Paul, the narrator and subject of Noëlle Revaz’s With the Animals, is a rustic Swiss farmer with strong opinions but a weak intellect; he is a man of formidable emotion but has a rather small heart, metaphorically speaking. The book asks its readers to sustain an intimate encounter with this difficult and often violent man, an intimate encounter because of the way the reader becomes so tightly locked inside Paul’s narrated vision—the story unfolds in his voice and through the representation of his thinking as Revaz has conceived it. Paul’s voice is exceedingly rustic, so much so that at first it seems the book might be set several decades before its initial French-language publication date of 2002. As the story continues, however, it becomes clear that while the story is contemporary, Paul is a living anachronism – out-of-date even by the standards of other neighboring farmers.
Not only is he wary of modern technology—he has trouble using an ordinary landline telephone, for example—and ultra-conservative in his vision of family and society, he is also attached to his farm and to his animals in such a way that he actually sits just outside the usual polarity of city and rural; he is nearly more animal than he is human. And this set-up leads to the central question of With the Animals – can Paul be humanized?
The effort of doing this comes from an exterior force, a summer hire farmhand from Portugal named Jorge, whom Paul immediately renames Georges, “for we’re no foreigners around here,” and Georges’s effort to humanize his boss focuses on Paul’s relationship with his wife Vulva. Yes, her name is Vulva. And this strange name, singularly strange amidst the other more commonplace names in the book, is perhaps Revaz’s most inexplicable choice. There is a moment when a few other farmers ask Paul about his wife’s peculiar name, almost like it might be Paul’s nickname for her, and it may very well be, but Paul’s only explanation is this:
It’s like when they’re born, the way the first time you see their mug the names come into your head and you just say “Blossom” or “Louise” straight off, though you’ve never thought of it before, for it’s the name suits them, and there’s no call to think women come by theirs any other way.
Poor Vulva then—although Revaz does exploit this idea to its fullest, reducing Vulva to little more than a vagina, hips and breasts for most of the book. At least to Paul’s way of thinking. She’s given birth to about six children, with names Paul is unable to remember, and although Paul finds the sex act disgusting, he’s done his duty as her husband when the urge comes upon him.
In one sense, then, the name is appropriate. It baffles only when one wonders whether Paul would have ever married a woman named Vulva in the first place. Everything about human sexuality disgusts him to such a point that it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have run screaming from their first introduction, and even less possible that he named her thus himself. This aside, Vulva’s name becomes a nearly fantastic element in what is otherwise a completely realist and down-to-earth novel.
That down-to-earth is no exaggeration. Paul’s vision of his life is reduced to the work around the farm and his connection to the land and to his animals. He thinks only of them – and with real tenderness:
I know how to stroke to calm them down and where to pat, and intuitive I find the right word when the wee ones is scared, or when in winter they long in their souls for the open meadows, or are too lazy to shift in their sleep. In my hands there’s a good fluid I’ve had from birth, without me ever trying to find out or explain or understand what goes on in my head, or what they make of it, the cows.
Paul’s easy love for his animals and his difficulty feeling anything but contempt, suspicion and disgust toward Vulva become a focused comparison throughout the story. Revaz sets up two comparative situations—Vulva’s illness, absence, and return versus several small and then one ultimately devastating illness among Paul’s herd of cows. And behind these varying situations is Georges and his work at the farm, his friendship and enmity with Paul. Because Paul can’t quite seem to decide how he feels about Georges, whether he should be suspicious and angry, or grateful and admiring.
Georges, the Latin-tempered, university-educated farmhand with a respectful love of women, is a perfect opposite to Paul, a man stuck in his sexuality-fearing typically Swiss Protestant mold. Where Georges can make lewd but harmless jokes about animals coupling or urge Paul to tell Vulva at the hospital that he misses her, Paul can’t even fantasize about his own wife walking past a doorway in a flimsy nightdress without finishing his imagined vision by smacking her down and insulting her in front of a crowd of people.
The book involves an element of the grotesque that rises up from time to time as a bizarre form of comedy. Paul is so ridiculously out-of-touch, so pathetically calculating and selfish. And so he can only lose, no matter his stubborn violence and wretched attempts to assert his power. Watching his downward spiral would be more thrilling if the reader wasn’t so certain he will cause plenty of damage in his descent. The book isn’t interested in revenge or balance or catharsis – despite a gentle movement in those directions.
If Rousseau, a Swiss writer of an altogether different generation, wanted to convince us of primitive man’s inherent nobility, than Revaz is calling out his theory in the plainest terms. There is nothing ennobling about Paul’s love of dirt and cow shit. Nothing but cruel freedom in his disassociation from other members of his species. But that very challenge makes the book a thoughtful and provocative read. And Revaz’s writing is both daring and defiant.
Finally, a word on this translation as Revaz’s French is not easily transformed. The book’s tight focus on Paul’s thinking, narrated in a very particular Swiss French dialect, and which rolls in a loose stream-of-consciousness style is hard to mimic. And yet, W. Donald Wilson has managed to do so with both precision and careful attention to the music of Revaz’s language. He expertly incorporates the rhythm of Paul’s thought, his strange expressions and often unusual syntax. It’s a beautifully done work, a very satisfying echo of the French original.