Monday, December 21, 2009


Sometime in the 19th century (an Emperor is on the throne of France), a Parisian woman named Anne relocates to a tiny village in the countryside. Though she misses some of the creature comforts of the metropolis, she has as compensation "the unsullied joys of country life" in "this heaven on earth." She writes a series of letters to her old friend Solange (who apparently never answers them). In her second letter she alludes in passing to a curious provincial custom: during the winter months the locals quite literally hibernate, tucking themselves into goatskin bags and suspending themselves from the rafters until spring. "How strange these people are, who do not hesitate to subtract the entire winter from their span of life!" she declares. As the correspondence continues, Anne becomes increasingly alarmed, and at last horrified, when she realizes that not only the peasants, but the servants and even the local gentry will all take part in the practice, leaving her entirely to her own devices. As a last departing hussar waits impatiently to ride off, she pens one final desperate missive to her erstwhile friend:
There are only two minutes left. Understand me well, Solange. I cannot prepare my food, I cannot do anything, there is nothing in the house, I am frightened of the horses, I could not ride them to safety -- even if they too are not asleep. I shall die here if you do not save me, Solange .... Solange, my soul, what can I say to you? Save your wretched

Years ago, when I first read the story summarized above, Tomasso Landolfi's brief "Pastoral" (which can be found in the New Directions collection Gogol's Wife and Other Stories) I took it for a bit of Gothic whimsy, a fantastic tale of quasi-vampirism in the provinces. But according to a New York Times op ed piece by the biographer and cultural historian Graham Robb, in the days before electrification many French countryfolk did in fact engage in something approaching hibernation, though not, to be sure, by hanging from the rafters.
Economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the countryside after the Revolution were horrified to find that the work force disappeared between fall and spring. The fields were deserted from Flanders to Provence. Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence. As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.

In the mountains, the tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. "Seven months of winter, five months of hell," they said in the Alps. When the "hell" of unremitting toil was over, the human beings settled in with their cows and pigs. They lowered their metabolic rate to prevent hunger from exhausting supplies. If someone died during the seven months of winter, the corpse was stored on the roof under a blanket of snow until spring thawed the ground, allowing a grave to be dug and a priest to reach the village.
Robb provides more details in his book The Discovery of France:
An official report on the Nièvre in 1944 described the strange mutation of the Burgundian day-labourer once the harvest was in and the vine stocks had been burned:
After making the necessary repairs to their tools, these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food. They weaken themselves deliberately.
Human hibernation was a physical and economic necessity. Lowering the metabolic rate prevented hunger from exhausting supplies. In Normandy, according to the diary of Jules Renard, "the peasant at home moves little more than the sloth" (1889); "in winter, they pass their lives asleep, corked up like snails" (1908).
Some of these reports should, no doubt, be taken with a grain of salt, nor are they unique to France. (Some reasonable skepticism on the whole topic of "human hibernation" can be found on the blog Not of General Interest.) But even the fact that such reports were believed at the time lends a whole new slant to Landolfi's story. His hapless heroine is now revealed as an obtuse and pampered outsider, who is not only utterly spoiled and unable to fend for herself without the assistance of servants, but who also in her sophistication is unable to see the simple practical value of a good long spell of winter dormancy.

In any case, just something to mull over on the shortest day of the year. By the way, according to New Directions, the photograph on the front of the dust jacket, in which the author's face is almost completely obscured, was the only one Landolfi approved for publication, at least as of 1963 when Gogol's Wife was released. The jacket was designed by David Ford.

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