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I wrote some months ago about Alphonse Daudet’s short story Les Etoiles (see Starlight and Stories). Having had a stab at translating the story, I tried my hand at re-writing it for my own time, and set in my own place. Like Daudet, I pushed that time back forty years into the memory of the first person narrator, and let the story take place in somewhere I know, but don’t belong to.

His pack-mule becomes a three-wheeled quad-bike (technically a motorised trike) and his shepherd’s bothy becomes a film set, and the story hinges on a remembered actual place, though one not as elaborate as the one in the story. The date is a little off the reality too, but in the mid-seventies I spent some time ‘working’ as an unpaid extra on a movie made in the English Lake District. Among several locations  around the Langdale valley we constructed a rudimentary Dark Ages village (the film was of Beowulf) and a group of us slept in it overnight to protect it – presumably from marauding Grendels! Providing the hint of a story this was the starting point for my transposition from Daudet’s original into Shooting Stars.

Shooting Stars, by Brindley Hallam Dennis, is now available as a download from CUTalongstory, and can be purchased here.




The relatively short story Les Étoiles, by Alphonse Daudet is from Lettres de mon Moulin first published in 1866 and telling of Daudet’s life in Provence. Often described as ‘charming’, these stories have that simplicity which tempts even the possessor of only school-boy French to think that he might be able to offer them in translation.

I tried with Les Étoiles, and soon found that simplicity is not the only attribute. As with other Daudet ‘lettres’, there is a musicality to the telling, and a large part of its success lies in the convincing evocation of the magic of a starlit summer night in the Luberon.

The plot is simple: a mountain shepherd tells of a night, years before, when his supplies were delivered, not by the usual farm boy or old woman, but by the beautiful daughter of his employer, with whom, of course, he was madly but secretly in love. Arriving late, by virtue of having lost the path, she is forced to abort her return journey to the valley and to seek shelter in what we might call his bothy. Conscious of the need to behave well, the narrator recalls how, when she could not sleep for fear of the night-sounds of the mountain, they sat together by a camp-fire until the dawn, and he told her the stories of the stars that shone above them.

It is a romantic, even sentimental tale, but the sentiment is true, and it ends with his observation ‘et par moments je me figurais qu’une de ces étoiles, la plus fine, la plus brilliante, ayant perdu sa route, etait venue se poser sur mon épaule pour dormir…’


‘And from time to time, I thought that one of those stars, the finest, the most brilliant, having lost its way, had come to rest itself upon my shoulder and sleep….’


There are plenty of essays by those fluent in more than one language, those who are truly bi- or multi-lingual, where the problems of translation are rehearsed. If language splits reality into segments, then different languages split it into differing segments: words do not match each other exactly – no more, perhaps than they do from individual to individual within a single language. We can only approximate our experience and feeling in words. Yet I recall a visiting lecturer more than forty years ago asserting that language is ‘the nearest you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’.

It’s the musical differences that strike me most however: the metre, the syllabic arrangements of the phrasing: ‘par moments’ might have the sense of ‘from time to time’, but ‘from time to time’ does not dance to the same tune as ‘par moments’. And where has that repetition gone from ‘la plus fine, la plus brilliante’?

To get similar sound qualities, and similar meanings is difficult enough: to get the same blend of meaning and sound, impossible. To translate one language’s idiom into another language’s equivalent, might founder on the fact that the two might use a totally different metaphor to get across a similar mood, or conversely that a very similar metaphor might hold different semantics in each case.

Something else that the act of translating brought home to me, was that the social mores of our times has changed in the century and a half since Daudet was writing. Stories in other languages than your own will also date! The sense of shock, and possible outrage at the thought of an unmarried couple spending the night alone upon the mountain is not so great, nor so insistent as it was. That is not to say propriety does not exist, nor that in our own times eyebrows would not be raised, jokes would not be made. Reputations, though, might not be under such threat nowadays, or rather, not under the same threat.

That put me on to the idea of adaptation, or re-writing in addition to ‘simple’ translation. Could this story be taken and re-told for our own time. And could it be re-told for my own place? Living on the foothills of the Lake District mountains, and within sight of the Scottish Border hills, and the north end of the Pennine chain, I have experienced evenings and nights not unlike the one that Daudet described. Home time after a day spent in the Lake District, we have often commented, is precisely the time to stay put in the middle of it! Could I imagine a circumstance, though, in which a similar train of events, with characters in a similar situation might take place.

Curiously, when I started to re-write it, I found that I automatically set my story forty years into my own past, and drew upon memories over more than ten years, not quite evenly spaced either side of the specified date. Other elements of the story, equally unplanned, were distorted, by the change of location in time and place, and of culture, more than by the change in language. It perhaps goes without saying, and I’m not sure of its significance, that writing the story turned out to be easier than completing the translation!

A fistful of BHD stories can be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

I’ve written about Daudet before, exploring the connection between the title, and the ending of his story Belisaire’s Prussian.

The Two Inns is a very different sort of story, but well worth looking at for the intricacies behind its seemingly simple structure. Briefly, the first person narrator chooses to enter the inferior looking of the eponymous inns, which flank the carriage road from Nimes.

The inn he rejects is busy, noisy and joyous, but the one he enters is gloomy, dilapidated and deserted, save for a sorrowful woman, made ugly by grief. It is, the narrator says, ‘an act of charity to stop there and drink a glass.

Despite her surprise at his choice, she serves him poor food and wine, and tells him her story. The inn across the road has become what her inn used to be, by stealing her trade. It is run by ‘a woman from Arles,’ who has enticed away the customers, and who employs ‘husseys’ as chambermaids and serving girls.

There are other tragedies too, in the life of the woman at the poor inn. Her two daughters have died. There is no explanation for this, merely the fact of it having happened. To cap it all though, the woman’s own husband has been seduced away by the woman from Arles, and it is his voice that can be heard singing loudly from across the road.

In what seems to be the typical Daudet style, there is no redress for these evils, but only the narrator’s bleak presentation of them. The poor woman’s predicament is summed up by the last lines of the story:

And she stood there, as if in a trance, trembling, with her hands outstretched, and tears rolling down her cheeks, which made her look uglier than ever, to hear her Jose singing for the woman from Arles.’

The appended two lines of his song, a country love-song, seem almost superfluous. But behind Daudet’s bleak, uncompromising account, there lurks, I think, a more positive message, though it is an uncompromising one. It is the burden of a later song….. ‘laugh and the world laughs with you/cry and you cry alone.’ This revelation though, is not made by the narrator, but by the woman herself, who speaks ‘with a heart-broken air, but with utmost gentleness’. ‘What can you expect?’ she asks. ‘Men are made that way; they don’t like to see people cry;’


The Two Inns can be found, in translation, in Volume 4 of the Hammerton 1920s’ twenty volume collection, The World’s Thousand Best Stories, along with another 15 of Daudet’s tales – few writers get that many!  If you fancy the original French, you will find it in the excellent 1997 paperback pocket edition by Arcadia of L’Arlesienne, which includes d’autres Lettres de mon moulin.

This is another of those stories from long ago and far away – if you live when and where I do – that can form the basis of a useful exercise. We still have inns, and hamlets, and High roads, and travellers who must call in, and might even hear stories if they do. Our choices might be between different brand names, but they are essentially the same as those that Daudet’s narrator would have been faced with.

To re-imagine, and to write such stories, is not merely a matter of transposition from one time or place to another, but a chance to explore what it is in the human experience that crosses the gulf between times and places, and to create the voices in which such stories would now be told, and by implication, what ears we might wish them to be heard by.

I’ve noticed that with some poets and short story writers that having read one of their pieces I go on to reading another, almost without thinking. In the case of the poets Robert Frost is the one for me. I can’t seem ever to read just a single poem of his, but must skim through the collected works, looking for favourites to re-read, looking for ones I’ve overlooked, or forgotten or previously rejected. With other poets, even ones with stellar reputations, I find myself closing the book after the single poem that someone has told me I really should read.

For me this phenomenon, if that’s what it is, has become the touchstone for answering that rather absurd and misplaced question about who one’s favourite writers are – the answer, of course, should be, I suspect, that I don’t have favourite authors, only favourite writings. The fact remains though, that some authors provide several favourite writings, and others only one or two.

I find the same true with short stories. A few writers draw me one from one story to another. Elsewhere I’ve compared a collection, or an anthology of short stories to being like a box of chocolates…sometimes you savour one, and put the box away for tomorrow night….other times you feast greedily and clear the top layer, maybe the whole damned box!

Alphonse Daudet, the  nineteenth century French writer, is one that hooks me that way, especially with his simple stories of Provencal life from the 1866 Lettres de Mon Moulin. They lead me on too, sometimes, to the much more recent re-tellings of similar stories by the late Michael De Larrabeiti in Provencal Tales, in which the author weaves the story of his 1959 journey accompanying the sheepherders of Provence on an annual journey from lowlands to mountain pastures for the summer grazing. At each stop, like Boccaccio’s Decameroni, the shepherds tell old stories of magic, love, mystery and treachery. If you haven’t encountered either of these writers before, you should look out for them.

At present my head is stuck in Presence, Collected Stories of Arthur Miller (Bloomsbury, 2007). Not for the first time, I sat down to write about the powerful and intense critique of fading cowboy life that is the short story The Misfits – later filmed under the same name with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but serving a strikingly different agenda even though Miller provided the screenplay. Re-reading that story, closely, and perhaps too closely for ordinary enjoyment, I found myself turning, when the essay was finished, to the equally powerful Fitter’s Night, set in a US World War Two naval dockyard and in which a working class man finds his true nobility and citizenship. So, as we say all too often, back to the pages….

The Silent Life Within

I took the title for this collection of essays on the short story and its writers from George Moore. The phrase features in the story Home Sickness, one of the stories in The Untilled Field, which is the subject of one of the essays. The full sentence tells us something about why one might write: ‘There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself’.

I often cite Moore for his description of short story endings, quoted in the 1985 Uncollected  Short Stories, edited by Eakin and Gerber. They end, Moore says, in ‘Minor Keys.’ The phrase is evocative, but the qualifier he adds to it is more powerfully so: ‘the mute yearning for what life has not for giving.’

A contemporary of Moore’s, H.G.Wells provides the opening essay of my collection with his story The Magic Shop. A simple story of a father and son going shopping, spins into a magical yarn. Out of the increasingly fantastical events comes a profound insight into the relationship between parent and child, and the way it must change.

Mary Mann’s Little Brother, one of her 1890s rural tales set in the fictional Norfolk village of Dulditch, gives the last word, not to the middle class narrator, but to the poverty stricken Mrs Hodd who rebukes her.

Two European stories are the subject of the next two essays. Justus van Effen ran a magazine modelled on The Spectator and what interested me about his story was the way that a seemingly outdated, politically incorrect even, piece of social observation could turn out to be, in fact, quite contemporary on closer inspection. The French writer, Alphonse Daudet’s story Belisaire’s Prussian, allows a long look at how the order of words can change the weight of a sentence, and, when it is the last sentence in the story, might shift the focus of the story itself.

Three stories, of travellers encountering ‘a woman’ are compared in the essay Fellow Travellers. H.E.Bates, V.S.Pritchett and Katherine Mansfield do something very similar, yet very different!

I take a rare visit to contemporary stories in the next essay, with Matt Plass’s almost ghost story, Next to Godliness, which is built on an elegant premise. Then we look at Elizabeth Taylor’s The Blush, an oblique study of a failed marriage and failed middle class life.

A group of Somerset Maugham tales, turned into mini-films, provide the opportunity to look at adaptation and the impact of changed agendas comes next, followed by a study of Mrs W.K.Clifford’s dark tale of class, snobbery and passionate love, The Heart of the Wood.

The penultimate essay discusses Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s Captain Knott, in which three seafaring men with a history of piracy and slave-running between them meet in a Bristol pub and discuss the souls of ships, and of men.

Finally, I examine the trickery and sleight of word in Daphne du Maurier’s deceptive tale The Old Man.

The Silent Life Within, short stories examined is available here.

BHD being toast?

BHD being toast?

I keep on coming back to Alphonse Daudet’s deceptively simple short story, Monsieur Seguin’s Goat. Even with my forty year old (oh, go on then, fifty year old) school boy French – which just squeezed an O level out of the system – I can read it in the original as well as in translation.

Stories are like sex. When they do something to you that you like, you want it done again. Favourite stories, as I’ve noted elsewhere, are the ones we don’t forget. We read and re-read with a growing, rather than a diminishing enjoyment (you’ll notice I’m not prolonging – if that’s the right word – my earlier comparison). Those of us who are writing, as well as reading, might take an interest in why that is, and how it works.

In the case of M. Seguin, it is not simply the simplicity. The story outline is simple. The author, posing as himself, tells us of a letter he has written to the young ‘lyric poet,’ Gringoire, in Paris, who has just turned down a respectable journalistic job, in favour of remaining a freelance, lyric poet.

The letter writer tells him the story of M. Seguin and his goats – there is more than one in fact – as a warning against the hardships and dangers of being a freelance, in comparison to being a hack. The last line carries the sharpest warning, a repetition of what we already know happens to the goats, when they choose the freedom of the mountains over the safety of M. Seguin’s tiny, but safe, paddock!

‘E piei lou matin, lou loup la mangé’ ‘Then in the morning, the wolf ate her.’

The strange French is Daudet’s rendering of the Provençal dialect from which he drew the story, and just before he delivers that final sentence, Daudet warns his correspondent to ‘listen well!’

Yet, and here that simplicity which I so enjoy carries a subtle complexity that makes me stop and wonder, to what extent I am finding something that Daudet had put in, and to what extent I am chasing the shadows of my own romanticism, for Daudet seems to have more than a simple sympathy for poor Blanquette, the eponymous goat; also, for Renaude, the much larger goat that preceded her to the same fate.

For as Daudet tells his young poet, Gringoire, so M. Seguin tells his young goat, Blanquette, a story to deter her from folly.  But the story of Renaude is not simply one of escape from the paddock, and being eaten in the mountains. It contains also the fact that Renaude, ‘Elle s’est battu avec le loup toute la nuit’ – ‘she fought the wolf all night long’

And to do this becomes little Blanquette’s ambition when the hour of her destiny falls.

Blanquette, Daudet tells us, does not fight with the wolf because she hopes to live, but because she aspires to equal the example of Renaude. He is not mocking the little goat, I think, when he tells us this, but revealing an admiration for her courage and tenacity. Perhaps too, even unknowingly, for explicitly he intends to mock and disparage Gringoire, Daudet is revealing his admiration for the one who refuses the well paid and secure job of the hack writer, for the worn clothes and the face,’ pale with hunger,’ of the lyric poet.

It is this concealed encouragement, I think, to all writers, and not just Gringoire, that lies at the heart of my enjoyment of the story, and brings me back to reading it with as much enthusiasm, time after time…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPicking through the more than a dozen stories – enough for a small collection – by Alphonse Daudet in The World’s Thousand Best Stories (Hammerton c1933) I began to realise that nearly all of them use the technique of framing the story with a narrator, who introduces it, and relays to us, a story that he says has been told to him.

This is an ancient story-telling technique, and you will find it in the stories of Boccaccio’s Decameron. In fact, those tales are introduced not only by their individual tellers, but by Boccaccio’s proxy narrator too. Those of you who have heard me read will know that I have mixed feelings about the practice of introductions, and that generally speaking, the longer the introduction the less I like it! It’s no use telling people what they’ll get out of your story, or poem, if you’re going to read it to them, because then you’ll find out what they get, and the two might not match up. In fact, your attempts to prejudice their hearing of the piece may well have damaged rather than enhanced their experience of it. There’s something arrogant, I feel, about telling people what they ought to listen for, when really, you should be listening for the evidence of what they have found.

Incorporating a framing introduction within the story, though, is a different matter. On the face of it, a similar attempt to prejudice the reader, to give authenticity to the tale that follows, the ‘a funny thing happened to me on the way to’, verification of what will come next, can add an extra layer, often of irony, to the story itself. Our narrators, by their choice of words, their tone of voice, and their overt opinions about the piece they are ostensibly introducing, can enable the author to set up an alternative interpretation to the story that is about to be told.

The difference from the misplaced introductions we add to our stories is significant. Enabling an audience to see through your narrator is an achievement. Allowing them to see through you, is an embarrassment.  The viewpoint of a narrator is not necessarily that of the author. The viewpoint of an author’s introduction, always is so.

In Daudet’s The Goat of Monsieur Seguin the author purports to be writing a letter to a poet, in Paris. The heading of the letter is a sort of subtitle to the story: ‘To M.Pierre Gringoire, Lyrical Poet at Paris’. So the satire begins. That ‘lyrical’ is to be noted, and so is the ‘at Paris,’ for rural common sense, and cosmopolitan pretension are often to be set to comparison.  With stories, it is not only who is telling them, and how, that is important, but to whom they appear to be addressed. This is a story that we see being addressed to a ‘lyrical poet at Paris,’ a beast, I suspect with which we are not expected to identify. We are reminded, several times, that we are witnessing someone being addressed:


‘do you remember, Gringoire?’

‘Do you laugh, Gringoire?’

‘You can imagine, Gringoire.’


The tale told is a moral tale, of a little goat that has demanded to be freed from the safe confines of Seguin’s paddock, to the delightful, but deadly freedoms of the mountains.  Gringoire has turned down the safe, and rewarding position of reporter on a Paris journal, but his clothes attest to the financial disaster of being ‘a lyric poet, at Paris.’ We are distanced from the recipient of the letter, and so can view him with an amused detachment, but the moral of the tale, being about a goat, might apply equally to those who are neither goats, nor poets.

Daudet tells his tale, with its predictable ending, and ends with a warning to Gringoire, and perhaps to all of us.

‘You understand, Gringoire:’ and he repeats the last line of the tale, which I shall leave to your imagination, or researches.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA