The Village Book by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Nicolas Freeling's "The Village Book" (2001) is a moving farewell to his readers. Some of us are fortunate not to know, even roughly, when we will die: it is clear from this book that the author knows his time is almost over. He is trying to make sense of the years that have been allowed to him and to reassure himself that his existence has mattered at least a little bit. And despite the ominous shadow of death, he writes without even a slightest trace of anger, despair, or bitterness; instead the book shines with love for his parents, his wife, his children, his small piece of land in the Vosges, and first and foremost for his greatest love - Europe.
"The Village Book" is not a memoir or an autobiography. It is rather a collection of vignettes, stories, and passages about people and places that have been most important to the author. First, there is "The Tale of Anne D.", the story his mother, an unforgettable character, a convert to both Catholicism and Communism, a constant wanderer, who travelled from France to England to give birth to Nicolas, then came back to France, and later moved between various residences in England and Ireland. The author inherited his mother's peripatetic nature: he himself lived in England, Holland, and finally settled in France. Mr. Freeling's wife is Dutch and of his five children two were born in the UK, two in Holland, and one in France.
For the last 40 years of his life Mr. Freeling lived in Grandfontaine, France, a village in Alsace, located on the exact border demarcating historically French- and German-influenced regions. That land witnessed hundreds and hundreds of years of bloody wars between the two European powers and incessant shifting of frontiers: the author writes of "this blood-fertilized heartland I call mine" and then he says "[...] this is the gift to me of Grandfontaine, to have forged me into a European".
Bitter, cynical wisdom has always been Mr. Freeling's trademark, so I am tempted to fear that the belief expressed in "The Village Book" in the human ability to finally overcome nationalism (at least in the case of Europe) and the belief that a war between France and Germany is no longer possible may be a sign of impending senility. I would love to believe that the great historical experiment of uniting Europe, which was in its early years at the time of the writing, will succeed. Now the European Union is even more impressive than in Mr. Freeling's years (from Grandfontaine, it is as far to Kraków as to Madrid, the author observes). Yet almost exactly 70 years ago a German extermination camp, manned by compatriots of Bach, Goethe, and Schiller, was located in Struthof, a few miles from Grandfontaine. Will people ever learn?
There are many beautiful passages in the book, particularly about trees, plants, mushrooms and such (it almost sounds like a fairy tale when the author writes how he can walk out of his house door to pick wild strawberries and cèpes); I enclose one such beautiful fragment after the rating.
Out of a thousand or so writers whose books I have read in my now 60-year adventure with avid reading there is none whose prose would resonate with me stronger than Nicolas Freeling. While perhaps there are few (very few!) writers who have mastered the literary craft even better than him, I still prefer the eruditely chatty, rambling, quirky prose of Mr. Freeling, always full of wisdom and so fiercely European. Mr. Freeling writes about Grandfontaine: "I have written forty books, half of them here". Well, I have so far reviewed twenty, so I am just about half done and very much looking forward to the remaining twenty.
Four and a half stars.
"I walked then much, in the woods, and often by myself. On still, sunny afternoons the trees, grave and gothic, would begin quite quietly to move, and then one had to beware. Or in deep silvered winters, behind the curtain of stalactites masking a fissure in rock, there were voices which the ear did not quite catch. Under ice trees groan, and make sudden loud complaint. Betimes one has to push oneself, to banish the fiend that close behind does tread."
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