Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 30, 2020

La guerre des boutons, by Louis Pergaud

I read this book because I saw the film on SBS.

La Guerre des boutons (The War of the Buttons) is the story of two rival gangs of children, from villages separated by a river.  The victors tear the buttons from the losers’ clothing so that they get into trouble with their mothers.   This classic French story was first made into a film in 1937, then again in 1962, in 1994, and (inexplicably) twice in 2011, one directed by Christophe Barratier, and the other, the version I saw, was directed by Yann Samuell. 

The original novel was first published in France in 1912.  Pergaud warns in the preface, that despite its title, it’s not a story for children, because it’s an assertion that such savagery could be heroic.

J’ai voulu restituer un instant de ma vie d’enfant, de notre vie enthousiaste et brutale de vigoureux sauvageons dans ce qu’elle eut de franc et d’héroïque, c’est-à-dire libérée des hypocrisies de la famille et de l’école. (Kindle Loc 95)

Au demeurant, et c’est ma meilleure excuse, j’ai conçu ce livre dans la joie, je l’ai écrit avec volupté, il a amusé quelques amis et fait rire mon éditeur : j’ai le droit d’espérer qu’il plaira aux « hommes de bonne volonté » selon l’évangile de Jésus et pour ce qui est du reste, comme dit Lebrac, un de mes héros, je m’en fous.

I wanted to restore a moment in my childhood, of our brutal and enthusiastic lives as vigorous savages, frank and heroic, that is to say, free from the hypocrisies of family and school.

Besides, and this is my best excuse, I conceived this book with joy, I wrote it with pleasure, it amused several friends and it made my editor laugh.  I have the right to hope that it pleases men of good will: according to the gospel of Jesus, and as for the rest, as Lebrac, one of my heroes, says, I do not care.

Louis Pergaud was born in 1882 and died in August 1915 aged only 33.  Following in his father’s footsteps, he had become a schoolteacher by profession, and was appointed to the village of Durnes (Doubs), in 1901.  In 1903 after the death of both his parents in 1900, he married Marthe Caffot, who was also a teacher at a neighbouring village.

Pergaud had published his first poems in 1904.  The following year he was transferred from his school because of religious issues when the Third French Republic enacted separation of Church and State, and this was the catalyst for him to move to Paris in 1907 where he worked first as a clerk, and then as a schoolmaster while also pursuing his passion for writing.

He was serving as a second lieutenant in the infantry on the Western Front when he became trapped in barbed wire behind German lines and was killed by French fire. Some  of his work was published posthumously.

La Guerre des boutons begins in the melancholy of autumn, the children returning to school after working on the harvest in the fields. Father Simon at the door of the school is surprised at the punctual entrance of two boys who are usually late: he is not to know that there is an urgent meeting to deal with an insult from the boys of the neighbouring school.  Lebrac quickly establishes himself as the leader who will restore their dignity!

As in Enid Blyton’s stories decades later, the local policeman is a figure of fun and easily outwitted.  However, it is harder to deal with the suspicions of their parents and teacher.

There is an innocence about this tale that charmed me.  While the conflict between the gangs is really about nothing other than some insulting words, they fight with rotten apples, marbles, pieces of vine and branches, and the threat of a mother’s rage at the state of their clothes.  They have no access to any serious weaponry and the cruelty of social media is a long way off.  But there is still jealousy and treachery culminating in Bacaillé’s act of betrayal.  (The brutality of their vengeance isn’t a feature of the film, BTW, and there’s no mushy boy-girl romance with La Crique and Lebrac either).

What they are fighting for is their ‘honour’ and there are references to the French revolution and its values of solidarity, equality and fraternity among the gang.  They apply revolutionary principles to dealing with traitors as well, and in going so far, the whole story comes out and there is hell to pay.

There is, BTW some anti-Semitic content, which I assume is discussed carefully with students who read this book in France.

The vocabulary really tested me.  There’s a lot of slang (and bad language) and it’s written using the literary passé simple of which I have only a rudimentary grasp.  Truth be told I used Google Translate sometimes to check that I had the gist of it, though this often offered hilarious results that may not have borne any relationship to the text.  I had the dictionaryon hand all the time.

Têtu comme une mule, malin comme un singe, vif comme un lièvre, il n’avait surtout pas son pareil pour casser un carreau à vingt pas, quel que fût le mode de projection du caillou : à la main, à la fronde à ficelle, au bâton refendu, à la fronde à lastique[5] ; il était dans les corps à corps un adversaire terrible ; il avait déjà joué des tours pendables au curé, au maître d’école et au garde champêtre. Stubborn as a mule, smart as a monkey, lively as a hare, he mostly had no equal at breaking a tile (?) at twenty paces, no matter the method of throwing the stone: by hand, with a slingshot of string, with a split stick, or an elastic slingshot; he was a terrible adversary in hand-to-hand combat; he played tricks on the priest, the headmaster and the local policeman.

Another expression that puzzled me was:  Il leur z-y-a encore joué un tour. I hadn’t come across z-y-a before.  The best I could do was to ignore the z to translate it as: They still played a trick on them.  

Perhaps because there was so much new vocabulary, I did sometimes feel that it was a bit long-winded, especially the chapter where the children have a feast in their cabin-fortress.  (but I expect that children reading this would probably enjoy this chapter most of all.

Although I did want to read this book, and there’s no better motivation than that, it was too hard for me to really enjoy it.

Author: Louis Pergaud
Title: La Guerre des boutons
Publisher: Edition Intégrale – Version Entièrement Illustrée (French Edition), 2016, first published 1912
ASN: B01LWZM7LP, 281 pages
Source: purchased for the Kindle from Amazon


Responses

  1. I hadn’t heard of this author or novel (sounds interesting), or the films of it. Your translation problems remind me of the times years ago I read books in French – I recall particularly struggling with the special vocabulary of markets in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris.

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    • You’re not starting with the easier writer! Zola (and Balzac) can be verbose in their descriptions.

      My experience with reading in English is that the worse is the vocabulary when it’s specific: book set on a ship and you have all the words around sailing, same with war, birds, trees…and in case of Le ventre de Paris: food.

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      • Yes, I find that’s true. I started a Simenon set on a wharf and gave up in dismay, I will try it again later.
        But the old ones are not necessarily the hardest ones: the easiest one I’ve read was Indiana by George Sand. Once I had learned the vocab specific to the story, it was plain sailing because there was no slang or ungrammatical speech.

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  2. I’m not surprised that you found it difficult to read. It’s full of volutary grammar mistakes to give back the children’s way of speaking in the country.

    “ll leur z-y-a encore joué un tour” the “z-y-a” is like the peasant speech you find in Thomas Hardy. It doesn’t mean anything and you got the right meaning.

    Here in Lyon and around Lyon, some people add “y” in sentences where it’s not needed. Like “Il y a fait” instead of “Il l’a fait” It’s a regionalism.

    La guerre des boutons is a very famous book here in France.

    At the time it was written, school was a means for the State to ensure that all children got the right republican education.

    Its anti-semitism is representative of the French society of the time, alas. (cf Proust)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Emma, you do make me feel better!
      It was surprising, I was starting to think that I had forgotten everything.
      I had started another book a while ago — Petit pays by Gaël Faye — and although there were parts where I struggled, most of the time, I had the book in my bag and no dictionary, and I could make sense of it and work words out from context. Then I mislaid the book, and only found it again recently. (I will need to start again from the beginning). This one was so different, so much harder!
      It was a terrific film, have you seen it?

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  3. Hi Lisa, well done. I did see the film on SBS. They do have some good films.

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    • It was great, wasn’t it? And that gorgeous little kid!!

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  4. […] not a native speaker of French, and her review was encouraging and so I decided to try it.  Unlike my last attempt at reading in French, Petit Pays (Small Country) was easy.  I found myself really reading in French, that is, not […]

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