The Alphonse Courrier Affair

Marta Morazzoni

translated from the Italian by Emma Rose
Harvill Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2018
Set in the Auvergne region of France, The Alphonse Courrier Affair traces the life of its eponymous protagonist from 1900, when he opens his ironmonger's shop, to 1917, when his tight control over his life and the world around him finally fails. This involves marriage to a woman chosen to the approbation of the whole village, who gives him children and a respectable household; an affair with the ugliest woman in the village, concealed so well he is unable to mourn properly when she dies; and a flirtation with the infatuated young woman across the road, which he deliberately pushes to the edge of scandal.
"She's the best of women, really she is. My son couldn't have hoped for better. When my time comes" — here old Madame Courrier gave a deep sigh of Christian obedience — "I will go with a quiet mind."
Her hands were white, and could almost have been called well-tended; she delicately manipulated the white wool she was using to knit a pair of socks. Through the half-open door they could see the ever-so-slightly plump figure of her esteemed daughter-in-law, who was ironing in the kitchen. It must have been around the middle of January, and the elderly lady was talking to the butcher's wife, to whom she confided further examples of the protective tenderness she felt for the young Agn├Ęs.
"But ..." she added finally, and that little word was all it took to rekindle a flame of interest in her confidante's bored eyes.

The unidentified narrator looks back on these events from the perspective of decades but from within the village; the narrative is digressive and ironic, but at the same time personal and direct. Courrier once visited Paris, and his wife comes from a nearby village, as does the vet who is his best friend, but otherwise his life is local. The result is almost a portrait of the community, of its rhythms and rituals, its networks and its gossip, and its social hierarchies and sanctions — something the narrator is quite explicit about:

"The scene is the village, just before the wedding. A village is a social structure founded, for better or worse, on sharing: villages participate in one's life, even more than one participates in them.
She got married in the spring, of course: in April 1909. She refused to have Alphonse Courrier as a witness. She even tried not to invite him, but that was asking too much of her mother's patience and would have been too lavish of a gift to the village gossips. The Courriers, complete with children, would be there — if not in the front row, at least in a good seat — and they would play their part well."

Marta Morazzoni's The Alphonse Courrier Affair is a quiet, understated little novel. Originally published in 1997 as Il caso Courrier, it won an Italian literary prize, and this translation by Emma Rose won the Independent Foreign Fiction Award, but it seems to have largely disappeared from view. It deserves to be better known.

November 2018

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%T The Alphonse Courrier Affair
%A Morazzoni, Marta
%M Italian
%F Rose, Emma
%I Harvill Press
%D 2000
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860465749
%P 168pp