Campbell Corner Language Exchange


by Kathleen Hill
from the Michigan Quarterly Review


La lecture est au seuil de la vie spirituelle; elle peut nous y introduire;
elle ne la constitute pas.

Reading is at the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it;
it does not constitute it.

-- Sur la Lecture, Marcel Proust

Avesnes-sur-Helpe is a town in the north of France, a little west of the Ardennes, and only twenty-three kilometers from the Belgian border. Because of its strategic location on the road running from Brussels to Paris, Avesnes was chosen as the German headquarters for the Western Front and it was from here that Wilhelm II and Hindenburg directed the last German offensive in 1918. A century earlier, Napoleon had delivered his own final directives, on the eve of the battle of Waterloo, from the rectory of St. Nicholas, the town's fourteenth century church. And more than a century before that, during the wars of expansion of Louis XIV, Avesnes was one of several cities in the region fortified by Vauban; in a footnote the guidebook adds that beneath its skies the same Louis had first enjoyed the favors of Montespan.

These were all facts picked up during the year we lived in Avesnes, teaching English at the Institut Ste.Thérèse, a pensionnat where the daughters of prosperous farmers and tradespeople came to finish their schooling or prepare for the baccalaureate. We had spent the last two years in West Africa, on the coast of Nigeria, and we were reluctant to return home. This was partly because we were twenty-five and had no plan for the future and partly because it seemed too bad to put an end so soon to our travels. And there was perhaps a third reason: the war in Vietnam was heating up and, although we wouldn't have put it this way, we may have thought we could escape national responsibility by staying out of the country. Whatever the reasons, a flurry of applications for teaching positions in France produced nothing and it seemed we'd have to return after all. When, at the last minute, the Institut Ste.Thérèse offered jobs beginning in the fall of 1965 we jumped to accept. We knew nothing of this region of France--or for that matter any other--and in preparation I began reading novels by French writers, thinking that would at least be something.

The convent to which the Institut was attached gave us a stone farmhouse to live in that belonged to one of its sisters, Soeur Marie Joliette. The house was located two miles out from Avesnes, on the Route de Landrecies, an parts of it were already occupied by M. and Mme. Druet who looked after the farm and its twenty cows. Two rooms were made available to us: one upstairs, one down. The salon upstairs with its chairs covered in red velvet and the bedroom furnished with bamboo furniture were off limits. Built flush up against the Route de Landrecies, the house had a pebbled margin in front just wide enough for the van that brought Mme. Druet's baguettes on Sunday to sweep through and out. Across the road, sloping down and away, pastures descended to the village of St. Hilaire where a steeple was visible on clear days from the room upstairs. Clear days, however, were the exception: on the first day of November the cows drifted across the road and into the barn where they remained for a winter of drizzle and fog.

At the side of the house, down a few scant steps, there was a neglected garden of yellow chrysanthemums, scrappy in the September sun, michaelmas daisies, and something called joli bois that edged the path leading down to the coal bin. Sitting on the steps in the early afternoon, you could watch the flies make their heavy way back and forth from flower to kitchen, droning in the heat, pausing to alight on a wedge of Maroilles cheese abandoned on a plate beside the shallow sink, or hovering a moment above the fading leaves of the strawberry patch. This patch, when in bloom the following spring, would provoke a warning: the fruit, we were told by Soeur Marie Joliette--who had been a child in this house, whose father had died only the year before in a room upstairs--was intended for the convent.

In the evenings, as the autumn wore on, M. and Mme. Druet sometimes invited us into their kitchen in back for a tasse de café, a cup holding a potent blend of chicory made from the roots of the blue meadow flower that closes to a pale lavender at night. Beside the door leading out to the barn where the cows breathed in the chilly air, M. Druet's wooden sabots stood side by side with Pierre's, muddy from the damp soil and manure of the courtyard. Pierre was the elder son who had returned from the Algerian War and was for the moment helping his father. He was usually watching television in a room off the kitchen when we entered but always stood tall and lean in the doorway a minute or two and wished us a good evening. M. Druet, sitting there at the table in silence, lifting his cup to his lips and down, wore gray felt slippers exactly like the ones we had found upstairs in the armoire, left behind by the dead man, Soeur Marie Joliette's father.

It was Madame, having taken off her blue smock for company and hung it on a hook by the door, who did the talking. No, they'd never taken the three hours' journey to Paris--the cows, we must know, had to be milked, morning and night. The furthest away either of them had been from Avesnes, where they'd both been born, was Verdun, when Monsieur had fought there in 1916. He had been scarcely older at the time than their younger son Patrick, fifteen years old, who sat with us at the table and whose massive shoulders shook now and then with suppressed laughter at something his mother said. As for herself, she continued, raising a hand, pursing her lips, well, this had been her life. After all, they hadn't needed to go anywhere to see the Germans march by twice on the Route de Landrecies, at an interval of twenty--five years. Of course they hadn't lived in the house at that time, it wasn't till afterwards. But Soeur Marie Joliette's father, poor man, who had been born within these walls, had been forced to leave for some months: the house had been conscripted by a German general who slept in the bed upstairs.

That was our bed, the one that slopped in at the middle, where the general's weight had sagged, and where we now woke to the bells of St. Hilaire. While the general snored, his leather boots, perhaps, had stood side by side in the armoire. It was empty now except for the abandoned slippers--and for what looked like a copper vase, burnished and tall, standing upright in a corner. That was a shell casing, we were told by Soeur Marie Joliette, which had once contained explosives and had been turned up by a plough in the outlying fields. These could be found all over the neighborhood, shined up and put to use in summer to hold cornflowers, daisies, and Queen Anne's Lace.

It was the storeroom below that was crowded with objects. In a corner of the dining room that served also as sitting room--and where, on the mantel, a large bust of Christ presided that looked as if it had been modeled on Bernini's Louis Quatorze--two steps led up to a door that opened onto a shadowy alcove dim with cobwebs and looming confusion. Too low to stand up in, this little storeroom bulged with things once chosen by men and women now dead: a shovel, tongs, and bellows back from use in the fireplace presently occupied by a porcelain stove; little shades for candles; a traveling trunk with an iron hasp; a tin bathing tub with a tall back to lean against; a bouquet of dried flowers tied with a ribbon; a milky shaving glass; gilt candlesticks; carved wooden eggcups; and a bandbox empty of collars.

Whose were these and where had they come from? Soeur Marie Joliette's father had not lived far away enough in time. And the German general didn't enter into it; these were not the objects he had touched and lived amongst. Or if he had, they would only relucuntantly have been touched by his fingers. They had given themselves to someone else entirely. My head was already full of the books I'd been reading as a preparation for this stay in France so it didn't take a minute to think of Emma Bovary. These objects might well have belonged to her, to Yonville-l'Abbaye. Here were the things that might have soothed her hungry senses, the mirror her eyes had looked into, the footstool covered in red satin on which she had rested her feet before the fire, the tub where she had sat naked and despaired that the exaltations of her spirit would ever find a lover worthy of them.

Of course this was Avesnes-sur-Helpe, sous-prefecture of le Nord, closer to the Ardennes than to Normandy. But a market town, all the same, like Yonville, where on Fridays farmers set up stalls in the Place du General Leclerc at the foot of St. Nicholas to sell cheeses, wines, rabbits and pheasants, farm gear and seed, dresses and sweaters and shoes. A Place like that at Yonville where the agricultural show had been punctuated by Rodolphe's seduction of Emma, where she had looked at him as at a voyager who has traveled in many lands, catching on his beard the scent of vanilla and citron. And a countryside all around of pastures and orchards and woods where it was easy to imagine Emma ridding out by Rodolphe's side one smoky afternoon in October, or running through the meadows before dawn to enter her sleeping lover's room with dewdrops hanging in her black hair.

In fact, there was nothing strange--on that first glimpse into the cluttered depths of the storeroom--in having thought right away of Emma Bovary. Leaving Paris one afternoon in early September and driving north along the Route Nationale that gave us a glimpse from below of stone oxen looking out from the towers of the hilltop cathedral of Laon, it had been Emma who had begun to stir somewhere on the edges of consciousness. Three hours was the time we had set aside to drive th 200 kilometers to Avesnes. But as the twilight deepened, our spirits sank. The towns looked more and more dreary, their streets deserted. In Yaba, where we had been living on a school compound just outside Lagos, there were always people in the streets, moving from one place to another, calling out greetings as they passed, stopping to talk or buy a mango or papaya along the way. In the evenings the streets were lit by oil lanterns beaming hospitably from roadside stands.

In the towns we were passing through now the doors of the houses lining the main streets were shut and the windows hung with lace curtains. There was almost always a war memorial in the form of a cross with the names of the dead engraved on it. Then there was the pharmacie with its green cross, the characuterie, the boucherie chevaline with the signature head of a horse hanging in front of it. In the window of every café a sign advertised the beer of the region: Stella Artois. The only people out and about seemed to be an occasional woman hurrying home with a baguette sticking up from a net bag or a boy disappearing around a corner on his bicycle. Once or twice we saw some old men wearing berets placing boules in a ring of dust. Even the poplars retreating down the side streets looked lonely. What could Emma have done with herself in a town like these, finally, except stuff her mouth with arsenic? More to the point, what would I do?

Throughout the year in Avesnes, the storeroom never failed to summon the disturbing presence of Emma. And there were odd moments, now and then, when suddenly and unexpectedly Emma's plight came vividly alive. One rainy afternoon in early February, when the coal stove was smoking but not giving enough heat, when I was sitting at the table correcting student devoirs, wishing that anything, anything at all, might happen to break the monotony of the days, hasten the months' slow progress towards June when we would go to Paris and then on down to Provence, out of nowhere, like an answer to prayer, I heard a knock at the door. It was Patrick, come to ask if it would amuse me to watch while they killed the pig. I looked at him incredulously, wondering how he could have imagined anything of the kind. And yet, even as Patrick was asking his question, even as I thought of Emma, I wondered if this offer would have seemed tolerable if I had not already read Madame Bovary; if I had not learned to see and feel things at moments like these as Flaubert determined that Emma must.

For in the end Emma made only chance appearances in Avesnes. "It was the fault of fate," Charles says after her death to Rodolphe, and so it would have seemed. She didn't exist except as a creature driven by desires that would defeat her. Fate had placed her in Yonville, she belonged to it. She was not passing through. No one knew this better than herself whose own reading had lavishly supplied her with visions of an exotic foreign land: Walter Scott's moors and ruins, the little seaside bamboo house of Paul et Virginie, the ruddy sunsets and minarets described in the books of her schooldays. Perhaps the closest she ever came to making her dreams an address was in her fevered fantasies of the aborted elopement with Rodolphe: the gondolas and hammocks, the guitars and foundations, and finally the fishing village where they would live always beneath wide starry skies.

It's true I was not of Avesnes as Emma was of Yonville. My imagined foreign land had instead been translated into a town something like her own inescapable home place. But because for the moment my fate had to be worked out in a town that reminded me of hers and as Emma was destined by her creator to be a woman whose struggles had never yielded the least chance against the forces of destruction, she seemed less and less a guest I wished to entertain. I did not choose to be one of those Bovarys whom Flaubert had remarked were suffering and crying at that very instant in twenty villages in France. As the months went by Emma came to seem not so much a living presence as a tender memory: poised, on her own arrival at Yonville, before the chimney at the Lion d'Or, the tips of her fingers catching her dress at the knee, her foot in its black boot held out to the fire, a red glow passing over her skin as the wind blew in through the half-open door.

If Emma came forward and identified herself before we even reached Avesnes, there was another figure who remained elusive, who for a long while stayed hidden behind a question. But even the question seemed more a kind of inner prompting, a restless effort to recall, than a question I could formulate with any precision. What was it, sitting on the steps above the chrysanthemums during those first weeks in Avesnes, homesick for Africa, homesick for I scarcely knew what, that made me think I'd known it all before, this brooding midday, the flies adrift around this lump of sugar dunked in coffee? As if this were my earliest place, this house, these rooms at my back with their lace curtains, as if my oldest memories had sprung from this wall of old stones warmed by the sun, this soft haze of lavender daisies? As if long ago I had lived and died in this spot and were now being called back, urgently but silently, to a self that, unrestored, I must mourn forever.

There would be other times, too, when it seemed some forgotten past stirred within, a sensation that the present was only a cover for a moment infinitely nearer and more profound. This might happen, for example, when I had carried the scuttle out to the coal bin in back and paused a moment, between shovelfuls, to gaze out over the pastures sunk in early morning mist. Or during the first period after lunch in a classroom at the Institut Ste. Thérèse when, its windows open to the steeple of St. Nicholas rising close beside us in the Place outside, the carillon's shower of bells suddenly filled the room--a moment prolonged while the girls sitting at their desks dept silent, as if by solemn agreement, waiting for the wheeze that like a long indraw breath prepared us for the single great bong announcing the hour.

But it wasn't until one Thursday afternoon in October, when we had taken advantage of the half holiday to drive to Amiens in order to visit the cathedral, that some associations began to gather and hold. We had driven thirty-two kilometers west along the Route de Landrecies, passing through the village of Maroilles and then Landrecies itself to Le Cateau. It was in this gray city that Matisse was born and it was from here he set out on a journey that would take him to Ajaccio, Morocco, and Tahiti before bringing him finally to windows open on an azure sea where in a pool of light a goldfish circled a bowl. I was thinking of all this, of the strangeness of beginnings, when, in the center of Le Cateau, at a crossroads, we passed a sign marked for Cambrai: twenty-two kilometers. I said the name aloud, but tentatively, uncertain about the pronunciation of vowels, when suddenly, rising it seemed from nowhere, an unbidden air of delight seemed to hang in the afternoon. But it was only later, as we walked through the vast cathedral where the initial surge of joy had space to lift an soar within gleaming walls of light, that I realized the murmur of Proust's novel, the long cadences of its lines, had, from our first moments in Paris, without my even knowing it, been running like a current through all my days and nights: Combray.

In the weeks following that day at Amiens, I was less and less frequently visited by those premonitions of a reality hovering just beyond reach, on the sunlit brink of discovery. Was it because habit, both bane and blessing, that great anesthetizer, as the narrator of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu calls it, was already making familiar and invisible a world that so short a time ago had seemed to promise a life deeply awaited and longed for? Or was it rather that, if I had ever hoped, however unknowingly, to enter Proust's world by coming to live in France, my expectations were bound to be disappointed? Like the boy in Combray--on a hat summer day stretched on his bed reading while the flies droned about him, inspired by his book with a longing for a land of mountains and rivers, of currents heavy with watercress--I had not understood that the self lost in the pages of a book is the same self we take with us on our travels; that we invest a place, like a person, with a spiritual glamour that is bound eventually to be shown for what it is: a product of our own illusions.

It is only those journeys undertaken from within, the inspired attention to the urgings of our own lost selves, that the narrator of the novel, after long years of disappointed excursions in the world, counts as travel. Even our experience of books, he comes to believe, even of paintings, as the example of Swann makes plain, can end in sterility if they do not spark explorations of our own. And yet, for all that, I came to believe that the sharp surge of joy when I had first heard the word Cambrai pronounced aloud--so like the anticipatory joy that had flooded the narrator when a scent or sound or taste signaled the presence of a past self trembling toward recovery--could only mean that the narrator's world had entered the sphere of my own past, that his memories had become my own, and that the world of the book must certainly draw me back, at last, into the distant reaches of myself.

And so it was, finally, as a beneficent spirit presiding like a watchful patron saint over my stay in his native land that Proust's narrator assumed a presence in Avesnes. I scarcely gave him a thought--but that was because there was no need to. His was the voice, once heard, that continued to murmur whether I was listening or not. But if the world went quiet for a moment, there it was, with its astonishing convictions. However severe our discouragements and griefs, however lengthy our journey toward understanding, the selves we had considered lost forever, or, worse, had never even missed, may be restored if we are patiently attentive to our own inner promptings. His was the voice of possibility, of hope.

One drizzly day in early December, when the white fog at the windows was already being swallowed by darkness at three o'clock in the afternoon, the comforting notion of a leek and potato soup carried me up the steps and into the little storeroom where I remembered having seen a copper pot. In the half light I stumbled over a pile of books I had examined on my first visit to this room and had dismissed as without interest at a moment when my thoughts were all with Emma. They had seemed to be devotional books from the turn of the century, of a piece with the baroque Christ that long ago we had removed form the mantel and hidden away here among the old mirrors and fans. There had been one, I remembered, Le Journal d'un Curé de Campagne, by George Bernanos, that had made me think of Emma's desperate attempt to speak to the priest at Yonville, had brought sharply to mind his glutted looks and terrifying banalities. But on this December afternoon, perhaps because I had been thinking of starting a journal myself, I picked it up and put it in the bottom of the pot.

The whisper of someone talking to himself from the depth of his own loneliness: "When I first sat down before this child's copy--book I tried to concentrate, to withdraw into myself as though I were examining my conscience before confession. And yet my real conscience was not revealed by that inner light--usually so dispassionate and penetrating, passing over details, showing up the whole. It seemed to skim the surface of another consciousness, previously unknown to me, a cloudy mirror in which I feared that a face might suddenly appear. Whose face? Mine, perhaps. A forgotten, rediscovered face….

When writing of oneself one should show no mercy. Yet why at the first attempt to discover one's own truth does all inner strength seem to melt away in floods of self--pity and tenderness and rising tears…."

Were these the words that leapt from the page that night when, after our dinner of soup and endives and paté de campagne, I sat down by the stove with a piece of dark chocolate to begin reading? Or were they those of the opening: "My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! We can see them being eaten up by boredom, and we can't do anything about it. Some day perhaps we shall catch it ourselves--become aware of the cancerous growth within us. You can keep going a long time with that in you."

It may have been either, or both, but beginning to read the book is confused in memory with a tap on the door, Mme. Druet come to tell us that a man, someone who worked in the quarry down the road, had died just an hour ago almost within view of the house on the Route de Landrecies. She stood in the doorway in her blue smock, hands raised in commiseration and alarm, cheeks mottled with the cold. A neighbor had stopped just now to tell them. He worked in the quarry, this man, and had been walking back to St. Hilaire, where he lived. He hadn't been hit by a car, that was the wonder of it. There wasn't a mark on him. A crise du coeur? The headlights of a car had discovered him, lying by the side of the road in the rain.

She had gone sadly away, shaking her head, but when I sat down again to resume reading, although the words seemed to stick flat against the page, floating beneath was a figure lying on its back, each part of him-fingers, stubbled chin, thighs, penis, knees-soaking up the rain. And then gradually, as I read on, other figures joined him, heads lolling, faces slippery with mud and blood, bodies flung across a field like the ones stretching away from the Route de Landrecies, or sitting bolt upright in a trench, headless. The names of towns mentioned in the books--Lille, Arras, Amiens-were the ones we heard every day in the streets of Avesnes. I looked in the front of the book to see when it was first published: 1936. Three years before the outbreak of the Second World War, and scarcely any mention of the war on whose savaged ground we walked as did the young man keeping the journal, who seemed to be abut the same age as ourselves. And yet here, apparently, was the story of someone who was dying and who both knew it and did not. The voice seemed to be saying all it knew, confessing, in the manner of a journal, what could be said nowhere else: all the humiliations and embarrassments, the passing moments of hope, that made up a round of his days, confessions that recalled my own confusions and sudden excitements and dismays. And yet this voice seemed to be speaking into a silence so profound the only worthy response would have been that of death. Like Emma, like all those lying broken on the battlefields of northern France, the priest was someone destined to die young.

That was it: he had only a brief moment in which to work out his destiny. And while I still believed I would live a long, long time, it was in Avesnes, walking one day at noon into the foyer we shared with the Druets and turning to hang up my coat on a standing rack that had a mirror poised above it, I caught sight of a line etched beneath my eye. The first, I thought. Here it begins. In Avesnes.

From the first moment, when Mme. Druet had tapped on the door and had admitted Avesnes into the room where a new voice as breaking the silence, this town in which we had found ourselves seemed to instruct my reading. This was not a question of an already familiar presence--Emma, the narrator of Proust's novel--coming for ward out of the mist to shimmer for a moment before beating a graceful retreat because the place, the moment, did not extend a welcome. In the case of The Diary of a Country Priest, it was the region itself, all the suffering that lay both above and below its soil, the grieves of the ages, that invited and lay the way open for an emerging shape. Avesnes seemed to peer through the print on the page of the book, as if the hidden face of Avesnes were that of the priest bent over the copybook in which he was writing, as if it were impossible to perceive one without the other.

The old world: that was where we were, the reason we had come. As far back as the seventh century, an abbey had existed at Le Maroilles whose records made explicit a period of three months--from the feast of St. John on June 24th until the 1st of October, feast of Saint-Remy--as the time required to turn milk into the wheels of cheese we bought in the Place du General Leclerc on Friday mornings. And as for M. Druet herding the cows from the pastures on the first of November to the warmth of the barn--that didn't have to do at all with the feast of All Saints, as I'd imagined, but with a custom that predated the arrival of Christianity. It wasn't, of course, that people had suffered any longer on this ground than any other: it was just that it was possible to look into faces--whether in the classroom, or the boulangerie, or in the Druets' kitchen--and know that beneath this same sky, surrounded by these same fields, sheltered by these same stones, faces resembling these in cut and expression had for long centuries been young and grown old. And this knowledge seemed suddenly to compress the moment, to heighten the sense of youth disappearing, to make urgent the need to weigh despair against hope, doubt against faith, to see and feel and act while there was still time.

The keeper of the journal--the "I" bearing no other name--knows the taste of despair from his earliest days. He is a child of the poor, in hidden sympathy with those who are, in whatever way, on the outside looking in, those who have inherited the bitter isolation of want. At one period, while he was still a child, his aunt took him in. "She kept a little pub just outside Lens, a horrible wooden shanty where they sold gin to miners who were too poor to go anywhere else. The nearest school was a couple of miles away, and I used to do my homework squatting behind the bar on the floor--that is to say a few rotting boards. The dank reek of earth came up between them, earth which was always wet, the reek of mud. On pay-nights our customers didn't even go outside to relieve themselves; they would pass water where they stood, and I was so terrified, crouching behind the bar, that in the end I'd fall asleep. But the teacher was kind to me, lending me books. It was there I read the childhood memories of Maxim Gorki." And then: "The first realization of misery is fierce indeed. Blessed be he who has saved a child's heart from despair! It is a thing most people know so little about, or forget because it would frighten them too much. Amongst the poor as amongst the rich, a little boy is all alone, as lonely as a king's son. At all events in our part of the world, distress is not shared, each creature is alone in his distress; it belongs only to him, like his face and his hands."

But who were the poor in Avesnes and where did they live? They seemed to be nowhere in sight. As far as we could see, there were the well-to-do land-owning peasants like Soeur Marie Joliette's father, and then, like M. and Mme. Druet, the ones hired to live on his land and care for it. There were those, too, who lived in the large brick houses in town whose lighted windows we passed in winter returning from the Institut, where through lace curtains we could catch a glimpse of chairs covered in red velvet like the ones in the unused alone upstairs. We thought that the people who lived in these large houses in town must be those we'd heard called la bourgeoisie. Some, we knew, had property elsewhere; one kept an apartment on the Cote d'Azur. Of course, too, there were laborers working in the street, servants, the men who worked in the quarry. But where they lived we didn't know, nor whether they might be called "the poor." We had seen men, too, with an arm or a leg missing, blindmen with badly scarred faces, but these we knew had been in a war: quite another thing. I thought of the miners Van Gogh had painted in a region of Belgium that was only a stone's throw across the border from Avesnes and wondered if in fact I had seen poverty and failed to recognize it.

Then one evening, perhaps a month after the drizzly night when the man had died on the Route de Lancrecies, I absentmindedly turned left instead of right leaving the Institut Ste. Thérèse and found myself walking down a steep narrow passage that descended in a series of broad stone slabs arranged at intervals to make steps. This was the passage we had been told about but had never seen that connected the upper town with its Place and shops and schools to the lower town where Vauban's fortifications stood their ground. Again it was raining, with a chill in the air that settled in the marrow of the bones, and I wondered if I should turn back or see where the steps would lead. It was only gradually that I became aware of dwellings opening onto the steps, some with doors ajar. In one I saw th bright glow of a lantern on a dirt floor and then by its light, scampering up the steps, a child wearing a man's jacket, his feet wrapped in rags. His blue eyes met mine only an instant as he ran past me on the glistening step.

In the following days, the child seemed to appear everywhere. I couldn't turn a corner, enter a classroom, without catching a glimpse of a small figure that disappeared as soon as I looked again. He was the vanishing guarantor, the signature attached to the words I was reading. Because here, running in and out of the pages of the book, was an oblique record of the ongoing struggle not to lose all hope in a world where injustice is the order of the day and the poor are accused of their sufferings. Where God, even to the priest desperately trying to pray, remains silent. And where the struggle, as often as not, takes the form of modern self-doubt and fear--fear of one's own incapacities; the wincing away from what one knows is ridiculous in oneself, absurd; the constant sense that one has mismanaged things. "Fool that I am! I know nothing of my people. I never shall! I can't profit by my mistakes: they upset me too much. I must be one of those weak, miserable creatures, always so full of the best intentions, whose whole lives oscillate between ignorance and despair."

It is given to the writer of the journal to see not only into his own desolation but into that of others, to bring to the surface th hidden wounds in those around him. As with Alexey Karamazov, others cannot resist arguing with him, challenging his belief. But in the hope, at last, of easing their own despair.

I read the book slowly, only a few pages a day throughout the winter months and on into the spring. This was only in part because my French didn't allow for more. It was also because, however long I lived in Avesnes, I wanted to live within the covers of the book. It was there alone that there seemed space enough for sorrow. We had recently heard about the outbreak of the war in Biafra and now the shattered bodies flung over the tops of trenches had been joined in my imagination by others, the bodies of the schoolboys we had taught, soaking the rain forests of eastern Nigeria with their blood.

But our life of everyday in Avesnes seemed hopelessly ordinary. And if we were ignorant of the poor, what did we know of anyone else? What about the butchers and bankers and doctors? The jewelers and lawyers and station master? These were the parents of our students, the people who invited us for dinner Sunday after Sunday, people who gave us their attention while we spoke haltingly of our trip to visit the cathedral at Amiens or of the long winter, whom we tried to turn into teachers of French, stopping them in the middle of a sentence to ask the meaning of a word. They listened with faces that remained carefully alert, assuring us as we left that if there was anything we needed we had only to ask. But for lack of a common language and a more lengthy stay in Avesnes than we had in mind, how far could these dinners take us? We were grateful for these people's efforts to relieve our loneliness, but it seemed to us they knew more about us than we did about them, forgetting that in fact we said very little about our own lives and that in their eyes it was we who were the foreigners, only briefly passing through.

Then one night the older sister of one of our students whose family had invited us more than once stopped by in her car to meet us; she had been studying in New York, was just back in Avesnes, and wanted to speak English. As the evening wore on and we opened a second bottle of wine, she told us about her father, how one day she had encountered him on a street in Lille with a woman who was certainly younger than herself, how it had always been like this, by now she had nothing for him but contempt. We had listened, wondering if we should stop her, but too breathlessly intrigued by news of lives we knew little about to interrupt or change the subject. After that night, the Sunday dinners took on a different character. Somewhere beneath the fitful conversations that carried us from crudités to potage to roti to salade to Maroilles to dessert, the voice of the journal spoke more insistently. Who were we to dismiss the struggle with boredom and despair, the hidden sorrows, of those at whose tables we were sitting?

It wasn't until early April that I reached the great scene that stands at the center of the book, the moment when the priest visits the chateau in order to speak to the countess of his fear that her daughter is in danger of killing herself. It was impossible to picture a chateau--not something like Blois or Amboise or Chenonceaux--but a chateau of the kind where this encounter might have taken place, a little chateau that might have housed a foolish father, a daughter outraged by his casual infidelities not to her mother but to herself, a mother rigid with grief at the loss of her son: in fact, a ménage startlingly like the one described to us by our visitor. Picturing the chateau wouldn't have mattered so much, except that having stumbled o the child running up the steps it seemed important to have some idea of the house to which he eventually came. And then one April evening, exulting in the lengthening days, we found ourselves driving at twilight along country roads that were new to us. On either side stretched pastures of deepening green, broken only by the old gray stone of farmhouses and barns. We were commenting on how much of the countryside we had still to explore when suddenly, in the glimmering light, it was there, unmistakably: a stately house set back from the road, a pair of high steps leading up with a flourish to the door, long windows upstairs and down. Narrow brick chimneys rose from the slated roof and beneath, from the mansard, looked out those strange round eyes found in houses of substance, les yeux du boeuf. There was no one inside, everything was closed tight, so we got out of the car and looked through a pair of wrought-iron gates that had crests worked into their tracery. In the bright new grass we could see yellow jonquils, an abundance of them, gleaming in the dusk. It was these jonquils that gave the chateau its air of melancholy, of abandonment. The long windows were dark and shadowless, the jonquils blooming for the open sky.

So it was here, then, it might have taken place, the encounter I had been trying to imagine, again the struggle with despair, not on a battlefield, but in a house like this one. Here the countess might have countered the priest's concern by saying her daughter was horribly afraid of death, afraid of a sore throat, afraid of everything, and here he might have answered that those are the very ones who kill themselves: those who don't dare look into the void throw themselves in for fear of falling. And here she might have asked if he himself were one of those, like her daughter, afraid to die, and heard him answer that he was heard him say later on that hell was nothing else but that state where we are no longer able to love, no longer able to recognize those dearest to us. And here, later that night, she might have died very suddenly, at peace.

As the days grew longer and the cows were brought back out of the barns and into the pastures where, after milking, they passed the short hours of darkness, I read more and more slowly, sometimes rereading lines from earlier sections. The strawberries ripened, the flies returned. A paragraph a day, approaching the end, and then a few sentences: "Oh miracle--thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands! Hope which was shriveling in my hart flowered again in hers; the spirit of prayer which I thought lost in me for ever was given back to her."

It would have been impossible to have spent a night in the bed where the German general had slept without knowing that in the morning the book would be waiting. In a few short weeks we would be leaving Avesnes. Paris and Provence beckoned as seductively as ever but now my delight in our departure seemed suspect: why should I be so glad to leave a place where I had spent a year? I knew that I had somehow missed something important, failed in some radical way to connect. My departure would be a rupture with some deeply familiar but as yet unexplored ground of our common inheritance of grief. It was as if I could not succeed in tilting the mirror of the book, the mirror of the place, at the angle wherein I could catch a glimpse of my own face. My fear was that, once having left Avesnes, the mirror would be broken and I would forget, in fields of lavender, that it had once threatened fire.

During the final days, crating our belongings so that we could travel lightly to the south, waving way the flies that had returned with the first heat, I followed the approach of the summer solstice as the keeper of the journal followed his own slow course toward the end. In the shadow of a dripping hedge, the cows lowing just beyond, he passes out, id discovered by a child who brings water and washes his face. He makes a friend, realizing "that friendship can break out between two people, with that sudden violence which generally is only attributed to the revelation of love." He visits a doctor in Lille, a doctor who is his double, suffering with the help of morphine from a fatal illness, like himself. And it is there in Lille, facing the death that will overtake him the next morning on a camp bed in his friend's apartment, he writes that human agony is, beyond all, an act of love.

On the evening before we were to leave Avesnes, everything packed and ready for departure, we stood outside the house with M. and Mme. Druet watching Patrick drive the milked cows back across the Route de Landrecies and into the pastures. It would be the shortest night of the year. With the moment so quickly approaching when we would no longer see each other, when on either side our lives would once again sink into the mysterious unknown, an uneasy shyness seemed to overtake us all. If the many evenings passed together in the kitchen had been leading to this moment, then what had been the use? When Patrick joined us at last he stood with his arms loose at his side, not saying a word. And although Mme. Druet did her best, we finally took leave of each other with an obscure sense of shame, as if perhaps we had never known each other in the least, had allowed what was most important of all to be left unsaid.

We went inside, telling each other that tomorrow we'd say goodbye. The windows were open to let in the night, and there was still just enough daylight to allow a glimpse form the room upstairs of the steeple at St. Hilaire-the name, I suddenly remembered, of the church in Combray, the steeple that the narrator's grandmother had said if it could play the piano she was sure it would really play. I had reserved the next to last page of the journal for tonight and then had planned for the morning the last of all, an italicized page, written in the form, I could see, of a letter. But I felt too much unquiet, at first, to read. The sense of fullness I'd hoped would come at the end was completely lacking: instead I could think only of the nagging dissatisfaction with which my days had been spent, the hours of boredom by the smoking stove, the fog at the windows, the slow drizzle that had fallen on the trenches. Why could I not, at the very least, have responded with some show of gratitude to Patrick's invitation to come watch them kill the pig? His shy offer had been inspired by motives I had not even tried to imagine. At that moment, on the point of my departure, I could at last forgive Emma her vanities, but could not forgive my own. What had it meant to have spent a year in Avesnes if I had never stopped wishing I were someplace else? So it was that, sitting at the window, I finally picked up the book and read the last words of the journal: "How easy it is to hate oneself! True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love oneself in all simplicity-as one would love any one of those who themselves have suffered and loved in Christ."

The sky, tomorrow night, would be the same sky, spreading over Avesnes and Paris alike. But by then Avesnes for us would already have become a place containing a completed year of our past. I thought how, no matter in what simplicity I might try to accept what had been a reluctance to see in the sufferings of this town a reflection of my own, I would always regret that here I had failed to do so. Paris might hold up its surface for reflection but I should never see my face in that of Avesnes. And so, not waiting for morning, I read the friend in Lille's account of the priest's death, of his last words: "But what does it matter? Grace is everywhere."