, is often exhausted on arrival.
Providence arrives in the shape of a former pupil of Joseph. He illicitly gives them a key to a gate leading to a shortcut running between several opulent châteaux and the canal of which he is an employee. Le Château de Ma Mère narrates what happens when they get found out.
Pagnol’s memoirs are a little rosy-hued and this carries over into the films. Nonetheless, they effectively evoke the culture, society and landscapes of southern France in the early 20th century. In fact, the halcyon days of childhood were not to last: Augustine died in 1910, Marcel’s friend Lili died on a World War I battlefield and Marcel’s brother, ‘le petit Paul’, died young, too.
You can read more about Marcel Pagnol on the website dedicated to him (navigable in English).
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