Shelter in Place
Malicroix—a 1948 French novel about a man who has isolated himself in a house to fulfill the strange terms of his inheritance—resonates uncannily with our contemporary experience of quarantine.
Discussed in this essay: Malicroix, by Henri Bosco, translated by Joyce Zonana. NYRB Classics, 2020. 288 pages.
OVER THESE PAST MONTHS, as the pandemic has isolated many of us in our homes, we’ve become more intimately acquainted with the contours of the structures that house us, and perhaps more attuned to their effect on our psyches. Our homes are charged; they hold the artifacts of our experiences, the memories and stories that make up our lives—and our bodies themselves. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard details this phenomenon in his groundbreaking 1958 book The Poetics of Space, in which he introduces the concept of “topoanalysis,” the study of how emotional lives are localized in homes, positing them as sites of memory, containers of past and present time, compressed. Bachelard’s topoanalysis investigates a variety of real spaces—from a childhood home to a wardrobe’s inner drawers—but also includes literary spaces, which, Bachelard writes, “give our day-dreams countless dwelling-places.”
Bachelard was particularly captivated by the writing of the French novelist Henri Bosco, whom he calls “a great dreamer of houses.” Though Bosco was nominated for the Nobel Prize four times, he is hardly well-known in the Anglophone literary world, but for Bachelard, he was an object of singular fascination. In Bachelard’s 1971 book The Poetics of Reverie, he urges us to read Bosco’s 1948 novel Malicroix in the state of contemplation the book itself describes: “let us read while dreaming, while remembering, [while] communicating with images preserved in the depths of ourselves,” he writes.
Bachelard recognized that Bosco’s novel—which details the experiences of a man who has isolated himself in a house in order to fulfill the strange terms of his inheritance—asks something particular of its readers. The spaces of Malicroix are constructed for solitude, quiet, isolation—and hence, according to Bachelard, they are “accessible to our daydreaming,” to the sort of active, watchful thinking that lapses into half-waking dreams. It was Bachelard’s rapturous descriptions of these spaces that first inspired writer and translator Joyce Zonana to bring Malicroix into English, in a mesmerizing translation that appeared in April, just after many of us had entered quarantine, beginning a period of containment inside our own walls and minds.
Malicroix opens with its narrator, Martial de Mégremut—a young, bourgeois botanist who lives with the mild-mannered paternal relations who raised him—receiving notice that his maternal great-uncle, the reclusive Cornélius de Malicroix, has died, leaving his home and the land on which it’s built to Mégremut. But the bequest comes with a codicil: In order to earn his inheritance, Mégremut must journey to the home, known as La Redousse—built on an island in the middle of the Rhône, in the far-flung Camargue region of France—and live there for three months without interruption. The area is known for its remote geography and difficult climate, and Mégremut’s great-uncle’s instructions make it clear that this will be a test of whether the botanist has the strength to live in “harsh solitude” and awaken the “Malicroix soul, no doubt sleeping without his awareness beneath other souls within him.” “During three months of difficult isolation,” reads Malicroix’s testament, “Mégremut will know, first, what he is; then, who he is.”
When Mégremut first arrives at La Redousse, he finds a sparsely decorated “low structure with whitish walls” in which nearly “everything seemed caught in unearthly stillness.” “And yet,” Mégremut reflects, “it was alive—if only the way a thought, reduced solely to its presence, might live, unmoving, beyond the real. In the bareness of the room, my little lamp in hand, I was inside this simple thought, and I was listening.” The stillness makes space for Mégremut’s own sensory experience—his “eyes, ears, nose” are “ready to seize the slightest sign”—while the bareness invites him not only to think, but to perceive the presence of thoughts that already exist: “Without understanding it, I saw that the lofty thought that lived in this house was now entering me, had become my substance. And I no longer sought its meaning, because it was my own self.” A home, Bosco suggests, invites communion, if the person who dwells within it is still enough to allow for it.
Malicroix follows Mégremut’s wanderings in and around the island where La Redousse sits, detailing his gradual acclimation to its remote wildness. Near the midpoint, the novel undergoes an abrupt tonal shift to accommodate a Gothic action plot involving a villainous notary scheming to trick Mégremut out of his inheritance, and Mégremut’s quest to fulfill the revenge plan he inherited along with the property. But throughout this commotion, Mégremut still spends much of the novel alone, and its nucleus remains Bosco’s close attention to his crushing loneliness, vivid dreaming, and aimless meandering—his daily experience of existing alone with his own mind.
Mégremut’s seclusion passes in phases of dreaminess and despair; throughout, however, he is newly aware, riding “[w]ave . . . upon wave, solitude upon solitude.” Readers surveying their own bodies for signs of the virus might find Mégremut’s account familiar: how this heightened awareness intensifies the anxiety, the being-aloneness, the bated-breath waiting for the worst; how we become vulnerable to the non-human things that surround us and invade us. But watchfulness isn’t just fear; it’s also hope—we are watching for something to break the sheet of time; watching not only for disaster, but also for comfort or relief. In a hallucinatory state brought about by the prolonged time in his “riparian prison,” Mégremut sees phantoms and shadows on the opposite shore of his island. He is filled with both desire and anxiety; the terror and desperation meld as he prays “for the emergence of some soul from the stillness and silence into which this already distant land was sinking, little by little, mist upon mist, shadow upon shadow.”
This amplified awareness can also lead to a particular form of psychic expansion. People are loud; we announce ourselves, and our presence blots out the hidden consciousness in everything around us. But in isolation, our consciousness can contract, and we discover the language of things. As Mégremut observes only a few days into his time at La Redousse, “thought . . . may be secretly inscribed in the most ordinary object.” This newfound attunement to the consciousness of things and the contours of physical space opens Mégremut to space on a vast, metaphysical scale. In Mégremut’s months of “wild isolation,” “a whole, limitless world sank into [his] soul, widening its narrow boundaries to suddenly create huge spaces alive within [him].” Standing alone on the bank of the Rhône, staring into the vast and violent water that brought him to the island, Mégremut feels the colossal crush of sublimity:
Above these endless expanses, airy heights rose up; below, depths plunged to a new realm, where, dreamlike, they disappeared . . . [he] was suddenly more aware of this feeling of amplitude, inspired from without by nature, and arriving from within with all the voices of a new solitude . . . [his] mind, unmoving, self-absorbed, was nothing but a great sonorous body, coequal to the solemn heights and depths of this world.
Bachelard’s analysis of Malicroix emphasizes that it is the house itself that allows for this new enlightenment. La Redousse protects Mégremut from the hostile conditions of the region. During a particularly brutal storm, he imagines a conversation between the assailing wind and the roof, groaning in resistance; the house provides safety from the storm as its creaking provides the company of familiar murmurs. In Bachelard’s reading, by creating safety for the body, the house allows the mind to wander, makes room for reverie. “The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace,” he writes in The Poetics of Space. For Bachelard, reverie is not a state of disengagement or diffidence. Rather, it is a state in which “the soul keeps watch, with no tension, calmed and active,” a state of creation in which “a world takes form . . . teach[ing] us the possibilities for expanding our being within our universe.” It is a hard-won psychic condition—one that feels nearly impossible to reach during this pandemic, when time is strange and the timeline uncertain; when washes of fear, unease, loss, and worry color every day. Yet reverie is worth reaching for, and Bosco’s evocations of Mégremut’s experience don’t just describe such states; they also generate them within the reader—states we can pull from the novel’s imagined, read space into the real spaces where we read.
Bachelard describes Malicroix as an “ordeal by solitude,” a phrase that may seem to many an apt description of these last few months. Mégremut survives the ordeal by “attain[ing] to the dignity of solitude,” by learning to live in isolation. Reading Malicroix, I found myself striving for this dignity, feeling instead the acute ache of claustrophobia that characterizes this period of lockdown and spatial restriction. In a pandemic, every space, every object, and every person—loved one or stranger—is a potential carrier of risk. Safety, along with its crushing isolation, is only available to us within our homes. I saw the value in Mégremut’s endeavor, to make his house his accomplice in this struggle—as Bachelard writes, “an instrument with which to confront the cosmos.” Bachelard posits that in inhabiting spaces, real and literary, we are not only housed, but bolstered: “Come what may the house helps us to say: I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world.” As La Redousse carves out a shelter for Mégremut—a space where his dreams and memories can unfurl and his body and mind can be comforted—the pages of Malicroix enable something similar for their reader. Within the literary space of Malicroix, I could dwell; I could indulge thoughts that didn’t cohere to any precise meaning, but rather floated, alone, in a quietude that couldn’t be found in the world beyond.