Han Ryner, “The Little Exile” (1920)


The Little Exile

By Han Ryner

On this heavy, stormy summer Sunday, how did I let myself be led to these noisy celebrations? Under a scorching sun, that my companions declared “almost southern,” I had stopped with the crowd at various points of the town of Sceaux and, in front of some minuscule busts, I listened to the buzz of interminable talk. Through the torpor that wove heat and rhetoric around me, some words, doubtless more often repeated, alone reached my mind. But, in the confused speeches of the orators who succeeded and resembled one another like shrill brothers, were the “little homeland”—the neighborhood–and the “great homeland”—the nation—in hostile confrontation or amorously entwined? I did not know details, and to tell the whole truth, they mattered very little to me. Their struggles or enlacements had caused an intense migraine and, and if I did not love all my homelands heroically, I could have borne a grudge against those two.

On the crowded, stifling train, returning home, a heavy Marseillais snoring on my wounded shoulder. Opposite me, a thin young man, white and pink like a Northern girl, with hair of a sparse, pale blond. From the South, that one? If was hard to believe it, when he happened to speak. His Provençal accent rang out almost constantly, and so excessively…

His words were odious to me: he still kept harping on the homelands, big and small, the insufferable lad! But this was only the exordium which, according to the natural inclination of the talkative, would lead him to some confidences on his interesting person.

I was not slow to learn that Achille Blagard, born in Avignon, loved his little homeland to the point of having suffered greatly when he suffered “the little exile.”

The little exile!… The oddity of the formula amused me and I found myself listening. A narration began, where the storyteller at times seemed spiritual, but too often, alas! he took great care to speak like a book… like a pretentious book, translated from a language at once vapid and grandiloquent. Of course! It was a bit confused—such a bouillabaisse—the eloquence of over there…

This is what was said, in an accent too Provençal, by the young man too white and too pink, with hair too sparse and too pale:

* * *

— Yes, monsieur, teasing chance and the indifferent will of my bosses had brought me to a little Franc-Comtoise town.

First, with that love of chance which characterizes early youth, I had tasted your calm grace, O white sub-prefecture settled among the meadows, along the winding, sluggish Saône, like lingering in the grip of love.

Then its forest, all around, called to me with its murmur, numerous and whispering, like my Mediterranean when it sleeps in the arms of the night.

I was going through a deep and dense undergrowth…Too deep and too dense, perhaps… Yes, sir, a little too much darkness, a little too much mystery, like a weight of shadows and the unknown… I remember: my joy was striped with concern.

But here it is. In this dark beauty, a glade open up, light and smiling. Between wide couches of grass, a babbling spring, clear and fresh as the voice of a young girl.

I stretched out, dreaming, in this paradise.

An ancient intoxication mingled with my enchantment. I recalled, less beautiful and less penetrating, it seemed to me, a landscape from my home: a somewhat poorer spring in a somewhat smaller glade, amid grass slightly sparse and spoiled.

Despite the scent of childhood and of that memory, I strove to be impartial and I soliloquized with a cosmopolitan justice:

“Here, it is more complete, more voluptuous. Much more than that drink in the interleaving of my childish little fingers, this water deserves the poetic name of Fountain of Love.”

A pretty song, from not far off, made me look up. I saw, a few steps away, a young peasant of rough and robust build.

“What do you call this delightful place?” I asked them.

“This,” I was answered with a laugh, “is a spot well known to the boys and girls, and called the Fountain of Trousse-Cotillon.

Struck by these syllables gauloists I understood all that was missing from the landscape to match the grace of Provence. It lacks, by thunder! It lacks, by thunder! It lacks the poetry and delicacy of the natives.

* * *

After this speech—definitive, isn’t it?—Blagard rested, like God on the seventh day.

I raised one objection:

“Earlier, in Sceaux, I heard you say that you love Paris very much.”

Oh! That is different! He cried, hands raised towards the ceiling. Paris, sir, but it is the greatest city of the South, and the most beautiful, and the most truly southern. We are more provençal than in that odious and cosmopolitan Marseille, for example. Marseille, the first Scale of the Orient.

He said no more..

For some moments, the Marseillais, heavy on my shoulder, no longer snored. He moved like a man who awakens.

The insult made to his city roused him, haughty with indignation. Peremptorily, he ordered:

“Stop with your lies, stupid Belgian wog.”

Achille Blagard was like a man who did not hear. All his attention was fixed on the outside. Just then we entered a station.

“Montsouris, already! he exclaimed. I live near there.

He jumped onto the platform and disappeared, while Marseille, shrugging shoulders as strong as dismissive:

“It’s not Montsouris he inhabits, the liar! It is Montmartre.”

He added:

“If that is not pathetic!… That Achille Blagard was born at Lille. His father came from Antwerp and his mother arrived from Ostend.”

There was a wavering in the eyes of the speaker, a trembling hesitation on his lips. Then he continued:

“Yes, sir, from Ostend… And if I do not add: “in a hamper,” it is because, we of Marseille, we never strike a woman, even with a flower.

And he concludes, the man from Marseille:

“You see, when someone who claims to be southern proves talkative, boastful and indiscreet, we can be sure that these are not his true colors… It is by these characteristics that I recognize the men of the north.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur; from The Smart Set, January 1920.]

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.