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Memoirs of a Breton Peasantby Jean Mari Deguignet
Synopses & Reviews
Memoirs of A Breton Peasant combines the discovery of a fascinating document of nineteenth-century history with an extraordinary life story. As lively as an adventure novel, the account bristles with the curiosity of an alert, opinionated autodidact from the very lowest level of peasant society, as Jean-Marie Déguignet moves through the world of his time.
Most records from nineteenth-century Brittany are the chronicles of and by the middle and upper classes—the formally educated, the advantaged. Déguignet is unique not only as a reading and writing peasant, but in his skepticism regarding the Church; his interest in science, astronomy, and languages; and in his keen—often caustic—observations of the world and people around him.
Born in 1834 near Quimper, in Brittany, to landless farmers, the young Déguignet was sent out several times a week to beg for the family’s food. After some adolescent years as a cowherd and a domestic speaking only Breton, he left the province as a soldier, avid for knowledge of the vast world. He taught himself Latin, then French, then Italian and Spanish; he read history and philosophy and politics and literature. He was sent to fight in the Crimean war, to attend at Napoleon III’s coronation ceremonies, to support Italy’s liberation struggle, and to defend the hapless French puppet emperor Maximilian in Mexico. He returned home to live as a tobacco farmer, falling back into dire poverty. Throughout the tale, Déguignet’s freethinking, almost anarchic views put him ahead of his time and often (sadly, for him) out of step with his fellows.
Déguignet’s voluminous notebooks, written from 1897 to 1904, have sold over two hundred sixty-five thousand copies to date in France.
Linda Asher (Translator), former fiction editor at The New Yorker, has previously translated into English Restif de la Bretonne, Victor Hugo, George Simenon, and Milan Kundera. The last book she translated for Seven Stories, Martin Winckler’s The Case of Dr. Sachs, won the French-American translation prize in 2001.
A n autobiographical account of a mid-nineteenth century farmer/soldier/philosopher--a bestseller in France.
A fascinating document of an extraordinary life, Memoirs of A Breton Peasant reads with the liveliness of a novel and bristles with the vigor of an opinionated autodidact from the very lowest level of peasant society. Brittany during the nineteenth century was a place seemingly frozen in the Middle Ages, backwards by most French standards; formal education among rural society was either unavailable or dismissed as unnecessary, while the church and local myth defined most people's reasoning and motivation. Jean-Marie Déguignet is unique not only as a literate Breton peasant, but in his skepticism for the church, his interest in science, astronomy and languages, and for his keen—often caustic—observations of the world and people around him.
Born into rural poverty in 1834, Déguignet escapes Brittany by joining the French Army in 1854, and over the next fourteen years he fights in the Crimean war, attends Napoleon IIIs coronation ceremonies, supports Italys liberation struggle, and defends the hapless French puppet emperor Maximilian in Mexico. He teaches himself Latin, French, Italian and Spanish and reads extensively on history, philosophy, politics, and literature. He returns home to live as a farmer and tobacco-seller, eventually falling back into dire poverty. Throughout the tale, Deguignets freethinking, almost anarchic views put him ahead of his time and often (sadly, for him) out of step with his contemporaries.
Déguignets voluminous journals (nearly 4,000 pages in total) were discovered in a farmhouse in Brittany a century after they were written. This narrative was drawn from them and became a surprise bestseller when published in France in 1998.
A fascinating document of 19th-century history, this reads like an adventure novel and bristles with the curiosity and vigor of an alert, opinionated autodidact from the very lowest level of peasant society.
About the Author
Bernez Rouz, a member of the Arkae Association of Historical Research, has devoted his life to tracking down the complete set of the notebooks of Jean-Marie Déguignet, only a fraction of which had been on record for over a century. Linda Asher, a former fiction editor for The New Yorker, has translated into English many French-language writers, including Restif de la Bretonne, Victor Hugo, George Simenon, and Milan Kundera.
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