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Memoirs of a Breton Peasant in The Historical Novels Review

Memoirs of a Breton Peasant in The Historical Novels Review

February 9, 2012

MEMOIRS OF A BRETON PEASANT

Jean-Marie Déguignet (trans. Linda Asher), Seven

Stories, 2011, $19.95, pb, 431pp, 9781609803469

In the 1970s, a handwritten manuscript of  some 4,000 pages (of which only a small portion was previously known) came to light in the city of Quimper, Brittany. They constitute the memoirs of a remarkable man: Jean-Marie Déguignet (1834-1905). The present translation is a tightly edited version of that manuscript. This peasant, born in abject poverty and raised amid the ignorance and superstition (his words) of rural Breton society, grew into a self-educated, questioning, freethinking, anti-clerical, misogynistic, socialist cynic who was successively a beggar, cowherd, soldier, traveler, farmer, insurance salesman, shopkeeper, outcast, and, finally, derelict. How he happened to take such a different path from his peasant countrymen, he himself ascribed to having been kicked in the head by a horse at the age of nine! Whatever the cause, this intelligent, angry man, who never missed an opportunity to denounce a priest or a politician (or an in-law), has left us a fascinating account of a truly unique personal story. I would like to have known him.

Bruce Macbain

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