The Little Fox of Mayerville
Éric Mathieu (Trans. Peter McCambridge), 379 pgs, QC Fiction, qcfiction.com, $24.95
This porous bildungsroman flits across the dismal upbringing of Émile Claudel, a fox- faced urchin born to parents who don’t want him in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The narrative zooms through 18 years, with Mathieu’s penchant for flash fiction —chapters sometimes as petite as a single sentence — bulks out this text significantly. The read is not as imposing of a coming-of-age tale as it initially appears.
That’s not to say, though, that The Little Fox of Mayerville makes for light reading. While I can’t speak to its accuracy, McCambridge’s translation is gorgeous and demands attention. Mathieu’s quick pace and small chapters turn the bildungsroman on its head — the stunned inhabitants of post-war France hold on for dear life as their country shifts “away from austere conservatism and embraces the counterculture of the 1960s.” Émile, the eyes through which we witness this transition, has difficulty growing or shifting in the way his surroundings demand. Abandoned by any stable sense of familial or social security, the conclusive landing implied in the novel’s final words couldn’t be more ironic: “It was November 22, 1963. I’d just turned eighteen.”
This isn’t a world where characters adjust to understand and master their surroundings, as Mathieu’s selected genre would lead its reader to believe. Rather, it’s one where characters hold on for dear life as the social order spirals around unpredictably. Émile opens his tale with a complete upending of the Western political order, and his conclusion leaves the reader at the doorstep of another social revolution. What a difficult time to be born.