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Memoirs of a breton peasant - Jean-Marie Déguignet



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Alan Riding, New York Times Book Review
Alan Riding is the European cultural correspondent of The Times, based in Paris.

Logo New York TimesJean-Marie Déguignet was in his 60's, well beyond the life expectancy of a 19th-century Breton peasant, when he began writing his memoirs. He had much to tell. Born into rural poverty in 1834, he escaped Brittany by joining the French Army in 1854 and, over the next 14 years, was engaged in wars in the Crimea, Italy, Algeria and Mexico. He then returned home to the area around Quimper and spent the rest of his life fighting other wars -- domestic, religious, political.

Unusually for a Breton peasant, who would have been fluent only in the region's Celtic dialect, Déguignet spoke, read and wrote French. He later learned other languages and studied books of philosophy and history. In time, both his knowledge and his independent views made him feel different from -- actually superior to -- his fellow Bretons, as well as most of the soldiers he met. But he remained trapped in a class-riven society. The only outlet for his anger and frustration was to record his life and thoughts in 4,000 handwritten pages. 

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Logo The Seattle TimesJean-Marie Déguignet was an obscure French peasant who lived from 1834-1904 in Brittany, the rugged northwest corner of France, at a time when it was poor and backward, even by then-contemporary French standards. In the last years of his life, Déguignet compiled hundreds of journals describing his life, his country and his military service under Napoleon. Lost for nearly a hundred years, they were only recently discovered in a farmhouse in Brittany and published in France two years ago, to great fanfare.
Now available for the first time in an English translation, Déguignet's memoirs provide a fascinating glimpse into a world gone by. Born into poverty in 1834, Déguignet spent his childhood begging for food, working as a servant, and later as a cowherder. Raised speaking Breton, the native language of Brittany (an independent country until it was absorbed into France in 1532), Déguignet taught himself French, Spanish, Latin, and Italian.
Déguignet describes a raw, backward Brittany where superstition, poverty, and religious control blended into a potent and restrictive combination. Déguignet makes plain his utter disgust for organized religion and, in particular, the corrupt village priests whom he blamed for terrorizing and exploiting the local peasants. His fellow countrymen fare little better in the telling — farmers who toiled in exhausted soil, unwilling to abandon traditional farming practices, even when faced with new techniques to replenish the soil and dramatically increase its output. Déguignet himself enthusiastically embraced post-Revolutionary republican France and refused political orthodoxy at every turn, to the point of holding almost anarchist views.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


David Coward - London Review of Books

Logo London Review of booksThe book proved popular with local readers, and when it was reissued in 2000 it became a national bestseller. Subsequently, other titles have appeared under Déguignet’s name: a book of Breton folk-tales, a selection of his angry poetry (Rimes et révoltes) and the uncut autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (2001). Linda Asher has now given Déguignet a splendidly faithful English voice: pugnacious, tetchy and opinionated. Linda Asher has now given Déguignet a splendidly faithful English voice: pugnacious, tetchy and opinionated.

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Lois Kuter - Bro Nevez 95 - August 2005

Logo Bro NevezThis book is a translation of a remarkable collection of autibiographical memoirs written by a breton peasant, Jean-Marie Déguignet, at the end of the 19th century.
Earlier research indicated that 26 notebooks of some 100 pages made up the memoirs which had been sold by Déguignet to the well known collector of folklore Anatole Le Braz in 1897. Le Braz agreed to publish excerpts from Mémoires d'un paysan bas-breton and over 100 pages eventually appeared in La Revue de Paris in 1904.




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Robert Tilendis  The green man Review

Logo The Green Man ReviewIt’s not often that the words of poor peasants appear in print. And when they do, it’s a cause for rejoicing, especially for scholars pertaining to the Braudel/Certeau school of the history of daily life.
What’s more, our current nostalgic longings for a more paradisiacal past evaporate quickly in the light of these often ruthlessly real portrayals of life.
Even though he’s been dead for over 100 years, nineteenth-century Breton peasant Jean-Marie Déguignet would be rubbing his hands together in glee to know that his unusual life story can now be read by even more people.
The tale of Déguignet’s memoirs in themselves make a most interesting story, as Bernez Rouz relates in the Preface to the English edition of Memoirs of a Breton Peasant. The folklorist Anatole La Braz met Déguignet in 1897 and instantly wanted to publish his memoirs, twenty-four volumes in total. He paid him 100 francs. Years went by and La Braz did little except to publish 130 pages in the December 1904 issue of La revue de Paris. In the meantime, giving up on seeing his words immortalized in print, Déguignet began writing his memoirs all over again !

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Michael T. Bailey - Portand 2005 - Amazon
Logo AmazonDeguignet is a truly unique, first person voice. His descriptions of life in Brittany, the families, the survival and the bleakness are worth reading the book in themselves. But there are two other aspects to this man that make the book a treasure.

One is his ability to self-educate. His mastery of language and learning is astonishing. He is a gifted story teller and retained a detailed memory of the most seemingly insignificant moments of his life. He weaves them into a tale that is interesting and relevant.
Additionally, he was an adventurer. Students of the French experience in the Crimea, Morocco and Mexico will enjoy the observations of a "simple" soldier. His descriptions of everyday army life, the appearance and pretension of Napoleon III and Bazanine, among others, is superb reading.
That he ended his life unpublished, alone and destitute adds a dimension to this story. The creativity and ability to understand and form a critical framework with which to explain one's life is rare.

The translation is outstanding. This is gem of a book. It is no wonder that it has been such a success in France.
Deguinet est un vraiment unique, la voix la première personne. Ses descriptions de la vie en Bretagne, les familles, la survie et la tristesse sont peine de lire le livre en soi. Mais il ya deux autres aspects de cet homme qui font du livre un trésor.

L'une est sa capacité à s'auto-éduquer. Sa maîtrise de la langue et l'apprentissage est étonnante. Il est un conteur doué et conservé un souvenir détaillé des moments les plus apparemment insignifiantes de sa vie. Il tisse un conte qui est intéressant et pertinent.
En outre, il était un aventurier. Les étudiants de l'expérience française en Crimée, le Maroc et le Mexique pourront profiter des observations d'un "simple" soldat. Ses descriptions de la vie quotidienne l'armée, l'apparence et la prétention de Napoléon III et Bazanine, entre autres, est la lecture superbe.
Qu'il finit sa vie inédit, seul et sans ressources ajoute une dimension à cette histoire. La créativité et la capacité de comprendre et de former un cadre critique avec laquelle d'expliquer la vie est rare.

La traduction est remarquable. C'est petit bijou de livre. Il n'est pas étonnant qu'il a été un tel succès en France.


Michael Hayward © 2007  Texts & pretexts

Logo texts and pretextsTime travel is more rewarding in the company of a local, someone raised in that specific time and place. Most period memoirs, though, are written by those with the leisure time to lounge around their writing desks: the upper classes in other words — politicians and the nobility, and why would we want to spend our leisure time with that self-serving lot? There are very few accounts of life among the pre-modern working classes, and a case could be made that the realistic novel (with Émile Zola the earliest practitioner) was invented to fill that void, providing a literary window into that mute world. I suspect that this is one reason that Jean-Marie Déguignet’s Memoirs of a Breton Peasant was a bestseller when it was published in France in 1998: it satisfied a craving to know more about an undocumented past.
Déguignet was born in 1834 to a family of tenant farmers, in a region of France that was, in many respects, a primitive colony of the central government in Paris. The rural poor (of Brittany as elsewhere) were at the mercy of the “landed gentry”, liable to be turned out of their homes at the slightest provocation; they had little hope of ever owning land themselves. As a boy Déguignet was sent out to beg for food for the family table :
In the spring of 1834, an old goodwife from the neighborhood came to tell my mother that she would do better to send me out to make the rounds of the whole commune with a beggar’s pouch than to simply let me beg for my daily meal around Le Guélennec — that I could bring in much more provender for the household. My mother agreed to it. The goodwife was a professional beggar; she undertook to teach me the trade.
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