By Suzanne Ruta
My father-in-law, Walther Franke-Ruta, was born in 1890 in Leipzig, Germany, into a family of furriers and musicians. He became a poet, a prolific novelist, and a popular radio playwright and social satirist, although the satire, first to last, was gentle, without acid or bitterness, as if the twentieth century never quite caught up with him or he with it.
And yet he bore the brunt. In November 1914, as a German army infantry recruit, he was badly wounded in the Battle of the Marne. In December 1943, a penniless refugee, he escaped Nazi-occupied Italy into Switzerland with the Gestapo in pursuit. In 1949, when he adapted Dreiser’s American Tragedy for his longtime employer, Radio Basel, he was accused of corrupting Swiss youth with anti-American propaganda. The Cold War campaign against him in the Swiss press provoked a paralyzing flare-up of his shrapnel wounds. Although he lived another nine years, he was never quite himself again.
He was probably most himself, mild, friendly, a natural optimist, in summer 1911, when, as a doctoral candidate in Romance languages at the University of Leipzig, he went off to France to meet a great man with whom he quickly formed a bond. Frédéric Mistral, Nobel Prize–winning poet and lexicographer, born in 1830, restored the Provençal language to some of its former troubadour glory with his epic poem Mireio (1859) and the Provençal dictionary that was his life’s work. Mistral is also the name of a harsh north wind that blows through southern France in winter, but it was the poet’s real name, cognate, appropriately, with the word master. Franke-Ruta wrote this reminiscence for the Deutsch-Französische Rundschau, a Berlin magazine dedicated to Franco-German friendshisp and supported by eminences such as Gide and Mann that published between 1928 and 1933.
Mistral was eighty-one that year and I was much, much younger. It was that strange summer of 1911 that could make you believe the old tale about elevens, a summer of legendary fruitfulness and an incomparable grape harvest. The whole of Provence was in bloom, the dark eggplants lay heaped in baskets, red butterflies hovered thickly among the flowering pomegranates, the grass stood eight feet tall and turned every pathway through the fields into a green tunnel. The peasants had never been as generous with wine and grapes, as generous almost as the sun with its heat. In the evening farm boys rode their bicycles far across the fields to the coolest springs. People didn’t say hello or good evening any more. All they said was “fa cau,” and no one disagreed.
On such an evening, shimmering with heat, I met Mistral for the first time.
A simple statement of fact: for the first time, but in those days it was more complicated. This was still at a time when the heart of a youth might be filled with exalted notions of Poetry. When you said poet you thought of Homer and Dante crowned with laurel wreath, or if pushed you might mention Milton or Klopstock.
An almost unimaginable time, now quite lost to us, when the flower of youth had not yet been cut down in every nation. In those days there were landscapes you had to see and experience and absorb in the course of a long eighty-year life. And in one of these landscapes there lived an unlikely wonder, a great poet in the flesh, a man in his eighties you might approach with awe, hoping to sit at his feet, only that and nothing more, as young men once sat at Homer’s feet.
I wrote to the hotel in Maillane, trusting blindly that there would be some sort of inn, and I had in fact received a reply, informing me that the hotel was quite well known within a ten-mile radius. I was intimidated, thought of evening dress and black cummerbund, but the place turned out to be just a rustic inn, stables on the ground floor, dining room and lodgings above. My tiny room overlooked a manure pile. I comforted myself by thinking of Shakespeare’s early days. There was room for a bed and a bookcase, and what else did I need?
At the train station in Barbentane stood a wagon for hire, to bring one to Maillane. I didn’t have to ask around. The driver came right up to me and asked “Are you the Prussian who wants to visit lou meste?” Word had already got round. Then he said, “If you want to see him tonight, I’ll drive through the fields a ways, this is the time of day when he goes for his walk.” So we cut across the fields and finally he shouted “Aco’s lou Meste.” I got down from the wagon and greeted Mistral, and he greeted me politely in return. It was a scene from an old engraving: a young fellow, clutching his hat to his chest, humbly greets an old master. Yes, it was like an old etching, and perhaps one of the last times such an antiquated scene was in fact enacted.
Mistral’s house was almost at the end of the little village. It was set in a garden and from his windows you saw the sawtooth range of the Alpilles on the horizon. This was the view before Mistral’s eyes his life long. His study was full of books, manuscripts, and files. Here a tremendous achievement—the Provençal dictionary—had been created. This was the room where a great nation that had lost its political independence regained its language and its literature. The same quiet, knowing air prevailed here as in Goethe’s house in Weimar, but Goethe was a privy councilor. Mistral was tied to the land. There was nothing in this room that could not be seen and experienced from the window and there was nothing in this landscape—no plant or animal, no custom or pattern of speech—that had not been weighed, discussed, and crystallized in this workroom. In this quiet study that belonged to a man both poet and peasant, the grace of a vanished people, an almost forgotten language, and an immortal landscape merged completely.
It was so hot that for most of the day you didn’t budge from your room. Late in the evening people went fishing. During the day the sun plagued you; at night the mosquitos bit but they were easier to shoo away. We went fishing for eels; the innkeeper, who was also the local postman, and of course an avid fisherman, took me with him. We had no hooks. Instead we tied a bunch of live squirming earthworms together and lowered this Medusa head into the water. The eels swallowed a good length of worm and when they had bitten down hard, we hauled out the whole mess, worms and eel, in one fell swoop. The hard part was grabbing hold of the slippery creatures as they slithered through the tall grass along the riverbank. The innkeeper-postman-fisherman was kept busy. So was I. My job was to smoke constantly to drive the mosquitos away. While he waited for a tug on his line, he whispered softly, “Come over on my left side and blow some smoke at me. They’re biting on the left now.” That kept me pretty busy. It was quiet, almost midnight when we heard a rustling in the grass and someone came and sat beside us.
It was old Mistral. He knew you were not supposed to talk out loud while fishing but that a fellow smoker is always welcome. So the two of us puffed away. And Mistral, to whom I had told a bit about myself, asked at one point “E la bloundo?”
Ah, the blonde. I had told him about this blonde, even suggested respectfully that she was a sort of Mereio. And now she hadn’t written for an entire week. And this too I had to lay on Mistral’s heart. Because for me he was not the creator of the great dictionary, that precious gift to his band of troubadours, but first and foremost the poet who wrote the tragic love story of Mireio and Vincen. Of course he would understand the sorrows of a twenty-year-old.
And then good old Mistral who had a saying for everyone, a verse for every inn, for the village barber of Maillane and for every friendly Provençal house, asked, “Do you know what’s written over the door of my house?”
Of course I knew. Over his door was painted the rhyme about the lizard.
Beu lesert, beve toun souleu
L’ouro passo que trop leu
E deman ploura beleu.
(Fair lizard, drink the sun. The hour passes all too quickly and tomorrow it may rain.)
That is what dear old Mistral said to me, and I could consider myself consoled and was consoled, especially as the Bloundo wrote me again and no rain came the next day or any day of that hot summer of 1911. But three years later the rains came and cut us off from one another, and the last great poetry of a language steeped in sunlight met an abrupt and mechanized end.
In summer 1912 Franke-Ruta was admitted to the society of modern troubadours, the Felibrige, on the strength of his own writings in Provençal, the only German ever so honored. In June 1913 he dedicated his doctoral thesis at the University of Leipzig, Das Artifizielle in der Französischen Literatur des xix. Jahrhunderts, to “Frederi Mistral, au grand mèstre de la lengo de la douço e caro Prouvenço."
Mistral sent his congratulations, in the names of Mireio and Vincen, the star-crossed lovers in his epic poem, on the back of the postcard reproduced here. He died in March 1914. By then Franke-Ruta was a soldier in the Kaiser’s army, going AWOL now and then to catch a lecture in philosophy at the University, a short trolley ride from his infantry barracks. The possibility of war was not even on his mind.
Published Aug 4, 2011 Copyright 2011 Suzanne Ruta