Translation and introduction by Michelle Bailat-Jones
Narrative Shifting: C.F. Ramuz and Point-of-View
In April 1912, while Ramuz was living in Paris, he witnessed a partial solar eclipse, which he notes offhand in his journal entry of the same day. But the idea obviously remained with him, and he published “Si le Soleil ne Revenait Pas” a few months later. In all of his work, Ramuz is interested in how humans negotiate the force and beauty of the natural world. In this story he takes that idea to an extreme, putting an entire village of people at the mercy of a cosmological phenomenon of which they have little understanding. He would go on to expand this idea into a novel with the same title, published in 1937.
“Si le Soleil ne Revenait pas” is not just an excellent example of how Ramuz explores the mysterious connection between people and nature, it also showcases, in a neat and tidy story, his incredible skill at narrative movement. Translating Ramuz requires inhabiting an extraordinary narrative voice. A voice which is often on uncomfortably intimate terms with both the subjects of its story as well as the reader. Ramuz is well-known for implicating the reader into his work, calling them forward by switching at will between subject pronouns….from nous (we) to vous (plural you) to the particularly delicate and troublesome on. His use of the 3rd person impersonal pronoun on made him famous among his contemporaries and makes him frustratingly slippery to his translators.
There is a world of interpretation available in that tiny pronoun, degrees of intimacy and boldness. In “Si le Soleil ne Revenait Pas,” when he describes Larpin awakening to a puzzling darkness and going to check his watch, Ramuz begins with a third person omniscient, a straightforward account of one man’s confusion and subsequent actions. But Ramuz suddenly shifts the perspective; instead of continuing with a simple il [he], Ramuz adds on, inviting the reader to stand with the narrator just inside the frame of the story:
On le voit traverser la chambre, et il ouvre la porte.
[We see him cross the room, and then he opens the door.]
A few moments later, Ramuz deepens the implication of this on bydispensing of the framework altogether. We are no longer standing on the threshold of the house beside Larpin, watching him consider the darkness and the fields, instead we have become just as implicated in the discovery of this darkness:
On ne voit que du noir et ce blanc des étoiles. Il n’y a aucun vent, pourtant il fait très froid. Tout semble resserré, durci. L’air lui-même est cassant et on pense à du verre.
[We can see nothing but the blackness and the white of these stars. There is no wind, and yet it’s very cold. Everything seems to be tightened into itself, hardened. The air itself is brittle and we think of glass.]
More fascinating yet is a subtle switch Ramuz enacts just a few paragraphs later when he introduces, for the one and only time in the entire piece, the 3rd person plural vous. Just as the village becomes aware of the screams of Crazy Rose, Ramuz drops the on, thus extracting the reader from the narrative perspective. With this shift to vous, he once again describes the scene from outside, ending part one of the story with a cold, nearly clinical distance:
Toutes les femmes se sont mises à pleurer.
[All the women begin to cry.]
The use of this vous is unsettling but it prepares the narrator and the reader for the second half of the piece which begins, surprisingly, in the first person. Marking the change from on to vous, Ramuz withdraws both the reader and, we will soon find, the first person narrator. Because, in truth, this first person narrator has been with us all along, effaced and hiding behind that on in the first half of the piece only to stand forward in the second half. That revelation and this kind of complicated but meaningful narrative shifting is one of the most rewarding elements of the Ramuzian universe.
IF THE SUN WERE NEVER TO RETURN
First would be Ulysse because he’s the first to rise. But he doesn’t like getting out of his bed; he’d go right back to sleep. Just enough time to think it can’t be time to get up because it’s not daylight yet. And he would have let his head fall back against his arm with its big hand sticking out.
At the same time, Madame Favre, who is standing watch over her child, who’s had a fever for three whole days, so she hasn’t slept for all that time,would begin to feel surprised at the length of this night. She would think it strange how slow the hours pass when one doesn’t sleep. And taking up the teacup with her herbal tea, she would lean over the small head in the scoop of the pillow.
Then maybe Larpin would come along. He doesn’t sleep much because he’s old. He has the anxiety of the elderly, which make them unable to stay still for long. And as soon as he wakes, he has to get up.
Which is what he’s just done, and his big watch with its round crystal hangs from the wall. He has gone to check the time on his watch. He shook his head. He took his watch down from the nail where it hung and he put it to his ear. He listened a long while. But the little sound of the watch’s beating heart could still be heard beneath the metal case; the small ticks kept coming, regular. He didn’t know what to think. He thought his watch must be fast, but it’s never been before.
We see him cross the room, and then he opens the door. Once he’s in the kitchen, there is another door. He opens this second door and walks the length of the hallway.
He has kept a hold of his watch and the steel chain hangs down between his fingers.
He goes to the front door; silently, he pulls the latch.
And there, as he opens the door, a night like he’s never seen before presses down upon him. He backs up a bit. He still hasn’t understood. Again, he presses his watch to his ear and he shakes his head, all the while looking outside.
Above the collective mass of the gardens and the fields, he sees a huge black sky filled with white stars. These stars appear to be painted across the sky with a brush. They give no light, these stars.
We can see nothing but the blackness and the white of these stars. There is no wind, and yet it’s very cold. Everything seems to be tightened into itself, hardened. The air itself is brittle and we think of glass. Larpin wonders what is going on.
The village is still sleeping and this reassures him for a moment. Maybe he’s actually woken up at the wrong time, or he’s having a bad dream. But all of a sudden his muscles tighten below his Adam’s apple, pushing it upward; he breathes with difficulty. The need to shut his door comes upon him, he closes it, and he stands behind the door, not knowing what to do, waiting.
Five o’clock rings, and we can see it isn’t yet light out.
Yet this is May. The five bells ring out, and it seems like the sound they make has doubled, even tripled in strength. They ring and echo and echo for a long time, as if they are hitting sheets of metal. It’s impossible for us not to hear them. And Larpin moves his head forward. He rests his forehead against the door panel, he listens, the clock rings again, each new ring quieting in its turn, then a door opens, then a second door, then a long voice calls out in the dark.
He recognizes the voice of a neighbor, and she’s calling her husband, “Julien! Julien!” We hear Julien answer her, “This is the devil’s work.” A third voice comes in from the opposite side, “What’s going on?” And now, from all around, the voices cross and question each other.
He dares now, he opens his door again. Standing on the threshold, he looks all around him, but none of us can see anything but the red dots of the lanterns moving about. They are nothing but dots, they give no light. Above are the white dots of the stars, below the red dots of the lanterns.
He coughs, he feels the cold creep up his legs; yet he remains where he is standing because he needs to feel the life all around him. From where he’s standing, he, too, shouts out at random into the dark night, “What’s going on?”
A voice comes back to him, but it’s impossible to say from where.
He speaks again but his voice trembles, “There’s no way all the clocks jumped forward at the same time.”
He recognizes Julien’s voice responding to his own, “I’m saying this is the devil’s work.”
The air smells musty, like a cellar. No need to see the people to know that no one is moving. We can feel that all around the square, on each threshold, the people have stopped, and they are calling to each other through the thickness of the shadow, and they speak to one another through the shadow, but no one dares move forward.
Suddenly, the sound of steps can be heard, the sound of someone coming quickly, shuffling in heavy, untied shoes. Then a great cry; and now everyone knows it is Crazy Rose.
She runs in front of you all, no one sees anything, but her voice and her cry pass just alongside all of you, making a shiver glide down each of your spines.
Hers is the shriek of a wild animal. The shriek an owl makes from up high in the barn when it opens its beak, and over the thick down of its feathers, lets loose an anguished, lamenting, strangled wail. And it goes down, and then it rolls low, and then becomes piercing once again. And this was how Rose’s shriek sounded as she ran past in the big shoes she didn’t have time to tie, the heels slapping on the pavement.
Oh, God! Is it possible? Because this shriek is the shriek of death. Larpin stands in his doorway, and he says, (in a tiny, woman’s voice), “My God, my God, is it possible?”
All the women begin to cry.
I think of you that morning. Because you’re lazy, it will already be seven or eight o’clock when you wake up in your snug room, with the shutters and curtains closed. And once you’ve left your warm bed, your first movement will be to stretch and open your arms. Then you will yawn.
You love long nights and deep slumber when all is forgotten. You will regret leaving that behind. But suddenly the idea of the new dress you laid out on the back of a chair will come to you. You’ll be happy at the thought that in just a moment you will try the dress in front of your mirror. It’s a white dress, and white suits you well. And you will smile to yourself.
You become sad only when you notice there are no bright bands on the cloth curtains, traced by the sun as it passes. All is dark and you think that the weather must be bad.
This is a big disappointment for you. First you’ll think only of staying in bed, then you’ll tell yourself to go look. One can never be sure.
Just time to slip your naked feet into your little red slippers, just time to wrap yourself up in a big shawl, and you tiptoe, curious now of the darkness, curious also of the coldness you feel, which is an unseasonal cold although sometimes there are late cold snaps.
You pull the rope; the wooden rings slide on the rod and click as they hit one another. You must look for the latch with your hand, how strange. And once the bar is open, even though the daylight has plenty of room to pass through, you have to search with your hand to find the rod for the shutters.
As the night comes to you, so do the cries. What are the women crying about?
But you forget these cries for what comes before your eyes. A black hole, an abyss, like a dark mouth, with a breath that blows on your face. And even you, you don’t understand either. No one understands right away, but you retreat sharply to the back of the room. And then you open your mouth a little, trembling, wondering.
You see the ice cube stars, they must be sending this great cold. You need warm clothing but you don’t even think of going to get some. You must at least go outside, but you don’t have the courage. You can no longer move; and there are only your teeth which start to chatter, a small noise amidst the cries which are now coming from all around.
So, suddenly, you cry out also. And who do you call? You call me, even if you know I won’t be able to come. I’m too far away, you know this, but you need someone and so you cry out to me.
You no longer scorn me. You have forgotten your previous laughter and your mocking. You’ve even forgiven me for them, even if this is something one cannot forgive. You aren’t angry at me anymore for the bad things you did to me. You’re behaving now. You are nothing but a little frightened girl. You’re cold and you want someone to warm you up. You’re thinking of your hands, thinking that I would hold them. But what dryness in your throat and on your tongue! What gravel ravaging your voice, what a sound at the end of your words! And the more you cry, the hoarser it gets, the more your words are broken up.
You are nothing but a cry, little one, and just a weak cry at that! Every once in a while you stop. No one answers you. There is nothing but the shrieking of the others, but each cry is like yours, each cry flies off for itself, and there is no response for them either, all these cries rising up to who-knows-where—and yours aimed at me, but I cannot hear it.
And then, a moment later, you go out; and then you understand that it’s all useless.
You feel that you are alone, alone forever. First comes the shock of solitude, on the threshold of the unknown opening itself up, the unknown of death.
We can no longer doubt that this is death. It blows from above and below at the same time, it hangs from each star. This is death with its open mouth. Death’s breath comes into the house, making the curtain folds swing. And this night is the face of death approaching nearer and nearer. So you back away, but the wall stops you.
You tell yourself you are going to die. You take a futile breath, and suddenly your voice is like a string breaking, because it has no space to pass.
But you still have your thoughts. You wish again that I were with you. Maybe dying together would be sweeter. Suddenly you love me with the same force you didn’t love me with before, with all your solitude and your fear and with this death, too. You had never imagined it before, you had never thought before of this word—forever.
Now you think of this word. It takes you a moment to realize. And then you feel thousands of little pricks at the roots of your hair; at the same time their softness falls away and they stand on end.
Now is when you realize. How will it be? What will there be? First there is a coldness. And then there is night. It will be like this night, but even deeper. And there will not only be this bed to take away, but the wall, the curtains, the room, and also beyond the garden, the houses of the village, the entire village. Not only the entire village but the fields around the village, and the woods around the village, the lake, then the mountain and then the far away countries and their seas, and all that is on this earth. All the way to the blackness of the sky, the whiteness of the stars. All this removed, taken away—And you, too, the center of this world, removed, taken away.
Still, between your eyelids, a last final weak tremor of some kind of color. Still, at the tips of your stiff fingers, a last movement of life. A small effort in the hollow of your chest, but it’s already giving way. And around your heart, a kind of hand tightens, while this thing approaches, this thing which is the negation of all things. This forever thing.
This thing that you see for the very first time. You laughed too much, little one, it took up all your time. Along with your clothing, your change of hairstyle and fashion. It’s true, you didn’t have time. But now you have the time.
And then, suddenly, with a tremendous unconscious effort, your voice has come back to you. Again, you call out, you call out, you call out. You’re like the well pulley, a badly greased wheel, like a little frog, or a cricket on a summer evening. You call out, you call out. You call out to me. My revenge is not to hear you, poor little girl flattened against the wall, with this thing approaching, while outside now, the stifled cries, the wailing of the children, the sobbing of the women, the whinnying of the horses, the barking of the dogs, the mooing of the cows, the music of dancing and the drunken songs rise up and join together—because faced with death, there are some who wish to keep living, and, beneath this great shadow that is already covering them, they push their love for life to an insanity for life, preferring to feel it break inside of them rather than have it taken away and feel it slowly slip away.