Journeying on foot up the river Marne to its source, Jean-Paul Kauffmann’s project is “to go back in time”, to the beginning. The journey is an opportunity for the author to “rediscover” the river, and is an attempt to restore it to its former glory, faced with French indifference and general disregard.
This exploration does not pretend to be wholly rational, but rather strives to “discover other paths”. For although this river is no longer navigable with the exception of its lower reaches, and indeed is no longer the centre of these outlying territories, it still remains a “fascinating” place.
Beyond the banks of the river Marne is the France which is the elusive object of the author’s search. It is described like a country, in the sense that it can be conveyed in a smell or a passage from a book. For Kauffmann it is a question of taking stock, looking for the traces of history from a world which has all but disappeared. Is this a tragedy? For the author it clearly isn’t, and neither does it signify decline nor death throes, there is just a sense of inevitability: one season ends, another begins.
A “doctrinal” dividing line, the Marne is an interior border which the country has adopted since the reign of Charles V: The line has been crossed – the fatherland is in danger!
France, a country where “rivers are law”, has mistreated its waterways. Indeed they are subject of an “ill-will” which has driven them from the country’s collective memory. Left to itself from the First World War to the end of the 80s, the Marne has served as a rubbish dump causing swimming to be almost completely banned and breaking a further bond between the river and the local population. Neglected from its very source and “displaced”, the wild Marne is an illusion: required to protect Paris from rises in the water level, the course of river has been greatly altered over time.
And yet, the Marne was once a source of wealth: without the Marne there would be no Champagne. It was this “wild, liquid boulevard” which brought Dom Pérignon’s invention first to Paris and then to the wider world. A river which nourishes, the Marne transported the wood from its forests to be burnt in the fireplaces of Paris until the end of the 19th century. In the same way, iron ore and cast iron brought great prosperity to this region, something which was still very visible under the 3rd republic.
The embodiment of the rural idyll for the Parisian working classes (the seaside still being very much an inaccessible luxury up until the first third of the last century) the Marne has this gentle and pastoral character which its history continually brings us back to. The author fluctuates between a disenchanted realism for its long stretches of peri-urbanisation (foreign matter left untouched by passing boats, a devastated landscape, a third place – a space which is neither urban nor rural, trying to free itself from urban sprawl and roads run amok) and a fascination marked by lyricism: tragic beauty, overabundance, intense and magnetic fragrances, traces of something bitter and cutting. An androgynous being taken over by the torpor of summer, the river shimmers with a particular radiance, cold and pale: the rambleur (a word local to the region meaning “gleam”) is the white glimmer, brief and unsurpassed, a pallid light which seems to have come from heaven. This Adamic landscape, which possesses an almost unearthly peace and where an almost perfect order imposes itself is like a jolt which exposes the ambiguity of things and beings.
This journey back up the river also reveals how even the “river wine” (the name first given to champagne) does not have the same status here: elsewhere it symbolises celebration and festivities, on the banks of the Marne, according to the wine critic Kauffmann, it is a belief. We make the wine that we are, before the effervescence champagne is unyielding and firm, he explains.
What has really been lost then? Those neat landscapes praised by J. Gracq, the uninhabited spaces evoked by G. Simenon, the lost paradise of a world abounding with game glorified by J. de La Fontaine? “Pure now” and unchanging, the river meanders on.
The Marne does not accept suffering; the river possesses a presence which seems not to impinge on the local people. It is a discomfort and a gift. The river exposes the “emptying” of villages, the soul disappearing from communities and places, isolation, the desertification and the aging of this upstream country.
The river has seen a new form of humanity being born, made up of individuals who have turned their backs on the world in which they were living. They are wayward souls who refuse to be a part of the ordinary flow of life; they are invisible. Their desire to withdraw and their refusal to merge with the masses characterises this overlooked, yet active segment of society. These “conjurers” practise the art of taking the opposing view, commutation and active forgetting.
This region retains a certain grace, concludes JP Kauffmann. It is made up of a multitude of gaps and tiny spaces where one can escape difficult moods. If yesterday’s names have become dead letters, then surprise is the mark of the French landscape: an unexpected detail radiates grace and harmony. Briefly suspending his journey on foot back up to the Marne’s source to experience the feeling of coming down the river, barely skimming its gentle surface, the author discovers an overlooked, extraordinary world, which is vigorous by nature: the walker who walks on the other side is in danger of missing something…
Jacky Vieux on the book, Exploring the River Marne by Jean-Paul Kauffmann. Editions Fayard 2013.
(Translated from french by Alice Winborn)