Did I say that frogs and toads actually live in my garden ? It makes me feel even worse for using slug pellets and stops me from cutting back the ivy as they like to hide in it.
Unlike English people, I am not particularly a bird lover – I mean, I think birds are pretty and lovely, but I am not really interested in them, unless they carry some strong symbolic connotations, like ravens or swallows (I once had a swallow. But this story is for another day). But hang on, I am not a bad person altogether : I like frogs and toads ! I don’t actually know anything about them, but I just find them fascinating, beautiful and mysterious. I also love them because of two texts that I discovered in school.
I strongly disagree with the commonly used argument against literary studies, according to which working on a text in school makes the children hate it. “Books are here to be enjoyed, not studied”, blablabla. As a pupil, I found literary studies very interesting. I am also eternally grateful to my teachers without whom I wouldn’t have heard about so many wonderful novels, poems and plays. Although my parents are both doctors and my Mum has a PhD in 20th century French literature, we rarely talked about books (or even culture in general) at home. My parents had come from Vietnam without a penny and we did not own a lot of books when I was little. It is thanks to the school and the literature lessons that my shelves – and my inner world – slowly filled with treasures.
I find pretentious the idea that one never needs help to understand and enjoy a book. I lacked references, historical and sociological knowledge, points of comparison, etc. I am happy some teachers and fellow pupils shared all that with me.
Back to our frogs. The first text is Le Crapaud, a poem by Tristan Corbière, one of Verlaine’s “poètes maudits”.
(Les Amours Jaunes, 1873)
Un chant dans une nuit sans air…
La lune plaque en métal clair
Les découpures du vert sombre.
… Un chant ; comme un écho, tout vif
Enterré là, sous le massif…
– Ça se tait ; Viens, c’est là, dans l’ombre…
– Un crapaud ! – Pourquoi cette peur,
Près de moi, ton soldat fidèle !
Vois-le, poète tondu, sans aile,
Rossignol de la boue… – Horreur !
– Il chante. – Horreur ! ! – Horreur pourquoi ?
Vois-tu pas son oeil de lumière…
Non, il s’en va, froid, sous sa pierre.
Bonsoir – ce crapaud-là, c’est moi.
The second text is a short story by Dino Buzzati, published in Il Colombre in 1966 (in French, Le K). The French title is Dix-huitième trou. The “hole” in question is on a golf green where an ageing successful businessman is playing with his daughter, her husband-to-be, and a friend, as the day draws to its end. As the round goes on, the businessman, usually a very mediocre player, shows an unexpected and almost unsettling talent even though he is feeling weary and detached, and keeps complaining about flies only he can see. When exhaustion overcomes him, at the 18th hole, the ball gets lost in the rough. As the participants set out to look for it, they realise the businessman is nowhere to be found. In the area where the ball is supposed to have landed, they find a toad, covered in flies, which faces the setting sun as it gives up its struggle and prepares to die. As the animal lifts its head, gasping for breath, its eyes meet the daughter’s gaze. She panicks and calls for her father.
I must say I don’t like the French translation of Buzzati’s short stories in my edition. It feels clumsy, sometimes heavy and, in a word (or two), very laborious – the tenses in particular are all over the place. But then again, I am not able to read Italian… Despite that, I remember feeling moved by the description of the dying toad, because of the way it abandons itself to the evening light.
Please tell me about your own frog stories, I might start a collection !