The landscapes of Maurice Genevoix

A witness to the suffering of men and animals in the First World War, writer Maurice Genevoix was also a sensitive witness to the destruction of the beautiful landscape of Les Éparges and its subsequent resurrection in peacetime. The landscape of war began as a war on the landscape, to become a landscape of remembrance.

 

 

Private Maurice Genevoix in 1914. © ECPAD / Défense

 

Porchon! Come and see this, it’s lovely! [...] Before us, the Longeau Valley opens out between two chains of perfectly curved hills. To the left, the summits undulate on the edge of the sky, a powerful line softened by the velvet trees...” (Ceux de 14, Maurice Genevoix.)

 

Maurice Genevoix kept a handful photographs from his war in the Meuse, from late August 1914 to late April 1915, most of them taken by Lagarrigue, the battalion doctor. They are group portraits, some of them showing the future writer, before a barn, in a village street, at the entrance to a shelter, on a forest road. One of the pictures, in the style of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, shows two soldiers with their backs to the camera, in sparse undergrowth, in winter. Standing side by side, the two men are looking straight ahead, at the dark shape of a long ridge beneath the grey sky. This photograph was taken on 16 January 1915. We know that from the account in Ceux de 14, which is corroborated by his comrade Second Lieutenant Robert Porchon’s memoir, Carnet de route. The figures are those of Porchon and Rebière, a second lieutenant newly assigned to the 106th Infantry Regiment. The more experienced officer, at the front from the beginning, is showing the novice his way around the sector, the location of the French and German positions. The ridge on which their gaze is fixed is that of Les Éparges. Porchon would be killed there on 19 February; Rebière, on 7 April.

 

FROM LOIRET TO THE MEUSE

 

Genevoix wrote almost as often about the landscapes of the Meuse as those of his native Loiret. The great French river was where his childhood had begun; the river in Lorraine was where it ended. The Loire Valley, flanked by the forests of Sologne and Orléans, was the setting for his novels; the Meuse Valley and its hillsides was the scene of the war and his account of it.

 

A conscientious officer, Genevoix used scraps of paper and pencil to make his sketches in cavalier perspective of the enemy trenches and the presumed positions of their machine guns and artillery, technical drawings that were part of his new métier. He saved the outpourings of his old love of the landscape for his journal, written when he was at rest or in the second-line bunkers. It mingled with his taste for literature rooted in the provinces. He enjoyed capturing the essence of a horizon at dawn, a snow-covered plain, a solitary tree, a village around its church tower. He exposed their singularities in rich, inventive language full of imagery. His correspondence with Paul Dupuy, secretary-general of the École Normale Supérieure, contains many such literary miniatures, which reveal the talent of a born writer. Particularly polished are those pages of his journal which he addressed to Dupuy in December

1914: “From high up, we look down over an immense rounded valley: at the foot of the slope are dark woods with great bright enclaves of harvest-ripe crops. To the right, a road bends sharply between two rows of trees; before us, another road, at right angles to the first, cuts a brutal line across the rainbow richness of the fields. Down in the valley is the village of Dannevoux, white beneath the leaves. And in the distance, beyond the concealed Meuse, lies a chain of blue hills.” (Maurice Genevoix, Paul Dupuy - Correspondance, 28 août 1914 - 30 avril 1915, Éditions de La Table Ronde, p. 294) This was his first contact with the front, on the right bank of the Meuse, upstream of Verdun, the day after he joined his regiment.

 

THE BIRTH OF A LANDSCAPE WRITER

 

Following instructions and subject to censorship, Genevoix did not specify his location, the positions occupied by his unit, in his letters, but his descriptions of the countryside, terrain, plants and type of soil were so evocative that his correspondent, a geography lecturer and esteemed colleague of Paul Vidal de La Blache, immediately identified the Verdun area and the profile of cuestas of this part of Lorraine. As early as October, from the École Normale where he lived, he pinpointed on a map the position of the 106th Infantry Regiment, then followed its fortunes in communiqués that mentioned Les Éparges.

 

La Fragoulle Ravine, also known as ‘Death Ravine’, Les Éparges (Meuse), 1917.

Detail from a stereograph by private Maurice Létang of the 53rd Infantry Regiment. © M. Létang / Roger-Viollet

 

Genevoix’s landscape writing, in the tradition of Maupassant and Flaubert, which was to blossom in his novels about nature and people, was already at its best in his war writings. Clearly, this had a lot to do with the skill of this exceptionally gifted young man. But it also had to do with circumstances. The fighting, the danger, the rarity of a life so far removed from the one he had left behind a few weeks before as a student in Paris, hastened the discovery of his calling. Proximity to death and the chances of meeting an early grave created a sense of urgency to tell his story, and contributed a sharpness to his writing. The quest for efficiency, coupled with a kind of modesty, led to an economy of words and effects.

 

According to the command’s battle plans, the 106th Infantry Regiment, a cover unit stationed at Châlons-sur-Marne, would move to the Longwy sector, in Lorraine, on the first day of mobilisation, to confront the German troops in the Saar. When war was declared, it was in position and, after some skirmishes, took part in the Battle of the Frontiers. In late August, it retreated to the north of Verdun, which it defended. That is where, on 27 August, Second Lieutenant Genevoix joined the regiment, with reinforcements sent to replace heavy losses. At the end of the Battle of the Marne, it resisted the enemy advance between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun, first to the west, victoriously, then to the east, when the Bavarian divisions from Metz appeared by surprise in the Woëvre, in late September. The fighting which halted their advance took place on the wooded massif of the Côtes de Meuse, on the Tranchée de Calonne, the long road through undergrowth where Alain-Fournier was killed, and where Genevoix himself would be seriously wounded seven months later.