It is not often that one gets to read the memoirs of a peasant, because it’s not often that a peasant writes a memoir. This particular peasant was Breton, which is, for those fascinated by a part of the world that is unique and mysterious, a plus. As editor Bernez Rouz points out in “The Story Behind This Story,” Jean-Marie Déguignet was not a particularly nice man, and much of his story has been left out of this volume, particularly the paranoid ravings of his later life. As Rouz himself points out, “these circumvolutions, which become unremitting from the ninth book on, make the reading an ordeal.” This volume, at just over 400 pages of print, has been rendered from nearly 4,000 pages of manuscript. What is left is of more than casual interest to anyone interested in Brittany or the history of the nineteenth century, particularly as told from the viewpoint of one who had little respect for authority and was not one of those by whose deeds history is made (or so we are told).
Déguignet was of a philosphical cast of mind. Self-educated, he seems to have had an unquenchable curiosity, and at his best he is a lively and irreverent observer of the world around him who joined the army at age eighteen to see the world and learn more about it. The central section, “The Soldier,” is the main portion of the book, and the most rewarding (although the account of his early life, while appalling to those who think poverty means not being able to stop at Starbucks, is also often amusing and enlightening). In many places I am reminded of John Louis Stephens’ delightful travelogues, from a period that overlaps Déguignet’s early life (our Breton peasant was born in 1834): while they share a wide-eyed, open quality, Déguignet is much more choleric and combative, although just as entertaining in his observations of human foibles.
Déguignet was a remarkable man in many ways. Raised a devout Catholic, he learned to read Breton and Latin from the catechism and the Lives of the Saints. He began teaching himself French from newspapers he filched from his employer, the mayor of Kerfeunteun, the village near where he had worked as a cowherd after a childhood spents as a professional beggar. (It was as a cowherd that he began teaching himself to write, which, he discovered, is not exactly the same thing as reading – his hands were not nearly so adroit as his mind.) By the middle of his life, he could speak and read Breton, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, and even a smattering of English.
He was a harsh critic of the incompetent, as witness his remarks on some of his commanders during the Crimean War and his tour in Algeria, but also an unremitting champion of the common man: He was so disgusted by the commercialism of Jerusalem, which in his eyes existed to prey on pilgrims, that he became an atheist – his repeated references to Jesus as the “chief bandit” become more than a little jarring, even for those not Christian. One can only imagine the reaction among his contemporaries in Brittany.
Also unsettling to a contemporary reader is the degree to which knowledge was a matter of misinformation (although this is probably just as true in our own day, if one is to believe that people accept some of the things that they seem to.) Taking Déguignet as an educated man (which he seems to have been, in spite of his lack of formal schooling), his insistence that it was a blow on the head at an early age which led to his curiosity and intelligence is both amusing and frightful.
The Breton peasant’s later years are not so entertaining. Returning home to Brittany when mustered out of the army during Napoleon III’s general demobilization, his intent was to find a good site in the Stang-Odet, the river valley that runs through the central Breton highlands, and live alone, raising bees and otherwise living off the land. However, he soon found himself with a wife, working as a tenant farmer on land leased from an estate, which worked for a while. Through one thing and another, though, he ended his days destitute, living in a hovel with a bed made of fern fronds, where he died in 1905.
Quite honestly, I have been avoiding this book, simply because, on the basis of the introduction, I was reluctant to get involved with a bad-tempered, marginally insane peasant whose life was depressing. The discovery that most of his life was not depressing, when I finally took the plunge, was reward enough for my determination. The translation is very readable, and the details about life in Brittany and in Déguignet’s various ports of call are fascinating. Presented as a document of social science, Memoirs of a Breton Peasant is equally worth reading for pleasure.
(Seven Stories Press, 2003)