The Lost Upland, by W.S. Merwin

I seem to have been jumping around in my reading: France, Guernsey, Quebec, England, Maryland, Iran. With this book, I return to France, specifically to the southwestern rural uplands with their limestone outcroppings, sheep pastures, and vineyards. Merwin’s poetry is among the best that I’ve read, so I was curious to see how he would handle these three stories. The answer is: beautifully.

“Foie Gras” circles around the tale of Fatty the Count and his love of that delicacy. Merwin paints a rich portrait of the people and customs of the area. Rumors, relationships, and robbery blend together to create a memorable cast of characters. I was reminded of Flaubert and—more recently—Nemerovski in their joyfully affectionate look at the absurdity of their countrymen and women.

“Shepherds” uses the narrator’s work in restoring a vegetable garden and his interactions with his neighbors to illustrate the region’s change in the 1960s to factory farming. The local shepherds are persuaded, bullied, and coerced into replacing their stone barns with larger corrugated metal barns where the sheep could be kept all the time and given commercial feed instead of being allowed to graze for free in the pastureland. Corruption and graft in the local government—but I’m getting carried away. In fact, the tone is more nostalgic than outraged. This gentle story brims with evocative descriptions of fields bordered by walnut trees, ancient stone fences with little huts built into them for shepherds, neighbors helping each other out. Well, that’s not entirely right either. For every luminous sunset, there is a clear-eyed description of a neighborhood feud or a house with all its furnishings left to rot while the heirs fight over it. Beautiful and provocative at the same time, the story captures what it is to be human in society and in this beautiful world.

“Blackbird’s Summer” at first seemed to ramble, somewhat in the way that the main character is often on the move, showing a local spring to the priest, delivering wine to his customers, visiting neighbors, helping his daughter and her husband in the hotel. Gradually, however, I came to respect the nuanced image of Blackbird that was being built through all these interactions and reflections. He begins to pick through the contents of the old house, down the road from the hotel: old account books, crocheted bedspreads, wooden kneading troughs. His thoughts of the past are reinforced by talks with his customers, those who are prospering and those whose fortunes are fading. And he begins to wonder who would be willing to carry on his wine business, since his son-in-law is a milk-drinker and his only grandchild still an infant and a girl at that.

Merwin’s language is simply gorgeous. And his insights into these flawed and endearing characters are devastating. Their stories are enlivened by humor and a sense of the past—the Occupation, the 1914 War, even Napoleon cast their shadows over the present. The many tales of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and the concern for the children’s legacy brings out the sense of nostalgia, of an ancient way of life slipping away.

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