François le champi (A Country Waif) is not one of the most celebrated novels in French literature. It is not even the major work by George Sand, a fascinating woman but who does not rank at the very top of the French literary figures.
And yet, Le champi holds one of the keys to the greatest work in French literary modernism.
This book stands at the beginning and at the end of La recherche tu temps perdu
. It is one of is multiple frames. In the opening of La recherche
it appears as the first novel to which Proust’s young protagonist is exposed, and this conveys for him the feeling of mystery in literature. It then surfaces again at the closing of Proust’s work with a revelatory role. We can then see this minor novel as actually inaugurating the beginning of time being wasted away while also signaling the possibility that lost time can be regained when we are approaching its end.
Little did George Sand suspect, when she wrote this novel in 1848, that this work would play later on such a major literary role.
In her preface she explains how the end of the July monarchy and the 1848 revolution had interrupted the publication of her work. These interfering circumstances however were the appropriate context for her work. For her aims with this novel were social. She wanted to present how a boy, a waif, could be honorable. She wanted to break social stigmas. A good-for-nothing could be good-for-everything. Her aims were also aesthetic. She wanted to find beauty in the common, in the everyday, and for this she chooses what she thinks is the simple life, the country life. She draws then from the pastoral tradition to which she however has given a socio-political twist and has transformed it into an engaged “roman campagnard”.
In François le Champi, she constructed a story within a story. A couple of characters, who remain inexplicable in spite of explicating themselves, discuss aesthetics and its application to real life. At the core of this debate there is also a strong moral standpoint. One of these two characters proceeds then to illustrate his points with the tale of the Champi. This second story is the bulk of the novel.
We can see these two dialoguing characters as the mouthpieces for Sand’s view on art. Nature is where beauty resides and it is the people who live close to it who live closer to truth and should be emulated (je voudrais sentir la manière du paysan..
). Civilization has a denaturalizing effect -- literally (j’ai vu et j’ai senti par moi-même, avec tous les rêves civilisés, que la vie primitive était le rêve, l’idéal de tous les hommes et de tous les temps
). And the artist can have a special role in extracting the lessons from nature: he can be its translator (l’artiste est chargé de traduire cette candeur, cette grâce, ce charme de la vie primitive, à ceux qui ne vivent que de la vie factice...
I wonder how much of Proust’s interest in this novel was drawn to this fictitious dialogue. I suspect that not much, even if some sentences seem to denote an echo in his writing (entre la connaissance et la sensation, le rapport c’est le sentiment
). My impression is that the attention of his young narrator is drawn directly to the tale of François le champi, a boy like himself.
In this second narrative, the plot is simple and the characters are simple. The story, however, has baffled me.
What leaves me in suspense is that I would like to know why Proust chose to include this particular novel in such a prominent place in his own work. Le Champi involves a surrogate mother and a young castaway and, easily to predict, love develops between the two. This plot becomes a very tempting premise. I have however preferred to push aside any Freudian lenses and looked through less pre-colored filters.
For one, the young Narrator did not read the book himself, it was read to him by the mother. She censored the sections that she thought were sensual and jumped over those passages. Consequently a certain level of incomprehension was created but immediately endowed with a veil of mystery by this sensitive and highly imaginative young boy.
A second factor would be that his exposure to Sand’s work was through sound, through the warm voice of his dear mother (Ces phrases qui semblaient écrites pour sa voix
). To him it was the voice of sentiment (elle insuflait à cette prose si commune une vie sentimentale et continue
) and of goodness. Both blended well with the moral tone of Sand’s novel (la prose de Sand, qui respire cette bonté, cette distinction morale que maman avait appris de ma grand’mère à tenir pour supérieures à tout dans la vie
And last there was the title. For the word Le champi
is not a common word in French. Sand has one of her characters explain to the other that he is mistaken if he thinks it is a foreign word, for Montaigne had used it. The title was incomprehensible to Proust’s dreamy child as well (sa couverture rougeâtre et son titre incompréhensible donnaient pour moi une personalité distincte et un attrait mystérieux
). And the fascination that a word can enclose (la source devait être dans ce nom inconnu et si doux de “Champi” qui mettait sur l’enfant qui le portait sans que je susse pourquoi, sa couleur vive, empourprée et charmante
.) is what endows the name with such a strong evocative power than it can make memories be relived or older selves resuscitate and possess the current identity.
And so a copy of François le champi
rests on the night table in Marcel’s room in Tante Léonie’s house
in Illiers-Combray, an idilic countryside. It is a witness that Time was Recovered and that we, posterity, continue to keep his Time ticking.