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By Frederic Mistral
Translated by George Wicks
New York: New Directions Books, 1986
ISBN: 0-8112-0992-X
264 pages

Bob Corbett
Feb, 2015

This work was a great surprise for me and a delight! I had expected an autobiography, and a fairly heavy text. However, when Frederic Mistral called this a “memoir” he meant something a good deal different than an autobiography.

The sense I had in reading it was of an older man (says this 75 year old reader) who is looking back on his life, and some folks come to visit and they sit, perhaps sipping wine and chatting and each is telling tales of their youth. Now, of course this is organized in a more chronological manner, and it a single speaker over a long period, but the feel of the work was that more informal manner.

Overall he seems to be a man who relished living, was on fire with his “project” of writing in the Provencal language and giving respectfulness to this language that many, especially in sophisticated Paris, that thought it was a dead language.

Frederic Mistral was born in the village of Maillane, in the area of Arles. This is in southeast France, very near the Mediterranean. He loved his home village and the language which the people there spoke.

“When in Paris or in Rome
Nothing charms you there;
You find Maillane without compare:
And you’d rather eat an apple at home
Than a partridge in Paris.”

His father was over 55 when he was born. It was his father’s second marriage and it was to a very young girl. Frederic was the child of that marriage and he was born in 1830. He was Roman Catholic and he and everyone he knew spoke Provencal.

His father was not a literary man and claimed to have only read three books in his life:

New Testament
The Imitation of Christ
Don Quixote

Frederic’s childhood life was filled with myths and games and traditional holidays.

“Nowadays, with the harsh and narrow system that no longer takes into consideration the wings of childhood, the angelic instincts of the budding imagination, or its need for the marvelous – which is what makes saints and heroes, poets and artists – nowadays, as soon as the child is born, its heart and soul are dried up with raw naked learning. Alas, poor dreamers, with age and school, especially the school of life, only too soon do they learn the shabby truth, and become disillusioned by scientific analysis of everything that enchanted us.”

He didn’t much like elementary school and tells us:

“I certainly learned more in the somersaults of my childhood among common people than in all the rudiments of learning.”

He reports a rather wild tale about running away and being trapped by a wolf after spending the night with gypsies in an old cabin. His family didn’t believe the story and neither did I!

This particular story, which in part has him, as a 10 year old, stuck in a large barrel in a mountain area in an abandon house is a perfect example of his exaggerations. He sleeps there overnight. A group of gypsies had broken in and were staying the night. Fearing he’d tell on them, they put him into a barrel to sleep, telling him that he could just shout out for help in the morning and some passer-by would get him out. However, in the morning when he woke he heard noises and peeking out a hole in the barrel he sees there is a wolf in the house. It is trying to get at him in the barrel. However, he SAYS that he reached through a hole in the barrel and grabbed the wolf’s tale. The wolf freaked out and ran out the door, him holding on for dear life and the wolf ran a long way dragging the barrel and bringing Frederic closer to his home. . . . You can see why his parents and this reader had a hard time swallowing this story, but he presents it as straight history.

He went to school at Saint-Michel-de-Frigolet, which is in the same area, between Avignon and Marseille. After that from 1843-47 he did his first formal course of studies at the Royal College in Avignon. He still preferred the Provencal language and moved to yet a new school in Avignon.

He came under the influence of Monsignor Roumanille, his protector, who introduced him to the writing and the respecting of Provencal poetry. Roumanille wrote:

“Brothers, let us guard against oblivion
Let us build some colossal work together,
A Tower of Babel in Provencal brick.”

They worked to advance the Provencal language, return it to its original spelling and reintroduced language that had come to be regarded as vulgar, but was used by the old troubadours. It was a 20 year battle for Mistral to work on this project.

In 1847 he finished those studies and went to Nimes to take his baccalaureate exam. He passed and celebrated with a group of working men at the place where he stayed. This sort of focus on the response of the working men at the hostel, rather than on the graduation itself and awards and such, are typical of what Mistral finds to be worth telling.

The Revolution of 1848, when he was just 18, was a major factor in France. Once again the Republican and Royalists were at one another throats as in 1789. His father’s influence led him more toward the Royalist position.

He celebrated the old world manners and denounced modernism and the Industrial Revolution. After telling stories of the traditional connection to the ancient agricultural practices he says:

“Reader, these good children of nature are the people who were my models, I can tell you, and also my masters in poetry. It was there, with them, in the full light of the sun, stretched our under a willow tree, that I learned, reader, to play the reed pipe in a poem of four cantos entitled The Harvests, which included the lament of Margai, now in my Golden Isles."

After the coup d’état of December 1851 (he was then 21) he gave up on politics and dedicated himself totally to poetry and to the Provencal language. The task for Mistral and his group was “. . . with poetry more delicious than the food.”

They decided to put together a dictionary of the Provencal language, a task to which Mistral devoted time for 20 years. “The Provencal Almanac” for the year of 1855 was 112 pages long and began:

“We are all friends, all brothers,
We are the singers of the land!
As all children love their mothers,
And all nestling love their nests,
So we love our blue sky and our land.
To us they are a paradise.

We are all friends, joyful and free,
All enamored of Provence;
We are the Felibres,
The merry Felibres of Provence!”

They all took pseudonyms for that long work. Their annual Almanac won great public favor. He includes some samples of what was in the Almanac and it includes lovely folk tales which are as fanciful as any I’ve read, including a sentimental tale of a dying father who has three sons, calls them in one at a time asking them to make a pilgrimage to Rome for him since he had promised God such a venture. The older two sons are either too busy or think the idea is silly. His very young son accepts immediately and leaves. Some two years later, very very thin and dying he returns and is not recognized by his family, nor does he identify himself, but simply begs food at the house. His mother day after day refuses him, but each day his father overrules her with a plea to help the poor and hungry. Eventually the boy dies in their barn and they come to know who he is. Very touching.

Others are much the same as very simply folk tales.

In 1856 a visitor came from Paris, Adolph Dumas, sent by the Minister of Public Education to see about a collection of popular songs in Provencal. Mistral sings him one “Magli” which he had recently adapted.

Dumas was delighted by said:

“Oh, the Provencaux! You’ll always be the same, stubbornly keeping your rag of a language, like black donkeys going along ditches and browsing some thistle. It’s in French, my friend, in the language of Paris, that we must sing our Provence today, if we want to be heard.”

Soon after, however, Mistral finished his translation of “Mireio,” a collection of old Provencal songs and poems. When Dumas heard the finished project he wrote in Gazette de France

“The Gazette du Midi has already informed the Gazette de France of the arrival in Paris of young Mistral, the great poet of Provence. Who is this Mistral? Nothing is known about him. People ask me, and I am afraid to answer with words so unexpected they will not be believed during this period of imitative poetry when poetry and poets seem to be dead.”

And thus he ends the main part of his “Memoirs” by saying they had then arrived and there is little left to tell, but he does go on to report some delightful “doings” of a group of the poets who did some hiking in the mountains, and feasting at some simple little restaurants where “the common folk ate” especially focusing on a major feast that started with eel stew and went on to a banquet that would make nearly anyone jealous. I enjoyed this ending since it was so reminiscent of the hippie days of the 1960s and some of my own wanderings in Austria a few years later.

The memoir is very well written and entertaining, but the nature of the tales he tells, more than the details of them, seem to me to reveal who Frederic Mistral was -- a vibrant young man, in love with his local language and the culture which surrounded him; a talented poet and translator and a person who loved life and idealized his “home grounds” of Provence in France.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett