Publication Date: December 7, 2010
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The natural world in all its richness, glimpsed variously in the house, the barnyard, and the garden, in ponds and streams, and at large in the woods and the fields, including old friends like the dog, the cat, the cow, and the pig, along with more unusual and sometimes alarming characters such as the weasel, the dragonfly, snakes of several sorts, and even a whale, not to mention ants in their seeming infinitude and a single humble potato—all these and more are the subjects of what may well be the most deft and delightful book of literary miniatures ever written. In Jules Renard’s world, plants and animals not only feel but speak (one species, the swallow, appears to write Hebrew), and yet, for all the anthropomorphic wit and whimsy the author indulges in, they guard their mystery too. Sly, funny, and touching, Nature Stories, here beautifully rendered into English by Douglas Parmée and accompanied by the wonderful ink-brush images of Pierre Bonnard with which the book was originally published, is a literary classic of inexhaustible freshness.
Jules Renard (1864–1910) was a French novelist, playwright, and diarist who divided his time between Paris and the Burgundian countryside for most of his life. He described his lonely childhood growing up in a cold bourgeois family in the autobiographical novel Poil de carotte (Carrot Top). Though educated to be a teacher, the young Renard moved to Paris where he took up with an actress of the Comédie-Française and was introduced
into the city’s most prestigious literary salons. His marriage in 1888 to Marie Morneau brought him a large dowry and allowed him to devote himself to life as an homme de lettres and to found the literary review Mercure de France. For the rest of his short life Renard would spend the warmer months in Chitry, where like his father before him he became mayor. In Paris he lived the life of a member of the Académie Goncourt and counted among his friends Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, Anatole France, Paul Claudel, and Sarah Bernhardt. In addition to Poil de carotte and Histoires naturelles, Renard is best known for his five-volume Journal, cited as an influence by authors as diverse as W. Somerset Maugham, Susan Sontag, Donald Barthelme, and Samuel Beckett. Among his other works are Le plaisir de rompre, L’ écornifleur, and Huit jours à la campagne.
Douglas Parmée (1914–2008) was a lecturer in modern languages at Cambridge and a Lifetime Fellow of Queens’ College. He translated many works of classic and contemporary literature from French, Italian, and German, receiving the the Scott Moncrieff Prize for French translation in 1976. NYRB Classics publishes his translations of The Child by Jules Vallès and Afloat by Guy de Maupassant and in 2011 will publish his translation of Irretrievable by Theodor Fontaine.
“Renard’s way with the detail is unforgettable. Renard writes about spiders, about the moon, and the poetry he makes from the things his eyes tell him is joyful.”
—Michael Silverblatt, Bookworm
“Renard’s people—and animals and plants, too—are not reflections of Renard. They are not metaphors for his moods. They are not steps in his argument. They are as close as he can come to describing being someone or something not Renard. Renard’s truthfulness is the truthfulness of a scrupulous, disinterested witness. You trust him as you trust a Quaker.”
—Naomi Bliven, The New Yorker
“directly, or indirectly, Renard is at the origin of contemporary literature.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
"There is no real equivalent for the French word esprit which is somewhere between and beyond humor and wit and which is essentially what these short commentaries on the bird and animal world display." —Kirkus Reviews
“The farmyard beasts, hunted game, insects and birds of the Nièvre were world enough for him [Renard]. Sometimes their activities add up to a story, sometimes an extended observation; or they might just provide a joyful moment—for instance, when a kingfisher comes and perches on his fishing-rod (‘I was swelling with pride at having been taken for a tree’). And on almost every page there are brilliant descriptions and comparisons.” – Julian Barnes, London Review of Books